The sound of swirling water against smoothed boulders, muffled the noises of our horses and disguised the movements of our enemies. The thick undergrowth, on the banks of the Little Bighorn, prevented me from seeing lieutenant colonel Custer and his men, who had to be on the other side of the river.
A galloping horse startled me from my ruminations. Bloody Knife, major Reno's scout on his brown-and-white mustang, told the commander what he had seen, with a few gestures and words I couldn't hear.
The major faced his men one by one. My buddy Henry flinched under the gaze of our commander. I felt nothing when he looked at me. Was that an omen?
Reno threw his fist in the air, let out a primal cry, and dropped his arm like a saber. 'Attack!'
We thundered through the woods. Trees towered up above us like giants. The river on our right made a sharp turn. The Indian encampment loomed before us. Adrenaline robbed us of all caution. The three battalions of the seventh cavalry left the forest. I bit my teeth, held my Springfield tightly, looking skittishly at the bushes along the riverside and the tall grass that lay between us and the camp. No more than a few hundred feet from the village, within easy reach of their arrows, I saw a flash. Metal reflecting sunlight I realized, when an order passed through our lines. Just as our attack formation came to a halt, the first shot roared. One of the horses went down. The soldier ended up under the massive dead body.
Reno yelled: 'Dismount! Skirmish line!' The stress was written on his face. As soon as my boots hit the ground I felt a bullet whiz over my hat. 'Mother Mary,' I muttered, lowering myself into the grass. I loaded my gun and looked down the barrel. The same grass that hid me from the Indians obscured my view of our enemies.
Bullets and arrows threw up the dirt in front of me. Henry, holding the horses, let out a gurgling cry when an arrow pierced his neck. I tried to catch the reins of one of the horses, but the leather slipped through my fingers. My horse, the only way out of this mess, ran from the smell of dead, like she was chased by the devil himself.
I shook my head to control my senses and focused on the encampment. I saw women and children, covered in blood, crying out their last breath. An attractive young girl tried to get a glimpse of the battlefield. Almost instantly her teepee was riddled by bullets. I cursed the devils wearing the same uniform. Our adversaries would brutally avenge the murder of these defenseless victims.
That thought had barely crossed my mind, when a group of Indians appeared on our left flank. Arrows descended upon us. Their smoking guns shrouded them in a demonic mist. Cries of fear were our only defense. I aimed my Springfield at one of them, a Sioux with a red moon on its cheek. Just when I was ready to pull the trigger it felt like my right leg was torn from my body. I cried out in pain and fell to the ground. Desperate for help, I crawled to my mates but found nothing but their corpses. The fear of death was forever chiseled on their faces. Only the sound of people dying proved that I was not alone.
'Withdraw!' The command echoed through our ranks. To my left and right I saw blue uniforms rushing to their horses and spurring the animals with the courage of despair. I shouted: 'Help!' My cry got lost in chaos. Our formation had been broken. From now on, it was every man for himself.
A Sioux's horse, the grin of invincibility on the rider's tanned face, made the grass, merely inches from my head, bow. I was lucky. He didn't see me and passed by. I looked over my shoulder and saw how the young Indian scalped Henry while howling like a coyote. The presence of the enemy behind me made an escape to the forest impossible. I made up my mind and decided to go where they would least expect me. I crawled through the tall grass. Every second it felt like a dozen arrows were shot into my leg. Blinded by pain, I reached the riddled teepee. On my right I heard the river. I slid onto the bank and closed my eyes, preying for Custer to find me before the Indians would.
I don't know how long I lay there. It might have been a few seconds but it could have been half an hour or more. The pain was overwhelming. My leg was a bloody mess. I carefully examined the gunshot wound. I got lucky, again; the bullet went through and through. I tried to gather my senses and anxiously searched for my rifle, but it was nowhere to be found. The Colt in my holster was my only defense if things went south.
Suddenly I saw a young woman, with a white feather in her charcoal-black hair. The curious girl from the teepee: she had survived. She was even more beautiful than I remembered. Without noticing me, she dipped a rag soaked with blood in the rushing water.
Out of nowhere three men appeared on the other side of the river—Custer's soldiers. I watched one of them, a guy with a thick gray beard, raise his gun and aim it at the helpless young lady. On impulse I drew my revolver. The bullet hit a tree just above the soldiers' head.
The young woman only then noticed I was there. As our eyes met, the world seemed to stop turning. It felt like lightning rushed through my veins. After a few seconds she realized the danger she was in, ran away and left me with nothing but an unprecedented desire to see her again.
Protected by cover fire from soldiers I couldn't see, the three men on the other side of the river tried to cross the water, but the stream was at least waist deep and the water rushed along at fast pace. Nonetheless they urged their horses to move forward. When they were halfway through, gunfire echoed from countless weapons. Gray Beard was instantly shot through the head. One of the others had the horse knocked out from beneath him. The third jumped of his and was swept away by the water. Howling and screaming the Sioux appeared. I watched eight or nine soldiers, on the other side of the river, fleeing the scene.
Only moments later, the Indian with the red moon painted on his cheek towered up above me. He raised his gun. The blow with the butt of his weapon made me lose consciousness.
* * *
I met Crippled Cockroach, as my brother decided to call him, the day that would go down in history as the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Under the awesome power of The Great Spirit, we defeated lieutenant colonel George Armstrong Custer and his seventh cavalry.
I was only eighteen years old. We had camped south of the Little Bighorn. A great uproar took hold of the village as our scouts galloped past the teepees, calling for all warriors to take up arms.
Curious as I was, I wanted to take a look but Spotted Fawn, my sister, grabbed my arm, slapped some sense into me and pushed me back into our teepee, leaving me only to hear the battle cries of our brothers, cousins and uncles. Almost instantly the thunderous roar of the guns made my heart pound in my chest. Bullets whizzed through the tent. My sister, who must have seen the fear in my eyes, pulled me to the ground and lay down on top of me to protect me. I could feel her breath against my cheek, as she softly recited prayers that seemed to calm neither her nor me.
An all-encompassing fear had gotten hold of me. The frightened scream of my sister brought me back to my senses. Spotted Fawn was covered in blood—her blood. I stroked her cheek while the fingers of my other hand searched for the wound that had whitened her face and faded her eyes. I found it just below her right breast. When I pressed it gently, her mouth opened like a fish out of the water, but a cry of pain did not escape from her lips. On impulse I jumped up, grabbed a blanket and ran to the river.
The water of the Little Bighorn was freezing cold, but I hardly noticed. I had to help my sister, although I didn't really knew how. A sudden bang, barely five feet away from me, knocked me to the ground. Bewildered I saw the enemies at the other side of the river crouch, while a soldier, laying in the grass next to me, emptied his revolver on his own men. With his other hand he urged me to run. This white adversary saved my life.
Red moon, my brother, alarmed by the shots from the village came to my rescue. He and his men attacked the three soldiers, who had the courage to cross the river. They died before they were even halfway through.
My brother ran upon my savior. The butt of his Winchester descended on the soldier's defenseless skull. I kept him from taking his life.
When night broke the warriors returned to camp, euphorically. They had gotten hold of countless weapons and pounds of ammunition. They danced and caroused until the drink ran out. I didn't take part in the festivities. My sister, losing blood, had become delirious. I called for the medicine man. He reeked of booze. When he dug into the wound with his dirty fingers, she almost let out her last sigh. The medicine man smiled like a mad man, shook his head and ordered me to cover her wounds myself.
* * *
The night had passed. At sunrise the caravan left the battlefield. Tied on top of a packhorse I desperately searched the endless plains for a sign of the cavalry. The men who I loved as much as I had loved my mom and dad, seemed to have melted away, like the snowflakes I danced through as a child. My head ached, my left eye was blurry and my injured leg smelled badly. I had been given neither food nor water, but I probably had to thank God that I was still alive and knew my scalp still mine.
After a full day of travelling, the Indians made a makeshift camp. It was already dark when the man with the moon and the girl with the white feather approached me. She knelt next to me and covered my wounds. She was talking to me, but I didn't understand. I greedily drank from the water she gave me, until I almost choked and half of it ran down my chin. The girl laughed, neither shy nor afraid. When she wanted to give me some food, the man pulled her away. That night the girl with the white feather visited me in my dreams.
* * *
Red Moon warned me: 'The Great Spirit has determined your fate, White Feather. You will become Rapid Wind's wife. You may not get involved with Crippled Cockroach. Do not deny the will of the Gods or you will bring shame upon our family.'
Red Moon's threats made shivers run down my spine. Ashamed I went to my teepee. Spotted Fawn groaned while unconscious. I once again called for the medicine man and offered him our late father's buffalo hide, but he said, snatching the leather from my hands, he could do nothing to help her.
I didn't find peace that night. Over and over again the moments at the Little Bighorn passed through my mind: Spotted Fawn's sigh as she was shot. Her blood saturating the earth. The faces of the soldiers, who had pointed their guns at me. And Crippled Cockroach, who, while wounded, saved my life—that of his enemy.
When I finally fell asleep, the Gods tormented me. I saw Spotted Fawn's face change into that of my mother, who had died years ago, during a devastating epidemic. Rapid Wind, became the drunk farmer that killed my father. In my nightmares I screamed and cried. But then, at the break of awakening, a hand wiped the tears from my cheeks.
I woke up and reached for the fingers that I had imagined touching my face only moments before. They were gone, but I knew I had not been comforted by a tribesman. Red Moon wouldn't understand but the Great Spirit had spoken to me. Crippled Cockroach and I, we were connected by a power greater than race or pedigree.
* * *
The next morning, the man with the red moon tied a rope around my neck and ordered me to follow the caravan on foot. 'And if you don't want to walk, we'll drag you,' he shouted in broken English. I knew he meant it. He would probably take pleasure in it. If I had my Colt, maybe I would have saved myself from further torment . . . But even suicide was no more than a farfetched dream at that point.
We went north. My rope was strapped to the packhorse of the plump medicine man. When he ran his hand over my scabby beard, I smelled the strange herbs he continuously seemed to chew.
The sun had just reached its highest point, when I tripped, fell to the ground and swallowed a mouthful of dust. The packhorse ignored my agony and pulled me through the sand. I felt the grit bite my cheek, while the rope around my neck slowly strangled me.
I vaguely heard the dampened sound of leather moccasins come closer, while I desperately wrestled with the rope for a gasp of air. A woman helped me up on my feet. She gave me a stick to support myself and disappeared before I got a chance to thank her. I was certain though it had been the girl with the white feather.
The Sioux camped on the banks of the Yellowstone. Under the watchful eye of the youth that scalped Henry, I was forced to gather firewood. When I tried to pick up a branch my leg gave out. A rough leather whip lacerated my back. The lad laughed while he hit me. My hands found a boulder the size of my palm. A tug on the rope around my neck and a slap with the rock was all it would have taken. I didn't. They would have made my death last for days. Even revenge wasn't worth that kind of suffering. Instead I crawled to the boy, murmured apologies, and kissed his feet.
* * *
From a distance I watched how Rapid Wind harassed Crippled Cockroach. I wanted to stop him, but he would get nothing but furious and tell me to bugger off. And when I'd ask Red Moon to intervene, I would only make things worse.
Exasperated I rushed to my teepee. Spotted Fawn had faded into a comatose state on the way to Yellowstone. I took her hand. It was cold. The sun would never warm her again. I cried until dark. Then I got up, folded her hands on her chest and kissed her forehead. In silence I picked up my meager belongings: my beaded necklaces, my moose hide and Spotted Fawn's dagger.
Crippled Cockroach lay on the ground, tied to a tree next to the pony herd. The horses would warn the men if he tried to escape. I walked over, put my fingers on his lips and cut the ropes. His fists swung through thin air, while he tried to defend himself against his assumed foe, but he calmed down as soon as he saw me. His smile was overwhelming. I felt his hand run down my cheek, like in my dreams. I helped him up. With his arm around my shoulders we stumbled towards the river. She was our only chance. If we left traces my brother could follow, we would be caught before dawn.
* * *
Two months had passed since our escape. We didn't know whether Red Moon, White Feathers brother, ever came close catching us. We never saw a trace of him or his men.
It was only the two of us and White Feather was irresistible. Although we had nothing but gestures and looks to communicate, it felt like she knew me inside out from the day we first laid eyes on each other. Freed from every burden we once knew, we traveled across prairies, through almost impenetrable forests and along jagged cliffs. We were hungry and cold, but I had never been happier.
Near death we stumbled upon a log cabin. The old recluse who lived there, invited us in. White Feather dropped to her knees by the fire and thanked the man mumbling her incomprehensible gibberish.
I gratefully accepted the cup of water the old man gave me. The earthy tasting liquid caressed my tongue like Irish whiskey.
The old settler looked me in the eye and nodded as if we were in mutual understanding. He said: 'If you gather firewood, then I'll put food on the table.'
I emptied my cup and took the ax from the chopping block. After a while, the smell of freshly roasted meat spread through the forest and made my stomach growl.
Suddenly, a scream silenced the bluebirds. On my still reluctant leg, I stumbled back to the cabin. I found White Feather crying and screeching in the doorway, her dress covered in blood. I glanced inside and saw the old man lying on the floor. His pants were down to his ankles. My beloved's knife was there where the settler's masculinity once had been. Perplexed, he stared at the piece of meat he held in his hand like a delicate bird. Within two steps I stood in front of him. The ax rushed through the air, splitting his skull.
We buried the man in a shallow grave. That night the scavengers feasted on his flesh. It was all he deserved.
* * *
We no longer counted the days. White Feather and I didn't have much but we had each other. I sold game at the Benson's Landing trading post. Everything else we needed, White Feather foraged in the forests surrounding the cabin.
It was early October when I travelled north to Benson's, to sell some beaver pelts. In the general store, I bought bullets for the rifle that had once belonged to the old settler. Now it was our primary means for catching big game. 'Any news?' I asked the young shopkeeper while handing over the money.
He whispered, like a child telling a secret: 'A gang of Sioux has burnt down some farms. Troops from Fort Smith have been sent,' he raised his fist, 'to give them what they deserve.'
'Where are they?' I asked anxiously.
'They are said to be in the massive forests south of here.'
I ran outside, mounted my horse and urged her to a merciless gallop. It was the smell of burning wood that told me I was too late. Plumes of smoke billowed above the treetops. The creaking and crackling of the flames was accompanied by euphoric outcries.
When I reached the cabin, I heard White Feather screaming for dear life. My love was down on her stomach. A large Indian sat on top of her, pulling up her skirts, while another tied my ax to his horse. Still on horseback I aimed my rifle. The bullet ravaged the chest of the man who assaulted White Feather. The other Indian was quick-witted. He grabbed his bow. An arrow pierced the flesh of my mare. She tripped and I smashed to the ground with a terrifying blow. Dazed, I saw the Indian, his tomahawk raised above his head, rushing towards me.
Only a couple of feet away from me, he suddenly fell to his knees. White Feather stabbed him over and over again. Her eyes were dark of demonic frenzy.
The sound of a horn echoed against the spruce trees. As if they both had waited for the same signal, soldiers and Indians rushed the clearing with guns blazing.
In the midst of chaos and hatred, I took White Feather into my arms. Bullets whizzed over our heads. Whatever might happen to us; the Great Spirit had predestined our love—on earth and beyond.