smallpox

1914 Springtime—Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Browning Montana

 

It was not unusual after that manifest turn of the century for a child to spend the entire wind-driven day alone in front of the mercantile. Odd thing was, the child was white as the vanishing snow, white and left to fend the spring wind alone with nothing but the clothes on his back and a dog at his feet. When evening stole away the day’s breezy warmth, robed Indians drifted their various ways. The boy sat and waited, the dog warming his toes.

Tess Ground Owl took notice after a long day’s work in the store. She stopped to look the little stranger over and help him find his way. He asked the boy his name. He stood up, as if to be inspected, but did not offer an answer. “Come child. Your name.” Nothing. She tried coyote French, and then Blackfoot. No answer, as if he’d been told not to speak with strangers.

The reluctant boy struck a chord with Tess. He would not relinquish a word, nor accept her urge to follow along to her room in Sherburne’s mansion, the nicest house in town. She lingered with him on the street half a twilight hour, hoping to wait out some information, any information. She squatted down to pet his dog, giving the boy’s faithful companion a good rub. The dog wanted to play, but the boy remained dispassionate. A gray chill listed in, giving Tess cause to turn up her collar. The sun settled behind the mountains.

Wouldn’t give her his name. Didn’t seem from around these parts. No one around to claim him. Not a word. She’d had a child once, a child taken away, a boy that could be this age, a French father.

“Listen, dear child,” she asked, “if nothing else, please tell me what direction in this world you came from so I know which folk to summon.” Three languages again. She swept her arm to the east, to the south, to the west. Nothing. That left north. North. She eyed the boy, caught his attention and swept her arm up the Front, north. Her gesture touched the boy, his eyes following her hand. A smile, a nod, a subtle affirmation. He gave nod with each tongue; English, Blackfeet, French, as if even he might understand all three languages, like Tess herself. She spoke French after the birth of her son, before the smallpox hit her and her husband fled with their child, fearing for the boy’s life more than hers, having seen the smallpox. Scars remain, the loss of her child the biggest scar of all.

Ok’i,” Tess said in her Blackfoot vernacular, as if somehow it was settled that the boy would now follow along having made the northerly connection. But no, the child, be he hers or the world’s, held his ground. Tess’s coyote French seemed to interest him the most, giving her hope. French could likely make him mine, she thought. Has someone heard my prayers and sent him home to me? Perhaps he is afraid of me because of my pocked face, my shriveled nose.

She started to say something—but his expression stopped her, as if to say no, I am not yours, I did not come for you, but for another. Tess folded her arms … trying once again to understand why her husband never returned. Her husband loved her. She knew he did. He knew she loved the child more than anything. She measured the boy’s features, looking for something of her in him, something of her long-departed husband. She tried to think of something unique, some identifier that time could not transcend¾a birthmark, a scar, a deformity. Nothing. This boy had been spared of smallpox, but his parents likely had not.

He was a plain child, a bit light to have an Indian mother, skin bearing only a shadow of blood. She regretted not having treasured some feature. She remembered her child as a perfect child, and perfect he was until the day she fell ill. Next thing she knew, her son was gone. The French husband and his Métis people stole her child away to save the child, to save him from her smallpox.

She plied the boy with stories. She chanted. She sang, she laughed. She walked the street. In time, a rhythm entered her steps. She danced. She implored the boy follow along. A headstrong boy. Or maybe obedient. Perhaps that was it: obedience. He’d been told to wait for someone, a man. However willful, the boy came to admire her dancing. He looked her in the eye as she danced, appreciative of her intent to cheer him. If nothing, the boy knew she would help him find his way, even though it wasn’t her way. Someone had another home in mind for the boy. This had all happened before. He was not the first boy she tried to make her own. She’d taken in a nephew. Tess bit her lower lip, motioned the boy stay put, and took off to inform the taxidermist. The crescent moon began its twilight descent, a butterfly chasing the sunken sun.

She looked about the town to see who might have watched her ply the child… no one, it seemed. Another boy orphaned in their street, nothing happening, reservation life some patched together thing, ancient ways half remembered, half lost; children forgotten, children abandoned. She looked back to the boy and smiled. She signaled ‘be patient and wait, everything will be all right,’ her gesture language his by now, linguists they were. He answered by petting his dog. He wouldn’t be going anywhere. Reassured by the communication, Tess flipped her braids over her shoulders and trotted into the lilac night.

She stopped at the glint railroad tracks, her breath quickened by the whir of elaborated emotion. She not so much looked for trains as listened, her eyes fixed on Stuf’s quarters. Before crossing, she turned and looked behind her—the town quiet and shadowless. An oil lamp flickered inside the building, illuminating the animals that hung from his walls. Encouraged, she stepped over the rails, crossed the open ground to the building, trotted up the steps and rapped. A long moment passed before his boots began their broken cadence across the floor. His gait had deteriorated, asymmetric as ever. Suspicious of callers at dusk, he cracked the door and peered over the security chain. “Who comes at this hour?”

“Napikwan waits for you in front of the store,” Tess said, her singular voice identifying who she was.

“Napikwan?” the taxidermist answered, singing out the word in a language he seldom spoke.

“Yes. A boy pale as you.”

“And you say he waits for me?”

“He waits for someone, but not for me. I tried to coax him home. But no, he wouldn’t come.”

“Wouldn’t come with you?”

“Not this one.”

“Why not?”

“Wouldn’t say. Wouldn’t say a thing, as a matter of fact. Wish I knew what he was all about.”

“And you don’t?”

“No, I don’t,” she echoed. “Not sure where he came from.”

“He must have hinted at something.”

“North. He nodded upcountry.”

“Nodded?”

“When I pointed north, he nodded.”

“What did his clothes say?”

“North too, maybe.”

“Maybe he’s Belly-Fat,” Stuf said, referring to the Blackfeet term for an abandoned child.

“He’s not fat. Thin as a rail.”

Belly-fat,” Stuf repeated. “Life sprung from an unwelcome belly.”

Tess’s poxed nostrils snorted.

“I’ll be down to get him.”

“He has a dog.”

“A dog. Maybe we can locate his people with the dog.”

“Looks like any boy’s dog.”

‘Stuf,’ as the Indians dubbed the taxidermist, thanked Tess Ground Owl. He closed the door without ever having removed the chain. He often helped the orphans in town, especially the light-skinned ones, finding them shelter, and then a home. Tess stepped off toward town. Out the door behind her, Stuf followed the pad of her testy footsteps. Bundled in his Hudson Bay blanket, he hitched his bones across the rails to retrieve the child of his alleged ilk. He moved along brisker than usual, nearly as fast as the nimble Tess. She hurried ahead to make sure the boy had stayed put. He had, huddled with his dog in the last hold of twilight.

When Stuf approached, Tess motioned him toward the child and stepped down the alley to her house. Stuf announced his presence with an authoritarian cough, which was unnecessary. The boy had seen him coming all along. Stuf stepped a bit closer and stopped. He raised an arm and lifted his chin. The boy popped up and bounded Stuf’s way.

Tess watched from the gable window atop the Sherburne mansion. The boy’s antics confirmed her belief that the child was told to wait for a man. The taxidermist turned about and headed back to his shop. The dog pranced and barked, happy to be found. Stuf marched across town. The boy sprinted ahead to the next crossroad. He waited for Stuf to catch up and show the way. Cat and mouse they crossed Browning.

Stuf stopped at the Great Northern tracks bridging the world. He looked east. He looked west. He listened. Nothing. He scanned the heaven for the meteor shower, the vapor of his emphysema catching the last light of a fallen moon. The boy looked up and down the shiny ribbons of rail. He observed Stuf gazing starward. The old man moved his fingers along the constellations, as if to count them, making sure all were there. He looked down at the boy, smiling. The boy looked from Stuf to the stars. He had his ideas why men looked up to them, and what might fall out of the sky.

No trains and no meteors. Last moonlight, a warmth to the wind, Chinook wind, most welcome wind in the world. Taking the boy by the hand, Stuf stepped across the steel and moved through the night. He climbed the barren porch and stood at his door, taking one last long gaze at the Heavens. The boy sat, humming and waiting, closing his eyes… dozing against the doorjamb.

Stuf stared starward. Maybe it was too early in the night. The medicine man Many White Horses had told him to watch the sky; that a comet approached. There, a wisp off Cassiopeia’s chair. He looked harder, wishing for new spectacles. The faraway galaxy Andromeda twinkled in the wetness of his eyes, Andromeda and not a comet. The worn man sighed. He pushed open the door. The boy tumbled inside to catlike catch his fall, Stuf’s animals suddenly upon him. The boy crabbed across the floor, frantic to comprehend the dismembered beasts. The taxidermist lit a kerosene lamp. The wick light made the mounts jump, if ever so slightly, and all in unison. The boy crouched and watched all the unblinking eyes, quickly understanding their death.

The animals stilled when the oil-lamp’s chimney heated up, stiffening the flame. Indeed, most of the critters stared from their heads alone, only a few whole, some of them halved. The boy came from a land of the living. He had not experienced this aspect of animal afterlife. He looked from one to the other; grizzly bear, elk, coyote, mountain lion, wolverine. All animals he knew in life, prairie rock chimney, eyes rimmed with fear, dead.

Yes, Stuf had the touch to imitate life. He hobbled under his animals as if they were nothing. The child caught his breath and stood. He inspected each beast, touching, smelling; learning firsthand his or her fixed predicament. The wall behind him sported deer, mountain goat, mountain sheep, fisher, badger, lynx, grouse. Wolf. Everything made sense but their death.

The old man busied himself in the kitchen at the opposite end of the long room. The kitchen window offered a faint panorama of the plains rolling east. He finished his fixings and set out a bowl of corned beef and frybread. The boy chinned himself up to the table, continuing to marvel at the animals surrounding him. He spooned delicately and chewed carefully, so as not to disturb the incomprehensible stillness hung upon the walls. Manners, the boy had manners.

The pine fire at the far end of the room popped. A fierce gust of wind arose, shaking the room, trembling the animals on the wall. The boy knew wind and dined on. He finished his plate and eyed Stuf for more. Stuf dished out another helping of corned beef and cabbage, beef and cabbage raised on the reservation, beef and cabbage replacing buffalo and berries. When the boy filled up, Stuf showed him outside, pointing him toward the crapper, a hand-motion where to find the paper. The boy nodded okay, their sign language fluent, the moon lost below the mountains, the plains dark, Milky Way bright.

Sitting on the wooden throne of the outdoor loo, the boy watched a falling star slice the deep curve of night. His dog wandered off into the blowing prairie. The wind clarified the sky. He spotted another falling star, and another, and felt the movement of the universe. A meteor shower ensued. Enchanted, the boy counted the fallen stars until he could count no more. When he finally returned, Stuf led him to the washbasin and coached his little hands into the water and scrubbed them good. He showed the boy how to wash his face and brush his teeth, something the boy was not wont to do. Gums tingling, face aglow, the child climbed atop a bed Stuf had arranged. He tucked the boy under his softest buffalo robe and rubbed the little man’s back. Another orphan searching for a life. The youngster fell asleep. It had been a long day of which we know only the half.

With the boy sound asleep, the taxidermist slipped back across town with a satchel of chokecherry pemmican. He went to Tess’s and awakened her nephew, Butterfly, a reliable message runner. He fixed the young man up with the ancient sustenance and a bottle of Cola. He gave Butterfly instructions to head to Summerhome and deliver a letter to Madge and Betsy Bird; orphaned sisters Stuf rescued some time back. The young man caught up two horses and rode off to the Milk River, bringing Stuf’s message that a boy had arrived.

The sisters arrived two days hence, carted to town by their team of well-wintered mules. Tess had the Bird sisters’ spring order of ranch goods waiting at the mercantile for them as Stuf had arranged. Butterfly loaded the supplies on their buckboard. The sisters settled their bill with Sweetgrass Hills’ gold dust and liveried the hybrids at the stable down the street. The two walked across town invisible to one another, yet somehow irrecoverably intertwined. Having survived the Baker massacre together, they were never able to part. Betsy limped. Madge strode alongside, her head canted to accommodate her one-eye way of going. The ladies crossed the tracks and approached the taxidermist’s shop, a stop they made every time they came to town to visit their benefactor.

 

They march in without knocking to size up the child-find. Clouded sunlight pitches the animated room like ship’s stronghold. “Come in, ladies, come in,” Stuf says. “Make yourself at home, as your home it once was.”

“New blood, eh?” Betsy queries, levering past Stuf with a sharp elbow. She trips on a bear hide ball, catching her fall with her fake leg, pegging the ivory into the wooden floor.

“Returned blood, more than likely,” Madge counters, loosening the string that holds the musselshell patch over her smallpoxed eye.

“The Catholic priest said a white savior might show up someday,” Betsy put in. “So did the medicine man.”

“Which medicine man?” Stuf asks.

“Buffalo Heart,” Betsy replies.

“Yes,” Madge adds.

“The beaver bundle man. Tess’s grandfather, you know,” Betsy says.

“The red papa,” Madge clarifies.

“The dead papa, you mean. Black maybe, but not red. I still have his beaver bundle,” Stuf puts in.

“We know you do. You just don’t know how to use it.”

“No. No one does. Not anymore.”

“He might,” Betsy says, putting her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “This boy just might. The boy could learn. He might bring the buffalo back.”

“A white boy bringing the buffalo back?” Stuf asks.

“Whiteman took them away,” Betsy reasons.

“Oh, Stuf,” Madge sighs. “Buffalo Heart entrusted you with the bundle for safekeeping. He knew what he was doing. You yourself were supposed to work the bundle during the wind and bone winter when our people became too sick and dead to work it anymore. You were supposed to bring us food to eat with the bundle. Even without the bundle, you and your government were supposed to feed us. You were supposed to bring doctors and medicine and you brought nothing. You took our buffalo away and left us to starve. Some bundle-keeper you.”

 

Stuf winces at his failures, a pity that such smallpox epidemics had to happen at all. The Heavy Runner clan sick and hungry and camped on the Marias. American Indians dead and dying and freezing from the ravages the poxvirus. The healthier braves and horses were off to the Sweetgrass Hills hunting deer.

Stuf left the Heavy Runner camp the day before the massacre in a bitter snowfall, riding horseback to Fort Benton for medicine to minister the Whiteman’s Plague that blinded Madge’s eye and took Betsy’s leg. The horses were sick as the people, glandered and dying and weak. The young Stuf was a practiced horsedoctor. He traveled for horse medicine and Indian medicine alike. Medicine, he’d left the camp to bring home the medicine, he, the minister of medicine. Open sores on man and beast, fever and delirium, scabs, emaciation and death. Smallpox in the people. Glanders in their horses.

Stuf was warm in a hotel bed in Fort Benton when the soldiers attacked, early morning sub-zero weather, Colonel Baker in a frenzy to extract revenge for a white rancher allegedly killed by a band of renegade Blackfeet, a rancher married to a Blackfoot woman, the mother of Betsy and Madge. White men bent on war, whitemen on the warpath. An Army of well armed and well fed men. The Indians sick and cold, their men off hunting, an already-surrendered, peaceful band of Indians. Sick and dying, massacred.

Next thing the US Army had the blood of some hundred and sixty dead Indians on their hands. The cavalry savaged the pitiful encampment, shooting Indians, women, children, the aged and afflicted. Then burning their tepees. Snuffing out the infants. Madge and Betsy’s mother among the dead, their murdered father the cause of the attack, Indians orphaned, smallpoxed, too many dead. Innocent Indians, the survivors freezing and starving, sick and hungry. Bitter cold. Sweetgrass Hills wind. North wind. Massacred sickness, some killings nearly humane. The Baker Massacre, a permanent tragedy for two cultures expected to live together forevermore, two races forced upon one another by the scythe of time and squeeze of space, the last free-living natives in America—smallpox sick and massacred, free no more, identity vanquished.

Stuf arrived back from Fort Benton that evening to the slaughter’s remains. A blue hue to the river valley, the acrid smoke of burning flesh heavy on the air, smells and sights of death. Too late for his whiteman medicine to do much good. Survivors wept and struggled to stay alive. He helped the children best he could. Then the women. By darkness he attended the gutshot Medicine Man sitting next to his burnt down lodge. The soldiers burnt down all the lodges. He doctored the mortal wounds with special oils, giving the injuries a final unction. Stuf began singing. He sang the bundle songs Buffalo Heart had taught him. They sang all the bundle songs, singing until Buffalo Heart could sing no more.

The wounded Medicine Man lay next to the lodge fire. His eyes held a twinkle that belied his impaled body. Stuf drained and dressed the gut wound and applied a compress. Within minutes, Buffalo Heart sat up, grabbed the bundle, and placed the sacred wrap on his lap. He opened the bundle, removed a pipe and tobacco, and sang a final song. Stuf joined him in the sacred song. Buffalo Heart loaded and lit the pipe. He puffed and passed the pipe to Stuf, who smoked. The old man keened lightly. He took the pipe and tobacco, replaced them in the pouch, and removed two iniskim from the leather pouch, fossilized mini-buffalo, a white and a black. He held them out, one on the palm of each hand. He then closed his hands, put them behind his back and brought his hands out knuckles up. He asked Stuf to choose. Stuf chose the right hand. Buffalo Heart rolled his wrist, opened his palm. It held the black and the white buffalo, together.

The Medicine Man nodded, sighed, and winced; transfer complete. He replaced the iniskim and rolled up the bundle. In a slight of hands, he handed the beaver bundle to Stuf. His spoke a last word ‘Napikwan.’ He died sitting up, knees locked, arms limp on his lap, the bundle in Stuf’s hands, ceded.

 

Stuf looked down at the boy. He searched for a clue yet unseen; a dialect, an identifying mark or facial feature, a map to his past. There, a nick in the ear, tiniest little nick near the top of his left ear, the cartilage wedged and healed. Distinguished and distinguishing. All who loved him must remember the ear.

The sisters switched to their native tongue, words sharp and sure. The boy leaned into their conversation, lips sealed straight across, a squint to his left eye; a bright child possessing a knowing demeanor, however mute. Stuf looked up to his animals. The frantic inflection of the sisters’ diction took him back to their childhood. Their dialogue provoked happy memories. He tried to forget their scabs and fever and the loss of their sister. He tried to disremember the ulcerated tongue of the medicine man, the ooze from his belly wound, his crossed legs and frozen toes¾Medicine Man dead, straight-up-sitting, dead. His people decimated, children orphaned. Blackfeet culture vanquished. The bundle held everything that remained.

The mounted animals loomed over Stuf like the sick hungry horses that lingered in the stench of massacre. Cottonwood riverbottom, slate light trapped in the back of his eyes, the smell of burnt flesh imbedded in the tissue of his sinuses. The lodges ransacked and smoldering, death everywhere. Smoke and suffering. Horses, wounded and glandered, gaunt and bleeding, redness flaming the snow about them.

They wrapped Buffalo Heart in a scorched buffalo robe and buried him in a tree. The bundle and Stuf escorted Madge and Betsy to a new home, this home that now harbored a boy, a new and different life with Stuf, a different world forever.

After the massacre, less-fortunate Indians ran away to die, the smallpox and violence too much to bear. Some fled with the Métis into Canada, to foment rebellion. A few went to work for ranchers, taking up with immigrant ways, denouncing their former freedoms. Others swallowed the tragedy and escaped to wherever they’d be left alone—Canada, Mexico, other reservations, other worlds.

“What’s his name?” Betsy asked, catching her breath.

Stuf felt faint, flushed by the hazards of memory—a penetration his soul hadn’t experienced in some time, decades now since Buffalo Heart had passed him the sacred bundle, uttering ‘Napikwan.’

Stuf moved to his chair and sat, wheezing. He leaned back in his rocker to ease the heave of his lungs. Outside, clouds slid under the sun, dimming the room.

“His name, Stuf,” Betsy ordered, fidgeting her ivory leg, remembering the smallpox and starvation as well as anyone could remember. She lifted her peg leg to a footstool and tightened the laces that held the prosthesis in place.

Madge sat down and one-eyed the ceiling. “Oh my, my oh my,” she said. “What have those lost souls sent us?”

The boy listened and watched. He understood something had once gone terribly wrong in their lives, something they all withstood together. As Betsy finished her lacing the room grew quiet. She rested her forearm across her knee. The boy’s eyes held on the tusk. What animal shared such a shiny bone? No bone he’d ever known. Betsy took notice of the attention the boy paid her. “Yes,” she said, “to know me you’ll have to know the leg. Don’t be afraid of it. Nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all.” Their eyes met. She eased the column of ivory to the floor with a pleasing tunk and stepped to him, grasping him by the shoulder. The boy smiled, falling into her touch.

“Let’s have it, Stuf,” Madge requested, tracing the boy’s collarbone from his neck to his shoulder with her thumb, relaxing the child. “His name and anything else you know about him.” She fussed at his dark hair with her free hand, and then held his head in both hands, examining the shape.

Stuf sat forward. “He doesn’t have any lice, didn’t have any when he arrived.”

She looked his way, and shook her head. “No, he doesn’t have lice, but he has a name I bet,” she said, giving the boy his head.

Stuf tapped at his teeth with the fingernail of his index finger.

“Luke,” he announced, sitting to the edge of his rocker.

She sniffed, sensing a lack of conviction. “Luke? Did he tell you so?”

“No,” he said.

“No?”

“The only name he uttered was badger. A name he repeated each time I asked him his name.”

“Badger, eh? So how do you Luke that? Badger is probably his dog’s name,” Madge asked. Sure enough, the boy’s dog wagged his tail.

“I didn’t exactly get Luke out of him outright,” he admitted, looking away, speaking to the kitchen.

“How then?”

“When he wouldn’t tell me, I read from the Bible. He looked up when I announced the Gospel according to Luke. That’s all.”

“Preaching to him from that bible, eh Stuf? You ought to know better,” Madge scolded. “When the whiteman arrived we had all this land, and the whiteman had the bible. Now the whiteman has all the land, and we have the bible. Some trade. Forget that damn bible.” She circled behind the child, her arm the radius of a doting orbit.

“No preaching, I’d not call it that. Reading, just reading to the boy. He’s a good listener, I’ll say that for him. A fine boy. A good listener. Luke.”

Luke smiled and nodded to the sound of his name.

“Maybe he doesn’t understand all that Bible talk, a forked sort of English.”

“Yes, I thought of that. I read scripture to find out if he’d heard that forked sort of talk before. Once you hear it, it sticks with you, whether you like it or not, especially if read with a certain heat. Some folk have Bible teachings in them, others don’t. If they know the bible, it helps trace origins, you know.”

“Pft. Don’t you wish?” Betsy said. “So, in the biblical sense, then, what do you make of the color of his skin here?”

“Well, skin’s become sort of unreliable anymore.”

“Really?” Madge asked. “You’ve come to believe that Indians come in a white color now?”

“Well, some do, or have, or will.”

“Oh come on. You must have decided something a little more concrete than he’s a white Indian, Stuf,” Betsy prodded.

“No, he just kept right on a readin’ his Bible, alienating the poor lost child,” Madge put in.

“Madge, please. Be civil with Father. Stuf, what about your anthropology learning, your Darwin? All that high-minded science?”

“Couldn’t bring myself to think of him as science. Madge is right, I just kept on with the Bible. He liked it, liked my reading. And from the way he listened, I suspect he is part Indian.”

“From the way he listened?”

“You know, skeptical.”

“So let me get this right. Even though he didn’t tell you a thing about his family or people or anything like that, and he appears white, you think he might be part Indian because he listened funny as you read him the Bible?”

“Yes. That is correct. I figured you can only ask an abandoned child so much without making him feel like you might be the next to abandon him. I tried asking him softly, but he played it safe, didn’t talk. He sensed I was trying to find someone for him, though. Content with that, he acted like he didn’t have anything to say, like I should know what to do with him, that I shouldn’t have to ask. That’s when I sent word for you. My sense is that he should live with you sisters, that’s all. God knows you two need a child.”

“You just want a grandchild.”

“Maybe. He knew I’d keep good care of him. He wouldn’t speak, so I read. He listened, and listened carefully.”

“And not a word out of him?”

“Not a word, save Badger.”

“Badger. The dog, no doubt.”

“And so you still—what has it been, three days now—don’t know who he is, or where he’s from?”

“What does that matter? He’s a boy in need of a home. He won’t stay with Tess. When no one else showed up, I sent for you two. I tried to find out more. Each day, instead of getting closer to what might be his ancestry, I got further away. What do you think? You tell me whom he came from. Tell me where, please.”

“It might not matter, but then again it could,” Madge said. “He seems to be under some sort of spell to not say much. Badger and that’s it?”

“That’s right, excepting all that talk he does with his body,” Stuf said.

“What do you make of his voice?” Madge asked.

“He’s an English speaker, alright.”

“Maybe he speaks more than one tongue.”

“Maybe. The Métis were through a week back, their carts howling louder than the wind, Métis from the North, yes ma’am. They traded in several languages, yes indeed they did.”

“Métis, eh? Through last week?”

“Yes. Tess knows.”

“She got to know them pretty well, I bet.”

“I don’t know how you mean that, Madge. Tess fixed them up with provisions like she does everyone, did the talking and trading she had to. Butterfly helped.”

“Did you hear her talk with them?”

“Well, I suppose I did. I was around. They talked a lot, it seems. They spent a few days here.”

“What were they speaking about?”

“Trade. Dealing. Money, you know.”

“In what language?”

“What language? Well, all languages, you know what I mean. English, French, Blackfoot, whatever was handy. I didn’t really pay all that close attention to which language, too much like my trading days, everyone spoke all the languages they needed to carry out their commerce.”

“And what commerce was it brought them through?”

“Nothing in particular. You know the Métis. They remain the great nomads the Blackfeet and Sioux once used to be. Leaving Canada these days, they are, oui. Tried to make a stand up there. When that didn’t work they started sifting down to settle whatever homestead or reservation wouldn’t run ‘em off.” Stuf smiled at the thought of wandering Métis, their determination to live free.

“How was their skin?”

“Some of them are pretty fair, alright, whitefolk by all appearances. Others are dark, but not that dark, everything between. I suppose the boy could be of their blue-eyed mix-blood stock, Louis Riel’s offspring perhaps.” Stuf admired the Métis, he liked their independence. “Freestanding folk, those Métis. The boy could be Métis, fluent in their coyote French. English nouns, French verbs, nothing so cumbersome as prepositions or articles, the language of trade when buffalo migrated about the plains, a language vanished with the buffalo.”

“Buffalo,” the boy said.

“See there,” Stuf said.

“Blackfoot, maybe there’s some Blackfoot on his tongue,” Betsy said hopefully, rubbing the boy’s arms now, one, then the other. “Maybe he’s been raised by those Bloods up North, init?”

“A white boy with those Bloods? Ha. Their Kit Fox society would doubtful allow that.”

“It’s in their stories. A white boy sent from some far reach to release the buffalo back out onto the earth.”

“That’s right.”

“In our stories Napi is white.”

“Those Bloods might have spit the boy out of some ghost dance then, init?”

“If he knows Blackfoot, maybe he came down through Waterton with the Métis. The Métis traded with Bloods before moving on down here to ply the Pikunni. You wouldn’t think they’d abandon one of their own.”

“What about the Heart Butte Blackfeet? Could they be up to something?”

“They could be.”

“What about kidnapping or something? Maybe he’s kidnapped and abandoned.”

“A white child left to the savages.”

“The boy knows the stars in the North. Knows ‘em well,” Stuf said.

“Must have came from the North, then.” Betsy concluded.

Madge nodded.

“Lot of people up North.”

“Over time.”

“Through time.”

“The Métis through the other day, and a lightskin sprouts out of nowhere?” Madge eyed the child, and then Stuf. “Same story as you, Stuf. Same story fifty-some years ago. Buffalo Heart divined you out of nowhere, smoked you out of the sky. Out of nowhere you came riding that elegant white horse. If my memory still serves me, Métis had been through a few days before your arrival. Out of nowhere you spoke the Blackfoot dialect of our Pikunni tongue, Napi’s messenger himself come to save us.”

“A fable,” Stuf proclaimed.

“Ha,” Betsy exclaimed. “What else were we supposed to think?”

“I told you that I learned the language living with the Blackfeet one winter at Fort Benton. We sat around all winter telling stories. A man named Blood and his wife Red Elk taught me all the Blackfoot I needed to know to barter furs, which is quite a lot more than you’d think. I learned some of the language listening to their stories. Other traders and Indians told stories as well. All winter long; stories. Three or four different tongues. Stories we needed to hear to get through the winter. Jimmy Schultz told stories in Blackfoot. He was a whiteman who knew Pikunni like his born language. After I heard him storytell, I knew one day I could speak fluent Blackfoot as well, and did. Buffalo Heart thought I was sent by Old Man with your language on my tongue, Napi at work.”

“You saved us, Stuf.”

“You saved yourselves.”

“We know what happened, what you did for us. We’d be dead without you, and you know it.”

Stuf fell back into his chair, his mind enfolded.

“So how do you suppose this blue-eye child ended up at our door?” Madge asked the animals. Luke looked to the caped animals. The cobwebbed glut of immortalized creatures remained suspended in muteness.

Stuf lifted his heels and resumed rocking. “Luke, how old are you?”

The boy flipped up two hands, five outstretched fingers, plus, one at a time, two more, first the thumb, then the index finger.

“Seven?”

The boy spoke. “Seven.”

His manner of counting out his fingers intrigued Stuf. The thumb as one, North European.

“Maybe we should ask if they want to take him in at the Holy Family Mission,” Madge suggested.

“Forget that,” Betsy said. Her walrus drummed the floor.

“What about Tess?”

“He didn’t want Tess. You ladies take him on home with you, now.” He is a fine boy. He is going to be just fine if you give him love and a home. That’s all a child needs. That’s all you needed.”

“He might need a Dad.”

“We’ll find him a dad.”

“I’m too old, my goodness, children.”

“We’ll see about that,” Betsy said.

Abetted by the blur of her harlequin eye, Madge considered Luke. “Maybe someone will show up to claim him before long.”

“If that time comes, fine.”

“Who else knows?”

“Tess.”

“Tess Ground Owl?”

“The merchant’s clerk.”

“She had nothing to do with his arrival?”

“No, other than welcoming him. She found him waiting in the wind after work, all alone, him and Badger. That’s all I know,” Stuf said, understanding there could be more. “He wouldn’t go home with Tess. She tried hard, wanted him as hers.”

Madge sighed. She replaced the shell over her wandering eye, took the boy’s hands and squeezed them, her thumbs on the top of his wrists a certain Indian way. With a torn-pocket smile Stuf stopped rocking. He built himself out of his chair a joint at a time, pleased the situation was moving forward in the direction he’d divined. Goes around, comes around, he thought. The children he had raised couldn’t refuse the boy.

“I’ll help with the fathering,” Stuf declared. He stood from the rocker—a half step to catch his balance—and hung his thumbs into his vestpockets. He coughed to clear his throat, took a breath, waggled his fingers, and sang.

“What will become of a boy as light as he?

As light as me,

A boy as white and alone as me,

Arrived here from the land of the Cree.”

 

Madge looked to Betsy. “Let’s be on, then.”

The boy dropped off the stool to stand between the ladies. Forty glass eyes witnessed the delivery. The threesome shuffled across the gallery, Betsy’s walrus rapping the floor with glee. The sisters sidled the boy out the door in a deft display of teamwork. Their elk-teeth bracelets clacked as they scooted him on his way—their way—elk teeth excited; a child sent to make the world new again, to make the world real.

The taxidermist followed them outside. Low-moving clouds garbled the sunlight. Verdant air, green hills, beckoning mountains yonder¾a landscape of hope. “Speak only the Queen’s English with the boy,” Stuf joked. “For his good fortune, you know” he added, shooting a finger to the sky, chuckling. A wind gust took his hat, wheeling the straw past the threesome, spooking the mules.

The ladies held Luke in check until the animals relaxed. In unison, one at each arm, the sisters elevated Luke’s ribby frame to the seat of the buckboard. His dog jumped aboard after him. The wood squeaked against the wind, wind cleansing the world. Unfamiliar with little-boy antics and wary of strange dogs, the span of mules pawed, Summerhome mules eager to get back to Summerhome grass.

Stuf lumbered by, chasing after his hat. The boy laughed. The sisters laughed, everyone laughing in the wind.

Madge wrapped the reins around her wrists and clucked the mules. The hybrids charged into their hames, glad to be on with it. They trotted their cargo out onto the green plains. White coulee snow melted into the grassy landscape. The boy sat and rode and watched—happily squished¾stock-still except to point out an occasional bird the wind flew by.

Beyond the middle of everywhere, into the yawning shadow of the backbone of the world, the sisters began speaking Blackfeet. The mules racked, their attentive ears rolling back to detect any command that might be directed their way. The sisters weren’t talking to the mules, and the mules soon knew it. A swift trip home, singsong excitement—words darting across the grassland like windswept larks. The mules trotted the trio down the long coulee to Summerhome on the South Fork of the Milk River.

By the time the women unloaded the supplies and unharnessed the mules, the boy had uttered wind and bird and grass in Blackfeet. It wasn’t clear whether he had just learned the words, or knew them all along.

The sisters scurried about the twilight making everything right—a lyric dream of beautiful promise, lost identity eager to find a home.

Thus ended the brief orphanage of Luke Tailfeathers.