The storm doused the world.
George held the small medicine
bag in his hands as the rain pelted down onto his head and streamed
through his braided hair. He ran his fingers over the bag's worn
quillwork, the leather that was as old and dark as the skin of the
man who had owned it. It had belonged to Three Trees Together, the
preeminent chief of the People, a patient leader who had been shot
dead pursuing peace for his tribe. George had loved and respected
him, perhaps more than he did his own father. He looked up into
the rain-dark sky.
"God, damn it all,"
he said as his vision swam with the sting of tears and cold rain.
"Everything, God. Damn me, damn the world. Damn everything."
The storm threw its rain down
from the west with a rising, vengeful fury. In the Sand Hills, on
the shores of the Big Salty, the temperate waters kept the northern
snows at bay, but they could not keep away the rains or the cold
winds that blasted down from the great plains of the Alliance.
From a few yards away, George's
whistler complained of the bitter chill and sheltered her nose under
her tail. For his own part, he greeted the building violence of
the storm, shivering in clothes soaked through by the winter's weather.
He had ridden for a week to reach this spot, a journey of agony
and privation that was an appropriate ending to the devastating
trip to Washington that killed Three Trees Together and nearly killed
George's father as well.
He looked down again at the medicine
bag in his hands. It fit in his palm, a small square pouch sewn
shut to enclose the talismans of its owner's spiritual strength.
From the bottom of the bag hung an uneven, broken fringe and attached
to the top was a long thong of leather that the old man had worn
around his neck. Made of brain-tanned elkhide, the back of it was
bare, the leather soiled and hardened by decades lying next to the
skin of the old man's chest. The front of it was sewn with dyed
porcupine quills; a geometric pattern with the right half covered
in white quills, the left half in dark brown. Down the middle were
open, wheat-colored diamonds that represented grasshoppers, and
to either side were blue double-barred crosses: dragonflies. Grasshoppers,
he knew, were a symbol of plenty, as they always presaged the buffalo
on the open prairie, rising up in clouds before the herd's advance.
He touched the blue quills of the four dragonflies. He did not know
what a dragonfly meant to the Cheyenne. For the past three years
he had called The People who ruled the great plains his friends,
his family, his own; but still he did not know all their secret
His vision blurred over, but
not with the rain that coursed over his face.
"Damn it all," he said
again, and clutched to his breast the medicine bag that had belonged
to his chief.
Three Trees Together had died
on the steps of the White House, brought down by a bullet meant
for the assassin who had tried to kill George's father, George Armstrong
Custer, Sr., the President of the United States. He wished now,
as he had while staring down at the blood on the white stone steps,
that the bullet had taken him instead of that grand old chief. The
chief's death had brought no good, while his own death would have
done no harm.
He looked around at the rain-soaked
land. The funeral party, traveling home weeks ahead of George, had
picked a good spot for their leader's spirit bed. Set atop the limestone
cliffs high above the white sand shore of the inland sea, there
would have been plenty of the leather-winged fliers to come and
release the old man's spirit from his flesh. There were remnants
of the chief's funeral strewn about: pale bones among the dark sedgegrass
and woody thyme, a tattered war bonnet, a dream shield tied to one
of the scaffold poles. But for George it was the medicine bag that
embodied the chief. How many times had he watched the old man, sitting
at the head of a Council meeting, his fingers idly playing with
the fringe or rubbing the quills of its geometric design? How many
times had the Council waited while Three Trees Together toyed with
his medicine bag, his mind seeking the path of wisdom? A man of
a hundred summers who, the day before his death, had stood with
George on a balcony, catching snowflakes on his tongue. A man whom
George loved more than his own father, and who had cared for George
in return. Dead. Murdered on the road to peace.
"My fault," George
said, his teeth clenched and his breath hard and sharp in his breast.
He stood and, medicine bag in one hand, unsheathed his knife with
the other. The blade glowed in the dim light, and he felt its bite
with his thumb. He looked at the bag.
"I just wanted to help,"
he said to it, and to the man who had owned it. "I only just
wanted to help. But everything I do, everything I've done...it always
turned out worse than it was before."
He touched the blade to the skin
of his arm. It was cold against his wrist.
"What can I do for you now,
Grandfather?" He shook his head, the old man's words echoing
in his head.
One Who Flies, he had
said, calling him by his Cheyenne name. My heart would be sad
if you decided you no longer wished to be one of the People.
"I know I told you I would
go back, but that was when I still hoped. Now...." He let the
blade score a line across his wrist. Blood rose, mixed with rain,
and spread. He drew two more lines across his wrist, and blood flowed
down his arm.
There is a family for you
with the People, I think, if you want it.
"No, Grandfather. I have
no family among the People. Not after the losses I've brought to
them. And among the vé'hó'e I have been disowned;
my own mother told me this. I am alone, Grandfather, caught between
two worlds that do not want me. There's only one thing I can do.
Only one place to go."
He held out his arm and let the
rain wash the blood from his arm down onto the ground. Then, with
a quick move of the knife, he reached up and slashed through the
braid of his hair. Released, wet hanks fell forward around his face.
He dropped the blonde braid onto the blooded ground.
"Something of me,"
George said, "for something of you." He put the leather
thong over his head. The medicine bag hung down on his chest.
"Goodbye, Grandfather. May
you walk in beauty. For me, there is nowhere to go but to Hell."
He sheathed the knife and tucked
the bag under the sodden hide of his tunic. Walking over to his
whistler, he mounted. "Néhoveóó'êstse,"
he said, and the creature rose on its strong hind legs. "Nóheto,"
he commanded, and they headed off, away from the cliffs. The whistler
turned toward the northwest and home, but George countermanded it
with a touch of his right toe.
"Not that way," he
told it. "Not for me."
Unwillingly, the whistler turned
to the northeast and took him onward, into the rain.