Murder Under SI - Prolog
The sleeping Indian woke and looked at the fingernail moon and stars glowing overhead. The tail of the Great Bear constellation had rotated to a point that showed the sun would rise in three hours. It was time to go.
He rose and rolled his blanket then opened a pemmican parfleche for a handful of the mix of berries and bear fat. Eating from his hand as he worked, he untied his war horse and the bell mare, then took the intelligent animals to a nearby creek for a drink. The man chewed and looked again at the stars as the horses drank. The smells of the horses' bodies and the mint and dewy grass crushed by their hooves, the sounds of the flowing water and the animals slurping were familiar sensations. He drank them in with every fiber of his body and raised his hands to the night sky, to the great spirit Apwa . He sent a short prayer to the creator of all this beauty, murmuring, "Grandfather, let me live to see sun go down this day."
He had been gone for six days now, making his way cautiously through enemy country for the last four of those days. He had skirted the country of the Crows then entered the hunting ground of the northern tribes of the Arapaho and the Cheyenne nations. But they didn't interest him as much as his intended victims, the Lakota Sioux who would be gathering at Bear Lodge mountain to prepare for their Sun Dance.
His tribe, the Shoshone, had been the first nation to have the horse, which they called elk dogs. Their southern cousins, the Comanche, had taken them from the Spanish and the Mexicans while the Sioux had been one of the first nations to get the holy iron , the killing stick of the white men, from the French Canadian voyageurs. When the knowledge of the horse and the holy iron came together, the fortunes of all the Indians had soared because it had opened the enormous plains to swift and efficient hunting of the buffalo. That great shaggy gift from
Apwa was the source of plenty when he could be tracked then dispatched in great numbers, shot from horse back with the holy iron.
The intersection of the horse and the gun had put the original owners of each of them in immediate competition for the buffalo ground. They had been fierce competitors from that fateful day when the new age of plenty had dawned. The Shoshones and the Sioux seemed destined to be enemies.
Horses had taken on an enormous significance for the Indians because, for the first time, the concept of wealth had entered what had been little more than subsistence cultures. Instead of digging roots and eating rodents, the people now had dried buffalo meat to eat much of the time. All the people had warm buffalo robes and heavy leather moccasins for their feet. Instead of spending almost all their time grubbing for bare existence, the men now had time for forays against hostile neighbors. Stylized war in the form of "counting coup" instead of dealing death blows became the dangerous, though mostly nonlethal, games of men intent on showing their masculine skills and bravery. Horses became the symbol of wealth and the man with the most horses had the greatest status among those of the people who counted the wealth of the world in numbers.
But there were other aspects of this horse wealth, other ways of counting: The man with the fastest race horse was a hero; the man with the best buffalo hunting horse was a hero; the man with the best war horse was a hero.
Horses made heroes and this man with his arms raised in prayer was a hero of both peace and war. But he was now considered by some to be past his prime. He had ridden for almost a week, into the heart of enemy territory, to regain his place in fortune and men's eyes.
The man opened his medicine bundle and found the leather sack of paint. He put two pinches of the red earth into the palm of a hand and then spat some creek water onto it. When it was mixed to a paste he poked his finger into the paint and drew a line from his hair down his forehead and the bridge of his nose to his chin. In the dark he then drew a line from each nostril to the lobe of each ear and then painted below those lines so his cheeks and jaws were crimson. This was to be a raid where stealth was of the utmost importance. But a face painted in such a bizarre fashion, coupled with a loud shout, almost always froze an enemy's mind for a moment. And quick death came to the man who could not think, even for a single moment.
He took a hollow buffalo horn and tapped it on a rock, dropping a few hot coals onto a small nest of dry grass. He blew the grass to flames and he ignited a bundle of gray sage to a smolder. He held it overhead, wafting the sacred smoke at the night sky and Grandfather, then waved it at the ground, at Mother Earth, and then to the four directions. After that he raised one foot and then the other to smudge his soles. Waggling the smudge bundle, he blessed his body and head, drawing the holy smoke into his lungs and wafting it over his face with a hand. He added a silent prayer then dropped the bundle onto the small fire to burn out.
The man packed his scant belongings then mounted his saddle horse and tugged at the lead rein of the mare. He had chosen them carefully from among his herd, taking the line-back buckskin to ride because he was totally without fear. Badger would stand unflinching in the middle of a pitched battle, with gunfire exploding and men shrieking, with dust rising in choking billows and the smell of hot blood thick on the dust. There he would stand unblinking, with his reins on the ground, waiting for his rider to leap on his back so Badger could carry him away, or reenter the heart of the battle. He bore black scars in many places and was partially deaf from battles, but his heart was calm.
The mare was the most intelligent of his horses. Often, when he went to the horse ground to get her, he would find that she had read his thoughts and was waiting for him at the edge of the herd, her eyes on him as he approached. She could read the ground and the sky, drink in the terrain as they traveled. Once she had passed over a piece of ground, no matter how large or how long it took, she had it memorized. She could return from a long journey by the same way she came, even if she had come by day and was returning by night. Her name was Sweet Medicine.
He rode through dark pines, over grassy hills, crossed creeks scalloped only faintly by the silver sparks that rode overhead. The horses' unshod hooves made only slight sounds as they swished the grass and settled gently, every so gently, on the occasional dry ground. They knew what they were doing, the animals, and they knew that the quieter they made their way toward the coming event, the better they all would be. Like the man, they had played this game before. Many times.
The drums were silent now. The man had camped at the first good spot he found after the drums' voices had first reached Badger's ears. The horse had rotated them ahead and shook his head, then blew through his nose to register a ripple of excitement. He knew them for what they were: Sioux drums. And after the sound of Sioux drums, always came the adrenaline of shouts and gunfire, the exciting reek of hot blood, and then a race for distant home. He was a war horse—bred and born for battle.
They reached the broad expanse of grass they knew bordered the river flowing past the mountain Bear Lodge, as the Sioux called it, and the white men had named Devil's Tower. Others called it Gray Horn Butte but because this man had come to engage the Sioux he thought of it by their name. Their medicine was not so strong because the Sun Dance had not yet begun. Soon they would be dancing, singing, and giving up their flesh to regain the medicine they had lost in their many battles with To Wasichu , the Blue Man.
The Sioux had once lived peacefully on the shores of the big water far to the east. But hundreds of years before an apocalyptic vision had come to the elders, dreaming that a Blue Man would come to destroy them. When the dream returned four times they began a long migration to the West, eventually following a broad river now named the Ohio to a greater river now named the Mississippi . From there some had gone south to become the Kansa and Osage tribes. Some had gone north to become the Assiniboine and others, while the Lakota and Dakota had followed what would be called the Missouri River to the north and west. The trip had taken a hundred years but they felt they had put so great a distance between them and the great water that the Blue Man could never find them. And then, after more than three hundred years of peace, the U.S. Army had ridden down upon them with trumpets and giant guns—the Blue Man had found them. And now their medicine was weak from the rivers of blood they had lost at his hands.
This sad history was of no more concern to this man than it would have been to his horses. He and his people had made peace with the Blue Man, the wisdom of that peace having come to him in a vision. His tribe had even profited from their relationship with the white man, having been given a large reservation in Warm Valley below the Wind River mountains. But it was this peace that had brought him his present trouble, the trouble that had had sent him on this raid against the mighty Lakota.
His people had been at peace for so long that the young men, and some not so young, had grown bored and restless. They had heard of great battles being fought by the Sioux and they hungered for a chance to prove their manhood. But this man, a chief, had counseled against any raids on either whites or other Indians. Then one day, a week before, a young man named Yellow Road had called him a woman.
In front of other young men he had said that this man, this chief, had no balls and that was why they hunkered down on the reservation like women while the Sioux, the Cheyenne , and the Arapaho spilled the white man's brains in the sagebrush. This man had left that night with his horses, riding steadily into the deepest heart of the hunting grounds of those Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors.
The man got down from his horse and stripped his shirt. He made another small batch of red paste and painted a large spot over his heart, then painted his hands with the last of it. Lastly, he tied an eagle feather in his hair. He was ready.
He threw the halter rein of the mare over her neck and tied it in a loop. He said, "You stay" to her and mounted the buckskin. He then rode down the river and when he knew he was close enough, dismounted in some big Cottonwoods a mile from the Sioux camp. As he had done with the mare, he looped the reins over the horse's neck and tied them so they would not drop to the ground.
The buckskin did not have to be told. He would stand where he was until his man came back, no matter what.
Naked except for a belt and a breech cloth, the man carried only a small knife, a large fighting knife in a sheath, and a stone-headed war club. The head of it was wrapped in leather cured with human blood and brains until hard as iron. It was
armed like this that he had killed Big Robber, the famous Crow war chief, in hand-to-hand combat and won for his people the sole hunting rights to everything south of the distant Gray Bull River.
He slipped into the Cheyenne River that flowed between Bear Lodge and the dancing ground, drifting in the cool current until he was on the edge of the village, now only a few hundred lodges but soon to be thousands. He eased up the bank and raised his head over the grass to see. Earlier he had ridden around the huge horse herd the young men watched day and night, moving them from pasture to pasture as the elders and the women prepared for the Sun Dance.
This man was not interested in the common horses to be found in the communal herd. He was only interested in the war horses and buffalo runners that would be picketed beside the tepee of the warrior whose greatest pride were those horses. He alone was responsible for the animal and it was not to be trusted to anyone but members of his immediate family. A man's war horse and his buffalo runner were prized only after his wife and his children. To steal a horse from the door of of a man's lodge was a feat equaled only by hitting an armed warrior with one's hand in battle. It was a feat of great honor—and an insult that could drop the victim's stature in the eyes of the tribe equal to the adolescents who watched the communal herd. It was a dangerous thing to do, for a man would rather die than suffer that loss of status. It would take several reckless efforts in battle to regain the loss, something that could cost him his life.
The thief crawled through the grass and the mud beside the river. He pushed and pulled through the urine and horse manure dropped on the way between the lodges and the watering places, knowing the mud would camouflage his skin and the animal droppings would disguise his scent.
He crawled for half an hour, inching his way as he strained his eyes for a prize that fit the caliber of his mission. He raised his face to the sky and saw that the bear's tail showed less than an hour until first light. Moving slowly and sinuously, the man made his snake-like course through the grass for a minute and then saw what he had come for. Two magnificent horses stood picketed beside a lodge that was dark with painted battle stories. To the trained eyes of the thief it was
apparent that this lodge and the horses with eagle feathers braided in their tails was the property of some great warrior. When he moved closer to the lodge he saw a coup stick in front of the lodge and a half dozen scalps hung from the stick. The man grinned, this was what he had come for—honor. Or a death with great meaning.
The thief crawled back toward the tall grass by the river bank, to wait there for the right moment. The moon was on its last gasp, shedding so little light that all was cast in darkness. His timing must be right because he had to cut the horse's hobbles and tethers, mount one of the bolting horses and drag the second behind him on a dead run through two or three hundred lodges looked over by bunches of alert and barking dogs, and the occasional guard. Then it would be up the river and through the communal horse herd with its attendant watchmen.
And this was not a village of old men, women, and boys. This was the camp of a thousand fighting Sioux, here to lick their wounds and refresh their souls for the coming battles with the Blue Man.
From the corner of an eye, the thief saw something moving and swung his head slowly to see. It was a dog, his tail erect and curled over his back, making his way to the river for a drink. The animal was heading right for him!
This could mean his death, the ignominious death of a horse thief caught in the sacred camp of the mighty Lakota nation. His only escape might be a plunge into the river and a frantic swim downstream, but that would be an impossible route. Surely, he would be caught and then clubbed unconscious by a circle of men. Then the women would tie him to the tail of a stallion that would drag him to death over the rocks, logs, and sticks beside the river. And that only if he was lucky. Many of the tribes had more hideous ways to take a man's life than could be imagined by any man in his right mind. And a thief caught near the holy ground of the Sun Dance would suffer the most imaginative of those methods. Guaranteed.
The man swallowed his fear. He gave his soul to the Grandfather, lowered his chin to the ground and watched the animal approach. Then it stopped and raised its nose. The thief was close enough to the animal that he could hear its sharp intakes of air through the nostrils, a throaty growl, more sniffing. The dog took a step closer, sniffing. Another step and a quiet growl. Suddenly, he turned his head and threw himself into a dash for some bullrushes a short distance down the bank. A marsh hare bolted from cover and began to bound and zig and zag away into the dark with the barking dog right behind him.
Other dogs joined a chorus of barks and the thief knew that Grandfather told him to strike while the attention of the camp was on the sound of the chase. His medicine was strong!
He rose to his feet and dashed to the rear of the lodge, away from the horses, as the barking distracted the sleepy attention of the nearby lodges. Inside the lodge that the thief stood next to, he heard a man mutter and a female voice answer. He then heard the sounds of a person rising from their bed and knew it was time! Understanding that the horses would be listening to the same domestic sounds that had caught his attention, he stepped close to them before they fully sensed his presence. He knelt and quickly cut the rawhide hobbles with the sharp skinning knife. Grabbing their reins he moved to one horse's side and leaped on its back, making it snort. He raised his club, knowing the person inside would rush through the door instantly. He was already in the act of swinging high the killing stick, to dash out the owner's brains, when a woman stepped outside. He stopped the club in mid-air, kneed the horse into motion and left the woman standing with her fists raised to her cheeks and her mouth open in a silent scream.
The dash to the edge of the camp left a wake of shouts and barking dogs. Ahead he saw a guard rising from the ground, where he had been sleeping instead of being on close watch. The horse thief ran the man down as he stooped to retrieve his rifle. He heard the whistling rush of air from the guard's body as the war horse's chest collapsed his arms and legs into a windmill of squealing pain.
He leaned low over the great war horse's neck and heard a gun discharge, then the angry buzz of the bullet as it missed his head by the span of a hand. Other guns were discharged but there were no more buzzes. His heart became light and a great war cry flew from his chest and ran up to shake the stars. The false dawn lit the meadow in front of him and he leaped a downed Cottonwood log that was barely visible in the weak light.
When he hit the communal horse herd it opened like a wind was swirling it aside, as the wind does the snow in winter. His medicine was truly strong for Grandfather was parting the way for his escape!
He glanced over his shoulder and, sure enough, Apwa was closing the herd behind him, blocking the way of any pursuers. In fact, thirty or forty horses had decided to join him and his mounts, running for all they were worth to catch up! Ha ho! he said. Ha ho-o-o!
When the horse thief reached the point where he had left Badger, the horse was already trotting. He joined the herd at the rear, serving to push any stragglers back onto the line of flight.
The mare Sweet Medicine was also waiting as the herd approached. She sprinted to the head of the galloping animals and took over the lead from the thief, to guide the animals on the long route she had memorized, back to the distant Wind River mountains.
The thief fell back, leaving his horses to take the herd home. He sat on the war horse, a black stallion, and let the two animals blow as he waited for the pursuit he knew would follow. The stallion shook his head and flared his mane. He knew the rider astride was a warrior and was readying them for battle. When the first yips of the pursuers reached his ears the horse blew air through his nostrils and nervous ripples ran over his body.
The man patted the horse on the neck, reassuring the animal. He tied the horse he was leading, a long-legged bay, to a low branch of a Cottonwood then put the stallion's rein in his teeth. He then unsheathed the long fighting knife with his left hand, swung the club in a circle to limber his right arm. With a quick prayer to Grandfather, he kicked the stallion into a charge that aimed them directly into the faces of the angry oncoming warriors.
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