In Honor of General Custer’s Birthday… A Story…
Bloody Knife & Morning Star
By David Niall Wilson
Bloody Knife watched from his pony as the Calvary trooped by. Their uniforms glistened in the sunlight, and their weapons gleamed with the promise of glory and death. They were confident, and you could feel that confidence in the air, an aura that reached out from the golden haired demon that led them to permeate the entire column.
As guide, it was the Indian’s place to lead the way, but for the moment he only sat and brooded, watching as the spirits spoke to his soul. Custer turned once, nodding in his direction, an almost imperceptible acknowledgement of his presence, his part in the grand scheme of what was to come. Bloody Knife did not even twitch in response.
They called this golden-haired one “The son of the morning star.” It was appropriate. This was the dawning of great moments, new beginnings. The twilight and the birth of dreams. As the last of them glided by, a gaudy painting of arrogance and naiveté against a backwash of blue sky and the rising sun, Bloody knife dug his knees into his mount and slid off along the side of them like a shadow, leaving them in a small cloud of dust and making his way into the ravine ahead. His mind was focused, his concentration centered on what was to come.
It had been a chance meeting, a meeting destined by stars and dreams. Bloody Knife had been leaning against the railing beside a tavern called “The Smoking Gun,” idly sipping at his private bottle of whiskey and letting his mind wander. The bottle was as much for show as anything. Although he never drank to excess, it was a good idea to let those around him believe it to be his custom. There were reasons for everything he did, patterns shifting about him that only he could grasp.
It was such a pattern that had placed him there, just so, when his destiny had marched by. Golden hair flying in the stiff breeze, shoes shined and blue uniform so brilliant in the sun that it seemed to glow with its own, inner light, General George Armstrong Custer moved with the confidence of arrogance. He barely shifted his gaze toward Bloody Knife, but the sudden narrowing of his eyes, the slight hitch in the perfection of his stride, gave him away.
In a voice calculated for the proper volume, he spoke to one of his two companions. “I have come here for a purpose, gentlemen,” he announced. “The heathen Sioux are rampant, and it seems a strong hand is in order. Of course, they shall present no real threat to a well-trained regiment, but still, they seem to be proving difficult.”
Bloody Knife turned his own face away, still listening, but not wanting them to know it.
“You don’t know them red devils, sir,” the sergeant trotting along at his side puffed. “They’re slicker than shadows in them woods.”
“Rubbish,” Custer dismissed him. “Fighting men, trained properly, are the match for any situation, especially one involving uncouth savages. I expect to have this matter resolved soon, and to be called back to more important duties in the east. Let’s get some food, then we’ll talk about those guides…I’ll be needing to get through the ‘Black Hills,’ as you call them, as swiftly as possible.”
“Yes sir,” the man replied. He said no more, but in the tone of his voice, and the stiffening of his shoulders as he moved through the tavern door in his commander’s wake, Bloody Knife read worlds of doubt. This man knew. This man had met the peoples of forest and plain, had seen the light of his own death burning in their eyes. The other was a fool, but there was something more.
Letting his senses stretch, feeling the voices of the ground beneath him and the birds that floated in the skies above blending with his consciousness, he searched. There was an aura nearby, an aura of strength and purpose, an aura of power. It emanated from the interior of the tavern, and it brought a darkness, a dulling of the sight, such as he’d never experienced.
Calling out within the great mother’s spirit, he reached for her children, the spirits gone beyond, reached for their thoughts, for their aid. He could hear them speaking, just beyond the questing tendrils of his own mind, but he could not make out their warnings. All that would surface was an image, a glowing nimbus — a face — obscured by a green fire. It was surrounded by a mane of bright, golden hair, and from within it echoed the loneliness of a shattered spirit.
Shivering, Bloody Knife brought himself back to the present. He looked about himself, re-orienting his senses. Nobody had seen him in his trance-state, but it would not have mattered. He still held the whiskey bottle tightly in one hand, and they would have assumed what they believed to be the obvious.
That had been the beginning — the trail that wound back to the mother spirit, the path to inner light. It had been the moment he’d dedicated his life to reach, suffering the abuse of his own people, the contempt of the whites, and the scarring of his soul to achieve. It had been a moment of rebirth.
Slipping around the corner of the doorway, he’d stolen a last glance at the man, Custer. He’d scanned the handsome features, the arrogant tilt of the man’s head and the polished dignity of his demeanor. He was the one, there was no doubt. Never had he felt the spirit of those who would desecrate the land so intensely.
Within “The smoking Gun,” General George Armstrong Custer felt the weight of intruding eyes on his shoulders and spun his head quickly to the door. It was empty, but he would have sworn, had he not feared being considered insane, that the lingering image of a man’s form shimmered in that space. A dark man, an Indian. A heathen. The notion that such a man might pose a threat to an officer and a gentleman was ridiculous, and yet he felt a sudden chill. Shaking it off, he returned to his drink, and his plans.
As he rode out of the town and made his way toward the outskirts of the surrounding forest, where he would meet with the soldiers and secure his position as guide, Bloody Knife let his mind slide backward, leaving the mechanics of riding to the instincts of both body and horse, freeing his senses.
As a young man, life had treated him poorly. Half Sioux, half Ree, raised in a Sioux village, the taunts and challenges had been twice those imposed on the other boys. He had been beaten, whipped, stoned, chased and mocked, all with little time for respite. If it hadn’t been for certain events in his twelfth year, he might never have survived.
The tribe he’d been a part of was guided by the wisdom of a ancient, wrinkled shaman named Speaks With Spirits. It was to this man that his mother had taken him when, cut by a hail of stones from the other young men of the village, his head had bled profusely. The man had treated him without comment. At the time, Bloody Knife had been known as Running Dog, a name neither he, nor his mother, were pleased with, but which his father had insisted upon. Bloody Knife had known that the others of the village were behind this, that his father was secretly ashamed to name his son in this way, but there had been nothing he could do.
“Leave him with me,” Speaks With Spirits had said, and his mother had left immediately. The old man’s words were the law, and his powers were feared by all.
Bloody Knife had been in too much pain to give his fear much thought, and he’d followed meekly behind as Speaks With Spirits led him into his lodge. He’d known that others watched, and that tongues would already be wagging, but he’d been beyond caring. No one would think to harm him as long as he was in the presence of the shaman. He only hoped that the old man himself was not planning anything horrible.
Turning to him solemnly, Speaks With Spirits had gestured that he should be seated. He did so, looking about himself carefully, trying not to stare at the odd array of charms, potions, and animal parts. It was impolite to be curious, but impossible not to be.
Speaks With Spirits returned a moment later with a skin filled with some sort of liquid.
“Drink,” he said simply. “Drink, then sleep. Tomorrow, we will talk.”
That was all. Bloody Knife, then known as Running Dog, turned up the skin and took a long swallow of something syrupy, sweet, and then suddenly bitter. It had taken every ounce of control he could muster not to spit the foul stuff back up, but he had managed it, handing the bag quickly back to the old man, whose eyes were crinkled in sudden mirth.
And he had. Not a normal sleep. Long, deep, but filled with dreams — a journey such as he’d never known. Animals spoke to him first, blue-black ravens and otters with sleek fur, rabbits and bears — eagles. He listened as they spoke, and they flitted about him, surreal and insubstantial, whispering things he only half-heard, messages and instructions that would not stick with him, but that had re-emerged at various moments later in his life.
There had been men and women, as well. Their features, at first blending and shifting in and out with those of the animals, were insubstantial. They would coalesce, then disperse, then return in different patterns, confusing his mind and rendering it impossible for him to place them, one voice with one face. They were all voices, all faces, joining with him and teaching, communing with his own spirit and welcoming him in.
Speaks With Spirits was there, and yet he was not. His voice came first, chanting, rhythmic and powerful. As the sound went on, a warm glow flowed in and through him, and there was a subtle shift. The faces drifted away, flitted less often over one another’s features. It was Speaks With Spirits, one face, one voice, and his message was the only one that made it through, the only one not lost in the barrage of vision and confusion.
“You are chosen,” the voice had filled him, owned him. “You have the ears that spirits can reach, the eyes that can see beyond the veil. The great mother spirit of the earth rushes strong through your veins. What is mine, is yours. My gift now joins with your own, my life and destiny and yours are bound.
“There were powers before the Sioux, powers before the peoples of plains and mountains, before the whites and their fire-sticks, before even elk and deer. Our mother is the first, the greatest. The journey must be made back into her arms, the ascension to her realms. Your feet will take that path, your spirit will share the way with mine.”
There had been more. Much more. He had learned of spirits and the wisdom they could bring. He had learned of the earth, and of those who would desecrate her, removing the visions — silencing the voices of the spirits. All of this and more, and all in one, long vision.
Then he’d awakened to madness. He was wet — cold and sticky, and rising he found that he was coated in blood. Looking wildly about himself, it had registered that he was still in the lodge of Speaks With Spirits. The old one sat, legs crossed, above the position where he had lain. His head lolled at an odd angle, and the blood had run from the jagged cut at his throat down to pool on the ground where the boy, then Running Dog, had lain.
He rose numbly. There was a knife on the ground . . . dropped from Speaks With Spirits’ hands. The blood was pooled around the knife as well, and he reached out slowly, picking it up and staring at it in disbelief. He had slept. All he had done was to drink that foul potion, whatever it might have been, and …it was the manlan.
The voice, not exactly a voice, but a thought that was not wholly his own, had snapped out to fill in the gap in his knowledge, the name of the potion. He trembled. The manlan, vision drink. His mind filled slowly with a list of ingredients, a procedure he’d never known, a knowledge beyond his years and mind.
There were voices outside the tent as well. White Elk and Bear In Woods were calling to Speaks with Spirits, and they were impatient not to be answered. They prepared for a raid, and they needed strong medicine to guide and protect them.
Without thinking, or without thinking “himself,” the boy who was then Running Dog passed through the door of the lodge into the village beyond and stood, staring at the men. He held the bloody knife in his hand, still, and he stared at them with eyes that were different than those he’d worn before. Strong eyes. Pure and old. Wise.
“It is a bad day for a raid,” he said softly. His voice carried, despite the lack of force behind the words, and his eyes did not waver. Though the questions, the anger, and the disbelief warred within their eyes, White Elk and Bear in Woods turned on their heels and walked away. Others saw him, and they saw the knife. They whispered among themselves, but they did not come forward.
Speaks With Spirits had been powerful, old and wise in the ways of spirits and demons. If he was now dead, and this boy had killed him, then there was a power in him, as well. He was Running Dog no more — his identity branded into his soul as surely as the blood stained his hands.
He had walked slowly to the tent of his family, and he had taken up his weapons and his belongings without speech. His mother only stared, but his father — unwilling to face what was to come, turned and walked from the lodge without a backward glance, refusing to acknowledge his son further. It did not matter. There were new teachers within him, voices that came and went with the winds, energies and powers that beckoned from far lands and long roads.
He’d mounted his pony and turned to leave. There had been a tug on his leg, and he’d turned, almost, but not quite, swinging the knife. It was his mother, and her eyes were clear and proud.
“You must go to the Ree. I will follow soon. You must go to the lodge of my father and tell him who you are and what has happened. You must not return here.”
He nodded. It had been a beginning. He had never belonged with the Sioux, not truly, and now he knew that Speaks With Spirits had not, either. The old man had been of ancient stock, holder of secrets that made the eldest memory of the tribe seem the prattle of children. Now he was the guardian. The spirits spoke to him, Speaks With Spirits among them, and he had a destiny.
As the line of soldiers disappeared behind him, Bloody Knife swerved his mount and headed it off at a gallop along the valley, not leading them into the battle ground, as expected. Custer had other scouts — they would assume his death, which was in any case inevitable. He had one last trial — one last part to play.
He let his finger stray to his belt and the tiny silver horseshoe pendant he wore there. It was the only ornamentation he allowed himself. He would not dress as a Sioux — there was too much hatred, too much pain. He would never truly be Ree, despite his mother’s admonitions that me must stay with her, and with that tribe. Neither was he white. Nevertheless, he knew the power of talismans, and in the work to come, he’d invested greatly in the power of this one — one truly believed in by those he would stand against.
He was of the spirit. Symbols meant little to him, except in the powers they could contain. This horseshoe was the mirror of that worn around the neck of Custer’s subordinate, Major Reno. It would form the link — it would be his bridge. Custer would never believe in anything but himself, and in that power he believed all too much. Reno was different. He had seen defeat, had stared death in the eyes and lived with the haunting echo of that image for years. The spirits knew him by sight.
There were no trumpets to fill the air this day, despite Custer’s bravado. It was a bold plan, large and far-sighted in implication and implementation. He knew the odds, even as he disclaimed that there was any possibility of defeat. He believed that he had the answers, and that belief was a strong weapon, in and of itself.
He believed in Bloody Knife, as well. That was the fatal flaw. Every great plan has its weakness, every leader his Achilles heel. Bloody Knife had led him through the fabled holy black hills of the Sioux nation untouched. He had been there, breathing secrets and twisting dreams, since that day outside “The Smoking Gun.”
The Sioux hated Bloody Knife. Custer had no idea how deeply that hatred might run, but he felt it. His mind did not allow for the chance that the hatred was not reciprocated. The world was a steady procession of straight lines and set angles for the general. A man hated, a man loved, there was no middle ground, no gray area.
It was not Custer that Bloody Knife fought. It was not the Sioux. It was what each stood for in this senseless war. Change. Desecration of the land. Ignorance of the spirit of the land that provided all they needed, and ignorance of the mutual respect that could preserve this. Custer would not stop at the Sioux. He would not be happy until he had proven himself superior in intellect and battle to every “heathen savage” in the west.
The Sioux would not bend, but they might break. There was pride in them running deeper than sanity, in many cases, honor that shamed the whites they fought at every turn, but to no avail. They did not listen to the old ones any longer, though they venerated them. They did not seek to raid, or to count coup on their enemies, then to return to home and hearth for bragging rights. They sought destruction, annihilation. They were no different in this than the whites, and that was what Bloody Knife hated.
He slipped into a small copse of trees, and he pulled his mount to a halt, sliding off and kneeling quickly. There was not much time to work. He drew a small circle in the dirt, seating himself in it and pulling free the bag he wore at his side. From this he drew several herbs, which he sprinkled onto a pile of leaves and small twigs. After lighting them with flint and stone, he took free the small silver horseshoe from his belt and held it before him, closing his eyes and waiting for the sweet smoke to waft up and about him.
He could feel them gathering, the spirits of those who had gone before, the animals who had led him to an understanding of the land, wise men and warriors, mothers, daughters, and behind them all the whispered breath of the mother herself, the ultimate dream calling to his soul.
He concentrated, breathing deeply, pulling his essence within and redirecting it. His focus was the glinting silver horseshoe, the memory of golden hair and glistening steel, the whooping, rage-filled cries of the warriors as they mounted.
He had come to Sitting Bull in his dreams. While wrapped in the warm embrace of his three current wives, the Chief had seen victory. He had ridden as a demon through the lines of his enemy, counting their dead like the flies on a buffalo carcass and screaming his name to the skies. Victory and battle were the only visions the Sioux would respect in those days of horror and hatred, and Bloody Knife had provided them. The Sioux would ride.
Custer had been different. Bloody Knife had never feigned good will toward his employer, often being openly disrespectful. It was a ploy to gain respect, one that had worked. His prophecies had helped Custer on innumerable occasions, but never had they been offered directly. Always, he had made comments from the side, suggestions to the wind that were overheard and implemented. The battle to come was based on such comments.
“I had a dream,” he’d told another scout, aware that Custer listened nearby. “In my dream, there was a hill — a hill I know. It was the Little Bighorn, you know this place?” The guide had nodded solemnly. “I saw that hill run red, and from it, many spirits rose. They wore the colors and paint of the Sioux, and above them, burning bright, was a star — the star of the Morning…”
There had been more, and he had seen the effect of his words in the other’s eyes. Custer never said a word, but it was that very evening that he gathered his subordinates and planned to take off, with his own regiment, to the hill of the Little Bighorn. He outlined his plan carefully, and his eyes were nearly fevered with thoughts of victory and glory.
The smoke carried Bloody Knife up through the trees, up to where the fields beyond were visible, up to where the touch of the sun was a caress on his soul. He could see the hill in the distance, and he could hear the sounds from where the main force of the troops, led by Major Reno, were engaged, held in position, by huge numbers of the Sioux.
He could sense those forces pulling back, and he knew it was about to come, the battle was on. Custer would soon mount the hill, and Reno would begin to close in from the flank with his cavalry. It might be enough to turn the tide. It might change the vision. It could not be so.
The image of the horseshoe grew until it was a giant, panoramic view that super-imposed itself on the sky. He looked within the silver, looked beyond it, and he saw Reno, saw the man give the order to move and saw the lines begin to form behind him.
The spirits answered Bloody Knife’s call. They slid from tree to tree around the Major and his forces, rising from the earth, dropping from the trees. Always they were just out of sight, but they caught at the peripheral of each soldier’s vision, snatched at the sensitive ears and eyes of their mounts, grabbed at the strings that bound their hearts to their courage and plucked, bringing a trembling to the very air itself. Danger. Death.
Reno’s eyes were taking on a far-away, empty glaze. He saw the land before him, and yet he saw a different place. He saw his men, but they were not the men of that moment, but the men of another place, another time. Ahead his men saw the Unkpapa village and the line of Sioux warriors descending on them. Reno saw a road. Ahead was the fleeing form of a single man, “The Grey Ghost,” John Singleton Mosby, and he felt himself drawn into the vortex of that moment, reliving the madness.
He’d confronted the fugitive in a small town, chased him out onto the road, and victory was at hand. Then the bullets had begun to fly, from the trees, the bushes, raining down upon the road like hail. All around him his men were dropping, dying, screaming, and ahead the “Grey Ghost” laughed, flying into the face of time, dragging him through the blood and bodies of the fallen.
This wavered in and out of his vision along with the village, the advancing braves, his men. There were other Indians there as well, rising from the ground to stare at him in hatred, to stare through him, then to disappear. He raised his hand, screamed for a halt, for a dismount. He could feel the charge of the enemy as they approached, and yet he halted.
Skirmish lines were quickly formed as his men, staring stupidly at him as if he were a mad man, did as he ordered. They set themselves in a defensive posture, and they waited, leaving the plan, the General, and history to sort it out.
Reno leaped from his own horse, running madly about the lines, giving orders, some that made sense, others that were gibberish. He lost his helmet in the madness and picked up a stray straw hat, wrapping a cloth about his head as though to emulate the very savages they fought. Foam flew from his lips, and still he stumbled about. They could not die. He would not let them. His men would not die at his hand again.
Bloody Knife called to him, then, seeing that they would not advance, and he stopped still, listening to the air. Without further thought, he spun and ran to his horse, leaping back to the saddle.
“If you would save yourselves,” he cried, raising his arms high above his head as his horse pranced nervously, “follow me.”
The major turned and fled, and his men, one after another, slowly at first, then in force, followed. They were in a confusion, and the Sioux warriors falling upon them like an avenging tide took full advantage. They dragged the soldiers from their mounts, impaled them one after another in the constant barrage of arrows that blurred the air with shafts and feathers, death and screaming pain.
There was no chance. There was no hope, and with that black tide at his heels, the major fled to the trees, where Bloody Knife awaited him. The scout had risen. About his neck, he’d tied a starred bandanna that Custer himself had given him. He’d donned the bear-claw and clam-shell necklace of the Sioux shaman, carried at his side all these years, carried with secret pride and open pain. He stood alone in a clearing, sending his mind out to Reno and calling him forth.
The spirits whispered of the blood. The Little Bighorn ran red, and the blood was not of the Sioux. Men died, screaming and tortured, Indian children played with the wounded, stabbing and cutting, cat-calling and hounding. To a man they would die, their blood returning to replenish the land. The battle would make no difference in the end, but for that moment, that glorious moment, the last that Bloody Knife would know on earth, there would be a cleansing. There would be a return to what was animal in man, what was natural in nature.
As he stood, Reno roared into the clearing, eyes crazed and spittle flying from his lips. Seeing Bloody Knife and recognizing him, somehow, he leaped from his saddle and ran forward, dropping the reins of his mount and nearly stumbling to his knees.
“What has happened?” he cried. “Why are you not with the General? The attack, it is over — lost. We cannot break through. Why . . .”
There were a million questions swirling in the madness of the man’s eyes. Bloody Knife would have liked the time to explain himself, to teach what he had been taught, to pass on this legacy of responsibility, but it was not possible. It was time.
Even as the echo of the gunshot rang through the forest, he felt the hand of the mother’s spirit reaching out to draw him home. He saw the earth swirling away beneath him, felt the release as he broke free — broke into the realm of those he’d shared with so often, felt their embrace as they accepted him into the one whole, the spirit of the earth mother, Gaia, the purity of essence without form.
Major Reno staggered into the trees and somehow found his mount. He’d seen the eyes behind that gun — Sioux. They had followed him, even here, and they had shot Bloody Knife before he could answer. The major reached up slowly, running a gloved hand across his face. The Indian guide’s blood had spattered his features, his uniform, imbedded itself in his hair.
One moment the man had stood before him, the next his head had just exploded. Nothing. Where there had been eyes, eyes awash in wisdom and answers lost, there was a mist of red and pain. No screams. No staggering, bloody corpse. The body had dropped, headless, and Reno had run. Again.
In the distance he could still hear guns, screams. A momentary vision blotted the sight of the forest and he saw a hill, running deepest red, overrun with feathered hair and screaming, savage faces. There were no blue-shirted warriors on that hill, no cries of victory or glory. Only the red.
Mounting up, he headed back out of the trees and back toward safety at a full gallop, already planning his explanations. There would be no mention of ghosts, there would be no mention of Bloody Knife or visions of blood-soaked hills. There would be no glory. He had made history — history and glory are not synonymous. His head hung low, he rode to destiny.