It was 1866, late October, and the Wyoming weather was already hinting at the approach of winter. The last of the season's aspen leaves glittered like Double Eagles over the heads of two horsemen with their eyes set on the gold fields of Western Montana.
The men had been complete strangers until the day before when they left the well-worn and deeply-rutted Oregon Trail behind and found themselves the only ones riding the equally-rutted, but otherwise empty Bozeman Trail heading north.
"Bozeman?" one man had asked the other.
"Yep," the other nodded.
"I'm thinking we might ride together for a spell," said the first. "You good for it?"
"Yep," the other said, along with a second nod of his head.
Trying to have a conversation while riding a horse wasn't as easy as it had been chatting face to face with the soldiers at Fort Laramie. But now, two days later, seeing as there was nothing else to do and no one else to talk to anyway, the two men did what they could.
"Name's Michael," said the first. "Michael Goodwin, Lima, Ohio."
"Robert Peterson," said the second man. "Cleveland."
If you had been there and seen them, even up close, you would have had a hard time telling one from the other. They were both in their late twenties, slightly under six-feet tall, of similar weight, wearing similarly drab, nondescript, clothing with hints of brown showing through the layers of trail dust that covered each of them like a blanket. Underneath their hats they wore their dark hair cropped short with nearly identical untrimmed beards framing their faces like they were paintings hanging in an art gallery in Boston or New York. The similarities extended even to their horses, both of them roans of fifteen-hands.
Only the color of their eyes set them apart, Michael's being blue and Robert's brown.
That night they shared a campsite and a fire, each fixing their own grub but sharing a pot of boiled coffee.
"I expect you fought Union, same as me?" said Robert with the hint of a question mark at the end.
"Union would be right," answered Michael with his mouth full of buffalo pemmican, "but I wasn't in it—I didn't fight."
"I don't understand. What do you mean, you 'didn't fight?'"
"I'm a pacifist," came the answer. "A Mennonite . . . folks who actually believe what Jesus and the Bible say about, 'Thou shalt not kill' and 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' I did what I could to help the wounded and paid the $300 that Lincoln charged me for staying out. It was a fair trade but it set me back, maybe forever. You see, afore the war broke out I was all set to buy land, start farming on my own and maybe raise a family, but that $300 took all my savings and then some. And if you think you're broke, l bet you this last bite of pemmican that I'm more broke than you are."
"But you're wearing a pistol on your belt and you've got a rifle on your horse," Robert said, ignoring the bet. "So, what kind of a pacifist are you? I hope you're not the kind that loves their enemy and then turns around and murders their family and friends. God knows we've got enough of them enemies waiting for us up ahead and we're going to need all the friends we can get."
"I reckon we're already in Sioux territory," Michael answered, as his eyes flickered from side to side, peering into the surrounding darkness. "You heard what they said back at Laramie, how's lately there been near thirty common folk murdered along the trail and dead soldiers, too, up at Fort Phil Kearny. That's supposed to be Crow territory, not Sioux, but they say Red Cloud doesn't care about treaties and just wants the soldiers gone and the trail cut off."
Robert sat quietly for a long time before replying.
"They said I was a fool to take the trail what with the Indians and the winter coming on and such," he muttered, "and I'm thinking that maybe they were right about it."
He paused again, and looked straight into the eyes of his companion for the first time that day.
"We're going to need those guns you've got, no doubt about it—either to scare them Indians off or to kill them afore they kills us. But if you won't use them to kill, why have them at all?"
"Bear, wolves, and rattlers—there's three reasons good enough," Michael answered. "And game. A man's gotta eat. And not God, Jesus, or Simon Meno never said nothing against killing a Grizz or taking down a buffalo when someone's hungry or if they're cold and needs a fur cloak. Anyways, it's cheaper to shoot something yourself stead of paying someone else for the meat—and the critter's dead whether I shoot it or he does. It's all the same.
"It's people I won't kill," he added with a grin. "And I won't eat them, neither!"
"Well," said Robert with a stretch and a yawn, "it's good to have someone to talk to and ride with, but I'm afeared you won't be worth a bottle of spit if'n up ahead we run into a band of them Sioux."
"God will protect and deliver us from evil," Michael said in a tone of voice that reminded Robert of back home—back when he used to go to church . . . before the war . . .
Just five years ago, he thought to himself. Five years of hell and now I'm walking back into it again with Red Cloud coming at me 'stead of Johnny Reb. Those Laramie folks were right all along. I am a fool and, more than that—a damned stupid one for getting hooked up with someone who's a bigger fool than I am.
As they took turns sleeping the fire turned to ash.
They were up and on their way before dawn hoping to reach Fort Reno before they had to build another campfire.
They were hoping they'd get there alive.
To their surprise, they soon found themselves joined by a group of sixty or more soldiers heading in the same direction.
Robert recognized them as part of the 18th Infantry, the same outfit he had joined in Ohio and fought with through Perryville, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Utoy Creek during the Battle for Atlanta.
He looked for familiar faces but didn't find one until a mutton-chopped, mustached officer in a Captain's uniform drew his horse alongside the two men.
"Feel free to join us, if you'd like," he said, with a dusty smile. "'Better safe than sorry,' and, as they say, 'E pluribus Unum,' 'The more the merrier,' and 'There's safety in numbers,' all true long as you don't mind the string of clichés."
"Yes, Sir, Colonel!" Robert answered as he found himself sitting straight up in the saddle and saluting Will Fetterman, the man who had led Robert 's Ohio-based brigade through the war; the man who had brought him home alive when it was over, the man to whom he owed his very life
"Private Peterson reporting for duty," he continued, "honored to see you, again, Sir!"
"Peterson? Robert Peterson? By God I didn't recognize you behind that poor excuse of a beard! In the name of Jesus, I hope you're not trying to get to Bozeman!"
Robert was pleased beyond measure to have been remembered by name, but the warning about Bozeman didn't sit well at all.
"By the way," Fetterman continued, "as you can see, I'm not a colonel anymore or a volunteer like before. I'm a professional soldier, now, and a Captain like James Powell over yonder, my co-command of this bunch of misfits."
"Where you headed?" asked Michael, hoping he and his new companion could follow the troops all the way to Montana.
"Going to Fort Kearny to protect folks like you who are traveling the trail. And if they give me half a chance and eighty good men, I swear I'll ride through the whole Sioux nation and push 'em back to the Dakotas where they belong. But enough talking, I've got to keep these men moving. Look me up when we get to Fort Reno, or maybe Kearny, if we get that far, and we can catch up on old times."
As he turned his horse, he tipped his hat and said, "Good to see you again, Robert. And Michael, it's nice to meet you, too."
While they were talking, Michael's eyes had been scanning the surrounding hills where, on the top of a ridge a mile or so to the east he spotted the silhouettes of two men on horseback with their backs to the rising sun.
Sioux, he thought. And not afraid to show themselves. Maybe hoping to get some of these boys angry enough to set off in their direction with a trap waiting for them somewhere down the far side of the ridge. An old trick and the Captain here is too experienced and too good to fall for it. If he ignores them, they'll probably just give up and go away.
And sure enough, ten minutes later, after the two travelers from Ohio had ridden out of the dust and joined the two Captains at the head of the column, the two men on the ridge had disappeared.
Several hours later, when Captain Fetterman moved to the back of the column to check on stragglers, Robert and Michael followed.
Maybe it was something like fate or Providence and maybe God's hand was in on it or maybe it was just something stirred up by the pounding of men's feet and horse's hooves, but as the three men rode alongside and against the grain of the marching troops, a rattlesnake sat up in front of Robert's horse and startled her enough to cause her to whinny out an unearthly screech and rear up on her hind legs.
Robert managed to hold on, but when the horse came down, one of her front hooves planted itself in an animal hole of some kind, causing her to stumble and fall, throwing Robert to the ground and scattering his gear in all directions.
Both man and horse lay on the ground side-by-side for quite a spell, breathing hard and searching their bruised bodies for torn muscles and broken bones.
The Captain called for a medic but Robert waved him off.
"I'm, alright," he groaned, as he sat up and began brushing sand, twigs and dust out of his hair and off of his face. "No need for a medic, but if you can find my canteen, I could sure use a sip of water."
He was back up on his feet in no time, hurting more than he was willing to admit, and favoring one leg over the other.
His horse, however, was slower to get up and when she did, she wouldn't let Robert or anyone else come close enough to touch her.
"Leave her be for a spell," Robert said, fighting back his pain through clenched teeth, "and she'll be fine. No need for you to wait up for me and her. We'll catch up soon enough and, like I said, we'll be fine. So, git! You're making me all nervous and embarrassed with the staring and—Michael, I'm talking to you—please get that worrisome look off your face—it's not helpful. So just git! Both of you and everyone else. We just need a few minutes."
"You go on ahead, Captain," Michael cut in. "I'll stay here and keep 'em out of trouble. And when they're ready, we'll catch up."
"You sure I can't leave a couple of men behind, you know, just in case?"
"No, Sir," Robert answered. "You can't spare anyone with a horse and two men on foot would slow us down when we're trying to catch up. So, thank you, but, like we've both said, we'll be fine."
The column of men hadn't gone more than a quarter mile, and the dust they'd kicked up hadn't yet settled when the fallen horse allowed Robert to straighten and tighten her harness and secure his repacked gear behind the saddle. With a boost from Michael, Robert was back up, sitting high and ready to ride.
Before he climbed into his own saddle, Michael looked up at his friend and said, "Remember what I said, 'God will protect us and deliver us from evil.'"
"Like hell he will!" Robert whispered as his eyes focused on something behind Michael and his hand reached for his gun."
"No! White Man," came a commanding voice that caused Michael to twist around to see who was talking. "You touch, you die. You understand?"
Somehow, without their horses, the two Sioux warriors, each armed with a short bow nocked with an arrow, had managed to sneak up on their prey without being seen.
"Maybe you die, anyway. Make good coup. One for Bent Feather and one for me."
"You speak English," Michael stammered, being unable to think of anything else to say.
"Hear me, and do not speak again," came the reply. "I am Broken Foot. When I was seven years old, soldiers killed my father while he slept, tore me from my mother's arms and forced me to watch while they dishonored her. I wanted them to kill me, too, but they took me to Fort Laramie and tried to civilize me and turn me into a scout. They called me a filthy savage, but in my heart, knowing what they had done, I knew who the savages were."
As he spoke, the one called Bent Feather motioned for Robert to dismount and drew what appeared to be an old and worn Green River blade from a beaded sheath attached to his waistband. He set aside his bow and with his knife at the ready, removed the guns and gun belts from the men's waists and then their rifles from the horses.
Without interruption, Broken Foot continued.
"I remember it all and forget none of it, and while I waited for my time to come, I learned to speak like a White Man. This was easy for me because our tribe already knew much of the White Man's language from trappers back in the days when my people were still as free as the sky; back in the days when our campfires burned brightly; when the long nights were filled with stories and sacred dancing to the Spirit in gratitude for blessing us with the land, the sky, the rivers and the buffalo.
"But all this was stolen from us. And even when my people made peace, still you come and take our land and kill our people, and so we say, 'Enough.' Now it is the Lakota's turn to drive you out and restore honor to our tribe.
"And I tell you this because your soldiers have left you behind, and I tell you this so you will know that the guns you have carried to kill my people will be used to kill yours, and I tell you this so you will know that your lives—if Bent Feather and I choose to take them—will make us stronger."
When he paused, Robert slowly raised his right hand, palm out. Broken Foot saw and acknowledged the gesture with a nod, granting him permission to speak.
"You have shared a sad and terrible story and you are right to think I would have used my gun against you to defend myself. But you're wrong to think my friend would have used his gun against you. He is a believer in peace and has vowed never to kill or hurt any man, even in self-defense; even at the cost of his own life."
Broken Foot gestured for Robert to lower his hand and then walked up to Michael, raised his bow and pulled it taut with the point of his arrow no more than an inch from his eye.
"Is it true what that man just said about you? That you do not fight? That you would not kill a man?"
"What he says is true," Michael replied, in such a soft and quiet voice that Robert didn't hear what he had said.
Broken Foot responded by laughing the way a drunken man laughs when he hears something he thinks is funny. But the laugh ended abruptly, as if it had been cut off my Bent Feather's knife.
"What strange thing is this?" Broken Foot asked, looking grim and serious once again. "Even Lakota women fight and have proven themselves as warriors."
He turned to Bent Feather and exchanged a few words in Lakota.
"I will now put this new thing to the test—to see if you speak the truth."
Bent Feather handed him Michael's pistol and Broken Foot took Michael's right hand and forced him to take the loaded weapon.
"Shoot me, Great Warrior," he mocked as he laid his bow on the ground and stood with his legs spread wide apart and his hands clasped behind his back. Save your friend and save yourself. Kill me and Bent Feather has sworn that as long as you do not turn the gun on him, he will let you both go.
"Why do you hesitate? Are you afraid? Are you a coward? Do you not want freedom for you and your friend? Do you not want to live? Kill me now and you will have all of these things and be rid of me forever!"
Michael turned the gun so the barrel was in his hand, pointing towards himself and in this way, he reached out and offered it back to Broken Foot.
"I desire freedom and life for my friend as well as for myself. I am not a coward and I am not afraid. But I will not kill you or any man, even if it should cost us our lives."
Broken Foot turned to Bent Feather and shrugged before taking the proffered gun. With his hand firmly on the grip and his finger tight against the trigger, he pulled back the hammer and placed the tip of the barrel in the center of Michael's forehead.
"You have had your chance, Great Warrior, and now you and your friend will die."
"As God wills, so be it," Michael whispered. "And Father, forgive them."
Even though he said this as a prayer he did not close his eyes or even blink.
As he watched, he saw Broken Foot raise the gun and release the hammer before bringing the barrel down on his head with a light tap.
The man nodded at his companion who then did the same to Robert.
"You are foolish and brave, Great Warrior," Broken Foot declared. "As brave as any man I have known. I now give you a new name, 'White Dove,' because you bring no harm to any man, and because you did not blink when you faced death. Bent Feather and I have each counted coup and have won great honor for ourselves, our families, and our tribe."
After yet another nod to Bent Feather he said, "Now we return your weapons, knowing that neither of you will use them against us as we leave. The whole of our nation will soon know who you are and, on my word, as long as you ride this trail the Lakota will never do you any harm. You are free."
As Robert and Michael watched, the two warriors retrieved their bows, turned their backs and walked away. As they made their way towards the eastern hills they dropped to the ground and disappeared into the sagebrush and high mountain grass, never to be seen by Robert Peterson or Michael Goodwin again.
The story doesn't say if the two men ever made it to Bozeman or what fortunes or misfortunes came their way in the days, weeks, or years that followed.
What is known is that less than two months later on December 21 a small band of Sioux attacked a party of men sent out from Fort Kearny to cut wood. A company of 80 soldiers under the command of Captain William Fetterman—in defiance of orders not to do so—pursued them over a nearby ridge where they were ambushed by a group of 2,000 Sioux. In less than twenty minutes Fetterman and his soldiers were dead, all but six of them killed by arrows. It was the second largest military loss suffered by the United States in battle against Native People, a defeat surpassed only by that of George Custer at the Little Bighorn, ten years later.