Western Short Story
Lonely Child of the Grass
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

The mother said, “I will not leave her out here, not alone. Leave me with her if you must go on. Leave me with my child.” Her cries went off across the wide grass and disappeared the way echoes finally die out, meek and mild and out of breath. Her husband, as sad as she was, hoped she’d stop wailing and get on with their journey … they could not live out here in the open with no one around, with no supplies available once they ran out of the contents of the wagon.

And he had to bury the child. It had to be done, and quickly. They could not hang around out here as if they were not vulnerable to dangers. And he could not stand the thought of animals tearing apart her poor little body that had ailed her from birth, feeding on her who had stopped breathing but minutes earlier.

He unhooked the spade from the side of the wagon and walked off the trail a dozen feet, ready to start digging. His wife was still crying. At that moment, his rifle still at the rear of the wagon and bearing no side arms, the lone Indian stood up in the grass, his bow loaded and the arrow pointing right at him.

He knew he was about to die.

His wife screamed again and rushed at the two men with the body of the infant child in her arms.

She held out the poor little one in her arms, showing her loss to the lone brave who stood over the grass as if he owned it all. He had long dark hair, wore a skin that partially covered his shoulders and back, and short breeches that were made of thin hide. A quiver of arrows hung on one shoulder and the arrow points of thin stones stood at attention in a cluster. His legs and arms were muscled and his skin had been bronzed by the sun. He wore his hair in a narrow crest along the crown of his head and it showed two silver attachments at the back end of the crest. He was an imperious presence on the wide grass of the prairie.

“Help us,” she cried, “Please help us.” She was clad in a long gray dress that carried many stains of labor on it, the stains making it look as though it had been pieced together out of darker remnants. Her face was tragically beautiful, as the sudden marks of pain sat in it like chisel work.

The Indian looked at the shovel in the man’s arms, so he put the shovel down, no longer holding it as a possible weapon.

The Indian loosed the bow on the arrow and the woman held the child closer to him. He saw the little frame with the thin arms and legs, and the red and purple color creeping through her exposed skin. His hand touched the baby’s forehead with sympathy, and then he felt her throat.

With a sudden grasp he pulled the baby from the mother’s hands, slapped it hard on the backside, and heard the infant’s awful gasp for air, and the clog of food erupt from her mouth. Weak cries followed, one from the child, one from the mother, and a rush of air from the father’s chest. The Indian, who had dropped his bow and a single arrow, handed the crying child back to its mother, saying in his own language, “vávaóestovohe, which they did not understand, but then rocked the child in his arms the way a mother would.

The mother understood his words from his action, and took the crying baby and began to rock her in her arms.

The Indian, looking up at the sun, wiped his forehead and said “mé'êševôtse, háoho'tá.”

Again, with a mother’s intuition and understanding much of body language, she began to fan the baby. She smiled at the Indian and he nodded at her.

The husband, knowing that a miracles of sorts had happened, tapped his wife on the shoulder and said, “Mildred Bruce,” then touched the baby and said, “Diane Bruce,” and finally tapped himself on the chest and said, “Roger Bruce.”

Roger Bruce pointed at the Indian and then at the Indian’s chest. “Who are you?” he said quizzically.

The reply was instant. “Netse Ôhno'kaestse ,” the Indian said, and held up one finger and pointed at the sky and flapped his arms signifying large wings.

Roger Bruce understood and said, “Roger Bruce thanks One Eagle (at which he also flapped his wide arms slowly) for his help.” He made a try at the Indian’s words but sputtered at the delivery, and shrugged his shoulders.

Then Netse Ôhno'kaestse, Lone Eagle, before picking up his bow and arrow, ceremoniously and in an imperious manner, wet one thumb at the corner of his mouth and touched the baby Diane Bruce on the cheek, her breathing having become settled and regular.

In an instant he was gone, dropping into a swale and disappearing from their sight.

*

Eighteen years later, Diane Bruce, alone in the world after the death of her parents, came into that part of Oklahoma she had not been in for most of her years, just above the North Fork of the Red River. She carried a baby girl doll with her everywhere she went. It apparently was a fetish or a talisman to most people she encountered in her travels.

But at the sight of one older Indian in a small settlement, she rushed to his side and said, “I am looking for Lone Eagle, Netse Ôhno'kaestse. Do you know of him? Of Netse Ôhno'kaestse?”

He shook his head as if he did not understand the girl’s questions, but he quietly acknowledged the girl’s pronunciation of the Cherokee name.

“Netse Ôhno'kaestse,” she said, clasped her hands, and said it again, “Netse Ôhno'kaestse.” She spread her hands as if imploring any hidden knowledge to become apparent to her, like a prayer had been said for that revelation.

It might have been her final action, but in a final gesture before she might depart, hopeless at finding Lone Eagle from this meeting, she wet one thumb at the corner of her mouth and touched the old Indian on the cheek.

It was Sesame. It opened the closed door. It was the prayer word.

“Netse Ôhno'kaestse there, toward Wolf Creek,” the old Indian said, a smile crossing his face, his hand pointing off to the north, and he touched the corner of his mouth where Diane Bruce had touched him. Then, wonders of wonders, he took the doll from her hands, slapped it on the back and handed it back to her, as if he had been there all those years earlier.

In decent English he said to Diane Bruce, “Old Dog take you to Lone Eagle, to Netse Ôhno'kaestse.”

All messages had been delivered to this point, and she wondered how Old Dog’s name would sound in Cherokee. In time she’d know how to curl her tongue on that name.

He motioned for her to follow him when he climbed up on his pony. She mounted her horse and they set out from the small settlement in Oklahoma, heading north along the Texas-Oklahoma border.

A full day’s ride later the pair climbed a rise in the trail against a stretch of wooded land where the trail dipped into a secluded valley surrounded by a heavy growth of trees.

Diane Bruce counted two dozen tepees down in the clearing ahead of them. From one of the tepees she heard the soft beating of a drum, soft and nearly undulant so that it made her feel like swaying to the mystical music that the drumming amounted to … rising and falling, rising and falling. What teepee it came from she could not tell. But it convinced her that she was hearing something she had known when her own pulse had sounded in her ears as a child in the thick of darkness, which neither of her parents could understand, and a condition that went on for a whole year and ceased abruptly and without any apparent cause in the middle of one night. And never came upon her again ... not until the present awareness. She remembered the other as if it had happened just the night before, not all the way back to the lower Oklahoma area where she had grown up at the edge of wide grass.

In the small valley a stillness of motion reigned, and it gave her an instant chill because she felt she was ascending a rise and not riding down into a lower elevation.

For long minutes there was no activity other than the beating sound of the drum, and no drummer visible. There was not the slightest movement in the village until the old Indian yelled out to the village, in a loud and commanding voice of his Cherokee language, “Netse Ôhno'kaestse. “Netse Ôhno'kaestse.”

It was the name of the Indian she had memorized, the Indian that her parents had told her about practically every day of her life and insisting, on their death beds, that she find him someday to show him what he had saved … a beautiful blonde girl who had made their lives so happy and who just happened to turn every head who gazed upon her features, a beautiful blonde woman who had come past a terrible sickness as a child, a beautiful woman who had once been very near her premature burial on the wide grass of a lonely prairie.

Suddenly, as if commanded, old and young Indians spilled from many of the tepees to see who had called out the name of Lone Eagle, a chief of the tribe of the Southern Cherokee.

And just as suddenly, the drumming stopped. That too made Diane Bruce shiver, the tremors moving on her backside with an icicle touch at first up and down her spinal column.

“Netse Ôhno'kaestse. “Netse Ôhno'kaestse,” the old one called out again, but the tone of his voice had changed, which Diane noticed immediately. She also detected it was not abeyance on his part but supplication with deep respect for what may have come of his salutation.

And she expected that the old Indian was due his own honor and respect, for he too had exhibited an exceptional presence in his own way. Had he not lead her unerringly to the closure of her endless dream in a marked childhood?

Her long search, she firmly believed, and also the wishes of her parents, were at hand. The doll in her hand was tightly clutched; she could not let go of it yet.

The presence of an Indian brave, as he emerged from one of the village teepees, was regal and commanding. Diane Bruce felt it and saw it in the other Indians who had gathered near one teepee.

The old Indian who had brought her this far, took her hand and lead her the last few steps, to face the handsome brave who looked with surprise at an old friend and Indian elder and a beautiful young woman who held a toy child in her hands.

He looked at Old Dog first, a quizzical look on his face, and the elder just nodded at Diane Bruce and said nothing, the way one says his voice is now quiet and someone else must do the talking.

Unable to contain herself, Diane slapped the doll on its backside as she held it out in front of her. Lone Eagle did not comprehend her action from that first move, the querulous look still on his face, his eyes moving from Diane Bruce to the Old Dog as if expecting an explanation from one or the other.

Then, in a move she had performed a hundred times a year in some staged reaction to a dream, she wet a thumb tip at one corner of her mouth and touched Lone Eagle on the cheek, turned back to the doll and slapped it on its backside, gasped forcibly, and touched her own cheek.

The silence in the Indian village was short-lived as Lone Eagle, Netse Ôhno'kaestse, beamed broadly, as wide as any of the others had ever seen and hugged the beautiful young lady with one arm as he held the significant doll in the other hand.

“Netse Ôhno'kaestse,” she said, and said it a second time, this time in deeper awe. The words of his name curved most comfortably on her tongue and thus around his name, showing the thousand times she had pronounced it in its Cherokee form, just the way her parents had taught her for many years, just for this occasion.

That evening, in the village of Lone Eagle, a chief of the Cherokee, a man loved by many from different worlds in one world, the members of his tribe celebrated with him in a dance for the return of a true daughter of the chief, a daughter he had saved from premature burial under the wide grass.

And the daughter of a Cherokee chief presented the doll she had carried into the village to one of the children of the village, leaving it up to the chief to explain it all, just as he had explained the event to his friend Old Dog those many years earlier.


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