(We see the old man, still wearing parts of his uniform, in a tipped-back kitchen chair out front of a log cabin. He’s whittling.)

Yeah, I was a buffalo soldier, one a’ them cavalry companies organized from black men. A lot of us wandering around after the War between the States ended. My story was a little different. I started out in life as a slave, born on a plantation.

I had a wife, a mighty purty woman. The master transgressed against her. Because she resisted, he had her branded — right on the face. MIssed her eye, but near enough that it swole shut. Her cheek didn’t heal, just oozed. One morning I woke up, put my hand over on her side and it was already cooled by her absence.

I found her in the grove nearby, hanging. Nothing to do about it except take her down and hold her a while. I wasn’t a religious man but I didn’t want her body misused, so I took a shovel and started to dig a grave. Wasn’t long until the other men came to help. They brought a quilt to wrap her. It was summer — hot work even among the trees. We began to sing the old songs. She was safe in the earth by the time the master rode up on his tall fancy horse to see why we weren’t out in the fields. We told him some old wild pig had died in the grove and we’d buried it because it was so stinkin’. We planted a bush, the one they call “bridal veil.”

That night I called the master out into the barn and left him dangling from the rafters. I rode off on his best horse — not that tall fancy one he liked to look down from, but a little Morgan mare that could both plow and be ridden. I loved that horse and called her my “Sweetheart.” My punishment and my reward have always been my ability to love things.

We didn’t ride north, but instead went West. I had very little idee what was out that way, but every reason to go find out. I was hopin’ to find peace. Twarn’t hard to get along so long as I kept my head down. Took a chicken now and then and maybe a little garden truck. Still some game around. The problem was when I got out there to where the population was thin. It was lack of water. It’s dry country out there on the prairie and in the badlands. Mighty hard on my little horse.

After a while I began to run into Injuns. I realized that they often stationed someone up on top of a ridge or butte, likely enough a kid or even an old-timer, just to watch for riders and maybe buffalo. I’d signal, then climb on up there to talk. They was usually pretty bored, though they generally was makin’ arrowheads or something. We had some fine times jus’ sittin’ quiet with hawks going by and the clouds towering up high on summer afternoons.

They seemed so familiar that I wouldn’t be surprised if I had some Injun blood in me. They thought my hair — which wasn’t cut while I wandered — was like the front part of a buff. I took it as a compliment. By that time I had many friends among ‘em.

After I got to know those injuns, life was a little easier. They didn’t have much, but among the things mostly missing was the suspicions and assumptions about blacks. Still, I gradually realized those little white homesteaders and town founders was often desperate people, coming from hardship and maybe some faraway foreign place where they was the ones hunted down. I’ve always been kind of diplomatic and they were most often Christian. Like I said, I’m not a religious man, but I recognized their songs and sang with ‘em. That seemed to work.

I didn’t drink much, but I was a gamblin’ man and that fit right in with the Injuns. I even got pretty good at that “bone game” they play, but it’s a team game and I never got tight enough to form one. Moved on too much. Cards and dice in saloons worked good for me, but I was careful never to win more than I really needed. Never enough to make me enemies who would run me down. I was shot at a few times. Hit once.

The best of times was when I had a grubstake and maybe even a pack mule so me and Sweetheart could wander for a while. We got so we sure did know the trails and the lay of the land and could find our way almost as good as an Injun could. I was always pleased to meet one of them who knew the lamdmarks and passes so we could draw maps in the dirt, tellin’ the stories of what happened where.

After the war broke out, the stories got trickier because deserters showed up. A man wasn’t sure who to trust. Afterwards there were suddenly a lot of men roaming the West — all kinds, both sides and neither side. It was too crowded for me. It was too dangerous to be alone out there. According to the gummint, the new enemy was the Injuns and their land was ours. Too late I was more or less captured to act as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry. I never had much use for young renegades of any kind, Injun or not, but I figured that I could kinda steer the cavalry away from the quiet people raising kids and just trying to survive.

I volunteered for the war south of the border but was turned down. Then I was scheduled for a foray onto the Staked Plains in 1877. But I had real bad feelings about it — heard a sweet little voice sayin’, “Don’t go.” So I didn’t. The cavalry ran into some rum-running buffalo hunters, then Quanah Parker on a mission, and everything got confused — maybe due to bad map advice on purpose to lead the Cavalry astray. They ran outta water and some died of thirst. If I’d a’ been their scout, I’d a’ been blamed.

I was getting old by then. Sweetheart had died of old age and I never did find another horse I liked as well. At night I’d ruther roll up in a blanket out on the ground somewhere so I wouldn’t wake up still reaching out for that cool hollow next to me. But I figure once you really love something, it’s never very far away.

I made it my business to become the hostler of the company, takin’ care of the horses and tack. It’s been pleasant work and I was finally at peace. Doesn’t make as excitin’ a story as battles, but I sure have seen a lot. I sing to the horses. They’re not very Christian — they like the drinking songs best. You want to look at Sweetheart? Here you go.

(He holds up what he has been whittling on and we see it is a clever little carving of a mighty pretty horse.)


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