The little Indian pony stood on the far side of the river bend at the top of a lightly wooded cut bank and cropped the grass up there and watched me slyly across the water, and I'd have liked to have shot him then and there.
He was a bay and star marked in the center of his forehead, the little white of the mark irregularly shaped in a kind of comma curve that swept to the right as I faced him and looked not unlike talon of a hawk. He was, in truth, a pretty pony and I bore him no personal ill will. But I nonetheless stood for a long while meeting his shifty gaze and mulling his death. An Indian without a horse out here on the plain is as good as dead, and I guess I figured in a bit of a cowardly way that it would be easier to kill this animal than to kill the Indian what rode him. The pony grazed idly and looked down on me, completely exposed where he stood framed between two elms, and I'm a good shot with a rifle, and the Spencer carbine that I carried was chambered for a .56-56 round and could have laid the pony out flat, and I was sorely tempted to shoot the beast dead.
Yet I held my shot because the pony was saddled and I could not see his rider, who must be close, and I did not care to risk a rifle shot when somewhere within earshot there lurked an Indian or Indians I could not see. I crouched and rocked on my heels and then did a kind of duck waddle backwards into the shade of a cottonwood that stretched its wide canopy over my side of the river.
I scooted further and took cover behind the trunk. Now out of the pony's sight, I waited and I watched, and presently the beast lost interest in me and my side of the river and turned his head back to his grazing. My own horse was down the river a piece, a poor ragged animal, far out of sight, having a drink. I do not know how long I planned to wait, or what exactly I was waiting to see, for the whole thing was none of my business and I should have left well enough alone and gone on back the way I come. Why I should take it into my head that particular cloudy morning that I was made out to be an Indian killer, I do not rightly know. Perhaps it were that I had heard so much tell of it back in the east in furtive old wife whispers and in bold stories of old men whose words stoked the blood—of the vile and varied depredations promulgated by these plains Indians, of fear and fire visited upon the pleasant calico-wearing wives of farmers in the ghostly light of the prairie moon, and of those wild shrieking devils who from the incorporeal shadow metamorphosed into human form and then just as quickly dissolved back into that blackness eternal whence they'd sprung.
Or perhaps it were because I was bored.
I had been left alone on the prairie for too long and had wandered far in the morning time while a bleary sun crept unwillingly into the sky as if the horses who pulled the flaming chariot of Helios had wearied of their yoke and could only muster up enough strength to drag themselves lazily into the sky to stain the horizon with the pale imitation of a real sunrise. The eastern rim of the world was a weak, orange pastel behind the overcast, and on the dull undulating land-ocean of Kansas, wave upon wave of tallgrass, I had ridden up and down without aim. I think I had vaguely hoped to spy some game that morning and to make for myself a meal in the wide solitude and to eat in the peaceful quiet.
I was maddened, truth to say, and I was in a mean way. I had recently been mixed up in some doings of a most violent and confusing kind, and my erstwhile companion, a young man named Arthur Pike, of whom much will be said in later tales, had abandoned me to my fate, leaving me with nothing but my horse and saddle and rifle and various assorted articles of clothing in a sack, which he must have deemed not worth his trouble to steal.
Seeing how I was fixed, I had taken my bearings from the rising sun and set out in the direction which I assumed would give me the most opportunity to find game and not to strike a settled place too soon. I had no desire to go riding into some well-settled village with a prim schoolmarm in her school and a little old lady playing hymns on her piano in her parlor and the gossips chattering under the shade trees and the boardwalks in front of the shops all swept and clean, and the church bell ringing in the noontime, and me with nothing but the above-mentioned articles in my possession and no money and no prospects, to be arrested as a vagabond or at the very least to be drummed out of town in a most humiliating fashion.
A thing like that had happened to me more than once before and I had no desire to repeat it now. I was only ten the first time it happened. Think on that, if you will. Ten years old. A grown man wearing a badge and gun and having to use all the power of the Law to rid his town of a little bantam of a boy, rather than offering him a place and a bite to eat and a kind word. I have discovered in my short life that a kind word is hard to find, but a kick in the seat of your pants can be got with little effort just about anywhere you go, especially if your clothes are stained and ripped and your hair is dirty and you haven't a piece of silver nor a coin of gold jingling in your pockets.
I ain't never seen a man in a top hat and wearing a gold watch fob receive a kick in the pants. Though now that I think on it, I believe that to see such a sight would be the fulfillment of a wish that I have held in my heart for a very long time; I dearly would love to see a man in tails and a top hat receive a kick in the pants. I think the only thing that I would add to the wish would be that I might deliver the kick myself.
I suppose while I crouched on my heels and watched the Indian pony, I was turning these things over in my mind and brooding on all the wrongs that had been done to me in my life. I will not share them all with you now, for the complete list would be over long, and many of them are related better in other tales later. I will share here only a telling sample.
Chief amongst them, I suppose, was the damnable fact that my father had orphaned me at a young age. I say orphaned in the active sense, because it weren't like it were caused by some unfortunate chance or a hidden part of Providence's plan. My father did it all himself. From what I have gathered in the years since, he received some kind of a payoff for giving me up as a ward, and then he took the money that selfsame night and drank himself into such a stupor that he fell asleep beneath a boxcar, lying crosswise over the rail just in front of the back wheel. How he slept like that, I do not know, but it was his last drunken sleep on this earth. In the morning, the train cut him in twain. My mother had died so far back in distant memory that I cannot recall her face nor the sound of her voice, and when that train rolled over my drunkard father, I was left alone in this world.
Or worse than alone.
For there was the house and the woman to whom I had been given, or sold as it were, she an old woman named Miss Agnes, full of more Bible than brains, and ordained with her mission in this life to redeem the poor heathen. She ran a kind of orphanage, but it weren't a regular kind. We weren't there for the adopting. Ain't a soul would have wanted a one of us lot.
It were a giant, rambling fresh-cream-colored house with large projecting eaves and decorative pediments above the windows, and it looked to my impoverished eye like a castle. It were Miss Agnes's own little kingdom of urchins, and in her mind I do believe that she saw it as a shining city upon a hill. While I was yet in her care, I was introduced to the idea that God speaks to us most clearly through a leather strap, and by God, if that is the case, I heard His voice more often than any soul in that house. Mostly I got that strap because I was an inveterate questioner, that is, I asked questions about everything under the sun, up to and including the Almighty Himself.
And for this I was wronged again. For my questioning was a trait that should have made me popular with my teachers in our little schoolhouse there, a curious mind like a dry sponge hoping for water being what every teacher desires, or so you might think. But I quickly found that it was not. What a teacher really desires is a quiet, docile, barely breathing creature preferably of the feminine persuasion. I weren't none of those things, and so I got the strap, both at school and again at home from Miss Agnes. I became mean, and meanness germinated down in my very soul. If there were a God, I believe I hated Him. But boy, at last, I heard clearly the voice of that hated God from that strap and it was telling me one thing: get the hell out of Miss Agnes's house.
So I run off. I believe if I had stayed I would have killed the old woman and I'd've hanged before I was eighteen.
Now when I run off, I was wronged yet again, for Miss Agnes put out the word to the local law that besides a runaway, I was also a thief. It is true that I stole from her, but the story that she told made out as if I had pilfered jewelry and money from that poor old maid and thus made the law more desirous to bring me in than they might have been had they known the truth of the matter.
What I stole from the woman, in fact, was every book in that commodious house. I done it in the night when the rest were at an evening worship, and I broke the glass on the locked bookcases that she kept and in which I found all the books that I had been forbidden from reading despite my fervent questioning. I piled up as many of these as I could in a crate and then dragged the thing into the woods and buried it.
In the following years, while I scavenged and begged and stole and assumed false names and took to neighboring states to work at what I could, such as sawmills and apple picking and plowing and other labor of this sort, I would return often to the spot in Pennsylvania where I had buried the books. By the time I came of age I had read every single book that I had stolen from that woman and more besides, many of which I had bought with my own wages later. It is how I come to be educated, despite my poverty, and how I come to have so much English in my brain that it spills itself out in a mostly learned diction and from time to time, unwillingly, as you will see in later tales.
Now, by the time I come of age, I believe I knew enough to attend university, had I been but able to manage it financially. Of course, I could not. This was about the time that the ruckus at Sumter happened, and secession was spreading like cankerwort in a flower garden and the union was falling apart, and blood welling up and soon to spill over.
This brings me to the last major wrong in my life that I suppose I was brooding over while I watched the Indian's pony. That is to say, my conscription. It were a couple of years into the war when I was asked to fight, nay told that I would fight by a real Billy Yank of an officer, that it was my duty to fight to preserve the Union from being torn apart by the secessionists. But I saw no duty in it. To hell with the Enrollment Act. What had the Union ever given me but hard words and hard masters and a Brimstone God and the strap? What did I care if reb tore the country apart? Let him have it and all the death and hell besides. I suffered my time in the army, but my heart were never in it. My eyes were to the west. I would go to Colorado or to Wyoming country or some other place like that, where neither Miss Agnes nor the Union nor the draft officer could reach me. But I was forced into service, and that was the wrong of it. How can the Republicans be against slavery when they make slaves of men through conscription? So I bided my time in the Grand Army of the Republic, so-called, and it was here that I met Arthur Pike, who straightway took a liking to me and I to him.
We each of us absconded with a horse, provisions, and a Spencer repeating rifle and a new Colt pistol with a revolving cylinder. Many other things had since come to pass that I shall relate by and by, how we fared and how I come to find myself on the side of the river watching this Indian pony and thinking of how to best kill its owner.
I could see the Indian now, though whether he were Cheyenne or Comanche or what have you, I had no way of knowing. I was not at that time much studied in the Indian, nor in his ways, nor in his dress, nor his tribalism. All I could tell was that this was a horse Indian and not one of the Civilized Tribes. Watching him approach his pony, I could see from the Indian's slight frame and his manner of walking that he lived most of his life on horseback.
Overhead the leaves of the cottonwood danced and whispered in the prairie wind, and the sound was like white breakers upon a shore. I had just leaned out from behind the tree to take aim at the pony, for now that the rider was in the open and accounted for, I was decided to kill the pony first and then, rather than run as I had first intended, I would take on the helpless Indian after, and the continent would be less one redskin and I maybe richer one scalp, which I had only recently heard could still fetch a good price from the right buyer. It was clear by his demeanor that the man was alone. But as I put him in my rifle sights, the gentle sound of the cottonwood above me lulled me into a kind of trance and it was so peaceful and sweet that I felt my anger evaporating from me like a mist of vapor and I thought I heard a voice somewhere say my name in a fair and lovely tone, and I found myself suddenly questioning why I meant to kill this man. What had he ever done to me? Who was I to end his life and send him to his judgment, and what would I say to that Maker, however hated, when I too stood in judgment before his great white throne?
I hesitated at these unbidden thoughts, and as I did, the Indian looked down across the river from his high place and saw me kneeling beside the tree. The result was immediate. He did not know but that I was a scout for a nearby Union detachment. He was fooled into thinking so by the crumpled blue forage cap I still wore on my head and he had no idea that I was alone, and he did not consider that he had the higher ground and all the other advantages besides.
He did what these kinds of Indians always do when caught unawares, and that was to light out of there as fast as he might. He at once leapt onto the back of the star-marked pony, but instead of sitting straight in the saddle as a white man would have done, he hooked a heel on the saddle and dropped himself over onto the far side so as to screen himself with the body of the horse from my shots.
The result in me was likewise immediate. Despite my hatred of the Union, truth be told, they had given me good training, for to drill and drill was the most common pastime in my short stint there, and my instincts have never been those of a dullard. I thought fast as I always do. I shot the Indian's pony out from under him. Killed it with a single shot. It were a fine animal. Now that the thing was done I could not shake the thought of what a fine animal it truly was. With it the Indian could have outrun any Kentucky Saddler. But now it had a ball in its brain.
I thought that maybe the Indian's leg crumpled beneath the body of the horse when it fell but I could not see up on to the cut bank to verify this. So I held my rifle above my head and waded up to my chest through the little river and out to the other side. I waited at the base of the cut bank and listened. There was not a sound. I was glad of it. And yet I was not. For if I had heard the Indian groaning and struggling beneath the weight of the horse, I would have known that I was safe, for though he was not dead, at least he was trapped. But the silence told me nothing but that the horse was dead, which I already knew. It told me nothing of the Indian.
By root and rock and projecting dirt, I climbed and clawed my way to the top of the cut bank and peeked over its lip. I could see the backside of the pony, motionless, but its collapsed form obscured anything beyond, and I could not tell if the Indian lay on the other side or if he had disentangled himself from the beast and was waiting now hidden to ambush me. I waited and tried not to breathe and willed the whole earth to be silent so that I could listen. There was nothing. No human sound. A few feet from me, the fat brown form of a rat wriggled from a hole and stared at me, and I smiled and nodded at him and touched the brim of my hat as if to say hello, and spying such a strange creature as me outside the front step of his little home, he scampered off through the tallgrass down his little rat road, and I listened so hard that I could hear the little footfalls of his rat feet on the dirt even when I lost sight of him. Still there was no human sound. I hazarded it and scrambled the rest of the way up on to the bank. There was even yet no motion and no sound. The Indian did not ambush me.
As I brought myself to standing, I beheld a wide meadow, the color of butter, with snake ripples of wind coursing through the tallgrass. Behind me the cottonwood leaves fluttered and sighed their forlorn song like the whisper of the sea, and the brown shape of the rat could still be seen to flit in and out of the meadow as it ran. Overhead somewhere I heard the steamwhistle cry of a red-tailed hawk, a sharp, defiant, rasping scream. His wings were spread out in shadow upon the tallgrass, dancing over the tops. I had never seen such a sight as I saw there, nor felt what suddenly crashed upon me like an epiphany, with the great prairie stretched out westward before me to the rim of the world, as far as the eye could stretch itself, land upon land, mile on mile, a meadow truly, in the truest sense a meadow, the greatest meadow there can be, one that never ended but stretched on and on across the entire continent, all virginal and good and so infinitely holy a land, so utterly God-blest, and I felt my sinner's heart shrink inside me, for the size of the earth dwarfed me and dwarfed all the works of man, all his hubristic posturing and his philosophies and his paltry reason, and the domes and obelisks that he builds, and this damned war that he fights, all these things meant nothing to this endless land, land forever. I found myself under the eye of God, and I shrank. I meant nothing, nothing, neither the Indian and you neither, and we none of us meant anything to these indifferent spaces which draw sustenance from the divine and which need not man now nor ever needed us.
Then the Indian sprang up from the grass, and I was ripped from my rapture, and in the golden meadow there was bloodwork to be done.
This I had started, this defilement. I could not now stop it. A thing like regret pulled me back towards the cut bank, and there was a part of me that wanted only to run and to get back to my own horse and to ride away and to leave this Indian here and see him no more. But this I could not do. I was powerless to stop the sin I had wrought. I must see it through.
I raised my rifle and lowered to a crouch and sidestepped so as not to offer my enemy such an easy target, and in that second I could see that he had a bow and a ready arrow notched for me and he was taking aim.
The time was short now, but each moment long in itself. The hawk screamed again. I could not see it. The Indian pulled the bowstring to his ear and I raised my carbine and put my sights as well as I could on the broadest part of his exposed torso.
His navel like a bulls-eye. His clenched jaw. The arrow on the taut string. The blood in my veins and in his. The pulse of my temple, and the temple of his body and of mine. The low twang of the bowstring. The ripping air. The rifle shot. The crack of the powder.
And the hawk scream.
And there suddenly the diving bird, the red-tailed hawk in a swift aerial plunge, its wings half-closed and tucked close to its side, its talons curved in deadly scythes, and the prey below it, the fat brown rat that I had watched, struck dumb and motionless in terror.
And here was Providence.
Not mere sentiment carried like a charm by old women and parsons, but this true thing, this Thing Itself, this thing I witnessed and which gave me my life and my soul back to me, both of which I had sought to throw away. For I do not doubt but that the Indian's arrow would have killed me and my rifle shot him, and I would have gone to death with murder fresh on my soul, and the fires of hell would have taken me.
But Providence sent a rat and a red-tailed hawk. For when the hawk dove, my bullet struck him in his left breast and in his right, the Indian's arrow buried itself up to the shaft. The hawk fell dead in the meadow.
I saw this. I could not comprehend it. That such a thing could happen. And the Indian, he saw it too, and said nothing, not in his own language nor in mine, and I saw holy numinous fear mirrored in his coal-colored eyes and I said nothing. But we both of us stood and looked at the hawk, dead in the meadow, its breasts torn open.
We did not fire at each other again. Our weapons fell to our sides. The Indian approached the hawk as a priest to the holiest of holies and he knelt beside it and was silent for a time and then he lifted the lifeless form and blood trickled over his forearms and he plucked from the hawk two feathers, two of the long primaries at the ends of each wing, crimson-colored with the blood.
One of these he took for himself, and one he gave to me. And that was it.
Then we turned and walked away without a word.