Justice Barton sat mortally injured as the blood leaked out of a hole in his right side, under the rib cage, where the sharp arrowhead plunged deeply into his flesh. He could not move and feared that he would not make it out of this battleground alive.
Through his delirium, he looked through the ruins of the small Indian village and he could make out the dead bodies strewn about the wild brush and dry earth. In front of him was a motionless Indian squaw who was sprawled out over her small child. She seemed to have been trying to shield the child somehow from the rain of bullets that came through the air from the cavalry’s surprise assault.
But the effort was fruitless. Flesh cannot ward off the path of a Winchester or a Colt.
The little girl’s dark hair was matted with thick clots of blood that clung to what was left of her skull. He tried to move his eyes away, but he kept coming back to that one horrid image. It was no different than seeing his own son, lying there in front of him, cut up like a dead deer by those crazy heathens.
This eternal sadness and grief are what fueled his anger, and kept him going on a mission to kill every last one of these Indians, who seemed neither human nor animal. Living in the wilderness, feeding off berries and small critters, wearing bear hides and strips of leather around their loins, and howling and cackling like rabid dogs in the wake of a fresh kill.
He looked to the right and there sat Cap’n Estes, who looked as if he was napping against the tree. Justice knew that wasn’t the case at all, the way James Monroe Estes had his head bent to the side, and the way his eyes seemed glassy and lifeless.
There was a good deal of smoke that hung in the air from the fires that burned through the village and incinerated their earthen lodges to the ground. He was used to watching such fires burn, and actually enjoyed having a cigar and a good pint of whiskey to take it all in after such a well-fought battle. But he was not straddling his horse, positioned in the safe distance to take inventory of the damage his men had wrought against the enemy.
He was now part of that deathscape, and feared he would soon find himself among the war’s casualties.
He could feel the heat from the fire. And no matter which way he turned, he could see the bodies sprawled out, lying limp. A lone cow stood roped to a nearby fence post, seemingly oblivious to the carnage about her. Poor, stupid cow. He actually wished he had no sense himself, so he wouldn’t have to dwell on this barbarism anymore, wouldn’t have to be left with his lonely thoughts about this state of affairs. At times, he would just drink more of the whiskey to go numb, and take off the sharp edges of these dark thoughts.
He then shook from this listless state of mind, and tried to create some clarity where there was not much to be had. It was one battle in the course of many, and in this one, there certainly did not appear to be one victor. He wasn’t even quite sure at the time whether he was still alive, as everything around him did seem all cloudy and dreamlike. Where were his comrades? Had they fled? Among the burnt rubble of buildings and the prone bodies, were there no survivors?
The pain from the wound was unbearable! It shot through the side his chest, and his muscles tightened up, causing him to let out a muffled cry, like that of a wounded dog. It was then he looked down and saw the top of that feathered arrow, buried deeply right under his rib. He felt cold, and shivered mightily, despite the fact it seemed to be a very hot, dusty afternoon.
As he touched the arrow, he let out another roar of pain. He was not dead, but was sure close to it, given how weak he felt. Nevertheless, he held that Colt firmly in his grip, and waved it in front of him, and vowed to shoot pretty much anything that bothered to quiver or squirm. A buzzard flapped its mighty wings over on a nearby rock, and he fired his pistol at it. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the boulder, but the large scavenger did fly away. It finally settled in a nearby black oak, joining his fellow birds as they waited patiently to attack one of the many corpses in this meadow of mesquite, wildflowers and twisted cacti. Justice looked over to the far left and noticed two other birds picking and clawing at the face of a young soldier from his troop. Jonathan was his name. The birds then began to argue strenuously over a stringy strand of meat from the man’s empty eye socket.
He rolled onto his side and aimed his revolver in their direction. “Bastards!”
His hand began to wobble violently on the trigger, and soon his whole arm began to shake. Then the wave of pain overtook him again.
“Don’t bother white man. Save the bullet for me.”
Justice panicked and rolled over on his other side to train his eyes on where that voice was coming from. He inadvertently snapped off the top of the arrow as it broke off into the dirt.
“Dear mighty God!” Justice wailed.
“He won’t help you with your bad aim. Your heaven don’t need another crazy fool of an angel who can’t shoot.”
The sun was directly in his eyes. Over near the wall of a burnt-down hut lay this other man, who had appeared to suffer the same as he did.
“What in Hell is the—“
“Hold your tongue. I believe your God has given you only so much breath left. I suggest you save your words, and use them wisely.”
Justice pointed the revolver directly at the fallen man, who it now appeared was not of white heritage. As he twisted his head to see around that brilliant sun, he could see the long dark hair, the bones, beads and feathers that formed his chest mantle. The white war stripes painted on his cheeks and long, aquiline nose. The enemy. In plain sight.
“The gun’s on you, redskin. You keep talkin’ and I’ll just have to finish you off.”
“You are a mighty tall talker, white man,” the Indian spoke in fluent English, much to Justice’s surprise. “If you are going to shoot me, then why don’t you go ahead. From my count, you have one bullet left, so make good use of it, and be done with me.”
Justice began to pant, and the sky began to crash in around him. The world blurred and began to spin like a carousel, and Justice leaned into the ground and began to vomit up what felt like his whole insides. He strained and cried from the pain, and in a moment, it all went black.
It was now night, and Justice found himself wrapped in a warm blanket, with a wet rag draped over his brow. He touched his side and felt the large cloth fastened over the gaping wound.
“Where’s the — .the — .”
The Indian looked over at him, and gently took a sip from his small tin cup.
“The arrow? I pulled it out for you. I put alcohol on the wound, and stitched it. You are lucky you are still alive.”
“You did what?”
The Indian rose up from the fire, and limped over to the fallen soldier. He used the butt of his own long-barrelled rife as his cane.
“Listen, I could have killed you then. But I spared you. Why, I do not know. You come to, and you start shooting anything that moves. Typical ignorant white man. And you deserve this country?”
“You should have let me die, Injun. We hate each other to no end, and if I had the opportunity, I would have gladly stabbed you in your sleep.”
The Indian then straddled over him, and twirled the rifle around. He jabbed the barrel hard against Justice’s nose, causing the white soldier to grimace and squirm.
“You do not understand, white man. I advised you to quiet yourself, and you chose not to. What happens from here is largely up to you.”
The Indian went about his business by the fire, and pulled a chunk of tender meat from a spit. He placed it on a small piece of flatbread and handed it over.
“Here, you eat this.”
Justice reached out and grabbed the makeshift meal . The sweet, aromatic juices of the greasy rabbit morsel dripped down his shaking fingers. He stuffed it into his mouth, and chewed frantically, its flavor bursting over the surface of his tongue. The Indian poured him a drink from a flask and handed it to him. He sipped from the cup, and the whiskey warmed his mouth as it trickled down his parched throat. Soon, the alcohol seared through his veins and settled him some.
“Why do you even wish to help me, redskin?
The Indian sat back by the fire, and unwound the tight cloth that had synched off the wound on his inner thigh. He reached into a bowl and unearthed a handful of thick richweed lotion, and spread the lemony ointment over the wound.
“I’m saving you from hell.”
“Saving me from hell, huh? Is this some kind of a joke? And how do you speak my tongue so well?”
The lean Indian continued to pick at the meat by the fire,and then stirred the coals with a stick to keep the small flame alive.
“English is the tongue of my oppressor. What choice do I have but to adapt or be destroyed by your hand?”
“You are killing our familes and are scalping our men,” Justice replied. “An eye for an eye.”
“Yes, an eye for an eye. And what have you done here?”
Justice could feel his blood pushing hard against the walls of his chest and his neck. He reached under his blanket and pulled the gun out. He trained it on the Indian in front of him.
“You bastard! You and your kind are savages. You run through our land, and rape our women and steal our horses. You gut our young men, and then rip their scalps from the top of their heads. You don’t deserve to live!”
“Then shoot me now. Get it over with.”
Justice glanced over and saw the bodies, now neatly in line, all covered in large swaths of animal fur and thin, smooth animal hides. Indian lying against white man. The awful smell of death wafted through the midnight air, singing the hairs of his nose.
“You laid these dead folks out here. Why?”
“They deserve a good burial. I cannot leave them here without a respectful ceremony. They will burn together, as one.”
The gun remained pointed at the Indian’s heart. He seemed unfazed by the threat from his sworn enemy. He seemed drained of energy, of spirit.
“You paint us so badly. And what have you done in our own villages? You have raped and killed our own, and you have beheaded my people because they stand in your way. You have burned our crops, and have tried to eliminate our culture.”
“We have no choice.”
“You have no choice? Look around you. Our people have been here for thousands of years. You broke our peace.”
“Your people signed treaties and gave up your land. But still you fight.”
“These treaties…your own make-believe contracts to make you feel good about taking our land! But in our hearts, there is no scribbled signature to validate what you have done. No piece of paper can grant you the land, don’t you understand? This land is of the earth, and we are all here only as occupants, much the same as the coyote or the fox.”
The Indian could see that Justice was not listening, and seemed to be focused on his intent to destroy the last Indian in his way.
“Injun, your people raped my wife as I stood by, forced to watch. You then killed my one and only son. You gutted him, right before me. His killer wiped the blade of his knife across my face. My son’s blood!”
The Indian remained passive, not showing any sign of surprise or concern. This angered his white nemesis even more.
“Can you sit and stare at me like that, after I have shoved such a depraved act in your face?”
The Indian rose slowly from his small spot by the campfire, then steadied himself with his rifle. He turned his back on his enemy and walked off into the darkness.
“You turn your back on me, and don’t expect me to shoot you. Injun, I’ll take your soul right at this moment if you do not respect what I am saying to you!”
The Indian limped over to the line of dead bodies, and then, with great effort, kneeled beside the dead squaw. He touched her face softly, and brushed the hair from the side of her face. He then placed a light kiss upon her forehead. Then, dropping the rifle into the dirt, he pulled the small child from her stiffened arms and re-wrapped her prone body in the thick buffalo hide. Despite his wounded limb, he arose in one painful, deliberate movement with the lifeless girl and carried her solemnly back toward the fire. His awkward gait was now more pronounced as he struggled with each step to keep his balance. He grimaced and fought off the urge to scream, despite the pain that emanated through his body.
Once by the fire, he placed the small corpse delicately and reverently upon the ground. He then opened up the folds of the buffalo hide, and spread it out, taking his time to smooth the edges until it was fully unraveled.
The Indian looked down and a slight smile touched upon his face. A lone tear rolled down his cheek, and fell upon the animal hide.
“Ai-Ne-Chi-Hoyoh. My beautiful princess.”
He then covered the dead body with the thick hide, and carried it back to its place with the other corpses.
Justice’s hand began to quiver and his own eyes blurred over with emotion.
The Indian stood in the darkness for some time and spent many moments staring into the night sky. He then composed himself, and returned to face his foe.
“My name is Mckee, white man. I am a half-breed. My father and his father before that probably fought on your side of the field. Perhaps the Revolution. Maybe the French-Indian Wars. After a while, it all tends to blur, now doesn’t it?”
“Now who is this man who holds a gun to a grieving father?” McKee continued.
“Name’s Justice. Justice Barton.”
“Justice. A rather ironic name, considering our circumstances. Would you say you are seeking redemption for your white brothers? Or perhaps justice for all of us?
Justice eyed him warily. The Indian returned his gaze, and for a brief moment in time, it was if both men were within each other’s souls. A certain familiarity that neither one could shake.
It was McKee who broke through the silence.
“Take your pistol, and with that lone bullet, fire it into me. Then carry me to the other dead, and burn me, too. Without my wife and child, I don’t wish to live anymore. I do not have any fight left in me.”
Justice lowered the pistol, and continued to stare at this stranger.
He slowly opened the gun chamber and emptied the copper colored bullet into his palm. He tossed it aside.
“You did not let me die, so why would I now kill you?”
McKee nodded. The white man now understood.
Before dawn, Justice would dream of Elizabeth his fair wife, and of his young son. He had come home to the cabin, and the door swung wide. So radiant and beautiful, she reached out to him and pulled him closer. And his son, now nearly grown and much taller and wiry, was now tending to the yard and the stable and the chicken coop, and mending the fence which outlined the borders between their property and the vast empty frontier that seemed to go on forever.
But in the distance, he saw the large cloud of billowing dust, and heard the thundering claps from the horse hooves. Riding side by side, for as wide as Justice could see, were a proud line of red warriors, their faces painted in wild and brilliant colors of red and white, thrusting their spears and bows and guns into the air.
Then, as if in slow motion, Justice spun to alert his young family, and to encourage them to run. But all he saw were their lifeless bodies lying on the ground, the blood pooling about them. Then Justice could feel the pain in his chest, and saw the numerous arrows in flight as they tore through his shirt and flesh, ripping into his lungs and his shoulder and his abdomen. One arrow caught him in the throat, and he tried to scream but nothing came from his lips. He dropped to his knees, gasping for air. Staring at him was a lone warrior. McKee. Emotionless. Drained of spirit.
Justice reached for him, and with his last breath, called out his name. But McKee refused to move, and instead watched impassively as the white man crumpled to the soil.
In the morning, McKee had built sturdy pyres made of tree logs, branches and dried brush. On them he placed the victims of the massacre, both young and old, white and red. Then struggling on his bad leg, he picked up the lifeless body of his fallen enemy, and placed him between two Indian warriors, then folded Justice’s hands onto his blood-soaked shirt. Based on how the man dripped with sweat and moaned in his final hours — and how his flesh burned with a deadly fever – he knew that the man had faced his own internal demons in his waning hours. And now, perhaps for the first time in many bloody seasons on the dusty plains, he was at peace. Alas, this was his final massacre.
He then reserved a final moment to bow in front of his own kin, then placed a bouquet of wild flowers with his wife and daughter.
He lit the hay beneath the pyres, and watched as the flames began to lick at the bottom of the corpses. Within moments, the makeshift structures were engulfed in a brilliant firestorm, and McKee watched as the smoke and cinders of the dead merged to become one strong spirit, which rose high into the blue cloudless sky. Perhaps one day soon, he would be free from this world, and would join the dead in a place that would not have this pain and sorrow.