Author's note: This is a work in progress. Of note are Native American characters speaking in their own tongue. The language they speak is Cheyenne, a beautiful, lyrical gathering of syllables and words that has nearly no equal. The author is at the moment studying and learning the language, which is sadly, along with other Native American languages, in danger of becoming extinct. Thus, the author takes full responsibility for mistakes made in the translation and will revise with corrections as the learning process sinks in.
Tired to death of death.
"…and let God have mercy on your souls."
Colonel Devlin Pixey shut his eyes refusing to watch, mumbling under his breath.
"What's that Colonel?" his Corporal asked.
Pixey lifted a hand to the bridge of his nose and squeezed - squeezed with a two-finger grip from a hand that had begun to tremble.
"Cut 'em down."
The shakes were a recent development. They came to him unannounced and he knew not how to make them leave. Pixey drew his fingers away revealing Corporal Hardy at attention staring fixedly at him with little expression.
Pixey raised his gaze above the Corporal's cap. The wide glare of the Dakota sun bore down on them from the west. In a few more hours it would abandon the cold plane for warmer haunts below the horizon. The late Autumn snow, which hadn't started to melt until afternoon, would freeze back into pellets of ice over the flattened prairie grass before the sun dropped.
"I said cut them down."
Corporal Hardy raised a brow in question but nodded to the two heavy coated Crow scouts posted to steady the horses that were mounted by the three hooded captives. Pixey's order was followed. The soldier posted guard at the creekside stepped up to receive the reigns handed off to him from the scout nearest the tethered ropes. The scout extracted the long knife from his waistband, severed the three lines in succession, then gave the leads to the soldier.
From the tall ash trunk to which the lines were tied, two ropes went slack, hanging with neatly trimmed ends from the thick branch above, while the third fell from the overhead limb onto the rump of the tall roan twitching between the two smaller ponies. The horse sidestepped but was held in place by the scout's grip on the reigns. The three men sitting the horses were pulled from the mounts and let to fall to the snow-dusted earth below. Each of the three were bound, wrists secured behind their backs, but managed with effort and blind to the world around them to roll to their knees, then stand.
Pixey watched them struggle from where he stood at the rise of the low bank. He glanced back to the clearing outside the tree's shade. His command at the moment numbered three Cavalry privates, Corporal Hardy, and the two Crow scouts. Each man was wounded but none were nursing their injuries. All stood erect, somewhat at attention, sabers sheathed at their sides, sunburned weathered faces behind scruffy whiskered scowls, paying no attention at all to the dark scarlet outlines soaking through various portions of their uniforms.
Corporal Hardy motioned for the three captives to be brought forward. "Colonel, we can't do worse than hang them, can we?"
Pixey placed his hand on the Corporal's shoulder bumping past him to the prisoners, "No torture today."
The Corporal's eyes shifted to Pixey's hand.
Pixey tucked it under his arm. "Cold," he said. "Very cold."
Pixey stepped forward as the three were marched up from the creek to face him. He eyed the three coiled knots left hanging taught around their necks, the tail ends of the three ropes dragging along the snow behind them, the cut ends swinging in gentle circles under the canopy of the ash.
"Remove their hoods," Pixey ordered.
The red burlap used to cover the three heads were plucked roughly away in succession before him.
Pixey glared at them. Cheyenne by the looks of their garb. Leggings of deerskin stretched from hips to ankles with no particular markings other than the fur-lined seams to insulate them from the cold. Above the waist, the shirts were decorated; beaded with white and blue glass cascading over the shoulders, ending above a line of sable braids of horse hair over red tinted leather breastplates.
All three wore bruises from neckline to forehead. The tall Indian in the center had an impression of a boot hill marring the black paint centering his cheek. Pixey took a deep breath and stepped forward.
"I don't know your names, and I don't want to." He glanced at the horses, now drinking from the muddy creek, then stepped up close to the Indian in the middle, his boots cracking the freezing leaves buried under the dusting of snow below. "I'd just as soon not know who you are." He locked eyes with the Indian. The savage glared back without blinking. "On the contrary, I want to slice you open, like you did those farmers… and their wives… and their children."
He heard the men behind him shuffle about. He glanced back. The soldiers, no more than boys really, wore looks of fear; not from what had happened but in anticipation of what was about to. The two scouts were indifferent. Corporal Hardy held fast to his blank expressionless stare.
"Éotá'távo ókohke," the Indian said.
Pixey turned back. The tall Indian nodded to his right shoulder at his shorter companion.
"Ho'ësta," he said. He glanced to his opposite companion. "Mo'eheso," he added locking eyes with Pixey.
Pixey smiled. He nodded to the shorter Indian, "Running Fire," he said. Then looking to the right, "Little Elk." Then to the tall one, "You are Blue Crow."
The Indian nodded to his right. "Runs with fire," he corrected.
"You speak English," Pixey said.
"You try to speak Cheyenne," Blue Crow responded.
Pixey lifted his gloved fist to Blue Crow's face. Instinctively the Indian pulled back but immediately regained composure. Pixey turned his fist sideways, spread his fingers and with his opposite hand pulled the glove away. All the while Blue Crow locked eyes with him. The other two Indians stared ahead. Pixey noticed each was mouthing words silently to themselves.
"You speak to the Great Spirit for mercy?"
"Not mercy. We ask to be welcomed."
"And right to do so," Pixey said. He rolled the wrist of his ungloved hand forward and took hold of the noose below the Indian's jaw. "My orders are to hang you." He pulled Blue Crow out of line with his companions. Blue Crow stumbled but let him pull without resistance.
"Then why do you stop your men?" Blue Crow asked.
Pixey smiled. At full arm's length, he twisted the rope hard around the Indian's neck. "I want to press upon you," he stepped close nearly nose to nose with the Indian, "That I don't give a shit about my orders." He released the noose letting it fall to the Indian's chest. "I just didn't want to know your names."
"You cut us, we bleed. Nothing more. Soon we die. We are not afraid of cuts or of death."
The Indian stared hard and finally blinked. "Now you know our names. Now you cut us. We are prepared. We are not afraid."
Pixey continued smiling but looked away shifting his gaze to the empty spaces between the three standing men ahead of him. A flock of geese was passing in an arrow high overhead. He raised his gaze watching them squawk across the Savannah. "Custer once said that to me. 'I am prepared. I am not afraid.' Almost exactly the same words. Do you know Custer?"
Blue Crow's expression hardened. He nodded nearly imperceptible.
Pixey understood something from that nod. "Corporal, this man was at the Bighorn."
Corporal Hardy's eyes widened suddenly, betraying the first emotion Pixey had seen so far. From his steady glare, his brows narrowed over a look of questioning surprise.
"An unintended look of awe from my uncomplaining soldier at arms," Pixey said to Blue Crow.
Again, the men behind him shifted. Pixey heard muttering. The Corporal lifted his Henry's. Pixey finally stepped back.
"Did you see Custer die?"
For the first time, Blue Crow released eye contact and turned his gaze over Pixey's head. "I saw Long Hair kill my family. I saw Long Hair without his hair. Then I saw Long Hair die."
Pixey stared a moment longer, then dropped his gaze. "You know the name of the man who killed your people." He glanced ahead with a hard stare at the man before him, shaking his head, "I don't know the name of the man who killed mine. I do know it was your kind. Was it your man? Someone you know?"
The Indian's stare softened and he nodded again, "You are not afraid to die." It was a statement, not a question.
Pixey stepped forward to within inches of the man's cheek. He whispered so Blue Crow was the only one who could hear. "Blue Crow. This will not go well for me. I'm tired." He retracted his glare and repeated, this time in a voice loud so that all could hear, "I'm tired."
Blue Crow cocked a brow. Pixey saw that he appeared perplexed. Turning, he said, "Corporal," and to the other three soldiers, "Step forward to face these men."
Corporal Hardy and Pixey's small command did as they were ordered. The two Crow scouts stepped into line with the soldiers keeping their grasp on the reigns. Corporal Hardy erect and ready to receive orders, facing three men arms bound. The soldiers and the Corporal now stood attention, rifle butts resting on earth at their heels, barrels angled at forward tilt, at the ready.
"Secure arms," Pixey commanded.
The four glanced at him confused, but again did as told and raised their weapons from their boots to their hips, gun barrels parallel with the ground dipped downward, leveled with Pixey's knees.
"You would think they would hesitate," Pixey said to Blue Crow. "But we have all learned hesitation is death out here.
Pixey turned so that he could address his men while in full view of the three Indians. "Forward two paces."
Four soldiers took two identical steps ahead. The two scouts left the horses and stepped in line.
"Left shoulder arms."
Blue Crow tensed. The other two shut their eyes. Pixey stepped to his men. The first lifted the rifle, opened the cartridge and presented the weapon for inspection. Pixey took the first rifle from the first soldier who dropped his arms back to his side, examined it. Held it. Took the second. Did the same. He repeated the examination for all four men, including the Corporal.
The Crow scouts held back, then followed suit, glancing at one another as if asking permission.
"Is this necessary Colonel?" Hardy asked. Pixey chose not to answer. With the weapons gathered in the crook of his arm he turned and strode back to the three Indians. He dropped the rifles to his feet. From his waist, he withdrew the Bowie from his scabbard.
"Turn around," he said to Blue Crow.
"Colonel," Corporal Hardy called. "Don't do this. You kill them this way, you'll never command again."
Blue Crow took a breath. His chest rose high.
To Blue Crow, beyond the hearing of Corporal Hardy, Pixey said, "I face the men I kill."
Blue Crow let his chest fall. Nodded. Then turned.
Pixey cut open the ropes binding the man's wrists. He glanced back at his men. All stood waiting. None of them yet catching on.
"Face me," Pixey ordered the Indian.
Blue Crow did.
Pixey leaned in, "This will not go well for me," he repeated. "But I am tired." He raised his hands and lifted the noose up over Blue Crow's head and tossed it to the ground. He felt the eyes of the Indian searching his own, trying to read his intent. Pixey offered Blue Crow the knife. The man stared.
"Your eyes are asking if this is a trick." Pixey shook his head. "No trick. I am tired." He turned his back on the Indian, unholstering the gun at his side. He lifted the muzzle aiming toward his soldiers, toward the scouts, at Corporal Hardy.
Behind him, the Indians did not move.
"Go Blue Crow. Take your warriors and go."
The Corporal and two others took a quick step forward. Pixey shot at their feet. From the corner of his eye, as the men stopped, hollering at him protests he chose not to obey, he saw Blue Crow cut the binds of his fellow captives. Each removed their noose, tossing the ropes to the ground and together they jogged quickly down to mounts that moments ago, standing at the creek, held them to be hanged.
"Colonel," Hardy said, "You can't do this." One of the two scouts moved for his rifle and Pixey shot the earth below him so that snow exploded into the man's face. The scout fell to the ground, then recovered and pulled back to the line.
Pixey listened. The horses were crossing the creek. Hooves scraped stone, icy water splashed, and he tasted the odor of the frozen earth, coming to him like the first swallow of an unwashed shot of whiskey.
He turned to see.
Blue Crow sat his mount in steady position on the opposite bank erect over the horses back, atop the roan that only moments before supported him hooded under a noose prepared to end him.
Blue Crow raised the knife high, pointing the long evil tip toward the evening sky, then hurled it into the soil of the creek, where it stuck, hilt angled skyward. The Indian turned his mount and disappeared with his fellow warriors into the coming Dakota night.
Pixey watched them vanish.
He turned back to his men. "Have a seat. We have a long sleepless night ahead of us