Read People of the Earth Online

Authors: W. Michael Gear

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

People of the Earth (9 page)

BOOK: People of the Earth
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Warm Fire had been like the walls of the
dwelling, sheltering Bad Belly's existence in the Round Rock clan—a protective
buffer against the censure of his family.

 
          
 
Bad Belly tucked a willow shaft under his bad
arm and used a
chert
flake to peel the bark in long
strips. Over the years he'd become proficient in the use of his left hand. No
one could straighten willow or make a dart shaft better than Bad Belly. He'd
learned the secrets of steaming wood just so, using a shaft-
straightener
crafted from an elk
humerus
to force the bends from a
piece of wood. The
forehsaft
he crafted from hard
chokecherry wood, which wouldn't split on impact. The work fulfilled his need
to produce, to do something to make up for the share of food he consumed. He'd
gaze at the completed product, knowing that part of his soul lingered in the
worked wood, mixing with the plant's Spirit where it lay in the very grain.

 
          
 
The flap pulled back and Grandmother ducked
through. Larkspur pinned him with an irritated glare. Her weathered lips sucked
in around toothless gums, giving her a sour expression. She wore it well.

 
          
 
Bad Belly tensed as she reached up to pull at
her fleshy chin. In a cool voice, Larkspur announced, "He wants to see
you."

 
          
 
Bad Belly threw his materials to one side and
lurched to his feet. "Is he better?"

 
          
 
Grandmother shook her head, studying him as if
to decide how much to tell him. "He wants to see you . . . alone."

 
          
 
A knot seemed to draw tight in Bad Belly's
throat. Alone? That's what's made her suspicious?

 
          
 
He ran outside into the invigorating chill.
Trouble had disappeared from his place by the door—but then, he always did when
he saw Larkspur coming. The others' dogs by the door whined and wagged their
tails. This time Bad Belly didn't stop to pat them the way he usually did.

 
          
 
Locked in thought, he raced across the
trampled snow to Larkspur's shelter. The Spirit World had turned a deaf ear to
his plea. Why? What possible good could it serve to leave him alive and take
Warm Fire's life? Everyone needed Warm Fire. People depended on him. In times
of famine, Warm Fire's smile brought relief, as if the very expression on his
face sparked hope, brought smiles to haggard faces, making the difficult days
seem shorter.

 
          
 
Compared to that, of what worth am I? He'd
seen the thought reflected in Larkspur's irritated eyes. Tuber's words clung to
his memory.

 
          
 
Bad Belly ducked through the flap and into the
suffocating reality of Larkspur's lodge. Bitterbrush shot him a nervous smile
from where she sat holding Warm Fire's hand. Black Hand nodded a greeting and
left, the flap swinging behind him.

 
          
 
Bad Belly shifted nervously from foot to foot.
Then Warm Fire turned his head and smiled. Despite the gray color of his skin
and the sunken flesh, that smile parted the murky haze like a shaft of
sunlight.

 
          
 
Bad Belly returned the smile, hoping that Warm
Fire could sense the love and hope in his soul. "Larkspur said you wanted
to see me?"

 
          
 
Warm Fire's weak nod betrayed his failing
strength.

 
          
 
Bitterbrush cradled Warm Fire's head on a
rolled hide before she rose and stepped over to the door. In a low voice she
warned, "Don't keep him too long. Don't wear him out." She ducked out
the doorway, moccasins scuffing on the hard clay.

 
          
 
Bad Belly stepped around the fire and settled
on the thick pile of furs beside his friend. “How are you?"

 
          
 
Warm Fire coughed, the sound of it wracking
Bad Belly to the bones. "Like a rotten deadfall. Everything inside is gone
punky
and crumbly."

 
          
 
"You'll be better soon."

 
          
 
Warm Fire closed his eyes, swallowing.
"You know better than that." His chest rose in shallow breaths that
rasped like sandstone on wood. "I feel
floaty
.
Like my soul is ready to drift off. It's like smoke, you know? Ready to rise
and follow the wind."

 
          
 
"Maybe that's what healing feels
like."

 
          
 
Warm Fire's smile ghosted across his bloodless
lips. He coughed again. "I'm sorry, old friend. I hate the worry in
people's eyes. I talked to Tuber. Tried to explain."

 
          
 
"He's young. He'll-"

 
          
 
"But I worry most about you."

 
          
 
Bad Belly chuckled with forced ease.
"Don't. I'm all right. Save your strength and use it to bind your spirit
to your body."

 
          
 
Warm Fire shook his head, the action feeble.
"I've watched. I think it's hardest on you."

 
          
 
"I'm making a new dart shaft for you. One
that will fly through the air like a falcon—right to a buffalo's side. It's for
you. For your next hunt."

 
          
 
"If they hunt among the Spirits."
Warm Fire licked his lips. The gurgling sound of his drowning lungs sawed at
Bad Belly's heart. "I’ll miss you the most. You've brought happiness to my
life.”

 
          
 
The response froze in Bad Belly's throat.

 
          
 
"I worry about you." Warm Fire
smiled absently. "Bitterbrush, she'll take care of herself. Raise the
children. Find a new husband to keep her. She's a strong woman. But you— I had
a Dream."

 
          
 
“I’ll be fine. You know me. I get along."

 
          
 
Warm Wind's hand rose, the flat of the palm
out in the hunter's age-old sign for quiet. "You're not meant for this
place."

 
          
 
"This is my family."

 
          
 
"Listen. I don't have much time. I know
you . . . know them. When I'm gone . . . leave."

 
          
 
"I can't leave. This is my—"

 
          
 
With as much passion as he could muster, Warm
Fire repeated, "G<9 away, my friend. Go . . . anywhere. North. I think
that was the direction in the Dream."

 
          
 
"Dream? What's this about a Dream?"

 
          
 
Warm Fire blinked as though it took great
effort. "A beautiful Dream. You're destined for greatness, Still Water.
You'll save the Dreamer."

 
          
 
"You called me by my real name."

 
          
 
Warm Fire
spasmed
in
a terrible bout of coughing. Bad Belly lifted his friend's head, helping him to
breathe easier.

 
          
 
"Yes ..." Warm Fire whispered.
"Leave. She needs you, you know. You must find her. Trader coming. Go.
Find the right path. It's in your soul, your wonderful, rich, beautiful
soul."

 
          
 
Bad Belly's throat went tight. "You've
always—"

 
          
 
'They'll destroy you here. Beat you down bit
by bit. Like a flower that grows in the trail. The feet are too heavy here. Go.
Find a place where you can blossom to true beauty. She needs you, needs the
compassion in your soul, needs your love."

 
          
 
"She?"

 
          
 
Warm Fire rambled on as if he didn't hear.
"That's what I've always admired about you. The love. It's in your eyes,
shining there like a fire on a dark night. They don't understand . . . never
have. You're the best of them all, Still Water. You made my life worthwhile.
You gave me so . . . much . . ." He drifted off, eyes closing, neck
muscles going lax. Another bout of coughing brought him awake again, and
red-stained fluid leaked from the side of his mouth.

 
          
 
Bad Belly wiped it away and winced at the
fever burning bright in Warm Fire's body. "I'm the one who owes you.
Remember the time I hurt my leg and you carried me in? Remember the time
you-—" He moved over and cradled Warm Fire's head in his lap.

 
          
 
"No!" Warm Fire cried out. "I
saw in the Dream. You're the important one. Power wants you. You're the one to
save her, to bring her back. I . . . Power sent me here. For you. I see that
now. I got to know you, to take care of you for the right time. Power has
strange ways. Works curiously."

 
          
 
"It's the sickness making you say these
things. You'll see . . . tomorrow, when you're better, you'll laugh about this.
We'll both laugh."

 
          
 
"You and I"—Warm Fire shivered
violently—"we've never lied to each other. We were special, you and I. They
never understood. Won't lie now. I feel my soul floating. Just had to warn you
... to tell you to go seek the Dreamer. Promise me. Promise you'll leave. Go
north. Find the Dreamer. Promise!"

 
          
 
Bad Belly wiped away the beading sweat on Warm
Fire's brow, not knowing what to say.

 
          
 
"Promise!" Warm Fire blinked as if
his vision had gone out of focus. His fevered gaze locked on Bad Belly.
"Promise!"

 
          
 
At his cry, Bitterbrush slipped through the
flap. Like a furious cat, she crossed the intervening space, eyes flashing.
"What have you done? Let him rest!"

 
          
 
Bad Belly looked back and forth, confused,
feeling trapped between them.

 
          
 
Warm Fire's burning hand gripped Bad Belly's,
the squeeze painful even given his weakness. "Promise me. It's the last
gift you can give me."

 
          
 
"I ... I promise."

           
 
“Promise what?" Bitterbrush demanded,
dropping to her knees.

 
          
 
"Bless you, Still Water. You'll find her.
She needs you, needs your love."

 
          
 
"Promise what?" Bitterbrush repeated
as she glared at Bad Belly.

 
          
 
"Between ... us, wife. Leave him alone.
He's ... the way. The way to the Spiral. The clan never understood." Warm
Fire coughed again and turned his head to spit blood.

 
          
 
The Spiral? What did he mean? Bad Belly bit
his lips, a hollow forming in his guts. "Rest. Rest, my friend."

 
          
 
"Stay, Still Water. Stay and hold me. I
can see your soul. It's . . . glowing. Like the sun. Glowing . . ."He
closed his eyes, his body relaxing as he fell into sleep.

 
          
 
Bitterbrush tugged Warm Wind's braid from
where it lay in the spatters of bright blood he'd coughed up. She lowered her
voice. "What did you promise? Who is this 'she' he's talking about?"

BOOK: People of the Earth
8.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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