Moon of Bitter Cold

Frederick J. Chiaventone, Jr.

Forge Books


 
Istawikawazan
(Moon When The Eyes Are Sore)
 
 
March 1866
 
 
He is called Waziya and every year he comes from beyond the Grandmother’s country, out of the land of the spirits. Cruel and frigid in his thick robes of buffalo fur, he sends his breath soaring over the Dakotas’ granite peaks, down through the close-set pines and out onto the endless prairies beyond. Where Waziya walks he leaves in his wake an icy blanket of white silence. A powerful spirit, his breath is the north wind, which freezes and kills. He makes the mountains and prairies unbearably bright and drives his breath so hard that a man’s eyes water and strain to see. The pronghorn and the elk huddle away from his passing. Pte, the buffalo, turns his heavy, bearded face from Waziya’s gaze. Even Mato Hota‘, the bear, flees to his den rather than face Waziya’s ill humors. They know that Waziya is as unpredictable as he is cruel, and he was particularly cruel this year. Along the banks of the Powder River, deep in the sheltering pines, a small camp circle of the Brulé lay helpless under his assault, the snow swept high against the sides of the lodges, the smoke of their fires driven sideways from the darkened lodgepoles as it fled before the killing wind. And in one lodge a darkness was descending that could not be lifted and blown away into the forest beyond, even if that spirit had been willing to do this thing.
Within the smoke-blackened hides of that lodge, as Waziya swept out of the Grandmother’s country and keened through the frozen landscape with a mournful sound, a numbing fear gripped Sinté-Galeska, the man the whites called Spotted Tail. It was almost as if the Everywhere Spirit himself was wailing at the condition of his child Mni Aku Win. Brings Back Water, for that was her name, almost but not quite a woman, who lay pale and trembling under the buffalo robes. He had placed her pallet to one side so that as people entered and left the lodge the sharp, wind-driven cold would not cause her any more discomfort. She was his true joy in life and to see her like this, her small frame wracked by the hacking spasms that sent her into convulsions and brought a bloodied foam to dribble from her lips, tore at his heart. When he looked at her he saw so much of her mother in her face. How he missed her.
Her mother had just been this age when he’d first seen her—seventeen and a great beauty. He had always had a great fondness for women, but her mother, she had been so different, so special. Her name was Anpetu Otanin and she was exactly as her name described her—Appearing Dream. It was as if she had appeared to him out of his dreams and their love had consumed him. He had had to fight to win her from Running Bear, who was favored by her parents. Spotted Tail had slain his rival but been terribly wounded by a wicked thrust from the man’s lance, and Appearing Dream had nursed him back to health despite the horror of her parents. Afterward all agreed that theirs was a true love match, and this was ever more evident as the years went by. When the other men took more than one wife, Spotted Tail remained true only to Appearing Dream. There was, he would say to them, no other woman that he could see, or that he wanted to see. There was no other woman with whom he would share his robes.
When the coughing sickness took her from him he thought he would never smile again, but it was their daughter who saved him from his despair. Beautiful, mischievous, and with eyes that sparkled with curiosity and joy. It was no wonder that so many of the young men pursued her with such passion. But she would have none of them. She was as independent and stubborn as Spotted Tail’s own mother, Walks As She Thinks, and took delight in brushing the young men away. She took them no more seriously than one took the flies that buzzed around the stew pots in the summer.
“Don’t bother me with your silliness,” she would say to them with a laugh. “What do I want with a foolish boy like you? Someday I will marry a great warrior like my father with many horses and a fine wooden lodge where the wind will not seep through in the winter and freeze your eyes shut.”
Spotted Tail had at first been amused and relieved by her easy dismissal of her callow suitors—he didn’t want to lose her so soon. He knew he would miss not having her fussing about him—making sure that he ate properly, insisting that he wear heavy robes when he went out in the cold winters, scolding him for suggesting that she go a bit easier on her admirers. But this “Capitan” that she always brought up had begun to worry him. He had thought her Capitan was but another invention of her impish nature until he had seen her one day during a visit to the white man’s Fort Laramie. She had wandered off. He had thought it was to look at the goods in the sutler’s store, but when he took himself off to the river to be away from the incessant chattering of the white traders and the squaws and their boisterous children, he saw her there among the cottonwoods with a man. He had been stunned to see them together—Brings Back Water, his own daughter, the daughter of a great warrior and war chief, together with a white man, a wasichu. And a soldier at that! He had slipped unseen into the willows to watch them, the soldier, tall and erect, his uniform sparkling with brass, his daughter with her dark eyes looking adoringly up into the soldier’s. The tall young man, wearing white gloves, had taken his daughter’s hand and held it to his lips. Spotted Tail was speechless, his head swam to imagine what this might mean. How could she do this to him? How could she do this to her people? He had waited until they left Laramie before he brought up the subject with her, and they had had the worst, really the only, argument they had ever had between them.
“You cannot see this wasichu!” he had demanded. “I won’t allow it!” But she had remained unmoved by his anger.
“I will marry my Capitan when I am ready, Father,” she retorted, her eyes flashing. “I will have no one else but him. Certainly not these foolish children who call themselves warriors.” She stuck her chin defiantly into the air. And then, before he realized what he was doing, he struck her, for the first time in her life. His only child. His only love. And he regretted it immediately as the tears sprang to her eyes. “Go ahead and beat me if you wish,” she’d said, sobbing. “But Mother would know what is in my heart. She knew what it was to listen to her heart rather than her parents’ words. This, you of all people should know.”
She could have said nothing which would have been better calculated to crush his resistance. He had looked into her eyes and seen her mother. He had seen what Appearing Dream’s father must have seen when she rejected Running Bear and embraced his killer, healed his wounds, shared his blanket. Brings Back Water sat in a far corner of the lodge sobbing and Spotted Tail sat down heavily, his heart numb, his throat dry and tongue swollen, his head spinning. What had he done? What could he do? What, indeed, would Appearing Dream have said to him?
And now, what difference would it make? What did it matter?
Spotted Tail was distraught. Now, in the watches of the night, he sat, his brow creased by deep furrows, hunched over in the dim interior of the smoky lodge, watching his child, her delicate, round face all that protruded from under the buffalo robes, the smooth forehead glistening with sweat. In the orange glow of the central fire, which was the only source of light, the warrior listened hollow-eyed to the mumblings of the old medicine man. The Pejuta Wicasa1 squinted as he dug in his bag for his charms and potions. But never before had his little girl been this sick, and nothing the medicine man did seemed to make any difference whatsoever. Although Spotted Tail had not yet seen forty winters he was beginning to look much older. And now his daughter’s illness had etched deeper the lines on his face and caused dark rings to form under his eyes, which were red from lack of sleep.
“What have you got in, your wozuta pejuta to cure my daughter, old man?” Spotted Tail asked sardonically, nodding toward the leather bag in which the medicine man was rummaging. The old healer screwed up his lips and scowled at Spotted Tail.
“You know better than to ask, Sinté-Galeska!” the old man grumbled. “I have what your daughter needs and that is all you need to know. You must leave now. What must be done is between me and the Everywhere Spirit. You will only break the medicine if you remain.”
The Pejuta Wicasa began tossing cedar chips into the fire, filling the interior of the lodge with a thick, aromatic smoke that assaulted the nostrils and made Spotted Tail’s eyes begin to well with tears. The medicine man then picked up a small drum and began to beat a slow rhythm on it. He cast a disapproving glance at the girl’s father. Spotted Tail grunted and turned toward the flap of the lodge. The healer stopped his drumming.
Sinté-Galeska,” he said, his voice betraying an uncommon gentleness. “I will do everything in. my power to heal your child.” Spotted Tail did not reply but only cast a pained look at his daughter and pushed his way out into the snow and the darkness.
A dark shape looming in the swirls of snowflakes was waiting for him outside. It was his old friend Two Strike, a heavy buffalo robe wrapped around his shoulders to ward off the cold. He put his arm around Spotted Tail and led him gently away as the muffled sound of the small drum began again only to be drowned out by the howling of the wind in the creaking pines. Two Strike had never been a very smart man, but he was a fierce and skillful fighter and no man could claim a warmer and more loyal friend. Whatever Spotted Tail did, wherever he went, whatever ordeal he might face, he could depend on Two Strike’s friendship and unquestioning support.
Two Strike’s wife, who had been waiting for them in his lodge, pushed tin cups of steaming soup at the two men, who took them in stiff fingers. Two Strike slurped his soup noisily, but his friend only sat and stared blankly in the direction from which they had just come.
“Try not to worry, old friend,” Two Strike said gently. “He is doing everything he can for her.”
“It’s not enough,” Spotted Tail grunted. “I know you won’t approve but I’ve asked for the White Medicine Chief to come to help her.”
Two Strike raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t look at me so,” Spotted Tail said. “She is my daughter and I will try anything and anyone who can possibly make her well. This coughing sickness is something which the wasichu brought with them and perhaps their medicine chief knows what to do to take it away.” He paused for a moment and then, as if in explanation, said quietly, “She asked me to bring him here and the Black Robe, too.”
Two Strike nodded slowly.
“I’m not questioning you,” Two Strike said. “But I don’t think you should expect the medicine chief to come soon. I’ve heard that the whites have many sick now too and I think he’ll have to help them before he can come to see your daughter. Little Crow told me this when he came to tell us of the council at the fort. The white soldier chief Mah-nah-deer has sent out word for the chiefs to come to the fort when there is grass enough to feed the ponies.” Two Strike shrugged and stared into his tin cup. “Maybe the Black Robe will come to us here but I don’t think his medicine is any better than ours.”
“If the medicine chief will not come,” Spotted Tail said grimly, “then we’ll go to him. He has many medicines there and perhaps it will take all of them to make her well.”
Two Strike said nothing but glanced at his wife, who only shook her head. A chill ran down his spine and he gripped the tin cup even tighter as if trying to squeeze the last drop of warmth into his fingers. Brings Back Water was dying. He knew it, his wife knew it, and, Two Strike suspected, everyone in the camp knew the inevitable outcome of this illness. Everyone, that is, except her father.
* * *
Whatever the PEJUTA WICASA did, it was, as Spotted
Tail had feared, not enough, and in the morning his daughter was still feverish. The coughing fits seemed to come more frequently and between the violent bouts of hacking her breath was more shallow and labored. He could wait no longer. The wind had died in the night and now, with a bright sun overhead, he pushed his small band into a frenzy of activity as they broke down the lodges and prepared for the long trip to Fort Laramie and whatever potions and charms the white medicine chief might have. He tried to supervise the women who prepared to move the wisp of a girl to the waiting horses, but Walks Among Clouds Woman chased him away with a scowl and an impatient wave of her hand.
So Spotted Tail stood motionless and feeling utterly helpless as Brings Back Water was carried tenderly to a waiting travois and placed on a thick cushion of buffalo robes. Other robes were piled over her and rawhide ropes used to fasten down their edges so that no breeze could sift in to chill the girl further. Two Strike tried to distract his friend by talking about the journey they were taking, suggesting where they might best be able to pitch their next camp, speculating on how long it would take them to reach the fort, wondering about the weather and how deep the snow might have fallen in the miles ahead. But to every comment Spotted Tail merely grunted in response and Two Strike knew that he might as well have been talking to the snow as about it.
The small procession moved doggedly south, pushing through drifted snow which was all too often crusted by frequent storms of sleet. Their moccasins and leggings were quickly shredded by the jagged edges of their own footprints. When they stopped to camp the men used their war clubs to break through the ice-plated streams to water the animals. Spotted Tail refused to ride his favorite pony but walked slowly alongside his daughter’s travois, his hand grasping tightly one of the trailing poles as if he could somehow lessen the jolting motion of the litter. With every rasping cough that came from the bouncing travois his chest tightened as if Gnaskinyan’s2 hand of ice had reached in to try to squeeze the very life from his heart. The old warrior raged inwardly at his own helplessness. Why could he not protect her? If it were an enemy he could see he could smash his head with his club, wring the life from him with his bare hands. If the white “Capitan” had done this he could rip his scalp from his head. Tear his heart from his chest and eat it while it still beat! But this sickness, this invisible enemy! The bravest, the most skilled warrior in the world was helpless against his attack. He gagged on his own bile trying not to curse the Everywhere Spirit for allowing such enemies to prey on this world.
There was a faint murmuring from the small, heavily bundled form and the old warrior glanced over to see his daughter’s lips moving weakly. He detected a slight movement under the buffalo robes and knew that she was fumbling with the little string of beads that she had been given by the Black Robe the summer before. She must be saying the prayers the Black Robe had taught her. Spotted Tail clenched his teeth together and fought to hold back the tears. Everything was changing too fast. The wasichu were making everything change and he felt powerless to do anything to stop them. He had tried to fight them and it had cost him a year of his life as a prisoner of the whites at their Fort Leavenworth.
Hosti! The things he had seen! Everywhere he had turned there were bluecoats and more bluecoats every day as they came and went to the great war that they fought among themselves. And however many came and went they were always followed by others as if there was no end to them. They seemed to spring from the very earth itself like the grass in the spring.
It was while at Fort Leavenworth that he had begun to have his doubts that the Lakota could ever stop them. Since then much had happened that seemed to confirm his worst fears. The whites had ended the great war and spring would bring them in ever-increasing numbers through this country. In the times gone by, most had simply passed through and were gone. But this would not last forever. More and more would decide to stay, and the Lakota, if they could not drive them out, would have to find some way to live with them. But how could one even live with them? The Southern Cheyenne had tried and it had done them no good. Black Kettle had even put the white soldiers’ flag over their camp and the Shiny-eyed Eagle Chief had tried to kill them all anyway3. White Antelope, one of the Cheyenne who believed that the whites were his friends, had been shot down while he tried to talk to the bluecoats and died singing his death song:
* * *
Nothing lives forever…only the earth and the mountains…”
* * *
The Cheyenne they called Left Hand too had died near the soldiers’ flag believing that they were his friends. Sitting Bull the Hunkpapa and Dull Knife of the Northern Cheyenne did not believe that the white man was a friend and had tried to fight against the Star Chief Connor. But that too had been a disaster. It was all so confusing. It seemed that nothing they did was the right thing. When they fought the whites they lost. When they didn’t fight the whites they were killed like buffalo calves and chased from their land. When they tried to do what the whites asked, somehow it was turned around on them and came out wrong. White Antelope and Left Hand had tried to with the whites and what had it brought them?
Now his own daughter too had been touched by these strange times. He wished that he had never taken her to Fort Laramie in the first place. He wished that she had never seen her “Capitan.” But he could deny her nothing and when she had finally seen the wondrous things the white men had her eyes had lit up like the bright morning star. She was such a beautiful child that even the wasichu could not help but fall in love with her and they had given her many presents. She had become especially fond of the Black Robe, the one the whites called Father O’Hara. O’Hara was a man of Spotted Tail’s own age with a kind face and who spoke with the wasichu’s Great Spirit. Brings Back Water had spent hours talking with him and he had even come to visit their camp afterward, always bringing with him sweet things for the children to eat and always a special gift of some sort for Brings Back Water. The girl had come to love the wasichu and all they had given her in return were a few trinkets and now the coughing sickness.
His head hurt. It was so hard to know what to do next. He was afraid to take her back among the whites but he was even more afraid not to take her to them. What if the whites were the only ones who knew how to make the coughing sickness go away? But, in the end, the fact that she wanted him to take her to them was what had decided him. What would he not do for her? Even if it meant taking her back among the whites. Even if it meant losing her to her “Capitan.”
They were such a strange people. They were very clever in some ways—the things they made out of metal were indeed wonderful, especially their guns. But they brought so many strange and not so wonderful things with them: the water that made men crazy and strange sicknesses that killed the Lakota quickly. To Spotted Tail perhaps one of the more disturbing of these strange things was the idea of time. The whites always talked about it when he was at their fort. “It is time to do this and time to do that. What time is it? How much time do we have left?” He had never thought much about it before—this thing they called time. It had meant nothing to him. And yet now that he was aware of time he felt oppressed by it. The days crept by. The nights lasted forever. Every moment seemed to hang on him like the fog hangs on the river in the early morning—gray and wet and cold. Hiding the land. Hiding tomorrow. It closed in on him. Stole his breath. Stole his sleep. Before he had never known or needed this thing called time and now he could not escape it. He had too much of time and his daughter not enough of it. He wanted less and he wanted more. He mourned its passing. Dreaded its coming. A man could never know what evil this thing called time would bring with it.
It was just when the sun had risen for the fourth time in their journey that a familiar figure appeared coming out of the trees. At first it was nothing more than a small dark spot moving against the expanse of white. It could have been a small moose, an elk, perhaps even a lone buffalo. But it proved to be the Black Robe on his mule. It was a particularly noisy animal that made honking noises like a goose but it seemed that Father O’Hara rather enjoyed the animal’s company. His skinny legs dangled far down the animal’s flanks and he was bundled up in a heavy coat against the bitter cold, his breath trailing behind him like a small white cloud. Spotted Tail could almost smile to see that although the Black Robe was clearly a white man, the cold had turned the priest’s nose and ears to a bright red color. In the cold months the wasichu seemed to be the real redskins in this country. The Black Robe, squinting against the glare of the snow, recognized Spotted Tail immediately and jammed his heels into the flanks of the mule, who brayed and scampered forward to meet the procession, clods of snow flying up from his hooves. As he came up to the travois the Black Robe flung himself down from his mount and rushed up to the anguished father.
“Spotted Tail,” the white man said in the traditional Lakota greeting, “I see your face.”
“I see your face, Black Robe,” the Brulé said, glancing past the priest into the snowy forest beyond. “Have you brought the White Medicine Chief with you?”
The priest, who was at least a foot shorter than Spotted Tail, shook his head as he looked over at the man’s child. The warrior examined the Black Robe’s face and saw the concern registered in the man’s eyes. Also, the little priest tried hard to use the Lakota’s own tongue and even knew the strange little twists which the Brulé put on it. It usually amused Spotted Tail that the priest’s most frequent mistakes were in using women’s expressions—a fairly natural mistake for a white man to make, as they usually learned what they knew of the Lakota tongue from women. The irony that most amused Spotted Tail was that the Black Robe would not have learned from women in the same way as most whites. He knew the Black Robe did not take an interest in women that way. This man was so different from the other wasichu and Spotted Tail found himself wondering why, if the whites had to come, they couldn’t all be more like this little Black Robe.
“No, friend. I have not brought the medicine chief,” the priest said finally. “There are still many sick ones at the fort and he cannot leave them yet.”
Father O’Hara moved to the side of the travois opposite the girl’s father and, removing his heavy mitten with his teeth, placed a thin, white hand upon the child’s head. He muttered something quietly and Spotted Tail knew that the man was offering a prayer to his Great Spirit for his little girl. After a moment the priest looked up from the girl.
“But the Eagle Chief, Colonel Maynardier,” O’Hara said, “has commanded that the surgeon, uh, the medicine chief, make ready to receive your daughter and he has ordered that she will receive anything which is needful to make sure that she becomes well again.”
Spotted Tail again looked deeply into the man’s eyes and saw that he was saying only what he believed to be true. The Black Robe was very fond of Brings Back Water, that was no secret, and he must have ridden hard to bring this news to the Lakota. The fort was still over a day’s march away and it was a brave white man who ventured alone into the snow at this time of year. The warrior nodded his acknowledgment to the Black Robe and turned his eyes back to the trail that stretched before them. They were coming down out of the hills now and there would be little to protect them from the winds that would surely come as the sun set. Soon they would have to find a place where they could shelter for the night.
* * *
The scouts located a place out of the wind and the women had hastily erected a lodge and carried the girl in out of the cold. As dusk was falling a light flurry of snow had begun to whirl about the small encampment and fires had been started to ward off the cold and to cook the evening meal. Father O’Hara, who had been concerned for Brings Back Water’s health, was now a very depressed man. Even in the dimly lit interior of the lodge O’Hara could see that Brings Back Water’s condition was deteriorating rapidly. Her breathing had become little more than a hollow rasping and blood trickled in a constant stream from a corner of her delicate lips. The girl drifted in and out of consciousness and beads of sweat stood out on her forehead as the priest dabbed gently at it with his own handkerchief. He mumbled prayers over and over in a low monotone and his fingers traced the pattern of small crosses on her forehead and lips.
“Should I go away, holy man?” Spotted Tail asked quietly.
O’Hara glanced up from his charge, a puzzled look in his eyes.
“Will my presence ruin your medicine for my child?” the warrior asked.
“Ann,” O’Hara said, and shook his head.
Now he understood. The Brulé’s medicine men must insist on secrecy for their ministrations. He was angry for a moment before he thought of his own religion and reflected that few of his flock at Fort Laramie must understand the Latin phrases that he uttered at mass or at times like this. Perhaps there wasn’t as much of a difference between himself and the most illiterate Wicasa Wakan after all. Black robes, white collars, and rosary beads or buffalo hides, feathers, and rattles—what difference did it all make in the end? This girl, this beautiful child, was dying. He had seen consumption before and knew that she was beyond any help in this world. Red prayers or white, it didn’t matter, either would have the same effect—nothing. What good could he do her or her father now? What comfort could he bring to her or this strong old warrior whose only joy in the world was contained in this fragile vessel shivering under his pale hands? Was his God any better than Spotted Tail’s Wakan Tanka! O’Hara closed his eyes tight and felt the tears burning as they slipped down his windburned cheeks.
“No, my friend,” O’Hara said in a whisper. “You mustn’t leave her now.” The priest reached over and pulled Spotted Tail’s arm to him and then placed the little girl’s delicate fingers into her father’s large hand, closing the man’s fingers tightly around the child‘s.
Brings Back Water’s eyes flickered open and she smiled weakly at Father O’Hara. She then turned to her father, whose ruddy face was already stained with tears.
Atkuku,” she whispered. “You will take me to the fort, Papa? It is such a wonderful place!”
“Yes, my heart.” He choked the words out. “I will take you to wherever your heart wishes to be. I will give to you anything that your heart wishes to have. That which you wish, I wish. I will take you to your Capitan. You are my light and my heart. You…” The warrior could say no more, for his throat seemed to have closed up on him and his chest heaved violently as he grasped the tiny hand in his own rough paw.
In Nomine Patri, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…” The Black Robe was chanting in his strange tongue again. Outside the snow whirled and skittered through the thinned trees and Waziya had begun to howl across the frigid plains beyond.
* * *
With the dawn the snow had changed over to a cut-ting storm of sleet driven by high winds. To move any further in these conditions would have been foolhardy even had Spotted Tail and his small band been inclined to do so. But they were not. The camp woke to hear the warrior singing a death song for his daughter, and Walks Among Clouds Woman and the other women soon took up his sorrowful keening. None truly noticed the weather, which, if anything, was more appropriate to their grief than had the sun broken through the dismal grayness of the day.
The little priest had remained by the girl and her father throughout the painful night, quietly administering last rites to the child, and then slipped from the lodge to leave the brokenhearted warrior with his child. O’Hara wandered away from the small encampment to allow the man his grief. It seemed to the small Irishman hard enough for the Brulé that his daughter had so willingly embraced the white man’s religion. He didn’t think his presence would serve any purpose beyond forcing the man to share his sorrow with a wasichu. O’Hara’s bishop would probably not have approved of this solicitude but the little priest didn’t care. The bishop was not here and would never deign to come here. O’Hara was determined to leave the man in peace.
It was Two Strike who noticed the Black Robe’s absence and followed the priest’s footprints, tracking him easily into a small stand of trees. He would fetch him back to the encampment before the man got himself lost. The warrior shook his head to find the little holy man sitting on a rock weeping into the face of the storm. He pushed through the snow to stand behind the man, then reached out and placed his hand on his shoulder.
“Black Robe,” the warrior said, his voice straining to be heard above the wind. “Do you want to freeze to death out here? Come back to the camp and warm yourself. Another death will not help anything.” Two Strike shook his head. “I have always thought that you whites were fools. I don’t need you to prove this to me.”
The priest nodded and trudged dutifully behind the Bruté as he led him back toward the others. They had not gone more than a few yards when Two Strike stopped suddenly and pulled the priest to a halt, holding his hand up for silence. The priest stood there dumbly, for the first time noticing that his feet had begun to grow numb with the cold. Two Strike appeared to be listening to something but all O’Hara could hear was the wind. A few moments passed before O’Hara recognized the source of Two Strike’s interest. Off through the trees he could now hear the sharp jingling of metal and the faint creaking sounds of a wagon. A few minutes passed before the sounds came more distinctly to them and were joined by the voices of men and the snorting of horses. O’Hara pushed past the Brute to see who was making the sounds. When the warrior tried to hold him back the priest removed the man’s hand gently from his sleeve.
“It’s all right, Two Strike,” he said quietly. “They’re obviously whites and until we know who they are it’s best that they see me first. Even a nervous white man is less inclined to shoot at a Black Robe.”
The warrior nodded and let the priest move out toward the trail, but he cast anxious glances back toward his camp. If these whites meant trouble he would have to move quickly to warn the others. He silently cursed his own foolishness for having wandered away from the camp without bringing his rifle along. But his fears were unfounded, for O’Hara quickly recognized a small troop of soldiers from Fort Laramie and, in the lead, their commander himself, Colonel Maynardier.
“Father O’Hara!” Maynardier called out. “I’m afraid the surgeon is still taken up with the sick at Laramie but I’ve brought an ambulance and a medical orderly along to have a look at the girl.” Maynardier would have said more but he could tell from the look on O’Hara’s face that he had come too late. “Oh, dear” was all he could manage. But there was no look of remonstrance on the priest’s face.
“No, Colonel,” O’Hara said, shaking his head. “You could have come a week ago and brought all the surgeons in the world with ye and it’d ha’ been of no use anyway. It was consumption and no hope whatever. I’ve not said anything to her father on that score but I will explain it to him when he has had time to mourn her. Knowing that you could not have helped may not ease the pain but the fact that you even tried cannot hurt you in his eyes. Come, we can at least provide him escort to the fort.”
The colonel hoped that O’Hara was right. He was under a great deal of pressure from the people in Washington now that the war in the east was over. Those treaties which had been in effect with these tribes were worse than useless because none of the tribes’ war leaders had signed up for them. With people starting to move west again, and likely in numbers far greater than ever before, the chances of friction between them and these people were much more serious. If he was going to keep Washington happy he needed people like Spotted Tail and Red Cloud to come over to his side. He would also need to do something with Dull Knife and Black Horse. The Northern Cheyenne had not always had the best of relations with the Sioux and while some would think this an opportunity to be exploited Maynardier did not share this opinion. If the Sioux and Cheyenne clashed here it could easily involve whites and that would soon lead to a general Indian war. The colonel pinched the bridge of his nose as if he could force the throbbing in his head out through his nostrils.
That damned fanatic in Colorado had really complicated matters. Those militia hooligans butchering those people had done nothing but turn a generally peaceful band of Southern Cheyennes into a vengeful enemy. What an ugly business that had been. All the apologies and mea culpas in the world would not undo Sand Creek, would not bring back the dead men, women and children—or the dead trust. Christ, but that had been madness! And it was just more trouble for him. The Cheyenne in the Dakota Territory doubtless knew of the massacre of their cousins in Colorado. It would be a close thing to convince them that the meeting at Laramie was anything less than a ruse to lure them to the slaughter. Even now Newton Edmunds, the newly appointed “governor” of the Dakota Territory, and his commissioners were moving up the Missouri in hopes of holding a grand council at Fort Laramie. Maynardier had already sent couriers out to all the tribes, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, trying to convince their chiefs, and better yet, their war leaders, to come in to the talk. He knew some, like the recalcitrant young Hunkpapa, Sitting Bull, would refuse. Sand Creek was too fresh in their minds. But others, men like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, might still be persuaded to attend. If an army escort for a dead girl and her father could help bring more of the tribes to the council, then so be it.
* * *
In the end, Colonel Maynardier did more than provide an escort. Something in Spotted Tail’s demeanor touched the colonel deeply, although if asked to explain it he could not. Maybe it was the single tear that he had seen tracing down the warrior’s cheek that had done it. He didn’t know. But when the party finally reached Laramie he granted the bereaved warrior a most unusual request. Brings Back Water was to be allowed to rest in the post cemetery. Maynardier personally supervised the erection of a traditional Sioux burial scaffold, a stark spidery framework that towered incongruously over the simple headboards of soldiers, wives, and infants. Spotted Tail slew his daughter’s favorite ponies. He wrapped the tails tightly with strips of trade cloth and tied them to the upright poles, the bright red streamers snapping and dancing crazily in the cold wind like mad dogs straining at their tethers.
And then it was time. Light flurries of snow swirled and eddied around the headboards, the names of the dead crusted over with white crystals clinging to the cracked and weathered wood. And, winding slowly up the hill from the buildings below came a small group of people, Indians and soldiers together, bearing a new offering for the land of the spirits. If the white dead objected to their newest member they said not a word but lay silent beneath the frigid hillside listening to the muffled drums that beat slowly to announce her coming. Soldiers, the small capes of their blue greatcoats flapping in the wind, bore Brings Back Water’s blanket-wrapped coffin to the scaffold. Colonel Maynardier, standing alongside of Spotted Tail, stopped the soldiers with a raised hand. He tugged off his heavy gauntlets and placed them carefully on the top of the coffin.
“So that your daughter’s hands shall not be cold on her journey,” he said to her father. Spotted Tail nodded silently.
Maynardier laid a hand on Spotted Tail’s arm. “My friend,” he said quietly, “do you see our flag there at the fort? See how there are red stripes and white together. The wind blows the flag and it waves and the red stripes and the white are moved by it but they are together and in peace. There is room for each and so is there room here for us all, red and white, to live together in peace.” For a moment the distraught father thought that this man was scolding him for his objection to Brings Back Water’s love for a soldier, but it was quickly obvious, even to Spotted Tail, that Maynardier knew nothing of this. He had been speaking not as a soldier, or a white man, but only as a man.
The bearded soldiers, their ears and noses reddened by the cold, their breath billowing into the frigid air, struggled to lift the coffin into place far above the surrounding graves. The Lakota women, shrouded in heavy robes of buffalo fur, stood huddled to one side of the cemetery, unwilling to disturb the resident dead. They trilled and wailed a death song for their departed sister. Below the scaffold a party of soldiers pointed their rifles to the sky and fired a salute, the long dark barrels exploding with flame and smoke.
As a final gesture, Colonel Maynardier had arranged for the post’s artillerymen to man one of the small mountain howitzers out on the parade ground. At the marking of each hour of the long night the gunner snatched the lanyard back and the small brass mouth roared, the hollow boom echoing over the windswept plains. It would, the colonel assured Spotted Tail, hold any evil spirits at bay. The warrior had said nothing but his eyes conveyed his thanks better than any interpreter could have rendered into speech.
But then, when the ceremonies were done, when the mourning party and the firing party had gone back to their barracks and their homes and their lodges, even as the night passed, as the new dawn approached and the moon dropped toward the horizon, a lone figure stood in the dusk, an arm wrapped tightly around one of the poles supporting the scaffold, a cheek pressed hard against it, his tall frame shuddering but not with the chill of the night. Spotted Tail, his heart broken, stood beneath his little girl and thought how queer it was. He had never thought that he would see the kindness that a white soldier had showed to him on this day—surely the blackest in his life. Never had he thought that the name his people gave to this month would have such a deep meaning. It was indeed for him, and would forever be, the Moon When The Eyes Are Sore.
1 Pejuta Wicasa: A “medicine man,” more properly a healer skilled in the use of natural potions, herbs, poultices, and such, and not to be confused with a Wicasa Wakan, or “holy man,” who deals with visions and sacred issues.
2 Gnaskinyan: A malevolent spirit, sometimes called Crazy Buffalo or the Demon Buffalo and considered the most to be feared of the evil gods.
3 A clear reference to the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of November 1864. With U.S. regular forces pulled away by the ongoing Civil War, Colorado (like many western territories) was left to handle its own security affairs. John Chivington, an ambitious and politically minded Methodist minister from Denver, got himself appointed as colonel of the Colorado Volunteer Militia and set out to rid the area of its Indian population. His attack on the peaceful village of Southern Cheyenne led by Black Kettle resulted in a terrible slaughter of innocents and loosed a frightful Indian war on the citizens of Colorado. Congressional investigations of the incident condemned Chivington’s actions but the harm was already done.
 
Copyright © 2002 by Frederick J. Chiaventone