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He watched the three of them until they dropped out of sight beyond that last far rise to the south.
Then he watched that snowy sliver of empty ground a little while longer, just to be sure those three horsemen might not reappear there where the icy gray blanket of earth pressed against the lowering slate-gray sky. Hoping the riders might … but knowing they wouldn’t.
Seamus Donegan took a deep breath—so deep, the subfreezing air shocked his chest. Then he gently nudged the roan to the left and pointed their noses north.
To the Yellowstone.
Right through the heart of the country where the Cheyenne survivors of Mackenzie’s attack on Morning Star’s village were fleeing. Dead center through the land where Crazy Horse was said to be wintering.
As if it had been lying in wait for those three Indian scouts to sign talk their hurried farewells in the bitter cold—as if it had been patient only long enough until he could turn his face back to the north—the wind came up, leaping out of hiding suddenly that midday. The Irishman glanced back over his shoulder at the southern rim of that monochrome sky, unable to make out where the sun was hanging in its low travels. Nothing but a slate of clouds for as far as the eye could see. Gray above, and gray-white below.
He glanced one last time at the top of that ridge where he’d last seen the faraway figures of Three Bears and the other two scouts, knowing they were long gone now. Only a foolish man would tarry in these parts. This was enemy country if ever there was one. Here between Sitting Bull’s Yellowstone and Crazy Horse’s Powder. No matter that Three Bears and his scouts were all three Lakota: truth was, they had just led the soldiers north against the winter roamers.
Already the great hoop was cracking. Agency Indian against free Indian. Good Injun against hostile.
Tugging the wide wool scarf farther up his raw cheeks and nose, Seamus dabbed at the tears pooling in his eyes. It was a wind strong enough that the roan beneath him kept quartering around, bitter enough to make Donegan tuck his own head down to the side, turtling it as far as he could within the big upturned flap of the collar on his wool mackinaw. Thank the merciful saints for the wolf-hide cap Richard Closter had handed him that morning before Donegan had ridden away in the dark behind those three sullen, silent Indian scouts. With a scrap of old wool scarf from last winter’s campaign to the Powder with Crook and Reynolds just long enough to pull over the top of his head and down over his ears, Donegan clamped it in place with the wolf-hide cap he tied beneath his chin with a pair of thongs.
Around his neck twisted and tossed the drawstring on his wide-brimmed prairie hat, which the wind tugged this way and that, shoving and fluttering with each gust. The wool muffler and wolf hide were both much better for this weather and this wind, he thought as he raised a horsehide gauntlet mitten and snugged the furry cap down to the bridge of his nose. Then he blinked more tears away as he steered the horse off the ridge, down another ravine that come next spring would be a creek. For now the bare willow and alder stood out like skeletal claws against the deep, drifted snow pocked in those places hidden back from the short-season’s southerly sunlight.
In the dim glow of their tiny fire that first night away from the army column, he and the sullen Three Bears had talked with their hands about the task that lay before them—what would eventually face the lone white man once the four of them had reached the mouth of the Little Powder and the White River Agency Sioux would turn back.
Tell me if I am a fool to go on down the Powder.
For a long time the old warrior stared into the low flames and glowing bed of crimson coals, his face shining like polished copper. We believe the Crazy Horse people are upstream. And he had pointed south.
So it would be safe enough for me to follow the Powder down to the Elk River?
With a wag of his head Three Bears finally looked up into Donegan’s face. The chances are good the Hunkpatila have already started downstream … moving north to reach Sitting Bull, Gall, and the fighting Hunkpapa.
Seamus pointed. To the north?
Three Bears nodded.
Then I should not go down the Powder.
It is not wise.
At that fire of theirs in the shadow of Inyan Kara the Lakota instructed him to cross the Powder after they had parted company, to ascend the divide that would lead him over to Mizpah Creek, take him beyond that to Pumpkin Creek and eventually to the Tongue itself.
For three and a half days they pushed their ponies through the cold and the snow from dawn till dusk. But the White River Agency scouts would not travel after sundown. Nor could Seamus get them started before light. Which meant the four of them sat out the long winter nights around a tiny fire built back against the overhang of some washed-out bluff, or far up from the mouth of a deep ravine so the glow of the low flames would not reflect their reddish hue so readily against the low clouds and snowy landscape.
Those nights Donegan found he would doze in fits, remembering how it was to hold Samantha. How he had cradled his baby boy and paced that tiny room above the Fort Laramie parade. Other times he had nightmares of the terrible cold that never warmed during that long day in hell along the Red Fork Valley. Recalling the sounds of war, the inhuman cries of man and horse, the flitting shadows of a half-naked enemy: women, children, old ones fleeing into the hills. What Mackenzie’s Fourth had started … winter would surely end.
The destruction of the Northern Cheyenne.
Only those strong enough would make it, he knew. Where they were headed now in the trackless wilderness, no man could know for certain. But a safe bet would be that the Cheyenne were once more limping for the safety of the Crazy Horse people. Starving, bleeding, freezing—stripped of everything but their pride.
At least he had a small fire, Seamus consoled himself as he shivered through his lonely watch each night, arms tucked around his legs, chin resting on his knees while the others tried sleeping. And at least he had his heavy winter clothing, along with two thick blankets and that old wolf-hide hat of Uncle Dick’s. He had the clumsy buffalo hides wrapped around his boots while many of the fleeing survivors had no moccasins. He had warm wool gloves he kept stuffed inside the stiff horsehide cavalry gauntlets. He had so much, and Morning Star’s Cheyenne had so little.… How was it they always managed to survive?
Was it their hatred for him and his kind that kept them warm? Was it that fury smoldering down inside each one of them that allowed the Cheyenne to survive?
He wasn’t sure just how much the temperatures had moderated since leaving Crook’s command, but he was sure that during the last three days it had finally climbed above zero … before plummeting again as the sun fell each night.
That’s what he reminded himself now as he turned and glanced to the south one last time. Just keep the sun behind my left shoulder like they told me, he thought that afternoon. Don’t take the first creek flowing south. And he was not to turn off at the second either, Three Bears had reminded him more than once before they had parted.
Instead, he was to wait until reaching the third—that would be the Tongue River.
So he was alone again.