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Authors: W. Michael Gear

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

People of the Earth (7 page)

BOOK: People of the Earth
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The wolf had disappeared.

 
          
 
"Take me!" he called, raising his
withered arm in a hopeless gesture. Only the wind hissing through the stiff
sage and the muffled
chitter
of snow crystals blowing
over the drift answered him.

 
          
 
He hung his head before he forced himself to
his feet and turned his steps for the earthen dome of the lodge. He looked back
at the rounded lump of granite, hope strangling in his breast. Not even a
shadow remained. Regretfully he pulled the door flap back and ducked into the humid
heat and dancing firelight that filled Larkspur's lodge. The chill that had
refreshed his body had numbed his soul.

 
          
 
The last lilting notes of Black Hand's healing
song died as he entered. The lodge, perhaps three long paces across, consisted
of a low-domed, circular structure that had been dug into the ground to the
depth of a man's waist. Four sturdy roof supports of limber pine rose from each
side of the fire to a square framework of stringers that surrounded the smoke
hole. Rafters had been run from the stringers to the edge of the excavated pit.
Bundles and pouches hung from the rafters on thongs, and rolled furs supported
the people who sat shoulder to shoulder around the periphery of the lodge.

 
          
 
No one seemed to have noticed Bad Belly's
absence. Attention centered on the Spirit Healer, who sat at the rear of the
lodge in the place of honor. Black Hand might have passed forty winters, though
Bad Belly suspected the man to be older. He wore a painted elk-hide jacket that
hung to the middle of his thighs, and long, fringed leggings. Many necklaces
adorned his chest, some sporting gleaming white shells brought by Traders from
as far away as the Western Waters beyond the land of the Antelope People.
Polished eagle-bone beads had been woven into a breastplate that covered Black
Hand's entire chest.

 
          
 
No trace of white streaked the Healer's
shining black hair, but thin lines had formed around his severe mouth. Now he
prayed, head tilted back, eyes closed, as he passed more damp sagebrush through
the Blessing motions, offering it to the east, west, north, and south and then
to the sky and earth before casting the wet leaves into the fire. Steam erupted
in a hissing, spitting cloud.

 
          
 
Beside Black Hand, Warm Fire lay on his side,
knees drawn up. Bad Belly's heart shriveled at his brother-in-law's appearance;
sunken flesh had melted away until he looked like little more than dried
winterkill. The old sparkle had disappeared from the lackluster eyes. Warm Fire
coughed, a lung-wrenching sound. It hurt just to hear it. He wasted by the day,
hardly able to breathe. A rasping sound came from his throat, while his chest
labored. How could a man so handsome and strong be reduced to this?

 
          
 
Bad Belly blinked at the pain within. He loved
Warm Fire-loved him with all of his heart. To sit through his slow death ... it
ate at him, wounding his soul. Across the fire, their eyes met. Warm Fire's
weary smile burned the hurt even deeper.

 
          
 
No one else smiled for Bad Belly.

 
          
 
To Black Hand's right, old Larkspur looked on,
a sour tightness in her expression as she blinked her eyes nervously. She sat
amidst the rich furs, firelight flickering over the deep lines that age had
engraved in her face. She watched Black Hand the way a hawk might watch a
foolish young ground squirrel. She always got that sharpness in her features
when equals were around. Her face reminded Bad Belly of a wild prune kept a
year too long, withered, sucked dry. Over the years her teeth had fallen out
until her jaw jutted out, sharp and harsh. A thick nose hung over thin brown
lips, and she tended to blink too much, as if something bothered her eyes.

 
          
 
When Larkspur died, the camp and its
territories would pass to Bad Belly's mother,
Limbercone
—the
oldest daughter. She now sat beside Larkspur, hands folded in her lap, her
broad face weather-beaten and honed. She might have been a younger copy of her
mother but for the long, curved nose that dominated her face.
Limbercone
would give a lodge to each of her sisters,
Phloxseed
and Pretty Woman, as was customary. But when they
died, everything would go to Bit-
terbrush
, Bad
Belly's oldest sister. The People did it that way. Inheritance went through the
women. When the men married, they went to live in the lodges of their new
wives.

 
          
 
Bad Belly had done that when Larkspur married
him off. If only things had been different between himself and Golden Flax . .
.It's over. Forget it.

 
          
 
Bad Belly's aunt,
Phloxseed
,
and her husband,
Flatsedge
, sat along the back wall,
glancing nervously at Warm Fire. Opposite
Limbercone
sat Cattail, Bad Belly's father. Age had begun to work its way on Cattail,
increasing and hardening the lines around the corners of his eyes and mouth.
Once, when he'd been a young man, Cattail had led a war party against the Wolf
People in the Grass Meadow Mountains and captured the sacred Power Bundle they
guarded so heavily. Every clan feared that bundle. The old stories said that it
was First Man's bundle and that Fire Dancer had given it to the Earth People
just after he'd Danced with fire to renew the world.

 
          
 
Cattail claimed that at the instant he'd
touched the bundle on that long-ago day, his soul had burst into flame and the
bundle had shouted at him that he wasn't fit to be the Keeper of the Bundle.
The Spirit of the bundle had carried Cattail up to the clouds on a fiery
whirlwind and ordered him to return it to its rightful Keeper. An hour later
the Wolf People had come down to the Gathering and sued for peace to reclaim
their bundle. Cattail had given it up willingly, and the Wolf People had provided
the Round Rock with meat and pine nuts for ten years after that. Larkspur had
jumped at the chance of adding Cattail to her family, thereby gaining a great
deal of prestige for her daughter.

 
          
 
Warm Fire broke into a fit of coughing again,
turning his head as he swallowed the fluid his throat had brought up.

 
          
 
Bad Belly settled himself next to Bitterbrush.
She glanced at him, eyes reflecting worry and love for her dying husband. He
took her hot hand into his cold one, gripping it tightly, reassuringly.
Bitterbrush would always make a place for him. Perhaps because she had been
closest to him, or perhaps because of Warm Fire's friendship for her wayward
brother.

 
          
 
"He's dying," Bitterbrush whispered,
a look of misery in her eyes. "What will I do? What will I do, Bad
Belly?"

 
          
 
"Black Hand's a great Healer. Wait and
see." He couldn't help looking across to where Bitterbrush's children,
Tand
Lupine, sat. They tried to keep stoic faces as they
cast frightened glances back and forth between Warm Fire, their mother, and the
Healer.

 
          
 
Bad Belly's throat constricted. What would he
do when his best friend died? He closed his eyes against the ache that filled
him.

 
          
 

Chapter 2

 

 
          
 
Weary and weighted with sorrow, Bad Belly
ducked out of Bitterbrush's cold lodge to greet the crimson streaks of dawn
that flamed among the high clouds. His frosty breath swirled around his face
before vanishing in the cold air. He sniffed, catching the odor of frozen earth
and sagebrush. The lodges huddled around him, door flaps drawn down tight
against the chill. Faint traceries of blue smoke rose from Larkspur and
Limbercone's
lodges. Bitterbrush had spent the night with
her husband at Larkspur's.

           
 
Trouble lifted his head and yawned, wagging
his tail in happy greeting. Bad Belly bent down to scratch the animal's ears,
thankful for the warm brown eyes that stared worship-fully into his. Larkspur
had always hated Trouble ever since the time when, as a puppy, he'd pulled an
antelope quarter down from the meat rack and gleefully dragged it through the
dirt before chewing it up. Only Bad Belly's plea had saved the dog from
Larkspur's vengeful stone hammer that day.

 
          
 
Bad Belly studied the mound of earth and wood
that cradled Warm Fire in its bosom. This would be another long day of waiting.
Bad Belly would spend part of the morning in the sweat lodge, purifying himself
in the cleansing steam while he prayed for Warm Fire's life with all his heart,
begging the Earth Spirits to save his friend, or to send a great Healer. If
only Singing Stones . . .

 
          
 
"If he's even still alive.' r Bad Belly
shook his head. After Singing Stones disappeared, Black Hand had become the
best Healer. If anyone could cure Warm Fire, it would be him.

 
          
 
Black Hand had come a long way—clear from the
Dart-wood River—to Sing for Warm Fire. His presence demonstrated the esteem
people felt for Warm Fire, as well as the status Larkspur's family had
accumulated through the years. Bad Belly's heart should have swelled at the
prestige Round Rock gained from Black Hand's presence—but it didn't.

 
          
 
If only Singing Stones hadn't left.

 
          
 
Bad Belly tried to shake off his gloom and
turned toward the trail that led up the ridge behind the camp. Trouble
followed, sniffing here and there. At the crest Bad Belly stopped and looked across
the valley as dawn illuminated the soft contours of the land. To the south,
Green Mountain rose in somber, timber-covered lumps, snow lying thick in the
densely packed firs. Open patches gleamed where winter storms had covered
meadows with a white mantle that would be replaced by lush and green grasses in
the summer sun. At the foot of the mountain, terraces paralleled the range;
snow drifted deep on the leeward slopes. Above the terraces, a herd of elk
drifted up into the lower trees, their big bodies no more than specks in the
distance. Below, sage flats sloped down toward the
Coldwater River
where it flowed ever eastward toward the
Elk River
. Once there, it cut through rocky defiles
in the sharply uplifted Black Mountains.

 
          
 
He turned as the Round Rock Mountains caught
the light, burning a reddish-pink in the ruddy dawn, contrasting with the deep
blue of the crystal morning sky. Only the faintest trace of breeze rippled down
the valley, an indication of the wind to come later during the day. At the foot
of the ridge, the camp lay in a protected cove of rock, shielded from the
winds. A spring at the rear trickled year-round in enough quantity to feed a
patch of willow, cut-grass, and aspen. Bulrush and sedges grew there to augment
the people's summer diet. Below the camp, where the ridge tapered into the
flood-plain, sand dunes had stabilized under sagebrush and grease-wood.

 
          
 
He'd always loved the valley. It had hurt to
leave it when he'd married Golden Flax.

 
          
 
"Uncle?"

 
          
 
Tuber climbed up the trail. The boy already
stood as high as Bad Belly's chest; not bad for thirteen winters. Judging from
the breadth of his shoulders, Tuber would be an exceptionally strong man. Warm
Fire had already begun to teach his son the way of the hunt. Tuber could move through
the brush with the silence of Hawk's shadow. You could tell whose boy he was
just by looking at him. For once a man had been able to break the look-alike
tradition of Larkspur's family. Of course it would have been Warm Fire who did
it.

 
          
 
"Good morning, nephew." The boy's
face looked drawn, haggard—but didn't everyone's?

 
          
 
Tuber stopped next to Bad Belly and slapped at
his elk-hide coat to warm his hands. He puffed a foggy breath, standing quietly
for a moment, listening to the sharp silence of the morning.

 
          
 
"You all right?"

 
          
 
The boy shot him a quick glance, reserve in
his sensitive brown eyes. "I don't know. I guess."

 
          
 
"Let's walk. It's warmer that way. If
you'll twist sagebrush out, I'll carry it."

 
          
 
Tshrugged
, turning
to walk beside Bad Belly.

 
          
 
Bad Belly searched the sky, reading the signs
for the day's weather: windy and chilly. Softly, he asked, "You checked on
your father this morning?"

 
          
 
"He's the same. Maybe a little
worse."

 
          
 
An odd tone shaded the boy's voice. Bad Belly
glanced sideways at him. "What's wrong?"

 
          
 
Tuber kicked resentfully at a jackrabbit hole.
"I'm worried about Black Hand. I don't know . . . just a feeling."

 
          
 
"What kind of feeling?"

 
          
 
"I think we ought to send him away."

 
          
 
Bad Belly pointed to a sagebrush and studied
Tuber warily. "You pull up that bush. I'll carry it. You have a reason for
sending Black Hand away?"

 
          
 
The boy jerked halfheartedly at the sage.
"Black Hand was talking to Larkspur last night after everyone went to
sleep. He said my father would die today."

 
          
 
Bad Belly winced. Of course Black Hand would
know that sort of thing. It came with the ability to use Power, to see the way
of the soul and how it clung to the body. "He's a Healer."

 
          
 
The boy's back bent as he threw his weight
against the stubborn plant and twisted it around and around. The root popped
loudly as it separated. "Then he ought to Heal!"

 
          
 
"Sometimes even the best Healer
can't."

 
          
 
"Maybe," came Tuber's surly reply.
"But did you know that Green Fire, over at Three Forks, has accused Black
Hand of witching people?"

 
          
 
"Black Hand said this?"

 
          
 
"Yes, and a lot of other things, too.
They thought I was asleep. You know how people talk when they think a child is
asleep. But, Bad Belly, if he's witching people, what keeps him from making
sure that my father dies today ... like a proof of his Power?"

 
          
 
Bad Belly clamped the bristly sagebrush under
his good arm. "It's talk, T, that's all."

 
          
 
"Black Hand's worried that someone might
dart him in the night."

 
          
 
"Did he say why people thought he was
witching?"

 
          
 
"Too many people he treated have died.
One was Green Fire's husband. I guess he had a broken finger or some such thing
and Black Hand set it. Four days later he died. Just fell over dead. Then there
was that girl who disappeared, White Ash they called her. Green Fire thinks it
was witching."

 
          
 
"Green Fire has always worried too much
about witching. Every time a rabbit jumps the wrong way, she thinks a witch is
responsible."

 
          
 
Tuber squinted. "Her husband's still
dead."

 
          
 
"And what did Black Hand say?"

 
          
 
"That things like that happen sometimes,
that people just die. And Larkspur nodded and reminded him of the time he'd
done a Healing for some warrior. They did a sweat in the middle of the winter,
and the warrior felt better and got up and ran out in the snow and rolled
around—and died."

 
          
 
"Everyone dies some time."

 
          
 
"I don't like people saying my father is
going to die today. I don't like people saying Black Hand is witching
people."

 
          
 
Tuber's mouth quivered, and Bad Belly let out
a shallow breath and squinted up at the sun, now a big yellow disk over the
serrated ridges of the
Black Mountains
.

 
          
 
"I don't think he's witching
people," he told his nephew. "I think it's just the way he acts that
makes people nervous. You know, if you like a Healer, he's a good and Powerful
man. Black Hand, however, well, he's a different sort. Not everyone can talk to
Power. It's up in the air, and different Spirits live in the springs, and in
high places, and in certain rocks. Spirits listen when the elders give them
special gifts to see that the grass grows and the animals come. Black Hand does
that. Intercedes for humans like us. He lives way down there in that rock
shelter all by himself. It takes practice to talk to people when you've been talking
to Spirits."

 
          
 
Tuber looked up, hostility in his eyes.
"Did you know he and Larkspur used to couple?"

 
          
 
Bad Belly lifted an eyebrow, a half-smile
trying to form on his lips. Now that took some imagination! "Are you sure
you heard right last night?"

 
          
 
Tuber grunted, bracing himself as he twisted
another sagebrush in circles and jerked. The root snapped satisfyingly. "I
heard real good last night. Maybe they wouldn't have talked if grown people had
been sleeping nearby. People always underestimate a boy."

 
          
 
“I don't."

 
          
 
“I know. But you're different. You're a—"
Tuber halted awkwardly.

 
          
 
"Goon."

 
          
 
“Nothing. But I heard that the last four
people Black Hand has Sung for have died. Green Fire's isn't the only family
talking. Black Hand's worried."

 
          
 
“And what did Larkspur say?"

 
          
 
"That it was all talk. That no one else
had Power like Black Hand and it would be all right in the end. That things
went in streaks . . . like luck. Sometimes it was good, sometimes bad, but it
would always turn around."

 
          
 
“It usually does."

 
          
 
“Not if my father's going to die as part of
it." Tuber's eyes glittered hatefully.

 
          
 
Bad Belly adjusted his grip on the sage the
boy kept pulling out of the ground and handing to him. For a brief moment he
envied the boy's strength, trying to remember what it had been like to have two
good hands to manipulate the world with.

BOOK: People of the Earth
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