Copyright © 2017 by Derek Catron

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CHAPTER ONE

 Annabelle Rutledge heard the big miner plod into the store before she saw him.

His boots fell heavy against the pine board floors. Without looking she knew she would have to sweep again. The miners tracked in so much mud from Virginia City’s gold-laced streams it was a wonder the town’s surrounding hills hadn’t been worn to rocky nubs.

Her eyes flickered past the errand boy from Kessler’s brewery who stood at the counter, and she took in Clawson’s burly figure. He stood before a row of shelves filled with canned goods. His head bobbed like a grazing buffalo, but his dull eyes never left her.

Annabelle took her pencil to Kessler’s shopping list. The boy was illiterate, so she showed him her mark next to each item on the list and where she had packed it in the boxes on the counter. The boy nodded as if he could read the words. He smiled at her diligence, grateful, she suspected, for being saved a cuffing if he failed to return with everything.

Clawson cleared his throat with an animal grunt until she met his gaze.

“I’ll be with you in a moment.” She forced a smile she hoped struck as cold as the winds off Montana’s snow-capped peaks.

She returned her attention to the boy and calculated the bill. Gold was the region’s currency since its discovery in Alder Gulch in 1863. A dollar’s pinch of dust could buy a man a dance and a drink at one of the hurdy-gurdy houses. Annabelle wondered what two dollars might procure, but she never asked. The trip west after the war had shed many of her conceptions about what constituted good manners, but vestiges of her Charleston decorum endured.

While she completed the tally, the boy fingered a set of tools her father had purchased that morning from a miner headed back east. Years of hard labor in the gulch had left the man richer in experience than in the pocket.

Optimism gleamed like gold in the boy’s eyes, and she recalled the words an old man once spoke to her. “A young man’s hope will outlive any run of disappointments.”

She smiled, recalling the Union cavalry officer who’d led her family’s wagon train most of the way from Omaha. The Colonel—no one dared call him by his given name—was laid up at Fort Phil Kearny near the Bighorn Mountains, wounded in a battle with Indians. She missed his avuncular wisdom, but he had never been a miner, and life in the goldfields might have tested his aphorism.

The boy hefted a pick in his soft hands while she completed the invoice. “You have a mind for staking a claim, do you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Annabelle intended her query as a jape, for the boy was too slight by half to work as a placer miner. Seeing his earnestness, she knew he meant what he said. Thousands of miners had rushed to the area, pulling millions of dollars from the creeks and hillsides in the past three years. With the war’s end, even more settlers came. By the time Annabelle and her extended family arrived two months earlier, intent on rebuilding their fortunes as shopkeepers in a boomtown, Virginia City stood as capital of the country’s newest territory.

“I’m saving my money to buy a stake,” the boy said. Pride showed in the set of his jaw.

“It’s hard work.”

Early arrivals told of scooping a pan into the stream, swirling the water over the edge to carry away the sand and walking away with enough gold in the bottom of their pan to buy dinner. It was no longer so easy. Deposits lay as many as twelve to twenty feet below the creek’s surface, making for backbreaking work even for men as big as Clawson.

He moved to hover over Annabelle and the boy, his frame casting a shadow across them and the shelves behind. Standing so close, Annabelle choked on the stench of dried sweat and dead animal. She had been ill that morning, and her stomach roiled at his odor. She stepped behind the counter to give herself space as he loomed over the boy.

“If you’re not going to buy those tools, why don’t you skedaddle?”

His face split into a grimace Annabelle figured was supposed to be a smile. Clawson was a powerful man, the muscles in his shoulders and back bulging beneath his cotton shirt. Such a man would have unnerved Annabelle once, but she had endured too much in her twenty-five years to quake before anyone in the store that bore her family’s name.

After her husband’s disappearance during the war, she oversaw a plantation. She mourned the deaths of two brothers and made the decision on her own to sell out and finance her family’s trek west with enough goods to start a business. Not everyone had survived the journey through disputed Indian lands, but those who did were made stronger by the experience.

“Wait your turn or go,” she snapped.

Clawson scowled at the boy and cleared his throat with a menacing rumble.

The boy took the hint.

“I need to get,” he told Annabelle, his eyes turned up toward Clawson. “Mr. Kessler will tan my hide if I’m gone too long.”

He swept the packed boxes from the counter, staggered a moment beneath their weight, and shuffled toward the French doors, leaving Annabelle alone with Clawson.

*****

The look Clawson gave her brought to mind a man who sits down to a steak dinner after a week of hardtack. The man often visited the store but rarely purchased anything. He came instead to look over the wares, including Annabelle—appraising her dark hair and lithe figure as if she were for sale like one of the girls in the town’s many sporting houses.

Annabelle sighed. She was accustomed to unwanted attention from men, but there was a lot more of it since Josey had left.

Josef Anglewicz, known even in these parts as Josey Angel, had been the wagon train’s scout but became much more to Annabelle. She had mocked him the first time she saw him. Wearing four pistols and a rifle slung over his shoulder, he looked to her like a boy playing bandit. That was before she had seen him use those guns.

She didn’t doubt Josey loved her. For the six weeks he stayed with her while they recuperated from the trail, she knew the kind of love she’d convinced herself existed only in fairy tales and poetry. Then Josey left, gone to retrieve the Colonel, he said. Annabelle wondered if he would return. They’d exchanged harsh words before their parting. Well, she had spoken harshly. Annabelle had never known Josey to speak that way. A man who worked a Henry rifle the way he did had little use for sharp words.

No, Josey just brooded. And left. Which was worse. Because when Josey Angel came into the store, even men like Clawson stood back. Now there was nothing to forestall Clawson’s attention. His eyes took her in head to foot and lingered at what lay between.

“Do you want anything?”

Another grimace-smile split Clawson’s wide face, his lips thick and wet behind a beard so coarse it brought to mind a buffalo snout. The gears in what passed for the machinery of his animal mind were grinding their way toward a clever retort, and Annabelle regretted her choice of words.

“Be careful what you say next if you ever want to shop here again.”

He nodded, but his expression hadn’t changed. He pointed to the shelf over her shoulder. “Are those peaches?”

Annabelle didn’t have to look to know the cans were marked. “That’s what it says.”

“I like peaches.” He smacked his lips for emphasis. “I’ll take those.”

Annabelle knew his mind—it wasn’t hard to figure. The peaches he pointed to were on the top shelf. She would need the ladder her father kept behind the counter to reach them, providing her uncouth customer a generous view of her bustle as she did so.

She would have laughed at the pathetic ploy if she hadn’t thought Clawson would be charmed by her reaction. Not for the first time she saw the parallel between the attentions of men and those of a dog begging at the dinner table. His mouth was open as she reached for the ladder—and stopped.

“Let me see your money first.”

His snout glistening in the light from the windows, Clawson drew a gold nugget from the pocket of his vest. Nuggets were rare for placer miners. A gold nugget the size of a silver dollar carried a value of two hundred-fifty dollars. This one, the size of Annabelle’s smallest fingernail, was worth about twenty. Finding such a nugget could make a man feel full of sand.

“You can make change, I expect.”

“No doubt.”

Her fingers twined around the ladder’s side rail. She turned her back to him, feeling his eager eyes on her. She placed one foot on the ladder’s bottom rung—and stopped. “Oh, look. I have some peaches here.” She drew out an identical can from a lower shelf and placed it on the counter. “That will be one dollar.”

His eyes hardened, and Annabelle sensed anger that made her cautious. Stupid men were the most dangerous of all.

His voice thundered. “I don’t want those peaches.” He pointed to the top shelf. “I want those.”

Annabelle spoke in the soothing tone she would use on a skittish horse. “All right. Just a moment.”

She’d had her fun. Now he would have his. No harm would come from looking. He could brag about it later to the boys at the faro table before he lost the rest of his money. She climbed the ladder, mindful of her long skirt and heeled shoes. She extended her arm toward the peaches. Just as her fingers wrapped around the can, something pushed against the fabric of her dress.

“I aim to get my money’s worth.”

His voice was hoarse and throaty. Annabelle felt cool air against her leg as he hiked up her skirt and petticoats past the knee. Her breath caught as his callused hand, rough as a bristle brush and cold as iron, raked across the bare skin above her stockings.

“It’s warm in here,” he said.

Annabelle closed her eyes against his touch, her body rigid, feeling his fingers reach higher. She balanced against the ladder with one hand. With the other she reached into the pocket sewn into the right-side seam of her skirt. His thick fingers snagged in her garters as he stretched for more. Annabelle shuddered, her spine arcing so she had to grasp the ladder to maintain her balance. Her free hand took hold of something else, just as Clawson’s coarse fingers extended toward their objective.

“Looking for this?”

The derringer had been designed for pockets. While the single-barrel pistol could fire only once and was difficult to reload, Annabelle was confident she wouldn’t need a second lead ball at this range.

Clawson fell back against the counter. Annabelle descended from the ladder, keeping the pistol’s front sight lined up with his wide chest. With her free hand she rearranged her skirt and petticoats, never taking her eyes from him.

“It looks like a child’s toy,” she said, “but this was the very type of gun that killed Abraham Lincoln. Isn’t it funny to think what trouble such a small gun can cause?”

The miner didn’t laugh as he retreated around the counter. “I meant no harm,” he whined, raising his hands in a defensive gesture.

“You should learn to keep those to yourself.” The memory of his hands against her skin brought the taste of bile to her throat. I should shoot him just to teach all these miners a lesson.

She might have pulled the trigger, but she couldn’t remember when she had loaded the derringer and worried that moisture in the tube might prevent it from firing. Josey had warned her about keeping guns clean. How many mornings had she watched him clean his rifle and revolvers?

With the counter between them, Clawson found courage in her hesitation.

“Put that away. You wouldn’t shoot a man.”

“The last man I held a gun on thought the same thing. He was my husband.”

Confusion washed over Clawson’s snout. “I didn’t know you were married.”

“I’m not any longer.” She lifted the gun with both hands so he could see into the barrel as she pulled back the hammer. “Do you see my point?”

 

CHAPTER TWO

Josey rode hard the first day out from Virginia City. He stopped to sleep for a few hours when the moonless sky grew so dark he feared his gray Indian pony might stumble and break a leg. He rose before dawn, maintaining a measured pace to spare the horse but determined to spend another full day in the saddle. The farther he got from her, he figured, the clearer he would think.

The Yellowstone River was low and flowed so slow cottonwoods growing along its banks reflected against the water like a shimmering canvas. Branches showed through in places. Soon the trees would be bare.

It had snowed once already, and the weather could turn again at any time in the mountains. He told himself that was the reason for his haste. He had to get to the Colonel while there was still time to get back before winter set in. If he rode far enough, he might believe it.

The day turned warm when he kept out from the shade. At times the trail left the river and wound up into the hills. The grass was brown and dry. Mottled with dark sage and other brush, fields and hills rolled all the way to the mountains. Josey enjoyed riding through an emptiness where his thoughts could roam, and the only sounds were the plodding footfalls of his horse and the flap of the wind as it whipped across the plains. Yet even here his thoughts felt crowded. He rode on.

By dusk he was falling asleep in the saddle. If he’d been more alert, he would have seen the fire’s orange glow against the boulder in the cleft between two bluffs. He’d hoped to avoid other travelers as well as Indians. Before he could turn clear, a voice called out.

“Hey stranger. Why don’t you come sit by our fire before you fall off of that horse?”

Josey eased his mount toward the sound of the voice. A man, bowed under the weight of years and the bucket he carried from the river, watched him from the shadows among the rocks. A set of white whiskers ringed the old-timer’s round face like a halo encircling the moon.

“That’s kind of you, but …”

The man spit, a messy, wet sound. “Rather have you ’round our fire t’where we can see a friendly face than wonder where you are in the dark.”

Josey didn’t need to see to know the man was heeled. Probably had his hand on the grip of a revolver, just in case the strange rider proved a threat. Josey dismounted and approached. “That’s an invitation a man can’t refuse.”

The old-timer’s face stretched into almost a perfect circle when he smiled. He spit while he waited for Josey, tobacco juice leaving a stain against the gleaming whiteness of his beard, like piss in the snow. He introduced himself. Josey forgot the name the moment he heard it.

“Josef Anglewicz,” he replied with a nod and a touch to his broad-rimmed hat.

The old-timer’s rheumy eyes rolled past Josey and the twin gun belts he wore at his waist and settled on the rifle butt extending from the saddle scabbard at his horse’s side. “That be Josey Angel to friends?”

“That’s how most men say it.”

The man hooted like he’d won at faro. He treated Josey to another full-moon smile and spit again, more stains on the snow. “We ain’t got much, just some beans and bacon I’m stirring up, but you’re welcome to join us. I’d sleep easier with that rifle of yours in our camp.”

Josey forced a smile. “I’d be obliged.”

The others returned to camp after seeing to their horses and pack mules. There were four of them, younger men, closer to Josey’s age. Two looked like brothers. They appraised Josey while the old-timer made introductions.

“I thought you’d be bigger,” said the older brother, standing to his full height so he could look down on Josey.

“I thought he’d be older,” the other said, hanging back a bit and not meeting Josey’s gaze.

The old man ignored them. “They say he shot fifty Indians at Crazy Woman Creek this summer. Held off the entire Sioux nation and saved an army patrol.”

Josey shook his head. “Wasn’t like that.”

Humility fueled their curiosity. “What was it like?” one of the brothers asked.

“Yeah. If it weren’t fifty, how many did you kill?”

Josey looked away. Someone always had to ask, like it was a card game and there was a way of keeping score. In a fight, Josey didn’t think so much as react. He aimed. He fired. He levered in another round and aimed again. There wasn’t time to see what happened after the first shot. Any corpses left afterwards weren’t his to claim. They belonged to God. Josey had learned His appetite for slaughter was insatiable.

“Enough,” he said.

They liked that answer, and Josey regretted saying anything. A vague response permitted their imagination to fill in the account. The next time he heard the story it might be three score or more dead Indians.

People were always eager to build up a man—until they were ready to take him down. Those like the old-timer praised a man so they could feel bigger for knowing him. He’d be swapping stories of Josey Angel for the rest of his life. There was no harm in it, least not for him. He might even get a few free drinks if he told the stories well enough.

The harm came when the stories grew too big for some men. Men who felt small in the hearing of them. Men who could see no way to feel better about themselves than by killing the man from the stories. It was one of the reasons Josey first came west. Stories from the war had spread so far he couldn’t go into a town without drawing a challenge from someone looking to make his own reputation. Josey hadn’t been able to outrun the old stories, and when some of those were forgotten, new ones replaced them. Josey worried about the next time someone heard one of the stories and decided to test their truth. There would always be a next time.

Leaving the fire to tend to his horse, Josey unsaddled the gray gelding and picketed it on a loose tether so it could graze. The night breeze carried some of the old man’s words. He was telling the others about Griswoldville. Yankees loved that story. The numbers were big, and a partisan storyteller left out the parts of how the Georgia militia by then was mostly boys and their grandpas. Josey brushed the horse down, losing himself in the task.

At supper, he learned his hosts were miners who’d seen the elephant. They’d been working the stream near Nevada City, finding just enough dust to nurture a flicker of hope before time and backbreaking labor snuffed even that. The brothers were first to pull up stakes.

“Got a letter from our ma,” the younger brother said. He had the lean face of a boy who’s known too much hard work on an empty stomach. “Our pa’s sick.”

“We’re needed on the farm,” the other said, his hard look a challenge to anyone who thought to contradict the account. They weren’t quitting. Their ma needed them.

Josey knew enough of mining not to begrudge the “gobacks” who abandoned the mining camps. For every man who hit a strike, hundreds like these poured their sweat into an unyielding earth.

“Where are you headed?” the younger brother asked.

“Phil Kearny,” Josey answered. He explained that his friend remained behind at the fort.

“Is he a invalid?”

Josey choked. The Colonel was an old man, but he would have shot anyone who suggested he was a cripple in his presence. “No. He was wounded in the Indian attack and had to lay up at the fort while we continued.”

The old-timer nodded, like he knew that part of the story. “Why didn’t he just come along with another wagon train? Why do you have to go back for him?”

Josey chewed on his beans. He’d heard the question before. “Because I promised him I would.”

After eating, Josey returned to his horse. “You’ll be warmer by the fire,” the old-timer called.

“I’ll sleep better knowing the horse is fine.”

“Suit yourself. Hope we don’t find you scalped in the morning.”

Josey waved an appropriate salute. The stars were out, and in the absence of the moon they sparkled like icy snow in the sunlight. Had it been any brighter, Josey would have helped himself to some coffee and pressed on.

By rising early, he figured he could be on his way before the others woke. It was at least a six-day ride to the fort, and the miners would slow him down. Worse, they would ask more questions, want to talk about things he’d crossed the country to forget.

The Colonel called him a misanthrope, partly because he liked to think Josey didn’t know the word’s meaning. Josey understood it well enough not to dispute the label. A few years spent watching those around him die and hiding from strangers who would shoot him on sight had eroded Josey’s regard for his fellow man.

Maybe war was God’s way of culling the herd, something every generation had to endure until the horror and waste sated its bloodlust. God demanded a sacrifice, and Josey did his part to see it done. More than his part. The Colonel said he possessed a rare clarity of thought when everything around him was going to hell. Plenty of soldiers shot targets as well as Josey, but it was different when bullets flew back. Instead of panicking, Josey found a focus in those moments—along with feelings he didn’t like to admit, even to himself.

The Colonel called it a gift. The gift, to Josey’s mind, was the sixteen-shot Henry his father gave him when Josey left for war. The repeating rifle meant Josey could keep firing while everyone around him stopped to reload. That was his gift, he told the Colonel.

Gift or blessing, Josey’s skill came at a price. He had no hope for quelling the nightmares. Not until he met Annabelle. In surviving their journey west together, Josey discovered more to live for than he’d ever expected to have again. Yet still there were days, even when he was with her, that his mind cast about for something lost and forgotten.

She was angry with him for leaving to fetch the Colonel. He didn’t have the words to make her understand why it was important that he go back. Even if he could explain himself to her, he wasn’t sure that he should.

Josey led his horse a short distance uphill from the camp. He hoped he would be warm enough with his thick buffalo-skin blanket. As he settled in he recalled another starry night on the trail when Annabelle came to him wearing nothing but a thin cotton gown. He recalled the feel of her warm body pressed against his. The way her dark eyes lit up whenever she saw him. No one else in the world looked like that on seeing him. He tried shutting his mind to the memories. He’d find no sleep chasing such a line of thought. Then, worse, he pictured her dressed for one of those fancy balls people liked in Virginia City, dancing with the newspaperman she’d met. Josey didn’t dance. He’d been glad there’d been someone to take his place when the dancing started. He wasn’t so glad now that he was gone and the newspaperman was still there.

It was a fitful sleep with such thoughts in his head, yet Josey drifted off, his mind freed from Griswoldville and Crazy Woman Creek and the effort to separate fact from the stories that were told. He pondered new philosophies. If none of the stories we tell ourselves are true, then anything we choose to believe should seem real enough. He wished the Colonel was around to chew on that with him.

*****

The raised voice of one of the miners woke Josey later than he’d intended.

“They’ve got our mules!”

Josey rolled to his rifle and was up in an instant. He liked to clean and reload his guns first thing in the morning, but it was habit more than necessity. He levered in a cartridge and went to his horse, the sound of pounding hooves coming from near the campsite.

Clambering to higher ground, Josey saw two Indians atop the next bluff, surrounded by four mules. One of the horsemen dismounted and inspected the forelock of his pony. Josey couldn’t see the miners, but he heard them giving chase.

“His horse is hurt. We can catch them!”

Bad idea.

Two riders—they looked like the brothers—scrambled up the ridge toward the Indians. Their big horses struggled for footing in a scree. Loose stones tumbled down the slope. The Indians watched, even the one who was supposed to be worried about his pony. Before the miners drew within range for their revolvers, the Indians remounted and disappeared over the far side.

Don’t chase after them.

The riders crested the hill. They spun their horses around at the top, maybe looking for signs of where the Indians had gone, maybe gathering courage. Josey hoped it was time enough for their wits to catch up with them. The other two young miners were mounted and climbing the ridge after them.

Josey looked east. The sun wasn’t up, but he saw mountains silhouetted against a gray sky. There wasn’t enough light to tell if the gray rose from clouds or morning haze. Even if he could maintain his pace, he was still days out from the fort. He saddled his horse and wished he were on his way.

“I see ’em!”

One of the riders—it looked like the older brother—pointed and urged his horse in the direction the Indians had gone. For a moment Josey thought the younger brother might hold his position, that he might return to the relative safety of the camp, but the hesitation was just the time it took him to bring his horse under control. He followed after his brother.

Josey slipped his rifle into the scabbard. He tied both gun belts around his waist. They were heavy and made walking awkward, but a man need only try loading a black powder revolver once under fire to determine he couldn’t have too many guns. Josey led his horse to the campsite.

The old-timer was there, as agitated as a squirrel in a wolf den. “I told them the mules weren’t worth it. They said they were all they had left, and they wouldn’t go home empty-handed.”

Josey walked to the edge of the camp. It was far enough removed from the bluff to provide good sightlines. Boulders on the backside provided a natural screen. He tethered his horse there and drew out his rifle. An old log the brothers had used for a bench the night before lay by the firepit. Josey dragged it to the edge of the clearing and sat down.

The old man wore a gun belt and paced the campsite. He stopped at each of the places where the men had slept to sort through clothes and bedding. “I can’t find my powder flask. It was here last night.”

Josey watched how the man’s hands shook. “Won’t be time to reload, anyway,” he said. He turned away so he wouldn’t have to see the old man quake.

They didn’t have to wait long. An explosion of gunshots echoed over the hill. Too many to count, then silence. Another shot. A few more seconds of quiet. Another shot. Then nothing.

Josey looked back to the old man. At least he was still. He nodded toward the man’s holstered gun. “I hope you know how to use that thing.”

Josey slid down from the log and lay behind it. He inhaled, a tang of pine on the still air. He tested the sightlines again with his rifle. Its wooden stock felt warm in his hands, like a living thing. A meadowlark fluted, invisible in the field. Pounding hoofbeats, like the roll of thunder, drowned out the bird’s call. Their rhythmic beat drew nearer. Josey waited, his mind as clear and cool as the snow-fed streams from the mountains.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 From the ridge overlooking the river, Light Hair looked down on the white soldiers and wished he could kill every one. His grip tightened on the war club as he imagined his arm’s arc delivering the strength of the swing to the club’s stone head just as it made impact, hearing the sound as it crushed the hairy face of a soldier like a melon dropped from a cliff.

Today is not the day for that. He relaxed his grip and lifted the farseeing glass he had taken off a dead officer months earlier. He crouched for a better look from behind the thick trunk of a fallen tree, moist with rot. A storm must have blown over the tree, its height and girth leaving it vulnerable because its roots did not reach deep enough in the shallow soil atop the ridge. The strength of a tree, the old ones say, comes not from growing thicker in good years when there is water but from surviving in the bad, dry times.

Light Hair hoped they were right. The wasicu, or white men, were like a big tree on a hill. They appeared strong in their forts, but they were not rooted to the land. His people were fewer, and they had grown weaker since the wasicu poisoned the land, their diseases killing the people, their stink driving away the buffalo.

Yet for all their suffering, Light Hair’s people were rooted to the land, like a spindly pine that grows on a mountainside, its trunk and branches twisting toward the light while its roots stretched far for purchase in the craggy places where no other life could last. We will outlast these white devils and burn their forts to the ground.

Through the glass, he studied the structure, the smallest and northernmost of three forts the soldiers had built that summer on the trail they followed along the shadow of the Shining Mountains, what the wasicu called the Bighorn Mountains. Burning it to the ground would make Light Hair smile, but he would not be content until the bigger fort, the one the soldiers called Phil Kearny, a few days to the south, was nothing but ash.

This little fort was an open square with pine log walls driven into the ground, strengthened with long, narrow buildings where the soldiers lived and worked. A pole stood near the middle from which their flag flapped in the winds that swept along the valley cut by the nearby river. The fort’s corners were built higher and held the great rolling guns that shot twice—once when the soldiers fired it and again when their giant bullets exploded a great distance away, scattering burning metal that could shred a dozen warriors at a time.

Light Hair closed his eyes and pictured what his warriors could do if they managed to get past the guns-that-shoot-twice. High Backbone fell in beside him, reaching for the glass without asking. His old friend knew Light Hair’s mind.

“We can never take the fort.”

“Not unless we can get inside.”

High Backbone scoffed. “Are they going to invite us? With our bows and guns?”

Light Hair shook his head. Taking the fort had been a daydream. “We will think of a way.”

“The men who made things like this”—High Backbone gestured with the farseeing glass—“are not dullards.”

As a boy, Light Hair had followed High Backbone on his first great raid. Now High Backbone followed Light Hair since the Big Bellies, the men the wasicu called chiefs, named him a Shirt Wearer, one of four young warriors held within the tribe as examples of courage and character. Light Hair accepted the honor, but he questioned his worthiness, knowing the sins of his heart. He thought of Black Buffalo Woman. The flash of her black eyes when she spied him in the village. The way the hides she wore pulled tight against her body when she turned away, knowing he would follow.

Light Hair closed his mind to the image before the shame could show on his face. He felt the same sense of unworthiness concerning his name. For his bravery in battle, Light Hair had been awarded a great name, the name of his father, who took a new name to honor his son. But in his mind, he remained Light Hair, an outcast taunted by other children because his light skin and wavy, brown hair resembled a half-breed child. For that, he had hated the wasicu before he had ever seen one. Seeing what they did to his people made him hate them more.

“No, they are not fools. But they think we are as simpleminded as children. We will teach them their error.”

Just not today. Even with High Backbone, his friends He Dog and Lone Bear and his brother Little Hawk, all fierce warriors, they were too few to challenge the wasicu. Light Hair had eight in his raiding party, including a couple of untested boys and a Cheyenne warrior still burning too hot after the massacre of his village two years earlier.

Once the autumn buffalo hunts were over, if Red Cloud and the other Big Bellies could draw together the people into a single camp, they might have enough warriors to confront the white soldiers. The tribes were not accustomed to fighting together the way white soldiers do. The wasicu had more guns, more powder and lead, but Light Hair was determined to find a way his people could win.

Until then, raiding parties such as his would continue picking off those stupid enough to wander away by themselves or in small groups. They would weaken the rest by driving off horses and the spotted buffalo the white men herded in pens.

“They have built a new pen for the horses.” High Backbone returned the farseeing glass.

Light Hair had already seen. “It will be a simple thing to loose them.”

He focused the glass on the fort’s interior and watched the soldiers moving about. He was too far away to see, but he pictured their hairy faces and bald heads. He knew they did not all look like that, but it is how he imagined them. Ugly and dirty.

They thought the same of his people, which amused him. His people had the sense not to stay in the same place so long the smell of their shit hung in the air like marsh gas. The wasicu stink made Light Hair grateful to be upwind of the fort. Even the spotted buffalo they herded were dirty, living among their own filth. They stank like rotting flesh even before they were slaughtered. Consuming such food had to make a man weak. There was no strength gained from the hunt. No thrill from the kill. And the dirty meat could not be good for the body. Maybe that was why the wasicu were pale and so many were bald. Buzzards ate rotting flesh, and they were bald, too.

Yet High Backbone was right that the wasicu were clever in the things they made, like the farseeing glass, the pistol Light Hair wore under his belt, and the rifle strapped to his pony. Some of the people thought these things made the wasicu too great to fight. They lived near the forts waiting for handouts of flour, beef, and coffee. They grew weak and went hungry when the wasicu chose to withhold or delay the handouts they had promised when they seized the land. The people lost their way. Only old women could still sew with bone awls. Young men forgot how to chisel arrowheads from flint, needing iron from the white man’s barrel hoop instead. Instead of spending days scraping and softening an elk hide, a maiden in a few minutes could trade her body for a wool blanket.

Light Hair carried the glass, revolver and rifle, and a pouch for powder and lead, but he wore no white man’s clothes, not even the blue coats many warriors adorned to commemorate a kill. He would use their magic to kill the wasicu, but he would not live like them.

Yet the magic was tricky. The people could take their guns, but that was not enough. They needed powder and lead or the cartridges that were used in the new fires-many-times guns. The people could not make their own, so the full strength of the white magic eluded them.

Light Hair had tried to steal some of this magic for himself by counting coup against a white warrior, a man who rode an Indian pony instead of a big American horse and shot as well from horseback as most men did standing. In the Moon When the Chokecherries Are Ripe, Light Hair saw this man almost singlehandedly hold off the biggest raiding party the people had gathered that summer. Once Light Hair saw him fight, he wanted some of his magic.

He should have killed the man. He had been helpless before Light Hair. Instead, Light Hair merely touched him, claiming some of the man’s magic for his own. Later, he followed the soldiers’ trail to the fort and learned the man was a scout. He had a large family, including a white-black man brother and a dark-haired wife who rode better than most white men. The white warrior led his people away from the fort, north and then west into Crow lands. Light Hair was glad. Let the Crow face the white warrior’s magic.

The magic Light Hair stole failed him. Without more cartridges, Light Hair could not learn to shoot from horseback as well as he wanted. He would not waste the cartridges practicing, not when every one he owned could mean the death of another white man.

Light Hair looked back to the horses outside the fort, more than a score of big, heavy American horses. They had arrived a day earlier, probably all the way from Fort Laramie. Little Hawk, brave but impatient, had wanted to steal the horses the night they arrived. Light Hair demanded they wait.

“They are tired. Tomorrow they will be rested and will have eaten their fill. Then, when we take them, we can run them hard.”

Now the horses were ready. Light Hair turned the glass to the fort. The soldiers were moving in the direction of one building near the wall. Smoke rose from the big black pipe that extended from the dirt roof. Light Hair closed his eyes and pictured what must be done, seeing it in his mind like the moves of the scalp dance—a strange way for him to think, for Light Hair never danced.

“They will be eating soon,” he told High Backbone. “That is when we will move.”

He crawled back from the edge of the ridge and went to the others. His instructions were simple and clear. No one interrupted. They followed him, he knew, because he did not risk lives in raids until he held a vision of success in his mind.

High Backbone spoke to embolden the younger members of the raiding party.

“Remember, it is better to die young on the prairie than be wrapped up on a scaffold as an old man.”

The others smiled to hear him repeat this bromide of the Big Bellies. He Dog contributed another, his voice quivering like an old man’s: “We must pray that courage is always the last arrow in the warrior’s quiver.”

They laughed and went to their horses. The youngest boy would remain with the travel horses that were trained for endurance. The rest took to their warhorses, which were fearless and faster over short bursts. Light Hair traveled on a yellow paint, a gelding that never seemed to tire. For battle, he rode a sorrel with four white socks. He dusted his horse with dirt from a prairie dog mound. The prairie dog held the power to deceive, and he would invoke its magic to protect his horse from bullets.

Before mounting, he hefted his war club. It felt good in his hand.

High Backbone grinned at him. “Maybe you will get to use that today.”

“I hope not.”

If Light Hair’s plan worked, they would be gone with the horses before the soldiers knew they were there.

High Backbone nodded in approval. “Patience serves you well.” In a sign of respect, he called his old friend by his warrior’s name.

“Soon even the soldiers will learn the name of Crazy Horse.”

*****

They drew close to the fort by riding out of sight in the gully along the river. High Backbone and the second boy had ridden ahead, to wait north of the fort. Little Hawk and He Dog dismounted and crawled forward to open the gate on the corral. Light Hair and the other riders were at full gallop by the time they were in the open. They waved blankets and fired pistols to panic the American horses, which bolted through the open gate and past the fort.

Light Hair and Lone Bear brought horses to Little Hawk and He Dog, and they rode off together in pursuit of the fleeing horses. Soldiers emerged from the fort wide-eyed and open-mouthed and too late to do anything. Guards in the tower fired off a few shots, and Light Hair circled back on a dare ride, hoping to draw their fire toward him while the rest escaped.

Once the fleeing horses cleared the fort, they found High Backbone and the boy waiting for them. The two of them waved blankets and fired their pistols, turning the herd toward a ravine that led out of the valley. Light Hair grinned. Everything was going as he had seen it.

As he followed after the others, a shot from the fort whined over his head and struck Lone Bear’s horse. His friend hurtled to the ground over his collapsed horse. He lay still a moment, and Light Hair feared the worst. Then Lone Bear rose, shaky on his legs. He kept his wits, pausing long enough to take the bridle from the horse to show he was not afraid. He turned to face the fort, shaking a fist and blowing on his eagle bone whistle in defiance.

The soldiers had rallied, taking to the horses they kept saddled within the fort and giving chase. There was not much time. Light Hair urged his sorrel forward, his quirt popping, the pony digging hard into the soft soil along the river. The big American horses the soldiers rode were fast over short distances, and their hooves set a frantic drumbeat that seemed to grow louder with every stride. More bullets whined past him, and he threw himself from side to side on his pony to avoid the shots of his enemies, hoping he had done nothing to defy the spirits and nullify the prairie dog magic.

Lone Bear was known for bad luck in battle. He had more wounds and injuries than the rest of them combined, and Light Hair was determined his childhood friend would live long enough that they could tease him about this day as well.

He stood ramrod straight beside his fallen horse, still blowing his whistle as if to challenge the soldiers in the fort and their long guns. Light Hair watched puffs of dirt explode in the ground near his friend as the soldiers sought their mark, each shot growing closer. Light Hair was not sure how long it would take the soldiers to train one of the guns-that-shoot-twice at them. One well-aimed shot would kill them both.

Before that could happen, he swept alongside Lone Bear, extending an arm to his friend, who reached up and leaped, timing his movement to slide into place behind Light Hair. This was a game they played as boys. A thousand times Light Hair had “rescued” Lone Bear. A thousand times his dark-skinned friend, so much the opposite, so much the same, had saved him. With Lone Bear behind him, Light Hair veered off to avoid the aim of his pursuers, heading toward the ravine, where he trusted he would have help in turning back the white soldiers.

He need not have worried. The few soldiers giving chase could not draw closer than a couple of hundred yards before rifle shots from the ravine turned them back to await reinforcements. By then, the raiding party would be long gone with their stolen horses.

They rode hard to their meeting spot and found the boy with their travel horses. Light Hair’s sorrel was spent from carrying two warriors. On his return, Little Hawk pantomimed an elaborate fall from his horse to mock Lone Bear, drawing laughter from the others now that they had returned with nothing worse than Lone Bear’s bruises.

He Dog, High Backbone, and the boys began removing the noisy iron shoes from the captured horses. They were not much as prizes. Light Hair intended to give the American horses to widows and the old to be used as packhorses or to pull drag poles. If the winter proved as bad as he feared, they might wind up in stew pots. The horses were not good for much else because they moved with such difficulty over rough country and fared poorly without the hay and oats they had been reared on.

But the white soldiers would feel their absence, and that was enough reason for taking them. In the coming war, Light Hair knew the people would need every advantage they could get. If all went as he hoped, they would soon be strong enough to attack the soldiers in the big fort.