The night was cold, and the ropes around Wicapiwakan’s wrists cut all the more for it. She had been tied to a post since mid-afternoon, and no food or water had been offered to her. Just another day with the United States Army.
They captured her about a week before, just trying to hunt for her people. They made claims that she was on land that didn’t belong to her; that hunting on that land was considered poaching and was illegal. She had lived in the area her entire life, and she had hunted on that land many times before. While it was possible that some new treaty had been made, ceding the land to the government, she suspected it was nothing more than an excuse to take her in.
She hadn’t even managed to get any message back to her people before the soldiers tied her up and dragged her off. The only emotion matching her rage was her worry for them. They were a small group of Lakota, split off from the rest during a clash with the army some time back. She and two others had been the only ones capable of hunting and defending the party. Now they were down a bow, and she feared for them.
Her stomach grumbled quietly, and she gave it a frown. Now was not the time to complain. It wouldn’t do to show any sign of weakness in front of the soldiers. While she did not know what they planned for her, she knew it was nothing good, and more than once she had caught various members of the unit staring in a very unsavory way. She needed to get out of this camp.
Lights and shadows shifted as the moon moved across the sky. The soldiers ate and drank and eventually slept, leaving Wicapiwakan to herself. That, at least, was a blessing. As the night wore on, however, she began to grow weary of her restraints. It was hard to sleep peacefully sitting straight up, hands behind your back, wrists bleeding lightly into the dirt around you. What she wouldn’t give for a little sleep.
Just as she began to nod off slightly, she heard a noise that immediately brought her back to consciousness. The steps of many reached her, but she recognized immediately that these steps did not belong to anyone that belonged in the camp. They were too quiet.
With a cry, the natives surrounding the camp attacked. The soldiers stood no chance in their drunken state. It was a bloodbath Wicapiwakan was pleased to witness.
When it was done, she called out to the braves. “My brothers! Would you be kind enough to release me?”
Their leader came over and cut her bonds. “It is good we came. I do not want to think about what they would have done with you.”
“Nor I,” she replied, standing and tenderly massaging her wrists. “Thank you. I am Wicapiwakan, of the Lakota people.”
“Well met. I am Eagle Flies, of the Wapiti.”
“Wapiti? Then you know these parts well. Tell me, have you seen a small band of Lakota? Mostly elders, women, and children.”
A shadow passed over Eagle Flies’ face that caused Wicapiwakan’s guts to twist. “We found them two days ago. They… they were slaughtered. That is why we came here.”
The twisting feeling in her middle got worse, but she did not allow it to take over her frame. Instead, her eyes slipped shut. “May peace find them.”
“I’m sorry I do not have better news. What will you do now?”
Her eyes opened again, and she took a deep breath. “I do not know.”
“You are welcome to come with us. We are returning to our village. My father is chief. He will not be pleased with what we have done here, but he will welcome you with open arms.”
“Thank you, my friend, but I think I will go it alone for now.”
“If you should change your mind, we are camped just north of Donner Falls.”
Wicapiwakan held out here hand which Eagle Flies took. “Thank you. For saving me and for avenging my people.”
“We are all one people now, united against our shared enemy. Be safe. May the Great Spirit guard your back.”
The Wapiti gathered up their things and made their way out of the camp. Wicapiwakan stood in her spot for a time. She did not know where to go or what to do, but she felt a tug inside that she was meant to simply go on – continue. She did not know what awaited her, but it was no use going back.
Several days passed, and Wicapiwakan spent most of those days wandering south along the Dakota River. She easily avoided any troops making their way to and from Fort Wallace, and once she got to Cumberland Falls, she began to relax bit.
One afternoon, as she was spear fishing in the river, two horses blew past her, splashing water all over her, and frightening every fish in the river. “HEY!” she roared at the two men. The leader, an unpleasant looking white man on a black horse paid her no mind. The younger, black man riding behind him threw an apologetic look over his shoulder, but ultimately said nothing. She stared daggers at their retreating forms, then muttered under her breath about the bullishness of white men.
Given that fishing was now a lost cause, she removed herself from the river and sat on its bank, snacking on some berries. About an hour passed of lazing by the water, and then she heard the approach of several wagons. Fearing another patrol, she slipped behind a bush to see.
It turned out to be a caravan of curious folk. There were men and women, at least one child, and a mix of skin tones. That alone intrigued her. What sort of people had no qualms about such things? She thought about the pair that had ridden through earlier and realized that they must have been the scouts. Her unfortunate tendency towards brashness caused her to step out from behind the bush and yell, “I was nearly run over by two fools some time ago. Were they yours?”
“WOAH!” The lead wagon pulled to a stop, and the rest followed suit. A man in a black, fluffy coat held the reins and he replied, “Depends. What kind of fools are we talkin’ about?”
“Tall, blonde, ugly white man. Young black man with kind eyes.”
The large, balding man sitting next to the first laughed slightly. “Sounds like ours.”
“Indeed it does. Madam, I am sorry for their rudeness. It is inexcusable.” He hopped down from the wagon and came to her. “My name is Dutch van der Linde, and I am in charge of this rabble. Those men were Micah Bell and Lenny Summers, and they are under my charge.” He extended a hand which Wicapiwakan took tentatively. “Please accept my sincerest apologies.”
Her dark eyes met his, and she tried very hard to read him. There was a mix of feelings coming from this man. Above all else, he was a charmer, and thus, he was not to be fully trusted. “Apology accepted.”
“If I may ask, what are you doin’ out here all alone?”
She shrugged. “Army killed my people. I am… searching for purpose.”
Sympathy crossed his face and his eyes fell. “I am sorry to hear that.” He looked back and gestured to his caravan. “We are all lost souls here.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re a gang.”
His eyes came back to her, accompanied by a smirk. “Yes.”
A breeze blew through her hair, and she took a deep breath. The tug that had driven her forward before was back, though she still did not understand what sort of destination she was headed for. “Do you have room for another lost soul, Dutch van der Linde?”
He gave her an appraising look, then turned back to his gang. They all seemed to be willing to accept his word on the matter. “I don’t see why not.”
Wicapiwakan spent most of the ride to the gang’s new campsite in the rear wagon. It was driven by a man named Arthur Morgan and contained two passengers: Hosea Matthews and Charles Smith. All three men had been welcoming and gave off an air of warmth and safety. Charles also had native blood, and she was quick to attach to him.
Once they arrived in a place they called Horseshoe Overlook, Wicapiwakan climbed down from the wagon and asked the woman giving orders what she could do to help.
“Well, dear…. what’s your name again?”
Suddenly, a loud voice dripping in contempt called, “What kind of name is Wa-cappy-wican?”
The woman felt tension spread up her back and neck, but she bit back her angry retort, instead turning to face the speaker. He was a brute of man, about half a head taller than her, wearing plaid under a big brown coat. His hat was pulled down low on his head which made him seem like nothing more than a floating beard.
He sniggered. “Right.”
“In your language, my name is Holy Star, but given that nothing holy has likely ever passed lips such as yours, sir, you may call me Star.”
The man seemed taken aback, then mumbled something about not being spoken to that way by an Injun Squaw. Wicapiwakan felt her blood boil, and she took a step to retaliate, but Arthur came up behind the man and smacked him up upside the head. “That ain’t no way to talk to a guest, Bill, you dumb heathen. Get outta here.”
Bill scurried off, and Arthur came to stand with the two women. “Sorry ‘bout him. He’s… rough and stupid. Says shit like that to Javier and Charles too. They mostly just throw him on his ass. Works well enough.”
“I was going to, had you not stepped in.”
“Oh, if he does it again, please be my guest and lay him out. You won’t get in no trouble. Dutch knows how Bill can be.”
A smile touched the woman’s lips. “Appreciate it.”
The older woman, Susan Grimshaw, put Wicapiwakan to work setting up the horses. It was work she was well suited to, and in no time, the animals were fed, watered, and comfortable. After that, Dutch asked to speak with her in his tent.
At first, she had thought to be nervous, but when she walked in, the air around the man did not lend itself to such feelings. Somehow, she was immediately at ease with him. “You wanted to speak to me?”
“Yes. Arthur said somethin’ to me 'bout you goin’ by Star?”
“Sure. Be easier for everyone, way I see it.”
“It ain’t because of what Bill said?”
She shook her head. “He’s not the first white man to mock my name, and he will not be the last. Believe me, I know that my name is a bit of a mouthful for those unaccustomed to our language. I have used Star in the past. It’s no bother to me.”
“Alright. I just wanted to make sure. I want everyone here to be comfortable.”
“Thank you, Dutch.”
He nodded, then gestured for her to follow him, so she did. He led her to the edge of the overlook, paused, and sighed. “Listen. You’ve joined this gang at a time of upheaval. We’ve just come from Blackwater. Our last job there… it went… very poorly. We lost people, and we have no money. Things are going to be rough around here for some time.”
“Can’t be much worse than what I was already doing.”
“We are wanted men. All of us. Me most of all.”
“Yeah, well… the color of my skin makes me wanted around these parts. Whatever it is you’ve done – whatever they’re hunting you for… they’ve done worse to my people.”
A soft smile appeared on Dutch’s face. “I hate to say it, but you are right.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I just wanted you to know what you’d gotten yourself into.”
She returned his smile. “Running from the law and dealing with a racist asshole or two is just a normal day for me. I’ll fit in.”
“I have faith you will. Come on. Let’s see if we can find some food around here.”
The night passed easily, and Star found her new companions to be a decent bunch. They were all exhausted after their ordeal, but they welcomed her and asked after her. Charles became a lingering presence, and Star felt very distinctly that she had become something he needed to protect. It made her smile.
When people started drifting off to bed, she was shown to a bedroll between two of the other women: Karen and Mary-Beth. Karen fell asleep almost immediately, but Mary-Beth rolled over to face Star with a look of curiosity. “How come you wanted to join a gang of outlaws?” she whispered.
Star shrugged. “I just… had a feeling. I didn’t want to be alone anymore.”
“Oh. I am sorry that your people died. It ain’t right, the way you get treated.”
“No. It isn’t.” Star sighed. “But thank you.”
Mary-Beth nodded and pat Star’s hand. “You get some sleep, now.”
It took a while, but Star finally found sleep. It was one of the most restful nights she had had in a very long time.