Bluestem and wheatgrass rippled under the early summer wind then, as if holding its breath, the earth became still. The grass stopped moving. Nothing moved. Antelope grazing minutes earlier vanished like ghosts. His horse, its ears reacting to sounds he could not hear, tensed under him. The stillness was the first sign that something was wrong. The sharp crack of a rifle breaking that silence was the second.
Tyree Allison rode toward the sound, every nerve on edge. He flinched at a second, closer shot. Thin wafts of blue gray curled skyward as gunfire grew louder.
War cries full of rage. Screams etched with panic made goose flesh along his arms. He dismounted and crawled to the edge of the ridge, elbows in the dirt as he leaned his chin on his rifle stock. He became as stone, hidden against a clump of weeds as the prairie spread out below.
Seven riders, stripped to their waists, streaked with white and red smears, shouted as they circled a wagon standing helpless under their assault. A horse struggled on the ground, fighting its traces. The second horse lunged in an attempt to escape the leather lines that held it captive.
Arapaho and Comanche, people he might have, on any other day, stopped to share a meal, hunted or camped with.
Two settlers, a man, a woman, and two children were at the center of the melee.
The woman, sheltering under the wagon, followed a rider with the barrel of her rifle, taking aim, her face scrunched in concentration. Her children hugged to her hip. Tyree winced as the warrior flung himself from his horse, and grabbed the rifle from her hands, dragging her kicking and screaming from the ground, and brought his tomahawk down into her chest. The horror on her face made his gut twist.
A man in a loose white shirt streaked with dirt hurried toward her, screaming his rage, swinging at the warrior, and crumpled under a volley of arrows sent by a horseman racing toward him.
Tyree raised his rifle, and lined up a shot, but even as his finger tightened on the trigger he shook his head, pressing his lips together, and slid down behind the hump of rocky ground. Cold sweat beaded on his brow.
Don’t be stupid Alley son. You aren’t ready to die.
He shivered at the screams of the children, his jaws cramping as he ground his teeth together, his eyes squeezed shut, his fists so tight on his rifle that his knuckles ached. When the man and woman lay dead, the Indians dragged the children from their mother’s body. The children howled in terror.
The victors tore the wagon apart, taking their spoils, setting fire to what remained. The band of attackers took the children, the horses, and whatever goods they could put to use. The wagon lay gutted, smoking, and scattered like so much offal from some savage feast.
Silence again fell like a shadow across the earth, leaving blood and death in its wake. Tyree waited as the riders trotted off, disappearing into the distance.
He moved with slow dejected steps to kneel over the woman. They had stripped her bare, and ripped her hair from her head. On the ground a corn-shuck doll staring at him in accusation, a smear of blood on its hand-sewn dress. He found the man also naked, arrows protruding from his chest, scalp taken.
Alive. His stomach wrenched.
The man reached for him, grasping Tyree’s sleeve. His dry lips moved as his pain-filled eyes sought Tyree’s. The man whispered, and he strained to hear. “My children. Where are they? Please tell me. Are they okay?”
Eyes, torture brimmed, studied Tyree. His hands slid from his sleeve.
“Savage,” the man whimpered. Tyree considered what the man saw. Long black hair, buckskin shirt, a medicine bag hanging from a cord around his neck.
“I might be, but, iffen you tell who you are, I’ll tell someone what happened to ya, and send help for your children.”
“Black,” the man responded arduously. “My name is Earl Black. My wife Emily, my children, Peter and Alisha. Find them, take them to their family in Kearney.
“I’ll find them.” Tyree said, promising something he feared he was unable to deliver.
“Finish me, please.”
Tyree hung his head. “I cain’t.”
“Finish me,” the man begged.
Tyree thought about how close the renegades might be. Too close for a bullet to the head. Too loud. His mind recoiled at what needed doing, taking a few minutes to harden himself. The knife he pulled from its sheath was a full ten inches of heavy steel, the edge razor sharp. He leaned over Earl Black, set the point in the center of his rib cage, and drove it home without hesitation. The man’s sternum gave way with little resistance, blood sprayed Tyree’s shirt. Retrieving the knife he plunged it into the earth, cleaning it.
Nothing moved other than himself and his horse. The hard packed ground resisted his efforts to dig the shallow graves. He wiped sweat from his brow, then rolled himself a smoke. There were vultures beginning to circle. A fox hustled across a patch of brush.
He didn’t touch the bodies, falling back on his upbringing among the Arapaho. One only handled their own dead. These weren’t his people, or he might have found them a perch in a scaffold for their journey into the spirit world. Even as he piled dirt and rock on the fresh graves, grim thoughts about who his people might be, prodded at him. He wasn’t Arapaho, but he had lived with them. He had lived among the whites as well, but his connection with them was just as tenuous as with the lodge in which he had been raised.
“Walk in peace with your ancestors,” he said grimly. He didn’t know his ancestors, making the words bitter in his mouth.
When he’d left Texas, he had thought of it as returning home to the territories where he’d spent most of his life. It didn’t feel that way now.
Home. It’s just … a word, it don’t mean a thing. I got no home.
He picked up the corn-shuck doll, and wiped his thumb across the blood smears, spreading dark earth across the fabric.
“I’ll find ’em,” he said, as if the doll understood him as he laid it on the grave, then hesitantly, he picked it back up.
He imagined the child who had owned it taking some comfort in it, and shoved it in his saddle bag. They had no home now, either. No parents. No attachment to ancestors. He had no idea what to do about his own life but maybe…he could make something right in theirs.