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Mr. Russell," the tall, dark-haired young man called out as he turned in his saddle. "You said we'd reach the Arkansas yesterday. When will we get there?"
"Soon, pilgrim," the lean, buckskin-clad guide replied laconically.
The two riders were eight days out of Independence, Missouri, and far into the Unorganized Territory. It was nearly April of 1837, and the last remnant of the winter's winds raised swirls of yellow dust from the Great Western Desert, but tufts of grass and clumps of tiny yellow and blue flowers had already begun to dot the vast, arid expanse of flatland.
Thomas Benton McCabe turned back to the trail ahead and subsided into uncomfortable silence. Phillips Russell had the knack of making him feel foolish, as did many Westerners, despite McCabe's degree from Yale and his four years of reading law in Boston. Hunting and fishing in New England had not prepared him for the hardships of life on the Western frontier—no matter what they believed back at the Office of Indian Affairs.
He turned in the saddle to look back. His ruddy, boyish face twisted in a frown, as it did almost every time he looked at his pack mules plodding along to the tug of the lead tied to his saddle. Russell, who was going farther, had brought along only one mule, and that was another matter for frustration. Every trader in Independence had sold him something `nobody tried the plains without,' and now he was weighted down with twice the gear he needed.
"You'll find out which stuff is worth carrying," Russell said suddenly.McCabe jerked around, but the trapper wasn't even looking at him. "You won't really believe the rest ain't any good till you see it don't work. Then you'll just toss it away. Or trade it. There's always some damned fool ready to buy anything." McCabe colored, but Russell still didn't look at him. "Things you hang on to are your Hawken, your horse, your knife, and them Paterson Colts, in that order. I don't know how good those newfangled revolving pistols will work out here in the heat and the dust and the snow and the rain, but the others will keep you alive." He grinned suddenly and looked over his shoulder at McCabe. "Most important thing to hang on to, of course, is your hair. Won't need any guns if you lose that."
"I don't expect to need them anyway. I'm coming peacefully, and you said the Cheyenne would accept me if I showed peaceful intent."
"There's others, boy," Russell snorted, pulling his fur cap farther down over his forehead. "You spend much time with the Cheyenne and you'll most likely run into Osage, Kansa, Iowa, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, maybe some Sioux, Crow, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Utes, Apache, Kiowa and Comanche. Quite a list, ain't it? And they'll all want to lift your hair. Especially the Kiowa and Comanche."
"But I'm just here to write a report for the government. Like dozens of other men. I have no part in Indian conflicts."
Russell laughed drily. "If Sitting Bear brings the Kiowa calling, you try telling him that. I'd be right interested to hear what he has to say."
McCabe hadn't considered that the Cheyenne's allowing him to stay might put him in danger. The wind suddenly seemed colder, and he tugged his heavy wool coat tighter.
Russell suddenly stopped and swung his horse around to face McCabe. "A man back in Independence told me you've got over a hundred pounds of seed corn on those mules," he said. "Is that true? You bringing seed corn out here? To the Cheyenne?"
"A gift," McCabe replied awkwardly. "I also brought beads, mirrors and hatchets, but I thought seed would be a more useful offering."
Russell put back his head and brayed a laugh. "McCabe, I'll be double damned if you ain't going to have a right interesting time with the Cheyenne."
McCabe's ears burned, but he kept a rein on his anger. "Mr. Russell, what I do or don't do among the Cheyenne is no concern of yours. You agreed, for forty dollars in gold, that I could accompany you as far as the Arkansas River, and that you would then put me on a trail that would lead to the Cheyenne lands. I'm getting no closer with you sitting here making noises like a jackass."
Russell became serious. "You're right where you ought to be. River's about a mile over to the south, but this is the place you want to start from." He pointed to a six-foot-high pile of rocks, on top of which a cow skull had been placed.
McCabe squinted. Near the rocks was a stand of cottonwood trees, and the glint of the sun on water.
"I haven't seen anything like that out here before," he remarked. "There seem to be some sacks pushed into the rocks." He walked his horse closer and bent down out of the saddle to reach for a leather bag.
"I wouldn't do that, McCabe."
"Why not? Is it an Indian shrine? Some religious place?"
"It ain't Indian. It's sort of like a post office. You got a letter you want mailed back East, you leave it here with a pelt or two. Anybody going from Bent's Fort to Independence or St. Louis has to pass this spot. They stop regular and pick up anything waiting here."
McCabe shook his head. "What an undependable way of doing things. Don't the letters and pelts ever get stolen?"
"I ain't never heard of anyone stealing from this cairn, McCabe. Not even the Indians. They figure it for some kind of white man's shrine. A holy place." Russell spat and licked his dry lips. "I thought you were eager to get on your way, McCabe."
"You still haven't shown me the trail."
"Well, it ain't exactly a trail the way you likely think of one. You begin at this cairn and head off that way," Russell explained, pointing.
McCabe quickly pulled out his compass and checked the direction. West-northwest.
"Well, I suppose you can use that fancy compass, but all you need to do is to keep the sun over your right shoulder in the morning and in front of your left shoulder in the afternoon. That'll fetch you up among the Cheyenne."
"Thank you, Mr. Russell." He stuffed the compass back in his pocket and shook Russell's hand.
"You take care of yourself, McCabe, and try to hang on to your hair." As he started off at a slow walk, trailing his pack mule, he called back over his shoulder, "You're going to have a right interesting time, McCabe, you and your corn."
As the trapper rode away, McCabe was struck by the chill realization that, except for Russell, there was no one else for two hundred and fifty miles but Indians. "Well," he muttered, "that's who I came to see."
The contour of the land didn't change much for the next two days, and as McCabe rode through the prairies, he wondered why the Indians there didn't farm. The fertile, black loam was better than most farm soil in New England.
Late on the second day, he was sunk deep in his thoughts about farming as he rode along when suddenly his horse shied.
He clucked at his mount, then looked around to discover the cause of the animal's alarm. There could be wolves behind one of those dips, or even a grizzly bear, though Russell had said they weren't often seen this far out of the mountains. Swallowing hard, McCabe thumbed back the hammer on his heavy Hawken rifle. It might even be some of those unfriendly Indians the trapper had spoken of, the ones who might want his scalp, he thought.
He considered what to do. If he simply rode as fast as he could, he might get away, but he would have to leave the pack mules behind. There'd be no fast riding with them, and despite Russell's admonition, he wasn't yet eager to abandon them.
Whatever the horse had shied from seemed to be in front of him and to the left. Keeping the muzzle-loading rifle pointed in that direction, McCabe rode slowly to his right and down into a shallow ground depression.
Slowly he worked his way around to his left. Every time the ground rose enough to make him visible, he kicked his horse into a trot, risking the extra noise to make his way into the next draw quickly. There were no sounds except his own, but his eyes darted warily over every bush.
Suddenly his mount started again, and he had to saw at the reins to keep it from breaking into a run. The mules stamped their feet and blew nervously. Quickly his eyes probed the low bushes clinging to the sides of the gully, his rifle following his gaze. Nothing moved, but the animals still wanted to be out of there.
Abruptly he let out an exclamation. Under a bush, where his gaze had already passed twice, was a man's hand. He climbed down and ran to pull the bush aside.
"I'll be damned," he muttered.
Underneath lay an unconscious Indian, huddled up as if he had crawled there to hide before passing out. He was easily as tall as Tom, and he wore three feathers fastened in his hair. A necklace of beads and claws hung across his bare chest. His left leg was bent unnaturally below the knee, and its leather covering was stained dark.
Quickly he picketed his animals, hacked a pit in the side of the draw with his knife, and built a small fire. Putting water on to boil, he returned to the Indian.
The man stirred slightly as McCabe cut away the bottom of the legging. A sharp point of white bone stuck through the Indian's swollen flesh. Tom was no doctor, but to him the wound looked at least a day old. He took the boiling water off the fire to cool, then cut two straight branches and dug a spare shirt out of his pack to tear up for bandages. The man groaned as Tom washed the puffed, purple flesh, but there was no use in waiting. He swiftly set the leg, pulling until the bone disappeared and gently probing the distended limb to align the broken ends. When the leg was finally splinted and bandaged, he got the man down to the fire and covered him with a blanket.
An hour later, over a plate of beans and dried beef, McCabe suddenly became aware of being watched. He filled another tin plate and held it out to the Indian, but the man's dark, unblinking eyes stayed on Tom's face. After a minute Tom set the plate where the other could reach it if he chose.
"How is your name called?" the man said in a hoarse voice.
"You speak English!" McCabe exclaimed. "McCabe. My name is Thomas Benton McCabe.
"Mack Cabe," the other said slowly, shaking his head at the strangeness of the sound. "I am called Spotted Fox. I am a stranger to you. Maybe an enemy. Why have you helped me?"
"Your leg looked pretty bad, and there was nobody else around but me." He shifted awkwardly under the injured man's unwavering stare and wondered angrily why he should feel as if he had done something wrong.
After a minute Spotted Fox picked up the plate and began to push beans and meat into his mouth with his fingers. He talked between swallows. "Two days ago a snake frightened my pony. We fell into a draw. My leg was broken, and the pony ran away. I have crawled far, but today I could crawl no more. I sang my spirit-song and hid myself in the bush to await what would come. Then you came to help me, Mack Cabe, though you are not of my tribe. Our legends tell us that men with white skins will come and bring destruction to my people. But you helped me."
"I don't bring anyone destruction, Spotted Fox. In fact, I don't even know the name of your tribe."
"I am of the Tsis-tsis-tas," Spotted Fox answered proudly. "The Real People. White men call us the Cheyenne."
"This is a piece of luck," McCabe said eagerly. "I'm looking for the Cheyenne. My government wants to know about your people. My chiefs in Washington wish to befriend the chiefs of your tribe."
"Your chiefs wish to learn of us," Spotted Fox stated, "because we avoid the white man. Perhaps you wish to learn of us as the mountain lion does the deer."
"I bring no threat of harm to your people, Spotted Fox. I come in peace."
"Peace," the Indian grunted. "All white men say they come in peace. The hair-faces come and take all our beaver. They think because women of other tribes will take any man to their blankets, our women will also. They do not speak our language, not even the sign-talk, but they call us ignorant because we do not speak their tongue. They give firewater to rob a man of his brains, then trade trinkets for all of his furs. Is this your peace, Mack Cabe?"
"I don't want any furs, and I don't have any whiskey." He was uncomfortably aware of Spotted Fox's gaze on him. "I'm afraid I don't speak your language either. What's this sign-talk you mentioned?"
"It is way that men who do not speak each other's tongue may talk." He pointed at McCabe. "You." He touched his chest with his thumb. "Me. I." An index finger straight up in front of the chin. "Man." He made a sweeping motion beside his head as if to comb long hair. "Woman."
After showing McCabe a few more signs, Spotted Fox lay back with a sigh. "I am tired. Tomorrow I will show you more as we ride."
Long after the other man had fallen asleep, McCabe sat watching him. Spotted Fox had shown him the sign for lie, too: forked fingers moved in front of the mouth to represent the tongue of a snake. His lie was a small one. He did mean no harm to the Cheyenne, but he had the uncomfortable feeling Spotted Fox wouldn't understand if the whole story were told to him.
He thought back to the day when this adventure had all begun.
* * *
Washington was crowded. McCabe had just arrived from Boston. He took a room in a hotel and hurried up Pennsylvania Avenue to the grey stone building that housed the Department of War.
"I'm looking for the Office of Indian Affairs," he told a bored clerk at the reception desk. "I have an appointment with Mr. Charles Madden."
"Second floor," the man said, barely giving him a glance. "First right at the top of the stairs. You'll see the plaque on the door."
The clerk's indifference couldn't dampen McCabe's enthusiasm. He climbed the stairs and found a door with a brass plate. Inside sat a thin, bald man, his sharp nose almost touching a ledger as he wrote in crabbed handwriting.
"Mr. Madden isn't here today." The bald man didn't even stop writing as he spoke."
"But I have an appointment for ten o'clock today, and it's five minutes of."
The man stopped writing with a heavy sigh. "You can't see Mr. Madden if he isn't here, now can you? Why don't you come back and try again tomorrow?"
"Will Mr. Madden be here then?"
"I don't know. Mr. Madden is a very busy man."
"See here. Among other matters, there is, at present, a war being fought with the Seminole, the Republic of Texas is objecting to our resettlement of Indians west of the Mississippi, and the Utes are raising havoc on the western frontier. There are a great many problems in this office, beside which your appointment counts for very little.
"If you'll just let me explain," he persisted, taking a letter from his pocket. "This is an acceptance of my application to work for the Office of Indian Affairs. It says I am to be here at ten o'clock today to receive an assignment from Mr. Charles Madden. If Mr. Madden isn't here, perhaps someone else can help me."
The other man took the letter and perused it sourly. "Thomas Benton McCabe. That's you, eh? Yale, class of 1832. That won't do you much good with the savages. I see you're one of the special appointees. That means you'll be making a report on a Western tribe."
"That's what I was told." McCabe forced a polite smile. "Excuse me, but I didn't catch your name."
"I was led to believe I might be of some help in educating the primitives in the ways of the white man."
The other man had paused in the act of thumbing through a drawer of folders in his desk to stare at McCabe. "Hart," he repeated. "Mr. McCabe, you are not being sent to help or to educate anyone. You are to make a report. We need to know a great deal about these Western Indians before we deal with them."
"I understand that," McCabe said eagerly, "but they'll be much better able to live with us if they know something of our ways, something of the benefits of civilization. Agriculture, for instance. Medicine. Books. Newspapers. Look at how well the Cherokee did. They even established their own seminary for young ladies."
"The Cherokee," Hart said levelly, "have been resettled."
"You mean their lands were stolen," McCabe retorted. "It's a miscarriage of justice that I hope President Van Buren will correct."
"President-elect Van Buren will no doubt continue the policies of President Jackson. Mr. McCabe, are you certain you're, ah, cut out for the Office of Indian Affairs? You don't seem to have much of an idea about what we do here."
"I worked very hard for this appointment. I've dreamed about going among the Indians since I was a small boy."
Hart stared dourly at McCabe for a long moment, then he snorted and bent back to the files. "I think I have just the assignment for you, Mr. McCabe. What is that tribe called? Chien. No, that's French for dog. Ah, here it is." He pulled out a slim folder. "The Cheyenne, Mr. McCabe. Small tribe in the Unorganized Territory. We'll want to know their customs, their strength in numbers, and anything else you can find out. Pay is ten dollars a month, half now, half when I get the report."
"I'm sure I can send you regular reports on my progress, if you like.... "
"Don't bother me with mail, Mr. McCabe. I have enough clutter around this office. Just send me the whole report when it's finished."
After copying the information in the folder—there was little more than that the Cheyenne were nomadic hunters who lived between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains—McCabe returned to the hotel. The desk clerk gave him a sly wink as he handed him his key.
"There's a lady waiting to see you, Mr. McCabe. In that small waiting room to the left, there."
McCabe took his key with a frown and walked across the lobby. Who could it be? He wondered. As he entered the room, a diminutive brunette arose with a grim look.
"Isobel!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing in Washington?"
"I came after you," she replied shrilly. Isobel Grantham was a pretty woman, but for the first time he saw how quickly a shrewish look could mar her delicate features. "What do you mean with this nonsense?"
"It's not nonsense, Isobel. And you still haven't told me what you're doing here."
"When I heard about this insane thing you've done, I managed to invent an invitation from Helen Armstrong. I arrived this morning. It wasn't hard to find where you were staying. Your father told me. He also told me he's promised to disinherit you if you go through with this.
He looked down and sighed heavily.
Isobel's face tightened angrily. "Thomas McCabe, what you're doing is an insult to me and to yourself. We've been betrothed since we were practically children. Now I find you're about to run off to some godforsaken wilderness with only a note to tell me you were going."
"There was no time for more," he drawled lamely. "I tried to find you before I left, but ... for heaven's sake, Isobel. You know how much I want to do this, how much I've always wanted to. And you knew I was waiting to hear from the Office of Indian Affairs. I would have come back to say good-bye...."
"I know only that you've always been a fool over these Indians. I remember when you were a little boy, you talked about becoming a missionary, just so you could go out among those savages. Then it was an army officer, and then an explorer. You're almost twenty-five, Thomas. In another year you'll enter the bar, and we can get married."
"This won't stop me from entering the bar. It just means putting it off for a year or two. Listen to me. I'm going among a people called the Cheyenne, nomads who have no written language and no agriculture. I'll take seed corn with me and I'll show them how to plant it. I'll show them how to build houses so they can stop their life of wandering. By the time government finally reaches them, they'll be farmers, settled farmers, and they won't end up like the Cherokee—chased off their land because people think they're savages. If I can give them only that much, it'll be enough."
"Be damned to the Cheyenne," she spat.
"Isobel," he gasped.
"And be damned to you and your corn!" Her face twisted in rage, and an edge of hysteria rose in her voice as she spoke. "How long do you expect me to wait? I've passed up other offers, you know. Henry Campbell asked me to marry him, and I turned him down, even though he's going to be a doctor. I'm twenty-two, Thomas. Twenty-two. I've waited four years for you to finish all this silly reading in your father's office. In another year you'd have been a lawyer. Instead you go scurrying off to God knows where. Damn all Indians!"
"You seem to have spent a lot of time thinking about my profession," he noted coolly. "I begin to wonder if it's me you want to marry, or just any lawyer."
"How dare you!" she shrieked. He glanced worriedly at the door. "I thought you'd settle down, Thomas, but now I see you're little better than a light-footed wanderer."
"Perhaps you'd better marry Henry Campbell, then."
"I will," she hissed. "And if the Indians don't scalp you, you can attend the wedding."
As soon as she stalked out, he was filled with a wonderful sense of freedom. She had always been so soft and sweet. Discovering how shrewish she could be had loosed him from the last bond that might have held him back.
The next day he left for St. Louis and the West, feeling for the first time in his life completely unfettered. There was nothing and no one back East left to worry about.