“Ten beats and it’s done,” she said.
Tears trickled in the crags of the old man’s skin.
“I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young,” he said. “A people’s dream died in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. It was a beautiful dream.”
The old man met my gaze. “Nine beats and it’s done.”
I stepped over Alice as I danced, her chest no longer rising and falling in her grease stained uniform, her glassed eyes fixed on the roaring fire. She’d trembled when she’d told us, “They did things to me… They laughed.”
Her head lolled to the side, and my eyes met hers.
“Eight beats, and it’s done,” she said, her lips blue.
Across the fire, Captain Youn danced, shuffling, circling, twisting his arms. We sang the words together as we stepped over the others, wherever they’d fallen: the banker, the engineer, the teacher, and all the rest, all those who’d dreamt of the girl.
She twirled now in the flames, her voice high and strong, guiding ours.
The Captain stopped and swayed in place. “I didn’t know,” he said to her. “I just pushed the button. I didn’t know they were there. So small…” He held his hand to her. “I’ll see them?”
The girl nodded.
“I’ll explain. Apologize,” said Youn. “Seven beats and it’s done.”
The crack of the gavel, and the man was sorry. Very sorry. That’s what he told the judge. That’s what he told me. Sorry he’d driven that night, when he shouldn’t have.
Five years to get his life back. Five years, and I’d still be cold, my Annie gone.
The girl in the doeskin dress hugged herself to me.
“And I’ll see her again?” I asked.
The judge said, “Six beats and it’s done.”
The horse thundered across the snowy hills, its eyes wide, its muzzle lathered. The girl in white clung to her father as he urged the mount forward. A stain of red grew at the man’s side. Four Hotchkiss guns thudded behind them, drowning the screams.
The pair made it three miles from the creek called Wounded Knee before the horse threw them. Then the girl kissed her father’s brow, shut his eyes, and waded through the snow, searching for the horse. She made it almost another mile.
I held her hand as she lay on her back, her eyes fixed on the gray sky.
“It’s so cold,” she said, her breath frosting.
“I know. I’m sorry. Five beats and it’s done.”
She’d called to us in our dreams, the girl in white. We’d come and found her bones, buried in the earth. We’d brought sticks and wood with us, and books, and furniture; whatever we had to burn.
We built the blaze, then we danced, sweating in the heat, dancing as her people had, long ago. We sang, though we didn’t know the words. And the girl opened the way.
“What will happen?” we asked her.
“The dead will rise.”
Four beats and it’s done.
“What will happen?” I asked the old man.
“It will come with terror like a thunderstorm,” he said. “But when the storm has passed, the world will be greener and happier.”
Three beats and it’s done.
The buffalo grunted, digging into the earth, grazing on the long, green grass covering the hills. On the horizon, crumbling mountains of steel and glass teetered. The winds carried the scent of ash.
“Is there no other way?” I asked.
“Sometimes, the forest must burn to grow,” said the girl.
Two beats and it’s done.
I stumbled and fell, unable to rise from the ground. The heat from the fire was fading, and could not keep the cold at bay. An outline of a door grew in the flames. My left arm tingled. A weight crushed against my chest.
One beat and it’s done.
I stood in the flames with the girl, and the door swung wide. Men and women streamed through the portal. The grass smoldered where they tread. In paint and feathers they came, with lances and bows, on horse and on foot. Some wore ghost shirts and cradled rifles; others wore armor of bone and carried knives and clubs.
A tall, grim warrior stopped before the girl and hugged her to him. Then Annie stepped through, and she smiled and took my hand. “Hi, Dad. I’ve missed you. Are you coming? Mom’s waiting.”
I nodded. “Soon.”
I waited until the girl in white broke the embrace with her father, then I tugged her arm. “Are you coming?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s done,” she said.
Just before I stepped through the portal, I told her father, “I’ll look after her.”
He clasped my shoulder and smiled, then strode away.
Ashes fell like snow.
© Robert Lowell Russell
Robert Lowell Russell is a writer and trophy husband. He is a SFWA member and a member of the Writeshop and Codex writers’ groups. He is a former librarian, a former history grad student, a former semi-professional poker player, and is now OFFICIALLY a freshman again as he pursues a nursing degree. For more of RLR’s stories, go to http://robertlowellrussell.blogspot.com/