Authors: Terry Irving
Rick felt as if wires were blasting raw electricity through his whole body. He found it fascinating that, although his body had taken far worse punishment, the systemic shock of a good kick to the balls—while never fatal—was still something you couldn't just shake off.
He didn't think that there were any simple ways to escape the general store and figured that he couldn’t really improve his situation inside without killing someone. Consequently, he was willing to be dragged along after Flick by the two men who had held back in the doorway. Henry was left in the store, sobbing and trying to keep his knee from moving.
Eve was nowhere to be seen. For a second, Rick felt the virtuous glow of self-sacrifice before he admitted that keeping her at liberty significantly raised his chances of getting out of this alive and so was a lot more self-serving than self-sacrificing. Flick noticed her absence as well and growled at the two men who were supposed to be guarding the door but they just shrugged.
"Never mind her," Flick said. "Paleface here is number one priority. We can always pick the girl up later—maybe have some fun with her. Just don’t lose this guy too." Then Flick headed deeper into Wounded Knee; the other two each grabbed one of Rick’s arms and followed.
Dusk had fallen over the town, the sun a glowing ball just above the horizon throwing long shadows and leaving people, houses, and the scrawny trees black against the sky. When a gunshot cracked from the hills behind them, Rick noticed that the three men didn't even flinch.
Well, he'd seen a lot of guys like that on the day his battalion had arrived at LZ Albany, so exhausted by days of constant gunfire that a new salvo only registered briefly in their eyes—a quick check to see if they were going to die in the next second or so. Then their attention flickered back to their wounds, their friends' wounds, or the cleanliness of their weapon.
He was feeling better but decided there was no point in letting that become apparent. He checked the two men holding his arms: young with long hair and already-lined faces.
He couldn’t be certain, but Rick decided they weren't veterans. Something was missing, some aspect of harsh adulthood lacking from their faces. They looked young, stupid, and mean. Rick also noticed that their clothes looked like they were straight off the store shelf. He could still see the creases where the western shirts had been folded.
Ahead, Flick had his jacket back on, and he'd added a tall western hat to the bandanna. Striding along, his silhouette looked determined and dangerous, but Rick thought he saw hesitation in the way he kept looking around. He also noticed that their little group made some unnecessary turns to avoid running into other inhabitants.
This confirmed what Rick had been thinking. Despite his bravado and willingness to brawl, Flick wasn't much of a leader. Rick suspected that no one would give Flick any real power, even in the chaos of a revolutionary movement.
The man holding his right arm suddenly wasn't, and there was a muffled thud from a step behind them. Rick instantly spun to his left and smacked his right fist into his left hand, driving the elbow into the man’s nose. He let the momentum of the spin carry him around and drove his right fist into a solid blow deep into the man's genitals.
It seemed fitting that this was the gunman who had shown such familiarity with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Rick watched him crumple to the ground with a feeling of vengeful satisfaction. Rick kicked him sharply in the temple—trying to put him out without killing him.
The precise ratcheting of an old-fashioned lever-action rifle came from the front. Looking up, Rick saw Pete Talltrees standing by the side of the trail with his hunting rifle aimed right between Flick's eyes.
Talltrees spoke quietly. "Now, I was planning to take a walk with this fellow tonight, and I don't think he'd be in any shape for a hike after a conversation with you and that bullshit Security Committee of yours."
Flick stepped forward, digging in his pocket. Talltrees stepped forward as well, gently knocked the tall hat off the other man's head, and pressed the muzzle of the rifle into his forehead just below the blue bandanna. "I'm telling you, friend, that pissant little gun in your pocket better stay right where it is, or this conversation is going to become a lot shorter than I'd like."
Flick's hand stopped moving.
Rick could see that Talltrees had things well in hand, so he turned back to the man he’d just hit and bent down and checked for a pulse. It was nice and steady. Then he patted the man’s pockets and found the revolver in the man's jacket. Rick spun the cylinder, pocketed the cartridges, and threw the gun into the bushes. Then he checked for a pulse and a gun on the goon that Talltrees had taken out first.
Talltrees smiled. "OK, it looks like this is going to work out just fine for everyone. However, I would recommend that you find another place to be in the next few minutes because I'm going to go visit with Lemuel Sharp Eagle and the rest of the real Security Committee. I know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but I doubt they'll feel flattered."
Flick's face twisted with anger, and he started to say something, but Talltrees cut him off. "Vernon, if you open your mouth, you're going to lie. I really have a problem when people lie to me. It pisses me off and then I'll have to shoot you, and it'll bother me for the rest of the night."
He leaned back from his firing position, and the muzzle pulled away from Flick’s forehead. A circle appeared, first white and then filling with red. "Now, take your buddies or leave them to wake up and proceed on their own, but get the hell out of here. I really, sincerely, do not want to see you again."
Flick looked at Talltrees for a second and then stepped to the side so he could see the two men lying on the worn dirt path. Neither looked interested in going anywhere.
He bent down, picked up his hat, and backed away. A dozen feet later, he turned, put the tall hat back on, and stalked off angrily. It looked impressive, but Rick could hear his booted footsteps break into a run after a few steps.
Talltrees lowered the rifle and rested it on his hip.
Rick noticed that he didn't engage the safety.
"Well, I think this could be the first time that the Indians have saved the cavalry," Eve said as she walked up from behind Rick and poked a cautious toe into both men on the ground.
Rick laughed. "Hardly. I'd say that his little trick with the Skyraider definitely counted as a 'save.' This is just a well-timed repeat performance."
He turned back to Talltrees and stuck out his hand. "Not that I'm not grateful, you understand." The men shook hands and grinned at each other.
Then Talltrees' face turned serious. "This isn't the best time of the night to start, but I think we should get out of here. No one thinks much of Vernon Crane—well, except for himself and I'll add in his mother, since I'm in a generous mood—but he hangs with some dudes who are damn near as dumb as he is, and they'll be back."
"Vernon?" Rick asked.
"Yeah, with a name like that he named himself 'Flick' a long time ago." Talltrees bent over and threw a pack over his left shoulder, keeping the rifle free. "Or so I've heard. I asked around about him a couple of days ago. Don't quite know why."
He shrugged and gazed off into the orange glow of the setting sun. "Guess I just felt something wrong about him. Anyway, what I heard was that he grew up here and went to Dakota State but took off one day leaving all his stuff in the dorm. No one saw him until he showed up here a few weeks after Wounded Knee’s 'liberation'."
"Where was he?" Rick asked.
"The guy I talked to said Vernon got religion one day and took off with a couple of other people to join up with the…" he paused, "the Radical Labor Party Committee or the Unified Committee of Radical Workers or some damn thing. Anyway, uncles ran most of the others down and brought them home, but no one cared enough to worry about Vernon."
He turned and used the rifle to point down a path almost invisible in the dim light. "Enough history. I think it's time for us to split the scene and leave it clean, so let's exit stage left."
Eve bent down over the man Rick had knocked out. Shifting his body slightly, she pulled out a small pack. Opening it, she rummaged through the contents. "Well, we're in luck. Food, matches, compass, and first aid kit—this guy was clearly ready to take off."
She stepped over the motionless body and said to Pete, "Listen, Snagglepuss, give me a minute to clean and wrap up that scratch on Rick's arm before it goes septic. I can't imagine that Vernon owned anything that wasn't filthy."
She pushed Rick back against a tree trunk and began to pull off his jacket. "Then big strong guy will be in great shape to carry this bag of supplies."
Rick smiled, "What are you going to contribute?" "You mean, besides my natural beauty and
enough common sense to know when it was time to find a guy with a nice big rifle?" She patted Rick's cheek before she set to work on his arm.
"Not a damn thing."
Darkness had spread across the enormous sky by the time they reached the western edge of Wounded Knee. Talltrees put up his hand and motioned them to kneel.
"OK, we're going to walk out nice and quiet, at least at first," he said. "I know the marshals think they've got everyone bottled up in here because they’ve got the starlight scopes and thermal imagers. But they’re wrong, as usual."
He slid his rifle onto the sling over his shoulder and pulled off his backpack. "Most nights I just take an extremely cold shower to bring down my thermal signature and go out on my belly, but tonight there's too many of us."
He took out a rectangular metal box with a glass cover on one end. "Strobe light. I've been saving this for a party, but this place is seriously lacking in recreational drugs. Anyway, I don't think I'll be back, so I might as well go out in style."
Talltrees put the box on the ground and rummaged again in his pack, pulling out three plastic packs of red and silver emergency blankets. He tossed one to Rick and one to Eve. "These will keep some of your body heat from radiating. Make sure you keep the silver side against your body or you'll reflect."
He looked at the box again and shook his head—grinning teeth flashing in the darkness. "Might sound strange coming from me, but I always felt the A-Teams were just too dependent on their high-tech toys. SEAL’s now, those sneaky bastards are another story with all that 'Whispering Death' crawling in the mud. Luckily, I haven't heard any SEAL’s on the radio scanners, just a bunch of Green Berets reliving their glory days in Laos and Cambodia.
"I think I'll keep the strobe for later and go old-school here." Talltrees pulled a glass bottle out of the pack and handed it to Rick. "I don’t want to be carrying this if someone puts a lucky shot through my pack."
The label said Boone's Farm Strawberry Wine, but Rick could smell the gasoline even through the screw top. He smiled. "This wouldn't be napalm, would it?"
"Nah. Too hard to ignite." Talltrees tore a piece of fabric from the T-shirt under his heavy coat, twisted it into a string. "Just your ordinary, everyday Molotov cocktail which is, as I’m sure you know, an excellent source of bright light. Only problem I had was having to smell that damn strawberry crap as I was pouring it out. I’d rather drink the gasoline."
He motioned to Rick who handed back the bottle. Talltrees unscrewed the cap, inserted the twisted cotton, and let it soak in the gasoline. "Barring air support, I'd say we are as prepared as possible. Now let's cause a little eyestrain to anyone watching. Wrap up in the blankets and get ready to move fast. Anyone got a light?"
"Thought you'd never ask." Rick lit the Zippo on his jeans and set the flame to the cotton fuse. Talltrees stood and hurled the bottle far to the left. The burning cotton cut an orange curve in the blackness.
They could hear the glass shatter and, with a
, a ball of flame blossomed in the open grass. They were already well out of the circle of light, and then Talltrees headed to the right at a fast pace. Rick could see their bulky shadows striding across the sparse grass and dry soil of the prairie, but he knew that, for a distant watcher, the bright gasoline flame would make everything around it as black as pitch.
Two shots came from the hillside and then several more. Rick heard one ricochet off a rock near the burning gasoline, and none of the others sounded close to them at all. "Figures," he thought, "that flame would have burned a hole in the scopes that would take minutes to clear. By that time, we’ll be well out of sight."
He concentrated on following Eve who was right behind Talltrees. He had to focus because the Pawnee would run, stop, cover up with a blanket, and then run again in a fast-moving choppy movement that Rick figured would put them deep into the background clutter of any scope that didn’t have to have its phosphor tubes pulled and replaced.
After a couple of hundred yards, they came to a clump of brush. Talltrees held up a fist and then flattened his hand and swept it down. Even Eve knew that much battlefield signaling. They stopped and went flat.
Talltrees reached carefully under one of the bushes and pulled it up and out of the ground, revealing a gap in what had looked like a solid wall. Clearly, he’d cut himself this passage long ago and kept it hidden. He motioned them into it. After they had passed, he pulled the bush in behind him and carefully reset it in the dry ground, brushing the soil around the roots to smooth out any traces that it had ever been moved.
Then he motioned them to move close and whispered, "From now on, complete silence. This is the best way out because it goes right under some of the biggest bunkers and comms centers. The positive is that it's so close they tend to overlook it, but it's got a strong negative: any noise will bring a real clusterfuck down on our heads."
Talltrees took the lead again, and they crawled for 20 or 30 yards before they stood up—still keeping their heads below the level of the bushes. Rick realized that they were moving into one of the ravines like the one they’d come through on the way in. A trail of sorts—really just a series of openings carefully cut between the thickets—was enough to get through but kept them completely concealed.
Between the quarter-moon and the stars, Rick could see enough to keep his movements relatively quiet. He did notice that he made more noise than the other two. He decided it must be genetic and tried to place his feet where Talltrees had stepped.
"That Pawnee bastard Talltrees stuck his nose in! That's what happened!"
A conversation, or more properly an argument, had risen from whispers to angry shouting. The angry voice clearly belonged to Flick Crane and he was about six feet over their heads where the perpendicular wall of the ravine met the flat grassland of the prairie. Rick and the others stopped and went down on their knees and then flat on their stomachs, slowly rolling to one side or the other to get off the trail and put as much of the sparse vegetation over them as possible.
"Don't tell me to shut up! This op is fucked and I'm going to tell the whole fucking Inner Circle when I get back to the Big House that you screwed it up. Why the hell did you tell me to whack the white guy anyway?"
Talltrees began to belly-crawl slowly toward the voice and the other two followed. When they came to the dry and crumbling side of the ravine, they could hear a second voice, much lower and calmer. This close, both voices were clear even though Flick had stopped shouting.
"You know this perfectly well, but I will repeat it again." The second voice was high with an accent and a very slight lisp. It sounded like someone who had fought a speech impediment for a long time but couldn't quite overcome it. "Your job was to keep those redskin revolutionaries looking for internal enemies and FBI informants. All you had to do was kidnap and kill some outsider. Then we would have 'found' his body and used it to destroy the radicals' credibility in the eyes of the tribes."
There was a dry chuckle. "And to keep suspicion away from the real informants. For God's sake, the FBI has turned the U.S. Marshals into the worst snipers ever because they're afraid that they'll waste one of their own guys."
"Listen, Salazar, I'm doing my job," Flick said. "But I’m afraid you stepped in it too. Everyone is so worried about that little Pine girl gone missing that the women are watching every man in the village like fucking hawks."
There was the scrape of a match, a pause, and a contented exhalation. Rick, without nicotine for what felt like hours, was intensely jealous. The smoke drifting on the still night air didn't help.
"That situation has been resolved permanently." All humor had disappeared from the voice with the accent. "Do not discuss that again. We are discussing your failings. What about your second objective? What’s his name, that Pawnee pilot?"
"Right, you were ordered to retrieve the medicine pouch that Talltrees is carrying," Salazar continued. "It’s turning out that that could be extremely important."
Flick defended himself. "I was planning to snatch that after I buried the white guy in a shallow grave. How was I supposed to know that Talltrees was his buddy?"
"Yes, and he kicked your ineffectual little gang of idiots right out of camp." With a sigh, "No matter, all this ends tonight. In just a few moments, you'll see the correct way for a truly civilized nation to deal with what is, essentially, just another peasant uprising. We have them every generation. Afterward, you can go in and remove the pouch from the pilot's body. You can manage to rob a dead Indian, am I right?"
"Why does Stephen care about these goddamn Indians anyway?" Flick seemed to have forgotten that he was a "goddamn Indian" himself. Rick wondered what it took to destroy that much of someone's identity. "It's like the freaking Communist party in there when it's not just about stealing everything they can find. It's not like they've got anything to steal neither. This place is a dump."
"There is tremendous wealth here, even if it's not easily seen." A brief squawk of radio static. "Now be quiet. I've got work to do."
Rick jumped as he felt a hand on his ankle. Turning carefully, he saw Eve beckoning him. He slowly pushed himself over to her, avoiding any sound of rolling pebbles or scraping sand.
It took some time, but he finally reached a spot a few feet back along the steep ravine wall. Eve reached up and carefully, almost reverently, began to wipe loose dirt off a patch of something just slightly lighter than the surrounding earth.
Slowly, in the dim light, Rick could make out a smooth surface, rounded and pale. Then her hand moved down just a few inches and started again slowly brushing off the dirt and revealing another round object, much smaller than the first.
They lay together in the darkness for a long time as she carefully uncovered the outer edge of the two objects from the dirt that had obscured them. At first, all Rick could see were rounded shapes with irregular ridges and swirls along the sides. Suddenly, things clicked, and he realized he was looking at two skulls, one of an adult and the other an infant.
He reached over and gently held Eve's wrist. Placing his lips against her ear, he breathed, "Who were they? A mother and her baby?"
Eve nodded. She pivoted slowly until her lips were against the long hair over his ear. "The first Wounded Knee Massacre. Many women tried to escape with their children when the Army turned the Hotchkiss guns on our people. Soldiers followed the ones who managed to get away for miles through the snow and killed them."
She reached out and gently took his hand. Guiding it to the larger skull, she brought his fingers to an area that was cracked and fractured. Eve said, "She was shot, but she tried to hide her baby under her body far back in this ravine. That's how many of the witnesses survived, babies and young children. The soldiers threw the others into a mass grave."
"I can feel her here." She took a deep breath. "She was brave and loving, a good mother. I'll ask her to help us."
Eve reached for Rick's hand. She brought it to her mouth, and he could feel her lips move as she sang silently. He bowed his head and, well, he wasn't religious, but he felt there was another presence in the ravine with them. It wasn't emotion but rather a feeling of…a quiet dignity.
Slowly, he felt the presence begin to…”turn" wasn't the right term but was the closest he could come. His attention was being drawn…down.
It was too dark to see anything, so he began to run his right hand along the ground beneath him. The feeling grew fainter when he moved away from the earth wall. The area where the earth wall met the floor of the ravine felt…Again, words failed to describe the sensation adequately. Perhaps "significant" or "meaningful" caught a bit of it.
Exploring with light, almost weightless, fingers, he found loose rocks, some as large as six or eight inches across, piled in what felt like a methodical fashion at the corner where the sidewall met the ravine floor. He remained on his stomach but braced himself on his left hand so that his right could slowly, cautiously grasp one stone at a time and lift it straight up without a sound. Then he lowered the rock to a patch of soft earth and reached for another. In the dark, his senses were drawn into his fingertips, and his concentration was so acute that, when he touched smooth skin instead of coarse sandstone, he couldn't quite still an involuntary shudder. His hand jerked back a fraction of an inch—just enough to lose contact with whatever had been revealed.
For a frantic moment, he thought it was a snake, but after a couple of deep, slow breaths to quiet his hammering heartbeat, his fingers touched the object again.
It was cool and still and not alive.
Then his questing fingers found what could only be an eye, the lid closed and the lashes soft, like gossamer. He slowly reached over to Eve, tapped her on the wrist to get her attention, and, softly grasping her hand under his own, brought it over to the small face.
He had no doubt that it was a face, a child's face.
Eve gently moved her hand, and Rick could feel her head snap up as she also realized what lay under the pile of rocks. He had to move quickly to place his finger on her lips and avert a sound. Eve froze and he could see a gleam of moonlight as her eyes widened in alarm.
Rick realized that the presence in the ravine had…withdrawn. He could feel something, but any urgency or direction was gone. It was as if he had found something that he was intended to be found and now the presence had no more interest in them. Slowly, silently, they continued to reveal the small form. The body was cool but, somehow, not quite as cold as the surrounding earth and rock.