elbowcreek
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The Bloodied Blanket

Monette Bebow-Reinhard

Missouri, 1852:

As she knelt, tears streaming, in the dirt of her garden harvesting a meager bean and carrot crop, Lynelle Tyler tried to remind herself that a small crop was better than none. But there was no relief to be found from the nagging pain in her chest. A sudden shiver traveled her spine. She squinted into the distance at the grumbling clouds gathering around the setting sun. Boone’s father was coming, she could feel it. And there was nothing she could do about it.

“Where’s my vagabond mama been this time?” her 12-year-old said without looking up as she took her harvest into the shack they called home. Boone was sprawled on the dirt floor etching pictures with his whittled stick.

“Trying to find ways to make a boy grow faster, so that his mama doesn’t have to work so hard.” She smiled at her lanky son deep in concentration, one foot absently kicking up small dry dust clouds behind him. “Boone Tyler, did you weed your garden yet?”

“Look Mama, the horse is running free as the wind. And I drew me over here, so that it is running to me.” Boone took so much after his father it made her heart ache. She could never forget how much Elk meant to her, and yet she couldn’t let Elk back into their lives. With dying breath she would stop him! she swore silently. Let him come if he wants - he won’t have her son.

“The garden, Boone.” She sent him to a neighbor’s house but they tormented him because of his parentage. He’d ask her questions about his father that she couldn’t answer, questions beyond his name and tribe. She longed to have Boone love his father, as she once did. Still did! When he was eight she removed him from that poor excuse for white education and taught him herself.

She looked around at the four walls they called home; the dirt floor, clumsy stone fireplace that never stayed lit on cold nights, sawbuck table and one straw mattress for the two of them. He was too old to be sleeping with her. Her neighbor Jack reminded her of this often enough. But she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Boone in a little straw bed away from her warm arms, where she felt he was safe and protected.

“You won’t eat without me if I weed that wicked squash, will you? Your baking smells good today.”

“Oh, and what day doesn’t it?”

The small shack filled with the smell of Boston brown bread, cornmeal and rye steamed in molasses. Lynelle would serve it for their lunch with Indian pudding, “a pudding not from Indians,” Boone would lecture her solemnly whenever she served it. She took great care to teach him everything she knew about the Indian culture. Though they had to live in the white world, there is much he could learn and should know about his father’s people. But she didn’t want him ever to know why she had to leave Elk or why Boone could never live with his father – and those were the questions that began to form in his mind, that he asked, so far, indirectly.

“Do I ever eat without you? Now go. If you don’t get out there and weed, that squash will back its bag and leave.”

“Oh mama, that’s such a tall one,” Boone said as he drew a circle with an odd design inside. “You must be patient when you see I am creating.” He concentrated, his tongue jutting from his lips. “You forget how hard I work, and need some time to play. You ought to pay more attention.”

Lynelle gave her son an exasperated look before rapping him over the head lightly with a sticky wooden spoon. “Don’t try and fool me, young man. I can tell the difference between frivolous pursuits and earnest studying.”

Boone scrambled outside before she could rap his behind as well. Frivolous pursuits? His mama knew he planned to be a great artist or a horse tamer someday. But that last design he worked on welled up from a silent corner of his heart. He didn’t know what that drawing was, a kind of circle with marks inside, but he liked it.

“Watch da path, your feet, Tadpole.”

“Oh!” Boone had been studying the ground so hard he almost ran into Jack - Big Grizzly, as some called him. He came down from the Dakotas when the tribe of Lakota he lived with had grown too familiar for his own comfort. Catching a young white boy in one of his bear traps hadn’t improved any white/ Indian relations, either. He had chuckled to Boone that the whites could take all the land out east they wanted, but as long as the Indians had the Dakotas they would remain free. He pitied this country should they ever try to take their sacred lands. Those Indians were fighters, he told Boone with great pride, fighters when they were riled.

“Hey, Tadpole, no hurry, earth still be here, another day yet.”

“Hello, Mr. Jack. Gotta weed now!”

Boone ran from Jack as though he had twenty things to do and couldn’t do any of them until the squash was weeded. Truth was Big Grizzly Jack frightened him. His mama raised him, his mama alone. He felt Jack’s eyes on him as he bent to the green foliage to determine good growth from bad, wishing it was this easy to tell the difference between people.

Lynelle stood beside Jack as the boy ran off.

“He’s of ripenin’ age, Lynelle.”

“I know. I worry what will happen to him if there’s war. Tempers are getting bad around here over slavery.”

“Only one war you worry. Your heart. Talk on him his papa.”

“Oh, Jack.” She wrapped her arms around herself and rubbed hard. The fall chill was still a distance away. “The difference between his father…and my father....”

“You know his age, and you little room. Time to treat him like man he is become.”

“Let’s go in.”

Lynelle poured him some coffee, musing quietly how close they had become since he first burst upon their solitude. He was a big man, frightening in appearance, but gentle as a puppy. He had been out trapping that day, suspecting he could catch that family of muskrats down near the river and came upon her crying quietly over an empty bucket.

“I caught no fish, my line got away from me, and now my boy and I....” she had wiped her face with dirty hands, suddenly flustered in front of this stranger, “will just have to make more bread. Boone is growing, and bread....is filling....”

Jack turned away to leave her alone in her misery, but he reached into his pocket. “Here.”

Lynelle looked up, wiping her nose with the back of her arm. “What?”

“Make it myself. Good. Possum meat.” Lynelle slowly, with a hand trembling, took the dried meat, with an embarrassed and grateful smile. “It ain’t much,” he shrugged. “Traps tomorrow might fill. Meet you here?”

Lynelle remembered her shock at the thought of someone knowing her and where they lived. She had been so careful with Boone, taking him to school, picking him up, careful so that no one would follow them home. “Oh, no! I couldn’t!” She had jumped to her feet and ran off, leaving Jack scratching his beard. How silly she must have looked to him!

Later that day she had found Jack and Boone standing in the river, though not close, watching each other’s fishing lines. And Boone had listened, as a son would to a father, as Jack talked to the boy about the fine art of catching those nibblers.

“He gettin’ big and handsome.” Jack grunted a happy thanks at the coffee she offered as he swallowed a gulp.

“Yes, he is.” Lynelle was proud of what she and Elk had accomplished in the brief time they loved each other. Boone was not quite as dark-skinned as his father but had his fine straight nose. His right cheek held the trace of her dimple and his brown eyes sparkled with flecks of her green eyes. The stamp of half-breed showed also in his manner of dress and Lynelle’s thwarted attempt to have him schooled with white children. “You ever have children, Jack?” She put the pot back on the fire and took out a shiny knife, the last thing she took from Elk before she ran off.

“Seen plenty half breed. Not have my own, but marry plenty Indian woman too.”

Lynelle nodded. She suspected it was what made her like Jack, his respect for the Indian people, but respect by one did not replace what a nation was doing to his people.

“When I teach you boy to fish - he give me special gift.”

Lynelle laughed as she rinsed carrots out in water she brought from the well that morning. “That’s Boone, he has that way about him.”

“No, I talk real gift. Dis.” Jack slapped a rock down on her table. “He call it wish rock and he wish to meet papa.”

Lynelle grabbed the table for support. If Boone knew what it would mean for Elk to meet him! “No, Jack….”

“You love dis Indian papa. You boy love him to.”

“Why....did he give the rock to you?”

“He say not good rock, no wish come true.”

Lynelle picked up the simple piece of granite with what looked like an etched ‘s’. “Some wishes aren’t meant to come true.”

“Indian not bad people----.”

“I don’t want Boone to die!” Lynelle bit her lip and turned away, ashamed. Jack was so good to them, teaching Boone to fish, bringing them meat. He didn’t deserve her anger. She looked back over her shoulder to make sure he was still there before going to the pot for more coffee. Jack sat on her table bench with one leg up and easy over the other, and his nose in the air, appreciably smelled their bread.

“Would you....like to stay for lunch?” She thought about having Jack over more often, about suggesting he use some lye in his washings and perhaps a clean shave…She shook her head, ashamed at herself for indecent thoughts. She pulled the carrots out of the water and picked up her knife.

“I plenty food to home. You keep for growing boy. Tell me about you Elk.”

“He found out I had his child two years after Boone was born. Said he’d come when the boy was 12. Boone was 12 last month, Jack.” She sliced carrots recklessly, unable to meet Jack’s eyes.

“It not bad he meet papa. Give boy’s papa a listen.”

She slammed the knife down. “I.... CAN’T!” She paused to catch her breath and her thoughts by picking up the coffee pot and refilling his cup. She went on, a little calmer. “Flying Elk will insist that Boone is old enough to be with his people. But if Boone lives with the Indians, he will die with the Indians. His only chance is to live in the white world. Oh, Jack, you can see that, can’t you?”

“Sound like you give up, listen to white folk.” Jack stared into the dark of his coffee cup. “Good flavor. I believe, maybe alone, dat Indian will keep own land. Maybe I be da fool. But too old to turn my head around. Da more whites they get to listen, da more land they hold.”

“I will protect my son, Jack. With my life I will.”

He patted her hand. “Dis is good, your feelings. Dey yours, so it’s good. But boy must know. Protect him, but he must know what you protect.”

She sniffed. “Perhaps. I don’t know. I’ll do some thinking.”

Boone got to his feet as Jack came out of the house and walked toward him. Boone flicked at the clumps of dirt hanging on his knees and elbows, uncomfortable at the thought of his mama and Jack talking together. Maybe talking about him. He knew his mama was worried over him growing up. If he could only stay this age, and they could stay as they are now!

“Squash okay now?” Jack asked.

“It’ll live. Don’t know about me.” He proudly showed off his dirty hands. “Pulled ‘em out by the roots. No weeds gonna ever grow there again.”

“Do’en be too sure. Dey have secret ways.” Jack followed as Boone headed for the river to wash up. “Your ma, she not sure....how to tell you about life. Boy, you must learn. How to ask.”

Boone looked up at him as he splashed water on his arms. “Are you talking about my pa? It isn’t your business.” Arms still half muddy he jumped to his feet and started up the hill.

Jack grabbed his arm. Boone didn’t struggle but looked up at him in awe, the big man’s face like a mama grizzly that wondered why his quarry wouldn’t leave the cubs alone. Boone had never seen a grizzly except in his dreams. “You angry. Getting to be a man. You mama not keep hiding you. No ask, tell her, you have right to know.”

Boone jerked his arm free and backed up a step. “Whenever I try to ask, she looks like she wants to cry. I don’t like to hurt mama.”

“Hurt goes when it is talked, shared.”

Jack walked back to where he tied his mule, to take his fill of water from his jug. Boone stared at his back. The old trapper sounded like he knew more than he should. If his mama could talk to Jack that way, maybe she was ready to talk to him! He ran back up the hill.

“Mama!” he yelled as he ran into the shack. “What you got to tell me!?”

Lynelle was on her hands and knees, digging in the dirt floor. She looked wildly up at Boone and patted her small hole down firmly, forcing a smile.

“Mama? You gonna grow something for me to weed in here now?”

Lynelle sat back, sighing. “You rascal. Come here and sit on the floor beside me.” She patted the dirt down firmly, long after it needed patting. Boone felt sure what she had buried was well past bursting loose, unless it wasn’t dead yet.

“Mama? Tell me why Pa isn’t here. You were talking about him with Grizzly, weren’t you? I want to know, Mama. Does he hate us?”

“Oh,” Lynelle sniffed. “I promise you, son, your father does not hate us,” Lynelle wiped the tears from her face, and with a still wet hand wiped at the dirt on Boone’s face, making his face streaked as though with war paint. “Your father is the son of a Kiowa leader, and he wants you desperately. Boone, as much as I loved your father, I wasn’t strong enough to live with him. When you were born, I hid you from him, because I knew he’d want you. He’d take you so far from me that I’d never see you again.”

“Why, Mama? Why could you not live with him? Why can’t he live here with us?”

“Oh, Boone, I loved your father.” She patted the floor again. “Boone, you know I want the best possible life for you.”

Boone crossed to the bed away from what she was patting in the dirt, and sat. “What did you bury in the floor, mama?” He didn’t like secrets suddenly, not one bit. Secrets, like badgers, can bite. He didn’t know how he knew that, he just knew.

“Boone...” she sighed. “I have to agree with Jack. That bed now belongs to you. I will sleep outdoors for a few nights, until we make up a new one for me. It’s a...” she sighed again. “There are some things about women that are hard to explain to a boy your age. Just accept it for now.”

Boone thought his mama’s face seemed whiter than usual. But she did not look frightened. “All right, mama. Finish your story.”

“My story?”

“About why Pa can’t live here.”

She sat on the floor by the bed and wrapped her arms around his legs. “Did you ever hear the story about the Cherokees, about how they had a great home back east and were forced out to Oklahoma because they were in the way of white people who wanted the land? Indians are always in the way, because their culture loves the land and uses it for survival. They don’t understand how whites use the land for profit.” Boone only looked puzzled. “Boone, how can I explain it to you? The Kiowa are a very proud people, fierce and strong. But they can’t hold off a whole country of white people. If you live with the Indians, you will die with them. And,” she looked down at her hands. “Your father would never consider leaving his people to live with us here.”

“But Mama, if I could meet him, and tell him why I must stay with you---.”

She shook her head. “Can’t, can’t, can’t! Boone, listen to me. My father is coming here soon, and we’ll be moving to California. It has to be this way, Boone.” She rubbed her face against his shoulder. “Come on, let’s sing us a song. My Bonnie lies over the ocean....”

“But you did love him?”

“So bring back my Boonie to me.....” She laid her head on his lap. “I was a child when I met him, we had just moved out here from Virginia. I was at the river bathing, I thought I was alone, but when I looked up, he was there. I almost screamed, but he stopped me with fine English. And as though he thought I was embarrassed by my nakedness, he took off his leggings and breastplate, and came naked into the water with me. Oh....” she closed her eyes. “I’ve never met a man, before or since, who was so gentle, so kind. I was a child, he could have....taken advantage of me, but he did not. We only swam, and talked. I saw him every day for two months after that. And then....

“The whites attacked his village. I had been living with him, we had been married in a beautiful tribal ceremony, when whites from town came in secret and without warning began shooting into teepees. Oh Boone, it was horrible, women, children, bodies being shot up who had been so innocently sleeping, one child awoke with half a face and....I had to knife her to stop her suffering. But they did not hurt me, these whites, oh, no. I was dragged back to town, given back to my father who locked me in my room, and the Kiowa were chased far off.”

“What about my Pa?”

“He did not forget me. He came for me, and I ran away with him, but it wasn’t long before I could see the whole massacre happening all over again. When I realized I was pregnant, I left him in the dark of night and never looked back. I could never live with him in fear for my life, or any more Indian lives, ever again. And neither, my son, shall you. If he comes here for you, I shall have to kill him.” She turned away from Boone as tears streamed down her face.

“Grandpa will take us away from here? Where my pa can never find us?”

“Yes, oh, but please, don’t be afraid of him. Your grandpa only did what was right for me.” And then, as though she had just said too much, Lynelle covered her mouth and ran outside.

Boone lay back on the bed and covered himself with the blanket. What did Grandpa do that was right? Now she went into the woods, after burying something she wouldn’t tell him about, and tonight he must learn to sleep without her. He shivered with a sudden chill. Could she really kill his father? There must be something he can do to make them love each other again.

While planning for his future with both his parents, Boone fell into an uneasy sleep.

Lynelle froze, staring out the window. “Boone! Get to your feet!”

“Mama, the garden doesn’t need weeding so soon---.”

“I said get to your feet! Listen to me now! I want you to go out the window, go out the back window and run.” She pulled him off the floor and pushed him to the window. “Run like you never ran before and don’t look back, do you hear! DON’T LOOK BACK!”

Boone slid the window open with a grunt but he hesitated. His mother sounded scared, and he wanted to stay and protect her. Before he could argue she gave him a shove and he rolled out the window onto the hard ground below. It poofed the air out of him for a second. As he lay struggling to rise, he heard a noise unlike any he'd heard before. Many horses, and the calling of men with noises he understood no better than the grunts of animals. Then he heard the lingo of Indian speak. His mother delighted him on occasion by saying something with the deep and throaty enunciations. He crept up along the house and peeked back in the window.

Five Indians were facing his mother but she stood them off, yelling at them the way she's often yelled at him, only harder, with stranger words, her knife clutched tight in her hand. He ducked back down again quickly. His father had come! Mama told him that if they took him away, she would never see him again. He thought about his plan to keep his parents together, but it was only a weak plan after all, and would do them no good if his father dragged him away.

Boone ran and ran hard, running down through the fields and up another hill to Mr. Jack's house. He stopped outside the trapper's cabin, forcing his panting breath to be silent. He could not explain to Mr. Jack why he ran away. He could not explain it to himself, except that he did what his mother asked. Maybe she could convince him to stay. She did still love him, Boone could tell that much.

Boone crept into Mr. Jack's shed and curled up under the standing hay. His mother would find him here. He just had to wait. Over and over his mother's voice rang through his head. "Please bring back my Boonie to me...." until finally he fell asleep.

"Mama?" Boone pushed open the door of their little house. The door gave easily - someone had torn it half off its frame. He peeked inside. The home that had always been so neat for them was in shambles. His bed had been thrown aside, his blanket lying in a heap on the floor. He had waited a whole day in Jack's shed for her to come for him. When he feared she might have forgotten about him, he walked slowly back home. He walked to the table where the knife she had brandished against the five Indians stuck in the wood. He grabbed hold of the handle and wrenched it free. The blade was covered with blood.

He heard a thumping outside and ran to the door. "Mama?"

Grizzly Jack stood outside the house. "Sump'en wrong, boy?"

"I can't find my mama. The Indians were here yesterday, and---."

Jack pushed his way inside and scanned the room, his brow wrinkled in a frown. As Boone watched, Jack' saw the overturned bed and his shoulders drooped. He walked over to where the blanket lay in a heap. The tips of three fingers protruded from the blanket.

"MAMA!" Boone ran to her side and fell to his knees. Slowly he picked up the corner of the blanket. Jack touched his shoulder but Boone shrugged him off violently. He lifted the blanket and saw his mother's face, her eyes closed peacefully, mouth slightly sagging. She would never be afraid again. She would never....see him as a man....Tears rolled down his cheeks, spilling onto his dead mama.

"I....sorry, son." Jack stood over him, a heavy breathing, lumbering bear.

"Why would they do this? She was only trying to keep what was hers." With a trembling hand he patted her hair. "Why did you have to make me leave, mama? I could have protected you, I could have...."

"She defend herself, protect you. She...." Jack shook his head and looked away. "She attack first. No udder way dey would...."

Boone suddenly noticed that she had had been digging in the dirt, perhaps digging up what she had buried as though a piece of the puzzle to solve. He quickly dug where her fingers had started a hole, until he found a small solid object. A rock. He held it up for Jack to see. "This is the wish rock, I gave it to you. How did she get it? Why did she bury it?"

"Her wish, boy - never to lose you."

"Instead I lose her. And I lose him." Boone laid the blanket back over her face and stood. "You were wrong, Mama. We could have lived with the Indians." He picked up the small wood chair lying busted on the floor. "Because to live good for a little while is better than NOTHING!" He slammed the chair to the floor, splitting it into quarters. "You looked for months to find a shack where the door faced east! You wanted to be like them! Why couldn't you live with them?" He picked up her cooking pot from the floor and flung it against a far wall. "Now you're DEAD!" He dug his hands into a pile of broken serving ware, not noticing as blood droplets formed on his hands. "What good has our life been?" He flung the handful of smashed goods to the ground. When he saw his hands bloodied he burst into fresh hot tears and flung himself on his bed, grabbing his blanket and pressing his wet face into it. His mama looked blankly up at him from the floor, the answers on her still lips, answers he could not hear.

He rocked, hugging his knees and sobbing quietly. When he lay still, exhausted, Jack put his hands underneath the boy and picked him up. Boone allowed the gentle giant to carry him, and kept his blanket tightly clutched against him.

"I want to kill him for killing my ma," he muttered softly against Jack's leathered chest.

Jack carried him all the way back to his shack. When he felt sure the boy was asleep, he went back to the shack. He stood over poor confused and dead Lynelle, who for such a short time had been his friend, a good mother, and a fighter. She was a confused lady, but not about her son. This was not supposed to happen.

He buried her properly and marked her grave, etching with his knife her name in a crude cross. It was important for the boy to have a place to mourn her. He stood from her grave and looked back at her house. Boone would not set foot back in. Jack, without hesitation, took all the food edibles and her coffee from the house. He took the wish rock, as well. Lynelle wanted her son to have this rock back. What wish could she have left for him, now that he was alone?

Boone slept uneasily, dreaming. He was four and saw the Kiowa as though for the first time. He was not afraid, but he could see that his mama was. They stayed in the yard, talking to her, sitting on their horses. Boone thought they looked so grand. He went outside to stand beside her but she turned and screamed at him to go back in. He stood just an extra second, and saw a big man call to him, gesturing. But Boone ran back inside. After a few moments his mama came back inside and locked the door behind her. With her long brown hair streaming behind her and her big green eyes full of tears she pulled him close.

"Don't go near them again, Boone. When I tell you to run, you must react instantly." She held him away from her at arm's length as he started to cry over the urgency and fear in her voice. "I'm sorry if I'm scaring you, son, but I mean instantly. Do you understand?"

In this dream he did not run away. He stood his ground with his mama and screamed at the Indians to go. They did not. One of them took out a hatchet and threw it at Boone. Boone ducked, and the hatchet went right into his mother's chest. Boone screamed....And woke, knowing the truth. This was the way his mother wanted it. To die so that he may live.

When he woke the second time he could not at first remember where he was. He stretched lazily. When he heard a humming, like the buzz of bees, his eyes flew open. He was not home.

His blanket covered him, bloody from his mama's chest wound and from his hands, his smell mingling with his mama's smell. But she was not here. She was dead. He lay back down, covering his head with the blanket.

Mr. Jack's cabin. A strange place, a man's place. He peeked out from the blanket. Jack was sitting at the table, his back to the boy. His cabin was filled with strange things that Boone could not name. He had a shelf with all kinds of jars but not food. Some kind of lumpy mud - perhaps for wounds? His mama preferred to get mud fresh from the riverbed when she needed it. Maybe Jack gets hurt a lot. Two bundles of hair hung in another cupboard; Boone didn't want to know what they were from. A string of claws that could have come from a bear, grizzly perhaps. Boone decided he'd like to take those claws with him for luck when he runs away. That was all he knew at the moment, that he had to run away. In the corner stood a rangy looking dog. Boone put a hand down for the dog to sniff until he realized it was old, moth-eaten, and stuffed.

Jack muttered something under his breath, not yet aware his charge was awake. He seemed to be eating with his fingers. His mama slapped Boone's hands when he tried eating that way. Boone's stomach grumbled, but Jack didn't hear. The big grizzly man picked up a pot and used his finger to wipe out some of the goo clinging to the side.

"Larder for da barter," he said with a chuckle.

Boone frowned. He thought Jack spoke an odd broken English, but maybe when he was alone he spoke something else. The Jack he knew outside now seemed older and dirtier here on the inside. From the trappings Boone saw around him, Jack has been living alone forever.

Jack lumbered over to the door and peered outside. "Getcha anything today." He looked over his shoulder at Boone, but Boone's eyes were closed so Jack went outside.

Boone wrapped the blanket around him and sat up. He needed to go outside bad, but once he did he was going to run and keep running. Jack was even more frightening now that his mama wasn't around to stand between them. He walked over to the table and found remnants of what Jack had been slurping down. Even a grumbling stomach couldn't make Boone put that in his mouth. Next to his meal lay a large rolled up parchment paper. Boone unrolled it, his hand lightly trembling. It was full of long scratchings and odd words, and in a few places were drawings like mountains or squiggles for water. They were parts of the adventures of a man's past.

The paper rolled up again as Boone reached over to the brim of a brown hat. Jack wore, when he wore one, an old plum slouch hat made for him by women - Indian women, Boone figured. Boone picked up the brown-rimmed hat and tried it on. It was a perfect fit for the boy, too small for a mountain man. Boone looked at the door leading outside and decided that Jack must have left it here for him.

Boone put the hat on his head and wrapped his blanket, all that was left of his mama, tight and secure around him. He put his ear against the rough wood door, but could not hear Jack. Maybe Jack was okay, big and scary but okay. Boone didn't want to judge him by how he lived alone, his mama told him never to judge anyone, but he didn't want to stay. He wanted to be free, to run, to do what his mama wanted - find his own way in the white world.

It was early morn, the sun just barely peeking through the trees over the river below. Jack had picked a nice spot to build his shack, and if Jack should ever will it, Boone thought he might enjoy living here. Of course all the dead and stuffed carcasses would be buried, and the smell cleaned out. He knew Jack was a loner but that was no excuse for living with the smell of dead things around him.

Jack's mule let out a long bray, making Boone jump. He had not seen the critter tied to a fence post off to his right, perhaps because it had been around the other side nibbling until it heard the boy come out. Boone walked over to it and scratched its nose. "Nice fella, don't be so loud, I don't want Jack to know----."

"Know what, manly little sort? Dat you sneak down, not let me see?"

"I'm...just scared, Mr. Jack. I....don't know what to do anymore."

"So you run? You mama teach you dis?" Jack took Boone's arm and led him back inside. "I teach you be a man."

Boone relented to Jack's control because he had little choice at the moment. He sat at Jack's table and watched as the big man put some food together for him to eat, only slightly more edible looking than what Boone saw on the table earlier. He forced down with the semblance of a smile the rough dried meat with a pulpy liquid like well-beaten bird eggs, all the while watching Jack out of the corner of his eye. Perhaps for a short time....he could live with a man, learn to be a man. But even then he wasn't sure he'd ever be ready to face his pa - the man who had killed his mama.

"Mr. Jack? Will you take me back to see my mama?"

Jack took his time answering. "After you finish your eat, boy. After."

For three days Boone learned from Jack. The rest of the first day he heard stories, of trapping, of crossing blazing deserts and eating the horses that died, being swept down stream in raging rivers, and fighting Indians. Jack was not an Indian fighter, he was quick to make Boone understand, but sometimes he couldn't make the Indians understand that. Most times their relations were peaceful, and he had been married twice.

The second morning at breakfast Boone was listless, his carrot and egg mash not making him hungry enough to eat it.

"Boy! We do not waste! Food is not easy to catch."

"Sorry, Mr. Jack." He sighed and picked up a forkful but could only stare at it before putting it down again.

"Missing ma is not good sport for growing boy." Jack stood, clad only in his leggings, his heavy hairy chest sagging. "Dally come lately, dance with me, girl" he sang. He stomped the ground and whirled around. "Come boy, we dance, you eat. Moon go up lightly, dance with me, girl."

Boone, wide-eyed, watched as Jack stomped in circles about the room. When he ran out of words he grabbed Boone's arms and picked him up bodily off the chair, swinging him about with a wild Indian scream. By the time he let Boone back down on the floor he was giggling wildly, dancing and whooping as loud as Jack himself.

Minutes after their dance ended, Boone showed his cleaned plate to Jack. Jack nodded, breathing hard. Being father made him glad he left his Indian wives in the night, and those babies he refused to believe were his behind.

On the fourth morning Boone found himself singing an old song of his mama's without even thinking about it. He was in the river to wash himself without being reminded, wearing nothing but his freshly cleaned skin, leaving washed clothes to dry out on the shore. It was only he and Big Grizzly around, no one to care over a naked but growing boy. Jack reminded Boone that he preferred to be called by his mountain name, Big Grizzly, and told him how he got the bear claws.

Not to repeat to anyone, he told Boone, because he was the only witness except for a couple elk. A bear was catching fish and tossing them on shore, and Jack was hungry. He crept up to the shore and picked up a couple fish, forgetting in his hunger that the bear had a great nose for smelling. The bear chased him and was gaining but Jack leaped on the back of an elk, and with his butchering knife he slashed the elk's throat. The bear stopped, distracted by the fresh kill, giving Jack just enough time to retrieve his buffalo rifle and shoot the bear in the left eye - dead center.

Boone, entranced by the story, didn't notice the twinkle in the mountain man's eyes. He held up the claws for Boone to touch, and Boone believed that the claws were aiding Jack - Big Grizzly - to live such a long time alone in the wilderness. Then Jack had tried to get him to take his wish rock back. But Boone couldn't take it. He wouldn't tell Big Grizzly ever, but all he could wish for now was that his father was dead, instead of his mother. So Big Grizzly put the rock on the table and said it would be there, even in twenty years, for the day Boone changes his mind.

Boone rinsed out his brown hat, the one Big Grizzly told him to keep, and tossed it up on shore with his clothes. He swam easily, like a fish, enjoying bathing as he always did when he lived with his mama, on the days that his clothes needed washing. This was the first day he had been out of Big Grizzly's sight. The old man was becoming as protective as a mama, Boone thought with a wet grin.

He dove under deep, counting to see how long he could hold his breath. He broke through the surface of the water again into a breeze made cooler against wet skin. He shook the water off his hair and wiped his eyes clean. When he looked up, five men on horses stood on the riverbank watching him. Kiowa! One, the tallest, with large headdress, alighted. He held a lance, and he was not smiling.

"Hold!" Behind them, running down the hill, came Big Grizzly. He was only half dressed, as though caught in the act of relief. "Not yet! I not told----."

Boone jumped through the water, trying to run. He reached the shallow end and picked up speed, kicking his feet up high. That he was naked didn't concern him. His pa had come for him. His pa had killed his mother. And Jack was their friend! He realized the truth as he ran - Jack living near them - to keep an eye on him, ever since he was four! He screamed, though Jack couldn't hear, that he was going to come back and stuff that wish rock right down Big Grizzly's throat!

He ran hot and hard but could feel the big Indian - his pa! - following close behind him. With angry fever he darted even faster, running up the hill and leaping rocks as though the very wind pushed him. Behind him came the horses pounding, pounding, all five were after him.

Boone veered off in another direction, through thicker underbrush where the horses could not follow. His skin welted with blood, torn by branches, but he could not slow, could not rest. His mama did not die to let him be taken by his father's people. Ahead was the cave he often used when his mama pretended to be frightened and told him to run. He dove inside as horses pounded and shook the ground above him. Boone closed his eyes, breathing hard, trying not to cry. He had no friends, not anymore. He was alone, naked to the world.

Nightfall came, and Boone was shivering. He heard footsteps above him, and the grizzly face of Jack peered down into the black hole.

"You dere?" Boone tucked himself tighter, trying not to breathe. "I know you be, boy." Jack dangled Boone's blanket down in front of the hole. Boone grabbed it, ripping it away from Jack without thinking. He watched as Jack placed a neat pile of his clothes, including his hat, down next to the hole.

"I still 'low you belong with you pa, boy. Dem not kill you ma. You come, you talk, you see."

"Go away."

"You go talk to you ma. Sit by her grave. She tell you, if you listen close."

Jack walked away, his steps heavy and slow. Boone knew Jack didn't want him around, and that was why he got the Kiowa to come. But now Jack will have to live with the curses of a Kiowa half breed and the spirit of his ma from the grave. Maybe Jack believed the Indians would win their war for the land. But his mama didn't believe it, and Boone loved her. She couldn't be wrong.

Boone knelt down on the ground in front of his mama's grave and closed his eyes, singing in the way she taught him, the way of his father's people.

"Free as the wind, free as the grass growing on the prairie that feed the

buffalo, that feed us...

Free to live as we love and love as we live.

Free as our fathers, and free as our children.

Tears rolled down Boone's cheeks.

"This is how free I will always be."

He stood and wrapped the stained blanket with his mama's lingering smell around his shoulders. He thought about going back for his wish rock. He had made a new wish on it, but it couldn't come true if he didn't carry it. His mama wanted him to have that wish - but it was a bad rock, after all, because the first wish he made came true, and his pa killed her. She wasn't digging it back up to give him. She was trying to tell him not to believe in silly things like wish rocks.

He didn't know where to go or what to do, but he listened with his heart and started walking, his blanket wrapped around him like a cape. He could only walk, and not think where. He could only walk.

 

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