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Authors: Don Coldsmith

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BOOK: Raven Mocker
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12

B
ack in Old Town the Council met the next day. The word was already out: Snakewater had gone. No one knew where, although the Peace Chief seemed to have more information, which would be shared.

There was also the killing to be discussed. The crowd gathered quickly as the word spread and the time approached. The town house was packed as Three Fingers rose and the crowd quieted. Much of the ritualized opening of the meeting was shortened considerably because of the shocking character of the situation.

“You all know,” Three Fingers began, “that our one problem is solved. Snakewater came to me to discuss this. I was made to think that her heart is good. She had decided to leave, rather than create trouble here. So, she is gone. I do not know where.”

This was true, of course. He did not know the exact destination of the traveling Real People. The situation did not require such information anyway.

“That is not good enough!” shouted Spotted Bird. “The witch woman killed my baby! She’s a witch!”

A murmur welled up in the crowd. It was sympathetic in tone, yet it was plain that the majority present did not agree with such an interpretation.

“We would have discussed that,” agreed Three Fingers, “but now it is not necessary.”

“What about her other killing?” a voice from the rear called. “That of Whipper?”

The Peace Chief recognized the man as one of the ne’er -do-well associates of the deceased. He raised a hand to quell the rising murmur of the crowd. It was apparent that many thought that the death of the bully Whips His Dog was not a completely undesirable thing. Three Fingers felt pity for his widow, but she was young, attractive, and well respected. She would find a husband, and nearly any man would be better than the one she had just lost.

“Let me tell you what I know of this,” Three Fingers told the assembly. “As I have said, Snakewater had informed me she was leaving, which she did about dark. But she also said that someone, she did not know who, had entered her house, and she expected him to return. Now, as Peace Chief, I did not like the sound of this. I asked my son, Corn Plant, to help me, and we concealed ourselves to watch the house. We knew, of course, that Snakewater was already gone. Her house was empty.”

Now the room was quiet. Every ear was listening.

“Just about moonrise we saw a man—A
big
man—who came to the house and entered. We heard him talking, then he cried out. There was a scuffle, and then quiet. We took a torch and found Whipper, Whips His Dog, dead inside. The house was still empty, and he had been killed with his own knife. It is as I have told it. We came to the conclusion that Whipper had pulled down the doorskin—we
saw
him do that—and tripped over it, falling on the knife.”

“No!” shouted Spotted Bird. “The witch woman came back and killed him.”

There was actually a ripple of laughter.

“Do you think,” asked Three Fingers, “that an old woman could take a knife away from as big a man as that, and then kill him with it?”

More laughter.

“She used her powers!” protested Spotted Bird.

Now there were hoots of derision.

“If she did that,” observed Three Fingers, “she would not need the knife! Besides, to misuse her power would kill
her
, no?”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“Now,” said Three Fingers, “I see no action that we could take
within
the town. The woman is gone anyway. Any decision about her now is not in the purview of the Peace Chief, but of the War Chief. Log Roller, what say you?”

The War Chief rose, shrugged, and spread his hands as if puzzled.

“What Three Fingers says is true,” he agreed. “We have talked of this. The Peace Chief presides only over matters of the town. He has done that, and well. But I see no threat from
outside.
We do not need to defend the town. So I see no problem that should be discussed by the War Chief.”

He sat down again.

There was a low ripple of conversation as the Peace Chief rose again. There seemed to be a letdown, a sense of disappointment almost. The crowd had gathered to hear and decide greatly important things, which now had been reduced to nothing. There was no problem to be discussed.

Three Fingers knew that the whole matter
would
be discussed, and at great length, after the Council dispersed. The women would talk about it. If it seemed that further action should be taken, he would be approached to do so, probably by his wife, or maybe by a delegation from one of the clans. But he thought not. After all his concern of the past few days, the situation had resolved itself well. He still had questions in his mind about the incident with Whipper in the house vacated by Snakewater. There were things he did not understand about that.

He remembered, though …. When he was younger, he had been talking to a wise old uncle who had taught him much.

“I don’t understand,” he had protested, about some apparently miraculous happening.

“If you still think you have to understand, boy,” Gray Wolf had answered, “you are missing the point.”

That admonition had served him well ever since.

Sometimes
, he mused,
things turn out well, simply because they are meant to do so.

And this was a good day

A
day’s travel to the north Snakewater was talking to the leader of the band of Real People who were moving west. There were three families, eleven people in all.

“I am called Snakewater,” she introduced herself. “Paint Clan …. I am told that you are traveling west.”

The group’s leader was a man of perhaps forty. He had been pointed out to her by Keowee’s Peace Chief when she went to pay her respects. His name, Kills Many…. No one seemed to know or to care, really, how he might have acquired such a name. Kills many… enemies? deer? squirrels? No matter—he was now called Kills Many because it was his name.

“That is true,” he answered. “We are moving there. You are not from Keowee?”

He had noticed her horse, laden with packs.

“No, from Old Town. I was told of your party by a trader.”

“Ah, yes… the Choctaw?”

“Yes, that’s the one. He said you are a few days behind him.”

“True. We had broken a wagon wheel. But how can we help you, Mother?”

Good
, she thought.
A respectful young man.

“I would join your party.”

The man’s mouth dropped open in amazement.

“But what … How… Why… ” he stammered.

Snakewater had already decided that she would be willing to tell all …. She
must
do so, to be trusted. She took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

“I am a medicine woman. A conjuror. There are those in Old Town who do not trust me. Some have tried to kill me, and I have decided to leave. I can help your people.”

The expression on the face of Kills Many was one of astonishment, but he quickly recovered.

“How do I know you can be trusted?” he asked guardedly.

“You don’t. But you could ask the Peace Chief here at Keowee. You have met him. Or
their
medicine woman, Spotted Frog. Both of these know me.”

Kills Many nodded tentatively. “But…
how
could you help us?”

“With my skills. My medicine. I am skilled with potions and salves as well as conjures.”

“Hmm… that might be useful. But you might hold us back.”

Snakewater bristled. “At any time I cannot keep up, you can leave me behind!”

“Yes, yes, Mother,” he said quickly. “I meant no offense. But the trip may be hard. I was thinking of your comfort. Winter will be coming.”

“It always does,” she retorted. “Here, there, or somewhere else. Everyone will be someplace.”

Kills Many chuckled. He liked the spunk of this old woman.

“I will ask those of whom you speak,” he said. “The conjure woman, the Peace Chief. Maybe their War Chief too.”

His mind was already made up. He had no doubt that he would receive exactly the answers that the old woman said. There was a complete forthrightness about her that he liked. He was certain that she was exactly what she appeared to be, a spunky old woman with the spirit gifts she had stated. His remark about the War Chief had been a gentle jibe at her aggressive nature. Well, he would ask anyway.

“You have supplies?” he asked, gesturing toward her horse with the bulging panniers.

“Enough,” she stated flatly. “I’m pretty good with the blowgun too.” She touched the mouthpiece of the weapon, as it protruded from one of the packs.

“I see …. Well, we are camping here today. We start on
at daylight tomorrow. After going to water, that is. Meanwhile, I will ask about you.”

“Good. You will find it as I said.”

“I am sure of that.”

T
he Peace Chief was a little vague.

“I don’t know her well. I heard that there was some sort of trouble down at Old Town. You could talk to their Peace Chief.”

“No, no. We need to move on. But this Snakewater… You know of her?”

“Of course. She was conjuring before I was born. Yes, that was it …. No one knows how old she is, and somebody accused her of being a Raven Mocker. You remember
that
story?”

“Yes, I think so. The Raven Mocker takes unused life-years of a dying young person?”

“That’s the one. Do you believe it?”

“I don’t know,” said Kills Many cautiously. “But her reputation has been good?”

“Oh, yes. She’s well respected. Or always has been. She wants to go with you?”

“That’s what she has asked.”

The Peace Chief nodded. “I think you would be fortunate to have her in your party.”

“You would trust her, then?”

“Oh, yes. She could not use her powers for a bad purpose. It would kill
her
, no?”

“So I have heard. Oh, yes… Keowee has a conjure woman?”

“You can’t have
her!”
said the Peace Chief.

“No, no,” laughed Kills Many. “I only wanted to ask her about Snakewater.”

The chief relaxed. “Oh. Of course. Frog… Spotted Frog. That is her house, near the big sycamore.”

“Wado!
Thank you, Uncle.”

Spotted Frog was reluctant at first, but when she learned the purpose of Kills Many’s visit, she became more friendly.

“Yes, she came to me with her problem. A bereaved family, rumors and stories… It was I who suggested that she move west.”

“She can be trusted?”

“Snakewater? Of course! She will tell it as it is. And I tell you this: You will be fortunate to have her with your party.”

That was the second time he had heard such a remark this morning, Kills Many realized. His heart was good for this.

B
efore the day was over, a traveler who had been to Old Town stopped at Keowee with an odd piece of news. A man who had entered an empty house in the dead of night for some unknown purpose had fallen on his own knife and was dead. There were few regrets, because he had been a scoundrel, it was said. The spirits must have a sense of humor

13

L
umpy, did you have something to do with the death of that man in Old Town? Here, don’t you disappear on me…. I know you’re there. They said the man might have fallen on his own knife …. Where
are
you?”

Her tirade went unanswered. Snakewater stamped her foot impatiently and turned to unsaddle her horse. The party would not leave until tomorrow, and this was a chance for the mare to graze and for herself to rest. She had had no sleep. It had been a worrisome time for the past day and a half. She spread a blanket on the grass under a tree and lay down, eyes closed.

“Who were you talking to, Grandmother?” a child’s voice asked.

Snakewater’s eyes opened, startled. It was a girl of perhaps six summers, standing beside her blanket.

“Oh… nobody, child. Just the Little People.”

“You talk to the Little People? Then you have
seen
them?”

“I did not say that, girl. I can talk to somebody in the dark without seeing them, no?”

“That is true,” said the child. “But … it isn’t dark yet. Besides, they would probably answer.”

“And you heard no answer? Is that it? Maybe I didn’t either,” she said irritably. “But I can talk to Little People without seeing or hearing them, no?”

“Maybe you were talking to yourself?”

“No, I… Well, maybe so. Run along, now. I must get some sleep.”

“Yes, my father said you will go with us tomorrow.”

“Your father… ?”

“Yes, Kills Many. He said you will join us.”

“That is true. Now, run along, child. What is your name?”

“Pigeon… I will let you rest, Grandmother. And I will watch closely for the Little People.”

“All right. But if you see any, be sure not to tell anyone.”

“Yes, I know that. But I could talk to them, no?”

“Of course. Now, go on! Let me rest.”

Reluctantly Pigeon turned away, and Snakewater watched her go. “Lumpy,” she said to empty space, “I hope you’ll stay away from that one. She’s too smart for us.”

Maybe it was only the flutter of the leaves in the tree overhead that sounded like a giggle.

T
he little caravan traveled well. The others had already become accustomed to traveling together. There were three families, two approximately the same ages, all with children. Kills Many was the leader. Snakewater had already become acquainted with him, and with his daughter, Pigeon. She rather liked Pigeon, whose inquiring mind and quick understanding were refreshing. The child might become a nuisance, she thought, but was, for now, interesting. Pigeon’s mother was a quiet, pleasant woman with a gentle smile and a comfortable inner satisfaction that Snakewater could see immediately. She was called Rain, and in her warm, calm attitude it was easy to visualize a gentle shower, so welcome in the heat of late summer. Snakewater liked her from the start. The woman was a well-fitted partner for Kills Many.

The couple had another child, a boy of about ten or eleven. That one seemed to be a small copy of his father, Kills Many. He was called Redbird.

Snakewater had had little chance to become acquainted
with the other two families as yet. That would happen as they traveled. For now, it was enough to see that one had a wagon, like Kills Many. The man was called Smith, because of his vocation. His forge was carried in the back of the wagon. The Smith family had two children, both girls.

The third family was somewhat younger, had one boy of three or four, and pack horses instead of a wagon. Snakewater had the idea that they were relatives of Rain, wife of Kills Many. Maybe the women were all related, she thought. Rain had mentioned the Blue Cat Clan, which might indicate the matrilineal connection.

The wagon of the Smith family had broken a wheel, she learned, and caused the delay that had allowed her to join them. The wheel had been rebuilt by Smith, who seemed quite skilled in the use of tools. He had taken on many of the white man’s ways, much to his advantage and to that of the party, as it turned out.

Snakewater declined an invitation to ride in the wagon of Kills Many. By evening of the first day of travel she regretted that decision. The bumping and shifting of the packs, bundles, and panniers was a constant challenge. There was no good position in the saddle, and the load kept sliding around. She decided that there must be a better way.

After they’d halted that first evening, as Snakewater was unloading her packs, Rain approached.

“Would it not be easier for you,” the woman suggested, “to put some of your packs in the wagon? Since you do not wish to ride there yourself …”

Snakewater felt as if a great weight had lifted from her shoulders. She was trying her best not to show how difficult it was to move around. Her inner thighs ached, her buttocks felt as if she had been beaten, and cramps in the muscles of her calves seized her with every step. At least she was recovering some semblance of feeling in her feet. When she first stepped down it had felt like the stabbing of a hundred needles.

I must appear to be walking like—like an old person!
she thought to herself. She chuckled quietly over that thought, then paused.

“What?” she said, apparently to nobody, “I am an old person. Stop it, now!”

That was only the first time that the others in the party noted that this new companion frequently talked to herself.

W
ithin a few days the routine was well established. Snakewater found that the excruciating pain in the muscles of her thighs subsided after a day or two, and she began to enjoy the travel. After her body adjusted to the saddle, riding was much preferable to bouncing in the wagon. She had tried that, too, but only for a little while. The swaying gait of the mare was so comfortable that at times it almost lulled her to sleep.

Usually, though, she was not only awake but enchanted with new sights, sounds, and smells. She had never been far from Old Town, and her knowledge of different scenery was quite limited. It was a thrill to see a distant range of hills and to wonder what lay beyond. Even so, she now knew that those hills lay a full day’s travel ahead. Maybe even two days.

She was also somewhat surprised that she felt better, younger by far. At first she had thought it was merely relief at her escape from the rumor, gossip, and actual threats to her life that had been oppressing her. Her newfound freedom had been exhilarating, and had replaced gloom with happiness and optimism. She soon realized, however, that it was more than that. She felt stronger, healthier. She could fill her lungs to their greatest capacity, head up and shoulders back, and it felt
good.
The travel was good, the
world
was good.

Days were warm and sunny, nights cool and crisp. Occasionally there was rain, and on those days they camped, kept a hot fire going, and they all huddled under the two wagons until they could move on.

It was during one of those times, when it seemed that the rain might turn to sleet or snow, that a thought struck her.

“Kills Many,” she said, “how is it that we are traveling at this time of year? Winter is coming!”

He chuckled. “That is true. But it was not when we started. We had come a long way before you joined us.”

“Yes … I know.”

Then another idea struck her. She had not thought to ask before.

“I had not inquired,” she said, a bit embarrassed, “but where are we going? Is there a destination, or are we just wandering?”

Kills Many threw his head back and roared with laughter.

“Maybe some of both,” he said, after recovering his composure. “A specific place, no. Yet we are not just ‘wandering.’ There are towns… at least three or four, we have heard, in this place called Arkansas. Towns built by Cherokees like ourselves. Our own, Real People. They came from our own country.”

“And how do we find them?” she asked.

“We know that they are beyond the Big River,” he said. “The Mississippi. We must find a way to cross it, and then inquire among the locals as to where our people may be.”

“You speak their tongue?” Snakewater asked.

“No, no. But there are ways. You know of the Trade Language?”

“Yes. I do not speak it, though. Do you?”

“Yes, but that is not it.”

“There is
another
trade language?” she asked in amazement.

“No, no. There are hand signs. A trader told me of this. East of the Big River, Trade Language. West of it, hand signs.”

“But where can you learn it?”

“The trader taught me. In a day or so one can learn enough to get by. Look, it is not difficult. See here:
you… me …eat … drink, speak
… Here is any question, all the same:
how, what, where, who
… ”

He held up a crooked finger, moving it out from his mouth, then pointing to Snakewater.
“How are you called?
Here is
water
… a flowing motion of the fingers, like that of a stream.
Woman
, a motion like combing long hair. Well, you get the idea.”

“Yes, of course. I had never heard of this, Kills Many.”

“Nor had I …. I am eager to try it out.”

“Would you teach me?”

“Of course. You have already started. Not too much at once. A little at a time is better.”

At the beginning Snakewater had considered this journey an escape, her only course of action. She’d had no other choice. Now it was different. Not only was she feeling better than she had in years, she was actually enjoying the travel itself. And ahead it promised to become even better. What other surprises lay ahead, across the Big River?

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