The tree trunks made black lines from where they broke the white snow and rose until the frozen needles met in one dark mass. High above, the moon held bright and full. The treetops, sealed in ice, glinted bluish white. A wind came then, carrying a distant yelp that spread and sank away in the renewed quiet.
The first shadow broke the silence, sprinting on four blurred legs and wheezing smoky breath with each push. Plumes of white followed as it sprinted past. The others pursued, their silhouetted muzzles catching the hanging plumes of white in the air. Shadows chasing shadows in the harlequin calm.
The pursued grew shorter strokes with longer wheezes. He turned at a gentle rise in the tree line and made for the stream on the other side. The pursuers gained ground with each lunge. They hacked the air with white teeth and crunched the snow in rhythm.
The stream gurgled in hidden seams between ice and rocks now covered in a blanket of exposed white. The moon held high above. When the shadow reached the stream its legs gave out and the head turned as the hips sank down. He pushed the back end up with another wheeze. The pursuers slowed and split apart, still hacking smoke as they surrounded the first.
They came at him separately. One to distract. Another to attack from behind. Again and again. He spun in the snow and snapped at them each time, and each time he was too late. He began to spin faster, snapping where there was nothing but empty dark. Chasing his own plumes of snow.
They backed him across the stream to the edge of the plain with snarls and flashing teeth. But when he broke off in a hobbled sprint they left him, offering only a momentary trot in pursuit before halting. Long faces hacking the air. A shadow alone across a smooth plain of white. The others lingered a while at the edge of the open land, pacing, sniffing, and marking the line.
Old Mr. Hall stood in his old buckskin coat with one arm hooked on the edge of his wagon and the other at his waist, holding his once-white Stetson, and stared down the snow-muddied road in the center of town. The Habersham boys stomped down the steps and hoisted the last two bags of feed up and over the edge. The heavy bags thumped into the small wooden wagon and bounced it out from under the old man’s arm. He shrank away from it and gave it a surprised look.
"You all right, Mister Hall?" asked Fred.
"Bad as ever," the old man said with a wink.
"Well, that’s the last one," Jack said, wiping his hands.
"I do appreciate it," Hall said. He reached out and shook the boys’ hands. They said "Yessir" and then went back up the steps and inside. Their father stood on the porch and shook in the cold.
"Well, anyhow," he said, "I still wish you would change your mind."
Hall rolled his bony shoulders forward underneath the thick buckskin coat as he nodded his head. Then he looked down and patted his thigh with the hat.
Habersham smiled. "I know, I know–but…" He watched Hall and waited for him to say it.
"But I been here long before anybody else come around and whatnot."
Habersham shivered and nodded and went on smiling. Then he took a deep breath and said, "Now I won’t impugn a man on account of his stubbornness lest I become the stubborn one myself…"
"But," the old man said.
"But I’ll let it lie so long as I know you know you’re welcome to our empty bed upstairs."
"Well I know it and appreciate it all the same."
"All this with them Sioux and the Federals now. Don’t know how you can catch a wink out there, all alone like you are."
"I get by." Hall gave him a smile and topped his gray head with the dirty Stetson.
Habersham hugged himself and came down a step. "What I hear is that war parties are moving all over, and they don’t rightly take the time to ask if you’re a good white man or a bad one. Starting to believe all the stories about savages now. And maybe we brought it out of ’em. I can’t say. Sometimes I wish I’d never come this far."
Savages, he said. The old man was staring down the road.
"Been a long time," Hall growled to himself, remembering.
He had peered through the opened window facing the creek. There along the bank were over thirty of them, painted up and walking their horses and casting long shadows in the fading sunlight. They let the horses stop and drink here and there as they mingled in the copse. One of them stayed on his horse holding a rifle across his lap. He watched the cabin. The whole party came closer, passing behind him.
Hall ducked down and eyed the Spencer rifle on the opposite wall. After about a minute of sitting there on the floor the old man stood and removed his hat. "No, they don’t want a fight," he mumbled to himself. He dropped the hat on the bed and went to the door.
The old man opened the door and took one step out onto the porch, showing the palms of his hands. The middle of the pack walked directly in front of the cabin now, moving along the creek while the horses drank. All of them turned and stopped when he stepped out, and there they stood and stared. Then the one on his horse came by, closer than the rest, and gave the old man a long glare. They kept eye contact while the old white man walked forward to the porch steps and lowered himself down to a sit.
Hall turned his shoulders and swept one hand across his body and toward the door. "You hungry?" he asked in English.
The rider shook his head.
"Been a long time."
The rider gave a nod. He looked away at the rest and watched them pass for a minute. A breeze came through the valley and rustled the leaves and needles on the trees that lined the creek.
"Winter’s about on us," Hall said.
The rider looked at him and then down at the ground. Then he pointed his rifle at the ground beside him. "S’unkmanitu," he said before he lifted his hands and looked up. "Iktomi." Hall shook his head. He was still sitting there on the step long after they were gone.
"Mr. Hall?" Habersham was saying.
"Oh?" he replied, shaking his head and waving a hand. "I was just thinking."
"You all right?"
"Oh," Hall started to say. Then he stopped himself, smiled and put his hand out. "Well, I do appreciate it."
"And I appreciate your business."
Hall pulled himself up to the seat and gathered the reins. The thick brown horse with graying eyebrows snorted and worked its jaw. "Oh hush," Hall said. Then he gave Habersham a look and said, "Savages or not, they’ve never done me wrong. And I probably gave them plenty to hate me for over the years. But they don’t."
"I know. I didn’t mean to offend–"
The old man waved a hand and shook his head.
Habersham nodded. "But it ain’t how it was before. Won’t ever be the same now."
Hall gave a quick nod and looked down the muddy road. "Well, I better get back then." He gave the reins a snap and said, "Come on, Old Brute!" and then rode off through the rutted, muddy street between the small collection of wooden buildings on his way out over the plain and eventually back to the cabin by the creek.
The last time he had seen them was the day they passed by his cabin on their way to or from a battle. Before that a year had gone by with no contact. But they didn’t simply disappear. Hall knew where they were just like they knew where he was. They just decided to keep away from each other what with all the other things that were happening in the area. There was a long history between them that no one else really understood. Old Mr. Hall kept to himself way out there, ignored by the whites and reds alike.
It was a shallow valley with bluffs on the north side and rolling prairie hills to the south. The creek ran through the middle, lined by trees. That’s where he built the cabin. They said old man Hall came from a wealthy family somewhere back east. As the story went he had a falling out with his father, and then the father gave his son a few thousand dollars and disowned him just like that.
So Hall went west–as far west as he could–until he found those bluffs and that creek and not a single person in sight for miles. That was almost fifty years ago. James Madison was president when he was born. That’s how old he was. And old man Hall had been living out there alone long before they found any gold. No one really knew what he did out there all that time, although it was clear he had a certain familiarity with the Lakota that confused most folks who ever took the time to ask about the old man who came around town every few weeks or so.
Well, by 1877 old Mr. Hall had rebuilt that cabin with the help of two other men. Malcolm and Turner came together, before the town went up, and settled in a few miles down the creek from Hall. The three of them took turns building cabins for the others one summer. Malcolm had left a family back east, but when his cabin was built and he sent for them they never came. Nobody knew much about Turner other than his name.
Now in his old age, Hall didn’t seem to mind that there was a town a half-day’s ride from his spread. He made bi-weekly (or at least monthly) trips into town and always bought things there, usually from Habersham’s General Store. He bought some chickens from Habersham and then built a coop for them and after that he bought bags of feed once a month, too. He also built a small stable for old Brutus. He had that horse all along, though. Brutus must’ve been 20 years old by ’77.
Well, it got above freezing for a few days, and the creek thawed out and went back to gurgling and slopping like before. The snow melted away except at the copse where the trees kept it dark, and also on the southern side of the valley where the shadows lingered late and came early.
The sky was wide open during the thaw. The sun came over the valley and washed it in gold and steam, and then the old cock would start crowing. Hall got up out of his straw mattress bed with the buffalo skin blanket and threw his coat over his long johns, stepped into his boots and then went out to the chicken coop. He unhooked the small bucket that hung by its handle on a nail, unlatched the door and went inside to gather up the eggs.
The cock and a few of the hens fluttered out the open door and then slow-walked the brown, damp ground with their reddish eyes wide and shifting. The old man emerged with the bucket and went back around the front of the cabin where he vanished inside for a few minutes. When he came back out he went to the other side of the cabin and into the overhang where the horse was boarded away in one corner. The feed bags were there on the ground along one wall. He scooped some kernels into the bucket and then walked back to where the chickens were all out and creeping along the open ground beside the coop. He walked among the birds for a time, sifting out feed by the handful until the bucket was empty and then he hung it up and went back inside.
He ate the eggs for breakfast and finished his coffee while he stood on the porch, now wearing a shirt and pants under his coat. The light fog had faded from the morning air, save a little just at the water’s surface. One of the cedars down in the copse had been overgrown by the others. Most of its needles had fallen off and the ones that remained turned brown. Hall drank the coffee and stared at that near-dead cedar until the cup was empty. Then he set to work on that tree with his axe. It took almost an hour to bring it down. He had to stop and rest after every other swing now.
Once the tree was down the old man sat on the porch step and drank creek water from a canteen. He was too tired to keep on with the tree, so instead of getting out the saws he brought the horse outside to graze in the sun. Old tethers hung from the trunks of some of the trees and rotted away. The old horse no longer needed to be tied up. He wouldn’t even cross the creek anymore unless the old man made him go.
Lunch was a pair of cornbread biscuits and ham he had gotten from Malcolm. He sat at the small table in the center of the cabin and ate. There were three chairs at the table. Old Mr. Hall stared at the empty chairs and chewed his food.
"Wish I’d of got to holt of ‘im," Turner said as he choked the air with both fists. Malcolm and the old man laughed. Turner was a fiery man who met each moment with exaggerated mannerisms. He was often misunderstood because of his candor, and though the man would have preferred a life in a big city somewhere, he fit in better with other outsiders on the frontier. He went on, "I’d of–I’d of…"
"You’d of ate him, and then we’d be cartin’ your sorry carcass up to town with a bellyache," Malcolm said with a mouthful of food.
"Oh, naw," Turner said with a wave and a frown. "Coyote’s good eatin’."
The other two shook their heads and exchanged arched-brow glances.
"Well, I reckon we’re puttin’ Mr. Hall out as it is, stoppin’ by unannounced like this," Malcolm said. He looked at Hall. "Sorry we come by so late."
"You already apologized and I already forgave you," Hall replied.
"I know. It’s just we lingered too long…"
"At the card tables," Hall said. "And I already forgave you for it ’cause there’s no trespass to forgive anyhow. We’re friends."
"Well," Malcolm nodded, "obliged to you." Turner hummed in approval as he chewed a biscuit.
"I know how much Turner loves his poker," Hall said, smiling at both guests. Turner stuck out his tongue and mimed dealing invisible cards from an invisible deck. "You men are welcome to my floor if you don’t want to finish the trip in the dark and cold tonight. I can get you some straw from the stable and lay it out if you like."
"I’m fine with the floor as it is," Malcolm said. He thrust a thumb toward Turner and half-whispered, "He’ll probably sleep with your chickens if you ain’t careful, though."
"Don’t listen to him," Turner told the old man. He pointed at Malcolm and said, "This coot fancies himself a secret ron-day-voos with snakes in the outhouse."
"Oh, it ain’t–"
"Don’t know what he does in there for hours on end."
The three of them laughed and re-told the story about the snake that slithered into the outhouse while Malcolm was using it, and how he screamed for help for nearly twenty minutes before Turner came and let him out.
"And I open the door and then I look," Turner said, "and it’s this leetle, teensy, tiny, itty, bitty," he paused and held his hands up for scale, "harmless ol’ black snake."
Malcolm scoffed and shook his head. "You know that snake gets smaller every time you tell it."
"I don’t know. That thing was small." Turner brought his hands closer together. "Bout like that."
"I can vouch for the shrinking snake," Hall said.
"See?" Malcolm said, pointing at Turner. "You lie!"
Turner waved him off and said, "Well anyhow, it weren’t no rattlesnake."
Malcolm slapped the table, and half-laughing half-shouting, said, "How many times! I never said ‘rattlesnake!’"
"Anyhow," Hall said, raising a hand, "I’m going to turn in soon. You’re both welcome to stay if you like."
He stood, pushing his chair back and then stretching his arms toward the ceiling. They fell silent and watched him take a lantern from the bed table, light it and then make for the outhouse. The guests were leaning over the table talking quietly when the old man returned.
"My worry is somethin’ happens while we’re away," Turner said to Malcolm. They both looked more somber than before. Turner’s eyes fell into the darkness of socket shadows in the orange light of the wood stove.
"But then there’s also the worry of us makin’ the trip in the dark," Malcolm replied.
"I just know that ol’ coyote is back, maybe with friends."
"Maybe to mess with the horses."
"Or the pigs."
"You think he’d mess with the pigs?" Turner asked. Malcolm shrugged. Turner looked up at the old man and waited.
Hall shook his head. "No, he’ll probably leave the pigs alone."
"You reckon so?"
Hall pushed his lip out and hummed. "Mmm. Yeah, you probably got nothing to worry about with that coyote."
Turner and Malcolm looked at each other with furrowed brows deepened by the firelight. Malcolm looked at Hall and asked, "Weren’t you here when we just told the story about the coyote what come around two nights back?"
"Yeah," the old man replied, "but that ain’t no coyote."
The sound of chicken wings flapping past the window roused the old man from his daydreams as he sat alone and stared at the empty chairs. He stuffed the last piece of biscuit in his mouth and went out to the porch to stand and chew and watch the old horse graze down by the trees that sifted the ambling wind for "S" words.
The fire in the stove had dwindled to a few reddening embers when the sounds of startled chickens interrupted the still dark. There was a quick cluck and a flutter of feathers. Then there came the chicken growls, long and steady, like creaking wood. The old man would have slept through it had Brutus not whinnied and kicked the wall of his stable. When he heard the horse he flew out of bed and grabbed the Spencer from the wall. Hall stood and listened. The horse gave sporadic snorts and another kick. The chickens growled. Another flutter of feathered wings.
Then he heard the other sound. It was like someone shaking a half-empty feed bag as fast as they could. Hall went to the window facing the coop and watched. Moonlight spread out across the coop and the ground before it. The glass in the window was distorted in places, creating double images of objects outside. The old man leaned laterally as he watched, trying to shift the axis of the distorted glass. After a few seconds of leaning this way and that he saw the shadow by the base of the coop.
Its shoulders and head were lower than its hindquarters, and it was digging like mad at the wall. Hall cursed under his breath and squeezed the rifle tight with both hands as he turned and made for the door. He didn’t bother putting on his coat and boots. The shadow was still digging when the old man came around the corner. It was only fifty feet away, all in black and spraying dirt from between its back legs. Hall planted the Spencer against his shoulder and raised the barrel as he closed one eye and aimed.
Then a stiff breeze came through the valley, frostbitten and dry, and the shadow straightened and froze with the silhouette of its ears rising into view. The old man knew he’d been spotted and fired before he was ready, hitting the dirt between the shadow’s legs. The sound echoed off the bluffs beyond and back over him and then across the creek and onward. The birds inside squawked and beat the air with their wings. By the time the barrel had dropped back level the shadow was gone. Hall ran to the chicken coop and then around behind it. He circled all his buildings with the Spencer straight out and bright in the moonlight. But the shadow was gone.
The old man lingered in the cold to scrape some of the loose dirt back into the hole. Then he gave a last cursory check of the area before going inside. He fed the stove some more wood and sat in a chair facing it to warm his hands. Then he remembered how a few months back that Sioux had pointed at a paw print in the ground.
"That ain’t no coyote," the old man whispered into his cupped hands.
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