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The dogwood spoke to me, saying, "Tsuh, kewesikatoo." Instantly, I ceased to pull the hand-split stick of wood through the groove I had made in the adobe brick. I turned the straight shaft of the arrow-to-be in my hand, and listened. Again, I felt the wood speak. "Tsuh, kewesikatoo."
"Yes ... Now ... Straight."
Burnt Belly had said this would happen if I listened with a pure heart. I had heard only two words, but one of them, the Comanche tsuh, meant both "yes" and "now," and somehow I understood. I could hardly expect a piece of split dogwood to speak to me in complete sentences, but it had spoken, nonetheless.
I looked down the length of the shaft and found it perfectly straight as I turned it slowly between my fingers. For a moment, I regretted that I had never built a violin. There had been a time, years ago, as a boy in France, when I had yearned to hear a great spruce speak to me, saying, "My wood, well planed and smoothed by your hand, will carry a fine tone." But instead of apprenticing under the master luthiers in Italy, I had murdered my fencing instructor, stolen my music teacher's left-handed Stradivarius, and stowed away on a packet bound for America.
Not that the swordsman, Segarelli, did not deserve to die, for he had raped a girl I thought I loved. And the wretched drunk, Buhler, was never worthy of an instrument such as the Stradivarius. So I had murdered the one, and robbed the other, and fled to a new continent. Now, I was a fugitive, living among the Comanches at the Crossing of the Canadian River in the Panhandle of Texas, where no Texan dared to tread.
I felt the smoothness of the dogwood arrow shaft I had just finished straightening, smelled the aroma of the wood. Perhaps I would never build a violin, but I was making a fine hunting arrow. I had already finished making my bow of Osage orange, strung with a bowstring of buffalo sinew, split and twisted. I had collected the best turkey feathers with which to fletch the shafts of my arrows. I had fashioned razor-sharp points from hoop iron taken from an old whiskey cask. But this was the first time I had heard the voice of a dogwood arrow shaft speak, and I was moved to the point that my skin puckered with gooseflesh, and it wasn't due to the cold.
I looked toward my lodge, and saw my young wife, Hidden Water, languishing in the sunshine with her friends. Her friends worked hard on the hide of the buffalo I had shot only yesterday. They had staked it to the ground and were scraping away bits of flesh which they tossed to a pack of dogs that sat obediently nearby, keen-eyed, waiting for the next morsel. Hidden Water herself stooped over the hide and pretended to help, but she never let labor bring much perspiration to her smooth, dusky skin. In the ways of love, however, she had energy to spare, and used her beauty and wiles much to my liking. Her hair hung thick, shiny, and straight about her shoulders. She could toss that hair in the throes of lovemaking and make it whip about my neck like a horse's tail. Her hips were round and her ankles trim. Her forearms, instead of rippling with twisted muscle like most Comanche women, looked like the smooth marble limbs of sculpted Roman angels.
She tossed her black hair and looked toward me. All three women burst into laughter. They were talking about me. I had thought I might walk over to the lodge, and tell her that I had heard the dogwood speak, but I knew she wouldn't appreciate it. She would probably try to ridicule me in front of herfriends, as she was wont to do, for she knew she could get away with it. I would tell her about the words of the dogwood tonight, when we were alone in the lodge.
I put the dogwood shaft away in the quiver I had made of fox fur tanned with deer brains. I chose the next shaft, and stroked it smoothly through the groove I had made in the adobe brick. This was a pleasant day and a good place to work. The sun shone bright on my shoulders, warming me against the chill of the Crazy Moon--November. What was left of the northwest corner of old Fort Adobe provided a welcome windbreak from the chill norther that had blown in two sleeps ago. I knew this particular adobe brick with the arrow-straightening groove in it as one I had molded and put in place myself. I don't know how I could remember such a thing, except to say that my memory is just perfect. I had not built Fort Adobe single-handedly, of course. William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain had hauled a whole crew of adobe masons all the way from Taos for the construction of the trading post. But, somehow, of the thousands of mud bricks, I could remember each individual brick I had made and mudded into place. A person who will listen to the soil of the earth can know it, as I knew those bricks.
Now nothing remained of the fort but the corners and the thick bases, ranging from knee high to head high. William Bent and I had destroyed the rest with a great black powder blast to keep the army from condemning it under the right of eminent domain, and quartering troops here to make war against our friends the Comanches. It had hurt, destroying the trading post I had built and loved. But it had brought me much esteem among the Comanches, for they understood that I had sought to protect them from the bluecoats. They had known, also, how much I loved that fort. Yet I had destroyed it for the good of the Comanche nation. Now, I had become one of the few white men who could live among and bring trade goods to the Comanches, and in such a way I made my living. I wore breechclout, leggings, and deerskin shirt decorated with dyed porcupine quill work. I had taken an Indian wife. I had learned to make arrows, and to hear the voice of the dogwood.
"The wood speaks to you."
I turned instantly, startled. It took me a moment to findBurnt Belly, for the sound of his voice never seemed to come from the direction of his mouth. Then I saw him sitting against the remnants of an adobe wall, the slick flesh of the lightning scar slashed across his chest shining in the sunlight. He wore only his breechclout and moccasins, for the cold did not concern Burnt Belly very much. Somehow, he had slipped inside the walls unseen to me. He had a way of appearing like that. It was said that he could make himself invisible.
"Yes," I said. "I heard it a moment ago. It said, 'Tsuh, kewesikatoo.'"
"This I know. You heard it with your heart, Plenty Man. The same way you heard my voice just now."
I simply smiled and nodded. I could never quite determine if Burnt Belly possessed mystic powers, or was simply the best magician and ventriloquist, and the most persuasive liar, I had ever known. He was also a healer who claimed the plants spoke to him, telling him of their curative qualities. He said the lightning had instilled this power in him. One thing was certain. Burnt Belly had survived the bolt from above--the glance of the Thunderbird. Nothing else could make a scar like that.
"I have been in council with the elders," he said.
My shoulders slumped, for I could guess what this meant. I had so wanted to finish making my arrows, so that I could go buffalo hunting with a bow and quiver full of projectiles made by my own hand. "What wisdom have the spirits granted the elders?"
"The young warriors will grow restless as the winter passes. They will tire of hunting, and then they will want to raid. They will demand firewater before they take the warpath. They will trade many robes and horses for it."
I turned and halfheartedly stroked my arrow shaft through the straightening groove in the adobe. "When do they want the firewater?"
Burnt Belly chuckled. "Yesterday."
I, too, chuckled. It was my place among Shaved Head's village of the Quahadi band of the True Humans to bring firewater and other, more pragmatical trade goods. It was a role I accepted. While other bands and other tribes went to trading posts and towns to barter, the Quahadis had remained morealoof. The towns and trading posts of white men harbored evil influences and deadly diseases. I was able to live among the Comanches only because I protected them from such dangers, and brought the white man's trade to them, on their own soil. When the elders sent me for trade goods, I rode immediately, and without complaint.
Yes, I was a whiskey trader. In this I took little pride, but my mentor, William Bent, had explained it to me: "It wasn't you and me that first brung whiskey to the Indians, Mr. Greenwood. But somebody did, and now they're gonna have it one way or the other, and I'd just as soon it was you and me sellin' it to them, rather than some cutthroat. It's a necessary evil. Just mind you don't let it get more evil than necessary."
The whiskey trader Bill Snakehead Jackson had once claimed the valley of the Canadian as his own. His policy was to get the Indians so stinking drunk that he could divest them of their goods, right down to their lodges and the innocence of their daughters. By some divine stroke of luck, I had killed Snakehead in a duel four years ago. Now, the Canadian Valley was my region. I liked it that way, and so did the Comanches, not to mention their allies, the Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches. Still, I was a whiskey peddler on top of being a murderer, a thief, and a liar, and I had to live with all of that.
Worse yet, I was a genius, and I am a genius still. This is nothing to boast of, for I have, all my life, wasted my intellect. Oh, I have lived life to the bursting point, and enjoyed many selfish and thrilling adventures, but I have squandered the powers of my brain. Had I been able to avoid murder, theft, and the fugitive's lot, I might have gifted the world with a fine violin, a poem, a scientific treatise, a cure, a discovery, a symphony. As it stands, I have benefited few. I have failed in holding peace among the nations. I have created nothing that will last long after I die. Even my beloved Fort Adobe lies in ruins. I have helped to slaughter the buffalo. I have succeeded only in ransoming a few captives from the Indians, and returning them to their families. I speak thirteen languages, but in them I have nothing profound to say.
But enough of my bellyaching. You will tire of that all too soon.
"I will bridle my best pony for the long trail, and leave this camp before the sun has moved one fist across the sky," I said to Burnt Belly.
The aged shaman nodded, and rose from the ground like a much younger man. "It is the best day to go. The moon rises full tonight. I know your medicine, Plenty Man. You do not sleep when the moon stays full. You will travel far, and return in two moons, when it is good for the young warriors to ride south and raid."
"Tsuh," I replied. "But after the full moon I will need dogbane and moccasin flower to help me sleep at night, or I will fall into one of my trances."
"I will give you some, in trade for something I need."
"What is it you need?"
"Bring me some good whiskey. I know you add water to weaken the cheap whiskey you bring for the young braves. This is good. But I want some real whiskey with spirit. I do not want it to taste like the piss of a coyote, and I do not want it weakened with water. You know I never swallow the whiskey, so there is no need to weaken it. I spit it into the sacred embers of cedar, and seek visions in its flames. A small horn of fine whiskey will do."
I raised an eyebrow and grinned at the old man. "The young braves must not know that I weaken their firewater."
"I would not tell, even under the worst tortures of the most evil Pawnee squaw," he said. "Now, I want to loan you something." He approached me, an old scarred man in breechclout and moccasins. "You have been making your arrows, and I know you want to finish. That groove in the dried mud wall is a good idea, for it is made of earth, and the earth knows the language of the wood, for they have lived together since the days when animals spoke and walked about like two-leggeds. But on the trail, if you want to straighten arrows, you need a small stone with a groove. I have brought one for you to use while you are on your journey."
Here, Burnt Belly showed me both palms, empty. Now he raised his hands, clapped once, and revealed a grooved stone that had somehow appeared in his right hand. I knew a few sleight-of-hand tricks that I used to influence the Indians, buthow Burnt Belly pulled off his magic, I will never know. That stone, the size of a turkey egg, appeared from nowhere.
"I will return it," I said, the astonishment plain on my face.
"I go now to prepare the dogbane and moccasin flower," he said.
WITHIN THE HOUR, I had caught and saddled my best trail pony--a sorrel paint stallion possessed of a smooth trot and ample endurance. His name was Major, for he had been given to me by Major James Henry Carleton for serving as his scout on a campaign against some marauding Mescalero Apaches. I had helped Major Carleton capture the camp of the renegades, and the paint horse I now rode had been the finest horse taken in the victory.
I first named the horse Major Carleton, but later began to simply call him "Major." Eventually--discovering the peculiar mischievous nature of this animal--I would come to think of him as Major-Pain-in-the-Ass. At times, however, owing to his good behavior, I would brevet him General Nuisance, but sooner or later he would always get busted back down to Major.
He was a stallion, but his demeanor was gentle, unless a mare in heat happened to be upwind. Rather than unruliness, it was his curiosity that got him into trouble. I believe that Major thought he was part human. He habitually watched what people did with their hands, then would try the same things with his mouth. He possessed incredible dexterity in his lips and teeth. He could untie himself--and other horses--and open gates, often letting stock escape.
He understood the concept of the handle. He could carry buckets, pump water from a well, and dump wheelbarrows. I once caught him trying to work a coffee grinder. Anything a human might pick up, Major could not wait to carry. This included sticks of wood, blankets, shovels, axes, hats, and firearms. As you might imagine, he occasionally caused some commotion around camp. However, I was always so impressed and entertained by Major's shenanigans that I could never bring myself to punish him for taking such initiative. This, of course, only served to encourage his high jinks.
As I saddled Major, he nipped at the back of my thighs to express his objection to the tightness of the cinch. Usually, I rode Indian style: bareback or with only a blanket. But when I rode for trade goods, I used my Mexican saddle. I did not want to look too Indian riding into some trading post or village. Once I explained this to Major, he heaved a huge sigh and accepted his lot.
I led a second pony--a bay--by a war bridle looped around his lower jaw. This mount I would trade for a couple of mules, which I would use to pack the whiskey kegs back to the camp on the Canadian. Before I rode west, I took a jaunt downstream, toward the camp of some Penateka Comanches who had been visiting for some time to get in on the good buffalo hunting on the ranges surrounding the Crossing.
On the way, I rode through a village of Nokoni Comanches--Chief Peta Nocona's band, which stretched almost a mile along the river bottom. Passing Peta's lodge, I saw his wife, Nadua, starting a cook fire, a number of buffalo tongues hanging nearby over a bare cottonwood branch. She glanced up at me, the blue of her eyes flashing in a way seldom seen in a camp of dark-eyed Indian women--like the tail of a deer warning her companions. At the time, I did not know the story behind this white woman living with the Comanches. Eventually, I would learn that her white name was Cynthia Ann Parker. She had been captured in a Texas raid at the age of nine. In time, Chief Peta Nocona had taken her as his wife--his only wife. She was well dressed and cared for, and seemed to go about her chores contentedly. She did not glance at me a second time as I rode by. I had been told by my Comanche friends not to try to ransom this white woman from Peta Nocona, for he loved her very much and would not part with her, so I rode on downstream to the camp of the Penatekas--the Honey-eaters from the oak-timbered hills farther down in Texas.
There was a warrior among the Penatekas who had captured a Mexican boy on a raid far to the south, across the Rio Grande. He had given the boy to his wife as a slave, and I had been told that the wife wanted to trade the boy for some goods from the old Spanish settlements. I found the lodge where theboy was kept, and saw him nearby, gathering wood. He looked to be about twelve years old. He was shirtless and shoeless in this cold, though he wore a pair of tattered cotton trousers which he had probably been wearing when captured. He had wood stacked high on his slender arm, and I saw sores on his shoulders where I feared his captors had beaten or burned him. Perhaps he had tried to run away, and had been punished. Or perhaps the woman who claimed him was just mean. These Penatekas lived closer to the Texas settlements, and were constantly harassed by settlers and the ruthless Texas Rangers. Constant warring had made them angry.
I found the woman who owned the boy. She was dressing a deerskin stretched on an upright frame made of willow branches stuck deep into the ground.
"Woman," I said, in Comanche. "Do you want to sell that captive Mexican boy?"
She glanced toward me, but not at me. "He is useful to me, but he eats much."
I resisted saying that the boy didn't seem to have eaten well in weeks. "Perhaps I could bring something from the settlements that is useful, and does not eat at all."
"I want two things."
"A kettle of iron. And a knife."
"That is easily done. I will take the boy with me, and bring back the kettle and the knife."
"No," she said. "I will give you the boy when you return with the things."
My pony pranced sideways, anxious to ride in the cool air. "That is no good. Then I will have that boy around my lodge when I return, and I do not want to feed him any more than you do."
"I want the kettle and the knife first," she insisted.
I shook my head. "I must take him now if you wish to trade. If I do not take him now, I must make a second trip to sell him back to the Mexicans. That is no good."
"You might take him and never return."
I drew myself upward in the saddle, as if insulted. "My word is good. Ask anyone. I will return with the things you want."
"No," she said.
I sat there on my horse for a few seconds, then reined away. I did not want to leave the boy with this woman, but I also did not intend to establish such a precedent--that I would go and fetch a ransom for a captive. I did not work that way.
"Are you going to bring the kettle and the knife?" she called after me.
I stopped and turned. "Only if I take the boy now."
"I will kill him, then. He eats too much."
"Then you will never get your kettle or your knife. Listen, woman. I have a knife here on my belt that I will give to you now. Then I will return with the kettle, and it will be a good one that is large, but not so large that you cannot pack it when your village wanders. And, as a reward for your trust, I will bring you a blanket. What color do you want?"
She looked toward the underfed boy and frowned. I removed the knife from my belt, rode back toward her, and held it out to her. She looked at the knife, snatched it from me, and drew it from its scabbard to inspect it. I could tell she was going to keep that knife.
"The color of the blanket does not matter," she said. "As long as it is not blue. That color is bad luck."
"Good," I said. As I rode toward the boy, leading the spare pony, the Penateka woman yelled in a shrill voice, ordering her captive to drop the wood he had gathered near the fire, and mount the extra horse I had with me. The boy did as he was told. I handed him the reins, and he seemed to know what to do with them. We rode back up the river, through the camps.
Arriving at my lodge, I got down.
"Wife," I said to Hidden Water. "I will ride now."
"I heard the crier," she said sarcastically. She was still kneeling on the buffalo hide with her friends, and she was bound to show off to them a little.
"Go into the lodge and fetch one of my old shirts and a pair of moccasins for this boy."
She sighed in an impudent way that might make some Comanche husbands take a stick to their wives.
"Go," I ordered. "I will bring something nice for you back from the settlements."
She looked knowingly at her friends as she rose, and they giggled. She went into the lodge. I ordered the other women to leave us. They reluctantly obeyed, and I entered the lodge, signing to the boy on the pony to stay where he was.
Hidden Water had found a shirt and a pair of moccasins for the boy, and was waiting for me inside. The boy was not that much smaller than me, for I have never weighed more than 145 pounds in my life. She tossed the things out through the lodge entrance when I entered, and told the boy to get down from the pony and put the things on. Then she pulled the bear-hide cover over our lodge door.
Coming to me now in the privacy of our lodge, she said, "What will you bring me?"
"What do you want?"
"Many nice things. A blanket the color of the flanks of the forked-tail bird that darts after flying bugs. Some buttons made of the rainbow shell. Ribbons. A comb made of the shell of a tortoise. And a looking glass."
Another Comanche woman had just traded a human being to me for a kettle and a knife, and my wife wanted finery.
"A blanket that color will be hard to find," I said.
"You will do it," she replied, a coy look on her face. She took my hand and pulled me toward our couch of soft buffalo hides. She wore a streak of vermilion coloring her scalp where her hair parted, and her cheeks were also colored, subtly, as if she could possibly blush. She pulled me down onto the couch with her, and bared her legs as she loosened my breechclout.
Outside, I could hear Major pawing the ground impatiently. "I promised the elders I would ride before the sun moved one fist across the sky," I warned, my lips whispering close enough to hers that I could smell her breath, scented with mint and plums.
"This will not take long, and it will help you to remember to bring the things I want."
"Tsuh," I said. "It will make my memory good."
WHEN I LEFT my lodge, I found the Mexican boy standing there, wearing the slightly oversized shirt and moccasins, holding the reins to both horses. I tossed him a blanket to wrapabout his shoulders. I mounted the paint and the boy sprang onto the bay. I motioned northward, and we rode past the ruins of Fort Adobe, and up the trail that led us out of the Canadian Breaks to the vast treeless plains above the river valley. I paused at the brink to look down on the large Indian encampment. Over four hundred lodges from three bands of Comanches, harboring more than a thousand souls, dotted the valley for miles along the stream. It was a pretty sight to me, the lodges streaming smoke, their entrances all facing east, children and dogs running among women hard at work, men sitting in circles as they smoked and talked and boasted of their hunting skills and wartime exploits.
I turned away and thought about the long ride to Santa Fe. I reached into my saddlebag and pulled out some pemmican I had placed there when I saddled up. This I offered to the boy, who took it without hesitation.
"What is your name?" I asked, repeating the question in Spanish.
The boy did not answer. He chewed the pemmican, which was made of dried buffalo meat and venison, cactus tunas, walnuts, and plums, all caked together in rich buffalo tallow. We rode for a few miles, the ponies stepping into a trot in the brisk November air. The boy finished the pemmican.
"Toribio," he said.
I nodded, and smiled, and we rode another mile.
Then he asked, in Spanish, and in a very small voice, "Cómo se llama?"
Copyright © 2006 by Mike Blakely