1 ( Waylan)
Living in Montana his entire life, Waylan had been accustomed to snowstorms. He’d seen his share of icy winters and cruel chilly air. Still, he had never seen snow quite like this. The unrelenting downfall blinded him. Never had so much white created such darkness. It was near midday, but the sun had been completely blocked by snow determined to cover the entire landscape in suffocating frost. He couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead, barely able to make out even the features of his horse’s face. They marched through the storm, carrying cargo too precious for them to stop with.
“Two more days, boy, and we will have enough coin to get hot baths for the both of us,” he continued to say as he reached out, brushing more snow from the steed’s neck.
Waylan looked back up to the path in front of him, still not able to make out more than a few tree-like figures jetting out from the ceaseless snowfall. The path was becoming even darker, bushes and limbs of trees sneaking up on Waylan without more than a foot’s notice, often announcing themselves with the rough scratch of their pine needles.
The horse’s legs started to stumble through the terrain as the cold white ground had made its way to within a few inches of completely covering the animal’s legs. Slower steps were not what Waylan needed to get through this mountain path. Neither he nor Oatie could last much longer in this storm, but if they were still headed the way Waylan believed, then this trip through the mountains shouldn’t last more than a couple miles longer. Unfortunately for him, Waylan’s horse wasn’t keeping the pace he had hoped for.
“Whoa now,” Waylan yelled, trying to calm his horse after a hard stumble that dropped Oatie to his forearms. It took only a couple seconds for Oatie to be back on all fours, again pushing through the rough conditions. But by the time Waylan looked up he was able to make out something that he hadn’t seen there before.
Up ahead, no more than twenty feet was the slightest bit of bright yellow shining through the merciless fall of white that blinded Waylan. He couldn’t make out what was ahead of him as Oatie inched forward one slow trudge at a time. As they made it closer, the light grew, a small yellow beacon, barely visible against the concealing power of winter’s force. Waylan felt the light call to him. Although the light of a well kept fire would have brought ease to the young rider, this glare only served to distress him.
“Hello? Anybody there?” Waylan’s nerves unfroze and grew tense. The light seemed like that of a lantern, but the mountain trail passed no homesteads or buildings of any kind. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody on this path. They assured him of that when he agreed to this deal. Still, the closer Oatie moved, the more sure he seemed that it was a lantern, and the more convinced Waylan became that he wasn’t alone.
“Hello?!” he yelled out over the land. But he heard nothing in response. The merciless winter ate up his words and concealed any reply. “Hello?!” he repeated. But still nothing. The only sound was the deep of his rapid heart beat, thumping away in edgy tension.
“It's nothing, Oatie.” Again trying to relax himself with his words to the horse.
Waylan dismounted without pause. The conditions were too harsh for him to take any kind of break from riding through to Fort Dent. Even a short break like this could cost him dearly. He’d seen the effects of frostbite before. Men with only a few digits on their hand, the result of getting caught out in the harsh mountain cold for too long. But even still, Waylan knew he had to investigate. He had been warned that if he didn’t make it through, the outcome would be a lot worse than missing a few fingers.
The walk toward the light took but a minute, each step a workout as he pulled his leg through thigh high snow over to the lantern. It hung on a long branch of a ponderosa pine, illuminating the rest of the tree through the dense downfall of snow that pelted Waylan and the forest floor.
“What the hell are ya’ doin’ out here?” he asked the lantern. He grabbed at its bottom, giving it a little lift to check the weight. “Well, you’re almost full, so somebody’s been around lately.” Waylan gave the surrounding ground a look, but any footsteps were lost, covered up by feet of snow that harbored any answer Waylan was hoping to find.
Waylan clutched his rifle tight and headed off with lantern in his other hand. He figured a little light might brighten up the path out of the mountains, or at the very least keep the doubt and fear of dark from taking hold like it wanted to.
It had been a couple years since Waylan had seen any action. A young boy growing up outside of Jackson City in east Montana, Waylan only had one way off the farm, and that was to enlist. By sixteen his regiment was pushing the last of the Cheyenne south to Custer County. He took more than a few lives with his rifle, but he regretted every kill. Each bullet put into the backs of fleeing Indians hurt something inside of him. Waylan couldn’t figure out why that was. He was told the Cheyenne were the enemy, savages scalping helpless homesteaders who were trying to make a life in the untamed Western territories, a problem that his rifle, and the rifles of his fellow soldiers were the solution for. But with every fire of his weapon Waylan felt less like he was solving a problem and more like he was creating one.
The third tipi the pair entered they found the same as they had in the prior two: a couple beaded hide vests, a few small blankets, and a couple pelts laid by the center fire pit. What made this tipi different was the terrified sniffles of the young crying Cheyenne girl leaning against the back of a couple logs.
Waylan made his way over to the skittish girl who kept her head down and cried. No doubt in his mind that him and his men had killed her parents, not sure if sparing her and leaving her orphaned was much better than the death he gave them.
“What do we have here Scott?” His sergeant’s hoarse voice broke up Waylan’s stunned phase.
“It’s a child, sir.”
“I can see that.” Sergeant Adams was a tall man, but filled out his six foot frame with a barrel chest he claimed he got by ‘eating more buffalo than any Injun ever could’. “Take her out and put her in the ground with the rest of them.”
“Sir, she’s still alive,” Waylan protested with a sorrowful expectation of what he would hear next.
Waylan held back every bit of anger and sadness in his body as he watched Sergeant Adams walk out of the tipi like he had just given orders to feed the horses or dig a trench instead of murder a little girl. Reluctantly, he gently grabbed the little girl and started walking her out the tipi to the empty field behind them. She didn’t put up any kind of fight or resist at all when Walyan clutched her arm. Either she trusted Waylan because he was an adult and he would do what was right, or she knew he was gonna kill her, and she accepted it. Either way, tears started to well up in his Waylan’s eyes. He had gone and killed his share of Cheyenne, because they were the enemy, but this little girl, no more than six years old, was no threat to anybody.
“Alright,” he said as he spun the girl around in the tall grass of the prairie, “here it is.” But before he could even reach for his gun the girl looked up at him. For the first time he could see her face, every inch of it a reminder of what he was about to do. Her eyes, amber brown, the color of the clay at their feet. Her skin, the same as the far off red rocks in the distance. Her hair, black like the raven cawing in the sky above.
Waylan never put a finger on his pistol. He just told the girl to run. “Go. Go on! Get! Get before they come runnin’ out here.”
The girl just stood there. No longer crying, but looking at the strange white man with fixed eyes and an expressionless face.
“Go on!” he pleaded. “You have to go.”
She didn’t start running until she saw the other man walk next to him. But by then, it was too late. Her body hit the grass near as the same time the gun went off.
The sergeant stood next to Waylan, polishing off his pistol before holstering it. “Don’t forget why we’re out Scott. Don’t forget who the enemy is.” And with that Sergeant Adams walked away again.
Waylan stood there, staring out at where the girl lay. Not a piece of him felt whole. The enemy had never been the Cheyenne, or the Sioux, or the Shoshone, or any other tribe his soldiers were trying rid of. They were the enemy. He was the enemy.
After that day Waylan left the army. His last act as a soldier was digging a whole in the earth and praying to God that he look over the soul of the little girl he barely knew.
Now the same cross he held during those prayers was on a necklace frozen to his jacket. The light of the lantern provided just enough warmth to melt some of the ice stuck to Waylan’s glove as he grabbed it off the tree branch and made his way back to his horse.
“Well Oatie, looks like we have a little light to help us out of this storm.” Waylan didn’t know why he kept talking to his horse. Oatie couldn’t understand a darned thing he was saying, and he doubted the horse could even hear a word he said. Through the falling snow, and the whipping winds of the storm Waylan couldn’t hear his own feet crunch through the snow. And he couldn’t hear the other man’s steps either.
The bullet struck Waylan between the shoulder blades. He fell to the ground in agony, his whole body in searing pain. He was face down in the snow, but he couldn’t feel the icy cold on his cheeks. With his last few breaths he turned his head and looked out at Oatie. The lantern had fallen near his face, still lit. The slight crunch of the snow could be heard now with each step the man took. Waylan saw a gloved hand take hold of the lantern, raising it up near Oatie’s saddle. He couldn’t make out any features of the man who was pillaging through his saddle bags. Waylan tried to yell, tried to stop the man, but with every breath came a fiery pain where the bullet struck, and blood coughed up with every word attempted.
Waylan lay there coughing up blood along the snow that edged his mouth. He couldn’t help but feel like he did the day the little girl died. He failed. And he hoped God could forgive him for the damage he had caused.