I. Convergence

by Sevenstars

5. Rapid Creek, Nebraska Territory

Rain was waiting when Nathan Jackson pulled his roan to a halt in front of their lodge, a sixteen-pole construction of seven or eight buffalo skins, fourteen feet high and with a ground diameter of the same. He slid the dressed carcass of the elk off the horse's back to drop at her feet with a thump, saying nothing, but their eyes met, and his told her everything he was reluctant to say in public. It was one thing when you were courting a girl, standing out in front of her family's lodge with your robe wrapped to your eyes, waiting for her to emerge on her way to get water or visit the tipi of some friend or relative, or showing off with your friends on your horse where she could see, or dancing with her at a social dance. It was another once you were married; there was a certain decorum, almost a diffidence, expected of young married folks among the Lakota people.

Leaving her to skin and butcher the elk, he turned the roan and headed down to the stream to wash the blood and fat off its hide and the saddle. In mid- March--called the Snowblind Moon or Moon of Sore Eyes in Sioux idiom, since it tended to be a month of heavy snows on the plain, and the worst time of year in the mountains--the water was still icy cold, as he knew from his morning bath, and for fully another month the threat of four-day blizzards would continue to hover. Game was wary and thin. But the high-water season was just beginning, swelling the creeks and rivers toward breakup; the buffalo cows were growing heavy with the calves they would drop in May and June, and soon the pale fire of spring would burn the tips of the willows and cottonwoods to gold and the ducks come settling out of the sky in skeins on their way north. There might be a few rough days in store, but the Sicangu, or Brulé, Teton band of Tashunke Mashté Wi, His-Horse-is-the-Summer-Sun, could safely say that it had survived another cold and would join the rest of the Nation in the Circle for the great tribal council, the Sun Dance and the communal buffalo hunts at midsummer. The ten- and twelve-foot-high windbreaks of poles and brush erected around the lodges were looking shabby and brown, and the ground was turning into a sticky broth of mud and half- melted snow.

If anyone had told him ten years ago how cozy a mere skin tent could be, even at temperatures of forty below zero and winds of fifty miles an hour, Nathan would have thought they were stringing him; but in his three winters among the Sioux he had learned how wrong that assumption would have been. Inside each lodge was hung a double lining of sewn hides, the ozan, which not only gave some privacy but, when the space between it and the outer hides was filled with hay and dry grasses, provided excellent insulation. An underground passage was often dug connecting the base of the lodge fire with the outer air; thus a constant supply of fresh air entered the shelter, was warmed, and heated the interior as well as a Franklin stove. Buffalo robes were reversed from their summer arrangement of fur-side-down to provide comfortable sitting spreads and, when rolled up in, beds as snug as a heap of quilts.

Nathan had been born in slavery in Georgia, sold with most of his family to an Alabama planter when he was seven, and made his break for freedom at fifteen, going on twenty years ago now. He had gotten over the Beautiful River into Ohio and found his way to a thriving little county-seat town in the Little Miami Valley, where there was a sizeable black population and plenty of work--in the mills and factories that lined the bottoms, in personal household service, free- lance as a hack or dray driver or a handyman. He had been fortunate enough to fall in with one of the town's doctors, who hired him to work in his garden and help his wife with the heavier household chores, and as Nathan had no kin among the local blacks, had even provided him with a little room over the stable. Doc Henderson had been a good man, honest and fair, and had always treated Nathan like a fellow human being. He had seen to it that the young fugitive learned to read and write, and when Nathan commenced to display a shy interest in his medical books, Henderson had permitted him to borrow them and read in them during his off time. At last he had sent Nathan to Cincinnati to study the Physio-Botanic System, also known as Thomsonism, named after one Samuel Thompson, who, though not himself a doctor, had revolted against such current medical practises as bleeding and extravagant dosage, especially of dangerous drugs like mercury, jalap, calomel, arsenic, and laudanum. He favored herb remedies, emesis, enemas, and steam baths. In Cincinnati the course was taught by Dr. D. W. Cook, with a few added frills of his own, which he called, in total, the Physio-Medical Reform System, and which was basically one of the variations on what was known as "botanic medicine"--a kind of homeopathy. And while the orthodox medical schools of the day might consider it beneath the dignity of the profession to be practised by anyone other than white males, the splinter groups were more practical. As early as the '30's the homeopaths and their various kindred disciplines accepted female students and conferred degrees upon them. It was natural that they would eventually extend their mantle to blacks, for theirs were poor men's schools, and they turned out doctors for poor people. The many Negroes who dwelt in the Midwest could no more afford a two- or three-dollar-a-visit, frock-coated, silk-hatted, diplomaed physician than could the white riverboatman and his family, but at fifty cents a call plus medications, the botanics lay within their reach. There was no requirement for the student to apprentice with a recognized physician before enrollment, the fees were low, and the lecture series was short. So Nathan studied, and returned as a certified DBM to practise among the colored folks of the town that had become his home. His advice centered on fresh air, cleanliness, a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, frequent bathing, and the herbal cures familiar to country grannies, both black and white, from earliest pioneer days. He could also, at need, set a bone, stitch a wound, pull a tooth, and even deliver a baby, though that generally fell to midwives.

Then came 1850 and the infamous Compromise of that year, cobbled together in response to the sectionalism which threatened the dissolution of the Union. Henry Clay proposed the measures in order to resolve the question of territorial governments for the lands recently acquired from Mexico, and statehood for California, where the discovery of gold had swelled the population almost overnight to a figure consistent with constitutional requirements. Stirring high feelings both North and South was the provision of the Compromise regarding fugitive slaves. Probably less than one per cent of the total bond population in any one year escaped at all, whether by the Underground Railroad or otherwise, but most of them came from the three northernmost slave states, where the consequent loss ran to two or three million dollars a year. Something, the South insisted, had to be done. And it was. Mighty debate thundered through the halls of Congress, led by Clay, the dying John C. Calhoun, and New England's Daniel Webster. President Zachary Taylor opposed the compromise, but his sudden death in July brought to his seat Millard Fillmore, who threw his support behind it. Under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law included in it, the claimant of a fugitive in free territory could establish ownership by his affidavit alone; all citizens must assist him, or any Federal officers involved, in securing his property; harboring or assisting a fugitive was an offense punishable by six months' imprisonment, a thousand- dollar fine, and liability for as much in personal damages payable to the slave's owner. The fugitive was denied a jury trial, and there was moreover a dangerous and unjust clause by which U. S. commissioners delegated to enforce the law were to be paid ten dollars for every warrant issued for a runaway, but only five for discharging a Negro proved to be free.

Nathan had hoped at first that Taylor's opposition would prevent passage of the law, but upon the man's death he saw the handwriting on the wall. Reasoning that slave-hunters were unlikely to go to all the trouble and expense of crossing the wide prairies or taking ship around the Horn for the sake of a fugitive when they could much more quickly and easily kidnap some hapless freedman who happened to suit the description, he made up his mind to go to California. Doc Henderson gifted him with a horse, a set of instruments, and a few books, wished him luck and told him that his family's prayers would be with him. By the time the Act was passed in September, the young man was in Fort Snelling, in the Minnesota Territory, where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers came together.

Working variously as a hunter, woodchopper, trapper, and deckhand on the steamboats plying from Fort Union to Fort Pierre, Nathan made his way slowly west and south, learning by the way much that was useful in surviving the wilderness. He even found about $750 worth of gold dust while seeking fur on the Big Hole River. Then, late in the summer of '57, he fell afoul of the Sioux. Colonel William Harney's six-hundred- man campaign out of Fort Kearny in '55 had set off what no one probably realized was to be almost a generation of Northern Plains wars; hot to avenge the "massacre" of Lieutenant Grattan and his thirty men just above Fort Laramie the previous year, he had smoked with the Brulé chief Little Thunder, then attacked his village in Ash Hollow, killing many women and children and carrying a hundred Sioux off to prison for more than a year. This unnecessary and ill- considered act so aroused the Sioux that they became the biggest menace on the Oregon Trail. Though they didn't act concertedly, as a tribe, little bands of young men--and older ones-- kept foraying out from their scattered villages, striking at unwary travellers and isolated road ranches, running off livestock, seizing white women and children and carrying them off to be killed or adopted into the tribe, burning, plundering, and taking scalps. One such band crossed trails with Nathan as he was on his way in to Fort Laramie. Taken to their camp as a prisoner, he was saved from torture and death only by the intervention of Madison Beauchamp, a quadroon of French and Irish blood who had been manumitted by his father as a youth and eventually entered the ranks of the mountain men. Since they and the Sioux generally regarded each other as friends, he had eventually taken a wife from their ranks, and after the beaver trade died off around 1837, he spent more and more time with them, slowly assimilating, earning the little money and trade goods he wanted for his family by the trapping of "coarse fur," or anything other than beaver--wolf, bear, fox, skunk, mink, otter, raccoon, muskrat, marten, badger, wildcat--and the sale of dressed deerskins and buffalo hides.

With him on his forays, often, went his youngest child, whose Indian name meant Sound- of-Rain-on-Leaves, and whose mother had died four years earlier. She was seventeen, a lovely girl with a glowing reddish complexion, the finer features of white blood, and the corkscrew waves of hair that resulted from the fusion of Indian and Negro. Nathan might no longer be a prisoner, but he was captivated from the start. He became Beauchamp's partner, lived in his lodge as a guest, and rapidly gained the inside track over his daughter's many suitors. Ever curious about the healing arts, he also began studying the methods of the Sioux healer-women and shamans, while passing on to them something of what he had learned in the East. Beauchamp's sons and nephews were impressed by his hunting skills and ability to throw a knife, and quickly accepted him into their group. Sioux courtship could last as long as five years, but Rain, as her father called her, returned his affection. They were married during last year's great hunt. Rain's Indian kin, as was custom, provided the materials for a lodge and everything needed to furnish it. Beauchamp, seeing that his daughter no longer required him to provide for her, drifted off into the mountains, but Nathan remained. He had all but forgotten about California now. Here, among the Indians, he was accepted completely, on the basis of what he could do. No one cared about his color or that he had once been a slave. He was a valued member of their society, a hunter, a pezhuta wichasha (which meant a man who cured sickness with roots and herbs), one who had strong medicine and had been given the name of Taöya Teluta--His- People-Are-Red.

He cleaned the roan's coat, watered it, and turned it over to a herdboy to be taken out to forage, then hoisted his saddle onto his shoulder--he still hadn't learned to equal the Indians at bareback riding-- and made his way back to his lodge. Its painted designs included the Sioux bird, the singing meadowlark, and just over the entrance a pipe in red and yellow with a rising sun directly opposite, representing welcome and good will to men under the bright sun. Just inside the doorflap he let the saddle slide to the floor and reached for his wife, who came willingly into his arms. Her father had taught her mother to kiss, white fashion, and she had grown up seeing it done, so she had been happy to adopt the custom when she married. Her dress was cut in Sioux style but made of fine dark-blue woollen cloth, decorated with cowrie shells, elk and buffalo teeth, tin cones, bead- and quillwork. Long shell ear pendants reached to her waist in the very common manner of her people; strings of beads of every color were looped around her neck, and her hair, which he insisted she not braid because he so loved to see its waviness, was held by bright ribbons. "Tell me again, girl," he growled softly in English, "how I got so lucky as to have somethin' like you to come home to. You could'a' had a chief."

"I have a chief," she replied saucily in the same language, laying her cheek against his chest. "My chief. Miwichashita," she repeated in Lakota.

"I still ain't figured why you picked on me," he insisted, as he loosed his embrace, flipped his flexible black felt hat into the corner behind their bed, and began slipping out of his great deep-furred wolfskin hunting coat. "I ain't a warrior. I ain't had a vision or been in the Sun Dance. I ain't even got but five horses. I'm a fair-to-middlin' hunter and I know some about tendin' the sick, but there was lots of boys of good name and fambly pantin' after you long before I came."

"Don't you know you should never ask a woman why she chooses you?" Rain teased. "You may end up hearing something you don't want to."

"Still," said Nathan, bending over the cooking pots for a noseful of fragrant steam. "Lord, somethin' smells good."

"Then say that is why I chose you. Because you never think it's beneath you to praise me." She smiled archly at him. "I am a shamelessly vain woman, mihihna [my husband]."

"I've noticed," he told her with a completely straight face, and then laughed at her expression.

As darkness gathered around the tipi, she served their meal, the centerpiece of which was roast tenderloin of elk and chopped parts of the heart boiled with the roots of the pangi, or Jerusalem artichoke, in a buffalo paunch by the use of hot stones, old-style. There was wild rice and wild sweet potato, brown-all-over bread baked in an iron pot buried under the coals, oomenechah and manakcahkcah (a kind of wild bean and the root of the wild lily, stolen from mouse nests and packed away in parfleches to be used as wanted), dried fruit and hot coffee sweet with lumps of brown sugar and even little cakes of maple sugar to eat like candy. "It ain't that I don't appreciate the trouble you go to," Nathan told her, "but we still got a bit of winter to get through. How come we havin' such a feast?"

"Because," said Rain, "we have something to celebrate." At his quizzical look, she laid her hand on her flat little belly and said, "In the Moon When Wolves Run Together, there will be a third to live in this lodge."

Nathan's first reaction was to stop and remember what month that idiom referred to: October. Then he went over the whole sentence again and realized what she had said. "A baby?" he demanded in a hushed voice. "You're gonna have a baby?"

She nodded quickly, a happy smile wreathing her face. "I've thought for two months that it was so. Now I'm sure."

Nathan swept her into his arms, delighted laughter bubbling up. "Lord, that's great! I'm so happy I could bust! I hope your pa comes to visit when the Council meets. I'd like him to know how thankful I am to him for bringin' you into my life so I could be blessed like this."

She squirmed into a comfortable position at his side, leaning against him, her face suddenly thoughtful. "I've been thinking," she mused. "My mother was Lakota, so I'm considered one too. And because I am, my children also will be, no matter who their father is. If I had married a Sioux boy, they would be mostly Indian blood. But I married you, and that will make them more than half black. I wonder if it's right for them to grow up knowing nothing of the ways of their father's people." She grew more serious. "You and I know something of the numbers and minds of white people. Can we hope that the Indians will remain always on this land? Should we risk that our children die in war before they're even grown?"

He frowned. "What is it you're sayin', girl?"

"I think," she said slowly, "that we should give long thought to going to live among the whites. They're the people you were raised with, and you're not like my father, half wild already. I know you've told me about the slave-catchers, but we don't have to go over east of the Great Smoky Water where they are. We can go to Fort Laramie or one of the new forts. You can hunt and use your herbs, and I can tan skins. Maybe because we know the People as we do, we can help them come through whatever will happen with less trouble." Her eyes came up to meet his gravely. "You've tried, Nathan, very hard, but I know you'll never be an Indian. You shouldn't have to be one. You should be something greater, something like what your Dr. Henderson wanted for you."

He hesitated, searching for words. "I ain't gonna lie to you," he admitted. "There's lots that I miss about livin' civilized. And I guess I've knowed all along I can't go the way your pa done. But I gotta think about you. You know what they'll call you. A halfbreed. A squaw. Maybe worse."

"They're words," she said. "You've been called by harsher ones. To me, what matters isn't what I'm called. It's that we're together and our child knows its father."

He understood what she meant. Many beaver men like her father, on acquiring a brood of halfbreed children, became squaw-men altogether, quit going to the settlements, turned completely Indian and almost forgot they'd ever been anything else. But many others took their Indian wives chiefly because there were no white women to be had in their region, and when that deficiency was remedied, they usually abandoned their women or sent them back to their tribes in disgrace. Rain had almost certainly seen it. For a moment indignation, almost anger, rose in him. Did she know him so little that she thought he would stoop to such a thing? But hard-learned habit made him hold his tongue long enough to think over everything she had said. Probably she was right about what lay in the future. Now that whites were well established in Texas, in California and Oregon, New Mexico and Deseret, and even around the new diggings at Denver, there would inevitably be more of them. Railroads across the plains had been speculated on since he was just a boy; trails already cut their paths across the land, bringing whiskey and disease and hunters who frightened off the game the Indians required. Cities in the East teemed with both native-born and immigrant eager to push forward into lands where they could find vacant acreage and become their own masters. Sadness chilled him at the thought of the proud, free, egalitarian Indian being reduced to a shadow of the white, or destroyed altogether. Yet it had happened, to so many tribes. Even the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole had found it expedient to copy the ways of the invader--and that hadn't saved them from forced removal.

"I see what you're sayin'," he admitted at last. "But I still think it ain't a choice to be made lightly. We need to think on it, sleep on it, talk more about it, maybe take it up with your kinfolks. There's time. We got all the spring and summer."

She nodded. "Yes. It's a big change to make--more for me than for you; you'll only be going back to something you already know. We should think before we decide. I only wanted to get it said so we could know to start thinking."

"You're a very wise woman, mitawin," Nathan told her, slipping his arm around her shoulders. "You got wakinyan, maybe?" It meant, roughly, the power of great intuition and the ability to foretell events.

"No," Rain replied softly, "because if I did, I'd already know whether we're going to leave the People, and what will happen after we do. What I have is a father and a husband who know more of the world than my mother's people do. What's knowledge for, if not to use?"

Nathan sighed. "The sticky part is usin' it right."


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