With the quickening of the grass, the Cheyenne woman came once again to Bent's Fort. Barnaby Skye saw her from a great distance, a small, blue-blanketed woman crouched in her usual spot just outside the massive gate where she could watch every mortal who entered or left. He knew her sad story; everyone in the post did.
He had been out hunting, along with his Crow wife he had named Victoria, and now they were returning at sundown with a groaning wagonload of buffalo meat, butchered and wrapped in the hide against the year's first green flies.
He rode his shaggy, winter-haired buckskin down the slight grade and out upon the velvet-grassed bottoms of the Arkansas River, which severed the plains and two nations as well. He hoped to escape the sharp March wind that reddened and chafed his flesh, but he knew it would harry him clear to the post and even into his rooms.
William Bent's great adobe post lorded over a riverside pasture on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, just within United States territory, a lonely outpost hundreds of miles from settlements; a haven and refuge for weary travelers; a source of white men's magic for the Indians.
Victoria drove the mule team that was hauling the remainsof two skinny cow buffalo. Poor doings. This hard day's toil would supply the post with meat for barely a day, but the buffalo were scarce and had wintered down to bones and hide.
The Cheyenne woman saw them coming but didn't move; it was only when strangers arrived, a Missouri wagon train, or St. Louis teamsters, or Santa Fe muleteers, or a band of Kiowas or Utes or Arapahos or Jicarillas riding in for some trading, that she stirred. Thus it had been ever since Skye arrived in the fall of 1838; thus it was now in the spring of 1841.
Her name was Standing Alone. He wondered whether the winter in Black Dog's camp had been good to her; whether her copper flesh had withered prematurely, or her jet hair had grayed, or whether her stocky Cheyenne body had begun to shrink with her sorrow. She wasn't old; perhaps upper twenties, early thirties, but her ordeal had added twenty years, and she peered at the world from eyes that had seen centuries of torment.
She would soon be given some of this very meat. William Bent himself saw to it. Once each day, Archibald the cook took a wooden bowl full of scraps through the creaking cottonwood gate, and handed her whatever was that day's fare. She would eat swiftly, nod her thanks, and settle again at her post, to continue her vigil. Some said she was there because she never got over the tragedy and was obsessed. Others said that she was there because she had received those instructions in a sacred vision. Injun hoodoo, they called it. There was also the possibility that she was mad. Her husband, Cloud Watcher, respected her desires, and brought her each spring, and left her there to watch for the missing ones.
No one ever touched her; not even the cruel Comanches when they came to trade. They despised the Cheyenne and murdered them on sight, but not Standing Alone; no blood flowed below the towering tan adobe ramparts of Bent's Fort. Indeed, even these mortal enemies of her people called herGrandmother, this vigiling woman, and passed gently by.
Skye paused to let Victoria draw up beside him. She sat on the hard wagon seat, hunched against the wind, her wiry frame fierce against the weather and weariness, ready to subdue the mutinous mules with great oaths and swift lashes of her whip. Upon her rite of passage into womanhood she had been named Many Quill Woman, of the Otter Clan, of the Kicked-in-the-Belly band of Mountain Crows, and now she was a long way from home, and a white man's woman.
The earth had softened under the winter's wetness, and made hard work for the mules. But Victoria spoke mule language even better than English, understood mule wiles and extortions, and knew how to compel these beasts of burden to her small, iron will. She had mastered all the oaths of white men, employed them enthusiastically, and the mules listened respectfully to her music.
"She's there," he said. "Never so early as this."
"Something's different," Victoria said.
Skye felt it, too.
The biting wind harried them toward the post. No one was out in the fields; not on such a cruel day. Bent's Fort rose amazingly out of nothing; a tawny apparition, made of cottonwood logs and golden mud, its round bastions promising protection, and its towering walls promising respite from nature. It was a laird's castle, the seat of empire, the work of hard-willed men who had found fortune in the wilderness of the southern plains. The Bents of Missouri had built it out of nothing but iron hearts and a vision of empire.
Skye rode ahead, eager now to escape the wind and warm his chilled body before a cottonwood blaze in one of the massive fireplaces within. He reached the gate, expecting to pass through the portcullis into the great yard within. But this time, Standing Alone rose suddenly, her blue blanket wrapped about her, and blocked his way, her black eyes surveying him boldly.
"Grandmother," he said politely. "How are you?"
She could not understand a word, nor could he fathom the Cheyenne tongue, so he could not translate the torrent of words pouring from her. He turned helplessly to Victoria, who had stopped the mules just behind, but he could see no comprehension in Victoria's face.
"Dammit, I don't know what the hell she's spouting," she said.
He lifted his battered beaver hat, and settled it again. It stayed aboard his head no matter how treacherous the wind, but just how was a secret that only Skye knew. The hat was his hallmark. Anyone within a mile could recognize Barnaby Skye by his black beaver hat. Anyone closer up might recognize him by his small bleached-blue eyes, deep-set in a ruddy face occasionally shaved; a formidable hogback of a nose, much battered and pulped by fisticuffs and hard use; great slabs of bristly jowl that hung to either side, giving him the look of a bulldog; and the stocky, short body and seaman's roll to his gait that was familiar to men anywhere in the mountains or the plains.
Standing Alone had recognized him from afar, and this time she wanted something.
"Can you make out what she wants?" he asked Victoria.
"Something awful damn bad," Victoria replied. She didn't like Cheyennes, ancient and bitter enemies of her Crow people.
Skye released his looped rein, wondering whether his unruly buckskin would behave, and hand-signaled to the woman.
"What say?" his hands asked.
She responded at once, her hands flashing. "Talk to you."
"I will later."
He would have to find William Bent or Kit Carson to translate. It was certainly odd.
He lifted his black hat to her once again, and settled it on the shaggy brown hair that reached his shoulders and helpedkeep his neck and ears warm in the winter. The hair was showing its first streaks of gray, which had shocked him. How could he be getting gray when he was still young? But he knew. His had been the hardest and most brutal of lives.
"Cheyenne killer bastards," Victoria said.
Around the fort, Victoria was celebrated as the most advanced cusser in all the Indian nations. She had honed her skills by listening to profane mountain men, and not even the fort's legendary chief trader, Goddam Murray, could match her.
But Skye never cursed at all. He touched the flanks of his horse with his winter moccasins, and steered toward the kitchen. The cooks would be glad to add this meat to the larder even if it was fit for nothing more than stew.
He steered his buckskin hard left, toward an alley that led to the corrals. Victoria steered her wagon across the yard, stopping at the far corner before the kitchen and cook's quarters. Skye swiftly unsaddled, turned the horse loose, and hurried to help her. No one else was going to pitch in. The cooks were busy, or pretended to be, and besides, dragging hunks of meat wrapped in bloody hide was beneath them.
Wordlessly, Skye opened the wagon gate, rolled a massive quarter of meat to the ground, and dragged it into the hot kitchen, where cooks were preparing a supper for the fifty mouths they were expected to feed twice a day. Skye yanked and tugged, pulling the meat past cursing cooks, until he reached a cool locker area to the rear. He and Victoria repeated the process, winning only curses from the harried cooks. That happened often. He often arrived while a meal was in the making, so they waved bloody butcher knives at him and snarled.
By the time he and Victoria had finished, they were both even grimier than before. Skye touched her arm, and she smiled gratefully. She would scrape the gore off of her arms and hands and face, and somehow make herself clean.
Skye clambered onto the wagon seat and turned themules, only to discover the post's bourgeois, Alexander Barclay, observing him.
"Two cows, poor doings," Skye said.
"Buffalo aplenty here."
Skye repressed his anger. It had been hard enough to come up even with that. Barclay, like himself, was an Englishman, but there the resemblance ended. Barclay knew all about Skye, the deserter from the Royal Navy who had jumped ship at Fort Vancouver and become a mountain man. His obdurate disapproval of Skye stood between them, and had made life at Bent's Fort grim at times, and never joyous.
Skye, not wishing to talk further, hawed the mules, and steered the wagon around to the rear of the post and into the spacious corrals there. He was bone tired but he compelled himself to remove the harness, hang it up on its pegs, rub down and grain the mules, and check their feet for hoof cracks and stone bruises.
By the time he had finished, the gong had sounded. But he headed for his apartment, a cubicle partitioned off from the hunters' quarters, to clean himself. Victoria was there, freshened and ready to eat. She was one of few women on the post, and the only pureblooded Indian, and that made for uneasy circumstances. Some of the engages resented her; others eyed her intently, their designs plain in their gazes. Skye suspected she had fought several off with the glint of her skinning knife, and had chosen not to tell him about it.
He sighed. Bent's Fort had given them security, comfort, a modest wage, and a refuge from weather. But Victoria was too much alone among so many white men, and Skye knew she was enduring life rather than enjoying it. He wasn't faring much better. But the beaver trade was plumb belly-up and a man had few places to turn.
They exited their quarters, passed through the empty dormitory and into the yard, where they encountered Lucas Goddam Murray, the chief trader.
"Say, mate," said Skye, falling in with the trader, "you mind translating for a minute?"
"Planned to eat."
"Standing Alone wants to talk with me."
"Cold meat." He glared. "Well, the day's been ruined enough, so I guess I can translate for the Cheyenne and eat cold stew."
"I'm obliged," Skye said. He steered Lucas and Victoria toward the great cottonwood gate, to see what the savage woman wanted.
Copyright © 2003 by Richard S. Wheeler