Most of the women in the huge encampment hated the job of scraping fat from the inside of animal hides. Monahsetah found it boring, of course, but she found that once she got into the rhythm, she could let her mind go elsewhere. Right now her mind was north of the river with old Weasel and her son, Yellow Bird.
As she scraped and sweated in the June sun, Monahsetah felt joy that Weasel was taking time to play father to her boy, who was sometimes badly treated by other Cheyenne children.
She and the other captive women had been hard used by Creeping Panther and his men, seven winters ago, but they hadn’t been killed. They certainly hadn’t been treated as rough as some Cheyenne prisoners were. Others in her tribe seemed to resent that Creeping Panther had selected her and kept her for himself for months even though she’d been seven months plump with Black Butterfly in her belly. Of course later they resented Creeping Panther’s son, Yellow Bird. And she knew in her heart who Yellow Bird’s father was, even though she had often been forced to submit to Creeping Panther’s brother Tom. That was just another one of many strange White customs.
Even her childhood friend Striker had said, “You should have killed yourself, instead of sleeping with those yellow-haired devils.” Striker had always been sweet on Monahsetah, but she had turned him down along with all the other warriors who had tried to take her as a wife. She knew, deep in her soul, that Creeping Panther would come back to her, for her, someday.
She rocked back on her heels, and set the scraping tool on a nearby flat rock. She wiped her forehead and smiled at Black Butterfly as she played with the smaller children they were caring for. Killing herself would also have taken the unborn life of this beautiful, loving daughter.
What did Striker know anyhow? Hadn’t she used her influence with Creeping Panther to get all the captive women and children, over fifty of them, released?
She had told Striker, and others too, to go suck eggs. She smiled to herself and reached for the scraping tool. To her amazement, it began to dance on the flat rock, then fell off before she could grab it.
Monahsetah felt the pounding before the other nearby women did because she was kneeling beside the deer hide, while the others stood and chattered. She knew immediately what the vibrations were. This was the year that the Whites called 1876 and the buffalo herds, what was left of them, were nowhere near the Valley of the Greasy Grass. It could only be horses running.
“I believe the horses have been scared,” she said to the other women. She stood, shielded her eyes against the summer sun, and stared at the ridge to the southwest where the herd grazed. Thousands of horses were there, looking like worms crawling all over the ridge; restive, maybe, but raising no dust. Not running. Then she heard the trumpet. She began to run.
The first gunshots and screams were drowned out by her yelling. She stuffed her knife, scraping tool, and awl into her parfleche and yelled at her daughter, “Black Butterfly! Gather the children. Help me. We must rush across the river. Hurry, daughter. The Long Knives are coming. They are coming again!”
Black Butterfly froze, staring at her mother. For as long as she could hear and understand in her eight summers, her mother had told her of the Dawn of the Long Knives, when Creeping Panther and his Bluecoats had overrun Black Kettle’s village along the Lodge Pole River far to the south. Black Butterfly herself had been there, but still in Monahsetah’s womb. Her mother’s father had died in that fight along with about twelve other warriors and maybe twelve women and six children.
The screams, shouting and crackle of gunfire from up the valley touched her deep in her subconscious and gave her goose bumps in the scorching summer heat. Had she heard those sounds and registered them, sensed her mother’s fear, two moons before she came into the world?
A bee zinged by her head. There was a thud and a grunt, and Black Butterfly turned toward Old Woman Walks Fast, an old Arapahoe woman who helped Black Butterfly with the children. Old Woman Walks Fast clutched her chest and stumbled backwards, falling into the entrance of a tipi.
Monahsetah was gathering the smaller children and shoving them toward the river and still shouting at Black Butterfly. The words would not come through Black Butterfly’s ears.
“Mother, there are bees everywhere. One has stung Old Woman Walks Fast. We must help her.”
Monahsetah grabbed her daughter’s shoulders and shook her. “Those are bullets. Listen to me. We have talked of this. We must take the children we are caring for and go to the river. Now. RUN.”
The camp exploded. There were three fording sites in the valley of the Little Bighorn. Hundreds of warriors grabbed weapons and ran to face the Long Knives charging down the valley from the south ford. Hundreds more mounted and followed Crazy Horse to get between the Whites and the pony herd.
A few rode and ran to the central crossing, near the north end of the village. Black Butterfly, her mother, and the children ran with this group.
The Long Knives coming from the south crossing had opened their charge at least two rifle shots distant from the village, giving Striker and other warriors just enough time to react.
Striker ran through the Lakota lodge circles to join many other Cheyenne and Lakota warriors to place themselves in a dry creek bed between the camp and the enemy. They began firing as the Bluecoats came within range. Some of the warriors had Yellow-boys, the model ’66 Winchesters; more had old Spencers, Henrys and Sharps. A few had Enfields, and over half had only bows and arrows. Striker and several others had the newer, more powerful ’73 Winchesters. The rapid fire of this force stopped the cavalry charge cold, except for two troopers whose horses bolted directly into the camp; they were pulled down and hacked to death, one of them not ten strides from Striker.
The other soldiers dismounted and began a brisk counterfire with their carbines. Their single shot .45-70 Trapdoors were no match for the Indians’ repeaters for speed, but had greater power and range. Many of their shots sailed over Striker’s head and deep into the camp behind him. He knew those bullets were taking a toll on the old people, women, and children still milling about and yelling back there, and it made his heart hard.
Another cry arose from behind him and soon spread to the firing line: ”Crazy Horse is coming! Crazy Horse is coming!” Lakota women were trilling all through the camp, and the warriors also began to roar as the slender Oglala fighter, a lightning flash painted across his face, rode out to the right to a slight hill in front of the pony herd. Following him were hundreds of mounted warriors-all the Lakota tribes, of course, the Oglala, Brule, Minneconjou, Huncpapa, Blackfeet, Two Kettle, and Sans Arc, but also Southern and Northern Cheyenne.
Out-gunned and badly out-numbered, the Bluecoats moved into some trees along the river and briefly attempted a stand there.
Striker moved with other fighters who worked their way into the trees to the left of the Bluecoats. Forty paces away, Striker saw one of the hated Indian scouts on horseback, talking to a mounted officer. Striker sent a flat-nosed .44-40 toward the back of the Indian’s head.
“I hope he was an Osage,” he thought, as he knelt and began pushing more cartridges into the carbine’s loading gate. As the smoke from his shot cleared, he saw the scout down, his horse fleeing and the blood-spattered officer scrambling to dismount, then remount and ride away. Most of the soldiers followed him.
Striker scalped the scout he’d killed, noting that he was an old Arikara. Can’t find any Osage to kill up here, he thought, as he scrambled to capture a cavalry horse and then joined the chase as the Bluecoats began a frantic run, out of the woods and back upriver.
When the Lakota Crazy Horse saw the Bluecoats start to flee, he led the larger force of warriors guarding the ponies to attack the soldiers from across the plain. They charged into the Bluecoats’ flank and pushed them over to the river, far short of the ford. The soldiers followed their leader and jumped their horses into the deep river, more than a tall man’s height below, their bellies smacking like gunshots as they hit the water. They then fought to get through the one exit, a narrow cut in the far bank.
Striker reined in on the river bank and yelled at the Bluecoats as he fired into their floundering ranks. “Not so easy this time, hunh? You are like buffalos. Why didn’t you ride back to the ford? You are crazy!” He shot an officer off his horse, and when the wounded man grabbed another soldier’s stirrup to be pulled from the fast water, Striker shot him loose. Crazy Horse was everywhere, counting coups and screaming the Lakota war cry, “Hoka Hey!” Striker thought, He really is crazy.
Several Dog Soldiers rode up and shouted that more Bluecoats were circling the main camp. Most of the warriors, Cheyenne and Lakota alike, followed Crazy Horse and melted away to protect the village. Thinking of his mother and Monahsetah, Striker rode back with them.
As he crossed the plain, he came upon a cluster of women and boys around a wounded black man sitting by his dead horse . The Huncpapa chief Sitting Bull was there too, and he said, “It’s old Teat. He’s an Indian talker for the Bluecoats, but he has a Huncpapa wife. Leave him alone.” Sitting Bull gave the man some water and rode off.
Striker knew the talker by his White name of Dorman. Dorman said, “I’m dying. Don’t torture me.”
A Huncpapa woman said, “Well, Teat, you shouldn’t have come with these Whites to attack us, and kill my little brother. He was only ten summers.” She fired her pistol into his head and the other women fell on him with their knives and hatchets.
The Bluecoats had lost several men in their flight to the river. Striker had never cared for the women’s butchery tradition. It made his balls tingle. As he hurried back to camp he saw more of it. A lot of it. He prayed aloud, “Ma’heo’o, don’t let me be taken alive. At least not by women like these.”
“Take the older children across, then come back and help me with these younger ones.” Monahsetah had to yell over the cries of the children and the shouting in the Cheyenne camp behind her.
Black Butterfly nodded, still in shock, and started to splash across the shallow central ford. The water caused her pale yellow dress to turn darker, a sharp contrast with her raven-black hair.
Before Monahsetah could yell for help with the smaller ones, a dozen of their mothers and aunts ran up. They threw down the turnips they’d been digging and started the herd of children across.
As Monahsetah slogged across carrying two babies, she looked up to see Weasel and her son Yellow Bird running down the hill toward them. Two coulees, or dry ravines, met on the far side of the crossing. Deep Coulee angled down from the left, and Medicine Tail from the right.
“Which way now, Mother?”
“Your brother is coming to help us, Black Butterfly. Take them up to the right. Do you see him?”
Her daughter nodded, grabbed two six-year olds by the wrist and began running. The brassy sound of a trumpet brought them to a staggering halt. This horn was somewhere in front of them. Weasel faced about, knelt, and began firing his Spencer back up the coulee. The ground began to tremble again.
Their colored banner flapping, pistols waving, a troop of Long Knives on gray horses thundered into view. Weasel shot one soldier off his horse and killed the horse of a sergeant before he was ridden down.
As Monahsetah and the other women screamed at the children to go back into the village, Yellow Bird pitched face down, less than a hundred steps away. He struggled back to his hands and knees. He looked downhill at his mother and threw up.
Monahsetah handed the two babies to her daughter who was running back across the river. “Hurry,” she screamed, then turned and sloshed toward her son. She fell, got up, and was knocked down by one of the huge gray horses. The sergeant riding it fired his revolver at her as she got up, missing but stinging her face with the powder. He then swatted her with the pistol.
She staggered, then grabbed the horse’s tail and jammed her knife up under it. The horse screamed and bolted into the village. Monahsetah stumbled backwards several steps and fell again.
Sitting up, she watched other soldiers ride to the edge of the river, fire into the village, then wheel away. Most of the soldiers had pulled up short of the river crossing. Monahsetah rolled over onto her knees, trying to clear the sparks and flashes from her brain and saw a Cheyenne warrior running directly at her from the village.
Striker snatched her to her feet, shoved her toward the camp and shouted, “Run,” then snapped off two shots at the Bluecoats as they pulled back.
Monahsetah pushed by him, and when he tried to stop her, she slashed his arm. “Aiiee,” he shouted. “Are you crazy?”
Striker chased her. She struggled from the river, then began running and screaming her son’s name. Yellow Bird was crawling toward them. Before Striker could react, a corporal carrying a red and blue flag rode over and fired his pistol at Yellow Bird’s head. Monahsetah screamed and fell to her knees.
As the flag bearer spun his horse and cocked his pistol again, Striker shot him. The corporal dropped his pistol, arched his back and galloped off toward Deep Coulee. The other soldiers followed him. Cheyenne and Lakota warriors poured across the ford and pursued the soldiers, running and riding along both sides of the coulee and firing down into it.
Striker pulled Monahsetah to her feet and they ran up close to where Yellow Bird lay, but she dropped to her knees and crawled the last five steps, moaning incomprehensible mother-prayers. She cradled him, and her moans turned to wails.
Striker shifted his feet nervously. “I think he died trying to get to his mother and sister to protect them,” he ventured.
“No,” she spat at him. “He died, running to his mother, a scared boy. This was only his seventh summer, Striker.” She wiped dark blood from her son’s chin. “And do you know who killed him? Did you see the marks on that horse’s flank?” She was shouting now.
“Yes,” said Striker, cautiously. “The man with the flag killed him.”
“The horse’s mark. The white man’s letters. The number seven, Striker. This was the Gray Horse Troop of the Seventh Cavalry. Creeping Panther’s horsemen. Yellow Bird was killed by one of his own father’s soldiers,” she screamed, spittle running with her tears.
Striker nodded slowly, and looked up hill. Out of carbine range, on a ridge between Deep Coulee and Medicine Tail, a line of Bluecoat riders was moving north.
“His father wasn’t at this little fight. You would have seen him,” Striker said. “And the leader of the fight at the other end of the camp was a short man with dark hair. I was there. Creeping Panther must be up there, going to meet these men we just chased off. I will get my horse, and go up there and find him and shoot many holes in him.”
He turned to re-cross the river, but she stopped him. “Don’t forget Weasel,” she said. “He’s just up there a little ways. I think they wiped him out, but you’d better look.”
Striker picked up the flag bearer’s revolver and ran another forty steps up the side of the coulee. Weasel was there, sprawled behind a bush, surrounded by empty cartridges. He’d been shot through his side and thigh, and his face was covered in blood.
As Striker bent to pick up Weasel’s Spencer, the old man grabbed his wrist and sat up. “A gray horse attacked me. Kicked me in the head. I cannot see very well just now. Help me up,” he groaned.
Striker handed the Spencer back to Weasel, and said, “Use this to lean on. I’ll help you to the river. You can wash your eyes there.”
“Striker, is that you? What are you doing here? Is Yellow Bird all right? Monahsetah will slap my ears if I don’t get him back safe.”
Striker stopped and took a deep breath. “Listen to me, Weasel. Yellow Bird is dead. The Long Knives killed him, and they belong to Creeping Panther. He’s up there on that ridgeline somewhere. I’m going to get my horse and try to find him and kill him.”
Weasel dropped his carbine and gripped Striker’s arm, shuddering. “I’m out of bullets, I can’t see, I can’t run. I don’t want to live. No. You must help me clean my eyes, find me a gun or more Spencer bullets, and let me ride with you. To avenge the boy.”
“Come on. You can have this new Colt I just picked up. Still got four rounds in it.”
Monahsetah was still sitting on the ground, coddling her bloody son. She didn’t notice them until Striker spoke.
“Monahsetah. Look who I have found. He’s a mess. Let me carry Yellow Bird across the water, and you let old Weasel lean on you. Maybe you could clean him up and stuff some weeds or something in his bullet holes, so he doesn’t bleed all over me and my horse while we go to kill Custer.”
An ancient crippled warrior rushed up, laid aside his spear, and took Yellow Bird as Striker came out of the river. “Help them, too,” Striker said, nodding toward Monahsetah and Weasel, then ran to his tipi. Striker had ridden a captured cavalry mount back from the first fight south of camp, and left it with his mother. Now, as he remounted, Cranky Bear Woman scolded him.
“Don’t be in a hurry to die. Did you know that your whore friend’s child was killed?”
“She is not a whore, mother. And yes, I know. I carried him back across the river.”
“Him? I’m talking about her.” Cranky Bear Woman pointed to a small figure in yellow buckskin, face down in a pool of blood. “Did something happen to her half-white son too?”
Striker stared at the tiny body in momentary shock. The red and yellow were in sharp contrast with her black hair. Like a butterfly, he thought, then bent and grabbed his mother’s braid. “Yes. She has lost both children. And this is no time for you to be mean. You clean up that little girl, and comfort Monahsetah when she comes, or I will come back and beat you with a stick.”
Staggered by the change in her boy, she lowered her eyes and said, “Yes, my son.”
As he turned to ride away he muttered, “Monahsetah’s going to be really crazy now.”
“I hope we get there before they’re all wiped out,” said Weasel. He had a death grip Striker’s shoulder, as Striker pushed the big horse up the side of Deep Coulee. They passed groups of women who were stripping and mutilating the dead cavalrymen in the gully. The firing uphill ebbed and surged.
As they came to the top of Deep Coulee, they saw more of the battlefield sprawling before them. Bluecoats were in bunches, spread out much farther than a rifle could shoot. Most were fighting dismounted, though a larger group of a hundred or so could be seen through the smoke and dust riding over a knoll to the north. They were angling toward the third ford, at the north end of the village.
“Creeping Panther will be there,” said Striker. “Most of the flags are there. I think he’s trying to capture the women again, like he did at the Lodge Pole River, so we can’t shoot at him.”
To their right front, a Bluecoat suddenly mounted and rode through the Cheyenne surrounding his group, tearing away to the north. Several warriors wheeled and chased him, but his bigger grain-fed mount began to pull away from the grass-fed Indian ponies. Just as his pursuers gave up the chase, the soldier shot himself in the head and tumbled from his horse.
“Aiieeyah,” said Striker. “Did you see that?”
“Most Whites are very strange,” said Weasel, “ Look. You have a good shot here at those men he rode away from. They’re too far for my pistol.”
There were five or six troopers still firing from behind dead horses, sixty steps away. About twenty warriors were bobbing up and down in the deep grass around the soldiers, sending in a steady stream of bullets and arrows as they closed in.
Striker stood in the stirrups and put five quick rounds from his Winchester into the group.
“I think I hit one,” Striker said straining to see through his own smoke. To his amazement, two of the troopers suddenly rose to their knees, placed their pistols against each other’s heart, fired and fell over. A third soldier stood and fired two pistol shots at the surrounding Cheyenne, who had stopped their assault, apparently stunned by the suicides. Before they could react, the soldier then placed the Colt’s barrel in his mouth and blew off the back of his head.
The last two badly wounded soldiers struggled to stand and tried to surrender. The Cheyenne quickly overran them and finished them with clubs and hatchets.
Striker grabbed a cartridge belt for Weasel’s Colt, then kicked the horse into a gallop toward the last hill, as Weasel cheered and fought to hold on.
Behind them, Monahsetah raced up Deep Coulee on foot, knife in hand, on her own mission. As she sobbed, she screamed, “Both of them. Aiieeyah, both of them, and my father, too,” until her throat was raw from the dust and smoke and yelling. On and on, like a deer, toward that smoky hilltop, more than a rifle shot away.
As she came out of the coulee she paused to catch her breath and was horrified to see that the soldiers with all the flags had disappeared over the hill. “Nooo,” she screamed in frustration, “they cannot get away. It is not right!”
She knelt, oblivious to the carnage around her, and hit herself on the sides of her head. “I waited for him,” she sobbed. “Saved myself, even though he let his White wife send us away. Even though his men killed my father all those winters ago, I turned away many good warriors. Now he returns, not for me but to take the lives of my children? Oh, Ma’heo’o, how could you let him go? I wanted to see him dead. RUBBED OUT!” Totally dejected, she finally stood and began to walk downhill, crying. Back to her dead babies.
After many steps, she heard shouting and shooting behind her, and spun to see the Bluecoats ride back over the hilltop toward her, then stop and circle up as they were surrounded by warriors. “Oh yes,” she said, and began running uphill again.
As Striker and Weasel started up the last hill, the big horse took a bullet in the chest. He stumbled and went down. Just as Striker and Weasel jumped clear, a group of thirty or forty soldiers broke and ran away from them, downhill into a deep ravine.
Weasel yelled, “They’re trying to make it to the river.” “Am I blind?”
Striker snapped. “Stop telling me everything and shoot them.”
Striker and Weasel emptied their weapons into the running soldiers, knelt to reload , then turned their attention back to the fight on the hilltop. As they began moving up again, a big Lakota named White Bull ran with them. “They killed my horse, too,” he grumbled.
Still on the hill were about fifty soldiers, half down and half still fighting. Dead and wounded cavalry horses, perhaps thirty of them, were mixed with Indian ponies, flags, and hundreds of Lakotas and Cheyenne, who dashed in to count coup, chop, shoot, take scalps, stab. Screams of men and horses, gunfire, curses, smoke and dust filled the air.
Twenty steps from the top, a short-haired officer in a blood-stained blue shirt pointed a rifle at White Bull as he charged in, snapped on the empty chamber, then threw the rifle.
A few steps away, a second officer dressed completely in buckskins was on all fours, bleeding from the mouth and head, staring at the ground as they ran toward him. “Custer,” Striker shouted, in English. “Look at me.”
The kneeling man’s head snapped up at the shout; he went to a sitting position and tried to pick up a small pistol.
“That’s him,” yelled Striker. He fired, and Custer slumped over. Striker stood over him and fired three more rounds into his head before the Winchester ran dry. Weasel limped up and shot the dead man twice more.
Beside them, White Bull had counted coup on the tall soldier by quirting him. The soldier began fighting with White Bull, punching and trying to bite his nose as they tumbled to the ground.
“Hey, hey, come help me,” White Bull shouted, as he wrestled with the desperate tall man. Two other Lakotas swung their clubs but missed and hit White Bull instead. “You are not helping,” he grunted. Weasel reached in with his knife and stabbed the soldier in the thigh, just as White Bull screamed in the man’s face.
As White Bull broke free, the tall officer sat up and drew a small pistol. Weasel shot the soldier in the head, knocking him flat. White Bull snatched the pistol from the dead soldier and rushed away roaring,“Hoka Heyyy!”
Striker picked up a trooper’s carbine and found it had an empty cartridge jammed in the chamber. He reversed it and began hitting the man in buckskin he had killed. After several blows, he realized that the shooting around them had stopped. The other warriors had grabbed the soldiers’ weapons and rushed downhill to help finish the group of soldiers that had run toward the river.
“I think you have finished,” said Weasel, sitting on the haunch of a dead horse. “His head is flat now, like buffalo droppings. Besides, you’ve been shot. And my leg hurts. Let’s go tell Monahsetah.”
Monahsetah slowed to a fast walk as she approached a group of women below the last hill. Her old friend Mahwissah joined her. Mahwissah was Black Kettle’s sister, fellow slave of Creeping Panther, and his translator, all those years ago.
Mahwissah said, “Is this Creeping Panther’s force we are fighting? Again?”
“Yes, “ Monahsetah choked. “And they have killed my babies! I have to see him dead.”
“Oh, little friend, and he’s your husband. Oh, my heart breaks. I’ll go with you.” They could see Striker and Weasel limping downhill toward them, as dozens of women streamed around them, singing, stripping and cutting. They met about half-way up.
“Did you find him?” Monahsetah rasped. “Is he dead? “
Striker had a red plaid scarf wrapped around his head. It was blood-soaked. Before he could speak, Weasel answered. “Striker killed Custer. I helped him, and then he mashed Custer’s head.”
“Show me,” she said, pushing past them.
Groaning, they turned and followed her back up the hill.
Cheyenne and Lakota women were already stripping the two officers that Striker and White Bull had wiped out.
“That’s him,” Striker said dully. He pointed to the battered body of the man he’d killed. “You may not recognize him, but I called his name in his language and he looked at me. That’s Custer.”
“Yes, that is a Custer, but it is his brother Tom. Those ink marks on his arm are called tattoos. This one over here is Creeping Panther. Get away from him,” Mahwissa hissed at White Bull, who was trying to cut off Creeping Panther’s trigger finger. “He is kin.”
Striker and Weasel stared at the man White Bull had fought with. Nude, except for a sock. Bullet holes in the temple and chest, and Weasel’s gash in his thigh. Yellow-Hair, himself. Creeping Panther.
Monahsetah stared too. The beard was gone, the hair much shorter than she remembered, but this was Creeping Panther. He was propped, sitting, his back against two dead soldiers.
Mahwissah drew an awl from her pouch, took another from Monahsetah, then knelt and drove one into each of his ears. “Maybe you will listen better in the next life,” she whispered. Then pulling an arrow from the ground, she forced it up into his member and added, “And you won’t poke any more girls with this, will you?”
Striker put his arm around her, and they started the long walk back to the river crossing. Weasel hobbled behind them, using a carbine as a crutch. As they approached the crossing, Monahsetah veered left, then collapsed at a bloody patch on the ground. “His blood,” she moaned. “My son. He died here.” She picked up handfuls of the sticky soil, and rubbed her face with it. “Aieeyah, aieeyah.”
Cranky Bear Woman slogged out of the river, and labored up the slight incline to them.
Striker moved to cut her off. “Mother, if you say something stupid, I will knock you down.” He put his hand out, finger against her chest.
She brushed it aside. “Stupid? I just came to tell you and her that her boy is not dead. The bullet did not go in his head, just cut it bad and made him bleed and sleep a lot. I left him with our medicine man. Yellow Bird is alive. Now who’s stupid?”