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"I told you to bring extra belts," accused paramedic Roy DeSoto, as he opened the passenger side door of his colleague John Gage's Land Rover. He stepped onto the crumbling shoulder of the road and slammed the door. As the courtesy light winked out, the rural Nebraska night closed in around him. "Now we're going to be late."
"I did," replied Gage, his muffled voice emerging from somewhere deep inside the layers of luggage filling the back of the Rover. The paramedic was wedged head first into a narrow gap between a large suitcase and a trauma bag.
"Provided we can find a pay phone in this benighted state." DeSoto felt a good rant coming on. After years of listening to his partner hold forth on everything from the Carter administration to the ingredients in the secret sauce, he was in no mood to hold his tongue. "You can have the honor of calling the Cap and explaining why we're not back from this Midwestern purgatory," he continued, uncharitably referring to the educational exchange program with reservation EMS services.
"Hey," began Gage pulling his head from the stack of luggage. "Those are my people you're talkin' about."
DeSoto sighed. "I didn't mean your people…"
"Yes, you did," charged Gage.
DeSoto sighed again. "Yes, I did. But, I got sick of being treated like the ignorant outsider, at best, and the enemy, at worst. I was there to help."
"You've got to understand our perspective. White people…"
Bristling at Gage's use of 'our' and even more at the term 'white people', DeSoto interrupted. "I do understand. I've listened to the entire litany of wrongs -- repeatedly."
"It takes more than listening," said Johnny softly.
"But, I wasn't even alive then. People need to get over the past. Nothing I do now is going to change the past." DeSoto's indignation faltered in the face of his need to get back home to his family. "Look, we're not going to solve this tonight." He paused. "Truce?"
Gage bit back his angry reply. "Truce."
"Are you going to find that belt?"
"Yeah." Gage dug back into the pile of bags. "Ah ha," he crowed a moment later.
A beam of light broke through the darkness. "No, a flashlight." He handed the flashlight to DeSoto and began moving suitcases, paramedic supplies, and camping gear in earnest.
"Johnny, I'm sorry." DeSoto kicked half-heartedly at some loose gravel. "I'm just out of sorts. " He laughed weakly, "I guess I’m too old for two weeks of living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food."
Gage pulled his head out of the back for a moment. "At least you could go into town and get a good steak." For a split second his expression was as bleak as the surrounding plains. Then he shook his head and burrowed back into the stacks of luggage.
DeSoto remembered the cold stares and total absence of service that had accompanied his attempt to dine with Gage at a modest steak house in a town in the ceded portion of Pine Ridge. After forty minutes of waiting in vain for a waitress to seat them in the half-empty restaurant, they had left. Later, a well-meaning local had whispered that if he would come back without his Indian companion a good meal could be had. DeSoto had watched Gage's expression harden as he overheard.
"Got it." Gage crawled from the back of the vehicle dragging a large tool chest onto the tailgate. Throwing open the top, he rummaged for a moment, extracting an assortment of tools and a thick rubber belt. "Told you I brought a spare."
"Yes, you did," conceded DeSoto.
Gage turned, pulled the flashlight from DeSoto's hand, and walked toward the front of the Land Rover. "Man, you sure get cranky when you're away from Joanne. I hadn't realized what a public service she was doin'," he called over his shoulder. "I'm gonna buy her some flowers when we get back."
DeSoto stood on the side of the road, his back turned to the light and occasional curse emerging from under the hood. Shivering slightly in the pre-dawn chill settling over the plains, he stared into the darkness. After a few minutes, he shifted suddenly acutely aware the cold had shrunk his bladder. "Johnny, I need to," he stopped.
"Chris and Jen aren't here," commented Gage, stepping away from the Rover and straightening. "You can say, I've gotta take a leak." He offered DeSoto the flashlight.
DeSoto refused the proffered light not wanting to slow Gage's repair efforts. "Last time I slipped up and used 'firehouse' language around the kids, Joanne and I got a note from Jen's teacher about our daughter's unladylike language." Chuckling, he remembered Joanne's less than ladylike admonishments. He climbed over the guardrail and started down the embankment toward a brush-filled draw.
DeSoto scrambled across the loose fill at the edge of a drainage culvert into the coulee and followed the dry creek bed toward a clump of willow saplings, faintly illuminated by the moonlight. He started shivering again. The dank air in the draw was even colder than the open plains. Once among the trees, he stopped and started to unzip his pants.
Suddenly, there was a crackle of dry leaves from the shadows behind him. DeSoto froze, his hand still on his fly. Straining his ears, he listened. After a breathless moment he heard a faint shuffle, like feet on dry grass. The need to urinate forgotten, he spun. "Johnny?"
"Yeah." Gage's voice came from high on the roadside.
DeSoto scanned the brush, looking for a shimmer of movement in the watery light, forcing his eyes wide, struggling to penetrate the darkness clinging to the bluffs. "I thought I heard something."
"Probably, a porcupine or raccoon. Maybe a coyote."
DeSoto listened. Clouds moved over the moon, deepening the gloom. "Probably," he replied, cursing himself for ever having allowed Chet and Marco to persuade him to see "Deliverance." The phrase 'squeal like a pig' echoing in his head, DeSoto re-zipped his pants and stepped from the willows. He could wait for a nice, well-lit rest stop. The rustling sound repeated. DeSoto stared into the suddenly hostile scrub. He could hold it until they got back to California.
DeSoto hurriedly retraced his steps. Just before he reached the concrete drainpipe, a baby's cry came from the bluffs behind him. DeSoto whirled, willing his eyes to penetrate the darkness. Abruptly the cry stopped. He eased forward, moving into the shadows at the base of the steep creek bank. "Hello?"
"Roy, it's just an animal," called Gage.
"Quiet." DeSoto edged deeper into the undergrowth into the center of the stand of willow and serviceberries. Holding stock still, he held his breath but heard nothing. "Never mind," he said after a moment.
" 'K," replied Gage. The faint sounds of tools on metal resumed.
Shaking his head over his own foolishness, DeSoto started to back out of the brush. The faint rustle repeated, this time followed by a sharp inhalation and what sounded like a muffled moan. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. He pushed aside a branch.
A woman cowered, partially burrowed into the semi-rotten leaf litter covering the ground in the thicket. As DeSoto took a step toward her, she rolled on her side, shielding something beneath her body.
"Ma'am?" asked DeSoto, moving further into the gloom.
The woman shrank back against the hillside. Her face was a mask of terror. "Ve'ho'e," she hissed, her dark eyes wide.
Straining to see, DeSoto bent toward the woman, his hand outstretched. "Ma'am, calm down. I won't hurt you." As his eyes adjusted to the weak light seeping through the thin clouds, he saw a small movement in the shadows beside the woman. An infant's soft whimper rose.
Instantly, the woman placed her hand gently over the child's mouth and nose, cutting off the child's breath. The cry stopped. For a split second the child struggled before the woman released him.
"Ma'am don't," ordered DeSoto kneeling. "I won't hurt you or your baby." He placed his hand on the woman's dress. As his fingers closed on the rough fabric, he realized that the wool was sticky, wet and warm. Abruptly he pulled back his hand. His palm glittered black and slick in the moonlight. His heartbeat accelerated as he caught the faint, metallic odor of blood.
Startled he yelled over his shoulder at the embankment and Gage. "Johnny, we've got an injured woman and baby down here!"
At his yell, the woman seized the blanket wrapped infant and began to scuttle on her back through the dry leaves covering the floor of the thicket. "Ve'ho'e," she repeated. Her breath came in terrified and pained gasps.
DeSoto grabbed, trying to stop her panicked flight, and caught her foot. She kicked. He hung on. "Calm down, we're going to help you and your baby," he reassured. Her struggles slowed. Panting, she slumped back onto the ground. A fresh trickle of blood flowed across DeSoto's fingers. He looked down.
The foot beneath his hand was encased in a soiled moccasin. In spots, between streaks of dirt mixed with blood, a cross of white, red and green beads glittered faintly. DeSoto looked up, following the line of the woman's legs. His eyes widened. There was something odd, wrong about her clothes. They were too old. Blood soaked leather leggings covered her ankles and calves. She wore several layers of dresses against the Nebraska cold, with at least two thin calico shifts under a heavy dark woolen dress. A wide belt gathered the dresses around her waist. Her hair was bound into two thick braids. The infant was wrapped in a heavy, old-fashioned plaid shawl.
DeSoto could tell she was an Indian, but how she came to be in a ditch in these clothes in the middle of the night was a mystery. He remembered passing a historical park a few miles back along the road. Maybe she worked there as a guide or re-enactor, he speculated. She must have wandered off from a car wreck on one of the many dirt roads adjoining the highway. Why else would she be here in the middle of nowhere with a baby
There was a soft sinister dripping sound as a new flow of blood began to drop on the dry leaves. "Johnny, now!" yelled DeSoto.
"Coming!" Gage's reply was slightly distorted by the body of the Rover.
DeSoto could hear the thump of suitcases being thrown on the ground as Gage frantically retrieved the cases containing the medical supplies. "Hurry!"
As DeSoto turned his head toward the embankment, the woman moved. Swiftly, she drew a knife from a sheath beneath her hip. The blade flashed in a shaft of light. She slashed at DeSoto.
"Argh!" He pulled back; his arm stinging. "She's got a knife!"
Gravel crunched on the shoulder of the road behind DeSoto as Gage clambered over the guardrail. "On my way," said Gage.
DeSoto clamped his other hand over his bleeding forearm. Unblinking, he stared at both the knife and her face. The woman's eyes locked with his. "Calm down ma'am. We're here to help you," whispered DeSoto soothingly.
Her lips moved soundlessly as her free hand again tightened on the baby. She tried to rise onto one elbow. The knife blade wobbled.
"Yes, put the knife down." Roy kept his gaze fixed on her face and forced his expression and voice to remain calm. Sweat gathered beneath his arms and ran down his sides, and the rough ground dug into his knees. "We'll get you to a hospital. They'll fix you up," he babbled. Blood squeezed between his fingers and fell upon his boots. What was taking Johnny so long, he thought desperately.
A flash of movement behind the woman's head caught his eye. DeSoto risked a glance away from the knife.
A teen crouched on the hillside in the thicket above the woman. He too was clad in anachronistic garb -- a torn calico shirt two sizes too big and blue woolen leggings. Twigs, from the cluster of willows, pulled at this clothes and hair as he inched closer. But, what caught DeSoto's attention were the boy's hands, which were wrapped around a rifle pointed straight at him.
DeSoto's world narrowed to the dark eye of the barrel. He forced himself to look away. The teen was barely more than a boy. Despite the cold, the teen's face was beaded with sweat. He breathed in rapid, shallow pants. As he met DeSoto's gaze, the teen slowly bit his lip. His entire body trembled, but the shaking did not reach the gun. The teen's finger tightened on the trigger.
"Joanna," breathed DeSoto closing his eyes.
Dislodged rocks clattered free from the fill as Gage scrambled down the bank by the culvert. The heavy medical bags pulled him off balance. He skidded to the bottom of the draw, nearly losing the flashlight as he slid. Gage swept the beam across the dry creek bed, probing the bluffs and folds. DeSoto was not in sight.
"Roy!" The beam lanced through the underbrush, unexpectedly illuminating the other paramedic kneeling stock still, his eyes squeezed shut.
"Gun!" gasped DeSoto.
Gage froze. He pressed the flashlight against his stomach, smothering the light, unwilling to risk the clicking sound of switching it off. He squatted, crouching against the crumbling clay wall of the gulch. Willing his eyes to adjust to the darkness more quickly, Gage held his breath listening. He heard Roy's gasping inhalations and the soft whispering of the willows in the wind, but nothing else.
The clouds broke over the moon and cold, silvery light filtered into the ravine. Gage could clearly see DeSoto still on his knees, facing a blank hillside. Risking lifting his head higher, Gage rapidly scanned the thicket and the nearby bluffs. He saw no one.
Cautiously, Gage shifted the flashlight, covering the lens with his shirt. He swept the filtered beam over the bluffs, lighting the shadowy draws. Still, he could see nothing other than his colleague.
"Roy?" he whispered.
DeSoto didn't move.
Gage slowly stood. He uncovered the flashlight and edged closer to DeSoto, carefully examining the dark swales and patches of gloom beneath the trees. "Roy, there isn't anyone here."
DeSoto opened his eyes. The teen and his rifle, and the woman and her baby were nowhere to be seen. He swayed for a second and debated fainting. He slumped back onto his heels. "They were right there." He pointed.
Gage turned the flashlight and studied the smooth blanket of leaves. "It doesn't look like anyone has been here."
"She was lying right there bleeding."
"Bleeding?" Gage ran his hand through the dry leaf litter.
"Heavily. She and the baby were right there."
"Well, they're gone now."
DeSoto imagined the teen crouching on the bluff above him, staring over the rifle sight. The back of his neck prickled in the cool breeze. "Let's get out of here. We can go back to that park, they'll have a phone. We can call the police. The woman was badly hurt; she's going to bleed out if she doesn't get help very soon," he announced, lurching awkwardly to his feet still clutching his slashed arm.
"Roy, your arm?" asked Gage, stepping closer.
"She cut me." DeSoto started rapidly back toward the road.
"Let me see," said Gage.
"When we get outta here." DeSoto struggled clumsily up the embankment, nearly falling.
"Roy, take it easy."
"That kid with the gun is still out there," panted DeSoto, jerking his head toward the draw. "And we need to get the police." He scrambled the last few feet onto the gravel shoulder. One-handed he started to gather the tools off the fender. "I hope you got the new belt on."
DeSoto slammed the hood shut. He went to the back of the truck and shoved the tools and spilled luggage into the bed. He closed the hatch, trying to seal off his rising fear.
Still climbing, Gage dug in the first aid bag and removed a dressing. "Let me put this on," he ordered, his words muffled as he tore the package open with his teeth. He pried DeSoto's hand away from his arm and started to peel back his sleeve. His eyes went wide. "Roy, where did she cut you?"
DeSoto looked down. His forearm was smooth and uncut. "Right here," he stammered.
"There's no blood."
"I was bleeding." He slid his sleeve past his elbow, feeling the intact skin. He held up his arm. "She must have just scratched me." He opened the passenger door. "She still out there, hurt, bleeding," he repeated.
Digging the keys from his pocket, Gage walked to the driver's side.
Gage waved slightly and nodded farewell, as the pickup towing the Dawes County Sheriff's Posse's horse trailer pulled onto the highway. "Sorry for wastin' your time," said he said to the remaining officer.
"No problem," said the sheriff's deputy, once again adjusting his broad brimmed hat over his burr haircut. "People see all kinds of things out there at night. Just glad no one was really hurt." He climbed into the police car.
Roy slumped in the passenger seat, listening to the gravel crunch under the tires of the retreating vehicle. He, Gage, and the members of the Sheriff's posse had spent a fruitless morning searching the folds and draws along the tributaries of Antelope Creek. The woman, the teen and the baby had disappeared as if they hadn't even existed. And, he was fairly certain the tale of a city slicker, L.A. county paramedic seeing imaginary victims would provide the denizens of the county courthouse months -- years -- of amusement.
"Roy." Gage held out a canteen.
DeSoto took a long drink.
Gage leaned on his hip against the fender. "What exactly did you see, again?"
DeSoto sighed. "An Indian woman with a baby. She was wearing old-fashioned clothes. She was bleeding. There was a teenager with her, with a rifle," he recited wearily.
Gage nodded slowly, looking down into the coulee.
"I'm going crazy," offered DeSoto.
Pushing away from the side of the truck, Gage shook his head. "I don't think you're crazy." He reached past his colleague and rummaged in the glove box for a moment, extracting a muslin pouch of tobacco. He climbed over the guardrail and walked toward the bank over the concrete drainage pipe.
DeSoto followed. "Then what did I see?"
Gage stood quietly for a minute, then pulled a pinch of loose tobacco from the bag and held it aloft. Silently, he sprinkled it over the edge of the embankment.
Roy watched the leaves drift down and settle on the culvert.
"I don't know," Gage said after several minutes, finally turning away from the draw.
DeSoto walked to the truck and climbed slowly inside. Gage started the engine and pulled onto US-20. Drumming his fingers on the door handle, DeSoto stared out the window, watching cloud shadows play over the sun-bleached hillsides rolling past. After just a few miles, Gage drove onto the shoulder and let the vehicle roll to a stop, beside a large metal sign. DeSoto rolled down the window and studied the historic marker.
"...Unable to find horses, the Cheyenne eluded pursuing troops for twelve days by heading northwest through the rough terrain of the Pine Ridge. Soldiers discovered their hiding place on Antelope Creek January 22, 1879, but the Indians refused to surrender. During the outbreak, sixty-four Cheyenne and eleven soldiers were killed. More than seventy were recaptured and several escaped...." DeSoto read silently.
Closing his eyes and leaning back, he inhaled the alfalfa scented breeze. "Ghosts?" DeSoto asked.
"I don't believe in ghosts."
Gage shrugged. "Apparently they believe in you."
DeSoto studied Gage, but his face revealed nothing, neither belief nor disbelief. Then he remembered Gage's tobacco offering spreading on the wind. DeSoto looked out the window again, and found himself imagining that woman and her infant lying in one of the crumbling gray folds on the creek bed, covered in blood, eyes glassy and dead. He shuddered.
"Let's go home," Gage said, putting the Land Rover into gear.
Fort Robinson, near Crawford Nebraska, was a pivotal and unfortunate place in the later phases of the "Indian Wars". It was for a time the headquarters of the Red Cloud Agency, the much reduced boundaries of which are now the Pine Ridge reservation. It was in the guardhouse at Fort Rob on Sept. 5 1877, that Tashunke Wintko was murdered. A year later a group of Northern Cheyenne under the leadership of Dull Knife and Little Wolf fled the Southern Cheyenne reservation in Oklahoma, heading for the Tongue River country. After a lengthy running battle, a portion of the Cheyenne headed for the protection of their allies, the Oglalas, at Red Cloud Agency. They were captured and held at Fort Robinson throughout the winter of 1878.
Refusing to return to Oklahoma, they escaped. Over the space of twelve days the Cheyenne were hunted down in another series of running battles. The final free remnants were cornered in rifle pits they had dug along Antelope Creek. Of the 32 men, women and children, only 8 women and children were pulled alive from beneath the bodies of the slain.
To be honest, I was a bit uneasy with dealing with this subject material in a fanfic. I was afraid of trivializing this unfortunate history. I hope I haven't offended.
I may have taken some liberty with time and signage. I don't remember seeing the marker along US 20 as a child in the 1970's But, I was a child and not too attentive to such things. So I do not in fact know if was in place in the '70's. It was there when I visited in the mid-80's.
Much thanks to Ginger S. for proofreading and a firm hand where needed. Pilamaya ksto.
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