Thanks to Annie for the Relay Station, and to Karen, and Mary for advice, inspiration and encouragement. Thanks to my dear friend Chris for lending me her name, her family and her younger self for the story. Most especially, thanks to Betty for demanding clarity and providing the occasional kick-in-the-pants when necessary, and to Shay for insight and analysis; you both make the writing better.
This is very much a sequel to Sorrow Trail, and to Medicine Trail. It can be read as a stand-alone, but references characters and events from those stories.
When the rain came at night, Jess Harper would wake sometimes with a feel of loss so strong it sank claws into his heart. He would lie still in the darkness, rigid on the rope-slung bunk and try to wait it out. It was like watching a trail vanishing under the rain in front of him, the need to stay on it making his breath come harsh and fast. Sometimes it became part of his dreams, and he saw the tracks wash away, turned frantic to pick up another trail that washed away as he started it. He'd wake then and listen to Slim's breathing on the bunk next to him, the steady rhythm of it slowing his heart; and after awhile the grip of loss on his heart would ease. He'd slide out of bed then to check the windows and doors quietly, make sure there were no leaks, that the house was sound and safe.
Jess was no fool, he knew what this was, knew Slim had his own times of it as well though the shape was different. He'd slide back into his bunk, thinking, 'soldier's heart', and turn on his side to sleep again. But mostly he slept very well at home, without the hair-trigger wake-up he knew on the trail.
The rain was welcome enough that fall. But too little, too late; the plains had been dry from the Canada border to Mexico for a long time, as if the earth had soaked up so much blood, in the war and the slaughters, that it refused rain in revenge. The storms that came that fall were hard, harsh and fast, the water running over the land and away, only a little sinking in to nurture the grass.
Slim had learned patience from his father, learned to wait out the weather, find another way to pay the bills and to be grateful for any gift of the land. So he and Jess turned their hands to horse dealing, bringing in small bands to break and sell for army remounts or working stock to their neighbors. It would carry them through the winter, and he would hope for a better summer, next year.
Evenings, after storms in the north country, are full of brilliant light. Achingly pure, white gold, like nothing else, ever; outlining each blade of grass, each tree-leaf with stunning clarity. The metal of Alamo's bridle flashed with brilliance, even the butt-plate of Jess' Colt caught light and threw it back in flashes.
They were trailing a little band of young geldings over the west ridge line, easing them down to the home field when Slim spotted the rider on the paint pony. The shape of the rider was familiar against the sky, and Slim pulled Alamo up, startled. “Is that Tall Fox? Thought he was in Arizona.”
“So did I.” Jess' voice was tense, and Slim nodded, agreeing with the unspoken request that they hurry. They pushed the geldings to a lope, heading them into the big fenced home field, Slim reining up to guard the gate while Jess and Traveler pushed the horses through. Time they were done, Tall Fox was waiting for them at the house. His face was somber, and Jess greeted him quietly, face wary. Slim stepped down to meet the Cheyenne eye-to-eye; stepping forward between the two, not knowing why he felt the need to shield Jess. “Tall Fox, come in. We'll have dinner ready in a little while. You know you're welcome.”
“I cannot stay, Tall Man.” There was no teasing in his voice, and Jess swung down to step forward.
“Yes.” Tall Fox put a hand on Jess's shoulder. “Pony Boy. Ohemehome is dead.”
Slim heard the
intake of breath, then the long silence.
Jess turned his head away, shrugging off Tall Fox’s hand.
“When?” The voice was harsh, as if the sound was pushed over stones.
“A day ago.” Tall Fox spoke softly, his eyes measuring Jess. “It was sudden. We did not think it was going to happen…he would have sent for you, Pony Boy.”
Jess flexed and released his shoulders, as if settling them under a weight. “Yes. But you’re here, and not in Arizona.”
Slim stirred a little, then waited as Tall Fox shook his head at him. “He sent for me two weeks ago. Singing Bird was very ill, and his time was taken up with her. He asked for my help. And then
“How is she?” Jess spoke abruptly, his head still turned away, hiding his face from both of them.
“Well enough.” Tall Fox studied him for a moment, then said quietly “ ‘Mehome did not suffer, and he was not ill. Two nights ago Singing Bird was free of fever, and took some food. After, Mehome lay down in his robes to sleep, and in the morning he was gone.”
“Yes.” Jess walked away abruptly, vanishing into the barn with Traveler, as if he meant to saddle a fresh horse and ride out. Slim swore softly, starting forward, and Tall Fox caught his arm.
“Wait.” He said softly. “Tall Man. You must let him have time. You know this as well as I.”
Slim nodded, grudgingly. “He’s ….angry.”
“Yes. It will pass.” Tall Fox grabbed mane, vaulted up on his pony. “When he is ready to hear you, tell him to come to the camp tomorrow. The scaffold is finished; we must honor our chief and leave
him to his peace. Tell him the family waits for him, to mourn with us as our brother should. You are wanted as well, Tall Man. You must come.” He started to rein his pony away, and then stopped, a stocky, solid man with grief in his face. “It is hard for all of us. He was our father. But do not let Pony Boy run away from this…we need him, and he will regret forever if he does not come.”
Slim stood and watched Tall Fox ride out; back-lit for a moment as he crested the ridge, a black shape
against the skyline, and then dropping out of sight. Jess was brushing Traveler when he led Alamo into the next stall, the little bay standing patient and hip-shot.
“You gonna brush the hair off that horse?” Slim asked, and Jess grunted, pausing with his back turned. “Tall Fox wants us to come to the camp tomorrow. He says the scaffold is ready and they need you there.”
“He said I should come too.” Slim undid the cinch, heaved the saddle off Alamo's back and slung it over the stall side. “It's Sunday, no stage tomorrow, so I reckon we can spare a day away.”
“Okay.” Jess slipped out of the stall, back still turned.
“Jess? Is it going to be 'okay' from now 'til this is over?”
“Nothin' t'talk about. I'll start heatin' dinner.”
Jess stepped out into the brightness of the yard, like Tall Fox a black shape moving away from him. Slim rubbed Alamo out, thinking of his own grief for 'Mehome. 'He was our father' Tall Fox'd said; he felt a little of that himself, the sense of something rock-solid and certain suddenly vanished, as if Harney Peak had disappeared out of the Black Hills. Change coming, and one of the pillars of the Northern Plains was gone...
They wrapped the old chief in deer skin, tight enough to hold the long limbs straight. Then they covered him with buffalo robes, wrapping closely enough that only the strong face, the long gray braids were visible. Finally Singing Bird laid a beautiful “trade blanket” over her husband, the five color bands of black, red, yellow, blue and green brilliant against the snowy white of the wool. Then she bent close, and with the little sharp knife Slim had seen her use to skin rabbits, cut a lock of hair from the end of one of 'Mehome's braids. She placed it in a piece of deerskin; from the softness it looked like doe skin, brightly beaded and quilled, fine as a ceremonial robe. Slim looked a question at Jess, and his partner murmured “Spirit bundle.” He nodded knowing his questions would be answered later, watched Singing Bird tie the bundle off with a piece of leather, then hand it to Tall Fox who tied it to one of the lodge poles. Over the place where 'Mehome's pallet had been, Slim thought, the elder's place, the place of honor. Tall Fox bent to shroud 'Mehome's face; then he and Jess and Elk picked up the old chief, to carry him in silence out of his lodge for the last time.
They carried 'Mehome to his last resting place on a travois, his old war pony between the poles, moving obediently beside Tall Fox's paint as if knowing how solemn the moment was.
Thunderheads, the remnants of yesterday's storm, filled the southern horizon; storm dark, blue and gray and tipped with vivid white, a reminder of the harsh winter coming. The aspens flashed with golden fire against them, and the grasslands beyond were brown and gray and gold in the afternoon light. Jess watched them with an empty mind, his heart silent as a stone. Slim rode beside him, quiet as everyone else as they carried 'Mehome to his scaffold. Jess missed the children; there were only adults here, and it felt wrong, as if the People's future had been cut away. He shook off the fancy, reminding himself the children were in Arizona at the Mennonite Mission. But 'Mehome had always been trailed by children, as long as he had known him.
'Mehome's scaffold was half-a-day's ride from the camp, west, where the wind scoured the open plateau; the grass short and brown, brittle enough to crackle under the horses' hooves. The platform stood on the crest of a little rise, the land falling away, open and free to the horizon. The flat wooden bed was as wide as Singing Bird's height, and long enough for 'Mehome to have offering bundles at his head and feet. It was tall; taller than Slim. So Jess and Elk climbed it, to lift 'Mehome gently, reverently with ropes, lay him under the open sky with the wind for company. Singing Bird waited for them to climb down at the foot of the platform, the trade blanket that had covered 'Mehome on his last journey folded in her arms. Jess stopped in front of her and she reached out to lay it across his shoulder, then cupped his face in her hands. “Pony Boy. He would want you to have this gift of honor.”
“Thank you, mother.”
She held his eyes, her own cloudy with age but seeing him clearly. “It is nothing more than a sleep,” she chided him. “There is no need for tears.”
It was a strength he could push against. “It's death.”
He spoke harsher than he'd meant, but she smiled a little. “As I said, Pony Boy. A sleep only, just longer than a night. We will go now.”
He helped her to mount her pony and then swung up on Traveler, to rein beside Slim as they began the long journey back to the camp. Overhead, the first buzzards were gathering.
“How do you move on the land without getting lost?” Tall Fox asked him.
Jess, rising eighteen and new to the Tsitsistas, felt his face heat and looked down, embarrassed. Of all the men Tall Fox awed him the most, next after 'Mehome. He reckoned the Cheyenne was no more than a handful of years older than he, but for all Jess' war and prison time, Tall Fox seemed wiser by a generation. It was all the worse because Tall Fox had taken him in hand, to teach him how to be a “human being.” It made him feel like a snot-nosed, unwiped kid, and he wished that Red Stone was his teacher.
“Don't know,” Jess muttered to his horse's mane, ashamed to meet Tall Fox' eyes. He could've said “map” or “compass” but the Cheyenne used neither, and he was expected to learn their skills. They had ridden out together to scout for game, and he'd been content to follow the older man, trusting his leadership.
“Tchaa.” Tall Fox spoke sharply. “Don't be stupid, Pony Boy. You found your way here.”
Anger gave him confidence. “Well I'd been here before!”
Tall Fox smiled a little. “Yes. And? So?”
Jess stared at him, bewildered. “That's it? Just go where you've been before? But that don't make no sense...”
“Pony Boy.” Tall Fox was a man wearing his patience on his face. “Moving into new territory is not the problem; finding your way home again is. You do not have to know the land ahead of you, when you scout. You have to know how to come back with the knowledge you've gained.”
“Oh.” He felt the blood beat up in his face again, knew he was blushing like a girl. “So...”
“Watch your backtrail.” Tall Fox said, pointing behind them. “Keep track of where you've been and you will never be lost.”
Jess'd known, even then, that there were things behind him that he didn't want to look back on, didn't want to remember, and never wanted to find his way back to again.
He reined Traveler around to look back at 'Mehome's scaffold; to remember the way to a place he'd never come again.
“Jess?” Slim spoke softly, and his friend's eyes, when he met them, were full of concern.
“S'all right.” He told him. “You know they always say never look back.”
“Yeah, well you've never been one to do what other people say.” Alamo shifted, fretful as the rest of the horses moved away, and Slim soothed him with a hand on his withers. “You ready?”
“Yeah.” He turned his horse to follow Slim, down the ridge line and back toward the Cheyenne camp.
The gelding was mouse colored and hammer-headed; and right now, eyeing Jess from the far side of round “bronc” corral his eyes showed white at the corners.
“Been hit with the ugly stick?” Jess murmured to him, and watched the small ears flick at him. The horse was three, and at just over fifteen hands likely had his full height. Not tall but solid, with a laid back shoulder that promised a daisy-cutting gait, clean knees and hocks, and flat, wide bones. Short-coupled and level-backed, with a solid crest to his neck; a horse for long journeys. Gelded just this year, according to Harris. Tom Harris bred good horses; and he was proud of his stock.
'I wait 'til they turn three t'cut 'em. That way the neck develops an' they muscle up good, but they ain't had time t'do somethin' I'd regret or they'd remember,' he told Jess, when they went to look over his horses. 'They's halter-broke but nothin' more. At my age it don't pay t' fool around too much with the young stock.' The old man studied Jess openly. 'I sold t'Matt Sherman as well as t'Slim. I trust 'em t'treat my stock right. They don't need rough breakin'.' Jess had nodded, hearing the warning. He'd ride a rank horse on a bet, but he'd rather do it right, when there was time. The long fall days ahead of them promised time.
The gelding threw his head up at a gust of wind, skittered sideways, pretending to be frightened. He was staying close to the far end of the corral, not so much wary of Jess as wanting to be near the big field where his buddies waited their turn in the round corral. Jess stood still in the center of the ring, watching the horse; the fluid easy gaits and the playfulness of an animal with no fear. “Hey, Mouse.”
He'd watched all of them, on the trip back from Harris' place; used the time to learn them and their quirks. This one was the trouble maker, the leader in any game. He had something in mind for this one.
'You have to spend time with them, Pony Boy.' Red Stone elbowed him in the ribs, right on the bruise left by the paint pony Jess'd been trying to ride. 'It's a courtship, like with a woman; you watch them, learn what they like, what they don't like. Then you woo them and win them, and they'll do anything for you. Just like a woman'
Jess rubbed his sore ribs. 'Everything with you is just like a woman, ' he grumbled. Red Stone laughed, a thin-built man, so full of the joy of living that he was always smiling, always joking.
'What else is there? Pony Boy, when you are old enough, I will teach you the ways of women as well as horses.' Red Stone cuffed Jess' ear, in imitation of Tall Fox. Jess had sputtered, indignant; Red Stone was too quick-witted for him, he never thought of what to say 'til it was too late.
Jess shrugged off the memory and the sadness it brought with it, began sidling toward the gelding on a curving line that never took him straight at the horse. He cupped his hands, pretending to have something in them, and the horse took a cautious step toward him, curious. “So, so..”Jess murmured. “Little mouse, little hoss..nobody wants to hurt you..” The horse arched his neck, blew out softly. “Think you're pretty? Huh, think you're pretty, little mouse?” He was in touching distance and the gelding took a step forward, dropped his nose into Jess' cupped hands. Jess rubbed slowly along his jaw, up over his throat, then down the solid neck, the withers, keeping his hands firm but light. The gelding relaxed, eyes half closed. Like he'd thought, a horse that enjoyed the company of other horses, could learn to enjoy the company of a rider. He moved his hands over the gelding, teaching him to know Jess' touch, trust his hands. It went easy enough; Mouse was a little touchy about his feet, not surprisingly. Harris had trimmed their hoofs when he'd cut them; for Mouse the last time his feet had been handled was a memory of pain. But he was tolerant, as long as Jess kept the contact short. Easy enough to get him over that. He kept talking quietly to the horse, low soft sounds, drawing each word out soothingly. He finished by leaning up against the horse, one arm over his withers, putting a little weight on him. Mouse shifted under him, spreading his feet a little to balance Jess' weight, a good sign. “That's the way, that's my boy...” Jess straightened, pulled the piggin' string out of his pocket and slid it around the horses' neck, began leading him to the gate that led to the field. Mouse followed through the gate obedient to just the light touch of the rope; then slid out from under it as Jess let go of one end, to trot to the rest of the band, head and tail high.
“That went well.” Slim's voice, and Jess turned to see his partner sitting on the top rail of the corral.
“One down, nine t'go.” Jess grinned at him.
“Think they'll all be that easy?'
Jess shrugged. “We'll see. Harris is good to his stock, ain't nobody spoiled 'em.”
“Just let me know when you're ready to back 'em.” Slim swung down off the fence. “Ready for another?”
They sang for 'Mehome all the rest of that evening, sang to bring his spirit to the Star Road, to honor his memory and to comfort their own grief. Singing Bird's voice was strong, ringing out among the women's voices, and Slim listened to the wild free sound of the chant, hearing only the strength.
Slim had been silent at first, sitting beside Jess with Tall Fox just beyond, his voice leading the men. Jess was quiet at first as well, and then began to chant with the men, voice hoarse and harsh as a raven at the start, and then gradually easing. The sky darkened, and Slim began to recognize some of the words, began to sing them softly, and felt Tall Fox's eyes on him, approving.
There was peace within the chant, the repetition of the words quieting the mind. Slim watched the sparks fly up from the fire, eyes tracing them as they rose to the brightening stars. The sky overhead deepened from purple to black, and the Star Road was there suddenly and clearly, as if their chant had called it into being; the silver dusting of stars a broad path across the sky. Tall Fox gave a shout of triumph and the chant stopped. Slim turned to Jess, seeing his partner's head tilted back to look at the Star Road, face calm and peaceful.
The women brought food to the fire then, and Slim recognized the dishes that were the hallmarks of a feast. Singing Bird handed him his portion, her eyes smiling. Later she gave gifts; the reins of 'Mehome's war pony passed into Tall Fox's hands, his weapons given to Elk, to Red Bird and Stands Alone. Jess had the beautiful trade blanket already; to Slim's surprise she pressed a small bundle into his hands, the rabbit skin pouch 'Mehome had carried small objects in. “Thank you,” he said softly, carefully in the Speech, and she smiled, murmured, “You are a good boy.”
The meal became less formal after the gift-giving, people moving around to visit with each other, the other men coming to greet them. They had brought coffee with them; both Tall Fox and Singing Bird had developed a taste for it, and now Slim put the water pan on the fire, began readying the pot.
“Slim, thank you.” Tall Fox hunkered beside him. “This is kind of you.”
“My pleasure.” Slim studied him, curious. “What will happen now?'
Tall Fox shrugged. “I will probably become responsible for the Tsitsistas; Elk will be the next War Leader.” It was a calm acceptance of the inevitable; Slim couldn't tell if Tall Fox welcomed the new status or regretted it.
“And Singing Bird?” He looked across the fire, to where she sat with Grey Eyes.
“She will be as my mother. But we will all look after her, Slim. Our wealth is always in our friends.”
Slim nodded, watching Jess and Red Bird add more wood to the fire. “Tall Fox,” he spoke abruptly. “Squirrel told Jess he should do his fast-for-visions. He was pretty serious about it.”
Tall Fox smiled a little. “My son is polite. He used words that the White Eyes would understand. He is right, also.”
“So Jess should do this...”
“If he wishes. It would help, I think.” Tall Fox stood up. “If he decides, let him come to us. It does not matter when.”
Slim nodded. “What do the People call the fast-for-visions?”
Tall Fox smiled. “Ehaoena. Praying.”
“Praying?” He was startled, and Tall Fox looked at him quizzically.
“Of course. We ask for help, we ask for healing and guidance. No different from what you do, I think. But sometimes we go aside, because it is easier to listen for the answers in silence and alone.”
Tall Fox turned to watch Jess and Red Bird move out of the circle of light in search of more wood. “Pony Boy is in need of healing. More than for most of us, 'Mehome was his father. There is bitterness in his grief, I think. And the bitterness was there before the grief; my son saw it.”
They were turning out the last of the geldings, a little bay with the disposition of a rattlesnake, when Slim spotted the rider on the ridge. It was a silhouette easy to recognize; even at this distance you could see the buckskin fringe stirring in the wind, the man's long hair trailing down past his collar. He nudged Jess, grunted “Dean.”
Jess pulled the gate to the field closed, turned to watch the rider heading down the hill. “Wonder what he wants?” His voice was harsh with tension; an Army scout seeking them out was never good news.
“Best go find out.” Slim felt his own wariness. They'd heard nothing of Indian trouble lately, not in this northern territory. All the conflict was further south, down in the Arizona territory. They met Dean in the yard, the scout staying mounted as they approached, with the good manners he'd always shown.
“Sherman. Harper. ” Dean touched the brim of his slouch hat. He looked weary, skin burned even darker by a harsh sun, and his horse was thinner than Slim remembered.
“Step down, Mr. Dean.” Slim set his hand on the horse's neck. “You look like you an' your horse have traveled far. You're welcome to rest here a spell.”
“I thank you.” Dean swung down with the stiffness of too many hours on the trail. “I won't impose on you Mr. Sherman, but I'd appreciate a chance to feed m'horse, maybe give him a couple hours rest before I move on.”
“Stay as long as you like,” Slim invited. “Is Weller coming behind you?”
Dean shook his head, a slow bitter smile spreading across his face. “I don't scout anymore. I left Weller in the Arizona territory two weeks ago. I'm heading west to the Bitteroot country. My mother's people are there.”
“What happened.” Jess' voice was harsh as a crow.
“Got my stomach turned at Palo Duro.” Dean turned to his tired horse, loosened the cinch. “Got my stomach turned by Ranald Slidell MacKenzie.” He turned his head and spat into the dust, that gesture of contempt Slim had seen him use when Custer's name was mentioned. “Had enough. Weller's a good officer, so is Keogh. Good men. But I can't stomach MacKenzie or Custer.”
“What happened at Palo Duro?” Jess' voice was level, even.
“We fought the Comanche.” Dean kept his face turned away, led his horse to the trough. “At Palo Duro. We beat 'em. It wasn't enough for MacKenzie though. His pride was hurt. The Comanche'd been leading him around by the nose for months. So after we drove off the warriors, MacKenzie burned the village to the ground, and sent a patrol after the horse herd. A thousand ponies...” Dean pulled the saddle from his own horse, heaved it over the corral fence and started rubbing out his gelding's back. “He had 'em corralled in a narrow draw, no way out. He pulled some out for himself and his officers. And then he ordered his men to kill 'em. All of 'em.”
Slim felt his stomach clench and turn on itself. “The horses? He slaughtered the horses?”
“All of 'em.” Dean spat into the dust again. “The boys doin' the shooting got so sickened they had to be relieved; they couldn't keep up the slaughterin'. MacKenzie ordered in fresh troops to shoot, but they couldn't keep up either. He threatened 'em with court martial an' it didn't work. He had to replace the shooters twice. But he made sure to kill all the horses. Ranald Slidell MacKenzie. Hope that man burns in hell.” The last was said without passion, almost thoughtfully.
“But why?” It made no sense that Slim could see, no reason beyond sheer bloody mindedness.
“Said it was to cripple the Comanche, without their ponies they couldn't wage war.”
“But he could've just kept 'em, sold 'em off or used 'em for remounts...” Jess sounded like he was struggling to understand.
“He wanted to punish 'em.” Dean slipped the bridle off his horse, looped a pigging string around the bay's neck. “He's real good at punishment. Punishes his own men a lot. This time it was the horses. Like I said, his pride was hurt.”
Jess said something soft and bitter in the Speech, turned away abruptly. Dean turned to look at Slim. “Can you spare me a stall while I grain him? We got a long way t'go.”
Slim shook off the shock. “Of course. Sorry. You're welcome to stay the night, Mr. Dean. We've got a spare room, and you've come a long way already.”
“I don't...” and for the first time since he'd known him, Dean looked uncertain. “Mr. Sherman, I don't know that you want a half-breed in your house.”
“What?” Slim held on to his temper. “What makes you think that'd matter to me?”
“It's gettin' ugly, Mr. Sherman. MacKenzie's a hero in the Arizona territory. It's real ugly. And most people think a horse is more valuable than a injun...” There was something sad in Dean's eyes. “An' I scouted the Comanche for MacKenzie. Hell, I don't think I'd want me in m'own house.”
“You're welcome here Mr. Dean. Always.”
“Y'think Harper'd feel the same knowin' I was the scout?”
“Jess won't judge you.” Slim said firmly, knowing the truth of it.
Dean nodded. “I thank you then. We'll ride out in the morning. An' Mr. Sherman? Y'might want to let the Cheyenne know. MacKenzie's been put in charge of 'pacifying' the Wyoming territory.”
Jess had drifted away, soft-footed. As always when he was bothered by something, he'd turned to the horses. Slim found him leaning over the far rail of the little round breaking corral, eyes on the band of geldings. He leaned on the rail beside him, giving him time.
“Dean stayin' ?” Jess kept his eyes on the horses.
“Asked him to spend the night. He's a little leery, thinks you might take exception.” He glanced sidelong at Jess, measuring his response
“Me? Why?” Jess seemed genuinely startled.
“He scouted the Comanche. Think he feels guilty. Likely thinks you hold him to blame.”
“He did what he thought best at the time.” Jess spoke slowly, thoughtfully. “I've scouted the Cheyenne, come t'that. I got no right t'judge him.”
Slim smiled. “Told him that.” He turned to face his partner. “You thinkin' about ridin' out?” It was harsh, but no point in pussy-footing around it.
Jess turned to face him. “Why you askin' that?”
“Past experience.” He kept his eyes on Jess, measuring him. It had been a hard few days, and a hard, hard year. They were family; but Jess had lost family before, turned to the big open because of it;
and his ties with the Cheyenne could pull him into joining the band, vanishing somewhere on the Lolo trail with them. “And like Dean said, it's getting ugly now, between the whites and the Indians. Maybe coming 'round to war, again.”
They'd come a long way together, in the past two years; Jess gave him the truth, without flinching. “I don't know.” The words came slowly. “Sometimes it's easier t'leave.”
“Lonelier that way.” Slim kept his voice casual
“Yeah.” Jess smiled a little. “And there's the People t'think about.”
“If y'need to stay with them awhile I understand.” He surprised himself, but knew it for truth as he said it. “Just be sure an' come back.”
“No need. I ain't runnin' this time. And the People don't need me.” He lifted his chin, meeting Slim's eyes square, and there was sadness and defiance in his face.
“You've never run from a fight,” Slim told him. “You've only left when it was lost and done. Maybe you need to give yourself as much slack in the reins as you give those horses.”
Jess grinned. “You're tellin' me to go easier on m'self? Y'feel all right?”
“There's nothin' wrong with my thinking. Jess...Dean says the Army's putting MacKenzie in charge in Wyoming.”
Jess stiffened. “That's bad.” His hands clenched, relaxed, clenched again, that unconscious gesture he made before a gun fight. “That man's a butcher.”
“I don't know.” Slim turned back to watch the geldings, dark silhouettes now, against the dropping sun. “I knew him a little in the war, heard more. He's a brilliant planner Jess, always tried to save lives. But he was....strange even then. There's something wrong with him, I think.”
“They said he fell on his head, down at Fort Sill last year.”
“That likely won't help. But he was quick-tempered, back years ago, and quick t'punish anything that looked like insubordination. His troops hated him, called him the 'Great Punisher' even though he did a better job of keeping them alive than most generals did.”
“You sayin' he's crazy?”
Slim shrugged. “Don't know. If he was acting real crazy the Army'd retire him, no question. But that temper; it might explain what he did with the Comanche horses.”
“We need t'warn the People.” Jess put it flatly.
“We will.” Slim pushed away from the fence. “You 'bout ready t'start workin' on supper?”
Mouse stood relaxed, near hind leg cocked up on its toe, hip-shot and slouched with his nose inches from the ground. The early sun was warm, but there'd been frost on the barn roof that morning, when they'd seen Dean off. Right now though, it was warm enough to relax Mouse, the gelding's eyes half-lidded.
“Not much in here to graze on,” Jess told him as he sidled up alongside. “You thinkin' t'find a treasure?”
Mouse swiveled an ear back at Jess' voice, but didn't move, accepting his presence easily. “That's m'boy.” Jess ran his hand over Mouse's withers, along the level back. He brought his left hand up slowly, letting Mouse see the quirt in it. “Somethin' new...” he said softly, as Mouse brought his head up, turned to lip curiously at the braided rawhide. “This won't hurt you,” he promised the horse. “We don't want to hurt you...” He let the gelding tug on the quirt with his teeth, then moved it slowly over the horse's neck and shoulder, using it like an extension of his hand, stroking slowly. Mouse turned his head to watch. “Nothin's gonna hurt you...” He drew the sounds out long, almost a sing-song as he moved the quirt over the horse's body, stroking it across the sensitive belly and flanks. Mouse's skin twitched when he touched his flanks, as if trying to get rid of a fly, but the little gelding stayed relaxed.
“That's the way, that's the boy...” Jess shoved the quirt in his back pocket, bent to run his hands down the horse's legs, asking him to lift each hoof in turn, brushing the palm of his hand over the frog and sole. Mouse nosed his pocket, grabbed the quirt between his teeth and pulled it out, tossing his head.
Jess chuckled. “Smart-ass. You're a real smart boy, ain'tcha. Got something else new for ya, Mouse.”
Slim eased down from his perch on the top rail, walking up with a piggin' string in his hand, to slip it around Mouse's neck. The gelding nosed at him and Slim patted his neck. “Got him.”
Jess picked the surcingle up from the center of the corral, walked up to Mouse holding it low and still, and let the gelding mouth the thick leather, play with the buckle. He stroked the horse gently with the leather, then let it rest over his back, just behind the withers, the ends dangling free on either side. Mouse stiffened, head up and eyes rolling back to see the strange thing, and Slim stepped back, let the horse turn his head and examine it. Jess held it in place with one hand, crooning to the horse until Mouse lost interest, turned back to Slim; then he reached under slowly to bring the free end of the surcingle up against the horse's belly, then gently slid the strap through the buckle, holding it in place without fastening it. He felt the horse's skin ripple at the touch and stroked his side firmly. “Ticklish, aintcha? Just a little tickle, nothin' t'hurt you.” He waited 'til the horse relaxed again and fastened the buckle, stepped around to the other side and ran his hands under the slack leather, moving it a little. Mouse was tolerant, unafraid. “Good boy.”
The gelding was already halter-broke; Jess haltered him easily, Mouse dipping his nose into his hands as if looking for food, then clipped on a lead rope, led the horse a few steps with the surcingle in place. Mouse was hesitant at first, the feel of the leather strange on his barrel, but there was no bucking, no evidence of fight. Jess paid out the lead rope, stepping away gradually, and swung the piggin' string behind Mouse's hocks, encouraging him to move in a circle around him. The little grulla moved willingly, picking up a trot when Jess clucked to him, then an easy lope. He crow hopped a few times, more like a kid playing than a real fight, and then settled into stride, one ear flicking toward Jess.
He let the gelding lope until his head dropped, then sing-songed “Ho ho, big hoss. Ho ho...” until the grulla eased down to a walk, then turned in toward Jess and stopped. Jess nodded to Slim, and his partner stepped in and took the surcingle off, then backed away.
“One last thing.” Jess told the horse, pulling his bandanna off and holding it in one hand. He backed away from the horse, Mouse's eyes on the cloth, and stopped, waiting 'til he was sure the horse was focused on him. He took a step back and Mouse followed, hesitantly. “Good boy, that's m'boy, that's the way.” The little horse followed more confidently, the lead rope slack between them as he mirrored Jess' pace. Jess stopped abruptly, and Mouse took one hesitant step and then stopped. “That's right, that's the way.” Jess walked up to him, rubbed the whorl of hair between his eyes, Mouse nudging aginst him. They repeated the exercise, until the little grulla was following Jess' movements without any tension on the halter. Jess stopped then, took him to the gate into the big field and released him, the gelding breaking into a canter toward the rest of the band, like a kid let out of school.
The paint pony followed Red Stone like a dog, mirroring each move. Jess watched closely, trying to understand the magic. The Cheyenne turned and faced the horse, frowning a little, and the pony stood like a statue while the man walked away. “Good,” Red Stone grunted, and went back to the pony to stroke his neck gently, then lead him toward the horse herd and release him.
“How'd you do that?” Jess blurted, and Red Stone leaned close, whispered solemnly.
“Secret Indian magic.” Jess stared at him, mouth open, and Red Stone cuffed him lightly. “Stupid...pay attention! Horses follow the leader, that's all. He trusts me, so he follows. I follow 'Mehome, the horse follows me. Simple.”
“It always looks like magic,” Slim said, and Jess shook his head.
“It's just patience. They're smart animals. It's good t'be able t'have this much time with 'em. An' don't worry, there's always that time when they say, 't'hell with you...'”
Slim grinned. “Can't wait. Ready for the next?”
“I'll haze 'em.” Jess slid through the gate to the pasture, easing around the little band to cut out the gelding he wanted. Slim watched him, thinking about the evening before.
Dean had been quiet at dinner, despite all Jess' efforts to draw him out; but he seemed more relaxed as the meal wore on. He offered to help Jess with the washing up, and Slim heard the two of them talking easily about the Bitterroot country, the hunting there. By the time they were finished it was dark enough to light the lamps, and Dean excused himself to check on his horse and then bunk down in Andy and Jonesy's old room.
Slim found Jess on the porch, booted feet on the rail as he pushed the back of the old rocker against the house wall. Seemed like they always ended up here, when there was something to chew over. Slim took the rocker beside him, leaned back and waited him out.
“Reckon I'll start backin' those horses on Friday. Get the surcingle on 'em t'morrow.”
“Okay. That little bay's gonna be a handful.” Slim glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. Jess' face gave nothing away, half covered by his turned up jacket collar and the brim of his hat.
“Thinkin' one of us should ride out to the People. Mebbe Thursday.”
Slim thought it out. “Good idea. Go before you start climbing up on those broncs; that way we don't have t'worry about it if you get hurt.”
“That's what I thought.” Jess sounded relieved, and Slim smiled to himself. All this time, and his partner still worried that his ties to the Cheyenne were a hindrance. He gave him time, watching the light fading in the sky, the clear gold that was the last of the sun just edging the ridge line. There was a hint of chill in the air, promise of the winter to come. After awhile, the silence weighed too heavy.
“Jess? What do you think the People will do?”
His partner stirred a little, just the faint rustle of cloth giving the movement away. “I don't know.” His voice came out of the darkness without emphasis. “I hope they run, Slim. I hope they leave the Territory.”
It surprised him. “Run where? There's not much left to run to, Jess.”
“Maybe the Bitterroot.” There was a trace of desperation in his voice now.
“We talked about this last year, when the People decided to send the children to school.”
“I know.” Jess stood up abruptly, the back of the chair banging into the house wall as it rebounded. “But 'Mehome was alive then. It was his choice.”
He gave him another moment, then said gently. “Has anything else changed since then?”
His partner had no answer and Slim said quietly, “If you want to take enough time to do your fast-for-visions you can. I think you should, Jess.”
“I don't need it!” It was harshly put. He heard Jess catch his breath, then he repeated softly. “I don't need it. There's no hurry, Slim. I gotta finish breaking those horses, anyway, or we'll end up wintering them over.”
“All right. But when you're ready, just let me know.”
Slim stood up, put his hand on Jess' shoulder, feeling the tension in him. “Don't leave it too long, Jess.”
He took Trav out the morning after he put the surcingle on the broncs, headed north and west for the foothills where the People camped. The horse was fresh under him after the days without work, and he let him play a little, enjoying the freedom of the open as much as Trav did. He kept his mind on the trail, not wanting to think about the news he was bringing. The air was crisp and sweet, with the faint spicy tang of dried grass on the wind, the sky gunmetal blue. Trav snorted and propped, pretending to be afraid of a jackrabbit, and Jess chuckled. “Idjit...ain'tcha little old for this?” Trav flicked an ear back at him, picked up his easy jog, as if he'd never spooked. “Runnin' a bluff now?” He knuckled the horse's withers, enjoying the easy partnership after the days spent with the green stock.
A Cheyenne sentry broke cover against the skyline ahead, lifting his rifle overhead in greeting. Close now; maybe time to think about what to say. Slim had said nothing more after the talk on the porch. He had a nasty way of asking questions that Jess couldn't answer, or didn't want to. Maybe 'cause he didn't like the answers. He knew one thing for sure; he wanted the People to live and be free.
The sentry trailed him to the border of the camp, and then was gone, melting back into the open land as if he'd never been there. Tall Fox was waiting for him; as always, the news would have passed ahead. He lifted his eyes to meet Jess', his own guarded. “There was a time when we only had sentries if we were camped near an enemy.”
“You got enemies everywhere, now.” Jess stepped down, facing his old friend. The marks of care were already in Tall Fox's face, the responsibility of caring for the People settling on his shoulders.
“Yes.” Tall Fox stepped forward, studying Jess. “You're bringing bad news, Pony Boy; the weight of it is in your face.”
“You heard about Palo Duro?” Tall Fox nodded, slowly. “MacKenzie, the man in charge there is comin' to the Wyoming territory. He's s'posed t' 'pacify' the Northern plains.”
“So Horse Killer is coming here. You are sure?”
“Weller's scout rode in yesterday. Said t'warn the People.”
“So.” Tall Fox turned away. “Come and eat Pony Boy. It 's almost midday. Rest your horse. We'll talk. Singing Bird and Grey Eyes will be glad of your company.”
The women greeted him warmly in the shelter of the lodge. Grey Eyes smiled more than he remembered; he thought she must be glad of Singing Bird's presence in the lodge. And Singing Bird looked at peace, as if she was sure of some promised happiness. She held both hands out to him in greeting, and Jess took them in his own, raised one to press his forehead against it.
“Mother,” he said softly. She reached up and patted his cheek gently, a reminder of 'Mehome's greeting.
“Pony Boy. You are too thin. Come and sit with us at the fire and I will make sure you eat well.”
Jess met Tall Fox's eyes across the lodge. “We will talk privately, later.” His old friend drew his robe closer over his shoulders. “I won't trouble the People until I know more...”
The People ate quickly and quietly together; an ordinary meal on an ordinary day. The evening would be for story telling, for enjoying each other; but now there were the tasks of the day to finish. The men greeted him easily, but Elk's eyes were watchful on him; the new war-leader alert to any threat. Jess had come to them before the storm twice now. After, Tall Fox led him out to where the ponies grazed, watched by the older boys.
“So. What do the White Eyes in town say?”
Jess shrugged. “The fightin' has all been south. Nobody's sayin' anything about the Cheyenne. Folks are worried about the drought, 'bout keepin' their stock alive. Nobody expects any injun trouble..”
“But the army sends Horse Killer here.” Tall Fox hunkered down on his heels, one hand fingering the dried grass. “That's bad news. Washington wants to take something from us again.”
Jess nodded, waiting.
“You think this is because of the Makonce Wakan?”
“I don't know, Tall Fox.” His voice was hoarse in his own ears. “I know there's gold there. Where there's gold there's white men. And sooner or later there's the Army.”
“We have a treaty.” Tall Fox's voice was bitter. “They came to us and said they needed land no wider than the track of their wagons. Just to cross to the Oregon land. And since then they have taken and taken and taken...”
Jess had no words. After a moment Tall Fox sighed. “'Mehome would want us to find a way to stay at peace. I cannot see that, right now. Tell me, Pony Boy...what do you think the Army wants?”
“I don't know.” He said again. “I know MacKenzie's a butcher. Slim...Tall Man... would say wait and see. There's been no fighting. They'll ask for something first, then you'll know.”
“Yes.” Tall Fox stood. “I'm going to talk to Elk. You are welcome here always, Pony Boy. Rest as long as you want.”
He shook his head. “I'll leave soon. Just gonna let my horse graze a little longer. You know Slim an' I'll do what ever we can.”
“Yes. Thank you, brother.”
Jess hunkered down and watched the ponies, watched Trav grazing on the fringe of the herd, pulling hard on the dry grass. He remembered sitting with Red Stone, the first year he came to the People. They had watched the herd, and Red Stone teased him, and taught him the People's way with horses.
There was a soft rustle of grass behind him; when he turned his head Singing Bird was walking toward him, a big, shallow grain basket in her hands. He stood and helped her settle herself, then sat beside her. She sorted through the wild rice grains in the basket, her fingers quick and sure. He thought that she didn't see very well anymore, but her hands knew this task, had been doing it longer than Jess had been alive. He watched her sort the bad grains, the empty hulls and drop them to the ground.
“It was a good year for ricing,” she said softly. “The river was low but sure, and the rice plants grew thick on the margins. When there is too much water the plants die. Sometimes a drought brings good things as well as trouble.” He nodded, eyes on the horses.
“What are you thinking of, Pony Boy?”
Because it was Singing Bird he told her the truth. “Red Stone.”
“Yes.” Her voice was thoughtful. “He taught you about ponies. Once, he was a good man with the horses.”
“He was a good man.” He felt that loss, still. Red Stone had died before his body; had died with his family at Washita. The man he saw at the Wind, the Yellowstone, who died by Mort Corey's hand, wasn't Red Stone.
“He was. But the horses knew, when he stopped being a good man. You have to tell truth, to horses. And you have to tell truth to yourself, to be honest with them.” Singing Bird's voice was firm. “He was a man who never faced his grief. He ran from it into anger, until it poisoned him. After awhile, he was only that poison.”
Her words went through him, sharp and true as a knife blade. “I would've helped, if I could. If I knew...” he told her.
“We all tried. It was his choice, Pony Boy. Now. You. You must deal with your grief.”
“'Mehome...” he started.
“Tchaaa...” her voice was impatient, and it stopped him. “It is more than the Old Man.” She smiled at him. “We spoke of you often, my Old Man and I. You were as his son...but you were grieving from the time you came to us, from the beginning. And you are grieving still. You must deal with this Pony Boy. He is not here to guide you. If you do not deal you will end up like Red Stone, all poison and hate.”
“You don't know...” he started, feeling the anger inside.
“I do. It was a trouble to 'Mehome. And even the children understand. Both Squirrel and Roan Pony are worried for you.”
The spike of anger drove him to his feet, but he knew it for what it was, and stood still, clenching his hands. Singing Bird looked up at him, her face calm. “You should do your fast-for-visions, Pony Boy. It is time and past time, to bear a man's name among the People. You hold your grief to you, like Red Stone did, as if it were something that mattered. It is time to ask for healing.” She stretched her hand out and he helped her up, steadying the basket with one hand. “Tall Fox will have questions, in the days to come. You must ready yourself, to be able to answer them.” She took charge of the basket. “Tell Tall Man to come and visit us.”
She moved away quietly, an old woman still straight as a young tree. He watched after her, until she was out of sight in the circle of lodges, and then turned to collect his horse and start the journey home.
The bay gelding swung his head around like a striking snake, teeth snapping together on the sleeve of Jess' shirt. “Ah-ah,” Jess told him, jabbing his elbow out to connect with the horse's lower jaw. “Don't even think about it.”
The gelding jerked his head back, eyes white-rimmed and ears flat against his head. Jess grinned at the display of temper, continued tightening the cinch. For all his resistance, the bay stood still for it; a week into the horse-breaking, and his ground manners were pretty well set. “There ya go,” he sing-songed to the horse, “ain't so bad now, is it?” The gelding grunted, humping his back a little. “Y'should talk t'Mouse.” Jess told him, looping the end of the lead rope around the horse's neck, to fasten it to the halter on the off side. “He's already done this, nice as Sunday-go-to-meetin'. Come up, now, big hoss...” He led the gelding forward a few steps, the horse humping up, stiff-legged and short-strided.
“He's gonna be trouble.” Slim's voice warned from behind him.
“No kiddin'.” Jess grinned at the furious horse. “You ready to take the head?”
“You gonna muzzle him first?” Slim asked, half seriously.
“Nah. He's a good pony, ain'tcha big hoss?”
Slim stepped to the bay's near side, looped a piggin' string though the halter, and set his heels.
Jess leaned into the horse, then pushed himself up off his toes, resting his chest and belly across the saddle until all his weight was on the horse. The gelding's back humped like a startled cat's, but he stood, ears pinned flat back. Slim crooned reassurance to him, that deep soft voice he used on horses and women, and Jess grinned to himself. “Okay, boss.”
Slim led the bay a step or two, the horse hopping a little behind, and then stopped, stroking the bay gently. “Sitting on him?”
“Yep.” He pushed up on his arms, swinging his leg over and settling into the seat, light as he could.
The bay crowhopped in place, jarring his teeth together, and he took up slack in the rope. “I got 'em.”
Slim grinned at him, stepping clear and pulling the string free. The bay stood frozen, and Jess closed his legs; there was a moment of stillness and the horse frog-jumped and stopped, whiplashing Jess' neck. “Shit...” He swung the quirt gently, trying to move the bay forward, and got another frog jump that nearly broke his back teeth. “Enough..” He used the quirt again and then Slim stepped in, swinging the piggin' string at the horse's hocks, and the bay lined out, crow hopping across the corral. It was as easy to sit as a rocking chair. Jess snubbed his head just enough to keep him from planting himself, and kept his legs on, urging him to get it out of his system. Six easy jumps later the bay stopped, blowing hard as a race horse, ears flicking. “Are we done?” Jess asked him. “That it? All that puffin' and blowin' and that's it?” The bay flicked an ear back, then took a step forward, and another, and Jess pushed him into an easy jog.
“YEEEEEHAAAAAAAAA! Ride 'em, Jess!” Mose Shell waved his hat, shouting exuberantly, and the bay propped, dropping a shoulder. Jess grabbed mane, heard Slim's, “Shut up, Mose.” and rode out another frog jump.
“Great idea, Mose.” He pushed the bay back into his jog. “I'll give that a try. What the hell dya think I'm tryin' t'do?” Twice more around the bronc corral and he could feel the horse relax, and then the bay started snorting gently to the rhythm of his own trot, and he knew he had him. He gave him a little slack in the line, letting the horse stretch out his head and neck, and two circuits later set his knees forward drawling, “ho-ho, big man, ho-ho.” The horse gathered himself, and Jess pulled back on the lead rope, the bay stopping obediently. “That's the pony...that's m'boy.” He rubbed his withers, feeling the sweat under his hand, but the horse was calm. Slim walked up quietly, taking hold of the halter and stroking the bay, gently. “Good job.”
“You too. There's always a time when they say...”
“t'hell with you,” Slim finished, smiling. “Mose just got here. He's running empty so he's early.”
“So he can wait.” Jess slid off the bay slowly, started loosening the cinch.
“He brought news.” Slim's face, when he looked at him, was watchful. “MacKenzie's in the territory.”
Tall Fox stretched his arm out, the buffalo hide that covered their pallet falling open from his shouler, beckoning her to warmth and his steady love. Grey Eyes looked around the lodge one last time, reassuring herself that everything was in order, ready for whatever came. Singing Bird slept already, the older woman snoring softly from the elder's place. It was a sound she did not mind, filling up the emptiness of Night Horse's absence. She missed her son, hers for so short a time before going to play a man's part at the Arizona missions.
“Come to bed, wife,” Tall Fox coaxed.
She slipped into the shelter of his arm and the robe, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, pressing her face into his chest. She breathed in the familiar man-scent of him, firesmoke and earth and clean sweat and the sage he smudged himself with when he prayed. He prayed much these days. “Are you well?” She asked, feeling the tension in him. He sighed, rubbing his chin gently against the top of her head.
“The young men are very angry. It's difficult to counsel patience.”
“Especially,” she said tartly, “when you do not want to.”
He chuckled. “I never fool you.”
She waited in silence, and when he said nothing more, whispered, “Red Bird is angriest of all.”
Her husband sighed. “He wants to go to war. It is difficult to dissuade him.”
She held him tighter, trying to hold off war. “He's been angry since Otter's death. He is like Pony Boy, that one, trying to kill his grief with rage.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I saw it in Pony Boy when he brought the news. What did he advise?”
“He said nothing...I know he would like us to flee.”
“And the young men want us to fight.”
“Yes.” He sighed, and she thought carefully, knowing his burden.
“I want us to live,” she said firmly.
“Grey Eyes...daughter of a captive...there is no place to flee.” He propped himself on an elbow, looking at her tenderly.
“Fighting is a bad choice.” She held his eyes, calling up all her authority, and he turned his head, looked past her to Singing Bird's pallet.
“I know, “ he said, soft as a breath, “but the only other choice is surrender.”
She shivered a little at the word, and pulled him down to blanket her, holding him tightly in return. The unknown future hung over them, colder than the moonless night outside the lodge.
Jess hit the ground hard enough to drive his teeth into his lower lip, and jar his bones like a shovelful of rocks. He stood up spitting blood and profanity, watching the vanishing tail of the paint pony disappearing into the horse herd. Behind him, Red Stone howled with laughter, bending over his pony's neck as if too weak to sit upright.
“And what's so dang funny!” Jess bellowed at him, finding his hat in a clump of brush.
“You!” Red Stone wiped his eyes, straightening up. “You're so mad. And you looked so funny, flying through the air!” He whooped at the memory, bending over his pony's neck again. “You looked like a fish! Mouth open...” he straightened to demonstrate, mouth wide as a hooked trout...”and your eyes!” He widened his own, 'til the whites showed all around, then crinkled up in laughter again.
“Why are you so mad, Pony Boy? The pony only does what he's made to do.”
“Shit. Where's my gun,” Jess said grimly. “I'm gonna shoot that dam' horse.”
“No, you are not...” Red Stone grinned at him. “Pony Boy the mighty warrior, taking revenge on a pony...”
“Mebbe,” Jess growled, “I'll shoot him just a little. And shoot you a lot.”
“Ha! You can try...” Red Stone swung down off his pony. “You're all right?”
“Yeah...just pissed.” Jess moved his jaw around, testing it.
“And again, why so mad?”
“Tired of that cocky, miserable cayuse.” Jess was beginning to think that maybe he wan't making that much sense.
“Ah.” Red Stone handed him his canteen, and Jess rinsed his mouth with the warm, stale water. “That horse, Pony Boy, is a lot like you. That's why you don't like him.”
Jess groaned. “More dam' injun spirit stuff....don't you ever get tired of it?”
Red Stone snorted and slapped the back of Jess' head, pushing his hat forward, and making him choke on the water.
“Horse stuff,” he said tersely. “He is afraid, so he wears a mask of being fierce. Just like you, and you know it, don't get all puffed up with me. If you want to be a man for the horses you have to be clear in your head. They know...they feel, they smell, they hear the truth of us, always. He feels that you wear a mask too. How can he be safe with you if you don't feel safe yourself? Get clear in your head, Pony Boy, and he will eat from your hand and follow you like a dog.”
Jess stared at him, mouth agape until Red Stone said, “Catching flies like a fish?” He pulled himself together then, rinsed his mouth and spat out the blood, and walked back to the horse herd to haze out the paint pony, ride him again.
The horses drifted slowly across the home field, golden in the evening light, pulling on the short, dry grass. They were good stock, bred from the mustangs that were the backbone of the country and the hot-bloods the settlers had brought with them. Strong and enduring, able to thrive on the high-plains grass, travel thirty miles under saddle and do it all over the next day and all the days that followed.
Jess leaned on the fence, watching them. The little bay trouble maker was paired up with Mouse, the two of them mouthing each other's withers. 'Good friends,' he thought idly. 'It'll be a shame to break 'em up.' The little bay reminded him of the paint he'd broken with Red Stone, all those years ago. That one had turned out to be a good horse. They'd given him to 'Mehome, and he'd carried the old chief ever since, through war, peace and change. Carried him to the end; the paint had pulled 'Mehome's burial travois to the platform. He thought the bay might be that kind of horse.
It'd been a long time since he'd been able to work horses like that, to feel how good it could be to gain their consent, not just force his will on them. And he'd never had the luxury of being able to trust someone at the head the way he trusted Slim. The only way he could do this was because of that trust, that Slim would hold firm, would keep track of Jess and the horse and himself, keep a risky situation as safe as he could. It was all of a piece, trusting him with the horses and trusting him to have his back in a fight. That changed everything.
The day was shading down toward evening, the sun just touching the top of the west ridge, the air colder and the land quiet, not even a breath of wind stirring the cottonwoods. Behind him he could hear Slim's step, and he lifted a hand in greeting without turning.
Slim dropped a hand on Jess' shoulder. “They're looking none the worse for wear. Neither are you, come to that.”
Jess grinned at him, sidelong. “It's goin' easy, thanks to you.”
“Don't know how you figure that, but it's interestin' t'watch. Never seen methods like that before.”
“Learned 'em mostly from the People,” Jess turned to face his partner. “Reckon there's no way this would work without you at the head.”
“Thanks...don't see it though. I'm not that happy about you runnin' all the risks.” Slim's eyes were steady on him, as always, seeing everything.
“Reckon you got the riskier part.” Jess turned back to the geldings. “ Figger the chances were high you'd either catch a mouth full of hoof or get run over, if y'weren't so dang good with horses. Ain't nobody else I'd trust t'do it, neither.”
Slim was silent for a moment, then said, “Who used t'work with you, when you did this before?”
“With the People, y'mean? That was different...we took time, took maybe six months t'climb on one if we had to. Never needed t'trust somebody.” He glaced sideways at his partner. “We ain't got that luxury. Never had nobody I could trust like this before, so I ain't done it like this before.”
Slim was quiet for a long time, then slapped Jess' shoulder lightly, set his hands on the fence rail.
“Figger it's time t'start teachin' 'em t'talk 'people', how t'move under a saddle, “ Jess told him. “ Y'got a preference for which y'want t'take on?”
“Maybe the two sorrels and the grey?” Slim looked apologetic. “They're the tallest.”
Jess chuckled. “Yeah, they'll at least keep them long legs of yours up off the ground. Reckon to work 'em in a hackamore first, start a straight bit on 'em mebbe in a week or so?”
Slim looked startled. “You're askin' me?”
“Don't know nobody better at makin' a workin' horse.”
“Then yeah, sounds good.” Slim watched the geldings drifting toward the fence line, the water tank they kept full these days. “I was thinking we might keep a couple of these. We're a little light in the remuda right now. You got any thoughts?”
“Reckon Mouse'll make a good horse. Was thinkin' earlier he'd be a good mount for Andy, too. Smart an' sensible an' kind.”
“Mouse it is. Any others?”
Jess shook his head. “Ya need t'pick somethin' tall.”
Slim shook head; “Not necessarily; I got Alamo and Shorty right now. What about the little bay?”
He might make a good horse too.
Wait 'n' see?”
Slim nodded, attention caught by the geldings' sudden alertness, heads lifting and turning toward the ridge line. A rider topped it, black against the sunlight, and reining toward them.
“Bill Bates.” Jess said softly, recognizing the bay horse, the stocky, slump-shouldered rider. “Wonder what's on his mind?”
Red Bird burned with a rage so high and hot he thought sometimes that his skin would split open, and he would be nothing but a torch, fire scorching everything around him. The anger had built over the last year, as it seemed that everything promised to him as a man, as a Tsitsistas was being stripped away, piece by piece. That stripping was as if a knife were taken to his flesh, carving away his freedom, his friend, his pride, his future; each cut a raw pain without ease or healing. He could not rest, and he could not act; Tall Fox demanded that he do nothing, that the young men hunt and scout only, not free to fight back.
He reined his pony up, to stand concealed on the pine-clad ridge just above the ranch house below. He did not know these people, for good or ill. But they were white, and that was enough. He turned to lok at the six men behind him; all friends, all men he had grown up with, known all his life. He could see the uncertainty in them, and it gave him pause. He looked down on the ranch again, feeling the ragged ends of his hair brush his shoulder, reminder of the forced hair cutting at White Eyes' School. This ranch was not far from Tall Man's stage place; these people might be his friends. He thought for a moment, weighing the competing demands, and then decided.
“We'll take horses only,” he said softly to the men behind him. “No fighting. Just raid the field for horses.”
“And if we're fired on?” Lamedeer, Elk's son, spoke equally softly.
Red Bird smiled. “We won't be that clumsy. They'll know we were here when they count their horse herd tomorrow.” He gauged the light, the sun below the horizon now, darkness coming swiftly. “Soon. We have time to muffle the pony's hooves; then we go.” The rage inside focused, cooled, glad of the outlet. “Soon,” he said again.
The bay horse was sweated, and Bill's face was grim. Slim straightened, alert to the promise of
trouble. “Bill, you look like a man with worries.”
Bates reined up, resting his hands on his pommel, a man weary from a long day's work and a five mile ride. “I lost six horses last night, Slim. Reckon it was the Cheyenne.”
Jess cut him off, jaw set like he was inviting a fight. “Why you say that, Bill?” Slim dropped a hand on his shoulder, warningly, but Bates just met his eyes calmly.
“We found tracks, horses with muffled hooves, likely deerskin tied over 'em. Just enough to be too quiet for anyone riding guard to hear. Not that we had a sentry out, we're s'posed t'be at peace.”
Jess stiffened under his hand, and Slim said softly, “Which way were the tracks headed?”
“North.” Bill stepped down, let his horse drop his head to graze. “Jess, Slim, I'm sorry t'bring this to you but it sure looks like it's Tall Fox's band doin' the raidin'.”
Jess spoke quietly. “Anyone go after 'em?”
“No, but I had a helluva time reinin' Buck in. One of the six was his. He said he's fed up with havin' injuns takin' his best mounts.”
“I'll bet.” Jess smiled a little, turned to meet his eyes, and Slim nodded, understanding.
“You want us to deal with the Cheyenne for you, Bill?”
“I'd be obliged.” Bates sighed heavily. “I can send Randy over t'mind the station for you, if you want. Reckon this is real important, Slim. The only reason I could hold Buck in was the respect he has for you an' Jess. But there's other ranchers haven't been around very long, already a little spooked by MacKenzie ridin' in. It won't take much for any of them to get stupid, decide t'ride on the Cheyenne themselves.”
“Where's MacKenzie?” Jess spoke sharply, and Slim could feel the tension in him.
“Rode on to Fort Laramie. I hear he's s'posed t'parley with Dull Knife there.” Bates glanced at Slim. “You didn't hear?”
“We haven't been into Laramie in a week; and Mose was driving the Bismarck to Cheyenne run until today.” Slim thought it through. “Reckon the relief driver didn't think t'mention it.”
Bates nodded. “Don't expect anything good's gonna come from that parley, but as far as I can tell this isn't connected. Most likely just some of the young bucks countin' coup. But Slim, Tall Fox has got to keep them roped down. This country's like dry tinder just waitin' for a spark right now.”
“It don't work that way,” Jess spoke harshly. “And you know it, Bill. Tall Fox has got no more control over the young men than Mort does over the town. He can tell 'em, but he can't force 'em.”
“I know it.” Bates tugged his horse's head up, set foot to stirrup. “But most folks don't. Too green, too new to the territory. They hear 'chief' and they think 'general.' For some reason they think a tribe's like an army unit, forgettin' it's a family, an' just as apt t'have it's youngun's run wild as any other family. But we ain't got the time t'educate 'em, Jess. An' they'll ride on the whole tribe, or force MacKenzie to, they get spooked enough.”
Slim stepped up and laid his hand on the bay's neck. “C'mon to the house Bill, an' water your horse. Maybe have a cup of coffee yourself. An' I got stew on the stove, you're welcome t'stay for a meal.”
“I'll take you up on the coffee, give this fella a chance for a drink.” Bill smoothed the bay's mane. “But then I best be headin' back. Mary's a mite nervous.” He glanced at the western horizon, the sun just a fingernail sliver above the ridge line, shadows lying long. “Be dark soon. And it sure looks like we're maybe not at peace with the Cheyenne anymore.”
Randy Barnes rode in when the light was still gray, eager as always to take over the relay station for a day, enjoy the gossip with Mose and meeting the new people. Jess greeted him briefly, headed to the barn to tack their horses, and Slim brought him into the house to drink a cup of coffee and learn what runs were expected. By the time he was done, Jess had Traveler and Alamo at the porch, both horses restless as they caught Jess' urgency.
“All right, Randy.” Slim swung into the saddle. “We should be back tonight, tomorrow morning at the latest. If we're not you send word to Mort Corey by Mose, he'll know what t'do.”
“Yes, Slim. You be careful.”
Slim grinned at the big, slow-thinking man. “We will. You too.” And then swung Alamo out of the yard behind Jess, already reining north across the open land toward the Cheyenne.
Jess was scowling when he caught up to him, and gave him a sideways look. “You expectin' trouble?”
“Just being careful,” Slim said evenly, seeing the hair-trigger edge in him. “You know we're going to have to bring those horses back.”
Traveler snorted, danced a step sideways, reacting to his rider's sudden tension. “Mebbe.” It was a growl. “It's gonna get ugly.”
“Jess, there's no maybe about it.” He kept his voice soft. “Bill can't afford to lose stock anymore than we can. One way or another he needs those horses back. And if we don't do it...” He let it trail off knowing Jess would see it; the chance that MacKenzie would be called in, if not by Bill by another rancher afraid the same thing would happen to him.
“And if it comes to a fight?” Jess challenged, staring at the land ahead. “You're expectin' me t'fight Tall Fox over some horses?”
“It's more than the horses. You know it.”
Jess grunted and pushed Traveler into a long-reaching trot. Slim followed, thinking, 'It won't get to a fight. It can't.'
The wind skirled out of the west, kicking up dust devils, cool and bringing a trace of snow-cold from the peaks. Enough to make them turn up the collars of their jackets, pull their hats down hard. The early light banded across the peaks, lighting just the high ground, so every little slope was gray and mysterious below a crown of silver. The sky was almost white with light at the eastern horizon, darkening overhead to a blue so deep there was no name for it. In the early light with the scars of drought hidden, the land was beautiful. Slim felt his heart swell, as if his chest was too small for it, and wondered if Jess felt the same when he looked at the land, or if it meant no more to him than any other part of the big empty.
It was no more than an hour's ride to the Cheyenne camp, the land rising a little and folding into ridgelines. The sun was starting to warm them when Jess said “Slim,” pointing at the sentry just breaking cover on the ridge in front of them.
The Cheyenne sentry waved them in, Jess lifting his hand in salute and response. They crested the last ridge line to see the camp below them, still shadowed and indistinct. Tall Fox met them at the river, face grim and tired. “Slim. Pony Boy. You are welcome, but I think this is not a visit. You've come about the horses?”
“You know?” Slim asked, and Jess looked at him sharply, shaking his head a little.
“The young fools paraded them into camp last
night as if celebrating a victory. I was
afraid of this.”
Tall Fox jerked his chin toward the camp. “The men will meet with them after the morning meal. You can sit with us.”
“We have to take the horses back.” Jess spoke softly.
“I know.” Tall Fox sighed. “Dismount. You can leave your horses picketed. You're welcome to eat with my family.”
“We've brought coffee,” Jess slid off Traveler, pulled the oilskin-wrapped package out of his saddlebag. “Thanks, Tall Fox.”
“Huh. Only hurry or both the women will be angry.” Tall Fox shook his head, as if trying to shake off worry. “Slim, you must not speak when we meet with the young men. You're there as my guests, only.”
“All right.” He stepped down, glanced at Jess over Alamo's back, and saw the worry and warning in his face.
The men gathered around the morning fire, in a silence that sang with tension. Elk came first, to sit beside Tall Fox, talk softly but forcefully with him. Stands Alone, Red Bird's father, came next, face grim. The others gathered in two and threes, filling out the circle; fifty or so men, the backbone of the band. Red Bird and the young men who'd ridden with him came last, walking with a mixture of bravado and worry, and Slim was suddenly sorry for them despite the trouble they'd brought. They were only boys, no more than a few years older than Andy at best, with a boy's lack of judgment.
Tall Fox stood up then, and went to the fire to pull an ember out, light the long pipe and draw on it. He sat down then, weighing the pipe in his hands as if measuring his thoughts, and then passed it to Elk, sitting at his right. Slim watched it pass from hand to hand around the circle, only the boys excluded; and Jess leaned closer, whispered, “He's made it serious. This is like a trial, Slim.”
He nodded, whispered, “Translate as they talk?”
“So.” Tall Fox raised his eyes to Red Bird. “You led a raid on the White Eyes. You stole horses and brought them back here.”
“Yes.” Red Bird looked uneasy and defiant, glancing at his father. Stands Alone dropped his eyes without meeting his son's.
“Why?” It was bare demand.
Red Bird straightened his shoulders. “To count coup. To take revenge for what's been taken from us. Because I'm a man.”
“Pfah.” Elk spoke suddenly, the word harsh. “A man is responsible to the People. That's what it is to be a man. What good have you done the People here?”
Red Bird looked at his father again. “I've shown the White Eyes the People will not put up with any more. I've told them, 'it stops here.'”
“You stole horses, that's all.” Stands Alone spoke coldly. “Don't make it more than it is. I'm ashamed of you.”
“We have lived at peace. This was 'Mehome's desire. This is Dull Knife's desire. This is my intent. You've decided to throw that away because you're angry? Becaure your pride is hurt?” Tall Fox spoke softly.
“I'm Tsitsistas! They need to know what that means. I'm not the White Eyes' dog.”
Elk stood up, hand dropping to his knife hilt, and Tall Fox put a hand out to grab his sleeve, tug gently until he sat again.
“Be careful, Red Bird,” he said mildly. “You've done much for the People and that earns you much tolerance. But be careful. You've forgotten a lot, I think. No man has the right to impose his anger on others. You know this. As a man you keep your fear, your grief, your anger to yourself. You share your courage, your strength with others.”
Red Bird looked down and suddenly looked very young, a boy caught playing with a man's weapons.
“The White Eyes you stole from have done nothing to us. And they are friends of Tall Man and Pony Boy, and they have done much for us.” Tall Fox's voice softened a little.
“That's why we took the horses only.” Red Bird mumbled.
Elk snorted. “Since when do you decide the People are going to war? And the rest of you? What did you think? Or did you just follow Red Bird without thought?”
The young men were silent, looking everywhere but at Elk.
“So. We will return the horses.” Tall Fox stood up. “There will be no more of this. You will not risk the People on a whim. Anything more and you will leave.”
Slim started, glanced sideways at Jess, saw his own surprise mirrored there. Tall Fox turned to them, jerked his head sideways, inviting them to follow him. Jess stood up slowly, his eyes on Red Bird, and Slim followed his glance, seeing the misery and shame in the young man's face. Stands Alone crossed the space to his son, and Slim turned his eyes away, to follow Tall Fox toward the pony herd.
“They are there...” Tall Fox jerked his head toward a little group of horses, separated from the others and watched over by some of the women. “Do you need help driving them? I'll send one of the troublemakers with you, if you do.”
“We'll line rope 'em.” Jess spoke up. “Thanks, Tall Fox. I know it wasn't easy.”
“Easy? Easy?” There was harsh bitterness in the word. “No, not easy. Especially as I would have done the same, if I were Red Bird.”
“Why didn't you keep the horses?” Slim spoke neutrally, sensing something more than anger over the boys' escapade.
Tall Fox sighed. “A messenger rode in late last night from Dull Knife. Horse Killer brought word from Washington; the Tsitsistas are all to move to Fort Sill, we are not welcome on our own land. I ride to Dull Knife's camp today. We must decide what to do. But if we go to war it will not be because these children stole horses.”
“Tall Fox,” Jess said desperately, “if the People go to war you'll lose. And you'll die.”
“It's not only my decision, Pony Boy.”
“If Dull Knife decides, you don't have to follow him.”
“And cease to be Tsitsistas?” Tall Fox held Jess' eyes. “They have taken everything, Pony Boy. They have taken the land, the buffalo, our horses, our children, our freedom. What more? They will take our blood. I will not give up who I am.”
“Does it matter if you're all dead?” Jess stepped forward, took hold of Tall Fox' arm. “What will happen to the children in Arizona, if their parents die? Will any of the People survive if the children are left to the White Eyes?”
“Do you think they will let us live at Fort Sill?”
“The southern Cheyenne have.” Slim spoke gently, seeing the tension between the two.
“They've lived like chained dogs. Do you think they can stand that much longer?' Tall Fox stepped back, and Jess let his hand drop.
“Will I have to fight you, Tall Fox? Will it come to war between us, brother?” Jess voice sounded as if the words were scraped across rough stones, and Slim reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.
Tall Fox studied him for a long moment, face remote and sad. “In the end, Pony Boy,” he said gently, “you are white.”
They long-roped Bill Bates' horses quickly and in silence. Jess swung up on Traveler, took the rope end and reined out of the camp without a backward glance. Slim lifted his hand in thanks to the Tsitsistas women who'd guarded the horses, and Grey Eyes nodded in acknowledgement. He sent Alamo after his partner, wondering if he would ever ride into this camp as a friend again, and hoping that he would.
Jess rode in silence, tension sparking off him like a treed cat. “We'll take this bunch straight to Bill's place,” Slim said easily. “Reckon that'll damp the fire for now.”
“And then what?”
“I don't know, Jess,” Slim gave him honesty. “It depends on the Cheyenne. You got any idea what'll happen?”
Jess shook his head, not meeting his eyes. “If you'd asked me yesterday, I woulda said the People wouldn't go to war, not after surrenderin' at Fort Sill, sendin' the children to school. But now...Slim, they don't take kindly t'havin' somethin' forced down their throats. The Black Hills; that's sacred ground, Makonce Wakan, for the People an' the Sioux. All this land is sacred. The Army comin' in an' claimin' it...” His voice trailed off.
“'Mehome said he was trying to save something for the future.” Slim spoke slowly, feeling his way into it. “You think Dull Knife thinks the same?”
“Mebbe. I don't know. I don't know what I'm gonna do Slim, if it comes t'war with the People.”
It was bare and flat as wind-scoured earth. Slim waited, mulling it over as they topped a rise, reined west toward the Bates' place. “I think you have to get clear in your own mind about it, Jess. I think you have to figure out where you fit in all this.”
“Yeah. Well, you heard Tall Fox. I'm white.”
That was bitter sounding, and Slim was suddenly impatient. “This isn't about white or Cheyenne, Jess. You start thinking that way and you're no better than Eddington or Red Stone.” That hit home, he heard Jess catch his breath. “This is about doing what's right. You need to get clear in your mind about what that is.”
Jess was silent a long time, as if riding out his anger the way he rode out a bucking horse. When he did speak his voice was quiet, even. “You pushin' me to do the fast-for-visions again, pard?”
“Maybe. If that's what it takes for you to get your head clear.” Unaccountably, Slim could feel his own anger rising as Jess calmed. “I'll back you whatever you decide. Always. You know that. But you need to decide, Jess, I can't do your thinking for you. And you can't keep holding out, waiting for things to go back the way they were.”
Jess looked at him sideways. “You think that's what I'm doin”?
“I think you don't want to have to decide, Jess. And I think there's no way around it, in the end.”
She waited out the long two days of Tall Fox' absence with all the patience she could gather. Singing Bird was a great help, as always; calmly and cheerfully going through the days' work, counseling her at the evening fire. So her fears were easy to keep in hand. Greets-the-Dawn spoke quietly with the men in the evening, urging patience. The old Bear Medicine Doctor did not often speak; she was grateful for his actions, with both Elk and her husband gone to parley. But the time dragged, so when the sentry signaled the men's return on the third morning, Grey Eyes walked out to greet them with gladness and relief, even knowing they could be bringing news of war.
Tall Fox was weary; she could see it in his eyes as he rode in, dismounted his pony and turned it over to one of the young men. She kept her face composed, as was necessary, and greeted him calmly. He stopped in front of her, reaching out to take her hand in a rare gesture of closeness. “Dull Knife wants to fight,” he spoke hoarsely. “But he leaves it to each band to decide. We will have to think on this, wife.”
She felt her heart clench on itself, but nodded. “You'll speak to the People tonight?”
“Yes.” He turned his head, watched the men gathering in little groups of two and three, the word spreading outward from the men who'd ridden with him, like water from a thrown stone. “Yes, but I think it won't be any news.” He smiled a little, ruefully. “They will have the day to think, at least. If we choose war, we will join Dull Knife near Fort Laramie in twenty days' time.”
“So there's time to think. More than just today.” She felt her heart speed up. “Think carefully, husband,” she pleaded. “Think of our son's son's son's children, for seven generations when you decide.”
He nodded and squeezed her hand, then ducked into their lodge, the door flap falling behind him, closing her out.
The country was quiet for days after they brought the horses back. It was a held-breath quiet, the local ranchers on edge, waiting for the next move. There was no sight of the Cheyenne, no more raids on the ranches around Laramie, no word of MacKenzie and the Fourth Cavalry.
They worked the young stock together, teaching them to move under saddle, balance themselves under a rider's weight, and begin to understand what was being asked of them. It was a nice break from the day-to-day routine of the ranch work; Slim relished watching the geldings develop, begin to turn into green-made saddle horses. He even enjoyed the occasional bucking spell; as Jess reminded him, grinning, the horses had a license to say 't'hell with you' at least once.
The stage runs came through without trouble; the line secure from Bismarck through to Green River. It was as if the People had vanished from the land; and not just the Tsitsistas; there was no word of the Sioux or the Arapaho. It wasn't a peace you could relax in; it was more like the quiet on the plains before a twister. But the days passed without news or trouble, the swift Wyoming fall running its course.
The weather was chilling down as October wore to its end; there was frost on the close cropped grass in the home field, and one morning a thin skin of ice on the water tank. They'd have to start selling off the geldings soon, Slim thought with regret, or they'd have to winter them over. Most folks weren't interested in looking for more mouths to feed once the snow started flying. He was going to miss the work with them; he seldom had the chance to work with that many green horses at once.
It was his nature to look for the good in everything; there was comfort in knowing at least the coming winter promised a greater chance for peace. None of the tribes would wage war by choice during the great cold.
He was working one of the leggy sorrels in the home field when the first flight of Sandhill Cranes skimmed over, their wide wingspans shadowing the land as they soared on the wind, gliding without effort. He reined up the sorrel, head tilted back to watch them. Their song drifted down to him, soft and purling like a brook singing to itself, so different from their summer song.
“Sounds like kittens purrin'.” Jess stopped the little bay Trouble next to him.
“They're starting to gather to fly south.” Slim looked over his shoulder, watching for the next flight. “Winter's coming early.”
“Didn't see 'em last year.” Trouble jerked his head forward, trying to bite Slim's sorrel, and Jess used his legs hard, taking the bay's mind off biting.
Slim smiled at the pair of them. “Reckon the drought's pushed 'em further north this year. The Laramie and the Wind have held water all summer, at least.”
Trouble snaked his head around, big teeth snapping at Jess' foot, and Jess cursed, kicking his foot forward to connect with the gelding's teeth. The little bay jerked his head back, snorting. “Had enough of you, mister, “ Jess growled at the horse, putting his legs on and getting a half-hearted crow-hop for his trouble. “Dammit.” Jess swung his quirt against the horse's thigh, just hard enough to sting. Trouble squealed and bucked, and Slim watched, laughing as the argument commenced. Jess quirted, Trouble bucked; the two of them repeated the dance 'til they were halfway across the field and the bay settled into an easy lope, steady and calm. Jess circled him back, red-faced and cussing.
“Having fun?” Slim asked mildly.
“What do you think? Tell you Slim, I'm thinkin' I made a mistake about him.” Jess pulled the bay up facing him. “Thinkin' dog food. Or maybe wolf bait this winter. He's gonna do what I want anyway, an' he knows it an' so do I. But first he's gotta buck an' kick an' jump up an' down just t'prove he can.”
“Remind you of anybody?” Slim focused on keeping his face straight.
Jess glared at him under lowered brows. “Very funny.”
“Gets you angry, does he?”
“Slim...” Jess said warningly.
“Never wants to just do what he's s'posed to, always has to argue. Yep, I sure can understand how that can wear on you.” Slim turned the sorrel away, mostly because he couldn't keep his grin from showing through. He half expected Jess to start up again, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Jess was silent and thoughtful, one hand absently smoothing the bay's mane.
'If you want to be a man for the horses you have to be clear in your head...'
Jess swung a leg over the top rail of the bronc corral, settled himself to watch Slim teach the grey gelding which lead to pick up at the lope. The grey was fretting, not quite sure what he was being asked to do, and Slim was moving slowly with him. Jess watched him set the horse up from the jog, weight back and outside leg pushing. The grey picked up the lope on the wrong lead and Slim sat back,
hands unyielding, saying, “No, no...” The grey flipped his head up but settled back into his jog, dropping his nose again as he relaxed under Slim's quiet handling. It was a pretty thing to watch, the gentle correction giving the horse confidence. Jess watched him take the gelding deeper into the turn using the fence as a guide to the horse to bend; his weight back over the horse's left hind, freeing the forehand to lift, hands gently flexing the grey's head and neck to the right. The gelding snorted softly, picking up the right lead effortlessly, and Slim relaxed his hands with the movement. “Attaboy,” he said softly, “that's the good boy. That's right...”
The grey was still awkward under saddle, a long-legged, rangy horse still learning how to use his back. Slim kept him relaxed and balanced, using his weight and legs to keep the horse's weight over his hind legs, his back rounding up under the saddle. Jess watched the horse's gait steady and slow, the balance perfect. Slim was all about balance.
“That's real nice,” he said softly as they came by.
“Thanks.” Slim gave him a sideways grin, eased the gelding down to a jog again. “He's a nice horse.” He brought the grey back to a walk, let the reins slide loose through his fingers, and rode him over to the fence where Jess perched. “As much fun as this has been, we're going to have to start selling 'em or make up our minds to winter 'em.”
“We'd get more for 'em as made cattle horses.”
“I know. But not enough to pay for feeding 'em over the winter. And I reckon we'll still get twice what we paid. Winter's coming early this year.” Slim glanced at the sky, clear now, with just a broomtail of cloud to the west. “Reckon I'll ride over to Bill Bates' spread, let him know we're ready to sell. You still want to keep Mouse and Trouble?”
'That horse, Pony Boy, is a lot like you. That's why you don't like him.' 'Remind you of anybody?'
It sure seemed like he was learning the same things, over and over. He grinned at Slim. “Yeah, reckon they're both good horses.”
It was easy to forget everything else in the work with the horses. Easy to get lost in the day-to-day work of the ranch; and maybe, easy to slide into wishing that things would work out the way he wanted.
'you need to decide, Jess. I can't do your thinking for you...'
Jess swung down off the corral fence, went to find another gelding to work.
In the end it was a compromise, and one that Tall Fox hoped 'Mehome would have approved. He would move the camp north and east on the Laramie River, 'til they were within a day's march of Dull Knife's camp. But he would not fight, not unless attacked. He would wait and watch, and unless convinced there was no escape route, would hold the People in the back country, out of the way of the army. He freed the young men to fight with Dull Knife, if they chose; none of the men with families chose to go. Like all compromise, no one was happy.
“You've weakened us,” Elk grumbled. “The young fighters will all go, and there will only be the family men left to defend the camp. And some of them are slow, and have been eating too much this summer.”
“Could I have controlled them?” Tall Fox asked, exasperated. “Could you? They would have gone anyway. This way, at least there is no argument, no reason not to return if they choose.”
“Huh. Undisciplined cubs.” Elk gave him an up-from-under look. “In my day...”
“In our day, my old friend, we were exactly the same.” Tall Fox sighed. “'Mehome used a light hand with us, remember? And they have not yet joined any society, there is no one but us to whom they are accountable. You and I counted coup many times without the Dog Soldiers' permission, remember.”
Elk grinned. “My memory is always different than yours,” he admitted. “It's good one of us remembers clearly. In the meantime, I think we will need more sentries. Perhaps those who have eaten the most should also ride the most, until they remember how to be faster.” Elk's eyes glinted with humor. “Yes. That is what we need. I will see to it.” He drew his robe around his shoulders and nodded a farewell.
Tall Fox watched him walk away, thinking that perhaps some of the men whose sons were choosing to go to Dull Knife might find themselves making up for the boys' absence.
“He is enjoying this.” Grey Eyes spoke behind him. He turned to meet his wife's eyes, holding that calm measuring look that always reminded him of his mother.
“He is. It gives him a chance to take out some of his frustration without making any enemies. It's hard to be the war leader in a time of peace.”
Tall Fox sighed. “If I thought you would give me any sympathy, I would complain about how hard it is to be the peace chief.”
“You've done well, husband.” She smiled at him. “I was afraid of a buffalo-jump into war with the White Eyes. This is a good choice.”
“You may be the only one who thinks so. And it took long enough.”
“Half of the moon's time,” she agreed. “But there's still time for the young fools to go to Dull Knife if they're going. And we can move camp in our own time. Also, I'm not the only woman who thinks so. You men do well to remember us when you make decisions.”
“How could any of us forget?” He grumbled, and Grey Eyes chuckled.
“You are not woman-run, husband. Don't pretend to me you are. But you chose wisely, and as your wife I'm proud.”
“At least in my own lodge give me leave to complain. When do you think we will move?”
“Five days? We will finish the ricing, dry the last of the meat and pack.”
“Good.” He brushed her hand as he passed, grateful for her presence as always. He paused at the door of his lodge, attention drawn by the flight of the great cranes overhead. Winter was coming early. He thought sadly of Dull Knife, the young men gathering to him. It was not a good time to wage war.
Bill Bates had been the leading rancher in the valley long before Matt Sherman had moved his family there. He'd been a good friend to the Sherman family from the day they'd arrived; Slim had known him, respected him from the days before the War. He rode into the Bates' tidy yard, admiring the trim buildings, the white-painted house. It was the kind of place he hoped the Sherman Ranch would grow into eventually, the kind of place his father had dreamed of when he paid the homesteading fee, set the boundary stakes.
Bill stepped out onto the porch, lifting a hand in greeting. “Slim. Step down, son. There's coffee on.”
“Thank you.” He swung off Alamo, found the halter and rope in his saddle bag and tied him at the white painted fence rails that protected Mary's garden. “We've got some horses ready to sell, Bill.”
Bates grinned. “Wondered if you were gonna leave it too late. How far along are they?” He waved Slim into the house, led him into the big, warm kitchen, smelling of coffee and fresh bread.
“Green broke, but solid. Work well under saddle. We've pushed a few head with them, but they're green on cattle, not pretending they're not. And Jess has been swinging a rope on them, but that's all.” He took the coffee Bill handed him with a nod of thanks, joined him at the long kitchen table where Mary fed the family and the hands. “They're working in a snaffle bit but they're reining.”
“You got anything'll fit Buck? He's a hard man to keep in horses, figure he's just about your size.”
“We've got three tall enough to carry him.”
“Reckon he'll only need one. You were kind enough to bring his horse back from the Cheyenne.” Bates took a swallow of his own coffee. “What are you askin' for 'em, Slim?”
“They're good stock, well-bred and sound.”
“I know what kind of horses you sell, Slim, and the kind of job you an' Jess do breakin' 'em. You don't have to sell me on 'em.”
“A hundred a head.” Slim watched him carefully, knowing it was a fair price; but it had been a bad summer for everyone.
“Huh.” Bill Bates looked at him, poker-faced. “Reckon that's more'n twice what you paid.”
“When I paid it they weren't broke.”
“Well, I'll ride over an' take a look at 'em. Reckon they're clean-legged for sure on your say-so but I can't make myself buy a horse without lookin' at him. Reckon we got a deal, though. I can take seven head.”
“Seven! That's more than I thought.”
“Reckon t'drive cattle next year.” Bates leaned back in his chair, the business done. “Gonna sell off the bulk of the beeves before the market dives. I'll need horses to get that done.”
“You don't think things will turn around next year?”
“Slim, it'd be nice to think that.” Bates looked suddenly weary. “I'm not expectin' this drought t'break anytime soon. And I'm expectin' the railroad t'keep jacking the shippin' costs up. The more anxious we get to sell, the more they'll charge us. Buzzards. So I'm gonna drive my herd t'Kansas m'self. Keep enough breedin' stock t'build back up when the rains come back, but sell the steers an' the dry cows off, cut the stock down t'what the land can support right now. Y'might think about doin' the same.”
It made sense; Bates knew the weather patterns of this country better than anyone but the People; he'd lived in it longer than Slim'd been alive. “I'll keep that in mind, Bill. Thanks.”
“You decide to do it, you can drive along with me.” Bates finished his coffee. “I'll ride over tomorrow, bring the cash along. And Buck. We'll let him have his pick.”
“Deal.” Slim finished his own coffee, stood up. “I'd best be getting back.”
Bates walked out to the porch with him, face thoughtful. “Before you go, Slim. Have you heard anything from Jess' 'People'?”
He stopped with one foot in the stirrup. “No. Why do you ask?”
“MacKenzie asked Dull Knife to move onto the Indian Territory Reservation. Dull Knife promised him an answer in a month's time. Time's up, Slim. MacKenzie's taken the trail.”
“Thanks, Bill.” He swung into the saddle. “We haven't seen the Cheyenne in near that long. I'll let Jess know.”
“I guess I don't have t'tell you, if Tall Fox is gonna wage war here in the valley, we all need t'know it.”
It rankled, a little. “I guess I don't have t'tell you Jess and I would both warn you if there's any danger.”
Bates nodded, “I know Slim. An' y'don't. But I wanna be able t'tell any fools in town that might ask me that you said that.”
He nodded, understanding, and reined out of the yard toward home. It was something to be expected, that people would want to know where everybody stood. He knew Jess wouldn't allow any of their neighbors and friends to be hurt if he could help it; but he'd seen him ride against the 7th cavalry in the valley of the Yellowstone. Right now, he wished he was sure he knew where Jess stood.
“In the end, Pony Boy, you are white.”
He understood why Tall Fox said that, knew it to be true. He also knew he belonged to the Cheyenne, too. He rubbed absently at his chest, feeling the pull at his heart going two ways; to the ranch and Slim, his friends in Laramie, and to the Tsitsistas.
He'd ridden Mouse out to the north range, to let him play with the cattle a little more. Of all the youngsters, Mouse was the most interested in them. He reckoned he'd make a good cutting and roping horse, when it came time to brand next year's calves. The little grulla was tired now, head low and nostrils flaring. “You're a little soft, still,” Jess told him, rubbing his withers. “Gotta muscle up more, Mouse, 'fore you can do a day's work carryin' a man.” The gelding shook his neck, maybe objecting to being called “soft”, and Jess grinned. He halted to let the horse catch his breath and looked out over the open land; gold-brown with just a line of dark grey cottonwoods near the pond, then clear and open to the blue mountains, the snow on them glinting white in the sun. He thought the snow cap on them might be bigger, up high where the peaks raked the snow from the sky. Winter coming early. If he was going to do the fast-for-visions, like everybody seemed t'want, it was going t'have t'be soon.
“..it's past time you carried a man's name among us,” Singing Bird said
He'd been a boy still, when 'Mehome found him at Two Buttes, demanded that he follow him in a language he didn't understand. He'd been a son to 'Mehome in all the time he'd spent with him, and the old chief had never asked more of him. He didn't know what would've happened, if he'd been able to go north with the Cheyenne. He wasn't sure he would've gone with them, after the slaughter at the trading post. Maybe he'd been lucky, not to have to decide. He closed his legs on Mouse, pushed him into an easy walk toward home. Maybe not deciding was a child's way out; and maybe in a man, it was a coward's way out.
They were riding down slope to the ranch house; Mouse wanting to pick up a jog as he spotted the home field, his buddies grazing, Jess reminding him firmly who was in charge of pace, when the tall chestnut topped the ridge line west of them. Slim coming back from the Bates', hopefully with a sale in hand. Jess lifted a hand in greeting, and Slim took his hat off, waved it in return. Good news, then.
Slim's face was sober when they met up in the yard. “What's wrong? Didn't they sell? I thought...”
“Bill's taking seven at our price. He'll be by tomorrow to look at 'em, take his pick.”
He watched Slim swing down off Alamo, feeling confused. “That's good, then. So why do you look like a man's been told the bank's forclosin'?”
“Bill told me MacKenzie gave Dull Knife a deadline to move to Fort Sill. The deadline's passed, and MacKenzie's gone after him.”
“Ahh.” He dismounted, led Mouse to the corral fence, started loosening the cinch.
“Jess? What are you going to do?”
He swung to face Slim, saw the doubt and the questioning in his face. “Slim, I'm not goin' t'war.”
“You sure, Jess?” And that hit right at his uncertainty.
“I'm not gonna look for a fight,” he snarled. “But if I'm there and MacKenzie rides down on women children an' old people I'll defend 'em.”
“And if the Cheyenne ride on folks here?”
“Tall Fox won't. Why ya askin' me this?”
“If Dull Knife does? What then?” Slim pushed, hard
“I'll do what's right.” He turned his back, bristling, pulled the saddle and swung it over the fence rail. “We better hope it don't come t'that.”
He rubbed Mouse out, the gelding grunting with pleasure, and turned him out in the home field. He heard Slim come up behind him, waited for him to speak his piece.
“I'm not against you, Jess. Or Tall Fox. “ Slim's words were coming slow, proof he'd been thinking long on them. “But we're maybe coming to a time when neither one of us can stay in the middle any more. If you're fixing to join the Cheyenne, I won't stop you. Just know you can always come back.”
“Slim...” he stopped 'cause his throat was suddenly tight. “Thanks. Reckon I'll ride out, see if I can find the People, find out what Tall Fox has decided t'do.”
“All right, Jess.” Slim reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. “Take as much time as y'need.”
In the end, when he'd finally taken the trail he realized he'd been on it most of his life; at least from the time he'd met 'Mehome. It seemed he'd spent more time riding out to the People, one time or t'other, than 'most any other trail he'd chosen to follow. Now that he headed Traveler north toward the Cheyenne camp, he could admit that there was no way out, for him or for the People. He would have to decide where he stood, just as Tall Fox would have to decide where to make a stand.
Without naming it to himself, he began his prepartions before he left home. He had a half-pound of coffee wrapped in oilskin in his saddlebag, gift for Tall Fox and Grey Eyes, to apologize for what he was going to ask. He had a pouch of Bull Durham, the tobacco loose, fragrant in the square of burlap that held it. There was a small package of dried peaches, a luxury in these tight times, to be given to Greets-the-Dawn; a thanks-gift for his help in the journey Jess was going to take. Finally, he rode straight to the patch of kinnikinnick he'd marked in his memory months ago, even while hiding the reason from himself. He dismounted and gathered the dry leaves and berries, wrapped them in a clean bandanna with the tobacco pouch, and stowed it carefully in his saddlebag. Now he was ready.
He'd half expected that the People would be gone, had moved camp, vanishing into the big empty. So he was pleased to see the sentry on the ridge, to ride Trav up the final little rise and see the camp below him, as if the People never intended to leave this place. But there was no greeting at the edge of camp; he rode straight in, noticing the missing men, the women working urgently at the drying racks, where fish and meat were spread to the sun and dry air. He'd maybe left it too late; and maybe that's what he'd wanted all along. He walked his horse quietly through the center of camp, stopped in front of Tall Fox's lodge and swung down. His old friend waited in front of the lodge, face tired and a little sad.
“Pony Boy. Do you bring news?”
“No, I...” he stopped, at a loss. “MacKenzie is s'posed t'be ridin' after Dull Knife. Figured you knew that.”
“It's expected,” Tall Fox said wearily. “How many men? Do you know?”
“Better than a thousand, not countin' the Pawnee and Lakota ridin' with him.” He turned to his saddle bag to find the coffee. “I came to talk to Greets-the-Dawn.” It was easier to say without facing Tall Fox directly.
“You pick your moments, Pony Boy.” That sounded as if he were being laughed at; when he turned to face him, Tall Fox looked amused. The years between the time when he was Jess' teacher and this time were gone in a moment; and he could feel the tension ease between them.
“Yeah, well I didn't wanna rush into anythin'.”
Tall Fox took a step closer, and Jess braced himself, half-expecting a cuff to his ear; but his old friend just put a hand on his shoulder. “We don't have much time; we're moving in five days. If you're doing the fast-for-visions, how much time do you want with Greets-the-Dawn?”
“Four days?” He asked cautiously, knowing it was a demand on the People when they were getting ready to move.
“Good. You can do this here, then. Otherwise you'd have to ride with us. And the times are uncertain, Pony Boy. We don't know what we'll find when we move.”
“No matter. It's past time, as Singing Bird says. I'll take you to Greets-the-Dawn; we'll leave your pet with the pony herd. You brought what you need?” He nodded, handed Tall Fox the coffee, and pulled the package for the Bear Medicine Doctor from his saddle bag. It was like riding hard down a steep ridge; there was a point where you had to let go, because the momentum was taking over. He could feel that happening now, the pressure of events pushing him in one direction. But first he had to work up to the question, the one that burned in his chest. “You're joinin' Dull Knife? Goin' t'war?”
Tall Fox shook his head. “No. But we're not ready to surrender, either. Not yet.” He sighed, looking past Jess at the camp. “Not yet.”
The Bear Medicine Doctor's lodge was set a little aside from the rest of the camp, as befitted a person who was holy in the eyes of the People. White Eyes always got it wrong, Jess thought; calling people like Greets-the-Dawn “medicine men”. The holy people were not doctors the way Doc Webster was; their job was to guard the soul of the People, make sure they walked the earth in a sacred manner. Other people were healers; Singing Bird was sought out by many for that. Greets-the-Dawn was concerned with more than the body.
The old man was braiding leather, sitting on the dried grass in front of his lodge, hands busy. Tall Fox stopped and let Jess approach alone. He understood that, too; this was his journey.
“Grandfather.” He spoke respectfully, looking down at the
ground before him to show politeness.
“I have come to ask something of you.”
“Be seated.” The voice was gentle.
He dropped to sit cross legged; pushed the little package of peaches, and the bandanna of tobacco and kinnikinnick across the space between them. Greets-the-Dawn accepted them, set the peaches aside and examined the other package. He smiled a little. “You've done well, Grandson. You wish to make the fast, to pray for a vision?”
“Yes.” His throat closed up; Jess coughed to clear it. “Yes,” he repeated firmly.
“How many days?”
“Four, if you're willing, Grandfather.”
“There is not much time. There is no time for a sweat lodge. You've eaten today?”
“This morning. Not since.”
“All right. It is possible. Do you know the place you will make your lodge?”
Jess nodded. “That ridge line.” He cocked his head toward the ridge on the other side of the river plain.
“Good. Let me get my pipe.” Jess waited while the old man went into his lodge, came out with the wrapped pipe in his hands. Greets-the-Dawn treated it with great reverence, filling the bowl with the mixture Jess had brought, and then offering the smoke to the four cardinal points, to the sky and the earth. He drew on it and then passed it to Jess, who took his turn gravely. They smoked in silence for a time, and then Greets-the-Dawn spoke. “You are white, Pony Boy. Do not think your vision will be what I have known, or Tall Fox, or Night Horse. Do not expect magic. You are not marked out to be a holy man, simply a man who must learn his own heart.”
“Do you know what you want to ask of the
Jess shook his head, silent, and the old man waited. “I don't know,” he admitted. “I'm pulled two ways, Grandfather. My mind isn't clear.”
“Ah.” The old man pulled on the pipe, thoughtfully. “You need to understand where you belong, Pony Boy. You need to be clear with the Creator and with your relations. This is not different from other young men who fast for visions.” He lifted the pipe up again and then turned it over, to empty the embers onto a flat stone. They sat in silence while the embers cooled, while Greets-the-Dawn gathered them into a pouch.
“Go and bathe in the river.” Jess shivered, involuntarily, and Greets-the-Dawn smiled. “I know it's cold, Grandson. But we must make do. Then come to me and I'll instruct you. We will go to the ridge this afternoon.”
He set up his little shelter at the top of a ridgeline roughly half a mile from the People's camp. Greets-the-Dawn rode with him, instructing him in how he was to behave, urging him to pray to his own God;
“The Creator does not care what name we call Him by, or how we understand His story,” the old man told him. “But you must learn to speak to Him, Pony Boy, and to listen to what He says, to make your life something sacred. That is the task of a Human Being.”
Jess had nodded his understanding, but he was doubtful. He hadn't spoken to God in a long time, not since he was a little feller. He didn't much think that God had anything to say to him; and he reckoned He'd stopped listening to Jess sometime during the War.
Greets-the-Dawn helped him make his brush-and-branch lodge, smudged Jess with sweet grass and sage in blessing, then Jess helped him back up on his pony, handed over Trav's reins. He smiled down at Jess, kindly. “You doubt, Pony Boy, that is natural. But part of you believes, or you wouldn't be here. Only try, and wait and see. The Creator has been listening to you all your life, whether you believe so or not.” He lifted a hand, and rode away down the ridgeline, Jess watching him until he was just a blurred shape, moving across the river plain to the camp. Then he turned to face the emptiness of the camp, and his own heart.
He had been fasting a bare twenty-four hours when the visions began, as if Greets-the-Dawn had urged the spirits to hurry. He built a little fire, tending it carefully through the darkness, fighting the urge to sleep, and the loneliness, and the gripe in his belly.
Slim showed up first, a’course. Sitting down across the fire from him wearing the clothes he’d had on the day Jess first rode into Laramie. He had his open every day smile on, as well; easy and uncomplicated.
“Shoulda knowed it’d be you.” Jess told him.
“You shoulda,” Slim agreed. “I was always a part of this.”
“Yeah. You always was.” They sat in easy, companionable silence for a few minutes, real as any evening they’d shared on the trail. A branch dropped, burned to ash, and Jess leaned forward, poking the fire. “Well, y’got anything t’tell me?”
“Nothing you don’t already know.” Slim’s voice was amused. “This is your vision.”
“I’m s’posed t’learn something from it,” Jess griped. “Why put up with no sleep and a empty stomach otherwise?”
Slim grinned, the rocks behind him reflecting firelight through his face. “Maybe, just to try trusting a little more.” His voice was gentle.
“I trust ya, pard.” Jess kept his eyes focused on the fire, feeling the burning in them…cost of no sleep and no food, he reminded himself.
“I know you do.” Voice was warm as the fire, but soft, he could just barely hear it above the whisper of the flames. “Maybe, try trusting the world a little more.”
Jess thought for a minute; when he looked up, across the fire, Slim was gone.
Slim rode the green-broke grey gelding into Laramie, two days after Jess left. He did it in part because the horse was fretting over the loss of seven of his buddies; Bill Bates had shown up true to his word and picked out the horses he'd wanted. So the grey was left in the home field with Trouble and Mouse, the two of them forming a bachelor gang of two, and picking on him unmercifully. The other part of the reason was getting the horse sold; he was walking the edge of what he could afford to feed over the winter, keeping the other two geldings. It didn't hurt to show the pretty grey off in public; one of the townspeople might need a good riding horse.
He left him tied in front of the bank while he deposited Bill's money; when he came out, Christine Wilson was stroking the grey's dark-dappled neck, murmuring nonsense to the horse in a gentle voice.
He stopped for a moment in the doorway, admiring the scene; the grey's eyes half-lidded, enjoying the attention, the slender, graceful girl in the brown linsey-woolsey dress, her head just coming to the grey's withers. She'd stand heart-high on him, Slim thought idly, remembering the dance he'd had with her at the Christmas party last year. Seemed strange that it had been that long since he'd seen her. Then he shook himself, thinking how strange it was the he'd think it strange.
“Miss Wilson,” he said softly, not to startle her as he walked up. He took his hat off, meeting her smile with one of his own as she turned to face him.
“He's a pretty horse, Mr. Sherman. This is one of the ten you were selling?” Her eyes were hazel, he thought, distracted. Green and amber with a circle of gold around the pupil, shaded with thick lashes.
Her brows were dark, arching a little like a bird's wings.
“Mr. Sherman?” She was still smiling, as if a little amused with him.
“Huh?” He pulled himself together. “Sorry, ma'am. I was thinking of something. Yes, this is one of the geldings we just broke. Jess and I sold most of the others to Bill Bates, and we're keeping two for the ranch.” Rambling on like an old drunk, he thought, and felt the skin of his face heat up.
Christine nodded thoughtfully. “So this one is still for sale?”
“He is. But he's green-broke Miss Wilson, and not broke to side-saddle.”
“That won't be a problem,” she said serenely. “Mr. Bates has been bragging about how well-mannered the horses he bought from you are. I have no concerns about how well broken he is. And I don't ride side-saddle.”
It startled him, knowing she was New England bred, and the daughter of a missionary clergy. It must have shown in his face because she met his eyes directly. “My father, Mr. Sherman, is a most remarkable man. He thinks the side-saddle dangerous and unnecessary, and allows his daughters to ride astride.”
“Am I understanding that you're interested in buying this horse?” Her hair was chestnut colored, thick and long, wound high on her head like a crown. He thought it must fall to her hips when she let it down...
“Yes, Mr. Sherman.” She really was amused, the dimple in her cheek deepening. “It's what we've been talking about.”
“Perhaps you should talk to your father, then? Bill Bates gave me a hundred dollars a head for the seven he bought.”
“Was the price lower because he bought so many?” And that reduced him to a stutter; he wasn't used to that kind of question from a lovely woman.
“Er, no...the price was what I asked.”
“I'll have to try him out of course, but my father has promised me a horse for a long time. I don't think there'll be any problem, Mr. Sherman.” She turned back to the gelding, rubbing her palm over the whorl of hair on his forehead. “When could we come to the ranch?”
“Um, tomorrow? Or any day, really, I'm there every day.”
“Tomorrow then, I think you can expect us.” She stepped up on the sidewalk, dusted her hands together. “Until then, Mr. Sherman.” She smiled again, that frank, open expression that seemed to draw everyone to her. He watched her walk away, thinking there was something about her, something important. Something that was serene and steady; the way his mother had been.
The coyote showed up about an hour after Slim left, judging by the movement of the moon across the sky. Big as a man, dusty brown and grey, with eyes as yellow as a new-minted gold coin. He sat down in the same place Slim had, tail curled neatly around his forepaws, and stared at Jess.
Jess stared back at him, as long as he could without blinking, and then stirred the fire up, savagely. “Well? You got anythin' t'say?”
Coyote stared back at him, unblinking. “I know you,” Jess told him. “Trickster. You're the one that turns the luck bad. You're the one that makes promises that mean two things.”
He stared into the fire, feeling the anger like a brand in his heart. “You're the one that lies. You're the one that says, 'trust me' and betrays.”
Coyote was silent. “You're the one that steals,” Jess told him. “My family. My home. 'Mehome.” There was no difference in the spirit that stared him down, calmly, and Jess picked up the branch he'd been poking the fire with and threw it at him, saw it pass through, hit the rocks behind and bounce back.
'Why should you be different from anyone else, Pony Boy? Why kick against the spurs? They
prick everyone.' The voice softened, sweetened. 'You hold your grief to you as if it were something that mattered.' Coyote said, in Singing Bird's voice. 'You must deal with this, or you will end up all poison and hate.'
“I lost too much,” he growled.
'Little foolish boy,' Coyote growled back. 'Who has not lost?'
“Too many people have died.”
'Everyone dies, Pony Boy. Everyone loses. You cannot hold back time. You cannot bend the world to your will. The real trick is to live as if that does not matter.' Coyote yawned, pink tongue curling out, then closed his jaws with a snap.
“Tried that. Gets awful lonely.” He blurted it out, surprised at his own words.
'Stupid.' Coyote stretched out his forepaws, rear end in the air and tail waving like a playful dog. 'I did not say not to care. You must love while you can. Love is what makes death not matter.' Coyote yawned again, lying down. 'I'm tired. Instructing the stupid is hard work.'
Jess stared at him until his vision blurred; when he blinked Coyote was gone.
The day was barren; no spirits coming to speak with him. He knew that Greets-the-Dawn watched over him, the way Jess had watched over the two little boys doing their fast. The old man would not ride out to watch Jess; but he would pray for him, keep him in mind throughout the fast. The People believed the Bear Medicine Doctor would know if Jess erred, or was in danger, would speak for him with the spirits, protect him when he could. Jess didn't know whether he believed anything, except that he had to try.
“I don't know how to pray,” he told Greets-the-Dawn. “Why ask for somethin' you'll never get? Or say thanks when you're not grateful?”
The old man smiled. “Then pay attention. That is all you have to do, Pony Boy. Pay attention.”
“To whatever there is. To the winged ones and the four leggeds. To Grandmother Earth and Grandfather Sky. To the winds. To whatever there is. You look without seeing, Pony Boy, and you listen without hearing. This time, try to hear and see.”
“That's all?” It seemed too little.
“That's enough. If you pay attention to creation you honor the Creator. That's prayer enough.”
So he sat and watched the sun move across the sky, high and cold and white. Watched the few clouds, thin, drawn out ragged like the strokes of an almost dry brush. Watched the wind move through the dead grass, the stems rattling together: a dry sound that somehow sounded like rain on the roof. Watched a circling Red Tail hawk, soaring idly over the ridgeline, waiting for some small thing to become careless. Watched his own shadow grow and shrink and grow again as the sun moved overhead. Heard the calls of the cranes passing overhead, gliding lower as they passed him, their shadows brushing over his camp. Watched the change in light as the sun dropped toward the western horizon. Watched and listened until there was nothing inside him but silence, quieter than the prairie itself. He was drowsing where he sat, head nodding on his chest when the coyote came back, sitting across the dying fire from him.
'Wake up lazy one.' It was Red Stone's voice, and it startled him alert. 'You always were too long in the robes. An enemy could have killed you three times over before you were awake enough to care.'
“You're dead,” he growled. “Stop playin' games.”
'I was stupid. Hate is stupid. No reason for you to be stupid too.'
“Is it what you believe? Or do you just say that because Coyote's makin' you?”
Red Stone's face blurred, wavered, and Coyote
was there, mouth set in a grin, tongue lolling.
'All hate is stupid.'
“'Mehome hated, once”. He didn't know why he said that.
'Once. Only. He regretted it always.' Coyote lifted one forepaw, inspected it for a moment, and then swiped his tongue across it.
“So. What? We don't fight, ever? Lie down and let the People die?”
Coyote smiled at him. 'Taking sides, Pony Boy? No, life is a gift, no one should be careless with it. Fight if you must. Fight without hating, that's all. You've heard this before, your friend has shown you this.'
“Yes.” He stood up and stretched, half expecting Coyote would be gone when he looked again. He was still there, curling on one side and blinking at the last embers of the fire. Jess turned to the little pile of brush and dry wood he'd collected, fed the fire carefully until a little flame curled up.
'Be careful,' Coyote told him. 'Don't fall asleep and let your fire burn out of control.'
Jess walked around for a moment, forcing himself into alertness. He was hungry now, true hunger, when your gut clenched on itself, aching. The last time he'd known hunger like this had been in the prison camp. The ache in his gut had fed his hate then; but he'd taken the parole, and when he joined the cavalry unit he got clean food, and clothes that weren't rags. The people around him ignored him, and as the days went by he recognized them; they were just like him. And the hate ebbed with the hunger. Maybe all hate was like that; you hurt, and the hurt fed the hate.
'Huh.' Coyote snapped his jaws together. 'Pretty good. Too simple, maybe, but pretty good.'
Jess found a smooth stone, stuck it in his cheek to ease his thirst, and sat down to stare at Coyote.
'You hated, Pony Boy. The man who killed your family, you hated.'
'So. Did all your hate change anything?' Coyote was fading as the light faded; Jess could see the packed earth through his body. His voice was 'Mehome's now, patient and soft. 'Your hate hurt you. Did it hurt anyone else?'
He was gone. Jess stared at the emptiness across the fire, and quietly repeated to himself all the curses he'd ever learned.
The Wilson family came to the ranch the next day, as promised. The Reverend Ronald Wilson drove the surrey, his wife beside him, his daughters riding in the second seat. They were chatting cheerfully among themselves, the women's light voices carrying to Slim from the ridgeline. He walked to the front porch to wait for them, taking his work gloves off and dusting his hands over his jeans. He thought that he'd never met a family that enjoyed each other's company as much as the Wilsons did; it was something he envied a little.
The reverend drove into the yard with a flourish, his wife smiling and lifting a hand in greeting as he pulled his team to a halt at the hitch-rail. Slim removed his hat and stepped down to offer his arm to each of the women in turn, as Ronald Wilson tied his team, let down their checkreins and turned to boom a greeting to Slim.
“Mr. Sherman, how are you?”
Slim smiled at him; Ronald Wilson was a man who drew smiles, a short, rotund man with a sea captain's white beard and an infectious joy in life. The town children loved him, especially for his habit of magically pulling pennies from their ears, and the magic tricks he sometimes displayed during Sunday School. “Very well, Reverend Wilson, thanks. And you?”
“Please, it's Ronald. We're all fine, thank you, and looking forward to seeing this horse my daughter has set her heart on.”
“He's in the breaking pen.” Slim glanced at Christine, then away quickly. “I kept him in, expecting you might be here. And please call me Slim.”
“Slim it is, then. Well, my dears...” He extended his arm to his wife, who dropped her fingers lightly on it, and led a little procession to the corral fence. The grey was pulling grass under the far fence rails, but lifted his head when Slim chirruped to him.
“Well, Papa?” Christine was consolidating her standing in Slim's eyes by not gushing. “What do you think of him?”
“'Pears he's a clean-legged laddy.” Wilson stroked his beard, thoughtfully. “I'd want the smitty to look well at his feet and legs of course, being an ignorant man, myself. No offense to you, Slim.”
“None taken.” Slim swallowed a smile, recognizing the New Englander's native caution. “He'll need a trim soon in any case. If you want to pay to have the blacksmith do it, instead of me, you could have him looked over then.”
“Thank you,” Wilson said with satisfaction.
“Papa,” Christine sounded exasperated. “You know I'll be able to tell whether he's sound as soon as I ride him.”
“Yes, m'dear.” Reverend Wilson met Slim's eyes. “My daughter is a fine horsewoman with a great feel for the animal she rides. If he takes a misstep she'll feel it immediately. But I understand you want a hundred dollars for him, and I wouldn't be appropriately careful if I didn't take all precautions.”
“Well, the price is negotiable,” Slim started, knowing the Reverend's salary was meager, and part of it paid in store goods.
“No matter, no matter,” Wilson said quickly. “Christine has money from her aunt, a gift on her graduation. She's had her heart set on a good horse since receiving it. The price is fair.”
“So you see, Mr. Sherman, it's just a matter of trying him to see if we suit each other.” Christine spoke up firmly, and her eyes on him were direct and candid. Slim was finding it hard to meet them without feeling his face heat up.
“Of course, Miss Wilson. I'll tack him for you with pleasure.” He turned away quickly, stumbling a little in his haste. Behind him he heard the younger girl (what was her name?) giggle a little, and Mrs. Wilson's firm, repressing, “Hush!”
He walked quickly to the barn, both glad and a little sad to be away from that direct hazel gaze. What was it about that girl? He found Andy's old saddle, small enough to fit the girl easily, and pulled the snaffle bridle off its hook. By the time he returned to the corral, Christine had already caught the grey, had looped a piggin' string around his neck and was talking softly to him. She nodded gravely as he walked up, extended her hand for the bridle, and had the bit slipped into the gelding's mouth, the headstall over his ears before Slim finished setting the saddle in place.
“You know how to handle horses,” he acknowledged, pulling the cinch up slowly to let the grey get used to the pressure.
“I've ridden since I was six; and Papa insisted for our own safety we know how to handle a team.”
“Your father's a wise man.” The stirrup length had fit Andy at fifteen; it looked right for her height.
He turned and offered his hand palm up, and she smiled, dimple deepening in her cheek.
“I can mount from the ground, Mr. Sherman.”
“He's a bit tall for you,” he said apologetically; she cocked her head, and then stepped to the horse's side, took the reins in her left hand and put her right on the cantle, stretching up a little to reach it. She stepped neatly and quickly into Slim's hand and jumped up, almost weightlessly, to settle into the saddle light as a bird. The grey cocked an ear back, but didn't move as she found the stirrups, nodded her approval. “I have him, Mr. Sherman, thank you.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said, stunned, and stepped out of the way as she moved the grey around the corral at a walk, letting him adjust to the weight on his back. He climbed slowly up on the corral, watching the two get acquainted, the grey responding well to her light hands. She worked the horse smoothly through his gaits, testing his obedience to the aids.
“They look well together.” Reverend Wilson's voice, and Slim started a little, because he'd forgotten the rest of the family was there.
“They do,” he acknowledged, watching the grey pick up his canter lead as if reading his rider's mind. “I always have a little trouble with him on that lead; he listens to her.”
“Horses do,” there was a smile in Ronald Wilson's voice. “And dogs, and children. I've found it's wise that I do as well.”
It made Slim smile. “Well if she wants him, and you're satisfied with what the smith has to say, it's a deal, Ronald.”
“Good. Christine? Have you decided?”
She brought the horse down to a walk, rode him to them on a loose rein, the grey stretching his neck out in gratitude. “He's a good horse, Papa. Pure-gaited and well-mannered. I would like to buy him.”
“There you are, Slim. My daughter is a decisive woman. Can you bring him to town for us? Perhaps later this week?”
“I can have him there tomorrow. Tomorrow afternoon? After services?” He met Christine's eyes, thinking, 'I'll see her again tomorrow', and then wondering at himself. Christine kicked her feet free of the stirrups, and he stepped forward, put his hands firmly on her waist, as if he'd been doing it for years, and lifted her down.
“Why thank you, Mr. Sherman.” He heard her little sister giggle again, and realized he'd assumed a privilege. He felt his face heat up. “That was most kind,” she continued gently. “I'll help you untack him? Perhaps we could water our team as well.”
“Good idea,” her mother's voice came firmly. “Amy, help your father to bring the team to the pump.”
He kept his eyes on Christine, heard the rest of the family move away, and said contritely, “Sorry, Miss Wilson.”
“It's fine, Mr. Sherman. I don't take offense easily.” She stepped to the horse's head, began unbuckling the throat latch, and he shook himself, went to pull the saddle. Her waist had been small under his hands; he could span it between the two of them...
He finished untacking the grey, putting up the saddle and bridle in a fog; he saw the Wilsons off in a blur that was focused only by a pair of hazel eyes. He remembered taking Christine's hand in his, bowing slightly over it as if still wearing an officer's uniform. And then the Reverend Wilson was turning his team back onto the Laramie road, and Slim waved to them from the porch, eyes on the surrey until they crossed the ridgeline and disappeared. He could still feel the imprint of Christine's hand in his.
Ranald Slidell MacKenzie removed his gauntlets with meticulous care. As always, he started with the right hand, the one with the missing fingers that led the Comanche to call him “Bad Hand.” He pulled the thumb free, then the index finger, the third and finally drew it off the amputated stumps of the ring and little fingers. He was used to this maiming; it meant nothing, save some minor difficulty in managing a pen. He had a secretary for that. It was important to lay the glove carefully on his campaign chest, wide wrist cuff paralell to the front edge, fingers neatly spread out. He repeated the process with the left hand, setting the glove carefully in place to the left of the right one. The world was full of chaos; he could not allow it to inflitrate his personal life.
“Colonel MacKenzie?” His batman's voice from the door flap of the tent.
“Come in, corporal.” He could never remember the man's name, despite a year's association; no matter, though, that was what rank was for. You never needed to know a soldier's name to address him.
The man waited quietly for orders; he'd learned his role well, over the past months. “I'll have dinner in half an hour. Please lay out the maps on my desk, and send my compliments to Lieutenant McKinney, ask him to meet with me before his own dinner.”
“Yessir. Should I build up the fire? It will be cold tonight.”
“That will be fine corporal. After dinner.”
MacKenzie began removing his boots, always a bit of a struggle with the missing fingers. The batman had offered to assist repeatedly; he'd stopped after being turned down many times. MacKenzie could not bring himself to allow someone else to touch him. He heard the man moving about quietly, the rustle of paper as he laid out the survey maps, the brief clink of metal as he pulled out MacKenzie's
mess kit. The sound echoed through his head like a bell, bringing pain in its wake.
“Quietly, please Corporal,” he spoke softly himself.
“Your pardon sir.”
Chaos and pain; ever since the war the sharpnel he carried in his body had meted out pain relentlessly. He'd been offered opium by the medical doctors; he refused it, preferring a clear head for his duty. Opium was for weaklings, those who could not master their own bodies. But the head pain was worse; ever since the fall at Fort Sill he'd been subject to headaches, and they were harder to master. More chaos; no man should be brought low by a tumble from a wagon. He allowed himself a glass of port in the evening, to numb the head pain, allow him to carry on his work. He was careful in his handling of this as well, a precise ounce; no more, no less.
He felt the cold draft on his back as the corporal exited, and poured himself his glass with a hand he forced to be steady. The port helped almost immediately, the stabbing pain diminishing to a dull ache behind his eyes. He stepped to the map table, began tracing tomorrow's route march carefully, taking note of the countours of the land. They were entering the plain bordering the Powder River; the land rising with deceptive gentleness to a plateau, but open to the scouring winds. The trail would be difficult. He would have to take that into account. They were not tracking a fleeing opponent; Dull Knife was encamped in a permanent village. It was a matter of stealth, as it had been at Palo Duro, but difficult in this wide open country. He remembered that victory with some satisfaction, all he would allow himself, and then turned his attention to the morrow.
“Colonel MacKenzie?” McKinney's voice from outside the tent.
“Come in, Lieutenant.” MacKenzie felt a spasm of irritation at the topographical lines on the map. An untidy country; chaotic and undisciplined, nothing like the civilized environs of the east, the straight roads and classically balanced cities. Its people equally chaotic, the American citizens as well as the savages he was tasked with conquering. His jaw ached, and he realized he was grinding his teeth, took a deep breath and forced himself to step away from the table.
“Are you all right, Colonel?” the Lieutenant's voice, reminding him he was not alone.
“Of course, Lieutenant. I wish to discuss your assignment with you.” He stepped to the table, placed his index finger firmly on the Powder River, west of Caspar. “I believe Dull Knife is somewhere in this vicinity. I wish you to take your platoon and scout the area, with especial attention to the location of the hostiles' pony herd. Once you find them you are to watch until we make contact; then your job will be to make sure the Cheyenne cannot use them.”
There was a protracted silence, and he turned to McKinney with impatience, saw the man's face looking somewhat stricken, as if his belly griped him.
“Well? Lieutenant? Are you ill?”
“Nossir.” McKinney visibly pulled himself together. “You want me to kill the horses?”
“What?” He stared at McKinney, bewildered. “Why would I want that?”
“The Cheyenne horses,” McKinney stammered.
“Of course not. I'm not a butcher, to demand that animals be slaughtered.” He felt the stirring of rage, and it must have shown in his face; McKinney took a step back.
“I just thought, at Palo Duro..”
“That was necessary. The Comanche had twice stolen their horses back from me. I could not tolerate that again, either strategically or personally. I am not fond of humiliation, Lieutenant.”
“Yessir.” The fool's face gave away his feelings; did no one around him have his own self discipline?
“Winter is upon us, McKinney. We will have snow in a few days; and there will be snow in the passes now. The Cheyenne will not be able to move their horse herd easily. Simply take possession of them, McKinney, that is all that's necessary.” He was suddenly weary of dealing with fools.
“Yessir. Will that be all, Colonel?”
“Dismissed.” He turned back to the table, focused on the maps. A chaotic country, full of chaotic people. And his own command was riddled with chaos itself. He did not know how much longer he would be able to tolerate it.
McKinney slipped through the tent flap, feeling sweat on his forehead despite the chill of the air. The Colonel was becoming stranger and stranger; still brilliant, still a strategist who had earned the title, “The Finest Young Officer in the Army” from the President, but his temper and eccentricity were growing by the day. There had been a moment when his face was so twisted with rage he looked like a devil; and then the mask of control slipped into place. Somehow that was more chilling than the rage. Stearns, the Colonel's batman, was approaching from the mess tent, a tray covered in cloth in his hands. MacKenzie's dinner, presumably.
“Lieutentant. Just bringing the Colonel's dinner to him.” Stearns looked uneasy, and McKinney felt for the man, responsible for dealing with the Colonel's eccentricities on a daily basis.
“I won't keep you,” he promised. “How is he Stearns?”
The corporal looked around quickly, as if expecting to find MacKenzie behind him. “No disrespect, Lieutenant, but I'm worried. He's not sleeping, and he barely eats.”
“Has he consulted the surgeon?”
“Nossir. He has no truck with doctors. Says all they want to do is drug him. Excuse me sir.”
“Dismissed, Corporal.” He stood for a moment, watching the swift dark fall across the plain. The wind was dying, as always at twilight; despite that the air was colder. Winter upon them. He shivered and turned his coat collar up. He hoped this campaign would be over soon. War in wintertime was a bad business.
Dull Knife, who was also known as Morning Star to his people, sat with his pipe across his knees watching the heavy grey clouds sweeping in from the west. The winter was coming upon them, swiftly, too swift for his liking. He had promised an answer to Horse Killer MacKenzie, that the Comanche called “Bad Hand.” The time for that answer had passed; and that was an answer in itself.
He sighed, found the buckskin at his right hand, and wrapped the pipe carefully in it. He had smoked and prayed, and still had no answer. He had to protect the People, allow them to live, but he could not bring himself to swallow what Bad Hand offered; exile in the south, far from the holy ground. How could the People be what they were if they gave up what was most sacred to them? The land looked after them, and they looked after the land. He could not force the People to abandon the Makonce Wakan.
He stood up, feeling the stiffness in his knees from his long meditation. To the west were the Big Horn mountains, but far away, just a dark line at the horizon; to the east were the sacred hills, that the whites called “Black Hills.” He thought now he would lead the People into the mountains to the west, to spend the winter there. He had hoped to find game on this river plain, antelope if not buffalo; but the whites had been here too, there were no buffalo and few antelope. He had hopes of finding elk near the mountains, to feed his people.
There would still be Bad Hand to deal with. He respected that man, knew he was a ruthless fighter and an intelligent leader. He could not understand the slaughter of the Comanche ponies; for all the people, horses were wealth, were essential to life. No Indian would have wasted them. That act troubled him more than any other. That act spoke of a man ready to go far beyond what was accepted in war. But winter was upon them, and while he was unhappy with its speed of arrival, it would keep Bad Hand in camp until spring. No one waged war in wintertime.
“Heya!” He turned at the shout, the sound of a running horse, and saw one of the sentries galloping into the village, his buffalo robe flapping with the speed of his approach. He watched the man swing down, give his report, and then Little Wolf, the war chief, was walking swiftly toward him.
He waited, patiently. Little Wolf was smiling; something that made the war chief smile promised action.
“The Shoshone approach.” Little Wolf was watching him steadily. “A scouting party, thirty men. There are no women with them.”
“Ah. You think they want our stores? Our ponies?”
“What else. I would ride out now. They don't know they're expected.”
Dull Knife smiled. “Ride well, brother. We'll celebrate when you're done.”
He watched Little Wolf stride away, the young men beginning to gather around him. This was understood, this was their life. The Shoshone would feint, they would answer and push them back, coup would be counted. But there would be no war between them, just rivalry for what the land had to offer. He felt sudden unease, remembering that the whites also wanted what the land had to offer.
'Mehome came to visit him on the third evening, finally. Jess had been thinking the old man had abandoned him, gone so far into the land across the Star Road that he had been forgotten. The light was fading from a sunset red as blood when he looked up from feeding his fire, and saw the old man sitting cross legged on the other side of his fire. He felt his heart open between one breath and another, as if it had been locked down, almost too tight to beat, since Tall Fox had told him of 'Mehome's death.
'So Pony Boy. You are very angry with Coyote.' The old chief sounded amused, and Jess dropped his eyes, embarassed. 'He's telling you things you don't want to hear?'
“He's talkin' in circles,” Jess grumbled. “All this, an' he's got nothin' t'say worth hearin'.”
'Is that really true?' 'Mehome's voice sharpened. 'Coyote is very important, Pony Boy, and he does not make things easy for the ignorant.'
“Thanks. I need you talkin' in circles too.” He glanced up at 'Mehome, saw the smile on his face, and said honestly, “I've been missin' you, father.”
'I know. I'm sorry I could not stay. I would have spoken to you again, if I could have.'
“I know,” Jess said, because he did; angry as he was at 'Mehome, he knew he had not been forgotten.
'It was not my choice to leave. But it was my time. Is the whole world to turn to your pleasure?'
“I never said that,” Jess protested.
'Did you not? You're angry with Coyote, angry with me, angry with your own family. Why anger, Pony Boy? None of us chose to leave you. And Coyote advises you to love. What is there in that to anger you?' 'Mehome's body wavered in the dancing firelight, like a mirage seen across miles of desert. But his voice was strong and sure, and Jess had no answer for him.
'Well? If you can't be honest now you should go home. This is a waste of time.'
“No one loves,” Jess snapped and stopped, surprised at his own words.
'Is that true?' 'Mehome wavered, and for a moment his face lengthened, sharpened, the eyes tilting, amber yellow; and then the mask of Coyote was gone and the old chief said gently, 'you are like a child whose toy is broken and who kicks the maker of it in the shins in his grief. The Creator comes to speak to you and you throw a stick at Him. It is time to be a man, Pony Boy. It is time to break your own heart as you broke horses. Or you are useless as a man, forever a child.'
Jess glanced up sharply, saw the love in the old man's eyes, and then 'Mehome was gone.
Slim took the grey to Laramie on Sunday afternoon, leading him beside Alamo. The gelding seemed happy enough to travel, jogging along without a fuss, little ears pricking at the wind. It was a frigid day; white clouds with a grey underbelly running across the sky, the light flickering as they crossed the sun. He could taste snow on the wind, recognized the beginnings of winter in the cold. He hoped Jess would return soon; that he was gone this long meant he was doing his fast-for-visions. He trusted Jess to tell him if he was leaving with the Cheyenne; and there was no news of trouble. So he was likely on some high place alone, wrestling with the demons that drove him, and Slim wished him done and back before snowfall. He turned his jacket collar up against the wind, and was grateful when the road dipped down off the ridge into the outskirts of town.
Smitty was waiting for him at the livery, Christine Wilson and her father standing by; he thought the Wilsons must have been watching for him, off and on, since noon. Ronald Wilson greeted him jovially. A missionary clergy, he had no Sunday duties currently, and assisted Reverend Robison with the Sunday School. “Slim, it's good of you to ride in on this chilly day.”
“No problem, Ronald.” He dismounted, and found Christine at his side, hand outstretched for the grey's lead rope. It made him smile, but she was all business, leading the grey into the smithy and standing at his head with every apparent intention of holding him for Smitty.
The men exchanged glances, and Ronald Wilson shrugged. “As I said, Slim, I've discovered it's best to do as she says.”
“I'd best get to it then.” Smitty stepped into the shop, began walking slowly around the grey, stopping to run his hands over each leg. After a moment he settled into the trimming, checking each hoof for tenderness as he did. It took all of ten minutes, Christine holding the gelding with single-minded focus, and then the smith straightened his back. “Clean as a whistle,” he said.
“Well, you have a deal then, Slim.” Ronald Wilson pulled the promissory note from his pocket, extended it with a smile.
“Thank you, Ronald.” Slim folded it carefully, stowing it in his breast pocket.
“Papa, I'm going to ride him today,” Christine said firmly, and her father shrugged again.
“I'll harness up then,” he said, “I don't want you riding an unfamiliar horse alone, Christine.”
“I could ride with her,” Slim blurted, and wondered at the words that came out. “That is, if you don't mind, Ronald.”
“Not at all.” “That's very kind of you Mr. Sherman.” The Wilson's voices blended together, and for some reason Smitty winked at Slim.
“I'll help you tack him,” Slim offered, and Christine smiled.
“Thank you, no, I can do it myself. You're hardly going to be around every time I choose to ride, so he needs to get used to my handling.” She led the grey into the livery barn, the three men watching as she took him into a stall, saddled and bridled him with unhurried competence.
“Shoulda known,” Smitty said quietly, “when she showed up today with her own saddle.”
“She's been riding since she was a child,” Ronald Wilson spoke firmly. “Slim, I'm expecting you to look after my daughter as if she were your own sister.”
“Of course, Ronald.” He watched the girl lead the grey to the mounting block, slip into the saddle and gather the reins, and swung up on Alamo.
“Miss Wilson,” he touched his hat brim to her. “You have a preference for the trail?”
“To the river,” she said firmly, setting her legs against the grey and guiding him down the street to the west. Slim lifted a hand to her father, and followed.
“So, reverend,” Smitty said. “I take it they're courting.”
Reverend Wilson smiled. “I don't know if Slim's decided that yet or not, but I know that what my daughter sets her heart upon she usually gets.”
They rode together in easy silence, pushing the horses into a jog as they left the town's borders.
Christine broke the silence first. “He's a pleasure to ride, Mr. Sherman. You've done a wonderful job with him.”
“Jess and I broke him together. I'll pass that along to him.”
“You and Mr. Harper are good friends.”
It was hard to read her expression. “We are,” he said firmly. “He's been like a brother to me, and the ranch is his home.”
“That's good,” she said simply. “It's good to work with a close friend. Shall we canter for a bit?”
They cantered to the river, and then walked the horses along the edge until they were cool. She reined the grey toward the water, let him stretch his head out to drink if he wanted.
“You ride very well.”
“Thank you.” She stroked the grey's neck. “My father was serving a church in Connecticut when I was a child; a neighbor had horses, and her daughter and I were very close. We used to ride bareback through the town, to the pique of her parents.”
“My mother just told me to be careful, and my father just laughed.” She smiled at the memory, looked sideways at him. “I hope I haven't shocked you, Mr. Sherman, with my tomboy past.”
“Hardly, Miss Wilson. I was thinking your parents are remarkable.”
“They are,” she said complacently. “A little odd, perhaps, but wonderful. My father has a desire to serve the Indian people, so we came here a year ago. He is waiting for funding to open a school at Fort Sill. The Misson Board is being slow, as always.”
“Oh,” he said, oddly disappointed. “So you'll be moving to Indian Territory when the money comes through?”
She looked at him full face, seeing something in his that made her smile. “Perhaps not, Mr. Sherman. I've graduated, I'm over eighteen. I was thinking of taking the school teacher's post here in Laramie.”
“That would be...very nice.” He spoke slowly, seeing possibilities suddenly. “Miss Wilson...”
He found his voice dying in his throat, and she looked at him inquisitively. Before he could continue her grey broke the spell, pawing at the water in the unmistakeable behavior of a horse who intends to roll... “Watch out!”
She kicked the grey hard, lifting her hand, and the horse took a plunging step forward, then obeyed the demand that he turn, heaved himself up the bank and was safely a step away from the river. The two of them laughed, and Slim said, “Nicely done, Miss Wilson.”
'Thank you,” she said gravely. “Perhaps we should head back? The sun is lowering.”
He followed her back to the road, wishing he could find a way back to that moment before the grey pawed the water, and not knowing how to do it. She turned to him without a trace of flirtatiousness, and said, “You were going to say something, back there, Mr. Sherman.”
That direct gaze required honesty. “I was wondering, Miss Wilson, if I might call on you. Perhaps we could ride together again.” He felt his heart speed up, wondering why this girl made him blurt things he didn't know he was thinking.
Her smile was warm and honest. “That would be very nice, Mr. Sherman. I would enjoy that very much. But you must speak to my father, of course.”
“Of course,” he said, wondering at himself and celebrating her answer at the same time. His smile was making his cheek muscles ache, and he forced himself to speak soberly. “If he agrees, perhaps we could ride next Sunday? There won't be many days to ride, before the winter makes it difficult.”
“Yes,” she said simply, dimple deepening. “Yes. I would like that.”
In the end, Slim stayed for dinner with the Wilsons. It had been a long time since he'd enjoyed chicken and dumplings on a Sunday afternoon; Mrs. Wilson's was worth the ride home in the dark he'd have to make.
He found himself enjoying the dinner table conversation; Ronald Wilson was well informed about political matters, especially as they bore on the Wyoming territory. “My mission board sends the news regularly, pity they don't send money with the same regularity,” he explained with a smile. “Our business is with the propagation of the church and education among the Indian people, so we pay close attention to the decisions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
“This boarding school policy...you agree with this?”
The Wilsons exchanged a glance across the table. “I'm ambivalent, Slim,” Ronald Wilson said slowly.
“Removing children from their families is never a good choice. But they're better for being educated, in the long run.”
“They could be educated at day schools,” Mrs. Wilson said with some asperity. “This is just cruelty.”
“I don't know what Ely Parker was thinking, to agree to this. Can you imagine how the average white family would feel if their children were taken?”
“Who is Ely Parker?” Slim asked.
“He's the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affiars,” Christine Wilson answered thoughtfully. “And an Indian himself, which is why this policy seems so...strange.”
“He's as much subject to politics as any other appointee,” her father said. “And it's better he remain commissioner than have one of the more radical men in place.”
“And what are your thoughts on this, Miss Wilson?” Slim asked, curious to know her mind, and noticing her parents exchanging smiles as he asked.
“I think to survive the tribes will find themselves accomadating to things they wouldn't tolerate in the past.” She spoke thoughtfully. “I think the coming years will be very hard for them. But it's better to survive than not. And the educated children will be able to help them deal with the white world. You have friends among the Cheyenne, Mr. Sherman. What do you think?”
He took a moment, not wanting to betray Tall Fox' confidence, but also wanting these people to understand; they were very kind, but they were new to the West, and they did not know the People.
“I think you're kind and sensible, Miss Wilson. Much more so than the men in Washington making the decisions. The problem is they don't know how the People feel about the land. They understand the necessity for education; Dull Knife has told them the children must go to school. But the land is sacred to them, and the more settlers and miners encroach on it, the more dangerous the situation becomes. I'm afraid we'll have war before we have peace.”
“Well said,” Chrstine Wilson murmured, and her father said softly, “Hear, hear.”
“So it's their Promised Land?” Donna Wilson asked gently.
“They've lived on it a long time, Mrs. Wilson. They say, 'since we lost the corn' and talk about being pushed out of the east by other tribes, before the white men first came. They've lived here longer than the United States has existed; at least two hundred years, by their reckoning.”
“They can know so surely?” Ronald Wilson asked.
“They're intelligent people, Ronald. They keep records. And they have long memories.”
“Thank you, Slim. I'm glad to know this. Perhaps we could talk more in the future?”
“It would be my pleasure, Ronald.” He was a little taken aback; not expecting this kind of response when he talked about the Cheyenne. Bill Bates was the only rancher who'd understood his friendship with the People. Across the table Christine Wilson smiled at him.
He helped Christine bring in water for the dish washing, and had his offer of help with the washing up turned down by Mrs. Wilson. “Thank you, Slim. But you should probably be thinking of your ride home. It's gone quite dark.”
Christine walked him to the little barn, stood by with a lantern while he tacked Alamo. In the lamplight her hair had shades of gold and red. “It was nice to have you here tonight, Mr. Sherman. Perhaps you can stay for dinner again next week? After we ride, I mean.”
“That's very kind, Miss Wilson. Is it going to be 'Mr. Sherman' indefinitely? Your parents call me 'Slim.'” He was a little surprised at his own daring.
“Slim it is then. And you must call me Christine.” Her smile was genuine. “Papa likes you very much, Slim. I can tell.”
“He's a good man. You talk easily together, I envy you that.” He caught himself, having said more than he meant.
Her voice was gentle. “Your own father was a silent man?” At his nod, she said softly, “It's harder for sons, I know. I have two brothers. Both chose to remain in the East. They love my father, and he loves them dearly. But it's harder for sons.”
“It is.” He felt as if she'd touched a sore spot in him, with gentle fingers. He led Alamo out of the stall. “Your father listens to what others say; it wasn't a strong point in mine.”
She chuckled. “Well, he doesn't always listen. Sometimes you can't stop him from talking long enough!”
It made him smile. “You should go back to the house now, Christine. Thank you for the light.” He touched his hat brim. “Until next Sunday, then.”
He waited in the yard until she was safely through the house door, then mounted Alamo and reined toward home. Next Sunday suddenly seemed as far away as Christmas.
'What do you fear, Pony Boy?' Coyote spoke softly, amber eyes focused on Jess. Jess stared back stubbornly, jaw set.
'What do you fear?' The voice was insistent, a hint of growl under the surface.
“I don't fear. Man with nothin' has nothin' t'fear.” Jess growled back.
'Ha!' Coyote grinned. 'Is that true? You forget, Pony Boy, I'm a warrior. I smell fear. '
Jess said nothing. Coyote stretched slender forelegs, lowered himself to lie on his belly, eyes alert.
'And is it true you have nothing?' The voice was gentle, 'Mehome's voice. 'I think you have friends and a home.'
Jess leaned forward to poke the fire, buying time. “So you're a warrior, “ he challenged. “Thought you was a spirit.”
'My weapon is love.' The voice was neither 'Mehome's nor Coyote's; it was a voice that made the hair on the back of Jess' neck stand up. 'And I'm a hunter as well. I've hunted for you all your life, Pony Boy.'
“Go away,” Jess pleaded. He kept his eyes on the fire, refusing to let himself think about what his heart was saying. Because if he did he knew the love would change him forever, maybe more than he wanted to be changed. It was as if the voice stopped the breath in his chest; he took a shallow sip of air, waiting.
'What do you fear?' It was Coyote's voice again; Jess watched as Coyote sat up, began scratching idly behind one ear.
“Losin', “ he whispered. “Wantin' to have somethin', wantin' t'keep somethin' an' then losin' it.”
'In this life you can't avoid that,' it was 'Mehome again, the old eyes gentle.
“If I don't have I can't lose,” he said stubbornly.
'You already have, my son,' 'Mehome said. 'And you've already lost. It is why you are so angry. But neither your anger nor your fear will protect you. You cannot avoid it. You can only try to kill your own spirt.'
“If there's nothin' I want...” Jess started.
'You always want,' Coyote snapped, obviously impatient. 'Everything is one thing, Pony Boy. The People, the Army, you; the four leggeds, the winged ones, everything. Harm to one is harm to all. Death to one hurts all. You can only pretend you don't know this. But your heart knows, feels it. Time to stop being a coward, Pony Boy. Time to stop being a child.'
“'Mehome,” Jess pleaded, and the old chief sat across the fire, Coyote a fading outline around him, shimmering in the light.
'I'm here, my son. Always. You know this.' His eyes were compassionate, but they were still the amber of Coyote's eyes.
“You've fought, father, you've killed, taken the war path many times.” Jess felt as if he was trying to hold back the Rio Grande with his hands, trying to not let this knowledge wash over him.
'Of course,' 'Mehome said. 'But once you know, you know forever. I fought with knowledge. Those I fought against also know this, whether they allow themselves to or not. We have always to protect the children, protect those that cannot protect themselves, and have not yet had the chance to learn who they are. It is the job of a warrior to know, and to decide, with knowledge. And to bear the sadness after. There are no excuses.'
“The People...” Jess started.
'Will lose. And survive. As will the whites. The land will suffer, and endure. So long as we choose with knowledge and love, Pony Boy.' It was the strange voice again; Jess could not meet the eyes. 'Everything is one thing.'
'Mehome was sitting beside Jess, suddenly. 'You can choose to know this, or pretend you don't, my son. But it will still be true.' 'Mehome stretched his hand out, as he had done once on the road to the Yellowstone, to lay it over Jess' heart. 'Your friend already knows this, although he uses different words. You walk in two worlds, Pony Boy. Both have caused pain. Both require fearlessness, require that you love. You must decide to be both, or remain a dead spirit, and a child.'
And he was gone, abruptly. Jess raised his hand to his heart, thinking that he could almost feel 'Mehome's hand there.
The People danced their victory over the Shoshone, and Red Bird danced with them. He had joined Dull Knife a bare ten days ago, accepting Tall Fox' permission, and knowing he disappointed his chief and his father. But he could not stay and accept what was happening, could not swallow the anger that burned in him any longer. And now, ten days later, some of it had been put to use against the Shoshone and he could enjoy the dancing, the feasting, despite the cold that bit to the bone on this northern plain.
The sky overhead lowered with heavy clouds, making the night darker; even the full moon could not break through. The drums slowed, stopped, and he stopped with them, feeling the sweat on his skin under his robes. A young woman offered him a bowl of stew and he took it with a smile. He watched her moving away, admiring her grace, and thinking that now he was a man he could begin to think about a wife.
“Red Bird!” Little Wolf caught hold of his arm, voice and face urgent. “There is a cavalry scout near the ponies. You will go with the Dog Soldiers; they must be moved, and guarded. Go!”
He turned and ran to the picket line where his own horse waited, feeling his heart in his throat. This was different from raiding settlers, different from skirmishing with the Shoshone. This was Horse Killer MacKenzie, bringing death.
Lieutenant John McKinney reined his horse next to the colonel's and saluted, feeling the cold sinking through his coat now that he was no longer moving. “We've found the horse herd, sir. I left the Pawnees back to watch them, in case the Cheyenne begin moving them.”
“Well done, Lieutenant.” MacKenzie looked back over the long line of cavalry behind him. He had a thousand regulars, divided among the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth cavalry regiments, as well as a hundred Pawnee and Lakota riding with him. More than enough to handle four hundred Cheyenne, even if they were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. “We will ride on the village at dawn. Your detachment will take control of the horse herd at that time. I do not want the Cheyenne to have any escape. Is that clear?”
“Good. I'll have a company of the Fifth in reserve, in case you run into trouble. Dismissed.” McKinney saluted and rode away, and MacKenzie stared thoughtfully after him. The Cheyenne had no chance, he thought with satisfaction. They would destroy their lodges and food supplies, take their horses from them. They could not survive in this country, in this weather without shelter and horses. It would be the end of the Northern Cheyenne resistance.
“Colonel MacKenzie?” It was his batman, offering him the flask of coffee he'd requested.
“Thank you. Dismissed.” He sipped at the hot, bitter drink, grateful for the warmth. A cold night, and it would be a cold dawn. He did not hate the Cheyenne, had no desire to punish them. But they must be brought to heel. It was his duty, and he prided himself on the accomplishment of his duty. The cloud cover was too heavy to calculate the passage of time from the stars. He pulled out his pocket watch, struck a match briefly to check the time. A little over an hour until dawn. Time to move his command into position.
The clouds dropped heavy over the ridgeline in the darkness, so close that Jess thought he could see the reflection of his little fire, a glow of red, against them. It was cold on this exposed height, and he huddled over his fire, letting the silence sink into him. He could feel his heart move in his chest, as if it opened, turned outward, and he closed his eyes, letting himself sink into the feeling.
“Pony Boy! Pony Boy!” Greets-the-Dawn was calling him, amused and chiding. Jess opened his eyes to see the old man sitting on his heels across the dead fire from him. Behind him, his pony and Traveler pulled at thesparse grass of the ridgeline. “You were sleeping, Pony Boy,” the old man said gently.
“No, no, I..” Jess stopped, seeing the new day's light. “I fell asleep,” he said sheepishly.
“No matter.” Greets-the-Dawn smiled at him. “You were done. I know. Did you say thank you?”
Jess shook his head.
“Pony Boy, you may be the rudest person I have ever guided.”
Jess lowered his eyes, feeling his face heat up. “Because I didn't say 'thank you'? I'm sorry, I will.”
“Because you threw a stick at Him.” Jess looked up startled, to meet Greets-the-Dawn's eyes. “No matter. He forgives seekers. We'll smoke a pipe together, in thanks.” They sat together in silence, while the Bear Medicine Doctor prepared the pipe, offered it to the six directions and then shared it with Jess. When they were finished he emptied the dottle into his palm, placed it carefully in the little buckskin pouch he carried. “So. You have a name now. What is it?”
He felt it rise up inside himself and leaned forward to speak it softly to Greets-the-Dawn, knowing it should be kept close. Greets-the-Dawn smiled. “Good. That is very, very good.” The old man pushed himself to his feet, Jess helping. “Now you will hide your campsite, and we will go back to the camp together. Singing Bird waits with food. We cannot feast now as we would like though. The People must move. You understand?”
“Yes.” He was suddenly eager to return to his life, ride back to the ranch and talk to Slim. So much had changed, but he didn't know if he had the words to explain it. He bent to begin scattering the fire, hiding the place where he had learned who he was.
They swept through the Cheyenne camp like a wildfire, riding in through a cold dawn wind, the first scattered flakes of snow. The Cheyenne were caught flatfooted, sleepy warriors struggling out of their robes, the women, children and old people fleeing in disorganized groups. They did not fire on them; MacKenzie had insisted on strict discipline. But they set the lodges on fire, and it raged in the close-set winter camp, taking the food stores and clothing as well as the shelters. The flames roared, sullen red, the stench of the burning hides and robes acrid in the cold air
The Cheyenne fought back savagely; pulling the horse soldiers out of their saddles to fight hand-to-hand, struggling to cover the retreat of their families, save what they could of their food. To lose it all was to die, and they knew it, but there were too many against them. They were pushed back to the ridges and the fighting became stubborn; the cavalry could gain no more ground, but the People could not take back what they'd lost.
Red Bird had dismounted to hold his horse, watching the pulsing, sullen glare of the fire from a half-mile away. They had driven the ponies into a high walled ravine; as long as they held the horses the People had a chance to survive. The warriors were scattered along the walls, ready to fire down on the trail leading in, the only access for a mounted man. He felt rage as he watched the distant fight, hoping for a chance to take revenge for what was being done to the camp.
“Stand.” It was Grey Owl's voice behind him, the word a hissing whisper. “The horse soldiers come. We have to take them. Wait until I fire.”
He nodded his understanding, watched the chief man of the Dog Soldiers move on to the others, giving his orders quietly. Soon, he thought. Soon. He checked his rifle, waiting.
When the shot came it was loud in the cold, grey stillness, and then the war cries rang out and he threw his head back, shouting his own. The horse soldiers were pouring into the ravine; firing at the walls on either side, striving to reach the head of the pony herd, drive them out. Red Bird chose a target carefully; the grey morning made aiming difficult, and he felt satisfaction when a blue-coated rider threw his hands in the air, dropped from the saddle. Red Bird dropped to one knee to reload, sorry for his old rifle, that could only fire one shot at a time. He stood up to find another target, fired and again felt the satisfaction of seeing his foe drop. He was shouting his victory when the bullet struck him in the heart; like getting kicked by a horse. He wavered on his feet for a moment, stunned, and then felt the ground under his cheek. In the great silence he saw the faces of his mother and father; behind them, he saw Otter, smiling at him, one hand out in greeting.
McKinney reined up at the opening to the ravine, his gelding plunging under him with excitement as the ragged remnants of his troop swept past. They had been beaten back; the Cheyenne were starting to move their ponies out. “Sergeant Watson!” He bellowed, trying to make his voice carry, and the troop sergeant reined in a circle, galloped back to him.
“We have to hold them, Sergeant. Have the bugler sound recall..”
“Bugler's dead, sir.” Watson said curtly.
McKinney caught his breath. “Send a rider to Hamilton. We need assistance. And gather what you can, Sergeant.”
He waited, stroking his horse's neck while Watson rounded up the remnants of the troop he'd ridden in with. Last time, he thought. Hamilton will be here soon. He drew his saber, lifted it high for the troop to focus on, and shouted the order to charge.
Grey Owl stood over the body of the youngster who had come to them from Tall Fox' band. The boy had died fighting, at least. He picked up the abandoned rifle. The horse soldiers were returning; he aimed carefully at the officer in the lead, fired, and watched him sway in the saddle. The man was a good fighter, not willing to lie down; he stayed on his horse, sweeping forward on the trail. Around him other Dog Soldiers fired, the man was hit many times, finally falling from his horse as the soldiers behind him reined around, fled the cross fire. Grey Owl felt a moment's satisfaction; and then behind him, heard the bugle call.
Tall Fox waited for them at the door of his lodge, face lightening as his eyes met Jess'. “Welcome, my friend. Come and eat; Grey Eyes and Singing Bird have cooked for you.” He stepped forward to clasp Jess' forearm, and smiled. “You have a name now, brother. What is it?” Jess leaned down from Trav's back and told him, and like Greets-the-Dawn, Tall Fox said “Good. That's very good. The family is waiting for you.”
He left Trav saddled at the picket line, knowing that these moments would be short, that the People were under the gun, pressed by the army to make a decision. The sky was lowering overhead, heavy with grey clouds that promised snow, the wind cold. Bad weather to be on the run in.
There was no big celebration; just Singing Bird, Grey Eyes, Elk and his wife and Greets-the-Dawn joining Tall Fox and Jess at the fire, sharing the morning meal with him. Singing Bird had made the mixture of rice and meat Jess liked, and Tall Fox had brewed some of the coffee. The men sat huddled in their robes, Jess pulling his jacket close around him against the cold, and discussed the move, how much more there was to do. And then Tall Fox poured another cup of coffee for himself and Jess, and said quietly. “So. What do you think?”
Jess weighed his thoughts carefully, because he was being asked as a man of the People. “I think that Dull Knife can't win,” he said finally, knowing it was a hard thing, but something that had to be said.
“I think the People will have to change, and the only choice is to ride the change as well as you can. I'm sorry, brother.”
Tall Fox sighed. “It's no more than I've thought. Elk? What do you say?”
The war chief grunted. “I think that someone should kill Horse Killer.”
Tall Fox smiled. “Old friend, we both know that would change nothing.”
“It would make me happy,” Elk growled. “But I say we don't go in until we have to. If they come for us, we agree, we don't fight. But no sense in just walking in, like buffalo running to the cliff edge.”
“Huh. So, brother, what will the White Eyes do if they have to come looking for us?”
Jess met Tall Fox' eyes steadily. “There's been no trouble between the Tsitsistas and the whites: but if Dull Knife begins raiding they won't see the difference between you and him. If that happens, you'll have to either surrender or fight, there won't be any middle ground.”
“So.” Tall Fox drank his coffee in silence, then said abruptly, “What did you learn?”
Elk stirred, but said nothing, and Greets-the-Dawn leaned forward, eyes alert. Jess said slowly, painfully, “That the People would lose, but survive.”
Tall Fox nodded. “My own prayers have given me the same answer. We will go to Fort Sill. We'll take our weapons and our ponies, and go to this cliff's edge voluntarily. We will join with the Heevahetaneo'o, the Southern Cheyenne, and see if we can live in that place. But I won't give my word; if it's no good we will leave, and fight if we have to. Hene'haahehe; that's all.”
“Heehe'e,” Elk said, accepting the finality of that, and Jess repeated it.
“Time to go, then,” the War Chief said, standing up. “We'll meet again, brother.”
Jess nodded, and found his feet as well, then bent to take Singing Bird's hands in his. “Thank you mother.”
She smiled at him. “It was time and past time, my son. Give my greetings to Tall Man.”
“I will.” He nodded formally to Grey Eyes, then turned to Tall Fox. “If the People need anything, just send word.”
Tall Fox stepped forward to clasp his arm, pull him close for a moment. “My brother. You are always welcome. Go safely.”
“And you.” At last he turned to Greets-the-Dawn. “Thank you, grandfather.”
“You are welcome.” The old man extended his hand, and Jess helped him up, met his eyes. “You've seen truth, grandson. Never forget it.”
Jess turned away then, and mounted Traveler and rode away from that place, knowing the People would be gone before he reached home, and knowing he might never see them again.
It was a stubborn fight at the ravine; Hamilton led his men along the backside of the north ridgeline, to pour fire down on the Cheyenne defending the horse herd. McKinney's platoon was pinned between the walls, taking fire from both sides. Hamilton held his snorting, blowing horse at the top of the ridge, cursing softly under his breath; a half mile's ride to circle the other side of the ravine, precious time and strength spent simply to cover ground.
“Sir!” Henderson jogged to his side, the guidon in his hand.
“Dismount the men. We're going down on foot.”
He heard the bugle call echo down the troop
line, and pulled his firearm, swung down off his horse. They had to capture the horses, he understood
that. The Cheyenne must not have a way
out, or they'd have to do this all over again; he was getting old for such
They had lost the village. Dull Knife stopped firing, feeling the despair claw his heart. He had miscalculated, thinking that MacKenzie would act as he had at Palo Duro; thinking he had time. His warriors continued to fire from the ridges, to resist with all they had, but it was not enough. He watched the black smoke pluming away south and east on the wind, and knew they had lost everything. All he could do now was try to save their lives. He worked his way carefully along the ridge, to where Little Wolf methodically fired on the horse soldiers, and dropped to his belly beside him.
“We are done,” he told him, and Little Wolf looked at him, startled. “We've lost the village, there's nothing here to fight for, anymore. We need to get to the horses, now.”
Little Wolf nodded, accepting. The War Chief always dealt with what was real, not what he wished for. Dull Knife was grateful for that now. “Gather the warriors, we have to move quickly.”
“Yes.” Little Wolf threw his head back, gave the coyote call that would carry through the sound of gunshots, and along the ridges the Cheyenne firing tailed off, raggedly. Dull Knife could hear the distant firing now, west of the village where the pony herd was guarded by the Dog Soldiers, and began to fear.
They had overrun the handful of Cheyenne guards without difficulty. Hamilton sent men back up the ridge to bring the horses down, and they drove the captured pony herd out of the ravine toward the line of march. He reckoned they'd captured five hundred Cheyenne horses; all the tribe had. He'd found McKinney's body, the lieutenant's own horse grazing nearby. All told, there were four dead troopers lying in the ravine with McKinney. His sergeant had stayed back with a work detail to bury them.
He found MacKenzie at the top of the west ridgeline overlooking the Powder River. The Colonel sat his horse like a bronze statue, no trace of emotion in his face as he watched his men finish the destruction of the Cheyenne village. Hamilton gave his report, and MacKenzie said, “Yes, good work,” without looking at him.
“ Lieutenant McKinney's dead. And four enlisted men. Sergeant Henderson's burying them in the ravine. They were ambushed.”
“Yes, well, a pity.” MacKenzie spoke without inflection. “He was a poor officer but a shame, none the less.”
“He's dead, Colonel.” Hamilton said, exasperated, and MacKenzie looked at him sharply.
“He should not have allowed himself to be ambushed. We have one dead trooper here, Captain. And forty Cheyenne dead. A good day's work.”
“Sir.” Hamilton was suddenly weary, and suddenly glad that he would be retiring on the New Year. He followed MacKenzie's gaze, caught the brief glimpses of Cheyenne melting into the tall grass and vanishing as if they'd never been. “Shall we pursue, Colonel?”
“Why bother?” MacKenzie gave him a wintry smile. “They have no clothing, no shelter, no food, no horses. They will have to come in or die.” The Colonel began walking his horse down the ridge toward the remnants of the village. “I don't particularly care which. Either way, they are finished.”
Dull Knife's people regathered slowly through the long, bitter day, made darker by the grudging snow, the heavy bellied clouds moving before the wind. They began to find each other at a bend in the Powder River, a few miles west of the lost village. It was the likeliest camping place, for anyone who knew the land; and Little Wolf sent out parties of warriors to look for stragglers.
Dull Knife kept his head up and his back straight for the sake of the survivors, but the loss of the horses was a bitterness in his heart that made each step more difficult. There was nothing to burn here and they made a cold camp in the early darkness, huddling together with empty bellies. The horse soldiers had not pursued them; at first, he had thought that a mercy. As night fell the clouds cleared; the sky high and hard, the stars blue white and glittering, the moon throwing shadows on the barren land. And with the clear sky the great cold came down on them.
He waited out a night that seemed endless, pacing the perimeter of the camp, feeling his face and hands and feet grow numb despite the movement. Every once in a while he heard someone cry out briefly, and knew there had been a death. But the People endured in silence, and waited for the dawn.
Little Wolf found him as the sun rose, the east grey and red, as if the sun wept blood. “How many?” Dull Knife asked him.
“Forty warriors,” Little Wolf said tonelessly. “So far, eleven of the babies. It was the cold.”
“Yes.” Dull Knife said. “We will have to surrender, Little Wolf. It's finished.” Somewhere in the camp, he heard the soft, stifled wail of a woman.
The Sandhill Cranes were flying south ahead of the bitter wind, the promise that winter had set in for fair. They soared over Jess in their hundreds, the wide shadow of their wings darkening the sky as they glided, effortless, before the north wind. Their song floated down to him like a far away flute, a melody that curled on itself over and over. He couldn't find words for what it meant, couldn't name the feeling that seeing the great birds floating in the open sky gave him. They were leading him home though; he knew that much, taking the trail south.
Slim had made excuses to find work in the northern range for two days now, knowing that if Jess were doing his fast for visions he should have finished by this time, be riding home. So he rode out to check for strays, test fences he'd repaired not a week ago, and told himself he wasn't relieved when he spotted the far away shape of a rider, coming in from the wide open prairie to the north. He put Alamo to an easy lope, meeting Jess near the jagged outcrop of boulders that marked the northern edge of his range, and lifted his hand in greeting.
Jess reined up facing him. His face was shadowed with fatigue and unshaven beard, but his eyes were peaceful.
“So. Welcome home.”
“Thanks.” Jess looked at his friend, seeing the concern under the welcome. “It's good t'be home.”
He watched the relief in Slim's eyes, recognized that Slim had thought he might leave. “The People'll go to Fort Sill,” he blurted, and Slim nodded.
“Did you get what you needed, Jess?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” He stopped, feeling awkward. Slim's eyes measured him.
“Can I ask what your name is?”
“Walks in Two Worlds,” he said, meeting those eyes direct. “I'm 'Walks in Two Worlds'.”
Like everyone else he'd told, Slim smiled and said, “Good. That's very good.”
And then, because he was afraid that Slim would start treating him differently Jess said, “Likely still be some buckin' an' kickin' an' jumpin' up an' down.”
Slim grinned, turned Alamo to side Traveler and started him at a walk toward the ranch. “Wouldn't be the same without it.”
They rode in companionable silence for awhile. “Anything happen while I was gone?” Jess asked.
“Sold the grey,” Slim said. “For full price. And I started courting the buyer.”
“Anybody I know?” Jess asked carefully.
“Christine Wilson. Reverend Wilson's daughter.” Slim glanced at him sideways, then looked forward, quickly.
“Huh,” Jess said thoughtfully.
“What do you think?”
He looked sideways at Slim, his friend with the big open heart and the willingness to risk loving, over and over, and the fearlessness in the face of loss, and said, “Reckon we're gonna be goin' t'church more often.”
Slim chuckled. A flight of cranes soared overhead, the trilling song floating down to them, lingering after the cranes had passed. Slim tilted his head back, eyes following their flight. “'And all the hosts of heaven .'” he murmured.
“Yeah,” Jess said with satisfaction. “Yeah, that's it.” He put his legs to Traveler, and matched strides with his partner on the road home.
This is a work of fiction, but it's founded in historical fact; the timeline has been condensed to fit the “Laramie” timeline, but the facts have not been altered.
The horse-breaking methods described in this story were those I was taught and used in breaking 2 y.o. TB racehorses, combined with Native American methods. They are not intended to reflect historic or modern Western horse-breaking practices; I have written what I know.
The “madness” of Ranald Slidell MacKenzie is historical fact, and well documented; he was eventually forced into retirement, institutionalized and then placed in the care of his sister until his death at age 49. His illness has been ascribed to the head injury at Fort Sill; as a clinical psychologist I find that less than credible. (Diagnosis of mental disorder was not a strong point of 19th century medicine.) His behavior prior to the injury, as far back as the Civil War, is suggestive of the prodromal phase of a major psychotic disorder, either a tertiary organic disorder or a schizophrenia, paranoid type. I have written his character that way; those scenes reflect inference on my part. The nickname of “The Great Punisher” is historical. That he endured chronic pain from his wounds with stoic self-discipline and courage is also well-documented, as is his massacre of the Comanche ponies at Palo Duro, and his actions in the Dull Knife fight. Those engagements have been written as they are reported in white histories of the “Indian Wars”; the numbers engaged, and the casualties are accurate. MacKenzie is enigmatic; both ruthless and in some ways highly admirable.
Temperatures near the Powder River dropped to 30 below zero on the night following the Dull Knife fight; it is consistently reported that eleven Cheyenne infants died of the cold that night.
Finally, through sheer stubborn endurance and resistance, the Northern Cheyenne managed to maintain their culture, religion and language and won a reservation near the sacred Black Hills, granted by President Chester A. Arthur in 1909. They are one of the few Native American nations to retain control over the majority of their land base.