Sunday, February 11, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal

Inching along in thirty-mile increments, the two women worked always West across the rising prairie as the tall grass gave way to short grass, sparsely vegetated. Though the rutted and churned clay of the road showed that there had been rain earlier, now there was none and dust became part of their daily existence, especially during the day when the spring wagon was jouncing along. Rarely they overtook other travelers with heavier vehicles and slow oxen teams, but such outfits were old-fashioned and their owners were not particularly friendly since they wished to conserve both their supplies and their ideas about the future.

Now and then they came to a crossroads and if it were major enough, there would be an inn or tavern with maybe a stagecoach connection. Once in a long time they saw a ranch house, never very large and none with trees, though there was sometimes evidence that saplings had been planted, only to die in place. Since there were few to rob, there were few robbers, though once a pair of dubious hombres approached them over the curve of a hill. The women took out their guns, casually polishing them on apron or coat tail, and the men caught the gleam of sun on metal far enough away that they only changed their path without any confrontation.

Cate continued to cast her own path out to the sides of the road, riding the high places. Demeter had a telescope in her box and Cate took it with her to scout for places that might have water. She watched for signs of declivities eroded by watercourses or for clumps of green or trees that would signal a spring. Occasionally she shot a rabbit or even a deer but the women mostly depended upon the supplies in their wagon. There were no bison nor signs of them, though people had told them how they once were so thick.

When it was dark they sat together near their cooking fire while it dwindled after they had eaten and cleared up. Cate got out her pipe and smoked a bit. Demeter was more inclined to knit. As the days got longer, they did less of this and sank down to sleep early. But especially at first they talked.

Demeter could not stop examining her own actions. Had she done something to make Pers so glum and introverted? Or was she born that way? Was sending her out West the way to wake her up, or had the effort merely doomed her to some unknown fate far worse than sulking at home? Should she have been more strict or more lenient?

Cate listened patiently night after night. Finally she made a little speech. “Human beings can’t see far ahead. You’ve got to choose your path most times without really knowing where it will go. A mother can give advice but in the end the daughter has to make her own way. It’s like bein’ a gardener. You can prepare the soil and provide the water -- maybe a bit of fertilizer -- but in the end the plant has to do its own growin’. Much of a plant is under the ground where you can’t see it. If you pull it up to take a look at the roots, you’ll likely kill it.”

Demeter nodded. And knitted. And continued to question herself, but inside where Cate couldn’t give her good advice. She had her own underground roots. Cate asked, “Whatcha knittin’?” She didn’t know -- it was a way of thinking about something that had no real definition -- but that was so much along the lines of Cate’s point that she said, “Oh, I guess a shawl. Winter’s always closer than we think.”

One afternoon Cate came back to the road to report that there was a small house up ahead with a well beside it. This appeared to be the only water for a long distance. There were no humans apparent -- perhaps the place was abandoned. Given this, it seemed like a good place to spend the night, perhaps with a fireplace if not a real stove. There was no smoke, but one could find a way to be optimistic about that. The best possibility was that the stove was there but not an interfering human being.

Travelling over the rise and down into the broad saucer where the house stood, both women located their pistols just in case. Demeter pulled up in the yard and tied the horses to the rudimentary pole fence. Even that was more than many places had. This cabin even had a porch.

Dismounting, Cate went to the door, which was hanging a little open on its leather hinges. The windows were shuttered so that it was dark inside. Gingerly, Cate pushed the door open and waited for her eyes to adjust. Demeter watched from the path to the porch as Cate finally disappeared inside. She was too far from the house to hear the small noises Cate was trying to interpret. Packrat or human? Metal or wood? She saw the door to a second room and went carefully to peer in.

When Cate came back to the door, she was motioning Demeter to come. She hissed, “I don’t want to go in there alone. Come see what you think.”

“What is it?”

“There’s someone dying in the back room. I don’t want to go in there if they have smallpox.” They looked at each other gravely while they thought it over. They had both been vaccinated before they began this trip, but smallpox was only one of the possible diseases.

“I’ll look,” said Demeter. “We might be able to help.”

“I got no cure for smallpox,” grumbled Cate. “Once they’ve got it, they either survive or they don’t.”

They went quietly and gingerly to the inner doorway where they studied the shape on a homemade bed built into the angle of the wall so as to use as little wood as possible. “I think it’s an old man,” hissed Cate.

“Yes,” came a weak and quavering voice from the heap of ragged quilts. “It’s an old man and sure enough I’m dying, but I ain’t contagious. Might be hallucinatin’, though. Seems like I see two women in my doorway but there ain’t been women here since my wife died.”

“Why are you dying?” asked Demeter,coming a bit closer.

“Oh, jest old, I guess. Nuthin’ else to do. A body can’t live forever.” He shifted around a bit and they saw the gleam of light hitting an eye like a rodent peering out of its hole.

Cate marched to the single window and threw open the shutters, which made the heap squirm. ‘Ooooh, Lord! I like the dark so much better! I kin jest sorta dream away the time until I go.”

Demeter looked more closely. “No rash or poxes I can see. His color is bad and his breathing is rough. Mostly he’s filthy and emaciated.”

"What kin you expect?” the old man whined. “I TOLD you I’m dyin’.” Indeed his whispery voice was growing more faint.

“Can you walk?” Cate asked.

“Nope. Cain’t even stand up.”

“How long have you been here like this?’


“Are you thirsty?” The truth was that Cate herself was thirsty. They had not exactly been rationing their water, but being mindful of their use of it.

“Yep. But it ain’t no use.”

“I’ll go get water from your well.”

“Ain’t no use, I said. Thing’s gone dry.”

Cate, never one to accept second-hand reports, went out to check for herself. Sure enough, the bucket on a rope lowered to solid earth with a thunk. No splash. Not even a mucky sound that might mean a little seep. She refilled her canteen from the barrel of water they carried and saw that the bucket was low. But no one should deny another living person water, even if they wouldn’t be living very long.

Cate found a tin cup in the clutter of the kitchen. Demeter had emerged to size up the front room. There was indeed a cast iron stove with its pipe complete, but there was no firewood. They had a little in the wagon. “Enough water to do some cleanup?” she asked Cate as she passed on through.

“Not any at all. This is mighty droughty country.”

Demeter only shrugged and used a rag to move some of the dust around on the single table, setting dirty dishes in a pile on the floor.

The old man sipped a bit. “Won’t do no good,” he said, “But it tastes all right.” Cate waited for him to absorb the first water so she could give him a bit more. His breath rattled. Maybe pneumonia. After the second sip, he rallied a bit. “You gotta do something for me,” he whispered.

“What’s that?”

“You gotta take care of them that’s out back.”

“Who’s out back?”

“Promise me you’ll take care of them, my golden lovelies! My wealth! My precious beings!”

“What beings are those?”

“Don’t let the Indians get ‘em! Promise me!”

Suddenly he stiffened, his back arched, his mouth formed a gasping O, and his limbs shook. In a few moments he was dead, turning blue. “Well, saved some water in the long run, I guess,” said Cate and went to tell Demeter. “Prob’ly means he’s got some loved ones buried out back somewhere. Wife or something.”

“We’ll look after we eat.” Canned beans were heated and ready to serve on their own dishes. She had made coffee in a proper percolator. They ate sitting on the edge of the porch. They were not hard-hearted women, but they knew death and didn’t waste energy on it. They would give it some thought as the time came available. Cate lit her pipe and smoked while Demeter cleaned up. She scoured with sand in order to save soap.

Then they strolled out to the back of the cabin, looking for headstones. There were none. They were stumped for a few minutes and then Demeter, hearing the familiar sound, realized. “He was talking about bees. The man was a beekeeper.”

Sure enough, a couple of bee skeps stood on platforms in the grass. In the slanting evening light they could see the bees returning for the night, each golden and fuzzy. It was hard to guess where they might have been finding pollen, but the women took notice of the direction the insects came from. If the bees had found pollen, something must be blooming, which meant there was water of some kind.

They stood and watched, the rich tobacco smoke from Cate’s pipe seeming to calm the bees. Each landed neatly and walked in the small doorway to their fort. “Must be honey in there,” noted Demeter. “Come with me and bring that pipe.” They moved slowly to the boxes and while Cate produced smoke, Demeter lifted a lid enough to see the hexagons of honeycomb inside. “Ah yes.” The memory of honey on her tongue made her mouth wet.

Back on the cabin porch, the women decided not to bury the old man. They didn’t want to touch him and didn’t want to spend time with a pick fighting to get him into the dry earth. If he were dead, the best thing they could do for him was take along his bees to a place where they could survive. Demeter went in to see if the room contained anything else they ought to take along, but there was nothing. Using only two fingers, she pulled the ragged quilts back to survey his curled-up body, then lifted the nearly disintegrating covers over his head.

After giving the porch a good sweeping, they spent the night on it and next morning before first light, with Cate puffing mightily on her pipe as insurance, they plugged the entrances to the skeps and moved the bees into the wagon. Demeter rigged some shade over them with canvas.

Next day their progress was slower than usual because of not wanting to jounce the bees around more than they had to. About noon Cate took the telescope up to a bluff, traveling slantwise up the side on Crossroads, who didn’t like noisy shale underfoot with its sliding and bouncing. She came back in a hurry, taking no heed of Crossroads’ preferences. “There’s a fire behind us, about a half-days’ travel.”

“Think it’s the cabin?”

“To be sure, that’s what it looks like. A column. Looks like wood burning, not grass.”

“I ought to have told you earlier. The old man couldn’t have come back to life. I pulled down his covers and saw he had a bad wound to the chest, untended. That was his disease.”

“A wound from what?"

“Didn’t look like a bullet wound.”


“We’ve been in Indian country for a while.”

“Think they’ll follow us?”

“No idea.”

Cate turned to go back up on the ridge, but Demeter called to her. “Maybe it would be better if we stuck closer together. If they come, hold off on guns. They might just want a kind of tithe -- flour, coffee, so on. Since we’re women.”

“Not to make us their slaves?”

In silence both women dealt with vivid mental images of rape, torture and captivity. “Let’s wait until they’re behaving badly before we use our guns.” Maybe their mental images weren’t quite the same. Demeter looked sideways at Cate, who hadn’t sounded as though she entirely objected to being enslaved by Indians. Cate once mentioned that she’d read several captivity narratives that didn’t make Indian life sound half-bad. In fact, the captured women had resented being returned to their families, insisting that the Indian life was more civilized. The Irish are so romantic, Demeter thought to herself, but she couldn’t see under Cate’s bonnet. She herself figured that Indians wouldn’t consider white women much of a treasure. Couldn’t tan hides. Couldn’t put up a proper lodge. It might come down to her blonde hair or Cate’s red and whether they fancied such for decoration.

A few hours later the Indians, having circled around them behind the ridge, appeared on the road ahead of them. They were a thriftless looking bunch, not a half-dozen of them, but when the leader put up his hand to signal a halt, the women stopped. Encouraged by this, the Indians came closer and it was clear that they were ragged young men, not very organized and not very resourceful as individuals either. They were energized by being a gang.

The boldest rode around the wagon, craning his neck to size-up the load. His eye lit on the improvised shade over the bee skep and he jabbered to the other boys. Then he rode up to Demeter, whose team craned their necks to see what was going on. “Whoa, Rye. Calm horse, Barley. Take it easy.” Actually, she was talking to herself as much as to her horses.

The young leader burst out, “Sugar bugs!” A smile wreathed his face and his eyes were wide with anticipation. “Sugar bugs!” Then a long spiel in his own language.

“I reckon he knows a bee hive when he sees one,” remarked Cate, who had pushed her bonnet off her face so it hung down her back. She wanted to see as much as she could, like a prey animal. “We gonna just give them bees to ‘em?”

“It’s not what we promised that old man.”

“Think they’re the ones who gave him that wound?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised. But I kinda doubt it. They would’ve taken the bees then.” Cate’s hand was deep in her apron pocket, clenched over her pistol. She knew that Demeter’s gun was close at hand but she’d have to drop the team’s reins and that was tricky. Steady as they were, they’d not been tested by nearby shooting.

Suddenly the young men swarmed the wagon, two of them sliding into the wagon bed, knocking aside the shade and then yanking out the plugs the women had put into the bee entrances. The young men were sweaty and hot. They stunk and they were full of adrenaline with their adventure. The first bee waddled out of the dark hive and reacted as bees do.

“Yeeaaaaaaeeeeiiii!” screamed the first mighty warrior. “Aaaiiigghh!” yelled the second as other bees found his bare hide. All the boys had a lot of bare hide -- thighs, shoulders and faces with tender parts. Slapping madly at the bees, the boys managed to knock them stunned and angry into their ragged clothes where the increasingly angry bees stung them in their creases and personal places.

After a few minutes of circling, the boys -- both on foot and on horseback -- took off running with their horses pell-mell mixed in with them. Screaming, they headed over the ridge and could be heard receding into the distance. Some bees went with them, but most of the swarm subsided and clustered on the skeps and other contents of the wagon.

Then there was another sound. Male laughter. An older and calmer Indian man sat on a rock just on the road side of the ridge, laughing so hard he couldn’t stop. The women looked at him, at each other, and also began to laugh, but there was a bit of an hysterical edge in their voices. Would this clearly more competent Indian now attack them? He wore trousers and an Indian-style calico shirt with an old suit vest. No war decorations. Elastic arm bands to keep his cuffs high.

When he was able, he walked down to the wagon and women. Calmly he brushed a few bees off the horses. The women gently flapped more off their skirts and hats.

“The bees are not stinging you,” remarked Demeter.

“I am a Tobacco Man. Bees like me. They like what I grow.”

“What in the world is a Tobacco Man?” demanded Cate.

“I grow tobacco -- for sacred purposes. My people respect the plant and therefore they respect those who know how to tend it. It is a sacred plant with many virtues.”

“You seem quite a good English speaker.” Demeter was making flat statements, partly because she was still a little shocky and partly because that was her way.

The Tobacco man bowed and made a gesture of doffing a hat, though he was only wearing a browband to control his hair. “I am a graduate of Carlisle, Madam. Fully educated.”

Cate was charmed, Demeter saw. She was smoothing her hair and trying to decide whether to reinstate her bonnet. “What is your name, Mister Tobacco Man?”

“In my language, you couldn’t pronounce it. Call me Toby.”

“Then call me Cate,” Cate instructed. “And that’s Demeter.” The less said the better, but people do have to have names.

They all began to move on down the road. The bees were partly riding and partly flying in a little cloud over the bee skep. Everyone moved slowly. By the time they camped that night, rather early, they knew a lot about each other.

Toby was Mandan, a tribe that gardened. His village was just a few weeks further along, on the banks of a river, but it was a much diminished village because of smallpox in the past. Toby had been vaccinated at school, but now he had lost most of his family, including his wife and children. “There are many empty lodges there,” said Toby. “You could stay in one. They are not tents but like houses.”

The women agreed to veer towards Toby’s village. But Demeter didn’t want to stay long. Nevertheless, they had been traveling for many weeks now, repeating the same tasks of making camp, finding something for the horses to eat, coping with short water, maintaining the gear, sleeping with their ears open, and breaking camp again the next morning. They talked less as time went on -- there was little need after they estabished their patterns.

But the horses were suffering, especially the big team. Their flesh was diminishing and their hides no longer shone. Such big animals needed a lot of fodder and water, while the neat little black mare could get along with less. Days were hot though nights were beginning to cool. They could have withstood the heat if there had been enough water.

At every chance they refilled their barrels, even if it took a day to collect from a trickle, and it was clear that this was the only way to get from one water source to the next. Demeter took her maps out of her box every night and studied them with her hand lens, but they weren’t much help. The makers had a lot of imagination or relied too much on hearsay.

It helped to have Toby along. He often -- not always -- could find water and he was enough stronger to bring in more firewood and also better at knowing what would burn. By now they were using buffalo chips as much as wood. He didn’t scold them for being two women alone traveling on the prairie -- just took that for granted as a fact and did his part both traveling and in camp.

In the short interval between scouring out the tin pans with sand or rushes and rolling up for sleep (using blankets as much for protection against the insects as for warmth), he and Cate formed the habit of sitting by the coals of the cook fire with their pipes. They were both botanizers and would sometimes show each other their day’s find, flattening the plants out on their knees to look at how the leaves were connected to the stem or small puzzling structures that might become seeds. Plants were endlessly inventive, and yet they stuck to the same themes.

Demeter took a square of canvas and a hand scythe and in the last of the daylight walked out beyond where the horses were picketed, sometimes even several miles, to cut what grass and edible browse there might be. She piled it on the canvas and towed her load behind her. Her diligence didn’t add a lot, but she knew that a small margin could make a wide difference.

Anyway, she wanted to think about Mort Lethe and why he would kidnap her daughter. She thought back to the first time she met the man.

It was a battlefield of the War between the States, a field with a split rail fence along one side seeming to hold back trees that were dark because it was evening. She’d had a bucket of water and a dipper and was trying to find men who thirsted in their agony on the ground. Mostly she was guided by the groans of the soldiers tossed like matchsticks. She could not tell gray from blue, even when the moon began to rise. There seemed to be no color in the world. Blood seemed black. The bodies were thick as cut grass.

At first she didn’t notice the man at the other end of the field, also stooping over the men, one after another, methodically. But he didn’t carry a bucket. He had a saber and he seemed to be plunging it into the men. The blade flashed in the moonlight. She thought surely she misunderstood, but when he came closer, she realized that it was true. He was finishing off the wounded.

“Stop,” she cried. “What are you doing?”

“They’re through,” the man said calmly. “They want to die.”

The man at her feet asked, “Sister, may ah hev some watah?” in a soft, courtly voice. She stooped to him and her dipper reflected moonlight a little duller than the saber did. He sipped a bit, shuddered, and then, his mouth gone slack, let the water run out of his mouth over his face, so that the moon shone off that as well.

She had been young but even then she wasn’t afraid of death. “The men in this field are mine,” she said. “Go kill somewhere else.”

The dark figure threw back his head and laughed. “Yours, are they? What will you do? Plant them? Grow corn here, fertilized with soldier bodies? They’ll have to die for that, won’t they?”

“Doctors are coming. Litters. Ambulances. We will heal them so they can grow up and become old men telling the stories of this battle.”

“Nothing is coming. Do you hear any wagons? Do you even hear voices except ours? No one will come until morning, maybe not even then.”

“I’ll go and get them! I’ll find help.”

“When the sun comes up, the real suffering will begin. These men are in agony -- let them go to the Elysian Fields where warriors wander forever.”

“No! I will not! I fight for life!” she screamed, and when he came closer, she threw the bucket of water in his face. But even then he was not angry. He laughed, as he turned away and swung over the fence into the woods.

A boy ten feet away said in a Yankee accent, “Sister, oh, Sister! Water, please!! I could live if I just had a drink of water.” But she’d thrown it all on Mort Lethe. Around her the voices of grown men had begged, “Mother, I need you. Help me. Ma, where are you? I hurt so much.”

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