Prologue: The Bad Day
The younger Tsa-la-gi warriors, arrows nocked to the strings of their bows, drawn and at the ready, appeared at the edges of the small forest clearing first and waited, their eyes sweeping the clearing and the woods ahead of them. The men blinked against the cold of the flakes of the heavy snowfall that drifted into their eyes.
Satisfied that everything was safe at the moment, Manykiller, the oldest and most mature of the young men, turned and looked into the trees they had just come through and nodded, beckoning, his palm turned toward his head, his fist closed.
“It’s safe,” he whispered into the trees from which he had just stepped.
Manykiller had been here before, for this very purpose. The memory of the gore and horror of these grounds made him twitch under the fur-lined jacket and trousers made for him by Sunshine Woman, the pockets filled with dried meat and corn dodgers she had prepared even before the call for help had come, nearly a half-day ago now. He decided now to look at the slabs of meat and bone that had once been boys who had simply wanted to help replenish the food for their community.
Manykiller’s younger brother Firestarter was among the slaughtered bodies scattered over much of the clearing. Manykiller shivered again. He was angry, but he contained it. He wished they had brought muskets, powder and shot, but with them going so fast through so many trees, it had tired them adding more weight to what they carried. Besides, they were skilled enough with the bows.
Many more of the Tsa-la-gi, old and young, stepped into the clearing, their strides purposeful, their bows and arrows also drawn. All the men were prepared to kill if necessary.
Manykiller again raised his hand and closed his fist. The men already in the clearing paid no attention to the final group of men who stepped from the trees. The younger men had no other responsibility but to watch for danger from any quarter around them.
When Manykiller was satisfied that the area was secured, he made one final closed-fist signal. At first, nothing happened. Then, slowly from the trees stepped older men, well-decorated and tattooed, led by Strong Killer, the war chief. With him was Strong Hickory, the peace chief. Both had come, because no one was certain what had happened here—whether peace or war had come to the Tsa-la-gi community. All they knew was that something bad had happened here. Right behind the community chiefs were Reverends Stockwell, the minister of the Hope and Faith Baptist church over where the whites lived, and Carston, the Methodist circuit rider who had just arrived in the community when word came, summoning them to this awful place.
Strong Hickory beckoned one of the water carriers and motioned to the Methodist, Carston, who was obviously tired and weary. But the faithful minister would not be talked out of coming with the men. Pastor Stockwell had offered his arm and his staff to his friend and brother—no horses or pack animals could make it through the thick woods between the Tsa-la-gi community and this place.
Carston gratefully took the proffered water and drank deeply, two or three times, passing the cup then to Stockwell.
Through the refreshment, all of the men had remained silent as Strong Killer and Strong Hickory and some of the elders examined this place and conferred. Finally, Strong Killer looked at Strong Hickory, who returned the look with a nod.
Strong Hickory motioned toward the woods. More quiet. Then Deer Man began to sob and keen again as four of the younger Tsa-la-gi men carried his stretcher into the clearing. Deer Man, on the stretcher constructed of poles cut from young maples and cross laced with green vines, the last from the warmer days, began to shake harder and cry out more. They placed the stretcher on the ground.
Strong Hickory and the two Christian ministers went to him. They helped him sit up on the stretcher. Deer Man began to weep and tremble again.
“I know,” Strong Hickory said, placing his hand on the near-hysterical man’s shoulder. “I know it’s hard, but you have to help us, Deer Man.” Strong Hickory indicated this place.
“Is this it?” Strong Hickory asked.
Deer Man only looked around. He said nothing. He had said nothing since the night before when he had stumbled, bloody and slashed and bruised, into the outskirts of the Tsa-la-gi community, screaming and confused.
Strong Killer walked up behind them and placed a hand on Strong Hickory’s shoulder.
“Come with me,” he said, nodding. He looked at the ministers, his eyebrows raised in question. “Brothers, will you come, too?”
“Of course,” Pastor Stockwell answered, again offering his arm and staff to Carston.
The leaders and the ministers made their way through the near-blinding snow to Manykiller.
“Lead us,” Strong Killer asked. He was in charge of things until it was clear that no war thing had happened here.
As they got closer to the center of the clearing where they could see through the blinding white of the hard snow, men, strong men, fighters who had risked their lives many times to confront enemies and hunt large game animals, began to gasp and cry out.
They took in the clearing, eyes wide in disbelief and terror.
Manykiller, not taking his eyes much from the woods surrounding the clearing, glanced once at the gore and carnage. It was the same. He need not see more.
Now he stood motionless and stared at the tree. It was somehow bent and had begun to fork, one branch now larger than the other. As frightening as the blood and gore around them was the fact that, despite the hard snowfall, not one flake of white remained on the ground around the tree, but disappeared as soon as it hit. Nor did any snow stick to the ancient tree that stood in the middle of the clearing.
Then everyone saw Manykiller staring and turned their gaze toward the tree. And the ground without snow.
“Manykiller,” someone asked. “What happens to the snow?”
Manykiller thought a moment. He had nothing to say. Nor did he speak for several minutes while he contemplated the problem. His lack of response or a solution was as frightening to them all as the mystery before them.
Strong Killer, his eyes wounded and overwhelmed, held up his hand to stop the others. He pulled his knife from his scabbard. Placing a firm hand on Manykiller’s arm to stay him in his place, the leader stepped forward, his tears now spilling. Here were young men, barely recognizable most of them, he had watched and loved as they had grown. With a stern face and laughing heart, he had chased most of them from the bluff overlooking the place where the young women and older girls bathed naked and sang and played the bird-catching game; as he had often chased Manykiller away before he had taken Sunshine Woman as his wife. Now—
He let the knife fall to the ground and placed his hands to his face and began to weep.
He had been here twice before in his life. Under the same circumstances. And still nothing was clear. What had happened?
Manykiller stepped forward and placed his own arm on the shoulders of his uncle, who now shook and trembled in his grief as he wailed for the first time.
Back toward the edges of the clearing, Deer Killer renewed his own keening and crying. Most of the men were now openly weeping and wiping their eyes.
Manykiller took his arm from his uncle and wiped away his own tears.
Stockwell and Carston made their way silently to the side of Strong Killer and embraced him, each using one arm to do so.
The ministers said nothing, but they then began to pass among the party, speaking soft words of comfort and promise.
After the initial shock and pain had settled, only a little, Strong Killer and Strong Tree began to assess what had happened here. It took a couple of hours of discussion and murmuring as they consulted with others in the party. Only a couple of times did arguments break out, which the leaders and the ministers quelled with words and now threats, realizing the arguments were not from anger with one another, but anger at the circumstances.
Manykiller and the other young men stood watch, carefully and boldly, not looking at the carnage again. They trusted Strong Killer and Strong Tree to discern what had caused the carnage. But he wished they would hurry. It grew dark much sooner in the winter-moons, and the leaders had not ordered fires to be built.
Some of the men, over the period of the assessment, took out their own meat and corn dodgers, eating silently, sharing with those who had not brought as much.
At last, as the light began to fade, Strong Killer and Strong Tree assembled near the edge of the clearing, calling to the men to gather. Though it was not snowing now as hard, it was still difficult to see in the darkening of the day.
Strong Killer stepped forward. He swept the clearing with his hand.
“There is no war here,” he said. “We have seen nothing of the Iroquois or Croatons here. And there is no evidence of others coming to this place. There is no reason to make war.”
At that, he stopped speaking and stepped aside. Strong Hickory took his place.
“It is late. We will return home tonight and return tomorrow to care for our sons and younger brothers here. I know it is a long way”—Strong Hickory’s voice broke a little—“to go back home and return, but I think this is the best way to see to their comfort.” He took a shaky breath. “I am asking Manykiller and you young men to stay here and watch over our sons.” It was a question, not an order.
Manykiller looked around to his friends and family members. The young ones nodded. They were as determined as he was that their friends and family members would be returned to the community to be honored by all the people.
Strong Tree leaned over to confer with Strong Killer, who nodded.
“Also,” said Strong Tree, “I am asking all of you who are going back with us tonight to leave half your food and half your arrows with our young men.”
Everyone in the party agreed. It took a few minutes to distribute the provisions and weapons.
Strong Tree again commanded everyone’s attention. “Brothers,” he asked in the direction of the ministers. “Will you lead a prayer?”
The prayers were over and the party was preparing to leave. Strong Killer stopped at his nephew’s side. “I will tell Sunshine Woman.”
As the party departed, Strong Tree turned to the young men. “We will return as early tomorrow morning as we can.”
When the main party had been gone for a while, Manykiller looked into the faces of those he led. He could see his own feelings in their countenances. With no enemy to concentrate on, he could encourage them by rousing them to victory. But he had to do something to help them dissipate their anger. Yet, he knew he had to be careful to be respectful of those who had died here.
“Brothers…my friends,” he finally said. They all looked at him with curiosity and with hope. Many of them knew that Manykiller would know what to do. “Let’s gather over at the edge of the clearing.”
They all looked at the clearing, still mystified at the total lack of precipitation on the ground.
They moved, and as they walked, Manykiller began to sing a song—not a chant, a song of the people, their hopes and their dreams. Many of the men looked hard at him, tears in their eyes. Some obviously could not sing. But a few, here and there, began to pick up the song. Except for Running Fox. His cousins lay in the circle. He went to his knees and began to weep. Broken. Hopeless.
Without missing a word, Manykiller went to Running Fox and went down to his own knees and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. They sang for a long time.
Each time they began a new song, Manykiller would choose one that was less poignant, a little dirtier—young men’s songs. They sang of lusty things.
Then, Manykiller began to sing Strong Tree’s family song. And they joined in.
As they began, many of the young men and boys began to smile. A couple began to laugh. Running Fox lifted his eyes, quickly brushed his eyes and smiled.
They sang, anticipating the trick.
Strong Tree was a wise and powerful leader—men of other tribes, and even white men, some judges and lawyers—often sought him out for advice and counsel. Many years ago, when he first took a wife and they began to have children, he chose a song for his family that he could use to lead his family in a time of war, if necessary. If they were ever surrounded or in difficulty, Strong Tree’s intention was to start the song. It started slow, sounding like a death song, a sad song. But when they got to the middle, Strong Tree would blow a lip fart—bbbrrrrrtttt—and everyone would scatter. It would so confuse the enemy with so many children and his wife, all of them running in different directions.
So, in the time of counsel, when things got overheated and angry, Strong Tree would stand and begin to sing his family song. Because of the nasty—and he could really make it sound nasty—sound of the lip fart, no one could hold on to their anger or even a straight face. It had always worked. Even visiting ministers, trying to maintain their stern dignity, would have to turn away as they wiped their eyes against the strain of trying to keep from laughing.
Then Manykiller blew the lip fart. What the men around him hadn’t known is that Manykiller had been working in secret for a long time on the sound of the fart. It sounded exactly like Strong Tree’s fart.
All the men, Running Fox included, threw their heads back and laughed, two of them so hard they fell on their backs.
Manykiller, pleased with his own performance, went to his hands on his knees as he laughed. Finally, he stood up, eyeing the darkening sky.
“We’ll sing some more later,” he said between chuckles. “Now, we must gather wood and build fires to wait.” He didn’t mention why they would wait.
Running Fox, now more recovered, stood and raised up to his full height, still a head and shoulder below Manykiller.
“We won’t gather wood unless you promise to tell us the story of—he switched to his broken English—Running Bear.”
The men laughed together again.
Manykiller joined the laughter. It was the spot he had hoped they would maneuver him into.
Running Bear couldn’t be told in the Tsa-la-gi language. It depended on the puns of bare and bear.
Manykiller had worked for years on this story. It was the one the young men requested when their mothers and sisters would not be around. Manykiller himself was glad the reverends had not stayed with them. He smiled again. More than a story, it was a long, long joke that would take a long time to tell. It worked best when the men were full of squirrel stew, bean balls, fried squash bread, dried corn soup and munching on the cornmeal cookies that Sunshine Woman was famous for, all over Tsa-la-gi country, as they lay on the ground around a warm fire.
Running Bear was a story, full of puns and references to beauteous women’s anatomy, and all the young men who had watched the young women bathe from the bluff upstream from the community would understand it.
Manykiller held out his hands. “All right,” he said, laughing. “I will tell Running Bear—but only after we have fires and have eaten a little more.”
Several of the young men whooped as they jumped to the task of finding wood.
The next morning, early, the men of the community arose and gathered blankets and other things they would need to carry home the earthly remains of their sons and younger brothers. The ministers also arrived early with their own provisions, their faces haggard from the fatigue of the fast march the day before. Strong Tree had decided they would have to borrow horses today, and take the men of the community and their supplies as close to the clearing as they could. There were many to bring home.
Without warning, there were screams from near the east side of the community square. Women and the children scattered in front of someone running into the camp. The instincts of the Tsa-la-gi were not to raise weapons, but to see what was the matter. After all, there was no war, no reason to suspect enemy danger.
As Strong Tree and Strong Killer made their way through retreating women carrying children and scrambling youngsters, they ran into Brave Running Man, one of the young men who had stayed at the forest clearing to guard the boys and young men. He said nothing, but most of one side of his face was missing. He was nearly naked, his clothes torn away.
No one moved to help him. It was obvious it was too late for that, though the Christian ministers dropped to their knees to see if they could help him. Most of the women began to cry out.
And he carried part of someone’s arm—most thought it was Manykiller’s, though most of the tattoo was missing.
He collapsed, trying to speak. They never learned what he was trying to say, except for one thing “The dogs!” he said, his voice raspy, a whisper. “Dogs.”