Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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January 1840, the Illinois River, I.T.
The Cherokee people who lived by the banks of the Coosa called it The Long Person. Here in the new land they are making their camps by an unfamiliar body of water. It is the Illinois river and they are pleased with the sight of it. Indian life in the valleys they came from in the upper northwest corner of Alabama was tied strongly to their river. It was their means of travel among the villages. It was this and much more.
Now a man with a shaved head and a scalplock walks along the riverbank with the wagonmaster to point out places to set up temporary shelters. He is a hunter and a horse trader. Around Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi, he acquired a handsome Two Footer, sixteen hands high he swapped out with a white man. Although he goes by another name now, those from the Old Ways still know him as The Strong Looker, and they have never lost their faith in him.
This detachment of Cherokees have traveled far, leaving their footprints on all kinds of landscapes to arrive here in the new Indian territory. They passed caves, graveyards and bluffs with breathtaking views in the dead of winter. Now it is the Time of the Cold Moon, and they still hear the wind howling through the branches of the naked trees surrounding them.
Thomas Camp on the Illinois river. The new Indian territory, an unfamiliar place from what was home over four months ago.
Glad. Oh, so glad to be close to the waters again!
yes, they have always had reverence, respect, and sometimes even
fearfulness for the river. Those from the Old Ways still believe
they all came from the underworld a long time ago when the Water
Beetle dove down deep in the waters and brought up the first piece
of earth for them to live on. They know all the old stories and they
were always watching on their journey here for the Water Monster.
Uktena is as large around as a tree trunk. Got horns on his head and a bright blazing crest like a diamond right over his eyes. And scales. Yes, scales that glitter like sparks of fire. He slid and jerked, like this, across that faraway land we come here from and made the valleys that are still there today. Yu!
This was the story the medicine man told them.
But the man with the scalplock scoffs at the idea of the Water Monster. He does not believe any of the stories he learned as a boy.
He has suffered many losses bringing his people to this new land. They depended on him and he fulfilled his promise to them.
His daughter, not more than five, squats on the bank of the river. She depends on him, too, but she does not know what he will do next. Neither does her brother or anyone else.
She watches him weaving in and among the people and then loses sight of him again. She dips her hand into the cold water and rubs it across her face. Her reflection in the river holds her.
Behind her is the wavy image of the medicine man. They are both mirrored by the water. He is dancing on the riverbank in his sqeaky white man’s shoes.
This man the people also depend on. He has many treatments in his medicine bag, formulas for curing and restoring harmony.
"Tu, tu, tu." he says, thrusts his tongue and wipes the slobber from the corners of his mouth. "Tu, tu, tu." He tilts his head to the right shoulder and purses his lips.
The girl is surrounded by hundreds of her people now gathering on the riverbank. They are unloading their wagons and setting up the tents.
It is the Time of the Cold Moon and the journey has been long.
The medicine man dances and babbles at the edge of the Illinois river.
They all want to believe he can make things right for them and they count on the man once called The Strong Looker. Like his little children, they hope he will not disappear on them again.
The medicine man remakes his ancient tobacco to work up some good spells. On his head he wears a crown of snake rattles. Some of the people still have bare feet they wrap in rags to keep out the cold. But on the journey from Alabama the medicine man made a trade for the new pair of white man’s shoes. They are made of light brown cowhide and they are stiff. They squeak when he dances. The hem of his tunic is frazzled and it hangs loosely over his thin, bare ankles.
Hungry. The Benge detachment from Alabama arrived here weak and hungry.
Look ! A Hickory tree. Some Pecan trees and over there the wild Plum! We can soon gather the nutmeats.
Happy to find these trees they once had.
And over yonder sumac berries! The women will use them to dye their calico till they got their spinning wheels that the government promised.
In the months to come.
The men will get their firearms back from the government that took them before their journey here.
In the months to come.
For now they will make due with what they are finding here at Thomas Camp. Then they will get the land to build their new homes on. And still later they will get their annuities from the government. All of this has been promised.
The girl wraps herself in her warm rabbit coat and reaches up for her pa's hand. She hears someone say in Indian He will be gone by the Time of the Green Eared Moon. He won't last long here.
It is the Time the Ducks Come Back. The people welcome the spring and what the government promised.
They are small.
"The government," the girl’s pa mutters. He curses under his breath and shakes his head. "The government."
She hears him say the word over and over again and she asks her brother, "Who is goverment?" She wants to know what he looks like so she will know him when he comes with the things he has promised them.
"The goverment ain’t a person," her brother tells her. "This is goverment,” he says and he takes a long stick and draws on the hard, cold dirt a box with lines across it and some stars.
"The United States of America. That is goverment."
These Cherokee people on the banks of the river are eager for John Ross to take the reins of the new Cherokee Nation and restore balance, harmony.
They learn about the assassinations of the leaders from the Treaty Party. These were the ones who sold out to the whites in the old nation and signed the Treaty of Echota. They got here early in 1837 and established their government. Now, Blood Law, an ancient custom reasserts itself.
Oh, no! Who did this awful thing? We got written laws, now. Paper talks.
Many moons come and go.
So does the man those from the Old Ways still know as The Strong Looker.
He is impatient and bitter.
He goes back and forth to Fort Gibson.
He gambles. He drinks.
He disappears into the woods to hunt with his bow and arrow.
He gambles and drinks.
The people look the other way. He has a reputation of being as sure of hand as he is quick on the draw. He has large ears banded in silver and handsome hands. They were not made for a plow. His eyes are keen. He can tell by a deer’s tracks if it is fat or thin. Can even tell when a storm is coming long before the beasts lay down in the fields. Through hunger, sickness, and death, he helped the wagonmaster bring the people here.
But he arrived a haunted man.
The past comes back on him all the time. All those that got left behind because they were too sick to go on, those whose bodies were stolen, those who died on the journey and never got buried. He remembers the intrusion of the missionaries in the old home land and their mission schools. He is a self educated man, can read and write. Some of his family in recent times have weakened to Christianity but he believes that only fools and whites needed to believe in this place called heaven, where a long time for now you receive rewards. He says you ought to get your rewards for what you done right now in the here and now.
He is angry.
The Treaty Party. They got all the good land.
The revenge killings. No. He was jailed in Georgia for killing a man. He’s had enough of Blood Law. Like a Christian, he will turn the other cheek.
But he has no use for the white man, the missionaries, and the Treaty Party.
False treaties and broken promises.
Maybe a few squirrels.
A rabbit or two?
We are hungry!
He disappears. Goes to the Fort.
Weaves his way back into the camp at dark.
Likes astronomy. Takes his jug of the poison waters and leaves his tent to sleep under the night sky. Studies the heavens.
Sumac berries. The rotting, stringy meat of the rations. The contractors substituted cattle that were unhealthy for the beef promised by the government and the flour and meal is full of weevils
We are hungry!
No firearms. Just bows and arrows.
We are hungry!
Going to the Waters. It has always been a ritual of renewal and harmony. He rises at dawn and purifies himself.
When he emerges from the river, his hunting shirt is wet and clinging to his lean form. He takes out of his medicine pouch a keepsake. It is a shiny piece of quartz, and he rolls it around in his hand.
She told him this. “Save it for you. Silver scale from the Water Monster.” He has never believed her story but this is all he has to remember her by.
He covered his face with his hands when he learned of her death and joined the detachment on the road. And they kept on moving because of him when they thought they could not go any futher.
Now here they were in the new land hoping to restore harmony. Harmony, so important to the Cherokee people.
The man with the shiny piece of quartz in his hand rolls it around and around. He does not believe it can ever happen again. Balance...harmony.
The dragonflies dart over the shining waters.
One of them lights on the hand of his little girl.
She has no mother to raise her.
He takes up his bow and arrow and disappears in the surrounding woods.
The girl and her brother watch him go.
The women take the deer he brings in and they dress it. For a moment the people’s hunger is satisfied and the warmer days come. The sun is radiant. Many children, including her brother, head into the water to play but the girl hangs back.
Not so long ago the medicine man gathered the children around him and told them this story about a Water Monster. Horns on his head and a bright blazing crest just like a diamond right over his eyes. Scales like all the fishes in the water, but glittering to put your eyes out!
The girl was held by the medicine man's story.
She will not even go to the river’s edge with the other children to watch the ceremony.
They go to watch the medicine man shake his calabash filled with pebbles and say
words no one understands. He scratches five or six people with a bone tooth comb. He has them to face the rising sun and dips them four times in four different ways. They take off their old clothes and let them float down the river.
The girl watches and waits in the distance. Going to the Waters. A sacred ritual, maybe the only one her pa believes in.
Now the people come out of the water, laughing and shivering. Lucretia Hummingbird has been given a new name. Sperry Pumpkin overcomes a fever. All of them, with their hair all wet down their backs, wrap up in clean blankets. They have undergone this purification together and along with others who are there at the water's edge, they look forward to the Time of the Green Eared Moon; a time to make everything new again.
The Long Person with its stories and rituals. The underworld from which the Cherokee emerged. The river keeps them going, keeps them believing.
The warmer days that follow bring interlopers to Thomas Camp. A preacher with jumpy eyes, and a black swallowtail coat comes to the river with white folks to baptize. They gather way down on the other bank of the Illinois.
The medicine man frets about them. He marches up and down the riverbanks muttering in Indian.
The girl watches this preacher all dressed in his Sunday black take off his coat for someone to hold. Then, otherwise fully dressed, he takes different ones of these white folks on into the water up to their waists. He has white robes draped over his arm for them to dress in once he dips them into the water for Jesus.
The medicine man continues to take on about it in a big way. He travels up and down the banks in his white man’s shoes chewing on his sassafras root and wiping the slobber from the corners of his mouth.
On the other side of the riverbank the white folks are singing “Amazing Grace”. Some of the Cherokee people sang this song on the way here. They sang it in their language but many from the Old Ways know it as the Devil’s Tune.
The girl looks for the Water Monster to come up with his diamond crest gleaming and snatch one of them people up in his jaws. She wants to see that diamond crest in the middle of his head. Watch it catch the sun. See the red streak bright as blood in it's jeweled center just like the medicine man said.
And she keeps looking for these white people to be all different when they are raised back up out of the water, but they are just the same. All wet and shivering and mean as ever.
The Time of the Green Eared Moon. In the old country July was a time to celebrate: gather crops, feast, dance, and play stickball. Here in the new territory the people are still waiting for the things the government promised them.
They are struggling to survive.
It is late afternoon and some of them gather around the medicine man for another story. He tells about The Great Rabbit and how he invites the other animals to a dance and , leading it, restores harmony.
As he is finishing the story, the girl sees the dark silhouette of a man on horseback far off in the clearing. He is moving toward them fast and what appears to be the wings of a big black bird billow from his waist to his shoulders. The medicine man can do that. He can change into something else if he wants to.
He is riding back into Thomas Camp on his Two Footer. Was out to Fort Gibson. Been gone for nearly a week.
He gets off his mount and takes off his black hat. Looks handsome in a black swallowtail coat. Hair has grown long now; it is all loose and tangled ‘round his shoulders. He smiles his crooked smile on that one side of his face.
"Got our guns back ," he tells the people and shows them his Winchester he has always cherished but will never use again. He has not held it in his arms since the journey to the new land.
Everyone claps their hands and they are smiling. Their eyes are dancing. They forget about the baptisms and the preacher.
The Strong Looker cradles his Winchester in his arms. Walks around in his new black coat telling the people how they are getting their land to build on.
Old folks chatter about it till the sky darkens.
We can make our homes. Put out our crops.
Our new land.
Our new homes!
Everyone dances and the lightening bugs come, and they brighten the sky and dance, too. They flicker and beam.
The girl and her brother run barefoot all the way down the rocky banks of the river to get a glass jar.
It is in the Time of the Green Eared Moon and we got our land.
The people are saying this.
The girl watches the lightning bugs inside the jar. They flutter and bump against the insides of their glass world. How they glitter in the gathering darkness! And on into the evening, just like the lightning bugs, the eyes of The Strong Looker gleam.
Maybe he will stay and harmony will be restored here in the new nation!