The storm doused the world.
George held the small medicine bag in his hands as the rain pelted down onto his head and streamed through his braided hair. He ran his fingers over the bag’s worn quillwork, the leather that was as old and dark as the skin of the man who had owned it. It had belonged to Three Trees Together, the preeminent chief of the People, a patient leader who had been shot dead pursuing peace for his tribe. George had loved and respected him, perhaps more than he did his own father. He looked up into the rain-dark sky.
“God, damn it all,” he said as his vision swam with the sting of tears and cold rain. “Everything, God. Damn me, damn the world. Damn everything.”
The storm threw its rain down from the west with a rising, vengeful fury. In the Sand Hills, on the shores of the Big Salty, the temperate waters kept the northern snows at bay, but they could not keep away the rains or the cold winds that blasted down from the great plains of the Alliance.
From a few yards away, George’s whistler complained of the bitter chill and sheltered her nose under her tail. For his own part, he greeted the building violence of the storm, shivering in clothes soaked through by the winter’s weather. He had ridden for a week to reach this spot, a journey of agony and privation that was an appropriate ending to the devastating trip to Washington that killed Three Trees Together and nearly killed George’s father as well.
He looked down again at the medicine bag in his hands. It fit in his palm, a small square pouch sewn shut to enclose the talismans of its owner’s spiritual strength. From the bottom of the bag hung an uneven, broken fringe and attached to the top was a long thong of leather that the old man had worn around his neck. Made of brain-tanned elkhide, the back of it was bare, the leather soiled and hardened by decades lying next to the skin of the old man’s chest. The front of it was sewn with dyed porcupine quills; a geometric pattern with the right half covered in white quills, the left half in dark brown. Down the middle were open, wheat-colored diamonds that represented grasshoppers, and to either side were blue double-barred crosses: dragonflies. Grasshoppers, he knew, were a symbol of plenty, as they always presaged the buffalo on the open prairie, rising up in clouds before the herd’s advance. He touched the blue quills of the four dragonflies. He did not know what a dragonfly meant to the Cheyenne. For the past three years he had called The People who ruled the great plains his friends, his family, his own; but still he did not know all their secret ways.
His vision blurred over, but not with the rain that coursed over his face.
“Damn it all,” he said again, and clutched to his breast the medicine bag that had belonged to his chief.
Three Trees Together had died on the steps of the White House, brought down by a bullet meant for the assassin who had tried to kill George’s father, George Armstrong Custer, Sr., the President of the United States. He wished now, as he had while staring down at the blood on the white stone steps, that the bullet had taken him instead of that grand old chief. The chief’s death had brought no good, while his own death would have done no harm.
He looked around at the rain-soaked land. The funeral party, traveling home weeks ahead of George, had picked a good spot for their leader’s spirit bed. Set atop the limestone cliffs high above the white sand shore of the inland sea, there would have been plenty of the leather-winged fliers to come and release the old man’s spirit from his flesh. There were remnants of the chief’s funeral strewn about: pale bones among the dark sedgegrass and woody thyme, a tattered war bonnet, a dream shield tied to one of the scaffold poles. But for George it was the medicine bag that embodied the chief. How many times had he watched the old man, sitting at the head of a Council meeting, his fingers idly playing with the fringe or rubbing the quills of its geometric design? How many times had the Council waited while Three Trees Together toyed with his medicine bag, his mind seeking the path of wisdom? A man of a hundred summers who, the day before his death, had stood with George on a balcony, catching snowflakes on his tongue. A man whom George loved more than his own father, and who had cared for George in return. Dead. Murdered on the road to peace.
“My fault,” George said, his teeth clenched and his breath hard and sharp in his breast. He stood and, medicine bag in one hand, unsheathed his knife with the other. The blade glowed in the dim light, and he felt its bite with his thumb. He looked at the bag.
“I just wanted to help,” he said to it, and to the man who had owned it. “I only just wanted to help. But everything I do, everything I’ve done…it always turned out worse than it was before.”
He touched the blade to the skin of his arm. It was cold against his wrist.
“What can I do for you now, Grandfather?” He shook his head, the old man’s words echoing in his head.
One Who Flies, he had said, calling him by his Cheyenne name. My heart would be sad if you decided you no longer wished to be one of the People.
“I know I told you I would go back, but that was when I still hoped. Now….” He let the blade score a line across his wrist. Blood rose, mixed with rain, and spread. He drew two more lines across his wrist, and blood flowed down his arm.
There is a family for you with the People, I think, if you want it.
“No, Grandfather. I have no family among the People. Not after the losses I’ve brought to them. And among the vé’hó’e I have been disowned; my own mother told me this. I am alone, Grandfather, caught between two worlds that do not want me. There’s only one thing I can do. Only one place to go.”
He held out his arm and let the rain wash the blood from his arm down onto the ground. Then, with a quick move of the knife, he reached up and slashed through the braid of his hair. Released, wet hanks fell forward around his face. He dropped the blonde braid onto the blooded ground.
“Something of me,” George said, “for something of you.” He put the leather thong over his head. The medicine bag hung down on his chest.
“Goodbye, Grandfather. May you walk in beauty. For me, there is nowhere to go but to Hell.”
He sheathed the knife and tucked the bag under the sodden hide of his tunic. Walking over to his whistler, he mounted. “Néhoveóó’êstse,” he said, and the creature rose on its strong hind legs. “Nóheto,” he commanded, and they headed off, away from the cliffs. The whistler turned toward the northwest and home, but George countermanded it with a touch of his right toe.
“Not that way,” he told it. “Not for me.”
Unwillingly, the whistler turned to the northeast and took him onward, into the rain.