Mr. Hall went to town a few days later to buy some traps and more shells for the Spencer. But when he got there he found the town full of Federal troops. They had made a temporary camp at the edge of town, and their wagon train had rutted the main road so badly somebody had to come by after and lay a bunch of wooden planks across the mud like makeshift train tracks.
The old man was thankful that Habersham’s store was on the end. He didn’t want to have to go all the way into the town where he could see them all in their blue wool uniforms gathered around the porch of the hotel and across the muddy street at the saloon entrance.
One of them sat in a rocking chair on Habersham’s porch with his feet up on the railing. He had the boot off one foot with a bandage wrapped around his ankle. The soldier was a young man with black hair and a mustache to match. He smoked a pipe and watched the old man climb off the wagon and tie the reins at the hitch by the steps.
"Where’d you come from, Mister?" the soldier asked.
"Oh," Hall said, pausing to look over his shoulder at the road the locals called "Wilderness Pass." He waved an arm out and turned back to say, "Out yonder." He climbed the steps.
"But that’s all reservation out there, ain’t it?" the soldier asked.
"I don’t give much thought to what folks call things anymore."
"But you ain’t one of them are you?"
Hall stopped and turned to look at the soldier. His eyes meandered to the man’s bandaged foot. "That from a fight?"
The soldier looked at the foot, too. "No, I got this from a coyote."
"A coyote?"
"Yep. Come at me last night when I went to piss in the brush."
"A coyote?"
"What? You think I’m fibbin?"
The old man shrugged. "I just never heard of it is all."
"Well it’s true."
"All right then."
The soldier leaned back and to the side where he sat and used one hand to take a knife from his belt. He brandished the knife for Hall to see and said, "He came out of the shadows–out of nowhere–and jumped on my back and we fell. Then he got at my leg when I tried to kick him off, so I took out my knife and jabbed him good." He stabbed the air with the knife.
"That do the trick?"
"Yeah, he run off after that." The soldier slipped the knife back in his belt.
Hall looked the soldier over some more. "You see where the coyote run off to?"
"No," the soldier replied as if the question offended him.
"You know the folks out yonder say sometimes a coyote ain’t really a coyote."
The soldier rocked his head back and cocked an eyebrow. He watched the old man for a while and chewed his pipe and kept giving him that look. Then he said, "Huh?"
Hall smiled and hummed to himself and then pushed open the doors and went inside. Habersham loaned him a pair of wolf traps on "good faith," which the old man figured must have been Habersham’s way of saying "pity." But Habersham insisted and the old man knew it wouldn’t do any good to argue with him anyway, so he gave his pride a break and took the traps.
The soldiers had bought up all the ammunition. The old man complained that they should have brought their own and he went on about that for a while and Habersham nodded along in agreement. They talked for almost an hour in there. Then Habersham asked the old man to reconsider staying in town again and Mr. Hall replied, "Thank you for the traps" as he walked out.
Outside he found a pair of soldiers in overcoats on horseback at the bottom of the steps. One was older than the other, but Hall took him to be of lower rank. They both had thick mustaches, but the older man didn’t seem to groom his as much or as well. The younger man wore a Hardee hat with a gold cord and had the brim pinned on the right side. He sat up straight on his mount and watched Hall with a determined stare.
"You there," the younger one said when their eyes met.
"Me?" Hall replied, glancing around at the empty porch.
"Do you live down that pass?" He pointed the way. Hall nodded. "Good," the soldier continued. "I am Colonel Mackenzie, United States Fourth Cavalry, Commanding. We’re here out of Fort Robinson."
Hall touched the brim of his Stetson. "Jim Hall."
"Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hall. I have heard a lot about you."
"That so. What have you heard?"
The two riders looked at each other. Mackenzie Leaned forward on both hands at the saddle horn and said, "I have heard stories about a man who married a Sioux. They say she fell ill some years ago, but the husband refused medical treatment from the town doctor and she died."
They watched each other in silence as something deep behind the old man’s eyes tightened up and dimmed the light within them. The soldiers could see it absorb him. Hall stared at them without seeing until Mackenzie added, "Sadly."
"Y’all come all the way here from Fort Robinson?" Hall replied, looking away from them and out toward the pass.
"We did in fact," Mackenzie said with a bow. "This is our second trip, to be exact."
"Is it then?"
"Indeed it is. Just this November we defeated the Cheyenne west of here."
"I see."
"But the Sioux have proven a more stubborn adversary."
The old man looked at both men for a moment. The Colonel watched him as if he expected Hall to respond, so the old man eventually muttered, "Well, best of luck to you, Colonel." He came forward and descended the steps, the chains of the traps clinking with each foot.
"Are you aware that you are living on the Sioux Reservation?" Mackenzie asked.
Hall paused at the bottom step and closed one eye. "Oh, I figured they live there, too." He walked to his wagon and dumped the traps over the side with a few clangs and thuds.
"Are you there on behalf of the United States Federal Government?"
"Am I what?" Hall replied, intentionally avoiding eye contact as he untied the reins from the hitch.
Mackenzie exchanged glances with the other soldier and dismounted, his boots sinking to the ankles in the charcoal mud. He walked over to Hall, who was already climbing aboard his wagon and said, "As outlined by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, only those whites providing specific services to the Sioux nation, on behalf of–"
"1868?" Hall barked. His facial muscles pulled and increased the number of wrinkles as he frowned.
"Colonel, I been out here since 1834."
The Colonel’s eyes narrowed briefly. "Then I suppose you can provide documentation to corroborate this claim?"
"I ain’t a prospector."
"It makes no difference." He stood with his thumbs in his belt and watched the old man.
Hall scoffed and sneered as he leaned over and spat into the mud between the wagon and the back end of Brutus the horse. The old man had never been one to share stories with strangers, but he could see that Mackenzie was a determined man, a man who pondered everything he saw, judging its worth and estimating the next necessary action. Mackenzie knew the old man didn’t have the legal right to stay where he was, and the old man knew he knew it.
Hall gave the Colonel a scowl and said, "I just come out here and picked a spot. That was 43 years ago now. And not long after I picked that spot some Sioux come by and watched me work on my first cabin for about an hour. Well, it weren’t much of a cabin back then. More of a shack. But anyhow, they sat right up on top of the bluffs and watched. Then that night they come by and rode through the valley hollering and all that, trying to scare me off. But I didn’t leave.
"So they watched me again the next day, and then that night they come back and set my unfinished shelter on fire while I was sleeping in the wagon. All I had with me was a musket and some saws and knives. And a horse. Well, they made circles around me while it burned so I couldn’t put it out, and I figured I could try fighting them off on horseback with my knives and my musket, or I could just let them do it."
The older soldier shifted in his saddle and said, "Does this story have a point? We plenty familiar with the red man and his kin."
Hall gave the man a sharp look and then asked the Colonel, "Does that man have a job to do or what?"
Mackenzie looked at the other man and shook his head. Then he nodded at Hall and said, "Continue."
The old man grumbled a bit and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He looked up and froze like that for a few seconds before snapping a finger and then telling the Colonel, "Something important to mention is that they left me and my wagon. Had a little old wagon, smaller than this one back then, and they didn’t burn it or take the wheels off. They left it whole. Never even touched a hair on my head, neither."
"I understand," the Colonel said.
"Well, anyhow, the next morning I took my horse and my tools and my musket and set out in the direction I seen them come from until I found the village. And when I got close enough and knew I’d been spotted I got off my horse and just dropped to my knees and put my arms out and waited for a pair of riders who came straight at me all ready to fight." He spat again.
"And then?" Mackenzie prompted.
Hall leaned back in his seat and straightened his spine. "And the rest is history."
"Oh, hell!" the older soldier exclaimed. "Colonel, let me just shoot this ol’ sonofabitch." He dropped a hand from his saddle horn and rested it atop the revolver on his hip. "He’s mockin’ you now." Hall could tell the man didn’t really intend to shoot him so he silently called his bluff and stared him down until the colonel broke the quiet between them.
"Stand down, Sergeant," Mackenzie said. He looked at Hall almost respectfully then, squinting one eye a little while holding back a smile. "I understand what Mr. Hall means. He’s saying the Sioux gave him permission to stay."
"You’re damn right they did," Hall said. "But it ain’t the sort of permission you’re looking for. More of a process with the Sioux. They got no papers to sign. Had to give them my tools and my musket. Figured that would show them I didn’t come to take what’s theirs. I slept in that wagon for a fortnight. Then I gave them my horse. It was like that–riding and then walking back and forth each day, from the spot I picked out at the bluffs to their village. Then one day they came to where I was and brought all my things. Gave me back everything."
The colonel watched the old man for a moment and then asked, "Would you consider yourself a friend of the Sioux?"
Hall nodded. "The Lakota, anyhow."
"I see. And how do you feel about our presence then?"
"Are you asking me to pick a side?"
The colonel smiled and looked at the mud between his boots before looking back up. "Although we find ourselves in the midst of a war," he paused and softened his tone, "I’m only curious."
"Well, I’m just a man," Hall replied. "They don’t come around anymore and I don’t bother them either. But I’d just as soon keep the details about that to myself if you don’t mind."
"I understand."
"And I need to get back home and take care of a varmint problem there."
Mackenzie dipped his head slightly and said, "I thank you for your time. And I will look into how we can arrange for you to remain on the protected lands, as well. I will send a rider to your stead within the week?"
The old man didn’t answer. Instead he let his vacant gaze linger on the man a moment more before looking at Brutus and snapping the reins.
The sun was riding the rim of the valley when the old man returned. Long tree shadows crept from the creek toward the cabin. The air that blew through was dry and cold. Hall groaned as he climbed down from the wagon and unhitched the horse. He went to the stable and put some fresh hay in a wall-mounted bucket, then turned, whistling for Brutus. But the old horse was already there, only a few steps behind. He gave the horse a scratch and a pat on the neck and then shut him in for the night.
Hall retrieved the traps from the wagon and brought them inside. Then he went out back to where a cord of wood was stacked along the cabin wall, filled his arms with split logs and carried them inside. The smoke began to rise from the chimney just as the sun sank away from view and left only a haze above one end of the valley.
Then the horse whinnied and the chickens lit up again with flutters and clucks and wood-creak-growls. He had been expecting it this time, and the moment he heard Brutus give the warning the old man burst from the cabin door, pushing it wide open and charging down the steps with the Spencer in both hands. There was no moon up yet, and the ambient light from the sunset wasn’t enough to save the valley from a thick and shapeless dark. The trees sifted the wind. The creek plopped and gurgled. Bright orange light spilled from the open doorway and bathed the porch in a misshapen rectangle of light.
Hall started toward the chicken coop, stopped halfway and scanned the dark in all directions, hearing only the sounds of rustling leaves and gurgling water. The chickens were quiet in their roosts and the horse had stopped huffing and stomping his hooves. And as the old man stood there in the dark the icy breeze brought with it the faintest sounds of a solitary wailing voice, soon joined by a chorus of others, all bound together by a steady and dim thump, thump, thump.
He turned sharply when he heard it and found himself facing the bluffs beyond the coop and stable. They loomed there in the dark, barely distinguishable from the sky above or the valley floor below. He knew the bluffs were there because he could feel them, close enough to tower over him. Close enough to touch. Yet they were at least 100 feet from where he stood. The old man listened there a while, almost forgetting about the shadow he had originally intended to find. But the song never returned.
Hall went back up through the open cabin door and closed it behind him. The moment he closed the door and looked across the open room, with the stove burning hot and bright and making distorted shadow shapes everywhere, the coyote emerged from beneath the bed with its claws scraping the floor and its back bumping the underside of the bed frame. It ran across the back wall, knocking over a chair and turning then to run back to the bed. The old man fell back against the door as he cursed, raising the rifle to take aim. It hopped atop the mattress and froze there, wound up and half-crouching with its mouth open and its sides pulsating with each breath.
He could see then that the coyote was old and skinny. His eyebrows and muzzle were dusted with white hairs. His ribs shone through the thick fur as he panted. And there was a wound in his side behind the shoulder, large and gaping and framed by knotted fur stained reddish-brown. Hall watched the coyote for a moment before bringing the rifle sights into view and slowly closing one eye. The beast watched him with honey colored eyes and drool spilling from its opened mouth. The wound in its side had partially healed some time before, but had since reopened and was now dripping dark blood all over the buffalo-skin blanket.
Hall let out a long breath to calm himself and steady his hands as the finger began to draw the trigger back. Then the pain came to his other arm. It was sharp and severe, throbbing deeply through the bones and flowing from shoulder to fingertips. Then it came to his chest and beat him so hard and so painfully that his vision went white momentarily as he pressed his back against the door and let his legs give out. The old man slid down the door and dropped the rifle as he clutched his chest and growled in pain. And as his head began to throb in rhythm with the growing brightness he looked at the coyote on his bed, still coiled and tense and watching him with honey eyes as it panted and drooled and bled.
The old man had been dead a few days by the time a pair of riders, on orders from Colonel Mackenzie, came by to call on him. They found him on the floor, leaned up against the door with his chin in his chest and the rifle beside him. But that wasn’t the part that got people talking. When they came back and told people about the coyote there were all kinds of rumors that sprung up. According to the two riders, they also found a dead coyote in that cabin with old Mr. Hall. They said it was lying beside him with its head on his lap. Both of them dead and cold together like that. Then after the one soldier came forward and said the dead coyote was the one that attacked him everyone pretty much assumed that the old man had taken the animal as a pet, and through some form of Indian witchcraft had been using it to attack his enemies.
Then there was the trouble with the will he had supposedly left with Turner and Malcolm. It wasn’t an official document, the Army said. Turner and Malcolm took it to town and went before the magistrate, but he didn’t believe what they said until the Habershams went and testified that Mr. Hall had told them about the will he had entrusted to Malcolm and Turner. And all it stipulated was that he be buried where his late wife was. Malcolm said he knew the spot, and that it was somewhere on the reservation.
So Malcolm, Turner and some of the soldiers from the 4th rode out with the body and came back a week later without it. Turner moved away that spring, under pressure from the government to get off the reservation. Malcolm stayed until the summer and then he was gone, too.
Well, by the time summer came there were plenty of rumors going around about old Mr. Hall and his coyote. Most people believed they had just dumped his body out on the plains somewhere in an unmarked grave. They also talked about how rich he was, then others started talking about buried treasure out on Hall’s old spread. There were bands of looters that would come around from time to time. They had some run-ins with Malcolm throughout the spring. He looked after the place and kept the chickens and horse fed and all that. Before he left, Malcolm made one last trip by the old man’s cabin there at bluffs with the intention of taking Brutus and the chickens with him. When he got there he found a band of soldiers digging around and talking about treasure. Who knows what all happened between them. The soldiers who snuck over there never found any treasure, but one of them came back to town and told on himself. That started a whole mess with the Army and then they packed up and went back to Fort Robinson two days later.
Nobody knows where Malcolm went. Some folks said he went out deeper into the reservation. Others said the soldiers probably shot him out there at Hall’s cabin. The Habersham boys tracked down that treasure-hunting soldier before the Army left, and he supposedly told them Malcolm had still been alive at the cabin when they went back to town. He also told them Malcolm made him feel sorry for what he had done. As the story went, Malcolm came out and told those soldiers, "Funny how folks ignored the old man when he was alive, and now he’s dead they can’t seem to leave him alone." But no one ever saw Malcolm again.
Now, the Habersham family always liked old Mr. Hall, although mostly for his business at the store. But be that as it may, they knew him better than most folks in town and missed him enough to go riding out across the Sioux reservation in search of his grave. Habersham and sons rode around out there for days and days, following the clues they pieced together from rumors and things that Malcolm, Turner and Hall had said.
They eventually found the site, cresting a hill and spying a lone Sioux rider on the prairie beside what they described as "something of a wooden teepee" made out of sticks. They watched the Sioux for a long time as he sat on his horse and didn’t move. Then he abruptly kicked his horse and rode away, deeper into Sioux territory.
Then the Habersham men rode down to where the structure stood and investigated the area. The first thing they noticed was the absence of horse tracks on the ground where the rider had just been. They probably wouldn’t have even thought to look, but the whole area was covered with what they first thought were wolf paw prints. Not a single hoof print.
The paw prints made circles around the structure, and several lines led directly to a small opening between the sticks. There they found the remains of two people inside. One was a skeleton wrapped in buffalo skin. The other was much less decomposed but dressed similarly. Then they recognized some of the old man’s things in a bundle beside the body. His old Stetson. The buckskin coat rolled up. And on his chest was an animal skull, long in the nose and jaw with long, white teeth. But too small for a wolf.
When they came back to town, all they said was that they found the grave. Mr. Habersham made his boys promise they would never tell anyone about the yips and howls that had followed them all the way back, each night lighting up anew and accompanied by distant thumps and wails that rode the winds across the open ground beneath the stars, or about how each morning they woke to find the paw prints making circles around their temporary beds. No, they never told the folks in town about any of that.
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