Secreted in a towering Pryor Mountain cave, the Little People danced.
Keening a mournful chant, the knee-high, no-neck beings circled a fire that sprang from a glowing rock. At irregular intervals, an anguished wail in an ancient language crackled like lightning flashing from the ground to gathering clouds.
Deep in heart of the night, their drums faded and dancing stopped. From the cave soared a flight of great winged creatures.
Invisible against a starless night, they swooped low over the Children of the Large-Beaked Bird camped in buffalo-hide tepees near the banks of Pryor Creek. Their powerful wings loosed a howling wind through the sleeping village, rattling the lodge poles and unnerving ponies grazing nearby.
Together the creatures banked south and east, headed for the steep canyons that caged the Bighorn River. On sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the river’s surface at Devil’s Canyon, the Little People painted new warnings.
It would be a grim message this wild October night. A terror of a new kind floated up the Missouri, felling the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan by the thousands. Wolves and foxes stalked boldly through empty villages rotting in winds and rain.
The terror preceded light-colored men up the Yellowstone and crept through its tributaries spreading through the Bighorn country and into the Pryor Mountains, moving faster even than trappers and traders.
The Children of the Large-beaked Bird scattered to the mountains as the terror approached, but the signs on the canyon wall warned that it was already too late.
Smallpox sent harbingers of impending visits — fevers, headaches, back pain and fatigue. A few days later, flat red spots began to appear on the face, then on the hands and forearms before gravitating down the torso to the bottoms of the feet. The red spots would turn to blisters filled with clear fluid. Within days, the liquid turned to pus.
For the lucky few who survived, scabs would form. When they fell off, victims who could still see looked in horror at their disfigurement.
By the time a new moon rose in the desert land between the Bighorn and Pryor mountains, only a handful of scarred and weakened people remained to weep and mourn.
“We must leave this place and never return,” a once powerful warrior told his people. “This is a cursed place. No one can live here.”
Even the Little People avoided the small circle that appeared as the lodges disintegrated and the bodies melted into the earth. Soon the only trace was a circle of tepee rings and sooty hearths.
Tom Boyd knew he was lost. Once his wagon clattered away from the main road toward home, tracks seemed to appear and disappear like mirages. Sometimes he could almost swear that he saw a child walking in the distance. But the figure vanished whenever the wagon got close, and a curious dark bird would circle above.
His horses, which normally could find their way home without much guidance, seemed confused in a cold mist rising from the ground. They sniffed the air and jerked their heads from side to side as if trying to see something through the gathering fog.
The late October day had been cold and the sun battled low-hanging clouds. Now dusk was approaching and twinges of panic stirred in his gut. They had to get home soon. Jenny couldn’t take much more.
Home was an isolated shack near Warren, where the Boyds eked out a living selling horses and trading with the Crow. He was planning to move his wife closer to the new town of Billings before winter, but one thing led to another and snow would fly before they could leave.
Illness had overtaken Jenny the night before, and now she lay in the wagon box, burning with fever, then shivering with chills. Her back ached with every turn of the wheels across the rocky valley.
Darkness was only a few minutes away when Tom gently pulled in the reins. He strained to hear any sound of welcome in the dry, empty landscape, and thought he heard the faint pounding of drums. It could be a band of Crow camped for the night, he thought as he turned the horses toward the noise.
A light glowing in the distant Pryor Mountains acted as a beacon when night closed around the wagon. The drums grew louder, but something about the rhythmic pounding made his hair stand on end. Voices wailing death songs amplified his dread.
Ahead Tom saw a bonfire that erupted into a fountain-like pillar. Shadows danced in and out of the flames and four-poled tepees appeared out of nowhere. Heart pounding and sweat running through his long sideburns, Tom drew up the horses and tried to turn them away from the eerie camp.
The horses did not respond. Mesmerized, they pulled slowly to the camp circle where a man of medicine prayed, offering tobacco and sage to the fire.
Tom sat still as a stone while a shuffling parade of dancers circled the wagon. Jenny moaned. She opened her eyes and stared vacantly toward the light in the Pryor Mountains.
“You shall not leave this place,” the medicine man intoned in heavily accented English.
Fear quaked down Tom’s spine and he tried once again to turn the horses. The medicine man held up his hand and the horses froze. Jenny nodded weakly, turning her head slightly to catch the medicine man’s eyes. Slowly the pain in her head and back eased, and red blotches erupting on her skin shrunk and disappeared. The medicine man held her eyes until her eyelids gradually shut.
Tom could not utter as sound as the light went from his wife’s eyes. Tears streamed down his face, but he was too paralyzed by fear to reach for her. His head began to spin and his body collapsed as the medicine man began to sing. The last thing he heard was the old man repeating “You shall not leave this place. Too many more will die.”
Tom awoke in a sweat despite the chill of the morning air. He sat slowly, feeling an ache in his back and a pounding in his head. No sign of the camp remained — no tepees, no fire, no people. Blinking to make sure he was awake, Tom gathered enough strength to rise to his knees.
It must have been a nightmare, he reasoned. Then he noticed the broad lifeless circle around where the camp had stood. No grass or bushes broke the stony ground. The only thing moving was a large bird circling overhead.
He turned his head slightly and recoiled at the sight of a tall scaffold where his wife lay wrapped in a buffalo robe. Gathering all his strength, Tom jumped from the wagon and ran toward the edge of circle. His horses were grazing peacefully in the distance, and he knew he had to get to them.
But when his boot hit the edge of the circle, he bounced off an invisible barrier. Turning frantically in the opposite direction, he ran into another wall. The circle would not let him go. He grabbed a hammer from the wagon and pounded fruitlessly on the unseen barrier until he fell to his knees and flopped onto his back.
The bird, a fearsome creature with sharpened teeth, landed as he lost consciousness. When Tom rallied from a fog of fever, a man-like creature about 18 inches tall was rubbing snow on the burning red pustules that covered his body. Strangely, the frozen snow covering the ground did not feel cold. The weeping sores did not hurt and the pain in his head and back had gone away.
On the edge of his vision, he could see the medicine chief approaching and the little man disappeared.
“You will rest here with us,” the medicine man said, comforting the dying man.
Several miles away, two riders trying to beat a snowstorm saw smoke rising in the valley.
“What on earth is that?” one of the men asked the other.
Even with the first flurries beginning to fall, they could not resist finding the source of the smoke. They galloped toward the rising white smoke and saw a great circle of fire in the midst of a fresh blanket of snow.
The watched as the flames died, but could not approach the circle because of the lingering heat. But they could see that the fire had scoured the land, leaving only stone tepee rings.
Two horses sauntered up to the cowboys and nudged their own horses, seemingly ready to go home.
“That’s Boyd’s brand isn’t it?” one of the men asked. “Wonder what they’re doing all the way out here.”
It was getting toward evening when they left, the two Boyd horses following behind on their own.
One of the cowboys looked over his shoulder as he rode away. A large bird was circling the re-ignited fire.