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Authors: Don Coldsmith

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BOOK: Raven Mocker
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18

Y
es, they came this way,” said the ferryman. “Maybe ten days ago. Seems they’re plannin’ to winter with the settlement over there. West Landin’, they call it.”

“Good! Take me over, then,” ordered No Tail Wolf.

“No! It’s too late in the day to cross,” the ferryman insisted. “Stay the night …. Ye can sleep in the shed there. I’ll take ye in the mornin’!”

“Take me in the small boat, then. I’ll leave my horse here.”

“No, I said. I’m not crossin’ the river with night comin’ on! Sleep in the shed if ye want. We’ll see about crossin’ in the mornin’, like I said.”

He entered the house and yanked the door shut behind him, pulling the latch string in for the night.

“What is it?” asked his wife.

“Damn fool,” he muttered. “Tried to talk me into takin’ the ferry across alone, an’ comin’ back in the dark with no help.”

The woman shook her head in disbelief, as she continued her work at the fireplace.

“They just don’t understand the river and its ways,” the ferryman fumed. “Then he wanted me to take him across in the small boat! Leave his horse here. He sure wants to cross in a hurry….”

His wife looked up from the fire and their eyes met, and held for a moment. Then realization dawned.

“Damn!” he said softly, as he turned and headed for the door.

A
s soon as No Tail Wolf had seen the latch string slide out of sight through the rude plank door, he moved quickly. Down the slope he trotted, to the dock where the ferry and the small boats were tied. Darkness was falling, but he could still see what he wanted. He hesitated only a moment, glancing from a small boat to the canoe tied alongside. He was more familiar with a canoe …. Yes, there were the paddles, lying in the bottom. Quickly he untied the mooring rope and stepped in carefully, keeping his weight in the center. He shoved off with the other foot, balancing skillfully, holding to the sides as he sat down. There …Now the craft would be more stable. He picked up the longer of the two paddles and dipped it into the water with a long stroke that pushed it well into the river.

“C
ome back here!” yelled the ferryman, as he came running down the slope to the dock. “You thievin’ bastard!”

He stopped, realizing the futility of further effort. The canoe was a bow shot away now, heading slightly upstream into the current. A fairly skilled canoe man, he judged. Might even make it across, if the evening twilight held …. Shame to lose the canoe, but he still had the man’s horse and saddle, which were worth more than the canoe. Not a bad trade. He glanced across the water toward the location of Little Horse’s settlement. A light showed there, a pinpoint of brightness against the darkening western sky, and the even darker shore. It was like watching the stars appear one by one as the evening sky deepens in tone. Well, the man could use the light as a guide, maybe ….

N
o Tail Wolf paid no attention to the yelling ferryman on the wharf. The canoe handled well and was responsive to the paddle. The excitement of the chase stirred his blood. He hadn’t decided yet just how to carry out his
vengeance. He was sure the old witch-woman was there, in that little settlement. He had talked with the ferryman long enough to glean that information, before the man became so unreasonable. The travelers, it seemed, had decided to winter at this tiny Cherokee settlement. Good! But his plan was to arrive there quickly and unexpectedly. That would prevent the old woman from performing some spell or curse on him. It would be over before she even realized what was happening. When she came out to go to water in the morning, maybe. He touched the knife at his waist. He’d have the deed done and be gone before the others even realized what had happened. He’d hide the canoe out of sight while he scouted the camp ….

Well, one thing at a time. The lights of the settlement could be seen more plainly now as twilight deepened. Yes, things were going well.

He was nearly halfway across now, he judged, although it was hard to tell. Both shores seemed far away. The western bank, merely a dark line of trees against the purple of the darkening sky, did not seem to be getting much closer. His arms were tiring …. Strong and muscular as they were, they were not accustomed to the use of a canoe paddle. The action uses different muscles, he realized.

A dark shape swept past him in front of the canoe’s bow. He was startled, and a moment of fear grasped at him. Wait… only a log. He steadied, but then began to realize something he had not thought of before. Flotsam in the middle of the river… He was not sure of the significance, but one log meant that there could be more.

A dark, shapeless blot bore down on him and a moment of panic clutched at his heart. Dim thoughts of tales about the water monster stirred in the dim corners of his memory. Then he realized that this was only a raft of small sticks and debris, flimsy material that separated and scattered under the stroke of his paddle. He grunted with satisfaction and resumed his paddling.

But there were other shapes in the water now. Sticks,
logs, a large dead fish, easily seen by its clammy whiteness. Another carcass, a bloated deer or maybe a cow. There was an eerie feeling about dead things in the water. He shoved at the floating carcass with his paddle, and it rotated, dipped and rose again, and moved on downriver.

He glanced around quickly, reorienting himself after the rotation of the canoe from his thrust of the paddle. He aligned the bow toward the distant lights again and, with aching arms, kept paddling.

More debris… He shoved off from a big dead tree whose limbs protruded high out of the water. For a moment there the limbs had looked like reaching arms above him and his frail shell, reaching
down
to shove him under as the tree rolled. He tried to drive such thoughts out of his head.

Now the canoe rocked softly, as if by an unseen hand. It must have struck some object in the water, he thought, yet he had felt no impact. Odd… Something soft, probably another carcass. There were dark shapes in the water all around him now, drifting, twisting, turning, sometimes even seeming to move in
opposite
directions. At the same time he had the feeling that the canoe, along with other floating objects, was gaining momentum in the current, moving downstream. There was a momentary feeling of helplessness, but he shrugged it off and thrust his paddle into the water to correct his course. It became tangled, and he pulled to free it from the clinging debris. For a moment it seemed that someone or some
thing
actually held the paddle and was pulling it away from him. He yanked it free, struggling against the terror that rose in his throat.

Nonsense!
All he had to do was remain calm, push free of this tangled mass of flood debris from upstream, and continue to the other shore. He pushed against a log, which rolled slowly. There was a large burl on the trunk, with swirled and gnarled irregularities, reminding him for a moment of a grotesque human face. It rolled under again, but the image had unnerved him badly, confusing him further.

He might have recovered his composure, except that now the rocking of the canoe began again, more severe this time. Once, as a child, he had been in a canoe that was rocked and upset by older boys. It had frightened him badly, but he was a strong swimmer. The experience had not bothered him greatly—until now ….

“Stop it!” he screamed.

The rocking ceased, and he felt foolish as the echo of his scream rebounded from the distant shore. He grasped his paddle firmly again, and thrust it into the water to propel the canoe out of the tangle.

But now, again, there seemed to be movement in the water. Shifting, churning, rolling, in different directions, like a family of otters at play. The canoe rocked, and this time he
almost
saw a handlike object rise quietly over the side of the canoe to grasp it and create the rolling motion. He struck out with the paddle using all his strength and it shattered, leaving the broken shaft in his hand. Tossing it aside, he half rose to stumble forward and pick up the other paddle. Without it he would be helpless.

The canoe overbalanced and rolled, throwing him into the debris-filled water. He struggled against the clinging tangle of sticks and vines and small branches. He became panicky as the tangle seemed to reach out and grasp at him, holding, pulling, sucking him down. He was sure that he felt a hand or a paw or some grasping tentacle close around his ankle, drawing him toward the murky depths. He screamed again, but the sound was stifled in midscream as the water closed over his nose and open mouth. The water was cold and dark and he felt consciousness fading away. The grasp around his ankle was still there, even more firmly fastened now. He held his breath as long as he could, but his reflexes demanded that he try to fill his lungs. He gasped involuntarily, drawing in nothing but muddy river water as his world slipped away….

S
nakewater had been restless all evening, and now lay awake in her blankets. She listened to the light snores of
Kills Many and his wife, Blossom, and the contented breathing of little Pigeon.

She did not understand quite why she should be restless. Their preparations for winter were going well, and all seemed right with the world. Things had progressed well ever since she had left Old Town and joined the travelers.

Maybe it was something she had eaten …. But, no, her stomach seemed fine. It must be her spirit that was troubled, though she could not imagine why.

She finally drifted off to sleep, and woke sometime later. There seemed to be no change, except that the fire had burned down. The soft snores and regular breathing of the others had not changed. Maybe if she went to empty her bladder…

She groped around in the dark and found the sticks, kept near the fire for such purpose. She tossed a stick on the glowing coals, and waited until the resulting flame lighted the lodge. Then she slipped outside, drawing her blanket around her shoulders.

The dim starlight allowed her to see her way, around behind the fringe of bushes. She stumbled along sleepily, and suddenly stopped and gasped at an unexpected movement of some kind. A rabbit? Not a skunk, she hoped.

“What… ?” she questioned, peering into the shadowy woods. “Lumpy, is that you? Don’t scare me like that. What are you …? Get back, Lumpy! It’s cold out here, and you’re soaking wet. Go on in by the fire ….”

19

T
he winter passed, somewhat milder than those to which the travelers were accustomed. Some of the men made exploratory trips to the west and found other settlements of the Real People, as Little Horse had said. Most were glad to see the newcomers, and gave helpful information about what could be expected from the weather as the growing season approached.

The season out here was somewhat longer, it was said, beginning earlier and running later before the first frost. The climate was good for all the traditional crops of the Real People. Corn, beans, pumpkins, potatoes, all would grow well here.

“The seasons travel as before,” one man told them. “South to north in the spring, back again in the autumn. When spring comes, it moves about as fast as we would.”

“What do you mean?” asked a puzzled newcomer.

“Well, look at it this way…. There is a time for each plant to flower, no? Dogwood, redbud, plum thicket … each has its time. Now, when the first dogwood are blooming here, they have already done so to the south, but not yet to the north. If we were to travel north when the first blooms begin, each day we would see the first blooms of dogwood in a new place.”

“Ah! I see. And this happens a little earlier here than where we came from? We would plant corn earlier?”

“A little bit, maybe. The same signs are still good.”

“The ground-sitting?” asked Kills Many with a smile.

“Yes, that one is good. When the old men who are fishing sit on the ground instead of standing, the earth is warm enough to plant corn.”

“Is there land here where we could plant?”

“Of course. Some is taken, but there is more.”

“How about farther west?”

“Probably. Too far west you would encounter Osage people, who do not welcome us.”

“They are farmers?”

“Yes… Hunters too. Some of them are bold fighters, and they resent newcomers. The turkey gobbles sometimes.”

Kills Many smiled. The traditional war cry of the Real People was the gobble of the turkey cock.

“You have fought with them?”

“Not here …Farther west.”

“Maybe it would be good to avoid that.”

“Probably. You could settle here.”

“We will think on it,” promised Kills Many. “We will have to decide before the planting of the corn.”

“Before that, if you plant potatoes.”

“True …Probably not, though. Potatoes, I mean, until we’re settled. Next year, maybe.”

I
n most of the places they visited they were invited to settle. The loyalty of the Real People insured that no Cherokee would starve while others still had food. It would be difficult to decide, and a council was called to discuss the question. This gathering was considerably different from the town meetings that were the custom, but some of the formalities were observed out of habit. Pipes were smoked, and various opinions expressed in turn. There was no general consensus.

“May I speak?” asked Little Horse finally.

“Of course,” said Kills Many, who was presiding as leader of the travelers.


Wado
… Thank you. You have looked at several places, and have been treated well, no?”

“That is true.”

“Good. But, why not stay here? It has been proven that we get along well, has it not?”

There was a general chuckle. It had been a season of pleasant contact with others of the Real People. It had been plain that the children of the two groups had become friends. Little Horse and his people had been more than helpful, but it had been assumed…

Well, why not? There was a bit of discussion, mostly favorable, but with an amused surprise that it had not been mentioned before.

“I am made to think,” said Kills Many finally, “that this is a good thing. Yet it is a choice so important that we should sleep on it. Let us meet tomorrow.”

When they met again, there was little doubt. They would stay and settle here at West Landing.

N
ow began the real planning, and the real work. With assistance from the settlers the newcomers chose and marked areas where they would plant. There were trees to be cut and brush cleared, but the logs and poles that resulted would be used for the construction of houses.

Snakewater found herself in a time of indecision. Her thinking, unlike the plans of the settlers, had not progressed much beyond escape from the pressures of Old Town, with its misunderstanding and hatred. Among these people she had found friendship such as she had never experienced before, and even a feeling of
family.
But now, with everyone else making plans and preparations for their new lives at West Landing, what would be her part? She felt left out.

“What shall I do, Lumpy?” she asked aloud to an apparently empty space. “Yes, I know you can’t help me with things like that. You don’t have to be sarcastic, you know …. What? Oh, yes…
Wado.
That
is
a good one!”

She stooped and with her digging stick exposed the root of the medicinal plant she sought. From long habit
there were things that she must carry out seasonally. This particular forb was heralded by its first growth in early spring. It was time to gather a supply.

She moved along, carrying on her one-sided conversation. At least it would appear so to any casual observer.

“Yes, things grow well here. The earth is mellow

Yes, I see that one …. Thank you.”

There had been little occasion to use her healing skills and conjures this season. There were not enough people involved in her world that winter. A few coughs, sore throats, but no major troubles. There were no young people of courting age, so no demand for love potions or spells to bring on infatuation. But she could not continue to depend on the charity of others, giving nothing in return. When the others moved into new dwellings, what would she do? In a way she dreaded the time when she would have to decide.

Perhaps Kills Many, with his keen perception of people, saw this in her. For whatever reason he drew her aside one afternoon.

“Mother,” he said, “we must talk of something.”

He had first called her “Mother” as a term of respect, then as a gentle joke. To young Pigeon she was “Grandmother,” and to any casual observer she might have been just that. To all intents and purposes she was the female elder in the house of Kills Many.

“Of course,” she said. “What is it?”

Her tone was cheerful, but her heart was heavy. What would Kills Many, to whom she felt close family ties, wish to discuss? Should she forestall any unpleasantness by offering to move out?

“You know,” Kills Many said with some hesitation, “that we will soon move into a new house.”

Ah! Here it comes
, she thought.

“Yes, I—” she began, but he gestured her to silence.

“Be still and listen a moment. You know that you will always be welcome in our family—”

“But I—”

“Let me go on! I know that you have long lived alone.
If you like, you could have the smaller house. We would help you improve it.”

She was silent for a moment, and he misunderstood her emotion. She could not have spoken just then.

“Or,” he hurried on, “we can help you build a better one.”

Snakewater took a deep breath. “It is not that,” she was finally able to say. “But wouldn’t you… I had supposed you would salvage logs and poles for the new house from that one.”

“No, no.” He laughed. “We might have …. We might yet. But this is your choice, Mother. With us, or in your own house. Do you want to think on it? Sleep on it, maybe?”

There was a tear in the corner of her eye.

“You have been good to me, Kills Many. You are like a son… at least, I suppose so. I have never had a son, so how would I know?”

She laughed at herself and continued. “I don’t need to sleep on it,” she said. “I probably need the space to myself, for the plants and roots and all that I use. And I may need to conjure a spell. That would be easier in my own place. Now, the house we just shared for the winter is probably better than the one I had in Old Town. So, yes! I accept. Thank you, my almost-son!”

I
t seemed that spring came quickly and that there was too much going on. Building, clearing, planting, all nearly at once. Snakewater tried to help as she could, especially with the planting. Encouragement, the creation, almost, of new life, seemed to her an appropriate pursuit. She had had some experience with a small garden plot maintained by her namesake mentor, but tending it had not been a favorite pastime of hers. Nevertheless this was different: she
had
taken on a new life.

With the renewal, however, came a responsibility. She was still a guest among these people. The community was not large enough to afford a medicine person, a conjuror such as herself. Therefore her contribution must come in
other ways. The telling of the stories, which amounted to instruction of the young, was one. Her assistance with the planting, another.

Occasionally she had prepared a potion or salve, or conjured a “medicine” for someone. But it was becoming clear to her that her function in this new town must be different from anything in her previous life. This was troubling to her. The skill with plants and roots and conjures and spells was her gift, and it was good. Now, it was not to be used enough to maintain its power.
If you don’t use the gift, you lose it
, her old mentor had warned. She feared this could very easily happen to her. There was not enough use here to keep the power of her medicine alive.

There was the possibility, of course, that the little community would grow. It had done so with the arrival of the party of Kills Many. With the coming of spring there might be other travelers, and some might settle here. The town
could
grow and become self-sufficient, like Keowee. But
when?
Could she wait to see?

The other alternative for her seemed to be to attach herself to another party moving west. There had been none yet, and might
not
be. But it was something to consider.

Over all of this consideration there was a restlessness within her. Possibly it was simply the age-old urge to migrate that comes with the spring. What human is there who does not thrill to the call of the wild geese high overhead, honking their way northward to unknown places? There is always a curiosity to see what lies just beyond the next hill.

It must be assumed that this factor, too, lay within the breast of Snakewater as she planted corn and beans and pumpkins. She straightened occasionally to rest her back, and to watch the long lines of snowy white geese honk their way northward. She really had no yen to seek a colder climate, but one to the
west
might prove interesting.

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