Dances With Wolves
by Michael Blake

CHAPTER VIII

one

 

Lieutenant Dunbar was right in step with the time-honored tradition of predicting weather.

He was wrong.

The spectacular storm slipped through during the night without loosing a single drop of rain on Fort Sedgewick, and the day that broke the next morning was the purest pastel blue, air that was like something for drinking, and merciful sun that toasted everything it touched without searing a single blade of grass.

Over coffee, the lieutenant reread his official reports of days past and concluded he had done a pretty fair job of putting down facts. He debated the subjective items for a time. More than once he took up his pen to cross out a line, but in the end he changed nothing.

He was pouring a second cup when he noticed the curious cloud far to the west. It was brown, a dusky brown cloud, lying low and flat at the base of the sky.

It was too hazy to be a cloud. It looked like smoke from a fire. The lightning from the night before must have struck something. Perhaps the prairie had been set afire. He made a mental note to keep an eye on the smoky cloud and to make his afternoon ride in that direction if it persisted. He had heard that prairie fires could be huge and fast-moving.

 

two

 

They had come in the day before, close to twilight, and unlike Lieutenant Dunbar, they had been rained on.

But their spirits were not dampened in the least. The last leg of the long trek from a winter camp far to the south was finished. That, and the coming of spring, made for the happiest of times. Their ponies were growing fatter and stronger with each succeeding day, the march had toned everyone after months of relative inactivity, and preparations would begin at once for the summer hunts. That made them happier still, happy in the pit of each and every belly. The buffalo were coming. Feasting was right around the corner.

And because this had been a summer camp for generations; a strong spirit of homecoming lightened the hearts of everyone, all 172 men, women, and children.

The winter had been mild and the band had come through it in excellent shape. Today, on the first morning home, it was a camp of smiles. Youngsters frolicked in the pony herd, warriors swapped stories, and the women mowed through the chores of breakfast with more gaiety than usual.

They were Comanche.

The smoke cloud Lieutenant Dunbar thought was a prairie fire had risen from their cooking fires.

They were camped on the same stream, eight miles west of Fort Sedgewick.

 

three

 

Dunbar grabbed up everything he could find that needed washing and stuffed it in a rucksack. Then he draped the foul blankets over his shoulders, searched out a chunk of soap, and headed down the river.

As he squatted by the stream, pulling laundry out of the sack, he thought, Sure would like to wash what I got on.

But there would be nothing left to wear while everything dried.

There was the overcoat.

But how stupid, he said to himself. With a little laugh he said out loud, “It’s just me and the prairie.”

It was a good feeling to be naked. He even laid his officer’s hat aside in the spirit of the thing.

When he bent toward the water with an armful of clothes, he saw a reflection of himself in the glassy surface, the first he’d seen in more than two weeks. It gave him pause.

His hair was longer. His face looked leaner, even with the beard that had sprouted. He’d definitely lost some weight. But the lieutenant thought he looked good. His eyes were as keen as he’d ever seen them, and as though he were acknowledging his affection for someone, he smiled boyishly at the reflection.

The longer he looked at the beard, the less he liked it. He ran back for his razor.

The lieutenant didn’t think about his skin while he shaved. His skin had always been the same. White men come in many shades. Some are white as snow.

Lieutenant Dunbar was white enough to put your eyes out.

 

four

 

Kicking Bird had left camp before dawn. He knew his leaving would not be questioned. He never had to answer for his movements, and rarely for his actions. Not unless they were poorly taken actions. Poorly taken actions could lead to catastrophe. But though he was new, though he had been a full-fledged medicine man for only a year, none of his actions had led to catastrophe.

In fact, he had performed well. Twice he had worked minor miracles. He felt good about the miracles, but he felt just as good about the bread and butter of his job, seeing to the day-to-day welfare of the band. He performed myriad administrative duties, attended to squabbles of wide-ranging import, practiced a fair amount of medicine, and sat in on the endless councils that took place daily. All this in addition to providing for two wives and four children. And all of it done with one ear and one eye cocked to the Great Spirit; always listening, always watching for the slightest sound or sign.

Kicking Bird shouldered his many duties honorably, and everyone knew it. They knew it because they knew the man. Kicking Bird did not have a self-serving bone in his body, and wherever he rode, he rode with the weight of great respect.

Some of the other early risers might have wondered where he was going on that first morning, but they never dreamed of asking.

Kicking Bird was not on a special mission. He had ridden onto the prairie to clear his head. He disliked the big movements: winter to summer, summer to winter. The tremendous clang of it all distracted him. It distracted the ear and eye he tried to keep cocked at the Great Spirit, and on this first morning after the long march, he knew the din of setting up camp would be more than he could manage.

So he had taken his best pony, a broad-backed chestnut, and ridden off toward the river, following it several miles until he came to a knobby rise he had known since boyhood.

There he waited for the prairie to reveal itself, and when it did, Kicking Bird was pleased. It had never looked so good to him. All the signs were right for an abundant summer. There would be enemies, of course, but the band was very strong now. Kicking Bird couldn’t suppress a smile. He was sure it would be a prosperous season.

After an hour his exhilaration had not diminished. Kicking Bird said to himself, I will make a walk in this beautiful country, and he kicked his pony into the still-rising sun.

 

five

 

He had sunk both blankets into the water before he remembered that laundry must be pounded. There wasn’t a single rock in sight.

Clutching the dripping blankets and the rest of the clothes against his chest, Lieutenant Dunbar, the laundry novice, wandered downstream, stepping lightly on his bare feet.

A quarter mile later he found an outcropping that made for a nice bench. He worked up a good lather and, as a novice will do, rubbed the soap rather tentatively into one of the blankets.

By and by he got the hang of it. With each article the routine of soaping, beating, and rinsing became more assured, and toward the end Dunbar was flying through his work with the single-mindedness, if not the precision, of a seasoned laundress.

In only two weeks out here he had cultivated a new appreciation for detail and, knowing the first pieces had been botched, he redid them.

A scrubby oak was growing partway up the slope and he hung his laundry there. It was a good spot, full of sun and not too breezy. Still, it would take a while for everything to dry, and he’d forgotten his tobacco fixings.

The naked lieutenant decided not to wait.

He started back for the fort.

 

six

 

Kicking Bird had heard disconcerting stories about their numbers. On more than one occasion he had heard people say they were as plentiful as birds, and this gave the shaman an uneasy feeling in the back of his mind.

And yet, on the basis of what he had actually seen, the hair mouths inspired only pity.

They seemed to be a sad race.

Those poor soldiers at the fort, so rich in goods, so poor in everything else. They shot their guns poorly, they rode their big, slow horses poorly. They were supposed to be the white man’s warriors, but they weren’t alert. And they frightened so easily. Taking their horses had been laughable, like plucking berries from a bush.

They were a great mystery to Kicking Bird, these white people. He could not think of them without getting his mind baffled.

The soldiers at the fort, for instance. They lived without families. And they lived without their greatest chiefs. With the Great Spirit in evidence everywhere, for all to see, they worshipped things written down on paper. And they were so dirty. They didn’t even keep themselves clean.

Kicking Bird could not imagine how these hair mouths could sustain themselves for even a year. And yet they were said to flourish. He did not understand it.

He had begun this line of thinking when he thought of the fort, when he thought of going near it. He expected them to be gone, but he thought he would see anyway. And now, as he sat on his pony, looking across the prairie, he could see at first glance that the place had been improved. The white man’s fort was clean. A great hide was rolling in the wind. A little horse, a good-looking one, was standing in the corral. There was no movement. Not even a sound. The place should have been dead. But someone had kept it alive.

Kicking Bird urged his pony to a walk.

He had to have a closer look.

 

seven

 

Lieutenant Dunbar dallied as he made his way back along the stream. There was so much to see.

In a strangely ironic way he felt much less conspicuous without his clothes. Perhaps that was so. Every tiny plant, every buzzing insect, seemed to attract his attention. Everything was remarkably alive.

A red-tailed hawk with a ground squirrel dangling from its talons flew right in front of him, not a dozen feet overhead.

Halfway back he paused in the shade of a cottonwood to watch a badger dig out his burrow a few feet above the waterline. Every now and then the badger would glance back at the naked lieutenant, but he kept right on digging.

Close to the fort Dunbar stopped to watch the entanglement of two lovers. A pair of black water snakes were twisting ecstatically in the shallows of the stream, and like all lovers, they were oblivious, even when the lieutenant’s shadow fell across the water.

He trudged up the slope enraptured, feeling as strong as anything out here, feeling like a true citizen of the prairie.

As his head cleared the rise, he saw the chestnut pony.

In the same instant he saw the silhouette, creeping in the shade under the awning. A split second later the figure stepped into the sun and Dunbar ducked down, settling into a cleft just below the bluff’s lip.

He squatted on jellied legs, his ears as big as dishes, listening with a concentration that made hearing seem the only sense he possessed.

His mind raced. Fantastic images danced across the lieutenant’s closed eyes. Fringed pants. Beaded moccasins. A hatchet with hair hanging from it. A breastplate of gleaming bone. The heavy, shining hair spilling halfway down his back. The black, deep-set eyes. The great nose. Skin the color of clay. The feather bobbing in the breeze at the back of his head.

He knew it was an Indian, but he had never expected anything so wild, and the shock of it had stunned him as surely as a blow to the head.

Dunbar stayed crouched below the bluff, his buttocks grazing the ground, beads of cold sweat coating his forehead. He could not grasp what he had seen. He was afraid to look again.

He heard a horse nicker and, sucking up his courage, peeked slowly over the bluff.

The Indian was in the corral. He was walking up to Cisco, a looped length of rope in his hand.

When Lieutenant Dunbar saw this, his paralysis evaporated. He stopped thinking altogether, leaped to his feet, and scrambled over the top of the bluff. He shouted out, his bellow cracking the stillness like a shot.

“You there!”

 

eight

 

Kicking Bird jumped straight into the air.

When he whirled to meet the voice that had startled him out of his skin, the Comanche medicine man came face-to-face with the strangest sight he had ever seen.

A naked man. A naked man marching straight across the yard with his fists balled, with his jaw set, and with skin so white that it hurt the eyes.

Kicking Bird stumbled backward in horror, righted himself, and instead of jumping the corral fence, he tore right through it. He raced across the yard, vaulted onto his pony, and galloped off as if the devil were on his tail.

Not once did he look back.


 

HTML layout and style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide.
Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning.