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Authors: W. Michael Gear

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Native American & Aboriginal

People of the Earth (6 page)

BOOK: People of the Earth
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She stared up at the leaves that rustled in
the breeze, seeing irregular fragments of blue through the yellow mosaic, too
undone by the day's events to deal with any more. "I looked into his eyes,
Wind Runner. He's not right. Something's wrong inside, I could feel it."
She paused. "He'll never forgive you."

 
          
 
"I know. But then, it's better that way
than if you were still on the ground under him, isn't it? He's ... I don't
know. Something changed after the Black Point raid, after that warrior hit him
on the head. Rock Mouse told everyone that the blow killed Brave Man. She said
she saw him fall just before she ran. Then Brave Man appears and says he came
back from the Camp of the Dead. Maybe he did. He's not the same person we
loved. Remember how he was before that? Happy, joking." A wistful tone
came to his voice. "He and I, we used to run, play at darts and hoops. We
dreamed together then . . . dreamed of what we would do, of the hunts we would
have, and of how we'd raid the other clans and make names for ourselves as
warriors. The person he was then would never have dragged you off or tried to
rape you. I've felt the scar on his head. He says that headaches come from
there—and the voices of the Spirit Power that whispers in his mind."

           
 
“And do you believe it?"

 
          
 
Wind Runner lifted his hands. "I don't
know. A different Brave Man walked into camp that day with Bobcat and No Teeth.
Someone— something— different in my friend's body."

 
          
 
She placed a tender hand on his shoulder,
hating the longing that formed within her. Yes, she loved him. How could she
live with the tragedy of never fulfilling that love? She forced herself to
ignore the question and said, "No matter what happened to him, he's possessed
by something." She shivered. "No good will come of this day. I ... I
can feel it, like a winter of the soul."

 
          
 
The fire popped, bringing her back to the
lodge and the endless night of Bright Moon's prolonged death. Brave Man would
seek more leverage now. For two years she'd been a woman. Each turning of the
moon found her taking four days in the menstrual lodge. She'd avoided the
chances to sneak off to the bushes with the available men. She'd become somehow
special, somehow different, among the White Clay, perhaps because of her denied
love for Wind Runner.

 
          
 
And then there were the Dreams. . . .

 
          
 
 

 
          
 
Far to the south, a lilting chant rose on the
night, rising and falling as voices twined in time to the beat of a pot drum. A
zip-zipping sounded from a grooved bone stroked with a chokecherry stick. A
soft, rhythmic clattering accompanied the whole as someone shook an
antelope-hoof rattle to the beat of the music.

 
          
 
The song carried on the chill of the night,
drifting from the earthen lodge's smoke hole, creeping through the slits of the
door hanging, where yellow bars of light slipped past to splash on the
hard-frozen ground. The music echoed on the packed soil of the camp and wound
through the sagebrush. The chiming notes caressed the winter-tan grasses,
hovered over the frozen shadows of drifted snow, iced now from the melt.

 
          
 
The song rose, trilling the evening chill,
traveling on its way to the crystal points of starlight and the Spirit World in
a plea for life.

 
          
 
Bad Belly stopped for a moment, head cocked to
the song of his People as they called for help from First Man, the Earth
Mother, and the Earth Spirits to save Warm Fire's life. Despite the desperate
nature of the ceremony unfolding in his grandmother's lodge, the beauty of the
night captivated him. He'd left the steamy warmth inside to go out and attend
to the necessities of the body. Now, walking back, he hesitated, cold wind
nipping at his cheeks, flicking his black braids back and forth like twin
cougar tails. Spring would come soon, but would Warm Fire live to see it?

 
          
 
Bad Belly dallied, unwilling to return to
Larkspur's lodge and face his grandmother's disdainful stare or the pain of his
brother-in-law, Warm Fire's, wasting. His sister, Bitterbrush, would still be
sitting in her accustomed place where she watched her failing husband through
haunted eyes.

 
          
 
He shook his head and sighed. What did it feel
like to know that your wife loved you? His mercifully short marriage to Golden
Flax had been anything but blissful—she'd finally thrown him out. Bitterbrush,
like everyone else, loved Warm Fire. How would she cope with her husband's
death?

 
          
 
How will I?

 
          
 
Bad Belly took a deep breath. How does a man
deal with the death of his only friend? Images of Warm Fire's face stirred the
gray ashes of his memory. Warm Fire's twinkling eyes and reassuring smile hung
in his thoughts with all the clinging sorrow of honey in a sandstorm.

 
          
 
High on the rocks behind the camp, a wolf
keened into the night, voice twining with that of the singers who pled for Warm
Fire's life. Bad Belly bit the inside of his lip, seeking to draw resolve from
the pain. A shiver caught him by surprise as the cold breeze shifted. Darkness
pressed around, seeping into his life, sucking at his soul.

 
          
 
As if to reassure him, Trouble padded across
the crunching snow to thrust his nose into Bad Belly's hand. Absently Bad Belly
scratched his shaggy black-and-white dog's furry ears.

 
          
 
Life hadn't always been so difficult. Once
he'd had the ability to greet the morning sun with more than trepidation.

           
 
He had been named Still Water as a boy, though
now he doubted that anyone even remembered. They'd begun calling him Bad Belly
the time his stomach had given him so much trouble, and the name had stuck with
the persistence of boiled pine sap. He squinted up at the stars, wondering if
the Creator—who knew everything—remembered his real name, or cared that the
last bit of human warmth and companionship in his life grew dimmer by the
moment.

 
          
 
Warm Fire remembered—but Warm Fire lay in
Larkspur's lodge, dying, while the Healer, Black Hand, Sang over him.

 
          
 
Had Power left Bad Belly alone, he would have
been an average sort of man, not very tall, not very muscular, and not very
handsome. But the capricious Spirits had meddled. When he'd been a boy, he'd
stuck his hand into a hole where he'd secreted a special toy. Rattlesnake—in
search of respite from the glaring summer sun—had found the same hole and
secreted himself in there, too.

 
          
 
Bad Belly had hovered between life and death
as Singing Stones—the renowned Spirit Healer—chanted endlessly over him. Either
the chants had worked, or his grandmother had paid enough, or sacrificed
enough, to the Spirit World to win him his life. Of course, had he been a first
daughter, Larkspur would have paid a lot more and perhaps Bad Belly might have
escaped his experience in one piece. As it was, his right arm had never been
the same. Now it hung uselessly: a misshapen and crooked thing that he held
protectively to his chest.

 
          
 
Shortly after that, Singing Stones had left
the People to go to Dream high in the Sideways Mountains. If only he were here
now! The greatest of all Healers, he might have made the difference for Warm
Fire. But the old man had disappeared into the high places to find something he
called "the One."

 
          
 
Bad Belly walked up the trail to where the
rocks that jutted up from the gravelly soil loomed black in the night. He
lifted a foot onto the rough granite and stared up at the dark shape of the
Round Rock Mountains that rose behind the camp. At another time he'd been
climbing up there, and because he had only one good hand, he'd slipped and
fallen and hurt his right leg. Fortunately, Warm Fire had been close and had
carried him back to camp. Warm Fire—he'd always been there in times of trial.

 
          
 
Warm Fire's words of encouragement and comfort
whispered through Bad Belly's uneasy recollections. No one else understood him,
treated him as a worthy human being. And now Warm Fire lay in the lodge . . .
no, don’t think it.

 
          
 
Warm Fire listened to Bad Belly's incessant
questions about the way things were. He didn't laugh when Bad Belly's attention
wandered and he lost track of his thoughts. Instead, Warm Fire smiled and
helped protect his brother-in-law when Larkspur's wrath exploded at Bad Belly's
preoccupation.

 
          
 
"I can't help it," Bad Belly
whispered to the night. Everything had a secret. Everything evoked a question.
Why did birds fly? Where did wind come from? How could snow, rain, hail,
thunder and lighting all come from the clouds? Most of his people, the Round
Rock clan, considered him a fool for thinking about such things.

 
          
 
Bad Belly cleared his throat, enjoying the icy
needles of wind-driven cold as they prickled his skin. The earthen lodge had
been hot, damp, overwhelmed by the smell of sweating human bodies. Only the
pungent relief of the water-soaked sagebrush leaves and crushed yarrow that
Black Hand cast onto the radiating hearthstones had helped. Sagebrush—the
life-giver—cleared the breathing passages, working the magic of renewal.

 
          
 
Trouble walked off toward Bitterbrush's
lodge—a black-and-white shadow in the darkness.

 
          
 
Bad Belly filled his lungs with the frigid
air. Time to go back. Time to force all of his soul into the Healing Songs, to
pray that his only friend might remain alive and well.

 
          
 
He lifted his eyes to the star-shot sky and
chanted, "Creator, if you must take a life, take mine. Leave my friend
alive. Give him strength and happiness. Take my life in place of his. People
need him."

 
          
 
Blinking at the longing echo in his voice, he
stared at the heavens. Only the wind moaned in answer. Bad Belly started down
the trail.

 
          
 
The sound of claws scratching across rock
caused him to wheel and stare into the darkness. The huge animal stood
silhouetted against the sable cloak of night. From where he stood, Bad Belly
could see the amber eyes glowing with an internal light of their own. A fist of
premonition twisted in his gut.

 
          
 
Bad Belly backed away, step by careful step,
eyes locked on the wolf's. Spirit animal, what do you do here? Have you come
for a soul? Are you the answer to my prayer?

 
          
 
He nerved himself, repeating aloud, "Take
me. Let Warm Fire live."

 
          
 
The wolf's broad head lowered, ears going back
as curling lips bared gleaming teeth. A low sound issued from the animal's throat—a
muted moan crossed with the ghost of a howl.

 
          
 
Bad Belly's heel caught in the sage. He
teetered briefly, arms flailing, before he toppled over backward, a cry
breaking his lips when he hit the ground. Snow crunched as he pushed himself up
and stared.

BOOK: People of the Earth
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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