The Lakota medicine man's face was old and more rutted than a buffalo trail, but his eyes sparkled with a youth that would never fade. "My name is Running Bear," he told Levi Woods. "I have come to see the buffalo die, and to sing a death song for them."
Levi Woods, standing his roan saddle-horse a little way off, rested his right hand on his Colt pistol. He regarded Running Bear with cold eyes, taking in the man's headdress of eagle feathers, the dark smudges of paint that striped his cheeks, the buckskin garments he wore.
"Go home, old man," he said. "It's not safe for you here on the range. If Captain Carson sees you . . . he's the Chief, out here."
"You do not tell me where I may go," Running Bear said. "I feel sorry for you."
"For me? Why?"
"I am old, and will soon go where the buffalo go, but you are young and will live to see their end. That is sad, and I feel sorrow for you." He turned his face away, and looked out over the range. Gunshots cracked in the distance, as hunters felled the great beasts that roamed the range like black pirate ships upon a golden sea. He lifted his head up, and began chanting in ominous tones.
Levi shook his head. If the old man wouldn't listen to reason, what could he do about it? Captain Carson had sent him into Abilene to pick up the mail from the train. If he didn't get back soon, he'd be in trouble himself. The Captain could not abide tardiness. The Captain could not abide a lot of things.
"Go home, old man, before you get shot," he said, then he turned his horse away and headed for the camp. When he had travelled a ways, he turned back to see if the old man had abided by his words. He had not. "Old fool," he breathed, then he dug in his heels and kicked his horse into a gallop.
The Captain had named the camp Kearney, in honour of his birthplace in Missouri. He liked to tell folks that he came from the same locale as the James boys, and that he had known them in their youth. "I bounced Jesse on my own knee," he would often say. "A fine boy he was, and I count myself fortunate to have known him." Levi had heard him tell the tale, and many others, too many times. It had not escaped Levi's notice that all of the Captain's tales painted him as the hero, in order to glorify himself, or add to his mystique. All old men are fools to a young man.
The sound of gunfire grew closer as he crossed the plain. Buffalo hides were worth three dollars, though it was less for calves. The meat was left to rot where it lay. The buzzards picked the carcasses to pieces during the day, the rodents and coyote by night. "This is Manifest Destiny," the Captain had explained. "We take the red man's meat, to keep him in line. If you see an Indian out here, boys, you're to treat him as you would a buffalo. Shoot him and skin him." Levi thought of Running Bear, and hoped he'd finish with his song and go back home.
Kearney was as near to the gates of Hell as Levi ever wanted to get. The stench of blood was so heavy in the air that he could taste its metallic tang in his mouth, even before he reached it. Buffalo carcass after carcass lay on the blood-soaked grass, being skinned with razor-sharp blades by men in aprons stained with streaks of animal blood. They were a mixed lot, free men and Chinese, Germans and Irish. Of them all, the Irish were the roughest, and much given to violence and intemperance.
Not for the first time, Levi thought I don't belong here. But there was nowhere else to go. He was an orphan, with no known kin, raised at the Holy Redeemer Mission in Adams, Tennessee. He wasn't cut out for the railroad, nor the law. Most of the time, he felt like he wasn't cut out for anywhere. Here though, where death was a very real thing, seemed the worst place anyone could ever be.
He rode between the white tents until he came to the largest one at the centre of the camp. The Captain was sitting in a chair in front of it, smoking his pipe. Beside him, Caleb Caine, his right hand man, stood with his feet shoulder-width apart, and his hand resting on his Smith and Wesson. Levi fancied that he himself had a fast draw, and practiced every day, but Caleb was maybe the fastest he had ever seen.
The Captain rose as Levi neared him. He was a large man, paunchy around his midriff, with wild grey whiskers and a patch over one eye. Some said he'd lost the eye to a bullet in the war, others said it had been to an infection. Either way, it had done nothing to improve his rough appearance.
"What took you so damned long, boy?" he growled.
"Sorry, Captain, the train was late." He took a bundle of letters from inside his coat, and handed them over.
The Captain sorted through the bundle, then a smile spread across his face as he pulled out a folded newssheet from among them. "Go and do some work," he said, without lifting his eyes to look at Levi.
* * *
It was hard for Levi to figure out which he hated the most, skinning the buffalo or shooting them, so he tried to find an in-between place where he could still pass as doing some work, but not do anything that was too sickening. That meant cleaning and loading guns, and being a general dogsbody to all and sundry. All day long it was, "Boy, fetch me this," or, "Boy, go get me such and such."
It was better than the alternative, and with aching slowness, the sun turned in the sky and darkness fell on the camp. Lanterns were lit. Voices rang out, some in laughter, some in anger. Alcohol was consumed, and fights inevitably broke out. The Captain encouraged such fights, and often arranged a ring and side-bets for matches that promised to be good sport.
That night, a fight had been organized between Reagan and O'Shea, two Irish men. O'Shea had accused his opponent of stealing his best hunting knife, one which had been left to him by his father. Reagan refuted the claim. For lack of anything better to do, Levi went along to watch them slug it out.
Four stout wooden posts had been sunk into the ground to mark a square, and a heavy rope had been tied from post to post to form a ring. The men crowded against it as the two fighters took their positions. Stripped to the waist, O'Shea flexed his muscles and stretched himself. Reagan, by far the favourite because of his large size, stood still with eyes half-closed, as if he were silently praying.
The Captain entered the ring and held his hands up for silence. "Gentlemen. Do I not present you with the finest entertainments?"
The crowd cheered.
"We are here tonight—"
His words were cut off by a shout. "Boss, look what we found." A rider, Caleb Caine, pressed his bay through the crowd, until he reached the ropes. "Boss, we found us an Indian medicine man, out on the plain."
"Did you bring him?"
"Quinn is bringing him into camp, right behind me."
The Captain chortled, and rubbed his hands together, then he held them above his head. "Gentlemen. Could this night get any better? We have a new sport for you tonight." He turned to Caleb. "Bring forth the sacrifice," he said. As Caleb spun his horse around and made his way through the crush again, the Captain turned back to face them.
"Today I received a news sheet from Kansas City, in which it was reported the death of General George Armstrong Custer, and the slaughter of the glorious 7th Cavalry Regiment by the red man, at the Little Bighorn river in Montana territory."
A hush fell over the crowd, then an anxious murmur spread from man to man as one whispered to another. Their expressions were open, expectant. They looked to the Captain as they might once have looked to their fathers, for guidance and direction.
"Have I ever lied to you?" the Captain went on. "What I tell you tonight, as always, is plain truth. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, with a host of ferocious braves, set upon those soldiers like hungry dogs, cutting and stabbing and shooting and taking the scalps of those poor and unfortunate boys. When they were done, the women tortured the wounded, cutting off their arms and legs and blinding them." As the men's voices cried out in anger, the Captain lowered his voice.
"Tonight . . . " A quiet fell over the gathering as they strained to hear him. "Tonight, we shall avenge the fallen heroes." He pointed a finger towards where Caleb was pushing his way through the men. He was leading an old man by the rope by which his wrists were bound.
"Behold, the enemy," the Captain called, reaching the crescendo of his speech. "It is our Manifest Destiny that we wipe them from the world."
Caleb dismounted and brought Running Bear into the light of the lanterns. The old man's expression was impassive, and he gazed at the crowd with what seemed a mixture of curiosity and pity. His eyes found Levi, and lingered on him for a moment. Levi blushed, and looked down at the dirt.
Damn it, old man, he thought. Why didn't you listen to me. Now they're going to do to you what they do to the buffalo, except they'll kill you slow.
They pushed Running Bear towards the ropes, and he did not resist as they lowered his head and sent him under them and into the ring to face the master of ceremonies. The Captain regarded him with obvious disdain, then spat in his face. Running Bear did not blink, did not react in any way.
Again, the Captain raised his arms over his head. "Tonight, Reagan and O'Shea will set their differences aside, if only temporarily. It is they who will dish out the first dose of punishment to our guest."
It was just plain wrong what they were doing, and Levi had to do something. He dug deep and found some measure of courage, then pushed his way forward and stepped under the ropes and into the ring. "Captain," he called. "He's just an old man. He couldn't have—"
Caleb turned to face Levi, his hand on his gun.
The Captain leaned his face close to Levi's. "Are you a lover of the Indian, son? Perhaps you'd like to step in there with him, and defend him?"
"N-no sir," Levi stammered. "I just meant—"
The Captain's hand lashed out and struck him across the face. Levi's cheek stung, and he tasted blood in his mouth. What stung more was his pride, being slapped in front of the whole crew like that.
"What did you mean, son?"
He lowered his eyes. "Nothing sir," he said.
The Captain nodded slowly. "Then enjoy the show."
He waited for Levi to leave the ring, then he gave a signal to Caleb, who unbound the old man's hands. Then the Captain stepped from the ring.
Reagan approached the Indian, who smiled at him. As the Irish man's arm swung around and his first punch connected with that lined old face, Levi turned away and pushed past the straining, cheering onlookers until he was clear of them.
The smell of so many bodies gathered together had temporarily covered up the ambient stench of blood, but now it hit Levi again. He threw up everything he had in his stomach, and kept on retching until there was nothing to bring up but bile. He returned to his tent at the edge of the camp and buried his head in his hands, but he still couldn't block out the hollering and laughter of the men.
* * *
It was late in the night before the sounds of merriment died away. They had beaten the old man for a long time. Sitting on his bunk, Levi imagined they had beaten him to death, that his body now lay alongside the buffalo carcasses, where it would rot. But he had to be certain.
He stood and loosened his Colt in its holster, then drew it, as fast as he could. He returned it, then drew it again and again. It was a routine that soothed his nerves. Then he stepped out into the night air, and headed towards the ring.
The posts remained in the ground, but the ropes had been taken down. One of them was lashed around the nearest post, holding in place the figure of an old man. Another rope was tied around his neck, so he could barely move an inch. His face was bloody and swollen and beaten all to hell.
Elias drew his hunting knife and fell on his knees beside Running Bear, then started cutting the rope away. "You should have listened to me," he whispered.
"I am an old man," Running Bear said. "I do not listen to foolish young men."
"I was right though, wasn't I?"
Running Bear chuckled. "All young men are fools. Perhaps all old men, too."
The last piece of rope came loose. Levi handed Running Bear the knife to hold, then helped him to his feet. "I've got to get you to a horse," he said. "You can still get away."
"I thought you might try something like this," said a familiar voice behind him.
He turned, still supporting Running Bear. "Caleb," he said.
Caleb held his right hand poised over his pistol. "The Captain isn't finished with the red man. Do you really want to die for him?"
"It doesn't have to happen like this," Levi said. His own hand inched towards his Colt. I'm not as fast as him, he thought. He'll kill me.
"Yes, it does."
They stood motionless for a moment, eye meeting eye, then Caleb's hand went for his pistol. He drew it in the same moment as Running Bear's arm lashed out. The hunting knife struck Caleb square in the chest, but he still managed to get a shot off, though his aim had been altered by the blow he had received. Running Bear lurched to the side, gripping his gut. Blood pumped through his fingers and dripped onto the dirt. Caleb fell over backwards, dead.
Levi looked from one to the other. The camp might be sleeping off a night's drinking, but a lone shot would draw them out of their tents to see what had happened. He held Running Bear close to him, and moved as quickly as he could. When they reached the horses, he helped Running Bear mount a bay, then climbed on his own roan. He took Running Bear's reins, and kicked in his heels. Soon, the camp was far behind and they were out on the range. In the dim light, the buffalo moved like huddled clouds across a dark sky.
They rode until dawn, by which time Running Bear was hunched low over his mount. He sighed with pain as Levi helped him down onto the earth.
"You saved my life," Levi said.
"An old man dies, a young man lives," he breathed. "It has always been this way. I will die soon, but you must leave. The men will come for you."
"I have nowhere to go."
"Then go nowhere. The Everywhere Spirit will guide you."
"What about you?"
Running Bear coughed up blood. "Now I will go where the buffalo go." The life left his eyes in the same moment, and he lay dead on the dark earth.
Levi did not know the words of the Lakota people, he did not know their songs or their stories but, with tears in his eyes, he raised his head and tried to mimic the chant he had heard Running Bear make when he'd first met him. A death song for an old man. A death song for the buffalo.
When he was finished, he crossed Running Bear's hands over his chest, then mounted his horse. He had nowhere to go, so he rode out for nowhere. And the Everywhere Spirit went with him.