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Authors: Douglas C. Jones

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BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
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I had been led to believe that all Indians were stoic and untalkative people. Yet Joe Mountain was as garrulous as any man I ever knew. Long after Oscar Schiller had dropped his newspaper among the peanut hulls on the floor and gone to sleep, Joe Mountain talked.
He told me how he had grown up on the Osage reservation, learning to read and write at the agency mission school. He had even taught there for a while, before his father died and he returned to the family to help his mother raise the younger children. Many hours were spent with Blue Foot, he said, along the Arkansas River west of Pawhuska. He had taught his brother how to track and to shoot and had told him the tribal history.
“We don't write our history down like you white people do,” he said. “Even if we have learned to write. We pass it along from one man to the next by telling it.”
In that way, Blue Foot had learned of the old days and how the Cherokees had first come, early in the nineteenth century, and how the Osage had fought them until the army finally established a fort at Belle Point called Fort Smith, just to keep them apart. And there had been stories of the fights with Kiowas, to the west on the Great Plains, where the Osage went each year to hunt buffalo. And stories, too, of tribes coming from far away to obtain the Osage orangewood for making bows.
“The Ozark Mountains,” Joe Mountain said. “My people call it Place of the Bows because of that wood.”
As he talked, I could not help but stare at the line of blue dots along one side of his face. After a long time, he laughed and touched his cheek with his fingertips.
“My granddaddy give me a tattooing needle,” he said. “He told me his daddy got it from the French, when they was tradin' along the rivers and before your people came into our country. My granddaddy's daddy traded a Pawnee boy for the needle. Did you know the Osage used to catch people and sell them to the French?”
“No,” I said. I had heard somewhere in one of my University of Illinois history courses that the French had used North American Indians as slave labor in their Indies sugar fields, but had never wondered how they came by those Indians.
“Well, we did. We ain't too proud of it now. But times have changed. You know how long ago that was, when my people went out on slave raids for the French?”
“I have no idea.”
“Me neither. But it was a long time ago. And times have changed.”
From beneath his duster he pulled a long-handled tomahawk. The head was pointed like a cake knife, with elaborate sworls etched into the bright metal and a lacework of tiny holes.
“This came from the French, too, a long time ago,” he said, and quickly slipped it back under the duster. “Cap'n says I got no business with such a savage weapon. You see those rifles Blue Foot's got? Them's what the Cap'n says is good for government work. Winchester .38–40s. Good for deer or men either.”
As we passed through the town of Poteau, all dark, and started into higher country, the engine began to labor. Joe Mountain said we were in pine timber country now, and even if there were farms with lights still on, they'd be hidden back in the woods. At times, the train moved so slowly on steep grades that a man running alongside could have stayed abreast. I was sleepy but Joe Mountain's stream of conversation on Osage history and local terrain kept me wide-awake.
We labored through the Winding Stair Mountains, the tracks seeking low passes. Going down into Kiamichi Valley, we gained speed. With Tuskahoma, the Choctaw capital, behind us, we came to the river, crossed a steel trestle bridge, and squealed to a stop at Hatchet Hill.
The village was strung along the valley, set between sharply rising slopes that even in the darkness looked tropic green. It was only a scattering of squat, square buildings along one side of the tracks, like a set of poker dice carelessly tossed and caught suddenly against the felt cushions of a billiard table. The only light glowed faintly from the open door of a small general store. The Kiamichi Mountains were to the south, behind the town. Across the tracks and the river were the rising slopes of the Winding Stair. As we stepped down from the caboose, the brakeman waiting impatiently to wave the train on to Texas, it was approaching dawn, but still dark. I could smell pine trees and cinders and hear behind us the river running between steep banks.
In the headlight of the engine, just before the train pulled away, I saw a large group of men and horses. One of the men walked out to shake hands with Oscar Schiller; then the two moved off to talk by themselves. Joe Mountain said the man's name was George Moon and that he was police chief in these parts. He was a small man with the inevitable big hat and canvas jacket. He was wearing a large revolver and a star on his shirtfront.
Joe Mountain also said that “the other white man” in the crowd was the veterinarian from Tuskahoma who had been brought down to Hatchet Hill while we were making the trip from Fort Smith. I saw no one I could recognize as a white man.
“What's the vet for?” I asked.
“I ain't sure,” Joe Mountain said. “But he's the only white doctor they got around here.”
Two Choctaw women came from the store with a wicker basket of corn muffins and a crock of buttermilk. As we ate—the milk cold and good, taken by each of us in turn from a dipper to wash down the dry breakfast—we could see George Moon and Oscar Schiller move over to the group of men, the marshal's yellow duster and palmetto hat marking him even in the dark. He went among the Indians, shaking hands and addressing them.
“Cap'n likes to mix right in with these Choctaws,” Joe Mountain said, and Blue Foot made a grunt, his first sound since I'd laid eyes on him. “We don't much cotton to 'em,” Joe Mountain added. I recalled Evans saying something about old enmities dying hard.
“Are all those people policemen?” I asked.
“They likely are now,” Joe Mountain said. “George Moon pins a badge on everybody in sight when trouble starts.”
The sky in the east had begun to pale as the women moved off with their milk and corn bread. The two Osages and I remained apart from the others, silently watching as the night faded away. Finally, Schiller came back to us and the Choctaws followed him, pulling their horses. Mounts were being brought to us, as well, led by Indian boys who wore the same Texas hats as their fathers.
“We'll be riding a ways,” Schiller said. “So you'd best do your business now.”
He and the two Osages faced the railroad track and started unbuttoning their pants. I joined them, hoping the women were by now back inside the store. Some of the Choctaw policemen came over and positioned themselves a little apart, though all in line along the track, as if it was some kind of ritual. Joe Mountain continued longer than anyone else, splashing down a goodly number of railroad ties.
My horse was a dapple gray mare and she grunted when I went up to the saddle. I'd never before ridden a work rig, and the high fork and cantle seemed awkward. The stirrups were too large and I resolved right then to buy a pair of those high-heeled boots as soon as I got back to Fort Smith, to avoid having a foot slip completely through the bows.
By now, the sawtooth ridges heavy with pine had appeared against the sky. The water of the river shone farther along the valley as it twisted between the hills and caught the light of the coming dawn. Now that the train and its soot and cinders were gone, the valley smelled of a fresh spring day, clean and crisp. Joe Mountain edged his horse close to mine and again I could see his teeth under the wide hat brim.
George Moon came from the store, leading a small Negro boy. He boosted the lad up behind one of the Choctaw policemen and mounted himself to lead us across the tracks to a wooden bridge. On the far side of the river we were immediately in the pines. The road began to pitch up sharply, trees crowded close on either side, and once more it was completely dark. I allowed the mare to pick her own way, following Moon and the policeman with the boy, Schiller, and the white veterinarian. The two Osages were riding beside me, and a short distance behind came the rest of the Choctaws.
At irregular intervals along the road were mountain farms where the land had been cleared of timber. There were a few houses and barn lots near the road. As the light grew, we began to see people doing their morning chores, slopping hogs or carrying buckets of milk from the cow sheds. Each of them stopped and looked at us as we passed, but none made any greeting.
About thirty minutes out of Hatchet Hill, with daylight full upon us, we came to a cleared field on one side of the road, a field that had gone fallow years before and was now overgrown with small dogwood and sassafras trees. In the road was a small wagon, standing with trace chains and a singletree lying before it. Around a small fire across the road from the clearing was a group of men and horses.
“More Choctaw police,” Joe Mountain said.
The Osages and I remained mounted as the column came up and turned off into the trees around the fire. Schiller was there, talking with the men, and the black boy was there, too. After only a few moments, the marshal came back to us.
“Here's what we got,” he said. “A Choctaw woman named Mrs. Eagle John. Widow woman. Got caught here last evening by parties unknown. That nigger boy over there was with her. She owns a farm up the road, was on her way to visit relatives in the valley somewhere. The Choctaws got here after dark, too late to track. So, Blue Foot, I want you to cut for sign in case they left the road. There ought to be about five or six horses. You other two, get down and let's get to business.”
Joe Mountain and I dismounted and followed Schiller and George Moon into the old field, pushing back the low-hanging sassafras branches. A number of Choctaw policemen moved ahead of us. One of the Choctaws pointed to an empty whiskey bottle and Schiller nodded as though he had expected it to be there.
A few paces from the road, the scrub trees thinned. We were in a space covered with last year's growth of weeds and some of them had burrs that clung to our trousers. At the center of this clearing there was a large tarpaulin spread over a form I recognized as a human body. I felt the corn muffins turning in my stomach. We grouped ourselves around the form and stood there looking down until Schiller spoke impatiently.
“All right. Let's look.”
One of Moon's policemen pulled back the tarp. No one spoke for a long time. The only sounds were the harsh buzzing of flies, and from the ridge behind us crows cawing. Beside the naked form, tied in a neat bundle, was her clothing, secured in a large sunbonnet.
“You know her, then?” Schiller asked, his voice grating.
“That's old Eagle John's wife, all right,” Moon said. “She lived about a mile up the road here, with that nigger boy.”
“They did a hell of a job on her, didn't they?”
“They must have held her until she was dead,” George Moon said. “It don't look like she done any thrashing around when they cut her.”
The vet had come with us and now he squatted between the woman's legs, opening a little black bag. I felt the corn muffins start up and staggered out of the clearing and into the pines alongside the road. Leaning against a tree trunk, I threw up. The cornmeal clogged my nose like wet sand. It took a long time to finish.
Back on the road, the others had assembled around the wagon. Everyone made an elaborate effort not to look at me as I blew my nose and stood behind Oscar Schiller. There was no talk while we waited for the vet to come out of the clearing. When he did, he said the woman had been raped.
“Enough semen to float a catfish boat, Marshal.”
“All right, let's get the boy over here,” Schiller said; then he turned and looked at me. “You feel better?”
“Yes.” I started to say that coming on such a scene, regardless of knowing pretty much what would be found, was a shock. But Schiller had turned away and I said nothing.
George Moon brought the Negro boy from the group still around the fire. He said the boy's name was Emmitt and he'd lived with Mrs. John all his life, and that he was eight years old. The boy turned under Moon's hand to avoid looking at the wagon. He stared at the thin column of smoke rising from the fire into the high pine treetops.
“Son, we want you to tell us what you saw here,” Schiller said. The boy swallowed twice before he spoke, and his expression did not change, his eyes still on the Choctaw fire.
“Miz John and me was goin' for a visit with the Otubees, who is Miz John's in-laws, she says. We come along here yesterday late, and these men come out from the woods over there.” He pointed to the trees behind the fire. “They stopped Ole Blue—”
“Is Ole Blue the horse, Emmitt?” George Moon asked.
“Yes, suh. They stopped Ole Blue, and Miz John say get out the way. They jus' laugh. They laugh all the time. They drinkin' whiskey out'n them big bottles and laughin'.”
“How many was there, Emmitt?” George Moon asked.
“They was five. One white man in dandy clothes. He come over and start puttin' his hand on Miz John here.” And he reached up and touched his chest. “She try to whup him with her fly switch but he take it away from her and keep on laughin' and tearin' her clothes.”
“What did the others look like?”
“I never seed any of 'em around here before. They was one nigger. He was drunk and yellin' and watchin' that white man pull at Miz John. They was another man sit back on his horse and jus' watch and not doin' nothin' but laughin'. He jus' sit on his horse. He was a dark-skin man, too, but I think he was Indian. They was two others I know was Indians. I never seed them before, either. One of 'em commenced to help the white man pull Miz John off the wagon into the road. The other one, he got up on the wagon seat and throwed me down on the groun'. He found Miz John's purse under the seat. He had one eye all white.”
BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
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