When Buck bent to the ground to better see the stains in the dirt, I saw him favor his right leg. It was surely broken. Likely nothing more than a greenstick fracture, but broken all the same. And now wasn’t the time to have a broken leg.
He squinted at the stains, dark, splattered here and puddled there. It was blood. He wouldn’t have to tip-taste it to know that much. All of us could smell the copper in the air. The chief’s daughter was as good as dead, but we couldn’t tell that to Dancing Wind. Her brother would kill Buck on the spot. No questions. Probably kill me, too, just for standing next to him.
Buck gave me a sideways glance that made me nervous. He knew what everyone else knew. The chief’s daughter was the same as the tribe’s oracle. Though it was her grandfather the prophecies supposedly came from, it was clear by this time the true oracle was the daughter, Fights with Earth. The tribe might as well have lost their collective eyesight. Not to mention Fights with Earth was Buck’s new wife and mother to his firstborn son.
So the blood was bad for everyone, but it was Dancing Wind who had the shortest temper, though a temper was not what such a situation called for in the least. From the first scream that brought them all running from their morning rituals, it was clear, at least to me and Buck, that what was called for was a level head.
Dancing Wind marched around his horse speaking to no one, mounted in a single motion, and shot off across the plain. His was the fastest Mustang and so no one followed. Buck watched him become a spot on the horizon and I couldn’t help but wonder if his brother-in-law was setting out to find Fights with Earth or off to collect his thoughts out by the sacred cliffs, known by the Lakota as Kaga Inyan, which Buck explained to me meant Demon Rock, about the strangest name for a sacred place I could imagine. To be honest, some of the tribesmen had a strange habit of leaving for two days to collect themselves at Kaga Inyan. They called it meeting with the Mother, but we had come to think of it as avoiding the problem. Buck turned to me.
“Jim, let’s get some provisions and have the boys get our horses ready,” he said. “We’ll head in the opposite direction of Dancing Wind and see what we can find.”
I left him squatting again at the drops of blood and deep in examination. Buck yelled out instructions in broken Lakota native tongue. He was always a quick study, but had yet to learn anything beyond necessary statements. When I returned with the horses and two of the younger men of the tribe, newly initiated, Buck pointed to the spot where Dancing Wind had become a speck and the boys left in that direction.
“Where we heading?” I asked.
Buck thought about this for a moment. “The OP, I think.”
The OP was what folks traveling through the state had come to call an abandoned Civil War outpost a piece out from the tribe’s camp. If Fights with Earth was being held captive, it would be there.
“We should have took all the others with us out there, then, Buck,” I said. “What good’s it do to have them out riding around all over creation if OP is the place to be?”
It seemed he didn’t have a good answer for this so he just shook his head and mounted his horse. He held his horse back until I was mounted and then hitched the horse’s sides. “Let’s go. Get up!”
Buck first met Fights with Earth only after we’d fought long enough with half her kinfolk that our guns were hot and our knuckles bloody. It was a buffalo hunt we’d been on and I’m still not clear on how it all started, but it was a territorial sort of situation. Most things generally are. But it was soon cleared up and the two of us settled right down there with the tribe for a fair long time, long enough that the tribe’s chief, a deaf medicine man called The Oracle, eventually became Buck’s father-in-law. Buck sometimes had that effect on people.
Fights with Earth’s main duty had been to scratch out communication from her father on the dirt floors of the wigwam during council meetings when he would share his visions or opinions. To have spoken actual words would have been impossible. The Oracle’s thoughts could not be spoken by human lips, even his beautiful daughter’s.
Four or five months after we arrived at the camp, Fights with Earth spent more than an hour scratching across the ground with her lovely fingers. It was the first council meeting we’d be allowed to sit in on. She dug out symbols mostly, when she could. Other times she spelled, but only if she had to. Even spelling the words of the Oracle was considered unholy unless there was no other choice. On that day Fights with the Earth plucked out our names B-U-C-K and J-I-M in the dirt before her father. Fire shadows made the letters stand out black against the brown floor of the earth. When her father looked away, she scratched this into the ground: FOLLOW ME.
I waited near a split tree while they walked to a dip in the plain. Lightening had touched the tree, pulled it apart, and left it sprawled and clinging to the ground by bony roots. I pulled loose a good size piece of wood from the innards of the tree and had been whittling for a fair amount of time when I saw Buck’s gray Stetson pop above the dip. Fights with Earth walked beside him. They held hands and smiled. I had not seen Buckaroo smile many times and only once genuinely. It fit his face well.
Nine months later, their son was born and lo and behold the elders were excited and shared with us a great deal of good smoke once it was clear all was well with The Oracle’s newborn grandson. We hunted large game afterwards because we were immortal. We made arrows from the bellies of trees and crouched together in the cold and the young men of the tribe were not allowed near us during this time. It was a kind of dream inside a dream.
And then this morning, we found the blood. Terrible how things can shift. Just like that.
It took two and half hours before we reached the OP. There wasn’t much to the place. A thrown-together building no bigger than a carriage made up the central area of the outpost, with everything spanning outward from there – a well, an area for butchering, and, to the backside of the post, a small pond. Right off, I noticed a dead horse floating on the surface. I was about to mention the state of the pond when a report of gunfire cracked open the quiet.
Buck was on his stomach, rifle cited on the outpost. A ribbon of dust drifted up from the tiny window. I saw what Buck surely saw – a slender black barrel trembling out from that window, twisting wild in the wind. No doubt there was a nervous sonofabitch at the other end.
Raising himself on the heel of one hand and steadying his revolver with the other, Buck fired a test shot that sent a far corner of the post’s roof airborne. The rifle disappeared from the window and then darted back in place.
“How many are out there?”
The guy sounded scared and I could tell Buck thought the same thing. Then he yelled again. More of a scream, really.
“How many you got out there! How many!”
Buck gave me this strange look and then stood straight up like he’d lost his mind.
“They’s two of us and more coming. Lakota. Lots of them. You got my woman in there and it’s about to get awfully damn bad for you.”
This whole time Buck’s standing there like he’s taking a piss in the wind. Then, like his last sane thought just floated directly out of his ear and off into the wind, he started walking toward the outpost. I shot once, twice, offering as much cover as I could, watching Buck slow march across the little field no different than if he was taking a stroll by the river. He walked like that until the first shot from the window kicked up a chunk of grass and dirt about two feet from his lead foot. It was then Buck froze in place, turned around and gave me this look of absolute fear, and dropped his revolver. I had seen it happen before, in the war. Some young soldier bites off too much at any given moment and locks up, every nerve in his body grinding to a stop inside his muscles. It was what they’d call a terminal condition in that kind of situation.
I unloaded three or four more shots at the window without really aiming and scrambled up and got to Buck in time to knock him to the ground. There was another report from the rifle just as we landed onto our sides and I saw another clop of grass and dirt fly up to the right of us.
“Holy hell, Buck! Come on!” I looked at his eyes and there it was, that frozen over look. His eyes were way off somewhere else. He didn’t so much as flinch when a woman screamed out from the post. I could tell it was Fights with Earth. I’d heard her scream on the night she gave birth, the night she almost died. It was that same wild scream.
I clocked Buck once, twice, and then again across the jaw, opened handed but hard, and he started crying. Crying. Right there curled up on the ground, he started crying. It was all I could do to not bash his head into the ground where we lay. But Fights with Earth screamed again, this time a good and strong yell, a war cry, and instead of killing my oldest friend I started belly crawling toward the post.
The rifle was gone from the window. Soon as I noticed this I stood and charged, zig-zagging right and left the same way they encouraged us to in the war in the open field of battle. I swerved like a stunned calf until I made my way around the back side of the post. The door looked to have been ripped off its fixings and left discarded. I noticed there wasn’t a horse in sight, thought of the one floating dead in the pond, and was just about to call for mine when a lanky boy not more than twenty years old and beardless as the day he was born flopped through the doorway. One of his arms looked lame, dangling at his side, but the fist at the end of it held tight to a revolver. Tucked into his waist and held tight by his good arm was the rifle.
It was a second or two before I realized the boy was stumbling around mostly blind from the blood running into his eyes. I could see it still gushing a good deal from his hairline and making a slick path across his forehead. Scalped, or at least mostly scalped. By god she had got a blade into him somehow, or else chewed the top of his head off. Either way, he had sighted me in and was ready to fire when Fights with Earth came like a wildcat out the door and hooked the boy’s neck in a clean choke.
He struggled, but it was no use. First the revolver dropped to the ground and then the rifle flopped loose from under his arm, both arms dangling at his sides now. And Fights with Earth’s face. My fine god in heaven. That woman’s face was all rage and determination and some kind of perfect beauty and strength all at once. Her jaw set as she worked the boy to the ground, a jaw made of tight muscle and sharp, firm bone, and her eyes, still the only color of brown I’ve seen catch fire that way, looked off somewhere into the sky in defiance and patience while she took her capture to the ground.
I’d been in San Francisco once when the whole earth moved and started shaking right under my feet, a godforsaken earth tremor, and that was only other time I felt my heart banging against my breastbone that hard. Fights with Earth was, plain and simple, a miracle in that moment, her hair dark as a canyon cave in winter and shining in glints and curved streaks like the moon itself. And I loved her more deeply than I had loved anything before or since. It was a higher power kind of love that, among many other wonders, had made me forget entirely about Buck crying himself into a blackout somewhere in the field beyond.
It was the greenstick fracture in his upper leg. That’s how Buck detailed it to the two younger Lakota tribesmen when they showed up at the OP little over an hour after Fights with Earth killed her capture. He lay across his wife’s lap while she stroked his hair and spoke in a voice I hardly recognized. I kept looking from those frozen blue eyes of his to Fights with Earth’s burning dark brown eyes, waiting and hoping she would turn loose her gaze from Buck just long enough to see how my own eyes tried to embrace every part of her. It was a kind of absolute pain waiting for that while the four of us sat tight and anticipated Dancing Wind’s arrival.
By the time he appeared on the horizon about an hour before nightfall, it was suppertime. We built a large fire outside the post and ate in silence. Buck had already retold the plight of his broken leg and I shared for the second time Fights with Earth’s story. The two young Lakota sat still as stones with eyes wide and lit to glowing by the campfire listening to how this beautiful, strong woman had saved us and herself. It was a story that would quickly become part of the larger mythology, told in the same breath as the Oracle’s fifty days fasting at Kaga Inyan and the discovery of the Black Hills. Then, before bedding down, Dancing Wind stood and walked slowly to his sister and held out his hand. She took it and he bent to face her.
“From now on you will be called Seven Drums,” he said. “This is because the seven council fires each live as a beating drum inside your heart.”
The young tribesmen gave war cries that rang out across the dark plains and I joined them, as did Dancing Wind, and then finally Seven Drums herself. But beneath this, somewhere far below in a misery all its own, I could still hear Buck crying, broken and alone in all that joyous company. And for a dark moment I forgot love existed at all.