Into the Tribe Ch. 01byAmeriRam©
The wagon drew down its speed as the convoy neared the Cimarron River and the party saw the rushing rapids that would make the crossing difficult. It was one more obstacle on their arduous westward journey that seemed to never reach the destination in this gigantic land.
They were destined for Arizona, yet at this time they were still driving through the Indian Territory in mid-November, when rains were already making much of the area difficult terrain. The area was also considered lawless, which made the going edgy for the group of sixty, 34 men of all ages, the remainder women and children from infancy to 42. It was considered too challenging of a trail for the elderly or the pregnant. At night they would circle the wagons and hope for the best, even though the trek organizers had reassured them that the Indian Territory was made up of tribes that had been pacified long before its incorporation in 1834, 42 years earlier.
Among them were a diverse group, including mining prospectors, rail-road employees, and dispossessed farmers. An example of the latter category were the Northrups, who made up four souls of the convoy. There was Ada, the mother, Drew, Alexandra, and Anne Marie, the brother and sisters; and there was also Bethany Knox, who until seven years ago had been the child of their neighbours' slaves. The Northrup house was from Georgia, and their orchards had been lost as collateral damage by the war. The father and the oldest sons had been lost to disease while serving the losing side. Bethany's family was among those who had been disappeared by the slave owning authorities.
Bethany was of Alexandra's age, eighteen, and they were so used to each other's company, that it would have been appropriate that they were sisters, apart from their physical contrasts. Alexandra possessed bronzed skin, green porcelain eyes light brown hair, and was just tall enough to mount a mule alone, not short at all, but definitely not conspicuous. It came in handy once when a stagecoach had broken an axle, and she had had to ride in tandem with someone for three weeks in Kansas. She had a very homely and reserved demeanour, due largely to the taxing life the family had led since the passing of its rebel men.
Bethany had light brown skin, and more obscure eyes, and had a figure that was tall and slim, rising to the height of 5'11" while still only 17. This put her equal to Drew, who had grown to be taller than his late father.Bethany's character was also very indoors. . . during her previous life she had been a house servant. But she had been far better adjusted to frontier life, and took an active interest in learning skills of it such as freshwater fishing, fashioning makeshift tools, and building fires.
Although Ada was the default head of the family, she was losing her influence over her children and Bethany as they gradually became dependent on the group. Several times she had had to implore Drew to head off hostile advances that some of the lecherous prospectors had made, particularly towards Bethany who as an orphan and freed slave ostensibly had no one to guard her honour. Drew, still only 18 at the outset of the journey, was chafing at the idea that he was being forced to shoulder the responsibility over four women who were basically bait for the rest of the men in the convoy.
As dusk approached, the convoy began to despair of crossing the Cimarron, and they resolved to set up camp. "There ain't a chance in hell we'll make it to Arizona by winter," commented one of the prospectors as they all sat round a bonfire and waited for their dinner of bison beef and rice to cook.
Ada gave the man a stern look. She had already admonished him before about his negative attitude. But the dreary reality had sunk in to everyone until they had been consigned to accept the possibility that perhaps they would still be slogging through the wilderness come winter. The rest of the evening was the usual long reverie of idling around the fires while Reverend Campbell, one of the South Carolinians in the party, entertained them with his tales of the New Testament and fiddle music.
"Gals better hush up and turn in for tomorrow," Ada advised Beth and Alexandra, although they had sat in silence most of the evening. "We might yet cross the river in the morning." So they snapped out of their monotony of staring at the sparse vegetation peeking out of the darkness, and began to set up their bedding. As the last light of the evening disappeared, the sounds of the insects in the surrounding area close to the river began to amplify. More of concern was a distant howling that they assumed came from creatures they had been told were called coyotes in these parts.
"Stuck on a river agin'" griped Alexandra to no one in particular, as she spread some fashioned straw cushions over a strip of ground. "En who knows what rain's in store for t'morrow. "
Raising her head from her own beddings, Bethany shook her head. "Y'all can't just get to sleepin' without moanin'?" The argument had been replayed over and over again for months. "Didnt chall hear me before? This's our last open door. We gots to walk through it." Alexandra rolled her eyes, not possessing enough will to support her pessimistic argument. As they laid down to take their rest, she remained weary. Most nights they had passed under the stars until now had been peaceful. They had been too exhausted in any case for her to be able to keep her eyelids open.
But in other cases, when they had not trekked as far as possible in a single day, her thoughts would wander until her excess energy was discharged. They would return to the past, to a home in the fertile soil of Georgia. To her father and older brothers who were now faded spectres of scrawny bodies in grey uniforms riding their emaciated horses down the path to the main highway and toward some vague front.But at some point, and tonight was no different, she would be seized momentarily by the feeling of impending doom. Alexandra's eyes remained guarded and open for what seemed an endless hour after most of the others had turned in. The sounds of the animals and insects were joined by the coughing of the ill and old. One of them, a former forester from Tennessee, would frequently hack, and it was plain to see that he wasn't coping well with his tuberculosis.
Sleep came without her noticing, and she reclined face upward with her mouth ajar, as if expecting some gift from the black blanket of stars.
And that gift came in an unexpected and unwanted fashion. Bethany awoke first, and was greeted by complete pandemonium. By the time she had risen from her position, it was too late to make a serious difference. Flames were engulfing most of the wagons in the party, a lot of the menfolk were lying dead or dying, as were three dark figures clad in darkened moccasins. Some of their brethren were galloping around on foot or horseback and dispatching of the remaining trekkers. Some of them were armed with breech rifles, but the majority were using long spears and hatchets to do their damage. One of the settlers was shouting out orders. "Y'see anyone still asleep, wake 'em. Better dead than savages' trade. This was Daugherty, one of the top scouts, who unfortunately had not been on watch at that hour, as he would probably have given better warning than the sickly Clay Beathard who was.
Bethany woke Alexandra and dragged her to her feet. "It's still dark!" she protested.
"Get up and run, or we're both dead!" hissed Bethany. She grabbed the closest rigid object, a stirring ladle from the washed cauldron kit, and prepared to face whoever would face them. A hulking man ran up carrying a hatchet, which he held behind his shoulder. His face was smeared with dark grease, and he sneered in contempt, before shouting what sounded like a cursed oath. Bethany bellowed with a rage she'd never known, and charged full on at the mammoth warrior. He had been caught off guard, as he'd apparently expected spare resistance from settler women. The bowl of the ladle caught him in his temple, and he stumbled back before fulling straight onto his trunk.
Bethany stood stunned at the force she had exerted, and hesitated a moment. Now Alexandra seized the initiative and grabbed Beth, dragging her in the direction where there were the least flames. They were able to make it thirty yards, before they were seized by a new terror. backed up against a pile of wood was Drew, with a revolver pistol drawn and pointed toward two of the attackers. One of them was with spear held in readiness to strike, the other held a club and seemed to be gesturing toward Drew to draw down. In a nearby corner between two wagons that were as yet unlit some of the attackers were binding live settlers.
"Beth, we gotta move!" yelped Alexandra, trying not to draw the attention of an unoccupied Indian.
"An' leave yo' brother to get torn to shreds?" Just then, Drew's eyes turned toward the two girls, and his eyes widened. "Get down! On the floor, Beth & Alex!" he shouted. They complied after a half-second hesitation. Drew glanced briefly at the two aligned against him, then whistled a round off toward a person who had been behind the two girls. The man bellowed in pain; it was the same one she had struck before. Bethany, from the ground, rose to a crouch and began delivering blows to his midsection still using the ladle. The man was in great pain, and she was able to deliver another blow to his throat, making sure this time he would be disabled.
Bethany flew into a rage and continued to hit the gravely wounded Indian in the throat until she heard his struggling gurgling sounds. By then others had closed in around her, and she could see Drew and Alexandra being dragged into the corner by three men each, no longer capable of resisting.
As the dark figures closed out what light remained, which was only from the blazing fires of the wagons, Bethany began to utter the few gospel prayers she remembered her parents teaching her. The faces in front of her displayed the bare rage of marauders who were in the mood to repay her for the painful wounds and likely death she had inflicted on their comrade. As she was counting her final seconds a scuffle behind them broke out, and a smaller figure pushed through toward her. Frenzied words were shouted toward the men surrounding her, in a lighter voice, and the ones in front of her moved back.
Now directly in front of her stood only two figures. One was slightly taller than Bethany, and was wearing a short headdress, was bare-chested, and wore dark, yet elaborate moccasins with a pattern of wolves and gophers down the left side visible from the firelight. He had a cocky stance and was scowling. The other was shorter, wore a bison's head and was covered from head to toe in leather.
The haughty warrior shouted at the bison's head, but was in return berated mercilessly. Bethany was content not to know what the shouting was about. For all she knew, the two Indians were arguing whether to kill her now or later, or in what manner to do it. The warrior eventually lowered his spear, and the bison's head turned to face her. She saw two eyes peeking out of the mouth, and a hand inserted a tube inside. Suddenly she felt something piercing her neck. She reached up to see what it was, but within seconds, she had become woozy and began to sway. The ground gave way from under her, and then she felt three pairs of strong arms grab her.
The first vision that greeted her was of the wispy clouds in the blue up above. Alexandra was patting her on the cheek, and when she rose to a seated position she realized that they were confined in a ring of tall stakes, although they could see outside. Inside were only a handful of the convoy trekkers, and only three men remained. Bethany was there, but the others from her kin were not.
But she wasn't to have time to adjust to this. Three men arrived at one of the openings in the stake fence, and dug out one of the stakes. Two of them were bare chested and wore darkened leather pants and moccasins. She wondered if they'd been among the attackers the night before. If they were, their appearance at daytime was far less menacing. They had nonchalant expressions, and dug out the stakes without the least haste. The third, however, was in full dress, with a robe covered by a decoration made of feathers across the chest, and eyes peeking out of the buffalo headdress.
The two unmasked Indians who had dug the stake out beckoned toward Bethany and Alexandra to come. When they hesitated, the buffalo head slapped the side of his left hand into his right hand. The gesture was intimidating, and the two girls rose to follow, although Bethany was impeded by a headache. Alexandra supported her as they plodded a distance of several dozen yards past trees and thickets of bushes toward a series of small huts. Outside of one sat the haggard figure of an Indian who appeared to be in his sixties. Buffalo Head spoke what seemed like a couple of sentences in a direct tone toward the man. The voice coming out seemed unnaturally light.
He barely raised his head, and when he did he hacked painfully, before speaking. "Soaring Gull says you are the ones I am to travel with," he said in crisp English. "I am Norris Slaughter. I know you have been through a lot. From now on you are attached to them, the Ariwa, and I am to help you until they say otherwise."
"Why they need us?" protested Bethany. "They got the rest of our family-"
"Don't try to make reason of it," snapped Slaughter impatiently. He continued to stare forward toward absolutely nothing, and Bethany realized that one of his eyes was completely discoloured, and he was probably at least partially blind. "Do you think when I arrived I knew the purpose of my captivity?" He coughed bitterly and then gave them one final set of directions. "It is now almost high noon. We leave before dusk. You are to do as Soaring Gull and I say from now on."
The journey began exactly as Slaughter had dictated. They set off as light began to fade while the sun was on their left, meaning they were headed somewhere north. The party was small, horse mounted, and consisted of Slaughter, Soaring Gull in the buffalo headdress, and surprisingly, two women armed with rifles and hatchets. They were dressed in somewhat battle ready fashion, with low cut dresses covered by fur skirts with compartments for storing ammunitions and and tools such as quartz and flint knives.
For parts of the journey Beth and Alex were without warning blinded by straw hats that looked like lamp shades so they wouldn't see the way. It seemed that their captors were trying their best to prevent them from finding their way back.
During the journey Slaughter availed them of some spare information. For one thing, he was not an Ariwa, but had been born into the Creek tribe. He was a long-time prisoner of the Ariwa, not from a battle but for poaching with Mexican trappers on their land decades ago. His knowledge of English and other languages had kept him alive, but had also made them weary of his capacity to betray them, so they had blinded him in his left eye one day by throwing acid in it. Soaring gull and the two women spoke sparingly, and only among themselves or to Slaughter.
The journey took what seemed to be two days, and traversed mostly hill country. As daylight broke on the final day, the party trudged into a clearing where several huts stood resembling the ones in the village where they had woken up after their capture. Soaring Gull motioned to Slaughter, and he directed the two captive girls to sit down on some logs arranged in a circle. Soaring Gull disappeared for a few moments while Slaughter also sat down and the two Ariwa women stood guard. Soaring Gull returned soon with a group of five young Ariwa girls, these clad in more feminine leather and cotton garments. They bore food that included squash and what appeared to be a stew made of some fowl. Soaring Gull removed the buffalo headdress, and the two girls were stunned to see a flowing mane of hair spring out.
All along this fierce warrior had been a young striking woman.The girls who had accompanied her removed some of her outer vestments, and soon Soaring Gull was dressed in an arrangement somewhat similar to the two guards, only with blue and red chevrons on the shoulders that looked like sergeant's ranks that Alexandra remembered seeing on her father's uniform. For all of her menacing costume, Soaring Gull now looked slim, with alluring hips, long graceful arms, and bosoms that peeked out from her dress. Beth and Alex had never encountered a warrior woman, and this had some novelty and appeal to them.
Soaring Gull addressed them while Slaughter translated. "She says, 'You are from now on in your home, and you will be sisters to others in this home. Flowing Rapids and Green Hill will guide you for much of what you need," she added gesturing to the two guides who had shown them the way. "And know you are both needed for something you will understand very soon. Now eat and rest, for you have much to learn."
The first few days in the camp were uneventful, and Slaughter translated as the girls were taught the crafts of the Ariwa. They would eat their meals in the company of the same dozen or so girls, along with an older looking Ariwa named Dove's Feather, who would show them some of the improvised cures of the Ariwa, as she was a shaman. As expected, Bethany had a better grasp of the outdoors activities, such as the archery, marksmanship, and woodworking. Alexandra primarily dealt with sewing, preparing food, and harvesting herbs. They noticed that the women in the camp were very exacting in their cleanliness, and they exhibited none of the odours that they had associated with rough life on the frontier.
Bethany and Alexandra would accompany Soaring Gull in the late mornings along with some of the younger girls to a nearby creek, with its pristine waters broken by reeds and cat tails. They would watch in surprise at first as the girls undressed one another, never alone, and sank lithely into the water. Their bodies were typically hairless and slender, not even a bush between their legs to obstruct a view of their reddish brown skin. After expectant looks Alex and Beth would remove their own robes -- their linen dresses had been disposed of some time earlier, and would self-consciously dive into the creek, but the looks continued. Beth realized intuitively that it was because they undressed by themselves. The girls typically had the same tone of skin, but the two captive ones noticed that three possessed much lighter tones, and there was even one darker than Beth.
Soaring Gull would bathe usually close to a girl who seemed adolescent, and had a much more tender and submissive demeanour. At least once each morning they would drift off into the reeds out of sight of anyone else. Bethany noticed from time to time that another girl, very similar looking to Soaring Gull's companion, would send her fleeting looks while she bathed. Alex noticed similar, if more obvious, behaviour from Green Hill.
One afternoon Alexandra was sitting next to Slaughter as an Ariwa woman showed the uses they made of prairie dog pelts. During a long monotonous break in the demonstration, Alex turned to her guide.
"I have a question for you Mr. Slaughter."
"Does it have to do with prairie dog pelts?"
"Ask me anyway. I've seen this done more times than I can remember and it doesn't look any better when I'm half blind."
"Why are you the only man we've seen since coming here?"
The first grin Slaughter had allowed since their first meeting creeped onto his face. "Well, I guess you deserve that answer. But I'd be mighty tired if I'd have to explain to you now, and then Bethany again. Lemme tell you after she comes back from tracking coyote packs with the others."