mere shadows of
a paler people.
Where are our silent drums,
our sad, broken flutes?
Stanza from the poem “Echoes of the Flute” by Mark Wildyr
Monday, September 10, 1883, Turtle Crick Farm, Dakota Territory
Puzzled by the rosy hue of the crick water, he shifted his gaze to a western skyline pulsing with spectacular crimsons and shimmering corals. The horizon appeared ablaze, yet a cool breeze lapped his face. No hint of heat. No taste of smoke. His horses grazed placidly. This was no wildfire. It was another of those remarkable prairie sunsets.
The bizarre events had started a fortnight ago. He’d sensed movement beneath his feet. A few days later, air currents in a normally calm season. Hazy, filtered light. Sun dogs, usually rare and most often observed in cold months, now frequent. Moons the color of moldy cheese one night and as blue as a jay’s wing the next.
Despite his education, he heard the singing of his tribal blood and thought of witchcraft. Powerful medicine was at work.
I rose with the dawn from my solitary bed. A 240-acre farm demanded more than I could give now my cattle operation had grown. I’d always been a farmer with cows. Nowadays, I was leaning toward a cowman with a farm.
Arrow Wind, my buckskin war horse, snorted as I turned him and the black trace mare into the corral. I bypassed the smithy on the way to the fields. My eighty acres of sweet corn were already spinning silk. Wheat and vegetables took up the rest of the tilled land. Wheat, my money crop. Corn for the cattle. Vegetables and a bit of corn for Matthew and me. And for trading.
Beyond the fields to the west, I held fee title to another 100 acres, most of which were behind a Pennsylvania worm fence, a zigzag affair of stacked poles and brush. My 150 head of Texas Longhorn steers were presently free-ranging, but I would soon bring them behind the fence to fatten on corn before Matthew and I hazed them to the cattle barn in Yanube City.
In the far distance, my “hired hand” came alert and spotted me. Without him, I couldn’t have managed. Two years back, I’d traded a wandering peddler out of an unlikely-looking blue puppy with black and tan markings. A Blue Heeler, a cross between a wild Australian Dingo and a Kelpie, the critter herded anything and everything… including me. We’d had more than one tussle before he was convinced I ran the place.
Todoh — Blue in the Lakota tongue — had grown into a magnificent animal, even with a crumpled left ear that refused to stand straight and tall like the right one. The dog was smarter than I was; and if he’d possessed an intelligible tongue and opposable thumbs, I’d be working for him. Both he and the cattle were self-sustaining.
He streaked across a quarter-mile of prairie to lunge at my chest, almost bowling me over. I held Todoh so he could lick my face before dropping him and ruffing the fur on his neck. After spending five minutes reaffirming our relationship, I gave the dog a piece of jerky and sent him racing back to the cattle. He’d sniff out every steer until he was satisfied they were all accounted for.
As I pumped well water into a pond on the high side of the fields to irrigate the crops, an army patrol came trotting up the south wagon track, a familiar figure at its head. Heart in my throat, I walked up the hill behind the cabin for a better look. Once there, fresh footprints diverted my attention. Moccasins. Not Matthew’s … or Shambling Bear’s as he’d be calling himself now. The prints were wrong. Whoever it was had reclaimed his mount and ridden north toward Trickling Water. A nick in the pony’s left front shoe niggled at me, but I couldn’t call to mind why. If Todoh hadn’t been out on the range, I’d have had warning of the intruder. The brute was a good watchman.
I turned my gaze back to Lt. Gideon Haleworthy and his patrol. The troopers’ easy gait let me know the mission wasn’t urgent and allowed my anxiety to ebb. I was halfway fond of Gideon. He’d been courting my sister, Rachel Ann, even though my family lived at Teacher’s Mead fifty miles east of his barracks at Fort Yanube. That, plus Ma’s lukewarm acceptance, put a damper on things.
I came down the hill as he dismounted his men on the south side of the crick to water their horses before he rode across the bridge. A new pair of silver bars sparkled in the sun as he threw a long leg over Blackie and dismounted.
“You’re looking good, Speckle-Head.”
He referred to one of my two physical abnormalities. I’d inherited onyx eyes peppered with bits of gold from Pa and a thick black mane interspersed with strands of Ma’s Scandinavian yellow. Like most Indians, I had more than one name. To the whites, I was John Jacobsen Strobaw; my earth name was War Eagle. Touch the Clouds, a Miniconjou chieftain, had labeled me Night Sky Hair, and Gideon now added one of his own. Soon they’d be calling me Many Names.
“You didn’t ride seven miles just to let me know you made captain.” I stepped forward and clasped his hand in the white man’s way.
He removed his hat and inspected the shiny bars. “Look pretty good, don’t they? Got them last week. No, I’m patrolling up the crick and just stopped to see how you’re getting along and ask after Matthew.”
Was the army still keeping an eye on Matthew Brandt? A Teton Sioux and Yanube mix, he’d taken off on one of his jaunts last month when word reached us Sitting Bull had returned to the Standing Rock Agency. To the white man’s thinking, the Hunkpapa medicine man was trouble …. danger. And Matthew craved adventure just as much and just as helplessly as I craved him. It was coming up on four years since we’d pledged ourselves before Touch the Clouds — who sat on the council at the Cheyenne River Reservation — and his friend, Buffalo Leg. They’d both helped free Matthew from military custody after a jealous Cheyenne claimed my lover was Red Star, a fugitive follower of Crazy Horse.
“Congratulations on the promotion. Does that mean you’ll be getting new orders?”
The newly promoted captain shook his head. “So far as I know, I’m stuck at out here in the hinterlands for the rest of my career.”
“Well, to answer your question, I’m getting along fine, and Matthew hasn’t come back from … wherever.”
“How do you put up with it?”
The hair on my neck rose. Did he suspect the nature our relationship? My eyes stole to the leafy branches of what I called the Otter Tree. Back in the summer of ’78, my spiritual grandfather had been hanged from the cottonwood while his companion, James Morrow, perished in their burning cabin, victims of just such a union as ours.
“Put up with what?”
“An unreliable hired hand.”
I drew an easier breath. “He only goes fiddle-footing once or twice a year. Stays a month or two. He’ll be back in time to help with the harvest and to herd our steers to Yanube City. Besides, he’s no hired hand. He’s got some of his own silver invested in this place.”
He smiled, easing my mind a smidgeon. “You noticed what’s been going on lately?”
“Hard to miss if you mean sunsets and moons. You got any ideas about them?”
Gideon nodded his good-looking Yankee head. “Heard about it over the grapevine.” That was his way of saying the telegraph. “You ever heard of an island called Krakatoa?”
When I said I hadn’t, he explained that the peculiar events we were experiencing resulted from a series of powerful volcanic eruptions half a world away. The final, cataclysmic explosion last August blew away two-thirds of the island and was heard for three thousand miles. Tsunamis rocked ships as far distant as South Africa. Tidal flows hit the English Channel. Massive columns of ash and pumice rose miles into the heavens and scattered to cloak the planet and darken the atmosphere. Lavender suns, green and blue moons, and incredibly brilliant sunsets amazed and frightened people around the world.
After finishing his explanation, Gideon gave a lopsided grin. “I get a real kick outa telling you something you don’t already know. You read everything you can get your hands on, but the telegraph is a whole lot faster than a book. Why do you read so damned much, anyway?”
I rubbed an itchy place on my chin. “You never know when a little knowledge is going to come in handy.”
“That’s all well and good, but I don’t see how knowing about an Indonesian island blowing itself to pieces is going to come in handy.” Seemingly unaware he’d demeaned the value of his own news, Gideon tipped his new captain’s hat and returned to his men. After watering his big cavalry horse, he mounted the troop and rode west.
Gideon was a West Point man, so he did his share of reading. He probably considered that natural. But somehow it was a matter of wonder when an Indian shared his intellectual curiosity.