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 trousers 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 Union soldiers who never stopped fighting. 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 trousers. 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 trousers? 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 trousers 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 embarrassed 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 trousers.”
“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 trouser front.
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.
An hour later, she dropped the shovel, fell beside the mound of earth and began to wail. Then she cried and pulled at her hair. Her screams and tears went on for another hour until it was obvious to Samuel that the woman was exhausted. When she sagged to the ground, he walked over and helped her sit up.
“I think ya need to rest.”
“He must hear me cry, or his spirit won’t go to the Happy Land.”
“Chula, I think he heard ya, and I think you’re ‘bout done in. Come lay down and rest a little. Then we’ll move on. This isn’t a good place t’ spend the night.”
An hour later, Samuel pointed Rowdy up river and they rode until sunset.
The next morning Samuel was shaken and woke with Chula’s hand over his mouth. He opened his eyes and saw her’s dark again with hatred.
“They came back”, she whispered, and pointed to the west.
Samuel saw four riders, and even at that distance could make out the blue trousers of the Union Army and the McClellan saddles on the horses.
“Those are the men?”
“Yes. I recognize the horses.”
“Well, they’ve seen us by now. Go hide in the bushes and don’t do anything. I’ll take care of this.”
As the riders approached, Samuel could see that one of them wore the hat of an officer. The officer rode straight toward Samuel; the other three fanned out on each side to flank him. The officer stopped his horse and spoke.
“I see you were a Union soldier who made it through the war alive. I salute you.”
Samuel didn’t return his salute and the officer frowned.
“I’m looking for two of my men. They were taking an Indian woman to a half-breed trader in Fort Gibson. Runs a whorehouse up there. The new troops moving in seem to like these Indian women for some ungodly reason. You didn’t run across them in the last couple of days did you?”
“No, Cap’n, I can’t say that I have. ‘Course this is pretty big country.”
“We saw a woman here with you. She looks like the one those two took with them. I suppose she got away somehow. We’ll be taking her off your hands. Where is she?”
Samuel hoped Chula was still hiding. He couldn’t chance a look to see.
“Well, Sir, you’re mistaken. That’s my woman…traded my pack horse for her a few months back.” Samuel chuckled. “It gets a little cool out here on spring nights, and I wanted a bed warmer. She’s gone off to…well, she wants to be by herself on those days. You know how women are.”
“No, I do not, but I know you’re a liar and I know that was the little Indian bitch. Her buck was a Rebel. We took care of him and now we’ll take care of her. It’s only right, don’t you think, that we punish them for murdering Union troops?”
“Well, Sir, like ya said, I fought ‘n the war, and I think we all been punished ‘bout enough for one lifetime. I’ll be keepin’ my woman, but can I offer you ‘n your men some coffee ‘fore ya ride on?”
Without waiting for an answer, Samuel stood up, walked to the fire and picked up his coffeepot. He heard the click of a pistol hammer cocking and pulled the Remington from the holster as he spun around.
Samuel took the man on his left first, the shot catching him dead center in his chest. The second man on his right was next, and the ball shattered his forehead. He turned toward the third as the captain drew his saber and spurred his horse forward.
Samuel jumped to his left and fired as the horse thundered past him, killing the third man with a shot through the neck. He was turning to find the captain when the blade of the saber sliced across his arm. Samuel dropped the Remington and went down in pain.
The Captain rode up beside Samuel with his Colt drawn.
“You just lay there and don’t try for that pistol.”
He dismounted and walked over to Samuel, then kicked his Remington out of reach.
“The Union has no use for traitors who side with Rebel Indians. You’re no better than one of them. As the officer in charge of this area I sentence you to death.”
The captain raised his saber. It was the last move he was to make. Chula’s knife sliced through his neck just under his jaw. Bright red blood spurted from the wound and splashed in the dirt as Chula slashed through the other side. The man gurgled bloody froth as he fell to the ground.
Samuel felt Chula helping him to his feet. She walked him to his bedroll and laid him down, then pulled her shirt over her head and slit it into strips. She was gone for a few minutes, then returned with some small white bulbs. After stripping off the outer layers, Chula squeezed the bulb and let the fluid drip into Samuel’s wound.
“The cut is not deep, but this will keep away the evil spirits that would make you sick”, she explained as she carefully wrapped the wound with the strips from the shirt.
Samuel knew there might be more renegade soldiers with this group, so they turned south and kept riding until he felt light-headed. Then, everything went black. He figured he must have feinted, because the next thing he remembered was seeing Chula leaning over him in the firelight.
“Where are we?”
“In the place you fell off your horse. I spread out your blankets and rolled you on them. Then you went to sleep. Does your arm feel better?”
Samuel flexed his arm and winced at the pain.
“It hurts, but I’ll be all right. Thank you.”
“Your woman should always take care of you. It is our way.”
“You told the soldiers I was your woman. Did you not mean what you said?”
“Well…I - I don’t rightly know. I don’t know ya very well. Not at all, really.”
“You know me as well as I knew my husband when we were joined. You helped me go back to my dead husband, and you killed my enemies. A good husband would do that. I have thought about this since you killed the soldiers. A woman must have a husband to hunt for her and to cut trees for her house and to protect her and her children. I will be your woman if you want.”
“What about him - your husband? Don’t ya need to wait a while on account o’ him?
“My husband was a good man, but we never were one like other husbands and wives. I was going to tell him to leave when I had food to give him for the winter, but he was killed. Now that I have buried him and cried for him, his spirit has walked to the Happy Land. I feel bad that he is gone, but good too. Is that wrong? It doesn’t feel wrong.”
Samuel was dumbstruck. Four days ago, she’d tried to kill him. Today, she had saved his life. Four days ago, she was a naked Indian woman he thought a little crazy. Tonight, sitting naked beside him in the flickering light of the fire, she was a desirable woman who aroused him in spite of the pain in his arm.
As he watched her breasts rise and fall with her breathing, Samuel realized there was more than just arousal. Chula was as wily and wild as the fox for which she was named, but she’d been determined to avenge her husband, and she’d saved his life when she could have run. The woman was strong, fearless, a woman a man could count on to stand beside him. He also realized he enjoyed her company. Samuel lifted his good arm and touched hers.
“Many of both our peoples would not approve.”
“I have no family left to tell me it is wrong. To be happy is not wrong, and I would be happy being your woman.”
Chula unbuttoned his shirt and ran her hands over his chest, then slipped them down his belly.
“Make me your woman. It is our way.”
She unbuckled his belt, then unbuttoned his pants and pulled them down his legs. His boots gave her a little trouble, but soon she knelt beside him. Her breasts swayed gently as she straddled him.
Samuel felt clumsy with only one good arm, but Chula understood. She lifted his good hand to her breast while she reached between them and grasped his shaft. After pressing it against his belly, she lowered her body over it. Samuel felt her soft lips open and trap him between them.
Chula moved her body over his, rubbing his shaft between her lips. Samuel felt wet warmth flow from her body and over him. He gently squeezed Chula’s soft breast and rubbed her nipple. She made a little noise deep in her throat and lifted her body. With her small hand, Chula guided him to her entrance and eased down. Samuel felt himself sliding easily into her body.
She was slippery wet, and kept pushing down until Samuel’s shaft was sheathed in her velvet passage. Chula stayed motionless for a moment, and then Samuel felt his shaft being squeezed. With a sigh, Chula began rocking her body back and forth.
Samuel’s experience with women was almost nil. He’d avoided the camp followers who’d spread their legs for any man as long as he paid them. Of the other women in his life, only one had joined him in bed. It had been pleasant, but she’d barely participated.
Chula was so different. Not only did she stroke her body over Samuel’s stiff shaft, every time Samuel was buried deep inside her body Chula would rock her hips and force him in deeper. Soon, with every stroke, a tiny little moan would purr from her lips.
Samuel could not just lie there. The sensations were too intense. Chula’s passage was snug, and when she clamped her muscles on his shaft, his body instinctively lurched up into her. With each lurch, her breasts bounced. Chula pressed his hand firmly against her left breast, and gasped when Samuel gently squeezed.
Time stopped for him then. Samuel was aware only of his fingertips on the softness of her skin, the quiet murmurs that slipped from her throat, and the sensations of their bodies sharing a single, mutual pleasure.
It might have been only moments; it might have been longer, he would not have been able to say. They twined together, slowly at first, then with the hunger to reach the shattering explosion of release that swept away everything but the feeling of two becoming one. As it was, Chula cried out and ground her body into Samuel’s, forcing him deep inside her. The quaking of her body as the wave swept her away pushed him over the edge as well.
Chula cried once more and then collapsed on top of him. They lay there, still joined, as he put his arms around her and held her close. Her heart pounded against his chest and her breath panted against his neck as she lay there and stroked his arm.
Chula murmured, “I am your woman now, Samuel.”
Samuel fell asleep with her in his arms, and for the first time in months, his sleep was not filled with the flash and thunder of gunfire and the screams of other men.
And so it was, I am told, that Chula became my great-grandfather’s wife. There was no wedding other than her promise to him and his to her, for preachers were few and far between in those days. They retraced the route Chula had taken from what she always called the “old lands” and along the way, found a place to live in Tennessee. Samuel built her a small cabin near a clear, cool stream. She bore him three sons and two daughters, and raised them to know their Choctaw heritage as well as the ways of the new life after the war.
I remember her just a little, a wizened old woman with long, white hair sitting in her rocker when I was a small boy. She taught me of cattail roots and rabbit skins and turkey bone whistles and a hundred other things she said Choctaw boys should know. The story of her life I did not learn until much later from my grandfather, the youngest of their sons, when he was over eighty. It was one night when the icy winds of winter swept through the cracks in that old cabin where he still lived. The sour mash both warmed us and loosened his tongue as we sat by the light of the open fire that night.
I like to think she and Samuel are still together in what she called “The Happy Land”. I wish I’d had the chance to know her better. Perhaps someday, when I take my walk to the Happy Land, I will get that chance.