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The Montana landscape is always startling when one comes there straight from the East. It was early morning when I stepped off the train at the little brown-stained depot into an immense space of frosted yellow grass and blue sky. I had scarcely lifted my bag before the train was on its way, the locomotive swirling steam and sulfurous smoke and cinders in its wake. The depot was deserted, but old Dane had sent explicit directions, and as soon as I found my bearings I started up the dirt road that led to his cabin, a mile and a half away.
As I walked, I wondered if I had not been rather foolish in traveling such a distance to ask an aged Indian a few questions about his legendary grandmother. I had known her name, Mary Kingsley, or Creek Mary, or simply Amayi, since the days of my Georgia youth. Later at the university I had tried to write a paper about her, but the records were scanty. She was a full-blood Muskogee, or Creek Indian, daughter of Machichi, a famous chief who had been killed in a skirmish with colonists. After Machichi's death, Mary's people at Bluff Village regarded her as their leader, the Beloved Woman.
By all accounts she was a great beauty who had charmed all the male colonists of Georgia, from General Oglethorpe down to trader John Kingsley, whom she married. Proud and hot-tempered, she had turned on the colonists for taking too much of her people's land. At the head of a mighty force of Creek warriors she stormed into Savannah, determined to drive the British into the sea, but in some way she was betrayed. After that, she vanished, and was mentioned only once more in the annals of Georgia, and that was an undocumented fragment concerning a Danish sea captain who was said to have fallen in love with her and went mad searching for her through the swamps and pinelands of coastal Georgia.
Over the years I had almost forgotten Creek Mary as I made my way from one newspaper job to another, moving northward from Georgia to Washington, a tolerable sort of journalist but growing cynical, as I suppose we all do. A day or so after Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural I drew an assignment to a White House luncheon. I went with no particular enthusiasm. We had been writing about Roosevelt and the inaugural for several days and were weary of the subject.
As it turned out the luncheon was in honor of Mary Dane, a young Indian woman from Montana, the first of her race and the first of her sex to graduate from Columbia Medical College. Teddy was in his usual ebullient form, gesturing wildly and slapping his hands sharply together to emphasize his remarks, his voice rising often to an emotional treble. But I'm afraid I was negligent of my duties that day. Not one note did I take of the President's little speech. I was too absorbed in Mary Dane. Her skin was of a dark honey color; her eyes were a somber black. She was not only exceptionally beautiful, there was about her an impulse of life—not a warmth, but a driving force that I imagined could be felt by every one of the forty or so people at the luncheon tables. I believed that she was aware of each separate one of us, but her dark eyes were directed most often to a very old Indian man seated to her left front.
His walnut face was grooved with deep wrinkles. His long white hair fell over the shoulders of his plain blue-serge coat. He wore a maroon scarf loosely around his neck, and his bony old man's nose and the way he held his head proudly erect gave him more the air of a Spanish grandee than a Montana Indian. Most of the time his eyes were closed, but when he opened them and looked at Mary Dane they were very bright, and he would smile, keeping his thin lips closed.
Suddenly there was Roosevelt handing Mary Dane a scroll of some sort, and everyone stood and began applauding. In the midst of it the old Indian uttered a suppressed whoop, and cried out above the clatter: "Creek Mary's blood!" At first I was not certain of what he had said. I fumbled around for a moment, letting the word-sounds run through my head again. A rather large woman jostled past me, blocking my efforts to push forward to reach the old Indian before attendants hurried him and Mary Dane out through the side door. In the hubbub all I could learn was that they were rushing to board a train. It was not a very good reportorial performance on my part.
I went back to the office and composed my piece for the morning paper, but all evening I kept hearing the old man's voice rising above the applause, and wondering if I had imagined those three words: Creek Mary's blood. The next day I learned from a White House secretary that he lived on or nearby a Cheyenne reservation. No one seemed to know his first name. He was Mary Dane's grandfather, Mr. Dane, and his address was simply Dundee, Montana. It made no sense to me, an old Cheyenne Indian named Dane living two thousand miles north by west of the lush green coast of Georgia and having any knowledge whatsoever of my long-vanished Creek Mary.
But I decided to write a letter of inquiry to Mr. Dane at Dundee, Montana, and to my surprise a brief reply came back quite promptly. He assured me that he was indeed a descendant of my Creek Mary, her grandson in fact. Although he had lived with the Cheyennes for many years, he was not of their blood. He was pleased that I knew of his grandmother, and thanked me for writing to him. That was all.
Of course I wrote to him again, asking him to tell me what had happened to Creek Mary after her bold assault upon the city of Savannah. His second reply was as brief as the first. There was much to tell, he said, so much that he could never put it all into a letter. Besides, his old fingers had stiffened with the years and he found it difficult to write. Why did I not pay him a visit? He would tell me whatever I wanted to know.
And so here I was on a frosty morning in spring, trudging up a Montana dirt road pockmarked with hoofprints and rutted by the steel tires of wagons and buggies. Why had I come so far, taking leave without pay from a job that was insecure at best? Perhaps it was the letters he had written to me, the ink script so carefully handprinted in bold and steady characters. He capitalized most of the nouns; his lowercase s's resembled f's; he used y for i in a couple of words; he doubled the l's and t's in words that we spell with single letters. This was not misspelling; it was almost perfect eighteenth-century English. He had been taught to read and write by his grandmother, Creek Mary, who had learned her English from eighteenth-century British missionaries in Carolina before the tribe crossed the Savannah River into Georgia. I could guess that much. It was like reading a manuscript from the nascent period of our republic, and I was beguiled by this link with the past, to a time so far distant from the modern now of 1905. For me, Creek Mary had come to life again, and I knew that in her youth her beauty must have been similar to that of Mary Dane's.
His cabin lay in a sprawling valley, with an upthrust of range far off to the northwest. A small stream bordered by cottonwoods and willows flowed just beyond it. A few Herefords that had come to drink there lifted their heads to stare at me. It was a lonely place.
He must have seen me coming. He stepped outside, lifting his face to the sun, waiting. I shouted a good morning to him, and he nodded. He was wearing a gray wool shirt, striped snuff-colored jeans, and old scarred cowboy boots. His long hair, silvery in the sunlight, was no longer loose as he had worn it at the White House, but was parted in the middle with a tightly woven braid hanging over each shoulder. The smooth parchment covering his nose and cheeks stretched out into a network of wrinkles, but his bright eyes belied his years. As I came up he offered his hand, and then gestured for me to go inside.
After the bright sunlight the interior of the cabin seemed dark. Three hickory rocking chairs faced a fireplace where a few orange coals glowed beneath a smoke-blackened coffeepot. He took my coat, hung it over the back of one of the rockers and motioned for me to sit there.
I broke the silence first. "Thank you for inviting me out here."
"It is good to have a visitor," he said. "All my Cheyenne friends are dead except a few old women, most too feeble to journey out. The younger people are too busy. Do you drink coffee?" His accent struck me as being faintly British, not harsh in the way so many Northern Plains Indians speak.
While he poured the coffee I glanced at the rough bookshelves built under the window of the wall just to the left of his chair—a large dictionary with its boards hanging loose, a three-volume encyclopedia badly worn, The Laws of Montana, Diseases of Cattle, Catlin's North American Indians in two volumes with the gilt decorations fading, some yearbooks of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in purple bindings, a badly scuffed Works of Shakespeare, and a brand-new six-volume brown-leather set of Theodore Roosevelt's Winning of the West, probably a gift from the President at the time of Dane's recent visit to the White House.
He handed me a large tin cup of coffee, the metal already so hot that I had to rest it on the arm of the rocker. "Would you mind telling me how old you are?" I asked.
"Ninety-one," he replied.
"You are certain of this?"
"I am certain." His tone was slightly nettled. "We of the so-called 'Five Civilized Tribes' live by your calendar. The old ones of the Cheyenne people mark time by events. Some had winter-count calendars on buffalo skins, all lost in the wars. But of what importance is age by years? My grandmother was probably ninety-five by your calendar when she died. We who have Creek Mary's blood live forever, like the coyotes."
And that is how he began telling me about her. He had known her himself only as an aging woman, but he could visualize her in her early twenties, as could I, through his granddaughter. When Dane was a child eager for stories, seated beside his grandmother or held in her lap, he had listened many times to tales of her days of great glory as the Beloved Woman of the Bluff Village Creeks.
It was a fine summer morning and she went for a ride on the fast-footed Choctaw pony that John Kingsley had obtained for her in trade. She let the pony trot along easily under the live oaks, passing a succession of pathways that forked off to various small vegetable plots cultivated by the Creeks outside their village. When she came to a level meadow she removed her cape of red English cloth and fastened it to the saddle. Then she put the pony into a fast gallop, feeling the air flow cool over her naked breasts, bracing her neck against the tug of her long hair streaming behind her like a black pennon. The grass ended against a thicket of trees where a clear brook ran swiftly toward the river. Of its own accord the pony slowed and stopped with its forefeet in the stream. She let it wet its nose in the water, and she was at once aware of a heavy quietness. The thicket was filled with silent birds. She knew that the day was too young for birds not to be filling the air with calls and chatter and music.
Without alarm she wondered at the meaning of this, as she often wondered on the meanings of the actions of all living beings—birds, animals, plants, and men and women. She watched the first cloud puffs forming in a sky that was a rich blue after a cleansing night shower.
"Because this was a day that was to have much meaning for her," Dane said, "she told me many times what she was wearing that morning. Besides the cape of red English cloth, she wore a knee-length skirt of the softest deerskin, and moccasins and leggings embroidered with beads of every color. She also wore a ring that General Oglethorpe had given her, a ring that bore a sparkling jewel of some kind. Around her neck would have been the gorget with the silver Danish coin that you may have seen my granddaughter wearing that day in the White House. The coin was Creek Mary's 'medicine,' what you would call an amulet, a charm against evil. She was never without it."
"Why would she place so much faith in a Danish coin?"
"Ah." His eyes brightened. "There was a Danish gentleman in her life. I think she told no one much about him but me, long after she gave me my name."
"So that—Of course. Dane." I could see that he was pleased by my recognition. "In my feeble searches into her history," I volunteered, "I found mention of a Danish sea captain, said to have died of madness in a futile search for her."
"I have no knowledge of that," he said.
As she and the Choctaw pony rested at the brook in the golden morning, there was a sudden fluttering of birds in the highest limbs of the live oaks, and then from beyond the thicket came a scream of rage and pain. Reaching for her cape, she quickly wrapped it around her shoulders and forced the pony into the woods, bowing her head before the slap of leaves and vines until the frightened animal brought her into a clearing. This was Tolchi's farm plot, young Tolchi whose wife had recently died. Mary had known him all her life. The screams came again from across the clearing, and she saw them then, nearby his log shelter.
Tolchi was bound facing a tree, and a stout white man was flogging his naked back with a leather whip. Her pony had come to a halt, but without hesitation she made it leap into a charging gallop. The stout man heard the thud of hooves and swung around in surprise. As horse and rider swept down upon him, his fleshy face showed a mixture of anger and fear. One hand still held the whip upright; his blue porcine eyes widened in disbelief at the onrushing horse and rider. Then as she swept past him she tore the whip from his grasp. She spun the pony around and brought the heavy leather down upon the man's thick mat of hair. He spat out a vicious oath, but she turned back upon him, cutting one side of his face open with the tail of the whip. He screamed, stumbled, and crawled a few yards, blinded by his own blood, wiping the flow on his sleeve. Then he struggled to his feet and ran like an awkward ox for his horse.
She held her pony until he was mounted, and then she lashed the flank of his horse. The big man was almost unseated by the sudden thrust of his mount, but he clung desperately to the animal's mane, shouting curses back at her as he disappeared down the trail that led to Savannah.
Turning back to Tolchi, she dismounted and with some difficulty released him from the ropes. The young man's back was covered with bloody welts from his neck to his waist. "Why?" she cried. "Why, Tolchi, why?"
Tolchi said that he had been away hunting deer in the north. During his absence the intruder had moved into his cabin and staked off the land. When Tolchi returned, the man had ordered him off his own farm plot, claiming that it was his by a grant from the King of Great Britain and the Trustees of Georgia. "Others came with him," Tolchi told her. "I saw them cutting trees to build cabins all along the Upper Ogeechee."
"So once again they are breaking the promises of Oglethorpe's treaty." Her voice was high and angry. "For the last time I've warned the English that they can have no more of our land. This time we will strike not at the separate invaders of our land but at their town, at Savannah itself."
She tried to help Tolchi into his cabin, but he brushed her arm away. His loss of dignity was more painful than the wounds on his back. She found bear's grease in an earthenware jar and rubbed it gently over the welts. "You must see Checote and have him bathe these cuts with that liquid he makes from tulip-tree bark. As soon as that is done, I want you to take my pony and ride as swiftly as you can to Menewa's village. Tell Menewa that his warnings of the treachery of white men have come true. Tell him the Beloved Woman of his tribe needs him and his warriors."
"I have no time to waste with that old conjurer Checote," Tolchi replied. "I shall ride straight to Menewa."
With Tolchi riding behind, they went on together to the edge of Bluff Village. She dropped easily to the ground. "Tolchi." She touched his leg gently as he eased into the saddle. "Go bring Menewa and his warriors back to me." As soon as he galloped away, she strode into the village, her anger still so high that she paid no heed to the greetings of the children playing and laughing in the pathways, and they knew that something was troubling their Beloved Woman.
Excerpted from Creek Mary's Blood by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1980 Dee Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 5, 2012
Native American history mixed in with a compelling story makes for a powerful read. One of the best books I have ever read.
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