Death rose out of the night. A rush of hooves on frosted ground. A chilling howl. Whickering horses. A faint rip, thud, gasp, and sigh. The earth trembled.
Barnaby Skye struggled awake. Violence had struck the camp. There was only the thin leather of his lodge protecting him, and that was no protection at all. Victoria gasped.
He sat up, threw the thick buffalo robe aside, jamming away the sleep. Dead ash, embers gone, only blackness inside his lodge. He peered through the smoke hole. Bright moonlit night. Stars scattering through the October skies. The Judith River country, aglow in the moon, full of buffalo, full of death.
He knew then. A raid. Blackfeet, who else? The horses already gone but now a worse evil, the enemy in the midst of the Crow hunting camp, every man for himself, death stalking the camp.
He felt about for his Hawken, didn’t find it, but found his belaying pin, that weapon of choice for generations of British seamen. A polished hickory club, thick, heavy, and flared to protect the hand or stop its passage through a ship’s fitting. He grasped it just in time. The flap burst open and a dark force smashed in, swinging savagely. A battle-axe slashed the lodge cover, bedded itself in the robes inches from Skye. A knife glinted. Skye jabbed first, felt the belaying pin connect, then smashed hard just as a knife whipped by. Caught the warrior at the base of the neck. Skye jammed the stick into his face, heard teeth snap. The warrior retreated, howling, staggering out into the moonlight.
Skye sprang up, pushed outside. The last of the Blackfeet were retreating north. The moonlight caught shadowy forms retreating into the gloom. A few half-naked Crows, kin of Skye’s wife Victoria, chased on foot, carrying lances, only to fall back as arrows fell among them. One gasped and tumbled to the frosted grass.
Skye was barefoot but he scarcely noticed. He did not see a horse anywhere. His own two buffalo runners, picketed beside his lodge, had vanished. In the distance, the thrumming of two hundred hooves diminished and died. Nine lodges of Crows, and not a horse among them, unless a few escaped the herding of the Blackfeet. Crow warriors armed themselves, but it was too late.
It had happened so fast. The Blackfeet had overwhelmed or tricked or killed the night herders, the village youths not yet old enough for battle, and made off with the prized horses. But their triumph would not be complete without visiting some death or injury on the hated Crows. So they had raided the camp on Louse Creek after driving off the ponies, entering lodges, counting coup, killing if they could, making a great victory out of it. Death in the night.
The hush suddenly returned, and it was as if there had been no violence, no death, no injury. Several Crow warriors hunted for horses, trotting here and there. Women, along for the skinning and hide-scraping and preserving, peered fearfully from lodge doors. Silvery moonlight flooded the encampment, making the lodges almost as visible as in bright day. And now they wailed, for there were bodies sprawled grotesquely on the frosty hardpan.
Skye studied the murk from whence a last hurrah of arrows might come, but he saw only the silvered limbs of autumn-bare trees and brush along the creek. It had been a poor place to camp. He trotted toward a knot of people gathered around one of the fallen.
It was the boy, Knot-on-Top, and he was dead, pierced by a Blackfoot arrow. His lifeless eyes studied the moon. Hardly a dozen years had this man-child lived. Three women knelt beside him, including his mother, Wolf Dreams. She did not wail. She sat mutely, cradling her son’s arm in her lap.
Grim warriors guarded the perimeter, but it was too late. Grief had come to this buffalo-hunting camp. The fletching and the dyed rings on the arrow protruding from the chest of Knot-on-Top told the story to anyone who knew of these things: Piegan. The most numerous and sometimes most pacific of the Blackfeet bands, and all the more dangerous for that.
“Aieaa,” muttered Otter, the headman who had led this hunting party to this desolate end.
Skye sorrowed, and trotted toward another downed Crow, fearing the worst. He was not mistaken. Sees Dawn, the other boy guarding the herd, lay facedown, his head cleaved by a war axe, perhaps the very one that nearly chopped Skye’s head in two. He would never see another dawn. He was Victoria’s nephew and clan-brother. She would weep and in her own way vow death and disgrace upon whatever Blackfoot had slaughtered one of her own. Where was she? Skye didn’t see her, and wondered about it.
Off in the murk, several Crow men returned leading a few horses. So some had escaped the Blackfeet net after all, slipped into brush in the night. Skye studied the small band, looking for his two dun buffalo runners and not seeing them. He owned only three horses including one for Victoria, and was poor by Crow standards, for a man’s worth was measured in horses. Skye had neither the skills to capture any nor the means to buy any.
He wondered where Victoria was. She must have been deep asleep. He would check on her. There was little he could do here in the frost, as the moon bathed the fallen. He had some small reputation among the Crows as a valued warrior and hunter, but he could not speak their tongue enough to make friends or take part in the village life. It was time to check on Victoria, whose silence worried him.
He hastened to his small lodge, a place shared only by his woman, and crawled in. Instantly he knew something was wrong. He dropped to his knees beside her, shocked by her long silences, and her brief desperate gasps for air, and the strange twist of her body, her head cocked backward, mouth open to suck life into her lungs.
Too dark! He could see nothing.
She spasmed, some sort of shudder rolling down her small, lithe body. He tugged the buffalo robe aside, and then he couldn’t pull it free. The robe was pinned to her. Then he discovered the thin, cruel wand of wood rising out of the robes, the feathered end of an arrow, the same arrow that had awakened him with its soft rip through the lodge cover.
“Victoria!” The sight of her, so dim in blackness, seared him.
He needed fire!
He scrambled for wood, found some just outside the lodge door that she had gathered in the evening, grabbed some handfuls, set them upon the cold firepit in the center of the lodge, found his powder horn lying next to his Hawken, dribbled some over the kindling, hunted blindly through his possibles until he found his flint and steel, fitted the steel through his ham-thick fingers, and struck sparks savagely. The loose powder flared, blinding him.
She trembled and gasped.
One small stick caught, and then another, small blue light, and then welcome yellow. He could see. She wasn’t looking at him; she stared straight up, a death rictus twisting her lips, her eyes sightless.
“Oh, no . . .”
Fire at last, tender flickering light casting its gloomy rays upon the small household of Barnaby Skye. The arrow had pierced the robe, and pierced Victoria under the robe. He could not see where and was afraid to touch her or it. She gasped again. Her lungs weren’t working. Swiftly he clasped his great trembling hands over her chest, pushed air out, and let her suck air in. Something was stopping her lungs from drawing air in and out. Her face was blue. The fire wavered and started to die. He thrust more brush over the dwindling flame until it flared again.
She wasn’t breathing. He squeezed her chest and she gasped. He pushed and pulled her ribs, making air move.
He needed help, but where could he turn?
He summoned words and yelled.
“Come!” he cried into the moonlight.
Someone did come, a woman whose face he couldn’t see. Then he heard talk, and two women crawled into his lodge and took it all in with swift glances. He knew the women: old Makes Rain and her sister, Lifts the Doe. Makes Rain was a blessing; she was reputed to have great powers of healing. But she was also no friend of Victoria. For Makes Rain didn’t believe that a woman of the Crow people should marry someone else.
She glanced sharply at Skye, and then produced a small, worn paring knife that had seen much work at this buffalo camp. Slowly she inserted the knife into the robe at the place where the arrow had punctured it, and sawed through the robe, little by little, while Victoria gasped, until at last the robe was freed and she and Lifts the Doe could peel it away from Victoria, ever so carefully.
Victoria was gasping again, and Skye slowly squeezed and released her ribs until she was breathing, if the slow suck of air into her lungs might be called breath. The Blackfeet arrow protruded from her abdomen, just under the ribs, lit by the dying flame. Blood had collected around the wide slit of a wound, staining her trade-cloth chemise. Gently, the old woman sliced away the cloth until the wound lay exposed. The arrow had pierced upward two or three inches from the abdomen, no doubt cutting into those muscles that operated her lungs. A broad steel point, probably a Hudson’s Bay trade item, had buried itself in her, and there was no way to remove it without starting a rush of red, red blood.
They stared, helpless, at that fatal shaft. An inch more would have killed her but the lodge wall and robe had slowed the thrust. Victoria lay gasping, doomed unless she could breathe, and breathe soon.
Copyright © 2006 by Richard S. Wheeler