The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 9
Seth urged the gelding forward at a walk and Florence followed. Five minutes brought them face to face with the four men.
The men wore clothing not much different from that worn by Seth and Florence, and except for their darker skin and heads that were shaved except for a single scalp lock, they looked like any other man Florence had ever seen. All carried a rifle cradled in their arms.
Seth held up his hands, and after seeing him do this, Florence held hers up as well.
Though they were scowling, Seth smiled at the four men.
Three of the Indians looked to one on a black and white pied horse. He nodded, and rode forward. His voice was low and deep, and resonated in Florence’s chest.
“I am called Cheasequah. It means red bird in your words, and you can call me that. I will speak for us because I understand your words better than the others. Why do you ride on Cherokee land?”
“My name is Seth and this boy here is Clint. I…we’re former soldiers just trying to get to Texas, and it was easier to go this way than to cross the mountains.”
Red Bird frowned.
“Soldiers? Which side did you fight for?”
“We were Confederates.”
“I see you do not wear a uniform and you ride a horse with the brand of the Union. Why should I believe you?”
“I don’t wear a uniform because mine fell apart. The horse is a longer story, but I wasn’t union. I can show you my enlistment papers. They’re in my saddle bag.”
Red Bird smiled.
“You are very at ease when you speak and you did not try to used those revolvers I see you wear. A man who lies would not be so calm, and a man out to fight would have done that before getting this close. I may look at your papers later, but I believe you now. I fought for the Confederates as well, with General Waite. Do you know of him?”
“No, I can’t say as I do, but I was in Tennessee most of the time. I did meet a few Cherokee soldiers there. They were good fighters.”
Red Bird’s chest swelled.
“General Waite was Cherokee, and was the last Confederate general to surrender. Cherokee’s have always been good fighters. We are a peace loving people, though. That is why we are here instead of in Tennessee. The government said it would be better for us here.”
Red Bird frowned.
“We should have fought then and kept our old lands. Instead, my father and mother walked all the way here with all the others, and many died during the journey. That is why I fought for the Confederacy. The Confederacy promised to be better toward us.”
Seth shook his head.
“It wouldn’t have done you any good to fight back then, Red Bird, just like it didn’t do us any good over the last three years. You are better off here. Back in Tennessee, the war is over for the soldiers, but it’s not for everybody else. The Union is taking over everything. At least here, you’re free to do what you want.”
“Yes, for a while we are free. We have word the government will make us sign a new treaty, though. I think we will not be as well off after that. Why did you fight? To keep your slaves?”
“Our farm was only big enough to feed us so we didn’t have any slaves to keep. The only slaves my family had were us. I joined up because people said the Union was going to attack Virginia. They didn’t send me to defend Virginia, though. They sent me to Tennessee – the Sixty Third Infantry.”
“Why are you here instead of on your farm?”
“My mother and father both died while I was away. I couldn’t …there was nobody left for me there. I decided to ride west to see if it was better out here.”
“And the boy?”
“Clint’s story is about the same.”
Red Bird studied him for a moment, then said something to the other three men. They nodded, and Red Bird turned back to Seth.
“Have you seen a young girl? She is the daughter of the man on the bay horse. His name is Kanuna. Leotie went to gather wood this morning, and did not return. We are looking for her. When we find her, you can come back to our village. It’s just over that ridge. We can speak of the war some more then.”
Seth shook his head.
“No, we’ve not seen anybody for a week. We’ll help you look though, if you want.”
They were riding through a valley interspersed with groves of trees, and had spread out in order to not miss the girl if she was unable to signal them in some way. They were half way through the valley when the quiet morning air was split by a gunshot that seemed to come from the trees to Seth’s right. Seth dug his heels into the gelding’s sides and was racing toward the sound before any of the other’s could react. As they rode after Seth, they saw him ride around the small stand of trees. There were three more gunshots, and then the sound of fighting.
Two men in filthy clothing lay dead on the ground by the campfire. Seth was on top of a third, and was smashing his revolver butt into the man’s face. The man wasn’t yet dead, but he was beyond resisting. Blood from the hole in his thigh had formed a large pool on the ground, and what had been long spurts that painted red streaks on the grass were now only slow dribbles.
Seth didn’t seem to realize the Indians and Florence were there. He kept slamming the revolver butt into the bloody pulp that had been a nose, eyes, and mouth. His efforts were almost mechanical, the timing very regular, and he murmured something Florence could not understand.
Florence leapt from the black mare and ran to Seth. She didn’t notice that her hat had fallen to the ground. She grabbed one of his arms, and then shrank back when he scowled at her. He murmured something she couldn’t really hear, and then turned back and resumed beating the man.
Florence touched his back gently, and her voice was very soft.
“Seth…you can stop now. We’re here, and he’s about dead I think.”
Seth paused, then turned to look at Florence again. His face was the same mask of rage Florence had seen only moments before.
“No. He has to get what the other one got.”
Florence stroked Seth’s cheek.
“Seth, he can’t feel what you’re doing anymore. Please stop.”
“But he deserves if after what he did. Any man who does this deserves it.”
“I know, but the other two look dead and so does this one. You’ve done what needed to be done.”
Seth’s face softened a little, and Florence stroked his hair.
“Come sit down over here and I’ll –“
The cry from one of the Indians cut her short. Florence rose to go see what had happened, but Seth stopped her.
“You don’t want to see that.”
Florence gently pulled his hand from her arm.
“Seth, if whatever is there caused you to do this, I have to see it. You can come with me if you want, or you can stay here, but I have to know what made you act this way.”
Seth rose, took Florence by the hand, and led her to the trees where Red Bird and the other Indians had gone.
The young Indian girl looked to Florence to be about her age. She was tied on the ground between four small trees, and her dress had been torn away. It was obvious that she’d tried to fight the men. Her face was swollen and bruised, as were her arms. Her fingernails were broken and bloody, though Florence couldn’t tell if it was the girl’s blood or was from the scratches she’d seen on the two dead men’s faces. There could be no doubt the blood on the girl’s breasts was hers. It had flowed from the bullet hole between them.
It was also obvious that the men had raped the girl, and Florence felt a chill run up her spine when she remembered her first time at Samuel’s house. That time had been terrifying, but at least she hadn’t been beaten and tied so she couldn’t resist. She couldn’t bring herself to think of what this girl had endured before her lifeblood poured out onto the grass.
Three of the four Indians were staring at her. The one called Kanuna was kneeling beside the girl and though he was silent, his shoulders were shaking. Florence walked beside him, put her hand on his shoulder, then turned to Red Bird.
“Can you tell him I’m very sorry for him, and that I will help him take care of his daughter if he needs me to.”
Red Bird nodded, and then spoke to Kanuna. The man listened, and when his face contorted again, Florence patted his shoulder.
Kanuna looked at Florence, and then put his hand over hers and said something. Red Bird translated.
“Kanuna says he appreciates your sorrow, and says he will take his daughter back to our village. He asks that you and Seth come with us.”
Red Bird then turned to Seth.
“Once we reach our village, you can explain why you lied to me about your woman. I would also have her true name.”
Florence’s did not give Seth time to answer.
“My name is Florence McCabe. Seth lied to you to protect me. We didn’t know who you were, and the Union is looking for me because I killed a man in Tennessee. We should help Kanuna get his daughter home. When we have done that, Seth and I will answer any questions you have.”
While Kanuna watched, Red Bird and the two other Indians cut the ropes that bound the girl to the trees and then wrapped her in a blanket from one of the bedrolls by the fire. After Kanuna mounted his horse, the three carefully handed his daughter’s body up to him. Kanuna cradled her in his arms, and nodded that he was ready. The Indians, Seth, and Florence mounted their own horses, and the group set off slowly in the direction of the Indian village. Along the way, they caught the horses of the three dead men and brought them as well.
The village was located in a verdant valley an hour’s ride from the valley where they had found the girl. At the center was a large building with seven sides formed of small saplings woven through upright posts and plastered with mud baked hard by the sun. The roof was peaked, and shingled with slabs of tree bark. A thin column of smoke issued from the center of the roof.
Around this large building were many smaller structures that were not unlike the cabins Seth and Florence had left behind, though they were somewhat larger. Older men and women sat outside these cabins with the children of the village. Just behind the village was a field, and women in colorful dresses were working there.
As the group approached the large building, people from the village began to gather. Red Bird said something to one of the older women, and she hurried off toward the field. A minute later, a cry of anguish came from the field.
The group rode up to a smaller cabin. Three dismounted, and then gently took the body of Kanuna’s daughter from him. When Kanuna slipped to the ground, they carefully handed him the girl’s body, and Kanuna carried her to the cabin.
An older man and a younger one came out at Red Bird’s soft call. Kanuna spoke to the older man in broken sounds. The older man nodded, and motioned for him to bring the girl inside the cabin. A few moments later Kanuna came out and walked slowly toward the other cabins. Two of the men walked with him. Red Bird walked to where Seth and Florence stood.
“The old man is what you would call the priest of our village. He will prepare Kanuna’s daughter so she can be buried tomorrow. Until then, we must leave Kanuna and his wife to their mourning. Come to my house. We have much to talk about.”
They sat on deerskins on the floor of Red Bird’s cabin. His wife, a plump woman with long, black braids and a colorful dress, welcomed them after Red Bird had explained what had happened. She then left the cabin. Red Bird explained.
“She goes to be with the other women of the village, but will return to fix an evening meal. Now, tell me why you travel with this woman with hair the color of the leaves in fall, and why you lied to me about her.”
Seth related how he met Florence and why she was with him. Red Bird seemed impressed when Seth told him about the men Florence had killed and why.
“Your Florence is a brave woman. In our ways, only men carry weapons, but we are no longer in our old lands. Maybe those ways should change. If Kanuna’s daughter had even a knife, she might not be lying in the priest’s house today.”
Seth cleared his throat.
“Florence isn’t really my woman. We’re just traveling together.”
Red Bird smiled.
“I saw her speaking to you when you were beating that man. Her words were not the words of someone who only travels with you. They were the words of a wife trying to calm her husband. I think maybe she is more your woman than you will admit. That is a good thing. A man should have a wife to cook and take care of the house and fields.”
“Well, I don’t have a house. I don’t even know where I’m going yet, except to Texas. Florence doesn’t either. I think we’ll just keep traveling together.”
Red Bird lifted his hands.
“If that is what you want. You should be careful on your way to Texas, though. The men who did this terrible act do not usually come this far north, but they are common on Choctaw land and in Texas. It will make no difference if you were Union or Confederate to them. They rob and kill people from both sides.”
A voice came from outside the cabin door, and Red Bird answered, then turned to Seth.
“It is Kanuna. He should not be here, but he wishes to speak with you both.”
Kanuna entered the cabin, and sat down in front of Seth. As he spoke, Red Bird translated.
“Kanuna says he would like to thank the man who avenged his daughter’s honor. He says it is not often he meets a white man who would do this for a Cherokee girl, and that he has great respect for you.”
Kanuna then turned to Florence and spoke to her. Again, Red Bird translated.
“He says the woman who dresses as a man is a very caring and giving woman. He says his sadness at finding his daughter as he did made him unable to thank you then, but your words of sorrow and offer to help him were spoken from the heart and he appreciates that you would speak this way to a man you did not know.”
Kanuna then turned to Red Bird and said more. After he left, Red Bird explained.
“Kanuna’s daughter will be buried tomorrow and he would like you both to be at his side. He asked if my wife would lend you a dress so you will look the pretty woman you are.
“I hope you will stay. Most whites would not understand our customs, but for Kanuna to come here on this day was against our ways, and a great honor for you. It would mean dishonor to him if you were to leave. You can stay here in my house until you have to go, and you can leave your horses with ours. They will be watched. My wife will cook for us.
“Now, I have to leave to tell the rest of the village about what has happened and why you are here.”
With that, Red Bird rose and left, leaving Florence and Seth alone.
Florence had felt her face grow warm at Kanuna’s thought that she was pretty. Her father had always told her she was pretty, but no other men had ever said that. The men who came to Samuel’s house had called her many other things, but never pretty. Her thoughts were interrupted by Seth.
“I guess we’ll be staying here for a couple days. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No. They seem like nice people.”
Florence paused for a moment to figure out how she was going to say what she wanted to say.
“Seth, back there, with the Indian girl…that’s what you meant before when you talked about the other one, isn’t it?”
“Can you tell me about that?”
Seth took a deep breath.
“It was at Franklin. I was with four other men on a patrol to find the Union line. We were coming up to a farm when a Union soldier spotted us and started shooting. Pretty soon, there were rifle shots coming from around the farm house. The rest of the patrol was hit. I was close to the barn, and ran inside for cover.
There was another soldier in there, a Confederate like me, and a woman. I think she must have lived at the house, and hid in the barn when the Union soldiers came. I figure he was a deserter. He didn’t have a rifle, and he was pretty filthy, like he hadn’t been in his camp for quite a while. I figure he was already in the barn when the woman got there, and decided to…”
Seth put his face in his hands.
“It was horrible, what he did. He had her tied up so her legs were spread open. Her dress was ripped down the front and he was on top of her with his hand over her mouth and nose so she couldn’t scream.
“I pulled him away from her, and he just grinned and said if I’d just wait a minute, I could have her next. I thought about how I’d feel if somebody did that to Elizabeth, and got so mad I hit him in the face with my rifle butt and knocked him out. I went to untie the woman and found out she was dead. He’d suffocated her trying to keep her quiet, I guess. After I got her untied, I pulled her dress back over her to cover her as much as I could, and then went back to the man. I was using the same rope to tie his hands together when he woke up.
“I told him the woman was dead and I was going to take him to the Captain and tell what he’d done. He just grinned and said since she was dead and couldn’t say anything against him, he’d just say he’d found her like that when he went into the barn. It would just be my word against his and he’d get off without being punished.
“I don’t remember thinking about doing it, but I hit him in the face with the butt of my rifle again, and then kept hitting him with it until he didn’t have a face anymore. He was dead by then. The shooting had stopped, so I made my way back to camp.
Seth hung his head.
“I never told anyone what I’d done. It was evil, what he did, but it was evil what I did too. Now, I’ve gone and done it again. I don’t know why I couldn’t stop. I just couldn’t until you stopped me.”
Florence touched his cheek and then turned his face to hers again.
“Seth, what you did was try to help two women who really needed your help. That man was evil, but you aren’t. You’re a good man. If you were evil, you wouldn’t have helped me get away, and you wouldn’t have shot that bounty hunter and that bushwacker, and you wouldn’t have tried to save this girl. That’s what Kanuna was telling you while ago.”
“But once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
“I can understand that Seth. That’s what I did to Samuel. I stabbed him until he died, and then I just kept stabbing him until I got too tired to stab him any more. I was too mad to think straight. All I could think about was what he did to me. I figure that’s what happened to you. That’s not evil. That’s just being so mad you can’t think right.”
“I don’t want that to happen again.”
Florence stroked his shoulder.
“It won’t happen again as long as I’m with you. I won’t let it.”
As Seth unsaddled the horses and turned them into the village herd, he thought about Florence, about what Red Bird had said, and about how she had talked to him. The way she touched him to get him to stop beating the man, and then when he told her about the barn in Franklin was the same way as his mother had touched him when he’d been hurt in some way, or was feeling bad about something.
It was the same touch, but it was different. As Seth thought about it, he realized the touches weren’t different. They were the same gentle squeeze to his arm and the same soft strokes to his back and face. What was different was how he felt them. His mother’s touch had been comforting. Florence’s touch was also comforting, but had drawn him close to her in a way he never felt for his mother.
He didn’t really know why. He had tried to keep his distance from Florence. He could never expect any woman to continue wandering without a known destination and that was what she was doing. She didn’t seem concerned about that, but he was sure she would be at some point.
She’d said she wouldn’t let him do what he’d done again as long as she was with him. How did she mean that? He wished she would just leave and take all this confusion with her. Then, he could go back to being the loner he wanted to be. It would be better for them both, he thought, and yet, as soon Florence leaving entered his mind, he knew he didn’t really want that. He was still trying to figure out what he should do when he walked back to Red Bird’s cabin.
Red Bird’s wife was there, and though they couldn’t understand each other, she and Florence were in the process of cooking the evening meal. Awinita, as Seth later learned she was called, was using her hands to show Florence how she prepared corn that was still in milk by roasting in the coals of the fire place.
A haunch of venison was hanging by a leather strip that Awinita had twisted almost tight. As the weight of the haunch un-twisted the strap, it turned so all the surface was evenly exposed to the heat of the fire. When it had un-twisted all the way, the weight of the haunch twisted it in the opposite direction until it could wind no further. Then, it would turn the haunch again until it un-wound. When it stopped turning, Awinita would twist it up again.
Florence seemed to be enjoying herself. She was smiling, and nodded each time she understood what Awinita was trying to explain. Seth smiled too. Florence had proven to be a brave woman capable of things even some men couldn’t do, but she still was a woman who enjoyed the things other women enjoyed. She looked at home, even though she still wore her homespun shirt and trousers.
Red Bird came in as Awinita was cutting meat from the venison haunch onto a large platter. At the side of the platter, Florence placed the roasted corn, and then filled cups with water from the bucket beside the fire. She handed one to Red Bird and one to Seth, then brought two more for Awinita and herself. Awinita sat the platter in front of them and then sat down beside Red Bird. Florence sat beside Seth.
At the first bite of the venison, Seth turned to Red Bird.
“Tell your wife she makes really good roast deer.”
Red Bird grinned.
“Yes, she is a good cook…among other things. We have been man and wife for only two moons, and already she is with child. Her mother says it will be a son. Her aunt thinks it will be a daughter.”
“Congratulations. You must be very proud.”
“Yes, I am. It would be good to have a son, but in some ways, better to have a daughter. When a daughter marries, her husband comes to live in her mother’s house. If I have a son, he would leave when he marries and we would lose a hunter. With a daughter, I would gain a son to help with the hunting instead of losing one.”
“I didn’t know that’s how you did marriages. If I had married, back home, my wife and I would have started out on our own.”
Red Bird smiled.
“Our way means there are always enough men to hunt food and defend the village. It is one of the old ways, from a time long ago. What you will see tomorrow is also one of the old ways. I will explain so you will know what is expected of you.
“Today, the priest is washing Kanuna’s daughter to purify her. Then he will put lavender oil on her body, and wrap her in a new blanket.
Tomorrow, the village will come together and carry Leotie to the grave. The priest will pray for the girl and for her family. You won’t understand what he is saying, but he is telling the Three Gods of the girls worth and asking them to help her find her ancestors. He is also telling the people of the village about living a good life so they may find their ancestors when their time has come.
Then, the girl will be placed in her grave. The priest will put an eagle feather on her chest. Her necklaces and all her other personal things will be placed there with her. The grave will then be filled and the people will return to the village. Kanuna would like for you both to be there with him so that he may show the people of the village the man and woman who tried to help. You don’t need to do anything except stand beside him and his wife.
“If you decide to stay longer, you must not go to Kanuna or his wife for seven days. After Kanuna and his wife have mourned for seven days, the priest will cleanse them in the river. After that, they can return to life with the tribe.
“I think Kanuna would want you to stay until he can speak with you again. I know the man very well. He will want to say more than he was able to before.”
That night, for the first time in months, Seth and Florence unrolled their bedrolls under a roof instead of beneath the stars.