Dances With Wolves
by Michael Blake

CHAPTER IX

one

 

April 27, 1863

 

Have made first contact with a wild Indian.

One came to the fort and tried to steal my horse. When I appeared he became frightened and ran off. Do not know how many more might be in the vicinity but am assuming that where there is one there are sure to be more.

Am taking steps to prepare for another visitation. I cannot make an adequate defense but will try to make a big impression when they come again.

I’m still alone, however, and unless troops arrive soon, all may be lost.

The man I encountered was a magnificent-looking fellow.

 

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

 

Dunbar spent the next two days taking steps, many of them geared toward creating an impression of strength and stability. It might have seemed lunatic, one man trying to prepare for the onslaught of countless enemies, but the lieutenant possessed a certain strength of character that allowed for working hard when he had very little. It was a good trait and it helped make him a good soldier.

He went about his preparations as if he were just another man at the post. His first order of business was to cache the provisions. He sorted through the entire inventory separating only the most essential items. The rest he buried with great care in holes around the fort.

He stashed the tools, lamp oil, several kegs of nails. and other miscellaneous building materials in one of the old sleeping holes. Then he covered it with a piece of canvas tarp, spread several yards of dirt over the site, and after hours of meticulous landscaping, the cache looked like a natural part of the slope.

He carried two boxes of rifles and a half-dozen small barrels of gunpowder and shot onto the grassland. There he spaded up more than twenty pieces of prairie, each about a foot square, each with the sod and grass clinging to one another. At the same spot he dug a deep hole, roughly six by six, and buried the ordnance. By the end of the afternoon he had replaced the sections of sod and grass, tamping them down so carefully that not even the most practiced eye could have detected a disturbance. He marked the place with a bleached buffalo rib, which he drove into the ground at an angle a few yards in front of the secret spot.

In the supply house he found a pair of U.S. flags, and using two of the corral posts as poles, he flew them, one from the roof of the supply house, the other from the roof of his quarters.

The afternoon rides were pared down to short, circular patrols that he made around the fort, always keeping his post within sight.

Two Socks appeared as usual on the bluff, but Dunbar was too busy to pay him much attention.

He took to wearing a full uniform at all times, keeping his high-topped riding boots shining, his hat free of dust, and his face shaved. He went nowhere, not even to the stream, without a rifle, a pistol, and a beltful of ammunition.

After two days of fevered activity he felt he was as ready as he could get.

 

April 29, 1863

 

My presence here must have been reported by now.

Have made all the preparations I can think of.

Waiting.

 

Lt. John J. Dunbat U.S.A.

 

two

 

But Lieutenant Dunbar’s presence at Fort Sedgewick had not been reported.

Kicking Bird had kept The Man Who Shines Like Snow locked away in his thoughts. For two days the medicine man stayed to himself, deeply disturbed by what he had seen, struggling mightily for the meaning of what he first believed to be a nightmarish hallucination.

After much reflection, however, he admitted to himself that what he had seen was real.

In some ways this conclusion created more problems. The man was real. He had life. He was over there. Kicking Bird further concluded that The Man Who Shines Like Snow must be linked in some way to the fate of the band. Otherwise the Great Spirit would not have bothered to present the vision of him.

He had taken it upon himself to divine the meaning of this, but try as he might, he could not. The whole situation troubled him like nothing he had ever experienced.

His wives knew there was some kind of trouble as soon as he returned from the fateful ride to Fort Sedgewick. They could see a distinct change in the expression of his eyes. But outside of taking extra care with their husband, the women said nothing as they went about their work.

 

three

 

There was a handful of men who, like Kicking Bird, carried great influence in the band. None was more influential than Ten Bears. He was the most venerated, and at sixty years, his toughness, his wisdom, and the remarkably steady hand with which he guided the band were exceeded only by his uncanny ability to know which way the winds of fortune, no matter how small or large, were going to shift next.

Ten Bears could see at first glance that something had happened to Kicking Bird, whom he looked on as an important staff member. But he, too, said nothing. It was his custom, and it served him well, to wait and watch.

But by the end of the second day it seemed apparent to Ten Bears that something serious might have happened, and late in the afternoon he paid a casual visit to Kicking Bird’s home.

For twenty minutes they smoked the medicine man’s tobacco in silence before slipping into bits and pieces of chit-chat concerning unimportant matters.

At just the right moment Ten Bears drove the conversation deeper with a general question. He asked how Kicking Bird felt, from a spiritual point of view, about prospects for the summer.

Without going into detail, the medicine man told him the signs were good. A priest who cares not to elaborate about his work was a dead giveaway to Ten Bears. He was certain something had been held back.

Then, with the skill of a master diplomat, Ten Bears asked about potentially negative signs.

The two men’s eyes met. Ten Bears had trapped him in the most gentle way.

“There is one,” said Kicking Bird.

As soon as he said that, Kicking Bird felt a sudden release, as though his hands had been unbound, and it all spilled out: the ride, the fort, the beautiful buckskin horse, and The Man Who Shines Like Snow.

When he finished, Ten Bears relit the pipe and puffed thoughtfully before laying it between them.

“Did he look like a god?” he asked.

“No. He looked like a man,” replied Kicking Bird. “He walked like a man, sounded like a man. His form was as a man’s. Even his sex was as a man’s.”

“I have never heard of a white man without clothes,” said Ten Bears, and his expression turned suspicious. “His skin actually reflected the sun?”

“It stung the eyes.”

The men fell into silence once again.

Ten Bears got to his feet.

“I will think about this now.”

 

four

 

Ten Bears shooed everyone out of his lodge and sat by himself for more than an hour, thinking about what Kicking Bird had told him.

It was hard thinking.

He had only seen white men on a few occasions, and like Kicking Bird, he could not fathom their behavior. Because of their reputed numbers they would have to be watched and somehow controlled, but until now, they had been nothing beyond a persistent nuisance to the mind.

Ten Bears never liked thinking about them.

How could any race be so mixed-up? he thought.

But he was drifting from the point, and inwardly Ten Bears chastised himself for his messy thinking. What did he really know about the white people? He knew next to nothing. . . . That, he had to admit.

This strange being at the fort. Perhaps it was a spirit. Perhaps it was a different type of white man. It was possible, Ten Bears conceded, that the being Kicking Bird had seen was the first of a whole new race of people.

The old headman sighed to himself as his brain filled to overflowing.

There was already so much to do, with the summer hunting. And now this.

He could not come to a conclusion.

Ten Bears decided to call a council.

 

five

 

The meeting convened before sunset, but it lasted long into the evening, long enough to draw the collective attention of the village, especially the young men, who gathered in little groups to speculate about what their elders might be discussing.

After an hour’s worth of preliminaries they got down to business. Kicking Bird related his story. When he was finished Ten Bears solicited the opinions of his fellows.

They were many, and they were wide-ranging.

Wind In His Hair was the youngest among them, an impulsive but seasoned fighter. He thought they should send a party immediately, a party to ride down and shoot arrows into the white man. If he was a god, the arrows would have no effect. If he was mortal, they would have one less hair mouth to worry about. Wind In His Hair would be happy to lead the party.

His suggestion was rejected by the others. If this person was a god, it would not be a good idea to shoot arrows into him. And killing a white man had to be handled with a certain delicacy. A dead white man might produce many more live ones.

Horn Bull was known to be conservative. No one would dare to question his bravery but it was true that he usually opted for discretion in most matters. He made a simple suggestion. Send a delegation to parlay with The Man Who Shines Like Snow.

Wind In His Hair waited until Horn Bull had finished this rather long declaration. Then he leaped on the idea with a vengeance. The gist of his speech pounded home a point that no one cared to dispute. Comanches did not send respected warriors to ask the business of a single puny, trespassing white man.

No one said much after this, and when they began again, the talk shifted to other topics, such as preparations for the hunt and the possibility of sending war parties to various tribes. For another hour the men sifted through scraps of rumor and hard information that might have some bearing on the band’s welfare.

When at last they returned to the touchy question of what to do about the white man, Ten Bears’s eyes were drooping and his head began to nod. There was no point in going any further tonight. The old man was already snoring lightly as they left his lodge.

The matter remained unresolved.

But that did not mean action was not going to be taken.

Any small, close-knit group is hard-pressed to keep secrets, and later that night Horn Bull’s fourteen-year-old son heard his father mumble the essence of the council’s discussion to a visiting uncle. He heard about the fort and the Man Who Shines Like Snow And he heard about the beautiful buckskin horse, the stout little mount Kicking Bird had described as the equal of ten ponies. It fired his imagination.

Horn Bull’s son could not sleep with this knowledge in his head, and late that night he crept out of the lodge to tell his two best friends what he knew, to tell of the grand opportunity he had chanced upon.

As he expected, Frog Back and Smiles A Lot balked at first. There was only one horse. How could one horse be split three ways? That was not much. And the possibility of a white god prowling around down there. That was a lot to think about.

But Horn Bull’s son was ready for them. He’d thought it all out. The white god, that was the best part. Didn’t they all want to take the warpath? And when the time came, wouldn’t they have to accompany veteran warriors? And wasn’t it likely that they would see little direct action? Wasn’t it likely that they would have little chance to distinguish themselves?

But to ride against a white god. Three boys against a god. That would be something. People might make up songs about that. If they pulled it off, the chances were good that all three would soon be leading war parties instead of just following along.

And the horse. Well, Horn Bull’s son would own the horse, but the other two could ride it. They could race it if they wanted.

Now, who can say this is not a great plan?

Their hearts were already thumping as they stole across the river and cut three good mounts out of the pony herd. On foot, they led the horses away from the village, then circled it in a wide arc.

When they were finally clear, the boys kicked their ponies into a gallop, and singing songs to keep their hearts strong, they rode along the darkened prairie, staying close by the stream that would take them directly to Fort Sedgewick.

 

six

 

For two nights Lieutenant Dunbar was all soldier, sleeping with one ear open.

But the teenagers who came did not come like pranksters out for a thrill. They were Comanche boys and they were engaged in the most serious action of their young lives.

Lieutenant Dunbar never heard them come in.

The galloping hooves and the boys’ whooping woke him, but they were only sounds, melting into the vastness of the prairie night, by the time he stumbled through the door of the hut.

 

seven

 

The boys rode hard. Everything had gone perfectly. Taking the horse had been easy, and best of all, they had not even seen the white god.

But they were taking no chances. Gods could do many fantastic things, particularly when angered. The boys didn’t stop for any backslapping. They rode full-out, determined not to slow until they’d reached the safety of the village.

They weren’t two miles from the fort, however, when Cisco decided to exercise his will. And it was not his will to go with these boys.

They were at a full run when the buckskin wheeled sharply away. Horn Bull’s son was pulled off his pony as if he’d been low-bridged by a tree limb.

Frog Back and Smiles A Lot tried to give chase, but Cisco kept running, the long lead line trailing behind him. He had true speed, and when the speed gave out, his stamina took over.

The Indian ponies wouldn’t have caught him if they’d been fresh.

 

eight

 

Dunbar had just gotten a pot of coffee going and was sitting morosely by his fire when Cisco trotted casually into the flickering light.

The lieutenant was more relieved than he was surprised. Having his horse stolen had made him mad as a hornet. But Cisco had been stolen before, twice to be exact, and like a faithful dog, he had always found a way to come back.

Lieutenant Dunbar gathered in the Comanche lead line, checked his horse for cuts, and, with the sky turning pink in the east, led the little buckskin down the slope for a drink.

While he sat by the stream, Dunbar watched the surface. The river’s little fish were beginning to bite at the hordes of invisible insects lighting on top of the water, and the lieutenant suddenly felt as helpless as a mayfly.

The Indians could have killed him as easily as they had stolen his horse.

The idea of dying bothered him. I could be dead by this afternoon, he thought.

What bothered him even more was the prospect of dying like an insect.

He decided then and there that, if he was going to die, it would not be in bed.

He knew that something was in motion, something that made him vulnerable in a way that sent a chill up his spine. He might be a citizen of the prairie, but that didn’t mean he was accepted. He was the new kid in school. Their eyes would be on him.

His spine was still tingling as he led Cisco back up the slope.

 

nine

 

Horn Bull’s son had broken his arm.

He was given over to Kicking Bird as soon as the bedraggled trio of would-be warriors entered the village.

The boys had begun to worry from the moment Horn Bull’s son found that his arm would not work. If no one had gotten hurt, they might have been able to keep their botched raid a secret. But immediately there had been questions, and the boys, though they might be given to sprucing up the facts, were Comanche. And Comanches had great difficulty lying. Even Comanche boys.

While Kicking Bird worked on his arm, and with his father and Ten Bears listening, Horn Bull’s son told the truth of what had happened.

It was not unusual for a stolen horse to break away from its captors and return home, but because they might be dealing with a spirit, the matter of the horse took on a great importance and the older men questioned the injured boy closely.

When he told them the horse had not spooked, that he had broken away deliberately, the faces of his elders grew noticeably longer.

Another council was called.

This time everyone knew what it was about, for the story of the boys’ misadventure quickly became the talk of the camp. Some of the more impressionable people in the village suffered brief bouts of the jitters when they learned that a strange white god might be lurking in the neighborhood, but mostly everyone went about their business with the feeling that Ten Bears’s council would figure something out.

Still, everyone was anxious.

Only one among them was truly terrified.


 

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