The vultures floated in the air of the brilliant blue summer sky, drawing lazy circles on the backdrop of the few fleecy clouds that sailed along on the light breeze. To Samuel, it looked almost as if they were hanging there on strings tied to the sun that blazed bright over the prairie.
He'd been watching the vultures for most of the morning from his comfortable seat atop Rowdy, his big bay gelding. Somewhere, up ahead, was a dying animal. The vultures would continue to circle until the animal lay still. Vultures were easily injured, and always waited until their meal was dead. As soon as they were satisfied, the big birds would drop slowly from their tie-strings to the ground. They'd tear at the carcass until dusk, and then the scavengers of the night would move in. By tomorrow, the only thing left would be a few bits of bone and some tufts of hair.
If it had been three years earlier, he would have bumped Rowdy's sides with his spurs in order to find the carcass sooner. As it was, he was happy to maintain the steady pace marked by the muffled "plop, plop" of Rowdy's hooves on the ground and the gentle rocking motion of Rowdy's back. There was no need to hurry; Samuel had nowhere to be and no time to be there. That was the way he wanted things to be, and that was the way he made them be. He told himself he was headed for Texas, but in reality, he was just wandering.
The last three years, well, Samuel didn't like to think about that time although some part of them usually popped into his mind when he saw something that reminded him, like these vultures. Missouri had been a bad place to fight a war, he thought, mostly because the Rebels didn't seem to know how to fight one.
He'd been taught the advance – cannon firing from the rear, and three lines of infantry, the front line firing and then retreating to the rear to reload while the second took aim followed by the third. He'd seldom had occasion to put that training to use. What more often took place was a lightening fast attack by a small group of Rebel guerillas that ambushed patrols, or the unseen and often almost unheard killing shot from a sniper's Sharps rifle.
It was the patrols that came to mind when he first saw the vultures. A patrol would go out to probe for the Confederate line and not return. Captain Scott, a man from New York whose youthful face belied his ten years of military service, would wait a couple days, then send out another patrol to look for "those damnable filthy buzzards". When they were spotted, the second patrol would have to recover and bring back the bodies.
Samuel feared the recovery patrols worse than he feared battle. At the start of a battle, he always felt the icy clench of fear around his throat, but that was quickly replaced by the will to survive. On recovery patrols, one never knew what to expect. Sometimes there were bloated corpses staring at the sky and waiting to be loaded into wooden coffins for shipment to Independence or St. Louis. Sometimes, if the scavengers had been at the bodies, there wasn't much to recover. It was always a horror to see, and that horror often invaded his dreams.
Samuel watched as first one, then another of the large black shapes fell from the sky to the ground. They were no more than five minutes ride away now, and he felt the chill of fear despite the summer heat. There were too many vultures for just a rabbit. It was probably a deer, or maybe a buffalo, but still...
His stomach turned when he topped the low rise. Two men in the blue uniform pants of the Union Army lay splayed on the ground, their bellies sliced open. Already, the naked heads of the vultures were searching inside the wounds. When one succeeded in pulling out a dripping organ, the others noisily squabbled with the owner for possession. Samuel opened the flap of his holster, drew his Remington, and fired in the air. The cluster of vultures clumsily took flight, then began climbing on the winds to wait for him to leave.
He rode into the carnage and quickly realized these men weren't soldiers, at least they weren't soldiers now. Like he, they wore plain shirts instead of the standard blue military blouse. They were most likely former jayhawkers who never stopped raiding. Most of the multitude of men discharged at the end of the war had gone home to continue their lives. Some, like Samuel, had nothing to go home to, and ventured to new lands in which to start a new life. A few, like these two, became like the vultures he'd just chased away – pillaging the people living at the outskirts of the war and taking what they wanted as if the war was still in progress.
It was easy to see these men had died a very slow, very agonizing death. Their bellies had been slit open far enough that their guts had spilled out. The pain would have been unimaginable, and would have continued for hours before they finally bled to death.
Samuel had no use for this ilk and didn't really feel sorry for them, but they were still human, and he couldn't leave even these men to be eaten like carrion. After hobbling Rowdy so he could graze, Samuel untied the small shovel from behind the cantle of his saddle.
The sun was low on the horizon when he tamped the last shovel of dirt on the graves. Unlike the wooded area he'd left yesterday, there were no trees around and no rocks, so he couldn't mark the graves. Just as well, he thought; nobody would miss them anyway. He called to Rowdy, secured his shovel, and mounted the gelding. He could see a few trees in the distance, and that would mean water and a place to spend the night.
Samuel would have missed the dress if it had been a half-hour later, but when Rowdy shied away, there it was, lying on the ground. It was soaked in blood and he could smell the metallic stench even from Rowdy's back. Samuel moved the dancing horse a few feet away, then dismounted and walked back. With the blade of his knife, he lifted the garment.
It was an Indian woman's dress, once a bright blue in color, with various decorations of shells and beads sewn around the neck and bottom. It had been made from a piece of loose-woven wool trade cloth folded over with a hole cut for the neck and with small gussets sewn in where the wearer's hips and bust would have been. From the width of the gussets, Samuel guessed the woman would have been small. He had no idea of which tribe, although he thought he was probably in the part of Indian Territory that belonged to the Cherokee or Choctaw.
It was easy for Samuel to make the connection between the men he'd just buried and an Indian woman. He hated to think what the dead men might have done to her. The Confederacy had conscripted many Indians from the Territory to fight for the South. The Union troops who faced these Indian soldiers had learned to fear and hate them for their bravery and skills. Hatred could cause a man to do terrible things in war. It could have caused those men to do the same even without the war as an excuse. Samuel figured some of the woman's tribe had trailed the men and administered their own form of justice. It seemed fitting, considering the men he'd just buried.
Samuel dropped the dress to the ground and walked back to Rowdy. He scanned the prairie ahead and saw nothing, but if she was there, the tall grass would probably have hidden her. His battle field experience told him that with all that blood, she was already dead anyway. Rowdy nickered and bumped Samuel with his nose.
"All right, Rowdy, we'll getcha a drink in a bit."
Samuel swung into the saddle and started toward the trees again, still looking over the tall prairie grass for some sight of the woman.
His camping spot for the night was beside a small stream. Samuel hobbled Rowdy, then pulled the saddle from his back and replaced the bridle with a rope halter. After slapping the gelding on the rump to send him into the prairie grass, Samuel spread out his bedroll and looked for wood for a fire. In a few minutes, he was bent over a small pile of tinder with his flint and steel.
War had a way of making a man very aware of what was happening around him. Men who didn't develop this skill didn't survive very long. The small rustle behind Samuel made him turn and reach for his Remington at the same time. He saw the flash of the knife blade in time to deflect the blow with the pistol. With his other hand, he grabbed for the wrist at the other end of the blade and twisted. The high-pitched scream made his ears ring as the body of his attacker crashed into him and knocked him on his belly.
Samuel held on to the wrist for dear life as he tried to get to his knees. It was like fighting a bobcat. Fingers clawed at his face, searching for his eyes. Knees kicked at his back. He felt the pain of teeth sinking into his shoulder.
With all the strength he could muster, Samuel pushed up and back, and landed on top of his assailant. He felt the "whoosh" of breath as they met the ground, and then the flailing arms and legs stopped moving. Still holding the wrist, Samuel quickly rose to his knees.
She was young, less than thirty, he guessed, although with Indian women it was hard to tell. From what he'd seen, they didn't seem to age in the same way as white women. She was also naked except for her leather moccasins. Her long black hair was splayed over her soft shoulders, and partly covered her breasts. As her eyes opened, Samuel grabbed her other wrist and pinned her to the ground. When she saw him, her eyes became two dark pools seething with hatred.
The woman tried to kick him in the groin, but Samuel blocked her knee.
"That won't do you no good, woman. I'm bigger'n you are, an' I can hold ya here like this 'til you tire out."
The woman spit in his face. Samuel wiped his cheek on his shirtsleeve, then looked into those murderous eyes.
"Why'd you try t' kill me? I never done nothin' t' you."
Her voice was as filled with hate as her eyes.
"You wear the blue leggings of the soldiers who killed my husband."
"Well, lady, half the men in the country still wear these blue pants. There was a war, don't you know?"
"There was no war three days ago", she shot back at him, "but you still killed my husband and took me away with you."
"Why would I want t' kill your husband? I don't even know who he is or you either."
"You said it was because he fought for the army in the South. He had to be punished like the rest of the Rebels."
"So you're gonna to kill every man you see in blue pants? You killed two already, didn'cha?"
"Yes ... the same way they killed my husband, and the way I'd have killed you."
"How many o' these men in blue pants were there?"
"Six. Four rode off to find my village and left me with the other two. They were going to sell me to a man in Ft. Gibson."
"Then why am I here all by myself instead o' with the other three, and why haven't I just shot ya dead instead o' talking to ya?"
The woman seemed confused by his statement.
"I – I don't know. Maybe you're waiting for the others so you can ... can..."
Samuel watched a tear roll down her cheek and scowled.
"What'd they do?"
"They held me down and held my legs apart and then..."
"You don't have t' explain it. I know what they did. I'm not gonna do that t' ya. I'm gonna let ya go. Just don't go tryin' t' kill me ag'in."
Samuel loosened his grip a little and she didn't struggle. He released her arm with one hand and picked up the knife she'd dropped.
"Here. I'll give this back t' ya too. Does that convince ya I'm not one o' those men?"
The woman nodded, and Samuel released her other wrist. She sat up, took the knife gently and placed it inside the leg of her moccasin.
"That's how you got 'em, isn't it? When they had ya down, ya pulled out your knife and gutted the one on top o' ya, then somehow got the other too. That's why your dress was all bloody."
The woman smiled, but the smile was malevolent.
"They thought a woman wouldn't have a knife, so they didn't look for one. When I cut the first, the second hit me and then got up to help him. I cut that one while he was trying to push the first man's insides back in. I hope it took them a long time to die."
"I 'magine it did, but ya don't have t' worry about 'em anymore."
"I still have to find the rest. I thought you were one of them."
"Well, they're prob'ly long gone by now. They're not like most of us that fought in the war. They're no more'n common criminals now. Most of us just wanna put it behind us and get on with livin'. If I'uz you, that's what I'd do too."
"I can't. I have no family left. They all died on the way from our old land. My husband was all I had, and now he's gone too."
"Can't you go back t' your people? I'm sure they'd take ya in."
"Since those men ... what they did to me ... I can't go back."
Samuel stood up and went back to his fire.
"How long's it been since ya had anything t' eat?"
"Well, lady, I don't have much, but I'll fix you some bacon and corn cakes if ya wanna stay a while. We oughta get ya some clothes too."
"Why? It's warm at night. I won't get cold."
"It's not you I'm worried 'bout." Samuel opened one of the big saddle bags, and pulled out a linsey-woolsey shirt. "Here, put this on."
Samuel was glad she was so small. His spare shirt was long enough to cover her almost to mid-thigh. If she'd been a white woman, he'd have been embarassed to look at her naked because it wouldn't have been proper. He didn't know if he should feel the same way about an Indian woman, but he did know that after he was sure she wouldn't try to stab him, she was making him aroused. The shirt covered enough of her to mostly make that problem go away.
The bacon was frying and Samuel was making the corn cakes when she dropped some balls of mud in the fire.
"They're cattail roots. When they cook, they'll taste good. I found some onions growing over there and put them in too."
The fire was down to embers when they finished. The woman seemed to be relaxed a little, but Samuel still put the Remington under his saddle when he laid down to sleep.
He woke the next morning and found her staring at him. Instinctively he reached under his saddle. The Remington was gone.
The woman smiled at him.
"If I'd wanted to kill you, I'd have done it while you slept. I took your gun so you wouldn't shoot me."
She handed him the Remington butt first.
"You can have it back now. I believe what you told me."
"Lady, what's your name?"
"I am called Chula Ushi by my people. It means baby fox in white language."
"Well, Chula, my people call me Samuel. Think you could take some more bacon for breakfast?"
He was finishing his coffee when she asked, "Why do you ride through Choctaw territory? My people do not like whites here."
"I knew I was in Indian Territory, but I was gonna stay away from anybody else. I'm headin' for Texas."
"It's somewhere t' go that I haven't been. Where'll you go now?"
"To go bury my husband and then to find the others who killed him."
"You can't kill every man wearin' blue pants."
"I can until the other four are dead", was all she said.
Samuel thought a bit. He decided he couldn't let her go off to kill every man she saw. She seemed a little touched in the head. Maybe he could get her back to her people and they could help.
"I'll go with ya ... t' help with your husband."
Rowdy didn't seem to notice the extra weight of the woman, but Samuel was very aware of her. It was obvious she was accustomed to riding. She sat easily on the bedroll behind him and didn't hold on, but the rocking of Rowdy's walk occasionally caused her to bump against his back. Her bare legs also touched his as she used them to steady herself. After the second time he felt her breasts pressing into his back, he was wishing he'd just left her on the prairie. That would have been better than having his manhood pushing at his pants.
They rode all day and the next, stopping only for a short meal of corn cakes when the sky was high overhead, and making camp only when the sun was almost down. Samuel's bacon supply was running out fast, so he shot rabbits when he saw them.
The first night, he cleaned the two rabbits he'd shot and started to cook them, but Chula grabbed them and said "Women should cook. It is our way." The next night, he brought the three rabbits to her and waited until she said it was time to eat.
They didn't talk much. Samuel was used to being alone, and Chula seemed to be thinking about something. He tried asking her what was on her mind, but she didn't really give him an answer except "My husband."
The third afternoon, Chula pointed to a lone oak.
"Over there, by that big tree."
The place was a mess. The man was there, just as she'd said, or at least, parts of him were. The coyotes and buzzards had done a good job. Still, there was enough left for Samuel to see that what Chula had told him was true. It looked like the slash of a saber that had opened the man's gut. He'd been naked except for a breechcloth, so there was nothing to stop the blade from slicing deep.
Samuel took the shovel from behind his bedroll and started to dig beside the body. The woman gently caught his arm.
"No. A man killed by an enemy must not be moved or touched. I must cover him where he fell. It is our way."
She took the shovel from Samuel and motioned him away.