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The most annoying sound I've ever known is that high, nasally voice of a pouting child. I find it especially grating when heard on an unseasonably hot day when sweat is rivering down my skin and pesky gnats dart determinably for my eyes. As if that weren't enough, because the day was too hot to wear protective leggings, I was riding bare-legged and the blanket covering my saddle was doing nothing at all to ease the chafing of my inner thighs. In the year of 1867, the early autumn was proving itself to be just as brutal as the passing summer, the sun beating down with the force of a striking hammer.
You would have thought that such lamentable traveling conditions would be enough to shut up my wife and son. You would have thought wrong. Under no conditions does a five-year-old boy know how to shut up, and my wife was laboring under the delusion that each of his complaints should be met with logical, and therefore rather lengthy, responses. When I rolled wearied eyes, she sent me a rebuking look that clearly said, This is all your fault.
She was right.
Before beginning the grisly trek from our country just north of the Red River, venturing north to the Osages' country, I had presented my new son with his very own pony. Ordinarily, children of his age rode safe inside protective cages that were strapped onto a travois. Because of my gift of the pony, Favorite Son wasn't where he should have been, but between my wife and I, the joy of him having his very first pony was quickly fading for all of us.
Crying Wind was losingher voice trying to console and reason with a dyspeptic five-year-old and I was trapped, unable to ride up front with the other men. It was unthinkable for a father to abandon his child while that child was learning to ride properly. Longing with every particle of my soul to be with the other men, I wormed in the saddle, trying to find a new patch of skin somewhere on my buttocks that wasn't completely blistered, while Favorite Son mewled and Crying Wind tried to distract him.
"Oh, look there, my little heart," she said, pointing off. "See the redbird?"
Dutifully, Favorite Son and I looked in that direction just in time to see a flash of scarlet as a bird careened against a cloudless pale blue sky. The landscape boasted only tall grasses undulating with each dry hot breeze, like the waves of a fast-moving river. A sigh slipped out of me as I found myself longing for our home country of red buttes, tall trees and incalculable rivers and creeks. And humidity. Wonderful, cloying humidity. I have never been a high prairie person. On the high prairie, the air is so dry a person can watch his skin crack.
I went on this occasion because the entire Nation was gathering in Kansas. To go there, we had to travel through the very heart of Osage country. The Osage were certainly aware of our numerous presence. They were allowing their former enemies to pass safely through. Still, because the giant Osage were known to be somewhat contradictory, our great mass of warriors rode farther ahead, leaving the women and children to travel about a half mile behind.
Women always traveled or walked behind men, but not, as is so widely supposed, because men considered women to be inferior. The first time I heard this statement, I was too appalled to speak. I simply stood before the smug individual, who voiced this as a fact, with mouth agape, looking very much like an astonished carp.
Indian men walked or rode ahead of their families because the Indian men of a long-ago day were gallant. I love that word gallant--it is so full-bodied, so completely right for the men I knew back then. And it was because of their gallantry that they placed themselves in harm's way. For if an enemy struck, those men were more than prepared--out of unconditional love--to give up their lives in order to buy the time needed for their wives and children to run away, hide, survive.
That is not to say that women and children traveled wholly on their own. A smattering of warriors were selected to ride with them. During this journey to the place called Medicine Lodge, I was a member of the smattering. I didn't particularly care for this because I wanted to be with my friend Skywalker. Something seemed to be the matter with him and I was worried. But I had sealed my fate by giving my son the pony. So, he was with the noted warriors and I was with the women. A place my other friends, who only meant to tease, said I belonged anyway.
Sadly, that was all too true. While the true warriors of our nation liked me, even respected me for my unusual doctoring skills, they knew I was not a very good warrior. If I were with them and the Osage decided to come out for a fight, my Kiowa brothers would first have to concern themselves about my safety before taking on the Osage. So, as it turned out, my blunder about the pony worked to their advantage--they wouldn't have to worry about hurting my feelings by suggesting that I ride with the women because I'd trapped myself. Although, these same warriors weren't overly concerned about my tender feelings when it came to teasing me about my name, Tay-bodal.
Bluntly put, Tay-bodal means Meat Carrier. It was not my first name but it has been my name for so long now that I can't really remember the first one. This second name was earned during the time when I was just entering my twenties and newly married to my first wife--a good woman who died long before I ever even met my second wife, Crying Wind. In my childhood, it was generally agreed that I was a bit eccentric, so overly fascinated by all things living that I did not properly study the lessons necessary for ordinary life. Hence, when I came of age to join a warrior society, none of the leaders of the societies approached me for membership. Because my people have always been a forgiving lot, I was allowed to go my own way and become a doctor, but not a traditional doctor. The two doctoring societies, the Owl Doctors and the Buffalo Doctors, did not invite me to join their memberships, either. When I married for the first time, I was totally unprepared to support a wife and it was for her sake alone that I tried to fit in where I clearly did not belong and the first step of this fitting in was to join an organized hunt comprised of about a dozen warriors.
I was quite nervous about the whole thing, for generally I hunted with my father--a gentle, quiet man who rarely corrected me while taking great pains to protect me from myself. The seasoned warriors I'd attached myself to, were neither gentle nor quiet and they most certainly did not have any great concerns regarding my welfare. Still, I was determined to bluff it out, prove that I was a man, that I was not too young to have the responsibility of a wife. The way I chose to carry off this great pretext was by acting just as cocky as possible.
It's a long hard fall from cocky. I should have known I was headed for the fall the day I neatly packed my portion of the kill onto the back of my horse, ignoring the other men who were taking the time to salt down their portions. While I was tying tight the travel pack, one of them stopped what he was doing and came over to me, asking what I was doing. I was quite terse with the man, appallingly rude. He backed off and went back to the clump of men. Turning away from the sight of them, I busily kept on with what I had been doing while listening to their muttering and muted laughter. All I thought, as I tied the last cord that would keep my prize from slipping off my horse's flanks, was how glad I was to be going home. During the time spent with those men, I realized that they had a companionship I could not share. Their brotherhood made me feel left out, sorry for myself and resentful. Which is why I had acted no better than an angry child. I wanted to go home and I wanted to go quickly. They weren't being fast enough to suit me and I let them know it.
Everything would have been all right if they hadn't decided to get back at me for my arrogant and sullen attitude. For two days they all pretended that we were lost. I didn't know the area at all and was completely dependent on them. If they were lost, so was I. By the third day, the hunt leader. (I suppose because he was becoming tired of their game) announced that everything was all right, that he knew where we were. Well, that was good news but I would have felt better had it not been for the persistent and increasingly noxious smell of rotting meat. After three days of being wrapped up inside a rawhide blanket and without any preserving salt, my portion had gone off. Realizing now that I had been the brunt of a joke, I stubbornly held on to that portion, torturing all of them with it for as long as I could stand it. When the air around us became so fetid that the others were pleading with me to throw it away, I finally did. So, it was from that time that I have been called Tay-bodal (the Meat Carrier). And for years following that humbling hunt, whenever my new name was said in polite society, the typical question following the mention was, "Isn't he that idiot?"
"Redbirds are sacred to the Osage people," Crying Wind continued. "In their religion, the Osage came from the stars and were redbirds before they became human beings."
I was tempted to add that our council hadn't entirely decided if the Osage were indeed human but they did agree that the Osage had come from somewhere other than this earth. In the days of my childhood, Little Bluff, the greatest chief of the Cauigu (Kiowa), had made peace with the Osage. Being much younger than me, my wife didn't remember the terrible years of war and so she was inclined to be frustratingly broad-minded about those people. My offering a differing comment, while she was working hard to be sweet-voiced and reasonable with our pouting son, would have set her off and she was already mad enough about the pony.
All right, I admit it, giving a five-year-old a pony was stupid. But I hadn't known just how stupid until Crying Wind became stony-faced, unnaturally quiet, and the air between us as heavy as the lull before the onslaught of a tornado. Now, before you begin to think that, as my wife, she should have been diffident to whatever I did simply because I was her husband, think again. The wives ran the households and any husband who acted first and consulted with his wife later could find himself staring into the eyes of doom. It was because I had presented the pony at the last moment before the Nation left our old camp behind, and because our son was so excited by the gift, that she reined in her temper. But throughout the long day of travel I'd felt her anger. Oh yes, I most certainly did.
The distraction of the redbird and its fable lasted no longer than the time it took for that bird to disappear. When it was gone, lost among the tall grasses, Favorite Son began the slow unhinging of his lower jaw on the verge of another gripe when a shot was heard and the entire mass of plodding women and children came to a stop. Being one of the few men riding among them, naturally their heads turned toward me, uncertainty and fear evident on every face. The riding-ahead warriors were over the next rise, lost from our view. Everyone remained completely still, horses not even flicking away flies with their tails as we waited the interminable seconds in a silence so total that it reverberated in our ears.
My eyes were trained on the rise, my entire body tense as we waited. Feeling a pressure on my arm, I glanced down. Favorite Son was leaning against me, welling tears sheening dark eyes. Feeling instantly protective, I was readying my rifle when a fast-riding warrior crested the rise.
"Tay-bodal!" the warrior cried, whipping his horse to faster speed. "Tay-bodal! White Bear needs you."
Women quickly maneuvered their mounts and packhorses out of the way, as the young warrior known as Big Tree galloped hard. I let him know where I was by standing in the stirrups and waving both arms over my head. When he spotted me, he aimed to the left, barely dodging the living obstacles in his path. As he neared, he drew up hard on the reins, the back hooves of his warhorse skidding precariously beneath the large animal's body. Big Tree was close to me now, barely a foot away, but he shouted as if we were yards from each other as he gestured excitedly in the direction of the distant rise.
"Three Elks has been wounded."
Hearing this, the women gasped sharply and children whimpered.
"We've been attacked?" I cried.
"No," he answered, inside a heaving breath. "There's no time for talk." He turned away from me, bellowing out over the heads of the women. "Get down from your horses. Rest and feed your babies. There is nothing to fear."
As this was Big Tree, a man of considerable merit, the women were prompt to obey. He turned again to me, his mouth working as he swallowed in whole gulps the scalding air. During this space of seconds I was again struck by his extraordinary looks. Big Tree was a young man of slight build, but he was incredibly strong. He puts me in mind of a coiled bedspring, amazingly light yet able to bear considerable weight without breaking. But it was his face that was his most striking feature. From the time of his infancy, people tended to mistake him for a pretty girl. While this greatly appalled him, I secretly envied his unique looks. I have always been an ugly person. Even though in those days I was a man in my prime, my otherwise fit condition did little to alleviate the irregular planes of my features or hide the deep pits left along the sides of my face. The pits were caused by a bout of the smallpox I had been lucky to survive. That brutal illness took not only my dubious handsomeness but lost me my first wife and both of my parents. Deeply hurt by my loss, I shunned any close ties for years following that plague. But that solitude became a type of gift. Without any family connections, I had time to perfect my healing craft and, getting used to my ugliness, I became an ardent admirer of all things and all persons truly beautiful.
Crying Wind was beautiful. So was Big Tree. My wife could be quite vain about her beauty but Big Tree was mortified by his. I think this was on account of the teasing he suffered. He was so pretty, and, being almost dainty, he continually worked to prove his courage and manhood. Which is why, during his twenties, Big Tree was a To-yop-ke, a war chief. Throughout the whole of his life, he was. known to be utterly fearless, wholly dependable. So when he said the situation was not dangerous, the women did not question his word. Instead they climbed down from their horses and set to making a rest camp.
After several more gulps of air, Big Tree spoke again. "White Bear says to bring your medicines. Three Elks is bleeding badly."
My medical supplies were packed up somewhere on the trailing travois. Scrambling down from the saddle I asked, "He's bleeding from what part of his body?" This was a thing I needed to know in order to take along the proper bandaging.
Feeling his hesitation, I peered around the neck of my horse. Crying Wind had not dismounted. She was staring at Big Tree. Looking away from her, finding my peeking eyes, he blushed, his cheeks turning a muddy rust color.
"His ... um ..."
Crying Wind craned her head forward, intent on hearing the juicy details. This was a fault of hers that, during the first years of our marriage, I battled to break. A healer's wife could not be a gossip. People came to me with all sorts of peculiar problems and it did their troubles not one iota of good knowing that her big ears were anxious to hear everything. Realizing that she was at it again, Big Tree gave up.
"You'll need a lot of bandages!" he said sharply. "And you must hurry."
The sight that greeted me was almost laughable but, because of Three Elks' undeniable pain, I did not laugh. A difficult thing not to do considering that his naked rear end was lifted skyward while he bent himself double and held on to his ankles. The bleeding wound was in his left buttock and it looked quite deep. Even worse for Three Elks, the bullet was still in there. But the type of bullet was the thing I needed to know. Warriors had all manner of guns, the e-pe-tas (repeaters) being the newest. The trusty flint lock, or trader gun, was still in the majority and the most common bullet used in those guns were round pebbles. Pebbles could be a discomfort if left inside the body but if the wound was treated right, that would be all the harm they would do. But the e-pe-tas used lead bullets and lead caused blood fevers, putrefying wounds, and killed the victim slowly.
Looking away from Three Elks' aloft posterior I demanded, "Exactly how did this happen?"
The question was posed to a scowling White Bear. He turned slightly away, wiping a trickle of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. The unrelenting sun radiantly outlined his near-naked body, the aura emphasizing his great height and girth. With his hair partially tied up in a knot just behind his crown, his head seemed to erupt from his shoulders. White Bear did not have much of a neck--what there was of it, blended in with his shoulders in a manner similar to the neck muscle of a great bull.
White Bear was known as Satanta by the whites. Not only did they get his name--Set'tainte--wrong, they also erred in believing that the vacant expression he could sometimes get while enduring the long hours of the peace councils the American government seemed so desperately fond of, meant that mentally he was as blank as a board. They failed to notice the quick, dangerously alert eyes set in that broad expressionless face. If they had, they would have known that there was a lively mind inside that large head. White Bear had the same cunning of one of their own tactically brilliant generals. But the side of himself he readily showed the world, was that of a very large man who loved practical jokes. Yet even in this boisterous display he could be quite lethal. That humor of his was threatening the moment now, as he tried to explain to me just how Three Elks had received his very peculiar wound.
"My favorite nephew"--he said, meaning The Cheyenne Robber--"seems to be the cause of this unfortunate accident."
He glanced back over his shoulder to his nephew, a shockingly magnificent specimen of male animal. The Cheyenne Robber did his best to appear contrite. The attempt failed. The best he was able to manage was a defensive arrogance. If you could have seen him, you would have understood why. Any human being that splendid could not help but be arrogant. In fact, as his friend, there were times when I wanted to be arrogant for him. But he didn't need my services. He already had a swarm of lieutenants willing and able to carry any excesses of his vanity between them.
His haughtiness was not seen as a fault, but his natural due. As with the genesis of the Osage, The Cheyenne Robber looked as though he had appeared by divine hand from the sky and was content, for a time, to dwell among thoroughly undeserving mortals. He stood somewhere over six feet in height and every inch of him was perfectly proportioned. Broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist and below slim hips were two long legs as well-muscled as any horse's. As you might imagine, he wore everything disgustingly well and on that blazing hot day he looked especially well in a very short breechcloth, a Navaho silver belt slung low on his hips, a pair of knee-length moccasin boots, and hair the color of pitch left to hang down his back to his waist. He was so good-looking that even the half-disgusted expression on his face failed to dull his handsomeness. Mistaking my quiet admiration of him as a wait for an explanation or an apology, he folded his arms across his bare chest and commenced to glare at me from under hooded eyes. As always, when realizing that I had The Cheyenne Robber's full and concentrated attention, I began to feel weak in the knees.
In my defense, I was not the only one thus afflicted by his piercing gaze. Women were known to drop in a dead faint whenever they were singled out by him. To my knowledge, there was only one female who ever proved the exception. A young woman known as White Otter. When he first met her and she failed to swoon or drool on herself, The Cheyenne Robber had to know why not. This needing-to-know began a hot pursuit of her, culminating in their marriage. White Otter did eventually faint at his feet but only because she was pregnant. Now she was the mother of his baby son and her attentions had become so divided that she simply didn't have the strength or the inclination to feed her husband's massive conceit. Not surprisingly, The Cheyenne Robber's temperament was known to be surly of late; his moods so foul that it would not have surprised me in the least to learn that he had shot Three Elks in the butt on purpose, and for no other reason than he was feeling the need to shoot something.
The Cheyenne Robber turned his face away from me, looking at his older brother Skywalker, who was squatting down, not looking at anyone in particular, his expression pensive. Skywalker was an Owl Doctor; a mystic--if you must qualify him as such--having the ability to blank out every living thing around him while he listened to the voices speaking to him from an unseen world. He wasn't blank now, so he wasn't having one of his "spells" as we called them. If anything, he was very aware and highly irritated. I knew for a solid fact that he didn't approve of our Nation going into Kansas. He'd been more than vocal on the subject, saying that the Kiowas should show their contempt for the peace talks by staying away. But our people heard that the army would be bringing many wagons filled with gifts and that there would be great feasts--presents and food are two things Indian people love.
In the end, Skywalker had been overruled. Our new principal chief, Lone Wolf, was a man of great pride. He couldn't see himself excluded from the talks with the Washington government when the chiefs of the other nations of the Plains Confederacy were certain to be there. This was the first truly important event in the early days of his chieftainship and he was not about to miss it. The vote naturally upset him, but Skywalker wasn't normally a sulker. His less-than-social attitude of late sprang from something else. Something he would not share, not even with me, a man supposed to be his best friend. As a matter of fact, for almost a week now, he hadn't spoken to me at all, causing me to worry about a friendship I'd formerly taken for granted.
Standing to his feet, not looking at me or anyone else, he went for his horse. No one tried to stop him or call him back. If he would persist in being ill-natured, then he wasn't wanted--at least, by the majority. I--decidedly in the minority--wanted him to stay, but after he brushed by me as if he'd never known me, I held my tongue and did nothing more than watch him as he rode off, disappearing over the rise.
Once he was out of sight, with effort I concentrated my attentions on my patient, examining the wound while White Bear and The Cheyenne Robber began to argue. As Three Elks' condition wasn't funny to him anymore, White Bear was now demanding to know precisely how the man had come to be shot.
The thing that happened--or at least, it was The Cheyenne Robber's explanation--was that his horse had stumbled or shied, and as he worked to bring the horse under control, the rifle resting across his lap went off, the bullet finding its way to Three Elks' left haunch. Had this happened in battle, it would have been considered a lucky shot; but as Three Elks was a friend, it was quickly put down to a freakish accident. One that would cost The Cheyenne Robber many expensive gifts, as Three Elks was in considerable pain and, because that bullet was now known to be lead, he would experience a great deal more while it was being dug out.
To lessen (granted a bit late) Three Elks' dire humiliation, those warriors not needed to help with the procedure were told to go back to where the women were, to guard the camp and have a meal. The Cheyenne Robber volunteered to be in that number; and as he was becoming even more grim-natured about the entire incident--and a grim The Cheyenne Robber was distinctively of no help to anyone--White Bear granted permission for him to go. Led by Lone Wolf, there was the subsequent departure of the host of warriors, leaving me with Big Tree and his brother Dangerous Eagle, Kicking Bird, White Bear, and a warrior known as Raven's Wing to help me with Three Elks. I had wished mightily that White Bear would go, too, but because he did not like being shown up in any way by his archrival Kicking Bird, he stayed.
As did his warped humor.
The trouble with tending the wound was its inconvenient angle. My digging around inside for the bullet caused Three Elks to be understandably squirmy. To keep him still, it took the combined strength of all the men present to try to hold him in place. Unfortunately for all of us, White Bear found himself standing almost directly behind the patient, holding Three Elks' twitchy hips as best he could. I was using the small metal digging tool that Haw-we-sun, a Thaiqahi (white man) and friend of mine who is also a doctor, had given to me. Hawwy was a Blue Jacket (soldier) doctor. He had all sorts of amazing tools. To make friends with me, he allowed me to choose any three of his doctoring tools that I wanted. The digging tool had been my first choice. It was wonderful because it was able to dig and scoop at the same time. At least I thought it was wonderful. During the procedure Three Elks hollered an entirely different opinion. It was over Three Elks' caterwauling that the indignity of his position in the scuffle finally struck White Bear.
"Tay-bodal!" he thundered. "Be a little quicker. If the Cheyennes and Arapahos should suddenly appear, I really wouldn't care to know what they might think we're doing with Three Elks."
Big Tree looked back at White Bear, then he fell over laughing. He was followed rather rapidly by Dangerous Eagle. The instant Three Elks found himself partially free, he wormed out of White Bear's grasp and began to run, howling with pain and pumping blood from the gaping wound. Which meant, of course, that we had to chase him around. Not an easy task seeing as how we were all running against high grass, bobbing our way through it like panicked rabbits.
Raven's Wing, a very leggy man, was approximately my age, which would have put him a bit over thirty years. But Raven's Wing looked much older. The texture of his skin was like that of an old boot, a condition common to warriors on the war road and having to go without water for long periods in the punishing heat of full summer. Warriors of Raven's Wing's class, the Odegufa (meaning "less wealthy"), wore their leathery skin like badges of honor. It was also a clear indication that they were striving hard to become Ondes, members of our Nation's highest class. Myself, I have always been content to be a Kauaun (roughly translated, "common"). As such, other than the pox pits, my skin was baby-smooth and I liked it. So did Crying Wind. But I digress.
Raven's Wing, a man whose sole desire in life was to be White Bear's first lieutenant and thus was always seeking ways to impress him, put a flying tackle on Three Elks, successfully bringing him down. And while he was down, being held there by the others, I dug that bullet out despite Three Elks screaming and writhing. Then I stitched him up--which produced more yelling (he really was the worst patient I've ever known)--and finally bandaged him. It wasn't a very good bandage but considering the grappling circumstances, a botched bandage had to do because the smell of blood was attracting biting flies. The insects were trying hard to get at the wound and their success would not have done at all. At any rate, as a hurried attempt, it would do until such time as we made a suitable camp. He wasn't yelling anymore, just sort of snuffling and flinging away tears with the flat of his hand, looking at all of us--me most especially--as if we were evil.
When I returned to my wife, she was eagerly waiting for any juicy tidbit concerning my patient, her dark owl-shaped eyes literally glowing with anticipation. Really, this love for rumormongering was her most unflattering trait, and despite the fact that months ago, gossiping tongues set against her had very nearly cost her her life, she still wasn't cured. I was barely dismounted when she was all over me like a heat rash.
"Is it true The Cheyenne Robber shot Three Elks in the back?"
Looking at her with a hard expression, I wordlessly set to the task of hobbling my horse. She ignored the warning look, coming after me, squatting down beside me chattering like a busy squirrel.
"A few days ago, two women saw Three Elks speaking to White Otter." Her tone became more whispery, filled with wonder. "They were alone." I glanced at her and she nodded meaningfully. In a much lower voice she finished, "He even helped her as she tied on the cradle board and--"
"I fail to see anything untoward about his actions," I shouted. "It sounds to me as if he was being nothing more than a helpful brother."
She slapped my arm. "Do you never understand anything? Three Elks touched another man's wife! That's why The Cheyenne Robber shot him."
I turned a pained face toward her. Crying Wind's expression was utterly self-satisfied. I suppose I was remembering too clearly what gossip had almost cost me--cost us. That's the only excuse I have for the complete loss of my temper. I really let her have it, and as each word stung, her lovely face became more stricken.
"How many times do I have to tell you that as a doctor's wife your love for tattling is both unseemly and insulting? And may I remind you that this nature of yours is also unsafe? It wasn't so long ago that you were accused of being a witch by those who should have known better. Yet here you are, eager once again to believe the worst of a simple accident and actually help your tongue-wagging sisters and aunties spread this harmful tale. You should all be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves."
She stood and walked away.
I was not given anything to eat and she did not speak directly to me for the next three days. If it hadn't been for Favorite Son's continual grousing, I would have enjoyed the peace for, not long after arriving at Medicine Lodge, those three days were the only respite I was to know. Most especially after learning that, in the Blue Jacket army, no one liked the bugler.