The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 10
The next morning, Seth woke to the smell of flatbread frying. Awinita was bent over the fire, and Florence held a platter for the round, thin cakes she placed on it. Florence smiled and asked if he had slept well.
“Yes. It was nice to be inside for a change.”
“Well, as soon as you finish eating, you have to go outside. I’m going to put on the dress Awinita is lending me and you can’t watch.”
Seth and Red Bird went to check on the horses while Florence dressed. When they came back, both men stopped and stared at the woman standing in front of the cabin.
The dress looked much like those his mother had worn, except the colors were brighter, and small shells and beads decorated it at the neck. It was a bit large for Florence because she was thinner than Awinita, but it fit well enough to accent the feminine shape Seth hadn’t seen before.
Florence’s hair had been combed and the morning sunlight caused the soft waves to shine. Where before, her face had been pretty under the floppy hat, it was now the face of a beautiful woman.
Florence smiled at first, and then frowned at Seth.
“Don’t I look all right? I thought the dress was pretty, but you’re just standing there with a stupid look on your face.”
“You’re fine, Florence. I just didn’t realize…I mean, I’ve never seen you in a dress before. You’re…you’re real pretty.”
Florence blushed and looked down at the ground.
“You really think so?”
“Yes, I do.”
Awinita joined Florence then and said something to Red Bird. He grinned as he translated to Seth and Florence.
“Awinita says Florence is a prize any man would want to win, and that you, Seth, should try to win her before another man does.”
Florence blushed again as Seth frowned and answered.
“I don’t think Florence wants that. Besides, I don’t have a place to live or a way to take care of her.”
Red Bird translated for Awinita who chattered her answer through her smile.
“Red Bird says you have both been taking care of each other. That is what Cherokee husbands and wives do. Don’t white husbands and wives do the same?”
Seth was becoming frustrated. Every time he tried to keep distance between him and Florence, something or someone seemed intent on pushing them together. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Florence, he reasoned. It was just that she deserved better than roaming aimlessly and staying away from other people. He was still thinking of an answer that wouldn’t hurt Florence or Awinita when people began coming out of their houses.
“It has started”, Red Bird said. “We must go to find Kanuna and his wife.”
Seven of Kanuna’s close relatives carried the body of his daughter outside the village to a spot near a small hill. Following them was Kanuna and his wife, a slender woman Florence thought was a little older than Kanuna. Red Bird had led them to walk just behind Kanuna, and said “Stay with them, but don’t try to talk to them. Awinita and I will be right behind you.”
The people at the gravesite were silent as the body was lowered into the grave. The priest placed a single eagle feather on the shrouded body, then stood back and looked at Kanuna. Kanuna nodded, and then began to speak. Red Bird translated in whispers.
“People of the village. What I do is not part of the old ways we believe in, but I must do what I do to honor my daughter’s avengers. I hope you will understand.
“You see two strangers among us, a white man and a white woman. They did not know me or my daughter until yesterday. This man killed the men who did this unspeakable thing though he could have been killed. This woman felt the sorrow you feel today, and tried to comfort me for my loss. She offered her help without knowing what I might ask of her. Accept them here and in our village while we mourn. They are two I would call family, just as I call all of you my family.”
Kanuna then stared at the ground in silence. After a moment, the priest began to pray. Though they could not understand the words, the tone of the priest’s voice was mournful, and Florence felt tears stream down her cheeks. With no handkerchief to wipe them away, she was forced to let them flow. Seth put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. He saw others of the village watching them.
The priest spoke on and on, and from time to time, a woman in the village would softly sob. The men were stoic with firm faces, but Seth could see the pain in their eyes. They were men who grieved as men, quietly, and with dignity, just as had the men with which he had served.
The priest stopped talking, and then turned to the woman at his side. As she handed him a necklace of shells and other things that had belonged to Kanuna’s daughter, he placed them one at a time around the body. He said what Seth believed to be another prayer, and then turned back toward the village.
When they returned to Red Bird’s cabin, Florence had stopped crying, but was still sad. Awinita saw this, took her by the hand, and spoke. Red Bird, also visibly sad, translated.
“Awinita says you cry as if you knew Kanuna’s daughter well. She says this is because you have the good spirits inside you.”
Florence choked a little as she spoke.
“It was just so sad. She was so young, and what those men did…”
“That is what the priest was saying to the Three Gods, that Keotie was young and had always behaved as a young girl should. He asked them to take her to live with the others who have lived well. It is our belief that they will do that, and that Kanuna’s daughter will live forever with good people in a land that is always like a warm spring day and she will always have food to eat.
“He also told the people of the village that living like Kanuna’s daughter would promise them the same, and that they should try to take care of each other as we have for generations.”
Red Bird paused for a moment.
“It is not usual, but he also told the people that some white people are like you and Seth, and would help the Cherokee. He said they should pray for your safety on your journey, because you were sent by the Three Gods to help Kanuna and his daughter. It has sometimes been that people outside the clan have been honored in this way, but I have never heard of it happening with white people. It is a very great honor, and one that I am sure Kanuna asked the priest to give you.”
The seven day mourning period went by quickly for Florence. She and Awinita worked side by side in preparing the meals, working in the garden, and taking care of all the other household chores. They developed the ability to understand each other through hand signals and what Seth figured was just the ability women seemed to have of understanding each other even if the languages were different. Florence ended each day seemingly happy and tired.
Seth’s days were less entertaining. The day after Kanuna’s daughter was buried, he and Red Bird went back to the grove of trees. The three dead men were still there, or at least enough of them was left to identify them as human. Seth stripped the bodies of their revolvers and knives, and then he and Red Bird searched their camp for anything of value. They found only a battered cooking pot and three canteens. After checking the men’s pockets and finding nothing, Red Bird asked Seth if he was going to bury the men. Seth’s reply was short and angry.
“If you killed a coyote that had killed a foal, would you bury it?”
On subsequent days, Seth and Red Bird hunted for meat and worked with two horses Red Bird was training to ride. At night, they sat on the porch of Red Bird’s cabin and talked of the war, about how they each grew up, and many other things. By the evening before the seventh day, they knew each other well, and had become friends.
The afternoon of the seventh day, the priest took Kanuna and his wife to the river that flowed near the village. As Seth and Florence watched, they walked into the water, faced the east, and then sank down until the water flowed over their heads. Then, they rose, turned to the west, and sank under the surface again. Five more times they immersed themselves, changing directions each time, and then took off their clothes. As they left the water, the priest gave them new clothing.
As Red Bird had explained, they were now cleansed and could rejoin life in the village. Kanuna walked with them to Red Bird’s cabin, and touched Seth’s shoulder when they were just outside the door. While Florence and Awinita went inside, the three men stood on the grass in front of the house.
Kanuna offered his hand and grasped Seth’s when he extended his, then began speaking. Red Bird, as always, translated.
“Kanuna wants to thank you again for what you did. He says he believes his daughter knows as well, and will watch over you from where she lives now. He would reward you if he could, but he has nothing to give of sufficient value.”
Seth looked at the ground for a moment, then looked at Kanuna.
“Red Bird, tell him I don’t need any reward. I only did what he would have done if I hadn’t got there first.”
Red Bird translated and received Kanuna’s response.
“Kanuna says if all men were like you, the world would be a better place. He asked if you will be leaving now, and said you would be welcome to stay here if you want.”
“Tell him I thank him for his offer, but I have to go on. I don’t know about Florence. She seems happy here.”
Red Bird translated again, and then relayed Kanuna’s reply.
“His wife says your woman will only be happy with you, and that she saw that when you stood together when they buried his daughter. He says women understand women better than men, and that he believes what she says is true. He also would like to speak to her.”
Seth went into the cabin and came back with Florence. Kanuna smiled when she walked up to face him, and his voice was soft.
“Woman who dresses as a man, you are called Florence?”
“Florence, your tears told me you were sad at the loss of my daughter. You offered to help me take care of her, too. Men are not good at telling their feelings. We are taught to be strong. Because of this, I can not explain how much those things mean to me, but the feelings fill my heart.
“You are a good woman. I know Seth also believes this, because my wife sees it in his eyes when he looks at you. He is like me, and can not tell you how he feels. Some day he will. Until that time, be with him and take care of him as my wife takes care of me.
“I offered that you both could stay here, but Seth says he must go and I understand. Red Bird tells me Seth is searching for something, but he does not know what. I am sure he will find it one day. The offer is also open to you, but my wife says you will go with Seth. I believe her, because women have the gift of reading the eyes and face of another. I understand this as well, for she would go with me if I left our village.
“I do not want to watch you ride away, so I will leave after giving you something from my daughter. Leotie came to me in a dream the night we brought her back to the village, and told me she would not need this now and she wanted you to have it.”
Kanuna placed the cloth wrapped bundle in Florence’s hands. She opened it and found soft, white deerskin.
“It was to be her wedding dress, made with her own hand, after the old ways of a woman dressing”, said Kanuna in a halting voice. She told me you would have need of it.”
Florence lifted the dress from the wrapping. The long sleeves of the dress were heavily fringed with long, soft, white deerskin strips almost two feet long. From the neckline dangled bright blue and black beads strung on thin cords of the same material. In the center of the narrowed waist was a carefully beaded set of concentric circles in blue, black and white beads. The same long fringe with blue and black beads decorated the hem. Florence stood with her mouth open, unable to believe what she was seeing. When she spoke, there were tears in her eyes again.
“Kanuna, I can’t –“
Red Bird stopped Florence.
“You can’t tell him you can’t take it. Kanuna did not follow our beliefs and bury the dress with his daughter, but I think the village will understand this. His daughter wanted you to have it. She told him so in his dream. If you say no, he’ll be very sad, and the people of the village will think bad things will happen to us because he has angered the Three Gods.”
Florence wiped her eyes with the back of one hand, then embraced Kanuna.
“When your daughter comes to your dreams again, tell her I thank her for this beautiful dress, and that I will remember her always.”
After Red Bird translated Florence’s thanks, Kanuna pushed her away gently and then smiled.
“I will do so, but Leotie will know because she is watching over you.”
Kanuna didn’t say “goodbye” or even wave. He just turned and walked away to his own cabin. Florence carefully wrapped the dress in the cloth again, and then they went into Red Bird’s cabin to eat.
That night, as she tried to sleep, Florence wondered if it could be true that Leotie had really come to Kanuna to tell him to give her the dress. She had often dreamed about her father and mother after they passed, but they never said anything to her.
She also wondered why the girl would think she’d need a wedding dress. Seth was the only man she really knew and the only man she trusted. He might be the only man she’d ever trust. He just didn’t seem interested in her that way. He acted more like a brother, she thought. Florence had never had a brother, but she thought a brother would be much like her father. He would like her and look out for her, but that was as far as it would go.
Seth also had thoughts, though his weren’t about Kanuna’s dream. They were thoughts of Florence, and of Florence staying with him. If only he could figure out where he was going and what he was going to do once he got there. He’d tried and tried over the weeks and month, but still had no answers.
It also bothered him that Florence didn’t seem to care. Tomorrow, she’d just put her trousers and shirt back on, and they’d ride off to the south and Texas. He thought if he rode all the way to Mexico, she’d probably still be there, to his right and a little behind. It wasn’t right that she would be this way. She should want a husband, a home and a family, not some soldier with a past he’d rather not remember and a future he didn’t yet know about.
The next morning, Seth woke to the smell of more flat bread frying. Florence was helping as was usual, and told him to get up to eat.
The breakfast was quiet. Red Bird knew they were leaving, and had told Awinita. Neither wanted to see them go. Seth was reluctant to leave but he knew what he sought wasn’t here. Florence would follow him, if only to feel safe.
After eating, Seth caught the gelding and black mare, and led them to Red Bird’s cabin. While he saddled them, Red Bird watched silently. He knew it was useless to ask Seth to stay again. Their conversation over the last few days had convinced him the man would not stop riding until something made him realize he belonged in that place. The Cherokee village was not that place.
Florence came out of the cabin in her shirt, trousers, and floppy hat. Red Bird chuckled.
“You look much better as a woman than as a man.”
“Well, that might be, but I can’t ride a horse in a dress, and…well, it’s better if people think I’m a man, at least until we get to where we’re going.”
Awinita brought a sack from the cabin and gave it to Florence. Red Bird translated her words.
“This is corn meal raised by me and ground by me, and some dried and smoked deer meat. Take it so you will have food to eat and to remind you of us.”
Florence hung the bag on her saddle horn, and then tied the wrapped dress under the bedroll on the back of her saddle. Seth mounted the gelding and Florence had one foot in her stirrup, then stopped and walked back to Red Bird and Awinita.
“I can’t leave without thanking you and saying goodbye.”
Florence hugged Red Bird gently, then wrapped her arms around Awinita.
“Awinita, thank you so much. I hope your baby will be a healthy boy, and that you have many more.”
Red Bird translated, and as she heard the words, a tear slowly streamed down Awinita’s face. She gently pushed away from Florence, and then walked back to the cabin.
“She is sad to see you go”, said Red Bird, “and does not want you to see her cry. She wishes you the best, as do I. If you ever come back this way, you will be welcome for as long as you want to stay.”
Red Bird went into the cabin, and Florence mounted the black mare, looked at Seth, and smiled.
Seth had not missed the holster and belt Florence wore to hold her Navy Colt.
“Where’d you get the holster?”
“It was the one I took off the bushwacker. Awinita helped me make it small enough to fit me. It’s a lot easier than sticking the Colt in my pants. The barrel always poked me.”
“Just don’t go trying to draw it fast. I don’t want you shooting yourself in the leg.”
“I haven’t shot myself yet, have I? Now, which way is the way to Texas? I’m all ready.”