“Daughter,” Gray Dove called Tˈon Ma from outside of her lodge one morning.
“Yes?” Tˈon Ma stepped outside, curious.
“We’re going foraging. Get your basket and knife.”
“All right.” Tˈon Ma grinned widely, thrilled to have been invited.
As she went back in to get her things, Gray Dove waited. Whatever else she thought about her daughter-in-law, Gray Dove had to admit Tˈon Ma made a quick and willing student, and she took satisfaction in teaching her.
Several of the women, including Gray Dove, her two daughters and daughter-in-law, left camp, all with baskets and knives in hand. They wanted to make one last foraging trip before time to move to the winter camp. Wild onions grew at a certain spot along the river. A short distance from that held several rosehip bushes. They might find some wild rice, too. The women soon deeply concentrated on their work and chatter.
* * *
“But, Eric, it’s only squaws,” Billy observed as he knelt beside his friends, Eric and Joe, on a small hill overlooking the river. “We cain’t kill no women.” He sent a stream of tobacco juice shooting to the ground.
“Why not?” Eric growled. “Their men sure enough kill our women! Who do you think kilt my wife?”
Billy thought about that for a minute and then allowed as how Eric was right. Adjusting the wad of tobacco in his mouth, he asked, “So, do we just commence shootinˈ?”
In answer, Joe rose to one knee and took aim with his rifle. The shot rang out and one woman fell forward, her basket contents scattering. Pandemonium broke out as the Kiowa women tried to find out where the shot came from.
“There!” Gray Dove pointed as more shots followed.
“Get down!” Tˈon Ma ordered, flinging herself to the earth. The women only had knives for defense, but the men hid too far away for those to be of any use.
It took half a minute for each rifle to be reloaded with ball and powder. It gave Tˈon Ma enough time to crawl behind the rosehip bushes, bracken and tall grass, and begin making her way, unseen, to the hill. Grass burrs scratched her arms and legs, but she didn’t feel them.
Keeping her eyes on the men, she flattened herself on the ground whenever they looked her way. By the time she made it to them, two more women lay injured, their screams and cries filling the air. Acrid smoke covered the three men as they tamped down the powder and took aim again.
Tˈon Ma watched the man closest to her reload his rifle. The men had no fear of anyone coming from behind. They knew the women were alone. Not wanting to miss her opportunity before he could shoot, Tˈon Ma slunk across the ground and jumped him from behind. Recalling Two Hawks’ lessons on wielding a knife, she plunged hers up from her waist, just to the left of his spine and into his heart. As he fell forward, she grabbed his gun and shot point-blank at the next man. The third man had just fired his muzzleloader and turned to look at her, utter amazement on his face.
“Damn!” he swore and threw his useless firearm to the ground. He pulled his knife out of his belt and began his slow, crouched circling.
“I wanted to talk to you alone,” Many Deer said. “Something else happened while you were away and I don’t think Water Woman has told you yet.”
“Really? Why don’t you think she’s told me?”
“Because Big Elk is still alive.”
Two Hawks laid a hand on his father’s shoulder, stopping him. “What do you mean by that?” His eyes narrowed, his stomach twisting in premonition. As the village bully, Big Elk belittled and beat his wife, and tormented the meek.
“You hadn’t been gone for long, maybe four or five days, when he went to her lodge late one night.” Many Deer paused for a moment, recalling that evening. “Her screams woke us up.”
“Her screams?” Two Hawks felt a chill in every cell of his body as his eyes went deadly. He knew what his father was going to say next.
“He didn’t think anyone would defend her — not with you gone. He was on top of her, but I got there before he could carry out his intentions. She fought like a wild cat.”
Many Deer spoke his last few words to air. Two Hawks was already sprinting toward the village.
Standing outside Big Elk’s lodge, Two Hawks yelled. “Come see what happens to cowards and rapists! Come see what happens!” Curious, people left the comfort of their tipis and gathered in the dark.
Big Elk jerked his head around at the sound of Two Hawks’ voice. He anticipated this confrontation, knowing he would have to face him. Jumping to his feet, Big Elk drew his knife and hurried out.
Facing his adversary, Two Hawks held his arms across his chest as he spoke with superiority. “You were very brave the other night, sneaking into the lodge of a woman all alone. You were very brave attacking her in the dark. How brave are you now that her husband is back?”
“What do you want with this woman?” Big Elk argued. “She has bewitched you. Otherwise, you would know no one wants her here. Not even your own family!”
Without taking his eyes off Big Elk, Two Hawks addressed Many Deer. “Is this true?”
“No, son. It is not. Water Woman is always welcomed by our fire.”
Broken Flute bowed her head in shame. Her gossiping tongue had done this, had set this into motion. She had told Big Elk’s wife Gray Dove didn’t want Tˈon Ma.
Two Hawks turned his attention to his audience. “Now, what is the Kiowa way for unfaithful women?” No one spoke. He purposefully, slowly unsheathed his knife and held it down by his side, in a relaxed stance. His body language confused Big Elk. “We call them ‘cut-nose’ for a reason, don’t we?” Before Two Hawks finished that sentence, with lightning speed, his knife flicked the side of Big Elk’s nose, cutting it wide open. Blood poured down the startled man’s face as he angrily lunged for Two Hawks.
Two Hawks stepped back nonchalantly and kept talking. “But, that’s what we do to unfaithful women.” He twisted away from another wicked thrust of Big Elk’s blade, without trying to retaliate. “What do we do to a man like this? A man who waits for another to leave camp so he can rape his wife?” Again, no one spoke.
Even in Big Elk’s outraged state, Two Hawks seemed to him to be possessed by the spirits — untouchable, invincible. In the back of Big Elk’s mind, he wondered if that was the work of the witch, Tˈon Ma. Big Elk might as well have tried to stab the wind.
November elections arrived like clockwork. In their tradition, the O’Connell men made their way to Milledgeville on Election Day. Sheila took the girls to her father’s house for the week, planning to use the time to plan Liam’s inauguration party. To Liam’s surprise, he won by an even larger margin than the previous two elections. They made their way home the next day, with plans to meet at the club that night to celebrate.
A cold rain in the afternoon left the streets and sidewalks damp and muddy, and made people bundle up against the chill. Even so, members filled the club to capacity that night, all eager to congratulate the election winners. Well-wishers constantly interrupted Liam’s dinner to shake his hand, pat his back, or tell him what they wanted him to do for them in his next term. His father and brother took it all in stride, understanding this came with the territory. After their meal, several people wanted to stand them to a round of drinks. Knowing if he accepted one, he’d have to accept them all, Liam tactfully declined the offers.
Finally, three hours later, Patrick stood from the table.
“I need to call it a night. Your mother is home waiting for me.”
“All right, Dad. Give her my love,” Pat said.
“You’re not coming with me?”
“No, I’m going to stay with Liam for a little while.”
“Fine. I’ll see you two later.” Patrick patted his oldest son’s shoulder once, winked at Liam, and went to get his hat and coat.
“He’s proud of you, you know,” Pat told his brother.
“He’s proud of both of us,” Liam countered. “You should hear him talk about the way you run the foundry.”
Pat’s smile slowly faded. “Uh oh. Don’t look now, but Smith’s headed over here.”
“Maybe we need to leave.”
The two brothers stood and made their way to the exit without looking in Smith’s direction.
“Do you think he knows what we’re doing?” Pat asked as they waited for their hats, coats and gloves.
“I don’t care if he does.”
“Congratulations, Senator!” another well-wisher interrupted them.
Prepared to go out into the chilly evening air, Liam stepped through the door first, waving for his carriage, with Pat right behind him. Liam fumbled with his glove, dropping it onto the muddy sidewalk. Mumbling a curse under his breath, he stooped to retrieve it.
BANG! A shot rang out from across the street.
Jerking upright, Liam first looked in the direction of the shot and saw a man running down the street. Everything turned to slow motion. He saw the gun glinting in the shooter’s hand every time his elbow moved back. The street lamps momentarily lit his profile as he ran underneath them, just to be swallowed in darkness again. The gun smoke still lingered in the air and its acrid smell reached Liam just as he heard an odd noise behind him. Turning around, again in slow motion, he watched his brother slide down the side of the building, one hand clutching his chest, his hat toppling to the sidewalk. A dark red stain spread across the gray overcoat. Pat’s eyes filled with surprise as he sought Liam’s face. It looked like Pat tried to say something, but his mouth didn’t work.
“PAT! PAT!” Liam leapt to his brother’s side as men spilled from the club at the commotion. “Send for a doctor, someone. Hurry!” Opening Pat’s coat, he saw the blood pouring from the bullet wound and knew by its spurting the doctor wouldn’t arrive in time.
“Pat, stay with me!” He grabbed his hand, squeezing it. Pat managed a weak smile, then his head slowly slumped back. Tears of shock and anger burned Liam’s eyes. His jaws flexed rapidly as he tried to make sense of this. “Who did this? Did anyone see?” Liam looked up at the faces surrounding him.
Breaking his reverie, Liam heard someone approach from the outside. He would have given it no attention, thinking it a guard passing, but a key scraped in the lock and the rusted cell door squeaked open. Looking up, bearded, disheveled, and filthy, he stared at the newcomer.
Liam slowly pushed his way up the wall to stand. “Yeah?”
“Come with me.” The soldier put handcuffs on Liam’s skeletal wrists, and led him down the long hall. When they entered an office at the far end of the building, Liam immediately noticed the warmth. If they’d brought him here to hang him, his last request would be for five minutes to get warm first. The aroma of coffee greeted his senses next, almost bringing tears to his eyes at its richness. He’d forgotten how wonderful that smelled.
Three uniformed Northern officers waited for him, crisp in their dress blues. At his entry, one of them covered his face with a handkerchief.
“Excuse me,” Liam said with a trace of sarcasm.
A second man approached him. “Remember me? From West Point?”
Liam squinted, searching his memory. “Williams?”
“Right. Travis Williams.” Walking to the desk, he picked up a file and opened it.
“Your military record is impressive. I see you were stationed in Texas and the Territories, and then back east. First in Boston and then in Washington as military liaison to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” Closing the folder, he continued. “What did you do after that?”
“Went home to Georgia. Got into politics there.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Travis nodded his head. “I remember something about you running for state senate.”
Liam stood there, wondering what they wanted with him.
“But then you joined the CSA,” Travis continued. “Big mistake there, O’Connell. Big mistake.”
“What do you want?” Liam frowned.
“We want to make you an offer. Put your knowledge of the western frontier to use.”
“We know you’ve got a lot of experience dealing with Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, the way they think, how they live.”
“And,” the first man removed his handkerchief from his face, “we’re having trouble out there again. Chivington stirred things up with the Cheyenne at Sand Creek last year. The trouble has since spread through all the tribes. We want you to help get treaties in place.”
“As a galvanized Yankee?” Liam asked.
Travis tilted his head in surprise. “You’ve heard about that?”
“Just that some captured southern fighters are signing up to man the forts out west, and keep telegraph, rail, and freight lines safe from the Indians. Some men here are hoping to get the offer, and others are threatening to kill them if they take it.”
“Ah, well, Captain Rathbone is taking volunteers from Rock Island Barracks and forming three regiments there. I don’t have that authority. So, no, you would be more of a consultant, but you’d be traveling with CSA soldiers who have joined our ranks.”
“Oh. I see.” Liam considered this for a moment. “Why me? There are lots of others with experience.”
“Because I know you,” Travis answered. “From West Point. You always excelled at what you did, and you have a sharp mind for politics. That’s what we need right now. Someone who can represent the US to the Indians. I made your recommendation personally. Can’t think of anyone better for the job.”
Travis looked at the decimated man in his tattered uniform and matted beard. “Besides, it will get you out of this hell hole.”
“What about my family? My wife and daughters?”
“If we can find them and get word to them, we’ll send them out to you. Are they still in Georgia?”
“Last I heard.”
“So, will you do it?”
“When would I start?”
“Right now. You won’t even go back to your cell.”
Liam sighed, considering his options. He knew anyone who accepted such an offer would become a pariah to his own southern people and live his life shunned as a traitor. He’d heard the men discussing it from cell to cell and in the courtyard. A consultant was a little better than becoming a galvanized Yankee, but not much.
However, what waited for him elsewhere? As a Southern officer, he couldn’t settle in the North. Back home, someone wanted him dead, perhaps enough to hire it done again. He certainly held no interest in reentering politics. If he settled anywhere after the war, it would be in the west. Working as a consultant for the Army was certainly better than slowly dying in prison of dysentery, tuberculosis or starvation.
“All right. I’ll do it.”
Reading the letter through once, he folded it and put it in his pocket. Liam let out a slow breath as he realized he had been anxious over seeing Sheila again. He felt sorrow for his daughters’ loss, but had no feeling for his own. Placing a hand on each daughter’s shoulder, he looked at their escort. “Could you please help me bring their things in?”
“Certainly. They only have the one bag.” The soldier picked up a tattered carpetbag, too small to hold clothes for one young girl, let alone two. He followed Liam and the girls to their new home.
Setting the bag inside the door, he stepped back. “I’ve got to go now. The stage is leaving.”
“You can’t stay for dinner?” Liam asked.
“No, sir. But thank you. And, good luck with your girls.” Before Liam could say anything else, the young man left.
“Well, then.” Liam turned around to see his daughters standing in the middle of the room, looking at him, wondering what to do next. “Would you like to see your room?”
“Yes, please.” Samantha took Becky’s hand and waited for him to lead the way. Once there, Samantha asked, “Which bed is mine?”
“Whichever one you want,” Liam smiled. “There is one by the window or one by the door.”
Samantha looked down at Becky, still tightly clutching her doll and still silent.
“Which do you want, Becky?”
The little girl shrugged.
“You like to look out the window, so you take this one.” Once again, Samantha took her sister’s hand and led her to that side of the room. “You and your dolly will be very comfortable here.” Becky sat on the edge of the bed and then Samantha turned to her father.
“Thank you? For what?”
“For sending for us. After Mama died, I thought…I thought…” Instead of finishing her sentence, the twelve-year-old burst into tears and stood in the middle of the room, not moving.
“Come here, Sam.” Liam knelt and held his arms out to her. Running to him, she flung herself against his chest, deep, stomach-hurting sobs wrenching her thin body.
“Shhh, shhh, baby. It’s all right. Everything is going to be all right.” He stroked her hair as he consoled her. His babies had been through too much — too much war, too much deprivation, too much sorrow. Closing his eyes tightly, he could feel tears burning, but he didn’t want his daughters to see him cry. They were upset enough already. Swallowing hard and forcing himself to stay focused, he looked up only to see Becky standing close.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“Are you really my papa? Really, truly?”
“Yes, Becky. Really, truly.”
“Are you going away again?”
“No. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes. I promise. If I have to go, I’ll take you and your sister with me.”
Becky looked at him for a long moment, trying to decide if she believed him or not. Others had made promises to her they hadn’t been able to keep.
“Becky, it’s all right, honey. I’m really your papa and I am not leaving you again.” Liam held out one hand to her, his other still around Samantha.
Clouding up with tears, Becky dropped her doll and jumped into his embrace. He held his two girls, the two people dearer to him than life itself, and let them cry — for their mother — for all the confusion — for themselves.
After a few minutes, he stood, holding each one by the hand. “How about we go into the kitchen and fix some dinner?” Looking down at Becky, he grinned. “What does your dolly like to eat?”
“Papa,” Becky cut her eyes at him like she’d never heard anything so silly. “Dollies don’t eat.”
“Oh, really? Hmmm. I must have heard it wrong then.” Liam felt relieved he got their minds off their troubles and onto more immediate matters.
That night, after dinner, Liam listened while the girls said their prayers, and tucked them into their beds. As he leaned over Sam to kiss her goodnight, he bumped her handkerchief from the nightstand. It rolled onto the floor, revealing a biscuit inside, left over from dinner.
“Sam? What’s this?”
“What?” She leaned over the edge of the bed to see. “Oh. I was saving that for tomorrow.”
“Why, sweetheart? I planned on making flapjacks for breakfast.”
“We’re going to have breakfast? Really?” Her eyes lit up in her surprise.
Liam’s stomach twisted as realization hit him. “Sam, how often did you and your sister eat?”
“Usually once a day, but sometimes we had to skip days. Sometimes only Becky and me would eat and the grownups would go without.”
The anxious father looked at Becky, only to see her blue eyes filled with worry.
“Come here. Both of you.” He got them out of bed and led them back to the kitchen. After lighting a lamp, he opened first one cupboard door and then another, revealing shelves of canned goods, jelly, flour, coffee, dried beans and a joint of smoked ham.
“You see all this food? It’s for us. We have plenty to eat, and you’ll have three meals a day from now on. All right?”
“So, we’re not in trouble for stealing?” Becky asked.
“Good.” She reached into her nightgown pocket and pulled out a piece of cold boiled potato, her sweet eyes flooding with relief.
Liam folded his hand over hers, carefully closing it over the potato. “You keep this if you want to, baby.” He kissed her cheek and then whispered, “But we’re still having flapjacks in the morning.”
Kûy Syân Joshua danced, often with his eyes closed, as he concentrated on the beating drums. After several hours of dancing, his legs began to tire and his back to hurt. Looking around him, he saw several other dancers in the same condition. Steeling himself against the complaints of his body, he kept dancing, fighting the fatigue by ignoring it.
On the second day, the priests interrupted the dancing for a special ceremony to initiate four young men into an honor fraternity. One of the four retiring incumbents approached Kûy Syân Joshua. He looked across the lodge to his father, who only nodded. Two Hawks had been consulted earlier and had agreed to his son’s induction. Only the wealthiest of families could afford this honor. Luxurious gifts would be given to the incumbents in this and the next three Sun Dances, which they now expected Kûy Syân Joshua to participate in. Four represented a significant number to the Kiowa. The Great Spirit had given them four directions, four seasons, and four elements of air, water, earth and fire
The older warrior painted Kûy Syân Joshua bright yellow. On top of this, he painted two green crescents on both sides of the teenager’s chest and back, with a circular green sun in the center. His war shield received the same design. With this induction came privileges and taboos peculiar only to this society. The young man was now immune in battle, but he could also not look at himself in a mirror while part of the society.
With the induction over, the drums changed their rhythm and a song began. The teenager looked down at his painted chest, its significance slowly sinking in. This high honor among the Kiowa made him more determined than ever to make it through all four days of the Sun Dance.
Tˈon Ma watched the proceedings with great pride. Her eldest had grown up so fast that she marveled. When did he become so tall, so strong?
By the third day, he tried to will his mind to think of something — anything — that would keep him distracted from the pain he endured. Lack of sleep, lack of water and the constant movement took their toll on his body. His feet kept tripping on invisible rocks. His eyes refused to stay open. He couldn’t hold his head up without great effort. Yet, he kept dancing. Once, his eyes opened just a slit to see his mother watching through the crowd, her expression one of both worry and pride. He tried to smile as reassurance, but he wasn’t sure his mouth moved.
Almost halfway through the fourth day, the burning in his legs and back had gone, leaving in its place a numbness he didn’t think he’d ever get rid of. He slowly shuffled around the Taime, around the pole when he jerked his head up at a terrible noise.
Wind! Wild wind tore through the lodge. Black thunderclouds rolled across the horizon. Fierce lightning struck the ground with jagged yellow lances, threatening to split the earth.
As Kûy Syân Joshua watched in fascinated horror, he saw one cloud dip low to the earth and a tornado drop from its belly. It covered up the land, completely devouring everything in its path. He wanted to run to safety, but his feet wouldn’t move. Staring in wide-eyed fear, he watched as the tornado formed a face and opened its cavernous mouth. Out flew an eagle. Kûy Syân Joshua frowned in disbelief, staring closer. The eagle had two heads! Rubbing his eyes, he looked again. The two-headed eagle flew out of the storm and perched on his shoulder. As the storm swirled and rushed closer and closer, the wind didn’t touch him or the eagle, though everything around them blew violently.
“Don’t be afraid,” one of its heads told him in Kiowa.
“You were made for the storm,” the other head said in English.
“I don’t understand,” Kûy Syân Joshua looked at the bird. “Please explain.” When the eagle didn’t speak, he repeated himself in frustration. “I don’t understand! I don’t understand!”
Kûy Syân Joshua woke with a start. Glancing around the dark lodge, he realized everyone else slept. No one had heard it, then. Confused, he sat up and checked his sleeping family one more time. His two brothers and sister lay tucked under their buffalo robes against the freezing December night. His mother’s head was pillowed on Two Hawks’ chest while they both slept. Kûy Syân Joshua smiled at the sight they made. Reassured that everything was all right, he lay back down.
Two nights later, Two Hawks shook him, trying to get him to wake up. “Little Wolf Joshua! Son!”
Jerking upright, he looked into his father’s concerned eyes. “Did you hear it?” Kûy Syân Joshua asked.
“I heard you screaming. We all did.” Two Hawks indicated the rest of the family, now wide-awake.
“I was screaming?”
“Yes. You were having a bad dream.”
“But, you didn’t hear anything else?”
“No. What did you hear?”
“Remember my Kˈado vision, with the two-headed eagle?”
Two Hawks sat down next to him while Tˈon Ma got up to stir the fire. “Yes, I remember.”
“I dreamed twice now that the eagle flew to me and sat on my shoulder. But, when each beak opened to speak, I could only hear the sound of horses screaming.” Kûy Syân Joshua’s eyes filled with the torment he’d heard.
“Yes. It was horrible!” He shuddered.
“Was there more to the dream?”
“Not that I remember.”
“We’ll talk about this in the morning. Try and go back to sleep. All of you.” Two Hawks nodded to his children.
But the rest of the night wasn’t spent in peaceful rest. Three hours later, Kûy Syân Joshua’s screams woke them up again.
Once Two Hawks woke up his oldest son, he put on his warmest clothing, convinced this nightmare meant imminent danger. “Something is wrong! Little Wolf Joshua, Blue, get dressed. We need to get to the herd.”
Within five minutes, the three of them trotted across the frozen ground in the pre-dawn darkness, each carrying ropes. “What are we going to do?” Blue asked.
“We’re going to move our horses to a safer place,” Two Hawks explained.
Darkness made it impossible to cut all his horses out of the herd, so he issued instructions for his sons to find two horses each and lead them out. With that done, Two Hawks led them away from the herd, away from the camp, to a small gully a mile away. As they reached the gully with their six horses, distant gunfire filled the night air, echoing and resounding across the plains. And then, to their horror, the sound of screaming, terrorized horses pierced their hearts. Father and sons stared at each other for one fearful moment. Quickly tying three of the horses to shrubs, they galloped back to camp, sure it was under attack.
As they approached, the camp erupted in an uproar though no enemy could be seen. Dog Soldiers scrambled to the horse herd. Two Hawks flew to his lodge to make sure his family was all right.
“My heart,” he grabbed Tˈon Ma in his arms, “I thought you were being attacked.”
“I don’t know what happened,” she said, alarmed, as she stepped back to pick up crying Bent Fox. “The horses…”
“We’ll be back as soon as we can.” Two Hawks and his two oldest sons picked up their rifles and hurried into the night.
As they approached the herd, they could hear other warriors wailing and cursing. Even in the dim light, Two Hawks could see the dark silhouette of horse after horse lying on the ground. Most of them were dead, but some moaned in pain. The men walked through the herd, saving what horses they could and putting others out of their misery by merciful thrusts of sharp knives.
The eastern horizon filled with a soft light by the time the grizzly task ended.
“Who did this?” Everyone wanted to know. In the light, they were able to read the tracks in the broken grass and find the bullet shells on the ground. Soldiers. Bluecoats had done this! The horse herd had been decimated. What had once numbered in the hundreds now didn’t even reach fifty.
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