South Dakota Begins
She rode her horse with her father and her older brother along the thin trail, both each on their own horses. Canyon ridges were above them on both sides, and more than once father and brother drew their guns on several Lakota faces that peered down on them with a look of forlorn resignation combined with solemn, weary acceptance. They were not angry faces, but they were not friendly faces, either. Guns were a good hedge against these kinds of faces, especially in South Dakota. And usually, the more guns one had the fewer faces one had to deal with. This much the girl knew. But her father and brother only brought one gun each. Her father a rifle, her brother, the pistol. But it was enough.
They came to an opening at the end of the canyon trail and there was a clearing. The thin rocky path gave way to a wider path of trampled grasses. Harder to see the trail, but easier to see the unfriendly faces. Unfortunately, this did not matter in the end.
The four men who appeared behind the group were shadowy. They wore long gray coats, and dark hats were low over their faces…or what the girl imagined were faces. She couldn’t see anything except hats, coats, and the horses that plodded along at a slow, yet relentless speed. The men stayed behind the girl and her father and her brother. They kept their distance, never gaining, never losing ground. The girl’s brother turned around and hollered at them, and waved his hat and said “Hello!” in a friendly way, but the men did not respond. Their long gray coats flapped silently in the wind, though there was no wind. And their heads stayed down, their faces never there, but hidden, and the black horses plodding along like machines. Never gaining, never losing ground.
Father turned around and as her brother did. He took off his hat and waved it in the air. He said “Hello!” in a friendly way, and waved again. And then he said something else too, something friendly, but still the four men behind them did not respond. They made no sound, they showed no faces, and their horses plodded at the same slow and steady speed. Like machines. Never gaining, never losing ground.
At this point father looked a bit frustrated. No…the girl thought. Frustration…bravery, that was a mask. The real face of father was fear. And she greatly understood why. Normal men did not act like the four men who were following them. And without faces, it was hard to tell just who these men were or what they wanted. Men without faces, the girl thought, must want everything…or nothing at all. And in either case, this was not good for the girl and her father and brother. Yes…regardless of what they were after, it all or nothing at all, these men had the smell of death on them. They didn’t really see father, or brother or the girl. They only saw South Dakota, and South Dakota was all they were ever after. This much the girl knew. This, and that men who see people but do not see people are the most dangerous men of all.
They didn’t make noise, and there were no features of which to really see and remember. But the smell could not be more real, and more visceral. And though there was no wind, the men’s gray coats flapped silently, and the smell of their death floated towards the girl and her father and brother, as if it had been carried by the wind indeed.
This time father stopped and turned around to face the four men. His mask of bravery was strong now, and he meant to brandish it at these four strange men. Brother stopped and put on his mask, too, and brandished it alongside of father. The girl stopped just a short way behind her father and brother. She watched the four men in fascination. There was no mask of fear on her. Just fascination. These men were South Dakota, she thought. Then, it all made sense to her. Their faces were all around them, for there was not singular face to see beneath those hats. There was no wind, yet wind; there was no noise, yet the noises were all around. Yes, truly, she understood now. South Dakota was after them, and South Dakota meant to have them. Her eyes widened at the thought. What have they set out to accomplish, she thought. Her and her father and brother. She loved them both, but they were fools, and dullards, with imaginations like the bottoms of still puddles. She watched in fascination as the black horses continued to plod, never gaining, never losing ground. Even though she and her father and brother stood still, the men never reached them, but never fell out of reach either.
Eventually, the four men did gain ground, or rather, the ground brought them to her. By the time the four faceless men arrived on their black horses, the girl’s father and brother were already dead, and the three horses dead as well. The lifeblood having spilt out upon the ground of South Dakota from holes in the backs of their heads.
“What have you for us?” the first man asked.
The girl said nothing.
The first man nodded to the second man. “Search them”, he said.
The second man diligently slid down from his horse and searched the bodies of brother and father. “Not much,” he said. “A few dollars. A flask. Spectacles.”
The first man nodded. He looked at the girl and said, “Where is the gun?” And he drew his and pointed it at her. She opened her overcoat and revealed nothing underneath. There was nothing.
The first man nodded again. “Come with us,” he said, and held his hand out to her. “We’ll take you to see him.” Then he turned to the second, third, and fourth man. “Let’s go,” he said. “Forget the gun. She’s hidden it, and more besides. But it doesn’t matter. Get the money and the other things, and let’s go back to camp.”
“I’ve already seen him”, the girl whispered into the ear of the first man as she rode behind him on his horse, her arms around his waist. “What will he tell me?”
The first man said nothing for a while. Then, “He doesn’t care about you. He only wants whatever you can give him.”
The girl looked surprised, then nodded. Her face looked like the faces of the Lakota she had seen earlier in the canyons. She sighed. “Fine.” She said. “I suppose it is always this way. The East isn’t enough, men also want the West. South Dakota isn’t enough, and that is strange. Because South Dakota is all there is.”
The first man said, “Truly.” And his voice was cold and sad.