Dances With Wolves
by Michael Blake

CHAPTER VI

one

 

Like a youngster who would rather skip the vegetables and get right to the pie, Lieutenant Dunbar passed over the difficult job of shoring up the supply house in favor of the more pleasant possibilities of constructing the awning.

Digging through the provisions, he found a set of field tents that would supply the canvas, but no amount of searching would produce a suitable instrument with which to stitch, and he wished he hadn’t been so quick in burning the carcasses.

He scoured the banks downriver for a good part of the morning before he found a small skeleton that yielded several strong slivers of bone that could be used for sewing.

Back at the supply house he found a thin length of rope that unraveled into the thread size he had imagined. Leather would have been more durable, but in making all his improvements, Lieutenant Dunbar liked the idea of assigning a temporary aspect to the work. Holding down the fort until it came fully to life again with the arrival of fresh troops.

Though careful to avoid expectations, he was sure that, sooner or later, someone would come.

The sewing was brutal. For the remainder of the second day he stitched doggedly at the canvas, making good progress. But by the time he knocked off late that afternoon, his hands were so sore and swollen that he had difficulty preparing his evening coffee.

In the morning his fingers were like stone, far too stiff to work the needle. He was tempted to try anyway, for he was close to finishing. But he didn’t.

Instead, he turned his attention to the corral. After careful study, he cannibalized four of the tallest and sturdiest posts. They had not been sunk deep, and it didn’t take much time to pull them out. Cisco wasn’t going to go anywhere, and the lieutenant toyed briefly with the idea of leaving the corral open. In the end, however, he decided a noncorral would violate the spirit of the cleanup campaign, so he took another hour to rearrange the fencing.

Then he spread the canvas in front of the sleeping hut and sank the posts deep, packing them tight as he could with the heavy soil.

The day had turned warm, and when he was finished with the posts, the lieutenant found himself traipsing into the shade of the sod hut. He sat on the edge of the bed and leaned back against the wall. His eyes were getting heavy. He lay down on the pallet to rest a moment and promptly fell into a deep, delicious sleep.

 

two

 

He woke flushed with the sensuous afterglow of having surrendered completely, in this case to a nap. Stretching out languidly, he dropped his hand over the side of the bed and, like a dreamy child, let his fingertips play lightly over the dirt floor.

He felt wonderful, lying there with nothing to do, and it occurred to him then that, in addition to inventing his own duties, he could also set his own pace. For the time being, anyway. He decided that, in the same way he had surrendered to the nap, he would give himself more leeway with other pleasures as well. Wouldn’t hurt to cut myself a little slack, he thought.

Shadows were creeping across the hut’s doorway, and curious about how long he had slept, Dunbar slid a hand inside his trousers and pulled out the simple, old pocket watch that had been his father’s. When he brought it to his face he saw that it had stopped. For a moment he considered trying to set an approximate time, but instead he placed the old, worn timepiece on his stomach and lapsed into a meditation.

What did time matter to him now? What did it ever matter? Well, perhaps it was necessary in the movement of things, men and materials, for instance. For cooking things correctly. For schools and weddings and church services and going to work.

But what did it matter out here?

Lieutenant Dunbar rolled himself a smoke and hung the heirloom on a convenient hook a couple of feet above the bed. He stared at the numbers on the watch’s face as he smoked, thinking how much more efficient it would be to work when a person felt like it, to eat when a person was hungry, to sleep when a person was sleepy.

He took a long drag on the cigarette and, throwing his arms contentedly behind his head, blew out a stream of blue smoke.

How good it will be to live without time for a while, he thought.

Suddenly there was the sound of heavy footfalls just outside. They started and stopped and started again. A moving shadow passed over the entrance to the hut and a moment later Cisco’s big head swung through the doorway. His ears were pricked and his eyes were wide with wonder. He looked like a child invading the sanctity of his parents’ bedroom on a Sunday morning.

Lieutenant Dunbar laughed out loud. The buckskin let his ears fall and gave his head a long, casual shake, as if pretending this little embarrassment hadn’t happened. His eyes roamed the room with a detached air. Then he looked pointedly at the lieutenant and stamped his hoof in the way horses do when they want to shake off the flies.

Dunbar knew he wanted something.

A ride probably.

He’d been standing around for two days.

 

three

 

Lieutenant Dunbar was not a fancy rider. He’d never been schooled in the subtleties of horsemanship. His frame, deceptively strong despite being slim, had not known organized athletics.

But there was something about horses. He had loved them from boyhood; perhaps that was the reason. But the reason doesn’t really matter. What matters is that something extraordinary happened when Dunbar swung onto the back of a horse, especially if it was a gifted horse like Cisco.

Communication took place between horses and Lieutenant Dunbar. He had the knack of deciphering the language of a horse. And once that was mastered, the sky was the limit. He had mastered Cisco’s dialect almost at once, and there was little they couldn’t do. When they rode it was with the grace of a dance team.

And the purer the better. Dunbar had always preferred a bare back to a saddle, but the army, of course, permitted no such thing. People got hurt, and it was out of the question for long campaigns.

So when the lieutenant stepped inside the shadowy supply house, his hand went automatically to the saddle in the corner.

He checked himself. The only army here was him, and Lieutenant Dunbar knew he would not get hurt.

He reached instead for Cisco’s bridle and left the saddle behind.

They weren’t twenty yards from the corral when he saw the wolf again. It was staring from the spot it had occupied the day before, on the edge of the bluff just across the river.

The wolf had begun to move, but when he saw Cisco come to a halt, he froze, stepped deliberately back into his original position, and resumed staring at the lieutenant.

Dunbar stared back with more interest than he had the day before. It was the same wolf, all right, two white socks on the front paws. He was big and sturdy, but something about him gave Dunbar the impression he was past his prime. His coat was scruffy, and the lieutenant thought he could see a jagged line along the muzzle, most likely an old scar. There was an alertness about him that signified age. He seemed to watch everything without moving a muscle. Wisdom was the word that came to the lieutenant’s mind. Wisdom was the bonus of surviving many years, and the tawny old fellow with the watchful eyes had survived more than his fair share.

Funny he’s come back again, Lieutenant Dunbar thought.

He pushed forward slightly and Cisco stepped ahead. As he did, Dunbar’s eye picked up movement and he glanced across the river.

The wolf was moving, too.

In fact, he was keeping pace. This went on for a hundred yards before the lieutenant asked Cisco to stop again.

The wolf stopped, too.

On impulse, the lieutenant wheeled Cisco a quarter turn and faced across the chasm. Now he was staring straight into the wolf’s eyes, and the lieutenant felt certain he could read something there. Something like longing.

He was beginning to think about what the longing might be when the wolf yawned and moved away. He kicked himself into a trot and disappeared.

 

four

 

April 13, 1863

 

Though well supplied, I have decided to ration my goods. The missing garrison or a replacement should be here anytime. I cannot imagine it will be too much longer now.

In any event, I’m striving to consume stores in the way I would if I were part of the post rather than the whole affair. It will be hard with the coffee, but I shall try my best.

Have begun the awning. If my hands, which are in poor condition just now, should be up to snuff in the morning, I might have it up by tomorrow P.M.

Made a short patrol this P.M. Discovered nothing.

There is a wolf who seems intent on the goings-on here. He does not seem inclined to be a nuisance, however, and aside from my horse, is the only visitor I have had. He has appeared each afternoon for the past two days. If he comes calling tomorrow, I will name him Two Socks. He has milky-white socks on both front paws.

 

Lt. John J. Dunbar, U.S.A.


 

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