“Think of an Indian. An American Indian, not some lady in a sari. And now you’re saying, ‘Frankie Nickels, we call ’em Native Americans now,’ and I’m saying back to you that your pal Frankie knows what she’s doing. Choose my words carefully, I do.
“Think of an Indian.
“You just thought of a Crow. Unless you’re some sorta scholar or weirdo or something, you thought of a Crow. If you ever saw a movie in your life, you thought of a Crow. Big-ass feather bonnet cascading behind a fellow riding bareback and killing buffalo? Crow. Moccasins and teepees and sweat lodges and matrilineal societies? That’s the Crow, cats and kittens.
“They lived close to the Yellowstone River. People settle near water. Except Atlanta and Vegas, people settle near water. Wyoming. Montana. Dakotas. Up where winter is lethal. Hooo-boy, you ever been in Montana in January? Yeah? You have? Bet you did it with central heating. Bet you did it with an automobile that could take you to the supermarket. Bet you did it with police and firemen you could call.
“You ain’t never suffered in your life and you know it, ha ha ha.
“Weren’t no horses at first, not in America. Horses come from the Steppe. Scientists think maybe roundabouts Kazakhstan. Conquistadors brought ’em over. What an honor for those horses, man. Some horses belong to snotty rich girls, but these horses got to belong to conquistadors. I bet those horses bragged about in their Christmas letters. Those rapacious Spaniards dropped the animals off in Haiti, and South America, and Mexico, just let ’em go off into the fields to make new horses. They thought they were serving Christ. You remember the part of the Sermon on the Mount where He said, ‘Go forth, and bring horses to places that don’t have horses.’
“Jesus was an equitable man, right?
“1538, cats and kittens. For all our faults, White people write things down. 1538! First horse in America. Hernando de Soto brought ’em. The horses multiply like rabbits, and 200 years later they’re everywhere. Sea to shining sea, baby. And, you know, there’s people living between those shining seas. Easier to ride than walk.
“Remember those movies? The one that told you Indians was noble, that Indians was savage? Movies are lies, cats and kittens. Just a bunch of pictures, ain’t nothing moving at all. Illusion of velocity. Movies are full of it.
“Indians was smart, cats and kittens. They were just like you and me.
“So I guess they were dumb, too. Ha ha ha.
“Horse lets you cover more ground. Horse can charge down a buffalo, or carry that weight behind it. Trade with more folks. Horse makes your universe bigger. It enlarges your perimeter, you get me?
“And now the Crow transition from subsistence to surplus.
“You can trade your horses, and a man with many horses is a big man indeed, and perhaps you can steal horses from rival tribes.
“Three guesses what this led to?
“War Chiefs, cats and kittens. The same horse that brought abundance and security also expanded all the tribes’ areas to the point where they was all rubbing up against each other. Rubbing induces friction.
“And so you got War Chiefs. They led the raiding parties, they defended the women and children, they were deferred to in terms of violence. They were in charge when it got hairy, and they chilled out when things were copacetic.
“A permanent Cincinnatus, right?
“The Crow fought the Sioux and the Cheyenne. When the Americans came, they joined with them to fight the Sioux and the Cheyenne. The Crow considered themselves equals to the Americans. They signed treaties.
“Ha ha ha.
“Joe Medicine Crow. That’s the guy I’m talking about, but I had to give you a little background before I got started. Human beings and their accomplishments are contextual, cats and kittens.
“This is 1945, and there has not been a War Chief for a long time. The Crow’s been living in a reservation up near Billings for 70 years. The old ways are dying off, but Joe Medicine Crow disagrees. His grandfather was named White Man Runs Him, and he was a scout for Custer. The old men toughened the young man up, and then his uncle sent him to Europe. One last chance to fight the White man.
“The 103rd had broken through the Siegfried Line, and they’re outside of Mulhausen. Joe Medicine Crow’s grandfather had been a scout for the American army, and now so was he. Well ahead of his unit and looking through binoculars. He’s got on warpaint and a helmet, and just one upside-down vee on his sleeve. He’s a private. Remember that as I tell you this story. He’s a private.
“Those lousy Nazis are holed up in a…what’s the German word for château? An inn? Like, a private inn. Big house, outbuildings, stables, lawn, that sort of thing. Rich folks used to live there, but then a bunch of guys with guns showed up and told ’em to get out.
“Nazis are on the retreat. Final days of the war. They got guns but no artillery.
“It’s real dark out.
“Joe Medicine Crow had a War Name, but he wasn’t worthy of it yet. High Bird. He could call himself that when he was a War Chief, but he wasn’t a War Chief. Hadn’t been a War Chief for a real long time.
“Four tasks. Wasn’t any council of elders, no judges or voting. Perform a certain four tasks and you earn yourself the right to call yourself War Chief.
“Gotta lead a war party, so Joe Medicine Crow backtracked a mile or so to where his unit was. Fetched a sergeant and some corporals. Everybody that outranked him did what he said.
“And what he said was, ‘Wait here until the signal.’
“Sergeant asked what the signal was.
“Joe Medicine Crow said that he would know it when it saw it.
“It’s real dark out. No moon. Joe Medicine Crow sneaks down from the ridge overlooking the inn, or château, or whatever. He is downwind, and he can smell horses and Germans. A smoldering fire. Doesn’t crawl, but he crouches real lowdown and every ten steps he stops. He breathes in rhythm with his heart, and listens in between beats just like a sniper.
“You only get a split second of silence at a time, cats and kittens.
“He goes to the stables first. Silently lifts the latch on the door. When he walks in, his toes hit the ground first but he is standing up straight. Some of the horses wake up, and they don’t make a sound. It’s very dark in the stables, and then the German soldier who had been assigned there walks around a corner and he doesn’t make a sound, either, because Joe Medicine Crow has him by the neck.
“They’re on the ground. He’s on top of the Nazi. Squeezing. Little blond boy. His hat has fallen off, and his eyes are tearing up. Joe Medicine Crow is in his warpaint, and there is an eagle feather tucked into his helmet. It is very dark in the stables and now the horses are making noise and so is the German blond boy in the Nazi uniform.
“He wheezed out one word.
“Joe Medicine Crow didn’t speak German, but got the drift.
“He let up on his neck, right? Just a little, just enough to bash the German’s head into the packed dirt floor. Concussed him something fierce.
“That was number one. Wanna be a War Chief? Four tasks. First was counting coup. Touching your enemy without killing him. The Crow called that ‘counting coup’ and it was one of the four tasks you had to perform to be a War Chief.
“Number two was stealing your enemy’s weapon. The German boy had a Mauser rifle, and Joe Medicine Crow slung it over his shoulder as he stood up.
“Number three was the big one. Number three separated the cats from the kitten, cats and kittens. Ha ha ha.
“Horses. Those world-changing grass-eaters. The maned bridge between subsistence and surplus. Engines of war and bringers of the Whites.
“Wanna be a War Chief?
“Gotta steal some horses.
“It was dark in the stables, but Joe Medicine Crow’s eyes had long since adapted and he knew the trick to seeing at night was using peripheral vision, so he examined the rows of horse chutes sidelong.
“All he could see in one paddock was eyes. Blackest horse he’d ever not-quite-seen.
“Joe Medicine Crow walked calmly and quietly and quickly up the room and opened all the animals’ pens. The horses wandered out into the center of the space and smelled each other. There was some bickering.
“Then, Joe Medicine Crow got on the back of that black horse. That midnight horse that was not there. That hole in the night.
“Bareback. His grandfather White Man Runs Him had a saddle, and so did his father, but originally the Crows didn’t have any saddles and now Joe Medicine Crow didn’t have a saddle. He had a helmet and a rifle that had been issued to him, and he had a rifle that had been stolen.
“The horses were milling in the middle of the stable, they were milling in the dark, and Joe Medicine Crow dug his heels into his mount’s sides with absolutely no mercy. Cruelly, even. Horse shouted and bucked forward, and he started hitting the other animals, riling them up and starting a stampede out the opened door of the stable.
“By now, the other Germans who were occupying the inn, or château, or whatever were awake and running towards the horses but the horses stepped on their Nazi skulls and stomped on their Nazi lungs and kicked out their Nazi guts.
“The fourth task is leading a war party.
“The 103rd advanced from the ridge. They shot into the darkness and threw grenades and started fires. Joe Medicine Crow ducked down onto the back of his stolen horse and galloped away and as he did he sang songs about himself.
“And in the songs, his name was High Bird.
“Wasn’t an hour before the Americans held the position. Sergeant radioed back a code that meant victory.
“A place that has a stable usually has a wine cellar, and the 103rd got drunk. Not Joe Medicine Crow. He rounded up the horses that had scattered. Watered ’em, fed ’em. What’s the point in stealing a horse you ain’t gonna take care of?
“Dawn came by. Eventually. Dawn always seemed to be late in 1945. The main house had a chair out front that was still in one piece after all the shooting, and Joe Medicine Crow chased a skinny private from Pittsburgh out of it. Sat down and smoked a cigar and watched the sun do whatever it is that the sun does.
“It was the first time the sun rose on a War Chief for a very long time.
“Last time, too.
“Take your swing, cats and kittens. Four tasks. It ain’t blood makes a War Chief! It ain’t money makes one, neither! Four tasks make a War Chief. You get the chance to make your ancestors proud?
“Take it and choke it and pound its head against the packed dirt floor of the stables.
“You’re listening to the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY–Hey!–and I think it’s about time for some sweet soul music.
“Do you like good music?”