We wither like weeds before flames.
Oppressors herd us to far patches of barren ground.
Drums fall silent in misery.
Flutes become forlorn.
Stanza from the poem, Echoes of the Flute, by Mark Wildyr.
The Moon of Hard Winter (November) 1891, Turtle Crick Farm, South Dakota
He managed to function in the ordinary hours, reclaiming his farm and working the smithy. But his days no longer raised the grand lust for life they once evoked.
The appearance of moon glow inevitably conjured images of his Other Heart, the man taken from him in the hours between the death of 1890 and the birth of the new year. Specters from that recent past crowded his nocturnal dreams and gripped him so firmly he feared ghost sickness infected his mind.
The simple extinguishing of his lamp upon retiring opened his splintered brain to the past, to reliving great love and crippling loss. Visions of the massacre at Wounded Knee and the fight at Drexel Mission made real the gunfire and blood and slaughter. The stink of black powder and the musk of shredded entrails came near to suffocating him. The crash of cannon and the bark of rifles vied with the cries of dying men, women, and children to haunt the shadowed corners of his bedchamber.
Better than ten months of the new year, as whites counted time, had run their course before he rose from his bed in the dark of night. The unsteady light of the candle he’d lit mirrored his shaky resolve. He paused, exhibiting uncharacteristic indecision. Eventually, he walked through the great room–still warm and redolent of spicy stew and yeasty bread–to enter another where the flickering glow of the wick’s flame revealed a handsome young man sleeping peacefully. Even as the watcher’s blood heightened, his intent faltered.
He would have backed away and returned to his solitary bed had the not the sleeper awakened at that crucial moment. Recognition replaced confusion in those brown, soulful eyes. Then understanding, the man on the bed swept back the covers and murmured a single Lakota word.
Six Months Earlier, April 1891, Turtle Crick Farm, South Dakota
Winter Bird spotted the riders first. At his whistle, I reined in the plow horse and followed his gaze. The horsemen did not appear to be uniformed, so they weren’t army. That was good. The sight of six blue-coats would not have been tolerable at the moment. Recollections of death and mayhem were too raw. Still, half a dozen riders of any sort pounding toward the farm portended nothing promising.
After trailing Bird to the porch, I waved a warning as he picked up his rifle. We needed our weapons at hand but ought not to be brandishing them when this group rode into the yard. As we stood side-by-side on the porch, he leaned his Winchester against the railing near my Henry.
The horses were almost to the bridge over Turtle Crick before I identified Sheriff Charles Landreth as the man leading the muster. My heart churned. He’d been holding a six-gun on me the last time we talked. The riders pulled up in a cloud of dust.
The sheriff, a lanky man with legs too long for the rest of him, cultivated a thick, grizzled mustache flowing out of his nostrils to conceal his upper lip. The lawman walked his mount close enough to drive me back a step. The animal was a beautiful white with black rigging. I hadn’t seen this ride before. Of course, I’d not laid my gaze on Landreth in nearly six years. His badge had apparently survived Statehood as it now read “Sheriff of Gadsby County.” Honoring that crooked, English magistrate, Julius Gadsby, with a county named after him came near to making me ill.
The Sheriff nodded. “John Strobaw. Thought we was done with you. Heard you was back.” He paused, but I didn’t respond. “You’re like a lame gelding that shows up at every horse trade.”
The word “gelding” snagged my attention.
“At least we got rid of Brandt,” he said. “Or so I hear, anyways.”
My gorge rose until I realized he was deliberately provoking me. I’d never dealt this man a penny’s worth of trouble, so there was no reason for ending up on his wrong side but one: he could not abide Indians.
“How come you didn’t have the good grace to catch a bullet like Brandt?” he went on.
I stared rudely into his pale, mean eyes. “Shambling Bear’s time was up. Mine wasn’t.”
“Shambling Bear. So that was his Injun name, huh?” He turned to my companion. “Who’s this ‘un? Wait a minute, I know you. I run you outa town a couple a times. You that buck that did some trading with Mr. Brown down at the Emporium.”
Bird’s black eyes were hooded, but his answer was an easy, “I am Winter Bird.”
“Ain’t you supposed to be on a reservation?”
“I hired him to help out since my brother’s not with me now. The farm and my cattle operation are too much for one man.” It pained me to refer to Matthew Brandt as my brother. I wanted to proudly proclaim he had been my life-mate and lover, but that would serve none of us well.
“Don’t see no cattle.”
“I’ll buy when next month’s calf crop’s on the ground.”
“After all the troubles, you got money for that?” As if to reinforce his point about the recent hostilities, his gaze wandered to the stone house looming over him. “Bit grander’n what stood here before the cavalry burnt you out. I hear the family at Teacher’s Mead come and rebuilt it while you was hiding out on the reservation.”
The comment about “hiding out,” nearly swamped my self-discipline, but I held my tongue. The part about the house was true. My whole family had come to rebuild the farm buildings out of rock quarried near Teacher’s Mead. Unlike wood, rock doesn’t burn. Landreth’s next words brought me alert.
“You ever heard tell of a Injun called Medicine Hair?”
His mention of the name was a surprise. Not many white men knew of it. No use putting this off. I’d have to face it sooner or later. “Some call me that.”
“I figgered. ‘Cause of that yella hair mixed in with the black, I reckon. Looks like big medicine to the heathens, don’t it?”
All my life, stray strands of my ma’s yellow hair had mingled with pa’s black, marking me as different. With a conscious effort, I moved my mind from the hate-filled man in front of me to the sharp, dry smell of fallow fields riding a western breeze. The aroma brought a longing for spring and the rich odor of freshly turned earth. I could almost imagine tender new shoots rising like new-born infants from the earth.
“I hear you bossed one of them bands at Wounded Knee.” Landreth’s tone hovered between a question and an avowed fact.
“Then you heard wrong.”
“That so? You know a place called Rivers Bend?”
My stomach rolled. Landreth was better informed than I thought. And if he knew these things, so did the army. “That’s where I lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation for five years. And yes, I was head man there.”
He allowed an uneasy silence to grow before saying something strange. “You know the war’s over and done with, don’t you?”
The intensity of his voice gave me pause. “Yes, Sheriff, I recognize that.”
“How ‘bout you?” He stared at Bird.
My friend shot a puzzled glance my direction before answering. “The war’s done.”
It seemed for a moment Landreth was going to pursue the subject, but he back-walked the white and turned away. “I’ll check with the military about this buck here. You’ll be hearing from me again if I don’t like what I hear.”
Winter Bird was on the nettle as the sheriff and his men thundered across the wooden bridge. I was a little disturbed, as well. Landreth hadn’t made the seven-mile trip from Yanube City just to check up on me. Likely, he’d heard there was another Indian on the place and wanted to make sure he hadn’t been given bad information about Matthew’s death. He didn’t need five men at his back to determine that; they were just to impress me that his interest wasn’t benign. The man’s hate ran deep, making me wonder at the cause of it. Lots of white folks didn’t like Indians, but Landreth’s loathing had a special edge to it.
But what was that baffling question about the war being done? And the comment about a gelding? Had he somehow learned of the man-love Matthew and I had shared? I slapped the porch railing and walked down the steps.
What did I care, anyway? This wasn’t living. Simply existing. Waiting. My heart waited to cease beating. My mind waited to awaken or perhaps go totally dark. My limbs waited to reclaim everyday skills. The whole of me seemed suspended as I drifted through each day somehow accomplishing mundane tasks.
It had been thus ever since the terrible, bloody slaughter at Wounded Knee and the battle at Drexel Mission where the better part of me, the bigger, stronger part of me, was slain some four moons past.
Matthew Brandt–nay, Shambling Bear, since he died a warrior and not a farmer–fell along with hundreds of others to the murderous fire of the Seventh Cavalry but refused to die until we reached the supposed sanctuary of Drexel Mission. Why was I not struck as I stood alongside him when a bullet tore into his chest? Why hadn’t I been taken instead of him?
After the Army’s indiscriminate slaughter of our people at Wounded Knee and the battle at Drexel, Winter Bird and I had fought our way through a three-day blizzard to bring Matthew home. My shock at discovering Pa and the family had traveled fifty miles from Teacher’s Mead to rebuild the farm almost undid me. I’d last cast eyes on nothing but charred ruins after the army fired the place in late ’85 and drove us west to meet Bear’s destiny in a desolate gully on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
What little interest I had in living each day was due to Winter Bird’s quiet strength and gentle encouragement. My friend had lost everything in those same tragic hours: home, family – his very way of life. While I had suffered a devastating blow, there were yet kith and kin to lend me support. Still, I seemed weighed down by my thirty-two years while Bird, who had not yet seen his thirtieth, buttressed me every minute of every day.
I, John Joseph Strobaw, endowed with the honorable names of War Eagle, Night Sky Hair, and Medicine Hair must surely stand revealed as a hapless weakling.
NOTE: Alas, not cover art exists for Wastelakapi. Perhaps if enough of you pester Dreamspinner Press, they'll see the light.