Authors: Terry C. Johnston
BANTAM BOOKS BY TERRY C. JOHNSTON
CARRY THE WIND
LONG WINTER GONE
SEIZE THE SKY
OF THE WOLF
ON THE LAND
A COLD DAY IN HELL
CRY OF THE HAWK
DANCE ON THE WIND
CRACK IN THE SKY
I dedicate this book to
the gentle poet and philosopher
of the high plains of Montana
On Custer Hill the knot of fallen men graphically portrayed the drama of the last stand. Although Cooke and Tom Custer had been badly butchered, most in this group escaped severe mutilation. “The bodies were as recognizable as if they were in life,” Benteen wrote to his wife a few days later.
Although naked, “The General was not mutilated at all,” Lt. Godfrey later wrote. “He laid on his back, his upper arms on the ground, the hands folded or so placed as to cross the body above the stomach: his position was natural and one that we had seen hundreds of times while taking cat naps during halts on the march.”
Cavalier in Buckskin
I believe anyone familiar with old-time Indians will prefer their version of a fight to that of other eye-witnesses. The Indian was by nature and training a very close observer, objective and unimaginative as few white men can be. Moreover, the Indian was a veteran who went on the warpath several times each year from early adolescence until he became too old to fight.… He was therefore cooler and more experienced, as a rule, than his white opponents.… War was his absorbing sport. His rating in the tribe depended upon his proven exploits in battle and he took good care to claim all honors to which he was entitled, and to demolish any false claims advanced by his comrades. Therefore in any kind of a fracas he had all the keen, clear-eyed alertness of a professional sportsman. And as long as he lived, whenever he had an opportunity, he recounted his exploits in battle publicly and in the presence of his rivals.
New Sources of Indian History
of black powder smudged the late-afternoon ridges like yesterday’s coal-oil smoke. Yellow dust floated into the broiling air beneath the countless unshod pony hooves and moccasined feet scurrying through the gray sage and stunted grasses beneath a relentless summer sun. There weren’t many of the big, weary, iron-shod army horses left on the hillside now. A few carcasses lay stiffening, bloated, their legs rigid. But most of the big iron-shod horses had clattered down to water.
He cried out. Not wanting to go up that hill. Terrified of what he saw. More terrified of what he heard.
Wailing, screeching, and hideous cries assaulted the ears. So many keened in mourning. Still others cried out their songs of victory. Many more lips screeched bowel-puckering shouts of vengeance as they attended their deadly labors of conquest. The side of the hill ran dark with blood.
He dared not look, covered his eyes. But just as quickly
his mother jerked his hand away from his dirty face. She wanted him to see, to remember.
The parched, sandy slope was littered with the stinking refuse of battle: bodies pale and lifeless, scattered across the dusty sage and brown grasses. Their dark blood soaked into the eager, thirsty soil that stretched all the way up to those mule-spine ridges far to the east where the sun, now into its western quadrant, glared down like a cruel, unblinking eye.
He tripped, stumbling to his knees. He cried out as he was dragged to his feet again, as his spindly copper-skinned legs bled. Quickly he cut off his own yelp. Long ago he had been taught that a boy of the People does not cry out in pain.
There were several women and men clustered around each of the pale bodies on this knoll. Mostly it was the women, hunched over their crude handiwork. These bodies were as white as fish bellies—except for bloodied, leathery faces, necks, and hands.
What hairy creatures these fish-bellied men are.
Some of these browned-hide faces were almost copper enough to belong to the People. Had it not been for all the hair on their faces that made him shudder with the sharp memory of childhood nightmares, he would not have believed these bodies were what the neighbor tribes called the dreaded
His mother halted near the crest of the hill. There she knelt and enclosed him within her arms. At first her teary eyes moved about before gazing at last into her son’s face. She instructed him to stay by her side. Fearfully his own dark-cherry eyes darted about the hillside, and he understood why she admonished him not to wander. Here in this place existed a mad fury he had never seen in his few summers of life.
Women, children, old men—running about carrying knives and axes, stone mallets and tomahawks, lances and bows, pistol butts and rifle barrels … cutting, slashing, clubbing, tearing, and gouging.
The little boy huddled against his mother. Fear formed a hard, hot knot in his belly.
She bent, putting her face right next to his so she would not have to speak so loudly. Instead, she began to sob again before any words could come out.
Another woman of their tribe came up beside the mother and son, kneeling in the blood-soaked soil. Bighead Woman was a good friend of his mother. He called her
because he had no real blood relatives among the People. The woman smiled down at him, brushing the tears from one of his dirty cheeks. When she looked into his wide, frightened, small-animal eyes, he saw in hers a sorrow he had never before seen on her face.
“Monaseetah,” the older woman whispered hoarsely, like a trickle of water running over a drought-parched creek bed, “you must be quick about this now. I wish to leave and go with the others across the hills. To touch these pale men who came with such foolish hearts to strike our camps of women and children again. Always they come to strike the women and children first—”
Her words snapped off in midsentence like dry kindling as the boy’s mother lifted her face, a mask of utter sadness and despair. Bighead Woman understood that despair and hopelessness immediately.
“This I did for you, Monaseetah.” Her gnarled, scarred hand pointed down at the three bodies crumpled on the ground nearby. “I watched so that none would touch his body. Many came here to mutilate him … as they do now with the others who rode against us when the sun rode high in the sky. But I told them your story. Most left without a word to find other bodies they could revenge themselves upon. Some said a small prayer for you before they turned to go. My heart shares how you must feel. Long ago I lost a man in battle—in a time of cold when the Winter Man’s breath blew white out of the northlands. My man was killed in a battle just like this with the pony soldiers. It was the time you lost your father. You will remember … must remember—that time those cowardly white warriors of winter followed their chief … this one!”
Bighead Woman gestured violently toward the naked corpse beside them in the dust. She waited for Monaseetah to speak.
“I thank you for your care this day, sister. I will stay here now. My son and I will stay to watch over the body until dark fills the sky. We will see that no harm comes to this man. You need wait no longer. Leave us now.”
The older woman reached into a small quilled pouch hung at her belt and removed a bone awl, its point hardened in fire and sharpened for punching holes in the thickest of bull hides. With that awl clasped in one hand, Bighead Woman twisted the white soldier’s head to the side. Monaseetah grabbed the woman’s hand to still it.
For a long moment they stared at one another, the older woman able to read what lay within the liquid depths of the young mother’s eyes.
“What I do now is not for you, my young friend,” Bighead Woman explained softly. “This I do for him.
did not heed the words told him long ago during his days in those lands to the south. Eight winters it has been now since the elders of our tribe warned him not to attack the women and children and villages of the People. Yet Yellow Hair did not hear our clear, strong words. This I do for him. So that Yellow Hair may hear better in the life to come—I wish to open his ears up to the songs he should have heard long ago.”
Eventually Monaseetah’s fingers loosened their frantic grip on the older woman’s brown wrist. “It is understood,” she replied as she pulled her hand away in resignation.
Cautiously Bighead Woman inserted the point of the bone awl into the left ear canal, then suddenly rammed it all the harder when she encountered resistance. She brought the bone spindle out accompanied with a slight trickle of blood. When she had twisted the man’s head to the left, she punctured the right ear as well. Finally she wiped the bone awl on her dusty buckskin dress and dropped it back into her pouch.
“It is right, this that you do,” Monaseetah sighed. Her voice was like a dry wind that scoured the distant prairie home of her Southern Cheyenne people.
“Yes, it is right, little sister.” The older woman shakily rose to her feet. “Perhaps you will be granted another time
. In another place, in some dream yet to come.”
“Perhaps.” Monaseetah did not look up to see her friend hurry away to join the others scurrying like maddened red ants across the yellow hillsides, where the heat rose in shimmering waves to the bone white sky.
Frightened still, her son looked down the slope. Here and there warriors had turned the fish-belly bodies of their white victims facedown after mutilation and desecration. He remembered the Cheyenne belief taught him by the old ones: It was bad luck to leave an enemy facing the sky, because his soul could more easily escape the earthly plane.