Nate met Thomas at a cattle auction shortly after he returned home from a sanitorium somewhere in the northeast. The thing he liked most about Thomas was that he was a friend to him even though most everyone else thought Nate had gone crazy when he was young and hadn’t improved much since. The year-long stay in the northeast was due to what the family called his death visions. It nearly caused Nate to become an outcast, a sad man pitied for his small mind. The day couldn’t have come soon enough that he would meet that rarest of creatures: a friend.
During the auction, both bid on an ailing calf that each were glad to have lost out on due to it dying a week later. They got along as close friends after that and wondered how they hadn’t managed it before then, having been raised in the very same town all their lives. Now the two of them traveled deeper into the west. Nate’s death visions aside, at least for a time.
They traveled for land. President Harrison had opened up the Cherokee Strip for a great land race. The newspapers said there’d be more than a hundred thousand people crawling all over the Indian land to plunge deep a stake and start up a life. Prime acreage, or as prime as irrigation could make it at this point. Nate remembered in his second year of school how Mr. Tamberline said the early explorers who moved from east to west across the entire country, the very first ones, reported back that the plains lands were too arid and dry to be of any use to decent, hard-working folks. “Go on ahead and leave it be,” Mr. Tamberline said, waving his big meaty arm out in front of him. “Leave it be,” he said again and then laughed and added that “hard-working folks were sometimes the stupid-thinking folks and wasn’t much could be done about any of that mess.”
“Do you feel even a little bad?” Nate asked Thomas. They were still three days ride from the Oklahoma border. “This was the land we marched them to so we could take the land they was on and now we’re taking that land. Seems wrong.”
Thomas checked the sky. A lazy gathering of gray clouds sat on the horizon so it could be several hours after nightfall before the rains came or a plain wind could come out of nowhere and blow it right on top of them in the next ten minutes.
“It seems wrong because it is wrong,” Thomas said. “And we’re doing it anyways. Won’t be the first time for either one of us. Let’s cut across right-handed and set up in those low hills. Rain’s coming.”
It was another twenty minutes before they reached the base of a tiny range of hills, but there were plenty of dry ridge overhangs. It was enough time for Nate to pull up more memories of Mr. Tamberline. The old drunk teacher invited a Choctaw to the school once. They had a few in town due to assimilation efforts and he had made friends over drinks. Or he thought he made friends, at least. Tamberline stood him up at the head of the class, as quiet and tall as an evergreen, wearing a jacket and trousers that looked tight and stuffy. The skin at the cuffs of his sleeves and at his throat and across the landscape of his angled features seemed to glow like heated iron. Nate remembered nothing more about the Choctaw except that he spoke in his own language, and that, even these years later, he remembered what he said, strange word for strange word.
R?vend?, ???v?nd? minti onnakma.
He said it twice and stared from student to student, his face still with seriousness. And then Tamberline stumbled out from behind his desk and clapped his hands so hard dust flew from his coat sleeves and floated everywhere all at once. “Well, there you go young’uns. Wise words from a wise nation. Let’s give Akecheta a big hand!”
Beyond the overhangs there were two black spots from previous camps and they picked the largest, figuring the easy wood was nearby. Thomas worked a fire and Nate went to the bundles for beans and coffee. Squirrel would be nice with beans, but this was a quick camp. Beans and coffee would be about all they’d have time to get in.
“You member Mr. Tamberline?” Nate asked.
Thomas poked at the fire absently. “School teacher?” he said.
“Yeah, Mr. Tamberline the school teacher,” Nate said.
“I member him sure,” said Thomas. “Was a man who adored his whiskey at all hours as I recall.”
Tamberline died in the classroom one morning before he was thirty-five from a bad heart due to the drinking, according to the doctor at the time. A big man, he cracked apart one whole row of bench seats when he dropped. A thick splinter that peeled off the bench as it broke went half through his belly in the fall, but they said he was dead before his feet left the floor from the bad heart. Still, there was a fair amount of blood and kids got pretty worked up. It had been the first time in a great while that Nate thought of the northeast, and he called no attention to what he had, by that point, taken to calling his hallucinations.
Nate gathered up some thick flat stones and settled beside the fire. “He used to go on and on about how the explorers were too dumb to figure out how to use the plains there in Oklahoma,” he said, positioning the stones just outside the glow of the flames. “How they told everybody back east it was no good for decent folks.”
“We just had so much land stretched out in front of us,” Thomas said and let that sit in the still air for a beat or two. “We had so much it was like that time we had a jerky eating contest during the Fourth right? There was so much neither one of us cared if we dropped a big hunk on the ground in the rush. We’d just grab another and another and another. Never gave a thought to what was wasting on the ground. It was like that back then.”
It was exactly like that, Nate thought. Thomas could almost always boil a thing down to its essentials. He fell into a silent and deep contemplation, a contemplation of just what he and others had done and were doing to the native tribes. Were still going to do, if everything went just right for them at the Cherokee Strip. He wondered about all the warriors and wives and children who had died already, been killed only because they had made their home in a country white men wanted. And what of their immortal souls? What wasteland must people like himself and Thomas be sending them to?
“I saw Tamberline’s soul leaving his body,” Nate said in a half-yawn.
“Is that right?” Thomas answered. “I don’t doubt that.”
Nate watched as Thomas quickly picked up the flat stones warmed by the fire and positioned three each in blankets for them. When it was clear he wasn’t going to respond, Nate took his blanket wrap and stuffed it loosely into his jacket and settled into a place by the fire. Before long the two men were asleep.
Nate had been the only student to stay behind after Mr. Tamberline fell dead in class. He and three others ran to the doctor and brought him back in time to see the rest of the students filing out of the schoolhouse, some with parents holding their hands, others alone and crying. The two who had joined him into town and back fell in line with those leaving, but Nate followed the doctor inside.
He would later say that as he walked past the old church pews they used for seating he watched a cloud float up from Mr. Tamberline and disappear through the ceiling. He told his mother it looked the same way his father’s smoke looked when he sat on the porch with his pipe. But with arms reaching up.
It took Nate little time then to realize he shouldn’t mention what he saw, but he did tell Thomas and a couple others from the class. As kids will do, they joshed him about it for a time and then forgot. Nate forgot, too.
It happened next while the family stood vigil with his dying grandmother, a horrible women so full of her own poison that family members had to be bribed to stand with her during the final minutes. Nate and his parents, along with his two sisters, took the bribe and stood. His father would get his pick of the old lady’s farm equipment, abandoned since the death of her husband more than a decade earlier. The moment after the death rattle, Nate saw a black smoke rising up from the dying woman and up through the ceiling. He told no one about it this time, and soon forgot both his grandmother’s and Mr. Tamberline’s odd parting.
As they slept, the night moved in shadows across the plains. The shadows went separate ways across grassland, prairie, and steppe alike before coming together again as an altogether new darkness in the hollowed out bowl of a buffalo wallow. This was not far from where Nate and Thomas slept. Here the new darkness rested, waiting and listening to the two men breathe through dreams or perhaps nothing at all, a sleep without images. Like the buffalo who first made use of the land depression, the darkness then stirred to life again, flipping on itself and separating again until its entirety was back onto the plain.
Nate came awake all at once, propping himself on his hands and staring out into the night. “Thomas.” He nugged Thomas. “Something’s out there in the dark. Thomas!” He grabbed Thomas’s head and gave it good shake.
“Hellfire, man, what’s wrong with you?” Thomas said. He came awake slowly and leaned up to face Nate. “What is it?”
But Nate had gone silent. His eyes and mouth and nose were all perfectly still. Thomas thought he looked a lot like a deer just then, the kind that are impossible to hit, being so alert and mostly paranoid. Thomas turned to look in the direction Nate stared. He looked for less than ten seconds and then saw what had Nate fixed in. Indians. Plains Cree. How many was hard to tell in the early morning shadows. They hovered at the edge of the horizon and when they moved forward they came in lightly bouncing numbers like ebbing waves. Thomas saw some closer to them, emerging from what seemed to be nothing more than the earth itself. They had lined themselves inside the buffalo wallow and held fast until nightfall.
Watching the advancing Cree, Thomas realized that both he and Nate might as well have incurable diseases for all the time they had left on the planet. All that was left was how the end played out. There were no words of comfort he could think of for Nate Instead, he cited a verse from Romans, one he knew they were both familiar with.
“If we live, we live for the Lord,” he told Nate. “And if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
Nate offered no response, and Thomas didn’t really wait for one. He took Nate by the nape of the neck, grabbed both their gun belts, and pulled him along to a more prominent ridge overhang that could protect them on three sides leaving only their front open.
“Is this it?” Nate asked.
“Yep, this is probably it,” he told Nate.
Thomas watched the darkness curling and sliding along the floor of the desert. Why were they still hiding? Stand and show yourself, he thought. He took both of his guns in his hands and gave a nod to Nate’s Colt revolver wrapped in the holster belt and tucked beside him. He nodded as if to say, arm yourself, don’t make it any easier for them. Nate bent to take the pistol, but when Thomas turned back to face the plain he stopped and, instead, crossed his arms as if freezing. If he had seen things from the afterlife before, those single events, then he must surely be at the very edge of some kind of revelation, even if it did come through his own death. So he remained stuck in place, arms crossed in that strange way, holding his breath, and watched.
Thomas was unaware of everything that wasn’t the plain horizon fading in purple twilight. He stood upright and aimed into the darkness, guns thrusted out trying to find a focus, a target, a Cree death. And then the living darkness, those dozen or more Crees easing their way over to them, abruptly stopped moving. If his vision wasn’t deceiving him, Thomas was positive there was at least one Cree within ten feet of where they were both positioned.
If this was, in fact, some kind of absolute ending, Nate intended to go out with his eyes open. He heard the click as Thomas pulled the hammers back on his pistols pushed in close to him. Sitting at the mouth of a moving darkness coming to overtake them, Nate remembered the simple fact he had known since a kid and, for a moment, was uplifted. There was something beyond this world. As hard as this life was, there was something to consider after death.
He wanted to tell Thomas, but Thomas was busy peering into the dark until he finally spotted a plumage of white and red feathers. Nate saw him, his reaction, at the moment Thomas saw the headdress come into view. In his friend’s eyes was not determination and readiness for battle. Instead, he saw the kind of white-hot fear that can only come from such closeness to death. And it was that fear that brought about what happened next.
There was a full-body tic that ran from Thomas’ jawline to his navel, snaking down him in a hectic trickle. It then rose back up to his shoulders and rushed down the length of his arms. It was fear made whole and the shot, when it came, came unintentionally, a complete and damning surprise. The action of the pistol lightning-flashed the area and whereas both had suspected maybe a dozen or so Cree it was clear in that second the number was much higher. The shot must have gone wide or high as there was no reaction to speak of. But once the shot had been fired, each of the Cree stood and began a light run toward the two of them. Some held hatchets; others ran with arrows drawn.
The first Cree to reach them pulled Thomas from his squat position by the hair of his head. Nate watched a hatchet fly up and down in the night, up and down and up again covered in moonlight blood dark as tar. He quickly turned his pistol on himself and shoved the barrel into the back of his throat. But his hand was snatched away before firing.
Above him stood an extremely tall Cree, the kind that might have walked straight out of myth to aid his tribesmen.. He kicked him in the chest and Nate fell with his back against the rocks at the base of the ridge. R?vend?, ???v?nd? minti onnakma, he whispered, and the giant Cree moved against him in the dark while Nate sought out the body of his friend.
All the horror playing out there by the ridge on the way to the Cherokee Strip was only a collection of dark silhouettes against a slightly less dark background. But Nate knew what he was looking for inside the layers of dark upon dark, and he knew it would come like a signal, like a bright trail showing him exactly which way to go.