He was sound asleep when they came. The last time he would sleep soundly again.
The pounding hooves were a surprise: there were warriors on the hill, who should have warned the camp. Something went wrong, raiders coming into the camp, the People unaware.
He lifted the buffalo flap and stepped outside, rifle in hand, light brown hair flowing out behind him as those pounding hooves turned into shouts and the dark empty sound of bullets finding their mark. He swung the rifle up, but a booted foot caught the long barrel and kicked it away. He looked up into blue eyes like his own, met the surprise there as a rifle butt swung into the side of his head, and darkness fully enveloped him.
It took many days to bury the dead, and before he finished, carrying the dead became dragging unrecognizable mounds of rotten flesh and mercifully incomprehensible pieces to the graves he'd prepared. The moans of those left alive had drifted away, replaced by the mad buzzing of flies and his shouts as he drove away the buzzards. He was alone now, alone with the wilds that he loved and hated. The wilds that hid the horrendous atrocities against the People from the 'civilized.' The wilds that surrounded him with peace and rebirth yet hid the army in every shadow.
On the fourth day after the slaughter, before he had finished and walked away, it rained.
He retreated to higher ground. No settlers there, no army to protect them. He carried a small pack, the rifle that had failed him, and the burden of what became, to him, The Night. For almost a year he spoke no words, saw few others, hunted only enough to survive and drew only enough camp to survive to the next day. He stared at the rifle one night, realizing suddenly why it had failed him. The next day, he began making snares.
When he had enough skins, he walked down the mountain, into the lowlands where the settlers made their towns, where a livery and smithy could be found. He traded what he had for a hacksaw and files, struggling with the words he had left so far behind, then retreated to the safety of the trees to work. He drew the saw across the barrel, one long, slow stroke peeling away a curl of metal, the dust below beginning to shimmer with the twisted bits that fell away. He matched stroke for stroke with each remembered shovel of earth, of clay and of sand and of sod bed, turned back and away to swallow up another of the People, to take them to the center of the circle. He remembered, and drew the saw back across the tempered steel, that it would not happen again.
He could rest now, not sleep, but rest, with hand on the shortened gun, able to protect . . . but there was nothing to protect. No one by his side, no camp to share, no future to keep safe. He could not go to another camp, something lost and shattered and done inside. He could not stand the mountains and silence and death and life around him, needed to be lost in the ridiculous noise of the white man's life and villages, needed something to struggle with or not struggle at all. He walked down the mountain again, to his People, and his boots found the road, and kept walking. For weeks he walked, passing and being passed by, most frightened, some amused. He stayed on the wagon tracks, he did not need to think about direction, only place one footprint after the last and keep going. Until the pounding hooves came again.
Seasons passed without his knowing, when two men rode up behind him on the dusty road he followed. Slowed, walking beside him with fascination, until the boots came along side, and he stared. The narrow stirrup leather, the laced boot, the shiny black hide of the horse he rode. He finally turned and looked up into the face of the man long dead, killed a hundred times in his dreams, a thousand in his waking, face gone under the muzzle blaze of a rifle brought fully up to bear upon its target. Long, blonde flowing hair, the uncomfortable shift of the sargent in the McClellan, and he turned to look at the other beside him. Long time since he had spoken first, but he did today.
"You were at Two Strike's camp?"
"What you talkin' 'bout?"
"Two Strike's camp, on the Palo Duro? The Indian camp, The Night? Reckon . . . . two years ago?"
The shadow laughed with delight, his friend joining him.
"Sure was, boy! Onliest time to raid them camps is night-don't have them to chase them injuns down at night, just burn 'em and shoot 'em when they come out. Ain't gotta look at them kids, neither, and ya get 'em all cleaned out that way. You there, yer ownself?"
He nodded and looked to the other mounted man. The wind was blowing softly, the road was quiet, the horses calm. He felt full inside, and ready. At peace. He stood beside the stopped horse.
"Well, mebbe we all oughta jes settle into a camp here, and match scalps, eh, boy? I don't remember you being with the army that night, course me and Stephens had a nip or two since then, ain't that I remember all the men I rode with!"
The man called Stephens was uninterested, looking away down the road, when he brought the sawed off up, remembered the same surprised look from so long ago, and pulled the trigger. The man dropped away, and he turned and fired again. The big black beside him reared and leapt away from his fallen rider, crashing into the bay next to him. He grabbed the bridle, his hand covered the US insignia button on the shank, as the second horse galloped away. The road fell quiet again as he bent over the bodies, struck away a bit of hair from each, screaming a triumphant warrior's cry into the desert, counting coup, then struggled with pulling the bodies over the barrel of the black gelding. He left the tracks and made his own way into the trees, and began, once more, to dig graves. He burned the tack and supplies in his camp that night, tucking away the wet scalps in his own small pack. He braided a war bridle for the black with the white blaze, and went away, ashamed and rent and freshly scarred.
Four days later, it rained.
The Apache seem to be very strong when somebody dies, very strong about death. There is a reason for that. When somebody dies, when you hear thunder way over there---so that you just hardly hear it---that means the white cloud is taking him to another world. They travel for many days, and then sometimes on the fourth day it rains. When that rain drops on you, they are touching you.
---Philip Cassadore, Apache
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