Stone Heart's Woman
Silence hammered in his ears like the rumble of gunfire that lingered in the haze of his memory. An arm, heavy with death, lay across the back of his neck, pinning his cheek against the frozen, blood-soaked earth. Stone Heart had no muscle or bone but sprawled limp, molded into the snow bank. Either he had perished under the white soldier’s vicious attack or was frozen stiff. Perhaps this was only a vision of himself alive, his spirit determined to take one final look at what horrors had been visited on the Beautiful People before journeying to the afterlife. The only way he knew he lived was the fire that burned in his side and leg.
A stench of black powder hung in the frigid air that earlier had echoed with hideous shouts of blue coats. To the west a huge silver moon poised on the horizon and slipped away, even as a wintry sun rose, nipping at ghastly thick shadows that lay across the battlefield. Everything glistened with a coat of new fallen snow. Still afraid to move, he gazed into the grotesque face of his friend White Elk, who lay still in death, arms and legs splayed awkwardly. Eyes wide and unseeing, mouth open in a silent scream; blood matted the ebony braids, a rime of ice frosted his flesh.
In fear that a white soldier remained to guard the battle ground, Stone Heart slanted his eyes to stare through the mist of his breath into the pearlescent sky. He would wait before learning if his spirit and body remained with the living. Had the soldiers butchered all his people? The women and children, the elderly, along with the exhausted, half-starved warriors who had rebelled one final time, with no hope for anything but death. They must have thought him dead too, or they would not have left him here. He felt a coward, submitting to his wounds while the massacre raged around him. Surely some must have gotten away. They couldn’t all be dead, could they?
Lulled by the dangerous, creeping cold, he lay thus for what seemed like a full night embraced by nightmarish visions. Many who could not escape Fort Robinson had killed their wives and children to save them from the white soldiers, then taken their own lives. Boys armed with broken knives went up against the fiery blast of rifles. Yet still some survived and fled alongside him. When he stirred from the reverie and opened his eyes, the sky gleamed like the burnished blade of his knife. Only a few moments had passed, though it might have been an eternity. An eternity in which he punished himself for failing to save even one of them. The great elk-hide coat had protected him from the cold, yet its weight added to his dilemma. He must rise, for he would be dead if he lay here any longer. It was clear the soldiers had moved on.
He stirred. The slightest movement inflamed the agony of his wounds. Leather fringes of his leggings clung fast to the frozen, bloodied ground. Filled with sadness and a growing rage, he welcomed the lances of pain that alerted his senses. Pushing to both feet, jerking free of the chains of ice and shaking away the snow, he squatted there a moment to breathe raggedly of the carnage-tainted air. And cursed his father’s white blood with each beat of his heart. If slashing his wrists would rid him of every drop, he would yank his knife from its scabbard and do so. Let the hateful legacy of the hated Yellow Hair soak into the ground, mix with the blood of his mother’s Beautiful People.
Fury drove him beyond the pain as he moved about among the dead, lifting a head here and there and recognizing one after the other of his dead brothers. His younger blood brother, Yellow Swallow, was not among them. Only nine summers in age, he too had been sired by the cruel Custer. A man who hated the Sioux and Cheyenne, but loved to lie with their women. Neither son would ever call him father.
Little Wolf carried the precious Chief’s bundle, and Stone Heart was filled with a need to find him and Dull Knife, the great elder leader. With frantic precision he passed from body to body, soon knew neither were among the dead, nor was Hog, the man who most recently had risen to lead the fight for the tribe’s freedom.
From where he searched along the bluffs he could see the dead strewn in the snow all the way down to the bridge over the White River. Let them not all be dead. Let some have escaped onto the prairie. Others may have been taken back to the fort by the white soldiers. Hope diminished the sorrow that cut deep into his heart, but he refused to allow either of the emotions to blur a rage that swelled within his chest until his heart thundered like the drums of battle. His Cheyenne soul and spirit roared in defiance, the bellow cutting the cold air and hammering at the lightening sky. He would kill them all, every white man that walked this land.
If the soldiers had his people, they would be at Fort Robinson, but not for long. Soon they would be sent back down south to Indian Territory, a punishment worse than death. For six moons they had fled that place, only to be recaptured. They must be allowed to go north to their home where they could live and die in peace, yet he had so little strength left in his body. The wounds he’d sustained bled heavily, but no more. Still he felt weak, depleted. How could he make this happen when he could scarcely move? He must rest, recover, and then rescue all who had survived.
With the distasteful purpose in mind, he set about robbing the dead, for only in that way could he live. He would need weapons, medicines, clothing to ward off the bitter cold, and food, though he doubted he would find much to eat on these half-starved, escaped captives.
Hardening his heart and spirit, he searched the bodies of his friends, brave warriors he had lived and worked and played with. He amassed an assortment of items: an old musket engraved with a dragon denoting itself as a trade rifle, good enough only for Indians; a possible bag containing black powder, patches and lead balls; a bundle of herbs and healing potions which he packed into a parfleche that already contained steel and a striking stone, candles and writing tools. From the bodies of the dead he gathered up extra leggings, several blankets and spare moccasins; from the lone soldier’s remains he took jerky, hardtack and a full canteen. The man’s weapon was nowhere, probably retrieved by the victorious army. Constructing a backpack with a large four-point trade blanket, he shrugged into it and retreated from the haunted place of death. To leave his friends like this shattered his stone heart, but he could do nothing for them except save the living.
By full daylight he had traveled a painfully short way from the massacre, driven forward by something buried so deep within him he could not give it a name. Moving beyond the pain and exhaustion into another plane where spirits guided the soul. Only temporarily, he left the White River and Fort Robinson behind. He would return, but for now he stumbled along the bluffs and over the endless prairie, looking for a place in which he could heal. Over and over he pitched face first into drifts swirled into mountains by the wind. Rose to move on only to fall again, until he could only crawl, leaving in the white powder a trail of blood. At last his strength gave out and he slept, in the bright winter sun on the open plains wrapped securely in brother elk’s hide and the blankets he had taken, trusting his friends the animals to keep watch over him. Once recovered he would return to Fort Robinson where he would live or die with what was left of the Cheyenne, whom even the whites referred to as the Beautiful People.
With a sigh, Aiden rose and went to the mirror to pin long blue feathers in her upswept hair.
“Stephan, if I could get my hands on your throat, I’d cheerfully squeeze the life out of you.” She pinched her cheeks to redden them and adjusted the bodice of the filmy blue dress. The color made her green eyes shine like turquoise.
Though she wanted nothing more than to lie down and cover her head, she raised her chin and stepped through the door onto the boardwalk. A bitter wind tore at the filmy skirts, exposed her stockinged legs and threatened to rip loose her hairdo. She fought to keep everything under control. Perhaps that’s why she failed to see the preacher’s wife until the lovely woman slammed her across the back of her shoulders with a broom.
“You’re not welcome in this town, you Godless creature,” Amelia Durbridge screamed and connected with another swing.
Racing from the street a mob of screeching followers descended upon Aiden, who threw her arms over her head in defense. Each attacker came armed with her favorite household weapon, beating her about the head and shoulders. The blows knocked her to her hands and knees, sent flashes of pain through her body. She tried crawling through the sea of swirling skirts, but the women quickly closed rank and trapped her. Some weren’t so kind as Amelia Durbridge, calling her whore and fallen woman as they pounded on her. Embarrassment almost outweighed the pain. If her own dear sainted mother could see her now, she’d die of shame.
One of the women abandoned her weapon to rip Aiden’s cloak from her shoulders, another tore the dress away to reveal her corset. A small bag filled of coins stuffed between her breasts popped out and dangled from the ribbon that secured it around her neck. Scrambling to all fours, she stuffed it back in place. Frantic to escape, she bumped into the solid legs of a man who dragged her upright into the shelter of his enormous bulk. She recognized aone of her admirers, Wiley Lawson, and leaned gratefully into the whisky smell of him.
Lawson's voice all but drowned out by the uproar, he shouted. “Ladies, now ladies.”
He managed to wrap her in a heavy fur coat that smelled of human and animal sweat, grain and tobacco smoke.
But the women had worked themselves into a frenzy and no mere man was about to slow them down.
“Out of the way,” one shouted, and hit him across the shins with the handle of her weapon.
“Dang it, Miz Lucy,” he yelled, hopping around on one foot, and losing his hold on Aiden. “What’s wrong with you? Does your husband know where you are?”
The rest of them turned on him in one huge roil of womanhood, and Aiden fled, dragging the heavy coat. She stumbled along the street, slipping and sliding through the churned, frozen ruts, past the theater where she would not be performing this night. The menfolk of town would have to find other recreation. Behind her the ranting mob finished with Lawson and turned once more on its original prey. She had to escape or they’d beat her half to death. Already her back and buttocks throbbed from the blows they’d sustained.
She rounded the corner into a bitter prairie wind that sucked her breath away. Gasping, stumbling, sobbing, turning her ankles in the absurd high-heeled boots, she jabbed her arms at the sleeves of the heavy coat. Gave up and hugged it around her half-bared chest. She dare not stop to put it on. Fury and outrage had turned the women from meek and obedient creatures to murderous predators. No doubt they’d had enough of their men worshiping at the feet of “that red haired Irish hussy.” If they caught her, they’d not only beat her senseless, they’d no doubt tar and feather her and run her out of town, as suggested by someone in the crowd.
At her back and closing on her quick came the rattle of wagon wheels over the frozen ruts. Lungs on fire, she knew she was lost, for she’d never outrun a team of horses. They must have taken Lawson’s wagon to run her down and finish the job they’d started.
Horror squeezed at her heart, boiled in her stomach, crawled up her back as she imagined them gaining on her. The wagon was right on top of her. If she was going down, she’d look her enemies in the eye. Out of breath and out of options, she turned to face the charging women, chin thrust high, the oversized coat wrapped tightly around her quaking body.
It wasn’t the charge of the virtuous women she faced, but rather a lone driver standing, whip snapping in the brittle air.
He slowed the horses, hauled back on the brake and gestured frantically. “Climb on, quick. I’ll get you out of town. Hurry, ma’am. Hurry.”
She leaped onto the back of the skittering rig, diving over the tailgate to land with a painful thud on hands and knees, the buffalo coat clutched under one arm.
Lawson whipped the team into a full run, sending her tumbling around between bags of feed and wooden casks; an assortment of tools of some kind prodded at her skin. Finally she managed to grab the back of the seat and hang on. Kneeling on a fat gunny sack, every muscle throbbing, she twisted a quick look over her shoulder. The pursuing mob faded into the distance. Howling like a pack of wolves, they brandished their brooms at the glowering winter sky. A wedge of fear in her throat loosened. Sucking at the frigid air until her lungs nearly caught fire, she sank to her butt and held on tight while Lawson urged the team onward. Galloping hooves thudded across the wooden bridge that spanned the river at the edge of town. The cold afternoon air crackled with the noisy clatter of wagon wheels over ice. Hunkered behind her savior, out of the brutal wind, she wrapped up in the warm coat and tried to calm her racing heart. Patted the bulge between her breasts. If she lost the money she would be doomed. Or maybe she was anyway.
When they reached the rise above town, he braced against the reins, handled the brake once more and coaxed his team to a halt on the slithery surface. He glanced down at the small town of Benson, Nebraska, clustered in the snow-drifted valley below. She followed his gaze. The crowd of women had dispersed, leaving the street deceptively peaceful.
“Sorry, ma’am. I couldn’t stop them. When a passel of females get the urge, a man just about has to stand back and let ‘em have at it. You okay?” He fingered his swollen lower lip.
Nodding, she swallowed hard and shuddered. “What got their dander up, do you suppose?”
“Why don’t you put that coat on?” He grinned wickedly. “Might of been that little bump and grind at the end of your finale last night, ma’am. Course I’m purely guessing.”
Dazed, she put her arms through the sleeves and felt instantly warmer. “I see nothing funny about this, Wiley.” Her voice trailed off, lips trembling so she couldn’t speak further. If she wasn’t careful she’d start bawling and the tears would freeze on her cheeks.
“A course not. I apologize.” He angled heavy dark brows at her. “You got a place to go?”
“Home. Saint Louis,” she murmured, “But I don’t know how to get there.”
“This weather, there won’t be no stage to carry you to the depot for days, maybe weeks. I hear some of the trains ain’t even running. You’d think in this day and age, they’d have a way to clear the tracks.”
The team danced nervously, and he hauled back on the reins, making gentling noises, then went on.
“Hell, the war’s been over almost fifteen years, still we live like we do out here. Did you ever see it so cold? And ever dang time it warms up a tad, here comes another blizzard. Haven’t seen the like in twenty year or more. Snow’s piled higher’n an ox’s ass.” A sly grin twisted his gnarly features, a slitted gaze fastened on her bosoms.
With both fists she wadded the coat tight under her chin and moved backward. One heel came down on a short handled cutting tool of some sort.
She ought to be more cautious than grateful. This could go from a bad situation to a worse one. Wiley could have his own reasons for rescuing her, nothing to do with sympathy for her plight.
Never once did he take his eagle eye off her as he wound the reins around the brake handle and made to step over the back of the seat into the bed with her. She’d been right to be wary. She knelt and grabbed the adz, held it at her side hidden in folds of the coat.
In the time it took her to do that, he towered over her, no longer a rescuer but a menacing threat.
“Ain’t nobody gonna come along here for a spell. Maybe we could get acquainted. I’ve seen the way you goggle down at us from off that stage. Looking to pick the one you want. Heard stories too, about how you like to have a little fun. I reckon you might owe me something for getting you out of your . . . little difugalty.” He gestured crudely with stained fingers.
“I am not a whore, nor do I goggle, Sir.” She hoped not to be forced to hit him with the cruel weapon.
One look at the expression in his lustful eyes told her it would do no good to protest what he’d said. He believed it as surely as those women. But it appeared she could do nothing about their perceptions that a woman who sang and danced was also a whore.
His gloved hand shot out, and she jerked away, retreated till the tailgate pressed against her legs. Big and strong as he was, if he got hold of her, all would be lost.
“Leave me be. Go home to your wife.”
“She ain’t as purty as you. Besides I got me four kids sleeping in the same room.”
“Shame on you, you filthy man, for what you’re thinking. And with a family to care for.”
“Yeah, I know.” Drooling, he advanced on her, eyes glazing in anticipation.
There was no place to go but over the side, and he’d catch up to her sure as the world. With a mighty heave she swung the adz upward, just like her brother Cormac had taught her. If Wiley hadn’t managed to deflect the blow the thick blade would have buried itself deep in his throat. As it was one side of the heavy iron head caught him across the jaw with a solid thunk. He made no sound as he fell backward into the seat.
“Oh, God, oh, Mother of God,” she whispered, and dropped the evil thing.
She hadn’t meant to kill him. What could she do now?
He moaned and stirred, driving both relief and panic through her. Thank God he was alive. She couldn’t go back to Benson, but she could send him there. She didn’t want him to freeze to death out here, just go away and leave her be.
Carefully, she crawled out of the wagon bed, her feet crunching in the churned ruts. The reins were stiff and difficult to unwind from the brake handle, but she finally loosened them, released the brake and went to the team’s head. Leading them in a circle she turned the wagon back toward town, slipping and sliding in the button-up shoes. With a hard smack to the flank of the lead animal, she sent the rig off down the road, carrying its unconscious passenger. Without looking back, she started in the other direction, with no idea where she was going.
Many times during that day she wished she’d tossed the unconscious man out in the snow and taken the wagon. Inventing dreadful fates for him kept her staggering along the road while the cold whipped at her face. That subject exhausted, she kept going by damning Stephan for bringing her to this terrible place and leaving her like an unwanted piece of furniture. How could he have done such a thing when only weeks earlier he’d sworn his undying love? Vowed to marry and protect her, too. Back in Saint Louis, sitting in the swing on the front porch, arm around her, smiling so innocently when Mama brought them lemonade. What a terrible joke. And what was even worse, she’d believed him. At her age, she should have known better. But that was precisely why she’d grabbed at the offer. Her thirtieth birthday bore down on her like a circling buzzard after carrion, dooming her to spinsterhood. No man to love her, no children to comfort her.
Occasionally she glanced over her shoulder, but there was nothing back there. Even the town of Benson had disappeared. Would someone come after her when the wagon arrived in town with its cargo? What if Lawson died? Would she be arrested and hanged? She probably ought to get off the road, but the idea of lighting out through piled drifts of snow held no appeal.
Overhead, the sky darkened, and spits of snow stung her exposed hands and face. Along the western horizon remnants of the dying sun purpled a gunmetal sky. Silhouetted against it perched a small house, nearly covered by a blanket of snow. Heart kicking at her ribs, she studied the soddie’s black hulk. It wasn’t quite dark enough for lamps to be lit, but it was quick getting that way. No tracks in the snow to show someone had come or gone. And the wind blew so hard there was no way of telling if smoke came from the chimney.
No matter, this was shelter. For a while longer, she stared at the house, afraid it would disappear. But it was real, and good enough reason for leaving the road. Taking a deep breath and drawing the coat close, she started across the desolate, snow-covered plain. The longer she walked the farther away the house appeared against the darkening sky.
A bank of angry clouds swallowed the last of the light, and she staggered, almost fell. Drifts of deep snow were frozen and slippery, and she fought her way over or around each in turn. Ahead the cabin held out its promise of shelter, but she was no longer sure she would make it. Legs numbed by the bitter cold, she dragged one foot after the other. Icy jags tore at her bare flesh like the fangs of wolves.
Damn the good women of Benson for tossing her out into the bitter January cold to freeze to death. She thought of dropping to the ground, letting the buffalo coat cover her and waiting for the end to come. She’d be there come spring, all stiff and blue as the very sky above. And wouldn’t that please those old biddies?
Before she’d halved the distance to the cabin, the howling wind thickened with icy pellets and fat flakes. If she didn’t reach shelter soon she would certainly die out here. The shack remained just out of reach as if teasing her with salvation. The high-button shoes with their cumbersome heels were nothing but trouble, worse in the snow, for they broke through the frozen crust with every step. She didn’t dare take them off, but struggled on, falling, then rising only to fall again.
Climbing once more to her feet, she gazed around frantically. Only darkness. Where was the cabin? Gone. She turned, turned again. Dear God in heaven, she must have passed it by. Terror took her in its deathly grip. She was going to die. Head bent low, she forced one numb foot ahead of the other, unwilling to give up until she could no longer even crawl.
Off to her right a moon the color of ice rose above the desolate horizon. Pointed across the treeless plain lighting the cabin with its silvery fingers as if pointing out her refuge. Otherwise she would have continued to walk on into oblivion, for she had gone past the place and was headed away. Frozen on the plains of Nebraska, her body might never have been recovered. Her family would never have known what had become of her. Newfound energy sent her stumbling the last few feet, the brutal, incessant wind buffeting her up onto the porch and through the open doorway. She used the last of her strength to shove the door closed, leaned against it gasping at air that fired her lungs. The wind howled mournfully, battered and beat at the walls, as if furious to have lost her.
It was cold inside, but not like out there in that blasted gale. Dropping to her knees, she huddled in the total darkness and thanked God for bringing her this far. With each breath pain sliced through her lungs, but she was safe. At least for the moment. It was easy to see no one lived here, for the place was abandoned.
Exhausted, she curled up within the coat and slept, cozy in the shaggy fur that had once warmed the animal from which it came.
Stone Heart awoke shivering, cold to the marrow of his bones. Winter sunlight probed with tentative fingers at the elk-skin under which he huddled. He must move on. Though he struggled until a cold sweat covered his brow, he could not gain his feet. Scanning the unbroken prairie, he spotted an unnatural shape in the distance. It appeared to be a soddie or cabin, of the kind white settlers used. No smoke came from the chimney. For a long while he kept watch, saw neither man nor beast. He would seek shelter and if he found someone there, he would kill them.
Grinding his teeth, he wobbled to hands and knees and began the journey. Soon, he did not have the strength to crawl and drag the heavy bundle, but couldn’t think of leaving it behind. His wounds ached, his palms wore raw, his thighs and upper arms trembled violently and would no longer hold him off the ground. He collapsed, lay in the snow, breathing heavily, smelling blood, his own and that of those he had robbed. He stared blearily at the cabin as if doing so could make it move closer. But it remained, taunted him as the sun slipped lower in the sky to darken its roof and reveal a door to one side. A door through which he must somehow manage to pass if he were to survive another night.
If he could not crawl then he would creep along on his belly like a snake. One knee dragged forward to shove, then the other, arms and hands numb and unfeeling, pulling him along, inch by inch. Fighting to keep the heavy parfleche and supplies because to leave them meant sure death. The torturous trip would take a long time. Perhaps too long.
Memories of the battleground where the soldiers from Fort Robinson had slaughtered the pitiful small band of Cheyenne kept him moving forward. He would never forget this day nor what it had cost the Cheyenne. All his people wanted was to take their pitiful remnants home, home to the northern plains where the wind whispered of their heritage and the skies smiled with pleasure upon the land. This battle on a remote creek in Nebraska was not the first waged with the white man who would keep them on the reservation or murder them all. It must be the last.
After what seemed forever, he battered his way through the door, squatted in front of a mud and straw fireplace. Someone had piled dried buffalo chips in a corner and he rested only moments before setting about building a fire. Fingers trembled weakly so he could hardly strike steel against stone, or blow the smoking embers to life. Miraculously, he finally dozed in the blessed warmth of crackling flames.
A shuffling of feet, movement of some kind, startled him fully awake. He had no idea how long he had slept, but someone was coming. He tilted his head and listened. Not an animal, nor a big man. Someone small, weary. Even with his wounds, he would have no trouble overpowering this one and slitting its throat. The musket lay in the dark corner, for he had not yet loaded it. He hoped this was a white man approaching, for he desperately desired to count coup, repay the slaughter of the day before. Ignoring the lancing of pain, he crept toward the door, waited out of sight until his prey entered. The only light filtered into the gloom through that opening, and he could be upon the enemy without ever being seen.
The fur-shrouded figure that stepped into sight radiated fire about its head, rays of sun brilliant in long strands of tangled red hair. Already in motion, his arm clamped about its throat, cut off a high scream.
A woman. A white woman.
The robe slipped from her shoulders when she clawed the air and kicked furiously with both feet, her full weight swinging on his forearm. One pointed boot toe struck his shin, another cracked his knee painfully. Gritting his teeth against passing out, he leaned against the wall and hung on, pressed the blade of his knife hard against her mid-section.
Hissed in her ear, “Stop fighting or I’ll gut you.”