Yet fortune never smiles. Only wretched pain.
Warriors, forced into trousers and called by alien names.
Drums remind of yesteryear.
Flutes lament what was.
Stanza from the poem “Echoes of the Flute” by Mark Wildyr
Dakota Territory, June 1878
A mob surged across the wooden bridge like a primordial organism in search of food. Torchlight punched flickering holes in the black night as farmers and merchants and housewives and mothers churned restlessly in front of a cabin on the north bank of the crick. Moments later, a white-stockinged blue roan pulled a buckboard into their midst.
A hook-nosed man clad in black bellowed from the driver’s bench, “Come out, sinners. Atone to these good people and the Lord God Almighty!” Despite a thin frame, his voice was deep and sonorous.
The cabin door opened, flooding the porch with lantern glow. A tall man walked out to face the group. “What’s going on here? Why’re you tromping around in my yard this time of night?”
“You are abominations in the sight of God! The judgment of Leviticus 20:13 shall be upon you this night.”
“I have sinned against no one. Your words are farts in the wind.”
“Did you hear? Profanity! Yes, you have sinned, brother. ‘Mankind shall not lie with mankind as he lieth with womankind,’” the Preacher intoned. “Confess and beg forgiveness.”
“Stop acting the fool and get out of here. Go home and leave me in peace.” He started back into the cabin.
“He’s goin’ for a gun!” someone yelled.
As the man turned to protest, a bullet caught him in the chest. He stumbled against the doorjamb. A second slug broke his shoulder and propelled him through the cabin’s threshold. He managed to close the door and drop the bar to barricade it before collapsing onto the floor.
When torches hurled on the roof kindled a hungry fire, the black-frocked preacher flicked his reins and turned the rig around, scattering members of his flock.
A pinto charged out of the tree line into the pack, the rider yelling and firing his rifle into the air. After a shocked silence, the mob rushed the newcomer. Hands snatched him from the saddle before he could bring his weapon to bear.
By the time the maddened horde hoisted a rope over a cottonwood branch and left the horseman kicking and gasping his life away, the buckboard raced for Yanube City.
Yanube City, Dakota Territory, one year earlier
The anvil clanged like the Sunday bell down at Main Street Methodist Church, spitting red-orange sparks with each blow of Timo Bowers’s hammer. Made me think of a chorus of angels with fiery wings. When the blacksmith thrust tongs gripping a glowing ingot of iron into the fire pit, I applied bellows until the metal glowed. Then he placed it on the anvil and began conducting his choir all over again.
The smith’s name was Timothy, but he’d held onto Timo ever since my Uncle Cut Hand slapped it on him when his family wintered at Teacher’s Mead after the Sioux killed the rest of their small wagon train. Ten-year-old Timo and his little sister were terrified of Cut Hand, a pure-blood Yanube Indian, so he spent the long snowbound months easing the children’s fears and becoming their best friend.
All this Timo had told me many times, usually starting with, “John, it’s like he was standing here in front of me after all these years.”
Better’n forty of them. The smith had to be a mite past fifty now. In the three weeks I’d been apprenticing at the forge with Timo, I’d heard the story until it was boresome. He always ended up by saying how much I looked like Cut. Not my grandpa, but Cut Hand.
“Well, he was my grandmother’s brother,” I’d say.
“Finest-looking man I ever seen,” Timo would come back at me.
I already knew a good deal about smithing. Crow Johnson, the Absaroka Pa’d hired to handle our forge at Teacher’s Mead fifty miles to the east, had taught me a lot before he left for Crow Indian country after his father fell ill. So here I was, trying to learn all I could from the best blacksmith and farrier in the territory.
“That’s enough for today, John,” he said. “Let’s go in and clean up. I got a pepper stew on the stove to pad our bread baskets. Something special for your last night here. You glad to be going home tomorrow?”
“Yes, sir. I miss it. But I sure learned a lot from you.”
He waved away my claim as he closed the doors to the shop and turned toward his home a hippity-hop off to the east. “Wasn’t much for me to do. That Crow Indian taught you pretty good.”
“He gave me the basics, but you let me know the why, not just the what. Otter says knowing why the what’s the what is important.”
“Otter’s about the smartest Indian I ever knowed.” Timo unlatched the door to the house. This morning, he’d banked coals in the kitchen stove to take the chill off the pots of water left on top. It was high summer, so the water didn’t need much warming.
Stripping in front of other men didn’t bother me any. My pa and my brother Alex and Matthew Brandt—who might as well be my brother—and me were always showing some flesh between skinny dipping in the river or spending time in the sweat lodge, a holdover from Pa’s heritage. He was born half Yanube—a cousin of the Sioux.
Timo didn’t have brothers and was shy about shucking his clothes in front of others. So we cleaned up at different times to preserve his modesty. After visiting the necessary, I walked into the back room he used for bathing and found two tubs of water.
“Hope it don’t bother you none, but since it’s your last night here, I thought we’d sit and jaw a spell.”
“Fine by me.” I slipped braces off my shoulders and was buff in half a minute. I stuck a toe in the water and backed off, turning away when I saw where he was looking. “Tad warm,” I mumbled.
He gulped out loud. “You look just like him.”
I shook my head. “Can’t. He was full-blood, I’m quarter.”
“He was like that, too. Never minded me looking at him nekked.”
I hadn’t minded, but I was beginning to. “That’s the thing about Indians. They figure the body just needs enough cover to keep warm.”
Beginning to go all goose-pimply, I stuck a foot in the tub and tried not to howl. Despite fixing to roast my acorns, I sat down.
“For somebody so young, you’re…you’re built like a grown man.”
“Hard work, I guess.”
He finished undressing and walked to the other tub. He’d had a good look at me, so I took one at him. Smithing had kept him fit as a fiddle. He had more hair than I did. I took after my pa’s side of the family more than my ma’s. Pa didn’t have body hair anywhere except right around his privates.
As he settled into his tub, I grabbed a bar of soap and started scrubbing. It didn’t bother me getting sweaty and grubby, but it sure was a pleasure washing it away. At the Mead, Grandpa had used gravity to bring spring water from the hill behind us right into the stone house. It felt fresher standing beneath a stream of water than sitting in your own washed-off sweat and dirt. I always used a jug of fresh water to sluice over me after tub-bathing.
That done, I wrapped myself in a big towel and sat on a stool while he kept on soaking. Didn’t seem friendly to walk away when he’d hoped to do some talking, so I sat and listened to him reminisce about the old days. Inevitably, he ended up comparing me to my great uncle.
“You got his build. He was graceful like you are. Them eyes. Never seen none like them again…until you came around. Black as pure carbon with little flecks of gold.”
“My pa’s got eyes like that, too.” Good to have something to contribute.
“You’re the spitting image of him. Except….”
“Except my hair.”
“That’s it. First time I seen your head, I thought somebody’d took a paintbrush to it.”
Worn short in the white man’s way, my mop was a glossy Indian black with little strands of my ma’s yellow hair sprinkled throughout it. Alexander claimed my gold-speckled head made the antelope curious, and Matthew complained it chased the deer away. I’d taken some teasing about it, so hair was a halfway touchy subject. Timo said it was pretty. Not strange, like everybody else called it, but pretty.
Figuring we’d been sociable enough, I excused myself and threw on some fresh duds before going out to the stable to check on Arrow Wind. My pony was the second horse in the family labeled that way. Cut Hand had ridden the original and died astride his back.
After working our way through the pot of pepper stew and playing our usual game of draughts—he called it checkers—we said good night. I went to my room and shucked down to the short linen breechcloth that was my underwear. I couldn’t abide long johns.
Timo didn’t spend much on candle wax or coal-oil, so I couldn’t read like I did before taking to bed. When Cut Hand first brought Billy Strobaw to Yanube country back in ’32, he’d taught Cut and Otter and Dog Fox—that was Pa’s Indian name—to read and write in English. Otter kept it up with us kids after Grandpa died.
I blew out the candle and crawled onto the feather tick mattress. The bedding was meant for winter sleeping—and this was June—so it was hot even when the night turned cool. Other than collecting heat, it was comfortable, though. When I sank down into the feathers, they snuggled me close and safe.
I came awake when Timo entered the darkened room. The puffy mattress lifted me as his weight dropped onto the other side. Lying nearly naked on the flat of my back, I froze when a calloused hand touched my arm. I probably should have got huffy, but I didn’t. I remained quiet as his broad palm swept my chest, puckering my nipples and testing my flesh.
The horny hand had a curiously gentle feel. When his fingers came to rest on my manhood, heat flooded my viscera like syrupy lava. When he massaged my staff through the thin undershift, there wasn’t anything I could do to keep from getting hard. In all my eighteen summers, no one had ever touched me like that.
He pulled down my loincloth, and grasped my cock. His tongue swirled around my slit. Then a warm, welcoming mouth slid halfway down my throbbing member. My legs scissored when Timo took more of me into his wet maw. A goosey, creepy, sensual feeling rode the chill bumps sweeping down my back.
My toes curled as his head rose and fell in an increasingly hypnotic rhythm. I panted into the darkness in soft puffs as my time neared. I was unable to move beyond the involuntary things. I got hotter, harder. The magma boiling inside me thickened and pulsed, seeking release. Then Timo went down on me all the way.
My body arched. I threw my hips into him as orgasm struck. The lava broke loose and spewed liquid heat into his invisible orifice. My muscles spasmed, convulsing until I danced on the mattress like bacon over fire. My seed spewed out of me so hard I grew swimmy-headed. Just when I thought it was over, his tongue swirled around my glans, and it was like coming all over again. I gushed more semen.
Finally, the night was still and quiet, except for my labored breathing. I licked dry lips and smelled sated lust and a hint of tobacco and alcohol. I grew aware of the rough texture of bed linens against my damp skin and the weight of the man on my groin. Time stretched out. Tarnation, had Timo gone to sleep with my shrunken che in his mouth? As I wrestled with that thought, he rose and left the room without uttering a word, leaving me to study on what had happened.
I knew one thing for sure. It wasn’t me he’d done that for…it had been for Cut Hand. His wanting of my dead uncle was so powerful, I could almost feel his presence. And I’d never believed in wah-nah-gee…ghosts.
# # # # #
The next morning, Timo said nothing about last night, so I didn’t either. I kept looking at him, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. His goodbyes were pleasant enough, but our handshake was brief.
Bamboozled, I turned north upon leaving Yanube City instead of heading home. Arrow hadn’t been ridden much during my stay at the Bowers place, so he was frisky and ready for a workout. It didn’t take us long to cover the seven miles out to Morrow Farm.
Joseph Strobaw Otter—who was known as River Otter to fellow tribesmen and Otter to my family—walked out of the cabin as I crossed the bridge over Turtle Crick and rode into the yard.
He gave the open-handed greeting. “Hah-ue, dah-koh-zjah.”
Otter had called all Cuthan Strobaw’s kids “grandchild” for as long as I could remember. Cuthan was Pa’s American name. I greeted Otter with an Indian handshake, grasping forearms instead of palms.
He looked me over. “You are becoming a man, War Eagle.” He used my natural name when nobody was around. “What brings you all the way out here? Is anything wrong?”
I regarded the handsome man who’d been my grandfather’s constant companion for the last two decades of his life. He had to be on the high side of fifty, but his back was straight, his hair black and lustrous, and his teeth good. He would probably die working Major Morrow’s fields. The retired army officer had some sort of connection with Teacher’s Mead I didn’t fully understand.
After that situation with Timo Bowers last night, I’d thought of Otter. He’d always been a strong, constant guardian, and I’d trust him with my life. It had always been that way.
“No, there is nothing wrong. At least, that I know about. I’ve been the last three weeks in Yanube City learning about blacksmithing.”
“Good. A man can’t know too much.”
I laughed. “They called Grandpa Billy the Teacher, but that should have been your name. You’re the one who taught all of us.”
“I only passed on what he’d given me. There weren’t any schools in the territory back then. Still, we were the fortunate ones. In other places, the white men sent our children to faraway schools where they were forbidden to speak their own tongue. It was a miserable time for youngsters who had always known the love of family.”
I’d been ignorant of my narrow escape.
He walked with me while I watered Arrow before ground tethering him on the shady side of the house. Then we went to the covered porch where we shared drinks from a keg of passably cool water.
We passed the time catching up on events, but even after enough polite talk had gone by, I was still at a loss how to bring up the question I’d come to pose. Things of the flesh were best kept personal, but what had happened last night preyed on my mind. He saw through me and asked straight out what the problem was.
“Don’t know if it is a problem.” With hot, stinging cheeks, I charged straight into the thing and told him what went on in that dark room.
Otter heard me out without speaking. After I finished, he got up and went inside the house, returning with an old tome roughly bound in buffalo hide.
“It is time you read this.”
He’d switched to Lakota, so this was something of importance. I opened the cover. There was no title, but I recognized my grandpa’s hand. I turned to the back and read the final words.
“William Joseph Strobaw, also known as Teacher and the
Red Win-tay to the People of the Yanube,
This final day of October
Year of our lord 1861, at Teacher’s Mead on the Upper Yanube”
“The story of his life written in his own hand. He was honest, so you will learn surprising secrets. It might open your eyes in this matter that bothers you. Billy was a white man, but he came to view his world with the eyes of a red man. You have both white eyes and red eyes. It is time for you to decide which to use.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You can view what happened with shame or not. Read the pages, Eagle. Then come back and talk so we can see how it will be for you.”
Major Morrow returned that afternoon from visiting the Tiller farm. Andre Tiller was a widowed man with a seven-year-old girl who lived a mile up Turtle Crick to the west. James—that’s Major Morrow—had virtually adopted Libby as his granddaughter.
The Major had been Otter’s win-tay wife, for years now. Ma’s Christian Danish soul considered men lying with men shameful, not to mention sinful. Strange because she’d lived in the Strobaw house after she married Pa and had grown to love Billy and Otter. Pa and us kids just accepted their relationship for what it was.
James, a retired cavalry officer, was some older than Otter, and age had begun to show in him. His once-blond hair was taking on some snow. The ramrod spine remained, but his steps were not as steady as they once had been. Nonetheless, his mind was quick.
Overnighting at Turtle Crick seemed prudent since it was over fifty miles to Teacher’s Mead. I cracked Grandpa Billy’s journal that evening but starved the lantern when they went to bed. Settling into my blankets beside the stove, I thought about what I’d read.
Grandpa Billy had been a young man when he met Cut Hand on his way to Fort Wheeler. Billy had been drawn to him from first sight. The two men across the room who shared that same kind of love didn’t seem monstrous or evil like folks painted people with those appetites.
# # # # #
Otter stuffed me with pork and eggs and potatoes the next morning before I started for home. He didn’t mention the Timo Bowers thing again, but told me to read the journal and find my own nature.
I crosscut straight for the Mead as the road was a longer way. Nonetheless, I was in no hurry. A rill and a small stand of trees beckoned at mid-day, providing an excuse to give Arrow a rest. After removing his saddle to use as a back rest, I flopped down to munch jerky and open Grandpa Billy’s journal.
His clear, reasoned thinking about the morality of the life he’d led stirred me. Raised in a strict Christian home, he was shaken by his physical longing for Cut Hand. In time, he came see it as acceptable because of the deep love they held for one another. But Grandpa decried casual liaisons without commitment as sinful. My skin prickled. I held no love for Timo Bowers.
Cut Hand had no problem with their union. He was raised with the concept of the Circle of Life, allowing individuals to live according to their nature without strictures about their choices.
Then I came to the part of the journal that almost shook me loose from my senses. Dog Fox—that’s my Pa, Cuthan—wasn’t Grandpa Billy’s son. He was Cut Hand’s. So Grandpa Billy wasn’t my grandpa. Pa wasn’t a half-breed…I was. And Alexander and our sisters, Rachel Ann and Hannah, too.
I laid the book on my belly and stared up through the tree limbs at the blue sky above. They’d undertaken that monumental deception because Billy had willed the Mead to Cuthan, whose American name was an artifice to keep his father’s name alive. No blood Indian would have been allowed to inherit the good rich earth of his own homeland. As it was, upholding Billy’s will had been a narrow thing. Some who coveted the farm suggested trading it for a plot up on the Mississippi River where ground had been set aside for half-breed landowners.
Arrow’s snicker roused me from an unintended nap. I scrambled to my feet and saw a squad of cavalry approach. I made no move toward my rifle, even though the army tended to look on all Indians as traitors because some of the tribes had fought for the Confederacy. They ignored the fact others raised the hatchet for the Union.
The sandy-haired young officer leading them showed no overt hostility as he gave a casual salute. “Do you require assistance?”
“No, just doing some woolgathering. I’m on my way home to Teacher’s Mead.”
“You’ll be one of the Strobaw boys, then. Met you father once in town. You favor him. I’m Second Lieutenant Gideon Haleworthy.”
When his blue eyes wandered to my black mop with gold speckles, I clamped my hat on my head. “Pleased to meet you, sir. You new to the command?”
“Been in-country four months now. Hail from Boston originally.”
“Hope you like our part of Turtle Island. Been to the Mead, yet?”
“No, sir, but I’d like to visit.”
“Consider yourself invited. Ma always has an extra place set at the table.”
With a fingers to the brim salute, Lt. Haleworthy led his detachment north toward Trickling Water Crick. I watched them go before throwing my saddle on Arrow and turning his nose toward home.
It was coming dark when I raised the three hills protecting the north side of the Mead. The moon was up by the time I dismounted in front of the big stone house I’d called home all my life. The forge sat across the road next to the stable and corral. Until last summer, the Mead had been the last stagecoach rest before the long run to Yanube City. There was now a rude swing station between us and town, but this remained the last opportunity for passengers to have a good meal. Ma and her helper, Jane Appleton, had become famous from Ft. Ramson to Yanube City for their meals. Jane’s husband, Curtis, worked the farm as a hired hand alongside Pa and Alex.
Aside from smithing, I also took care of the stagecoach teams—Matthew’s job until he lit out last year. My sisters helped with cooking and taking care of stagecoach passengers on the outbound stage to Ft. Ramson on Tuesdays and the inbound to Yanube City on Thursdays.
I was brushing Arrow down in the stable when Pa came in. “Getting worried about you. Expected you yesterday. This morning at the latest.” A smidgen of rebuke hid in his voice.
“I stopped by to see Otter.” I filled him in without owning up to what took me there in the first place. When we went to the house, Ma had a tin of food on the stove warming for me
The family crowded around while I ate, so I repeated what I’d told Pa. Rachel Ann and Hannah took seats at the table to catch every word. Alex plopped into a chair at the opposite end with a serious look—like he always wore. Matthew used to say my brother was Pa’s age, not ours. Ma puttered around in the kitchen with an ear fixed on us. She was pleased to have me home.
I understood. When one of the family was missing, it left a hole in your life. Matthew’s absence did that for me. He wasn’t Strobaw blood, but he might as well have been. He’d been a scared six-year-old orphan when Otter brought him to the Mead after the militia killed his mother and brother. Half Yanube and half Teton Sioux, Matthew was only a year older than me. So he was more my brother than my real brother.
Over the years, Matthew—whose other name was Little Bear—would get a bellyful of Ma not letting him to be “Indian” enough, so he’d take off to see Otter, who let him run around in a breechcloth and be Bear. Ma was just trying to see we survived in a white man’s world, but that didn’t keep Matthew from feeling his blood from time to time.
Spring a year ago, his pecker got him in trouble. He’d taken to hopping on Wind Rider, his roan gelding, and taking off to see the Killpennys about four miles upriver. He and Esau Killpenny, just a year older than Matthew, got along, but it was Esau’s sister Minnie who got his attention. She was only sixteen, but the first time I saw her, I thought she looked like Mother Earth. She was full and ripe and luscious and didn’t even know it.
Mr. Killpenny caught them sparking out in the woods. To hear Matthew tell it, he didn’t actually have it in, but it was out and hunting for a warm place to call home. Anyway, it caused a hell of a stink, so Ma didn’t put up a fuss when Matthew wanted to go stay with Otter for a while. About this time last year, Otter sent word Matthew had gone wandering. A month or so later, an Indian traveling from the Laramie country stopped at Otter’s and delivered a message saying Matthew was going to try it on his own hook for a while.
Everybody was relieved but me. Well, I was relieved, but that man left a gaping hole in my chest. We’d played and hunted and studied lessons and worked beside one another for thirteen years, and I never thought about the time we’d go our separate ways. Everybody tells me I’m smart, but I can be a blockhead sometimes.