“Some things are best forgotten.”
May 17, 1967
No one remembered the original name of the old mining town. A sign long ago placed by an enterprising entrepreneur that proudly proclaimed Hot Coffee in bold letters had won out by default. How Myers wound up in Hot Coffee, Colorado was a long story. However, if he found the final survivor of Custer’s Last Stand, it would make his book like money in the bank.
He turned off his Ford at the end of the dirt road in front of its only house. The structure looked as if a blind carpenter had built it from scrap wood while working only at night. He picked up his satchel and made for the door. Three raps of his knuckles on the door frame resulted in the door opening slightly from the vibration. It swung open to display the one-room house in its entirety.
To say the interior was Spartan was an understatement. An old packing crate served as a table. A potbellied stove sat unused in the corner. Opposite of the stove was a pile of blankets and animal skins that served as a bed. Three logs about a foot square stood around the center of the home for use as chairs. On one sat the man he had come to see.
The man was small and shrunken, with skin that was weathered and tanned as dark as cow hide. Innumerable wrinkles cracked across his face and skin before they merged and cracked again. A long thick ponytail of snow-colored hair adorned his aged skull. He sat wrapped in a buffalo skin coat of the type popular decades before. Around his neck was a leather-braided necklace with an iron key and eagle bone whistles tied to it. The stale smell of tobacco with a hint of decay wafted from the shack.
“Wohei hotootouee-isee?” Spoke the old Indian in Arapaho asking ‘well, why have you come?’ In his hand, he held a long sheathed knife.
Meyers answered him in Arapaho saying that he was looking for the great warrior and wizard known as Black Knife of the Niowat clan. This brought a wheezing cough from the ancient Native American.
“Don’t insult my people’s language by putting it in your mouth. Your tongue is not ready for it,” the Indian said in carefully measured English. “I am Black Knife.”
“I would like very much to talk to you of Custer…”
The Indian shook his head, “I don’t like Custard, too sweet.”
“No sir, Colonel Custer, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.”
“I am an Arapaho, what would I know of this? Cheyenne and Sioux killed the blue coats. Arapaho are a peaceful people. The name Arapaho means ‘traders,’ we are not fighters. ”
Meyers sat on one of the logs and opened his satchel while he talked. He brought out mimeographed copies of an interview with a Cheyenne chief named Two Moons from the 1890s. He read from it that an Arapaho hunting party of five braves led by Black Knife smoked the war pipe with the Cheyenne and were at Custer’s Last Stand. As he spoke, the Arapaho’s face changed.
“We referred to what you speak of as the Battle of the Greasy Grass,” said Black Knife. “And you cannot comprehend it. The white man is the maker of history. Only his memory is respected. Mine is better forgotten.”
Meyers pulled a sheaf of photographs from an accordion file in his satchel and pushed them at the old warrior. They were of Custer and the 7th Cavalry, before and after the battle. Pictures of mutilated bodies, stripped naked and left where they fell in the tall grass of the Montana plains. Some of the bodies were in horrible positions. They were from a collection he had traveled across a dozen states to acquire over the past two decades.
“Tell me why this happened, help me understand,” he said as Black Knife inspected the photographs.
The Arapaho stopped his inspection of the photos and turned his gaze to Meyers. He looked through him, silent and motionless as a stone. For several long minutes, the two remained in the same pose, staring intently and trying to decide what to make of the other.
Finally, Black Knife broke the silence. “I am the last of my clan. The white father chased my people from Minnesota to the Dakotas to Colorado and broke every treaty they ever signed. I am old and tired and I need a descendant.”
“But there are many of your people still on the Reservation,”
Black Knife spat in the dirt on the floor, ”They are not my people. They do not know of the Sun Dance or the Ghost Dance. I need someone I can pass something down to for safekeeping.”
“I will be glad to help in any way I can. I just want the world to know what happened.” Then he gambled “tell me about the Soulless Ones.”
“What do you know of this phrase? Where have you heard it?”
“It was in Two Moons interview. He says you were responsible for saving the world.”
Black Knife’s eyes glazed over and he nodded. “It had been a cold winter and the buffalo were hard to find….”
June 24, 1876
Near the Little Bighorn River, Big Horn County, Montana Territory
The rabbit fell immediately dead as the arrow from Yellow Eagle’s redwood and sinew bow shot through its heart and lungs. Left Hand ran after the arrow to collect it as Yellow Eagle retrieved the rabbit. The hunting party would eat well that night. Black Knife nodded in approval and watched the clouds as the sun grew low in the sky over the mountains. You could see for miles in every direction. There were no buffalo. But then again, they were hunting for something else.
Their village had been ruthlessly attacked 18 moons ago. Two squaws had been killed. Their hearts pulled from their chest. Four children had been taken away. A warrior had tried to fight the invader off and had been bitten and left for dead.
They had brought the warrior to Black Knife to be cured. The bites were not from a wolf, cougar, or bear and stopped bleeding before morning. When dawn came, the warrior was a maniac, tearing and biting. Black Knife bound him to a log and placed a bag over his head. The Elders conferred with the Chief and sent for the learned wizard who had taught Black Knife the ways of the medicine man.
“He is now a Soulless One,” said the wizard who had lived for almost a hundred winters. “I have not seen one for a very long time.”
The wizard explained to Black Knife and the elders that the Soulless Ones had once haunted the plains. Once human, they had become infected and now ate human flesh whenever they could. They would spread their infection with every bite. The monsters could not be killed except by destroying their head.
“An arrow through the eye, a knife through the ear, or a war club to smash the head is the only way to release the spirit,” said the wizard as he stabbed the end of a long knife into the ear of the infected warrior tied to the log. The monster did not stop his kicking and biting until the knife was buried to the hilt.
“You must burn make sure the blood does not stay on you,” said the wizard as he held the knife’s blade into the fire pit. Blood sizzled and smoked away, “The evil spirit remains in the blood and can still possess long after death.”
The wizard challenged the chief and the elders to send a hunting party after the Soulless One who had attacked the village. If they did not, he had said, the monster would kill everyone eventually. Four warriors, Yellow Eagle, Left Hand, Water Man, and Sage had volunteered. Black Knife was sent as their leader, the young medicine man much more able to keep up with the party than the old wizard was.
They left on the fastest ponies in the camp and chased after the attacker of the village. For days, they followed the trail. They found two of the tribe’s kidnapped children, infected and wandering the tall grass. They had attacked a white man riding alone across the range and were slowly eating his face. Sage tried to save the youngsters but Black Knife was firm. The beasts were dispatched and left at peace.
The trail led them deep into what the white man referred to as Montana Territory where they came across another attack. A ranch house in a beautiful valley contained a family of five. The stench of death hung heavy there. Two had been massacred, their body parts chewed and scattered. The other three had been infected. When the hunting party rode off, all five victims were at peace and being consumed by the raging fire they had started in the house.
That was days ago and the trail was turning cold. Yellow Eagle was cleaning the rabbit when the riders appeared on the horizon. Black Knife watched them grow closer and released the riders to be Sioux braves. He could see brightly colored paint on the braves’ faces. Feathers and plumage fluttered in the breeze as they rode. Numbering 15, they and their ponies were adorned for war.
The leader, a well-defined warrior with a wolf pelt on his head held out his war lance and stopped just feet from the Arapaho. His face was painted grey and many hand prints were plastered on his appaloosa’s skin.
“Why are you here?” He asked in Sioux to which Black Knife, who had spent time among that tribe, answered that they were Arapaho following the buffalo.
“Lies. There are no buffalo here. The only human beings not helping the blue coats are the Cheyenne. Since you are not Cheyenne you must be spies.” At which the Sioux war party began reaching for weapons. Behind him, Black Knife heard the familiar sound of his own Arapaho brothers gathering clubs, arrows, and lances to defend themselves.
“If the Cheyenne are here with you I am well-known among their Council of 44. Is Chief Two Moons with them here?”
The Sioux warrior with the wolf skin pelt seemed to relax, “how do you know Two Moons?”
“He is my cousin. We grew up in the Sand Creek country together.”
With this explanation, the two groups rode over the hill as one. The Sioux surrounding Black Knife’s band of outnumbered Arapaho. As they crested the hilltop, spread out in the valley below was the largest campsite that he had ever seen. Hundreds of tepees dotted the valley. Herds of horses milled around thicker than the great buffalo had been. Sioux and Cheyenne mingled together in the thousands forming a bustling city on the plains. Packs of children ran among the tepee, weaving between them as they played their games. Women tended dozens of fires and sewed. Warriors watched anxiously as they rode by.
“Why are there so many Sioux and Cheyenne traveling together?” Water Man asked Black Knife as they rode through the camp.
“They are running from something,” he replied. “As with anything, there is safety in numbers.”
The Sioux placed Black Knife and his warriors in a large tepee. A group of Sioux stood just outside the door and left them under guard.
“They are going to kill us,” whispered Sage, one of the Arapaho. This statement started an argument among the hunting party. Half of the group wanted to fight their way out immediately. The others supported Black Knife and convinced the hotheads to wait and see.
Three dignified chiefs stepped into the tepee and brought silence in their wake. Two Moons, Black Knife’s cousin and chief of a group of Cheyenne Dog soldiers introduced Sitting Bull, revered holy man and head of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, and Crazy Horse, chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux to the Arapaho.
“So these are the hunters from Colorado who look for Buffalo that are not there,” said Sitting Bull.
Crazy Horse was expressionless and sized up the Arapaho with hard eyes.
“We have traveled 18 days tracking our prey, great chiefs,” said Black Knife. “But I must be honest and tell you it was not buffalo.”
Crazy Horse let his hand fall to the knife at his side and the shadowy figures of a dozen Sioux warriors crowded behind him. Sitting Bull placed a hand on the younger man’s chest to still him.
Black Knife told the chiefs of the Soulless Ones. Of the attack on their camp. Of the pursuit. Of the monsters they had killed and those that surely waited further down the trail.
They are spies of the blue coats sent to find our camp,” growled Crazy Horse. “We should end this.”
Sitting Bull, known for his visions and knowledge cleared his voice and began, “Our people have a similar legend, and we call him the Wendigo.”
“That is an old woman’s story,” argued Crazy Horse.”
Sitting Bull turned wholly to face the young war chief, “I saw one once as a small child. Grey skin, bloody face, evil and unclean. They are no old woman’s story. They are the devil of the plains. They know only death. It killed many warriors who stabbed for its soul. It was only when a medicine man shot an arrow through its eye that it was killed.”
“Where are these Soulless Ones, now?” Asked Crazy Horse of Black Knife.
“We had tracked them to the valley on the other side of your camp. I believe they are over the next hill.”
“The only things over the next hill are the blue coats.”
“They are pursuing you?”
“Yes, we refuse to starve on the reservation while the agency sells fire water to our warriors and kills us with his sickness.”
“So you are not on the war path?”
“No, we are always ahead of the blue coats and will remain so until the end of the world and the Great Spirit wills it.”
“Then release us so that we may resume our hunt. We have to destroy the Soulless Ones.”
Crazy Horse was interrupted by a commotion outside of the tepee. A Sioux warrior whispered into his ear something that seemed to startle him. The warlord spoke in a hushed tone with Sitting Bull and then with Two Moons.
“It looks as if we have found your monsters,” Sitting Bull said to Black Knife.
They lay in the tall grass on their bellies, looking out over the rolling hill to the valley below. Madness and utter savagery were on display. Black Knife could count almost 300 of the white man’s horse soldiers in their distinctive blue uniforms and wide brimmed hats that hid their faces from the Great Spirit. He had seen the blue coats at their worst at Sand Creek as a child. Seen them bash in skulls with rifle butts. Cut open pregnant squaws bellies to save bullets. Burn down lodges with sick old men inside. But this was worse.
The Soulless Ones without a doubt infected the blue coats. They were fighting in two groups. The first group, growing larger by the moment, was infected. The monsters clawed, bit, and strangled the smaller second group of soldiers who tried in vain to save their lives. The gunshots had been deafening as the Native Americans had ridden hard from the campground to the sound. By the time they arrived, however, the shots were petering out. Soon they would stop altogether and the Soulless blue coats would be all that remained.
“Look, Yellow Hair is in the last group,” said Crazy Horse. He pointed to the last clump of about thirty blue coats. They stood surrounded like the last piece of ice in a thawing river. All of their mounts dead or run away, they fought on foot. They were outnumbered nearly ten to one but nonetheless they stood fighting on all sides. In the center of the clump, standing next to a flapping flag planted in the ground, was the colonel known to the Sioux as Yellow Hair.
Famous for his long blonde hair, Custer stood in his custom buckskin clothes and calmly fired his revolver into the horde closing for his throat. Custer fired and reloaded, fired and reloaded, and each time the creatures grew closer. The last shots echoed out across the valley and the infected crashed over the living mortals making their final stand.
Crazy Horse and Two Moons cheered their war lances pushed to the sky. “Yellow Hair is done. The blue coats are no more. The Great Spirit smiles on us!” Cried out Crazy Horse.
“How many warriors do you have back at the campground?” Black Knife asked Sitting Bull.
“We must gather them all, strike now and destroy the Soulless Ones. Every one. It is our only chance.”
Crazy Horse was beside himself, “Destroy them? They have destroyed themselves.”
Black Knife shook his head, “Their souls have gone, but they are now even more dangerous. And they have an army of great strength. If they are not stopped now they can never be stopped.”
“Then we will strike camp and head for Canada. These soulless blue coats can be the white man’s problem.”
“There are more white men than blades of grass in this valley. If the Soulless take them over, what does that mean for us? If we do not fight these 300 now, tomorrow we will have to fight millions. They will never stop.”
“Then take you and you four Arapaho and fight them, holy man, we Sioux will strike camp and be far from this place tomorrow.”
Black Knife stood tall and exchanged looks with his warriors. Sage, the one-eyed shield maker, stood and nodded. Yellow Eagle, the best bowman in the Arapaho nation stood and nodded. Water Man, named because he could ride faster than the river flowed, stood and held his brother’s shoulder. Left Hand, son of the great chief took his place with the men. The boy had been scared in his first battle 18 days before, but he was a veteran now.
“We will fight them,” said Black Knife. “Someone has too.”
Two Moons, with a half dozen Cheyenne Dog Soldiers at his back stood and loudly said that he and his warriors back at camp would ride with their cousins, the Arapaho.
Sitting Bull stood and looked around the group, “The Great Spirit has given our enemies to us. We are to destroy them. We do not know who they are. They may be soldiers. They may be devils. We will end this and save both our people and the white men’s.”
“I will ride to the camp and gather the warriors,” said Crazy Horse with a smile. “We attack this afternoon. Hokahey!”
Black Knife knew the phrase, Hokahey. It was a Lakota and meant, ‘today is a good day to die.’ He nodded and encouraged Crazy Horse with his own chant for strong medicine in the coming battle.
May 17, 1967, Hot Coffee Colorado
“When Crazy Horse returned he had painted a yellow lightning bolt down the left side of his face, and marked hail stones across his body with white powder. Behind him were more warriors than I had ever seen before or since. Every man and boy, some only 12 summers old, were armed and painted,” said Black Knife is his raspy voice.
“The battle was fierce. Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho fought with great courage and skill. The soulless blue coats could no longer ride their horses or use their rifles but they were strong and killed many. My Arapaho and I instructed the Sioux and Cheyenne how to release the soulless’s evil spirits from their head. It was over in an hour. Afterward we had to make sure each one was truly dead so the women came from the village with their long sewing needles and punched holes through the eardrums of the blue coats.”
Black Knife looked away, “And then we had to do the same for the brave warriors who fell. The Soulless had infected my friends, Sage and Yellow Eagle. I released them myself,” he said, unsheathing the long black steel blade he had held throughout the conversation. Even in the bad lighting of the shack, Meyers could see the sharpened edge sparkle silver as the old man held it.
“What happened then?” Meyers asked.
“You know the rest of the story,” sighed Black Knife, “The Army found Custer’s men and chased us to the ends of the earth. The white man killed Crazy Horse within a year. Sitting Bull and his tribe rode for Canada. He spent the last years of his life selling pictures of himself in Buffalo Bill’s sideshow and was murdered by an Indian policeman with short hair. The last of the warriors that rode with me have been long in the Happy Hunting Grounds and wait for me. Custer is a legend. I even watched a moving picture years ago about him. Errol Flynn played him very well most white people think.”
“Why haven’t you told anyone this before?” Meyers asked.
Black Knife sheathed his blade, “Who’d believe an old red skin over Errol Flynn?”
“This is an amazing story…” Meyers said. He did not believe a word of it, but maybe he could get some pictures of the senile old fox and use tidbits from his interview in the book.
“It’s better forgotten. The last of the Soulless One were on that battlefield.”
“I was wondering if you’d allow me to take a photograph of you. I could pay you.”
Black Knife coughed a bitter laugh, “Like Sitting Bull?”
Meyers did not know what to say so he kept quiet.
The old Indian stood and shuffled across the room. Meyers did the math. The old man had to be well over 100 but he was still somewhat mobile. From under the salvaged packing crate table, he retrieved a metal strong box of the sort used by stagecoach drivers generations before. Black Knife dragged the box by one handle, scraping the uneven wooden floor behind him as he walked towards Meyers.
“If you want a photograph to sell the white man,” he said, taking the iron key from the cord around his neck, “here you go.”
The Indian bent over and unlocked the box. With a creak of old metal hinges protesting, he opened the cover of the strong box. Meyers looked down and peered into the box. Inside was the gray skinned decapitated head. Long blonde hair covered the top and back of the head, giving it a resting place to nest at the bottom of the box. A matching blonde mustache and soul patch adorned the lips. The skin had long ago sunken in on the face, pulling away from the eye sockets and mouth. Even after 90 years of age, Meyers recognized the face immediately.
“Custer?” He said.
The head opened its yellowed eyes and showed bright blue corneas that took Meyers in, blinking slowly. The head’s mouth began working and the lips and tongue started to articulate as the jaws popped open and shut. Black Knife slammed the strongbox lid closed on the snapping head and locked it.
“A thousand times I have checked on him and a thousand times he is still snapping,” the old Indian medicine man said. He handed Meyers the key.
“What I am supposed to do with this?”
Black Knife went to his bed in the corner of the room and started to lie down. “He’s your problem now; I’m too old for this shit.”
BIO- Christopher Eger is a military scholar and writer who has published more than 400 non-fiction articles on modern warfare in such magazines as Warship International, Military Historian, and Sea Classics. His nonfiction book-length work includes contributing to the Mississippi Encyclopedia by the University of Mississippi Press. He has published several short stories in previous anthologies. Last Stand on Zombie Island, Christopher’s first fiction novel, is set for release in the spring of 2012. You can follow his blog at www.laststandonzombieisland.com