Thank the powers that be, the cold snap had finally snapped. It wasn’t up to freezing yet; nothing was melting. But brother, what a relief. My bunged up butt cheek wasn’t stabbing me like it did the first few days after Upward’s lucky lead laid me low–alliteration, heh–but the deep, steady, throbbing ache provided misery enough. Twist-riding so my right side took most of my weight had worn me out on that side, too. Those toes wouldn’t have to be amputated, thankfully, but they had gotten frostbitten during our tortuous trek westward to Red Horse’s village.
It looked like I’d get to rest a while now, and Slash didn’t seem to mind warming his broken leg, either. He’d always preferred fresh air, but it was like he knew the smaller camp dogs felt safer with him out their sight. The teepee we’d been provided was warm and toasty, practically a sauna compared to the great outdoors, and the women made sure Tommy and I had plenty of wood on hand to keep the fire going. We weren’t gods to them, exactly, but our status had certainly been elevated with the return of their medicine woman, safe and sound and spouting tall tales.
To hear Morning Lark tell it, all four of us posse members were genuine, certified hee-roes.
Around the lodge fires, Tommy Gunderson’s role in the battle at Rhubarb War Creek provided the turning point for everything else. He didn’t understand a word of their lingo, but I could pick up enough to get the gist. Red Horse’s people would forevermore know Tommy as the man who’d told me where to shoot and directed Michael to flank Upward and Garber. Kind of made the man into a general, right there.
Which amused me no end. The clan’s young medicine woman had set her feathers for my partner. She was just making sure her future husband walked tall in the sight of her people.
“What’re you smirking at?” Gunderson’s question was perfunctory, merely something to pass the time while we poked the fire every now and again, accepted bowls of venison stew from the hands of women who giggled when they left the teepee, and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
“Morning Lark.” I lost my smile, shifting to ease that left cheek a bit. “She’s doing her best.”
“Yeah. Well. She is that, I guess, but the band isn’t exactly making a decision, now is it? This is the third day they’ve been huddled up in Council. According to Lark, the same three problem people don’t seem to be budging, the ones she calls the Worrier, the Fool, and the Follower. How long is it going to be before there’s a break in that logjam?”
“You gotta see it from their perspective, Tom.” I leaned against the willow backrest Granshako had brought me, a device to ease an old man’s bones. The warrior’s leg was still attached and he was mobile, after a fashion, with lavish wrappings over a hand carved set of splints. He wouldn’t be winning anything more than a three-legged sack race for a while, not with those crutches, but you couldn’t keep a good man down.
“You and me, we take one look at what they got left to get them through the rest of the winter, we know it’s not enough, and to us it’s no decision at all. We just get up and go. But these people don’t entirely think like we do. They’ve been wintering in this exact spot for the past seventeen years. It’s home to them. Harsh, unforgiving, but theirs, every bit as much as Fort 24 is ours. Then here we come along and say hey, come on up into the mountains with us, it’ll be fun, but they’ve not had the best experience with white men. We’re known to speak with forked tongues. Say one thing and mean another. Make a promise and then stab the red men in the back. From the Trail of Tears to a trail of broken treaties, from the slaughter of the great buffalo herds to requiring a Native to jump through twenty-nine steps to get a dime of the money held in trust for him by the Great White Liar in Washington, from being shined on by half-white President Barack Obama to being shot down by Rodney may-he-rot-in-Hell Upward…not exactly a list of reasons to trust what we say just because we say it.”
“Hnh,” Tommy grunted. The man had been around me too long. No use trying to talk to him.
We settled in, slurping our stew, watching the flames…and waiting.
Save for the presence of women in the circle, our Council of Prominent Personages–which did not translate to English all that well–could have been lifted straight from the pages of our ancestors’ history. Seven of us, nearly one third of the remaining members of Red Horse’s band, would make the decision for everyone.
Stay, or go?
It was not an easy question. Through lidded eyes, Red Horse, survivor of humanity’s Fall planet-wide and architect of our group’s survival thus far, watched the others. His sleepy gaze, deceptive as the summer rattlesnake sneaking down a prairie dog hole in pursuit of a meal, missed nothing. When a man or a woman talked, the old Chief gave the speaker his full attention, shifting his eyes only when the redstone pipe passed on to the right, counter clockwise as it were. Twice, Granshako had begun to interrupt someone who held the pipe, only to curb his natural tendency toward rude behavior instantly, feeling Red Horse’s unspoken disapproval.
Tradition is important, he’d taught us. The fool who crossed him on this issue too often would find himself ostracized, cast out alone, a renegade forevermore dead to us. It had been long since such a casting out had happened, but we remembered. Anyone above the age of five remembered.
Clean Water, half again my age and the closest thing I had to an apprentice in the healing ways of Nature and Man, had been mercifully brief. She would go where I went, bringing her husband and their son of nine winters, and that was that. Fat Pemmican Maker, older still and able to gain weight on less food than anyone else I’d ever known, had rambled on interminably, worrying about this, that, and the other thing.
The real stumbling block, though…that would be Kills Rabbit, the twenty-something trapper currently holding the pipe. Kills Rabbit was a coward. He had bolted for the brush at the first shot from Upward’s gang, leaving his family behind to shift for themselves as best they could. Five-ten, stocky, arrogant in any setting where he was not under direct threat, he’d cowered deep in the brush while his wife struggled to get their seven children out of the line of fire. Yes, seven, five girls and two boys, the eldest not yet having reached her eighth birthday. Red Horse would have called for his banishment in a heartbeat except for that; how could the band remove the head of such a family? Who would feed them? Despite his failings in the courage department, the man could trap. Last winter alone, he had brought in 113 rabbits, 41 beavers, 6 river otters, 5 minks, 4 weasels, and 1 huge, stray porcupine. Did we want to assume that burden, removing such a father? Could we?
Obviously not. The Kills Rabbit family alone accounted for a fair fraction of our band’s growth. Even worse, his brother in law would vote with him, every time. Sees Elk would get the pipe next, presuming Kills Rabbit ever gave it up, but it wouldn’t matter. The younger hunter, if he could be called that, idolized his sister’s husband.
I’d always felt protective toward him. Next to me, senior by only a year and some days, he had what the white man Before would have called a terrible self image. His vision was outstanding; he could spot a game animal as quickly as a red tailed hawk could spot a rabbit on the ground. But he couldn’t seem to get the hang of stalking the animal once he spotted it. On the rare occasion he got close enough to make a kill, he usually missed. Kills Rabbit teased him unmercifully about it, too, because he was a born bully and he could. A gentle Soul like Sees Elk would never retaliate.
Or so Kills Rabbit believed. I wasn’t entirely certain about that.
“It is a foolish thing,” the cocky coward intoned. His hair was slicked with bear grease, black and braided, gleaming like a raven’s wing in the sunlight. His Native heritage, noticeable enough in his flashing dark eyes, hooked beak of a nose, and high cheekbones…oh, he was a looker in his own way. There was talk among the People, suspicion that others than his wife had borne him children these past few years. Which unfortunately worked to the man’s advantage; we needed all the new blood we could get. “A very foolish thing, this talk of going to winter near the white man in his mountain country. Forever since the people of Red Horse became a band, working to become large enough to call ourselves a tribe one day, we have stuck to the open prairie, where a man can see to the far horizon.” We hadn’t seen Upward’s bunch sneaking up on us with ill intentions, but that didn’t faze Kills Rabbit. In addition to his cowardice and arrogance, he had the natural politician’s ability to ignore inconvenient facts.
“They say game is plentiful around this Weeping Widow Waterfall area, but what does their word mean to us? They told my great ancestor Red Cloud, come to the Agency, we will feed you, shelter you, keep you safe and warm. We all know how that worked out.”
Well, kinda sorta. We mostly knew Kills Rabbit constantly invoked the name of Red Cloud, claiming the famed Chief as his ancestor, though his features weren’t exactly right for that tribe. Kiowa, now. If he’d claimed Big Tree as his ancestor, he’d have been more easily believed. The man was a born prevaricator. No wonder he was so good at trapping animals. He trapped humans as well, whenever he could, using nothing but his lies and a tone of conviction.
Wow. I just thought of that. Smart me!
“This Grunt, he speaks of the waterfall being less than a day’s ride from two great villages of the whites. How is that good for us? In the past, they took our land for their own evil purposes. Land that was not ours, but which we hunted and left as we had found it, despoiling it not. Now there are few of us, and not even enough of them to fill the land, but that does not mean they will not seek to steal from us. Before you know it, they will steal our women, enslave our children. It will be the same thing all over again. I say leave these people to their own evil devices. We have thanked them for bringing Morning Lark back to us; let them move on now, to trouble us no more. The buffalo herds are growing, they are migrating, we have seen that each year there are more of them, growing in numbers far faster than we can grow our own. Trade with them if we must; I am no fool who would turn down a good rifle and a supply of ammunition. But live near them, even if only for the cold season? This we should not ever do. This is what I say. I have spoken.”
Unbelievable. He’d finally stopped. I blinked my eyes, trying to shake off the stupor his rather angry, droning voice had induced throughout my body and mind.
I almost missed what Sees Elk had to add.
Drawing on the pipe, puffing smoke out in each of the six directions, he took his time. Arranging his thoughts?
“Kills Rabbit speaks wisdom.” No surprise there. “I do not know if he speaks the right wisdom for this day.” Whoa. Big surprise. My lethargy was whisked away in a heartbeat. The man with no spine had found his backbone? “History has taught us, as passed down from parent to child, that race should not be ignored as meaningless, for it is not. There truly are differences between the different colors of humans. Yet it has also taught us that there are differences between individuals, and that those count the most. In the end, it comes down to the question, not is a man a white man or a red man but is he a man? I have looked into the eyes of this Jake Sedlacek, the one they call Grunt, and they are not the eyes of a liar. I believe we would be wise to consider his proposition.”
Unbelievable. Sees Elk had just done a one-eighty, slapping his older brother in law smack in the face. It’s a good thing he shared a bachelor teepee with Granshako; the home of Kills Rabbit would not be friendly territory this night.
The pipe passed to Granshako. A man of few words, usually incredibly blunt and often abrasive, he did not disappoint. “Grunt is a good man. Without him and his posse, I might have died out there in the brush. I dared not call for help, being unsure if the outlaws had left the area or not. Had the people from Fort 24 not stumbled upon me, I might even now be attempting to explain my sins to the Great Spirit.” Ah, yes, this warrior had been taught by his parents, learning a synthesized hybrid sort of faith, a smooshing together of Catholicism and traditional Native beliefs. Interesting. “As it is, I owe the whites my life as Morning Lark owes them her freedom and possibly more. It would be common sense to plan for possible treachery, to at least have hidden caches and hiding places and multiple routes by which we could flee if necessary, but I cannot make myself worry much. I think we should go.”
My turn? You got it. Puff-puff-puff on the nasty smoky pipe, tradition has to be followed, and then it was time to end these interminable proceedings. “My saying is simple. Whether or not the band of Red Horse chooses to accept their offer, I am going with Sedlacek and Gunderson. I have spoken.”
The pipe was in Red Horse’s hands before my words hit them. Eyes widened in shock, some morphing into outrage, but others…. Sees Elk looked like he’d just succeeded in taking down a thousand pound bull Moose. To my left, Granshako chuckled, attempting to hide the sound by grunting as he shifted his bandaged leg to a more comfortable position. And to my right, seen with only my peripheral vision, Red Horse had a twinkle in his not-so-sleepy eye.
Of course the Chief know exactly what I was doing. If he hadn’t spotted my interest in Tommy Gunderson, I’d badly overestimated his powers of perception. More than that, our small group could ill afford to lose the medicine woman they had just regained. Some would fret and fume. Kill Rabbit would probably plot and scheme, attempting to figure out a way to get back at me without being discovered in the act.
But they would know I did not bluff. They would all go. Many would be fearful of the unknown for sure, resentful perhaps, but they would go. In two days at most, we would be out of here.