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Mrs. Eastlick said she couldn’t get me a drink or look after Charley because she was looking for her boys. I could tell that she was hurt bad by the way she walked and by all the blood on her. But she left and then the Indians came back. They scalped some of the dead. They scalped my mother while Charley was still sleeping on her. They took Charley away—I never saw him again. They laid me in a cart. They had dipped their fingers in blood and drawn lines all over themselves. They didn’t speak—everything was quiet.
Yes, Ingalls was a good man, everyone would say that. You’d trust him, and he’d help you out at any expense to himself. But it’s strange to say he was good, since he never seemed put out. He struggled. And he worked like the devil and often failed. But he was somehow never all there at once. He would cut hay, say, until it got too dark to see. He wouldn’t stop of his own accord. It’s like he wasn’t paying attention at all—something had to stop him. And he was like that with everything—he was carried away.
We saw the soldiers on our trail, three of them, and we were just about to flee. They didn’t see us, it seemed, but they saw something—they were very upset. Then they did see us, and they rode off very quickly. We knew that they were coming back with more soldiers. We went a few more yards back along the path, just curious about what the soldiers were looking at before they saw us. We found the little white girl hidden, very cleverly, deep in the brush. We killed her and scalped her and fled before the soldiers returned.
The chief punished us for shooting the children too early. We had carried out the ritual dutifully from about mid day, but it felt wrong and the children didn’t understand it anyway. They had already fainted many times from the pain from the brands. Also, we said, a few hours of torture to a child is the same as a whole day to an adult. The chief agreed with us, but he said that the ritual was not about what we felt or about what the victims felt. Then he took our things, even food, and gave them all away.
We did have one tree out the back, old, but it got killed by lightning one night. There weren’t many things to strike, so the few trees were vulnerable. Otherwise it was just flat, sometimes prairie grass, but sometimes just the shortest stubble. One day Chessie came running over, crying because her canary had escaped. We looked for it, and I was crying, too, because a canary was sometimes the only little thing you heard in a day. But we were laughing and crying as we searched, about how if we found him we wouldn’t have to climb too high.
We packed into one room upstairs, and people kept coming. We all had to sit down on the floor since the Indians would shoot and shoot at the windows. Sometimes there’d be a loud pounding on the door, and all the ladies would scream because they thought it was Indians. But then the door’d open and another lady and her children would come in until there wasn’t room to breathe. Then a soldier ordered all the ladies downstairs, and a boy near me said it was so they could take out their hoops so there’d be more room! We laughed!
He called me a whiskey-drunk cocksucker. I didn’t shoot him. He fucked with Belz, as if no laws applied to him at all, and I didn’t shoot him. But when I found out that he rode with Sioux parties, I did shoot him. The Sioux are motherfucking savages, but they have a sort of claim. So I walked up to him and shot him in his fucking eye. I wasn’t drunk when I did it, that is a lie, and I didn’t take the fuckhead’s shiny piece or anything. I didn’t want any thing of his near me. Fuck him.
I felt very serious when my mother cut off all my hair. She left one patch at the top. This she braided with bright beads and strips of leather, very tight. People watched, but I was careful not to notice them—I was now a Sauk warrior. My mother said that this braid would show my enemies that they had never scalped me. She told me that if I was brave and strong, she would someday let me take my father’s place as chief. I told her that I was ready now. After all, I was already five years old.
The Black Robes tell us about the Great Spirit. But the Black Robes have no visions. They have the Great Spirit Book, and they say that we must learn this book. They say that the Great Spirit is angry that we fight with the whites. But when Spotted Bear comes to us he tells us that the Great Spirit wants us fight with the whites. The Hurons have Black Robes who live with them, and so they are not to trade for whiskey or guns. Our Black Robes visit after the rains each year, and they eat their own food.
An older woman in the station in Philadelphia asked for my autograph, and as I inscribed her book she gazed on me with such an aura of…kindness, I suppose, that I felt as if our places were reversed, as if she were gracing me somehow. Finally I said: Please, do you know me—I feel as if we’ve met. She told me then that she had been a great friend of my father’s—-they had been schoolmates. I couldn’t ask—-I didn’t ask—had they been lovers? I thought of my father, his death, before trains. We stood together speechless.
Something slid through the tall grass—-I heard it. And then--again--and then, before I knew it, snakes were everywhere, racing past me, dodging my ankles to get by, brown and black curving everywhere. I didn’t move. I looked up. The horizon was a thick black line between the blue sky and the yellow prairie. I didn’t smell the smoke yet, but I started running hard. When I looked back, the black line was much thicker, and when I looked back again, the whole sky even was starting to turn black. It almost caught me—-two more minutes, maybe.
Highland Mary. Simple Gifts. Shenendoah. Bury Me not on the Lone Prairie. Bonaparte’s Retreat. Roll Chariot, Roll. Camptown Races. Oh, Susana. Buffalo Gals. Green Grows the Laurel. The Girl I Left Behind Me. When Johnny Comes Marching Home. America. The Blue Juniata. Pull for the Shore. Uncle Sam’s Farm. Clementine. O Dakota. Blood on the Saddle. Fair Lady of the Plains. Little Mohea. Red River Valley. Skip to My Lou. Home on the Range. The Girl That Wore a Waterfall. Called Away. Jim Crack Corn. Pass Around the Bottle. Fire in the Mountains. Sage Brush Sea. Ridin’ Home. Kingdom Come.
No one told us we had to go, but we heard about the Johnsons and how they’d gone back to Africa on a steamship. We never heard anything after that. But here they lynched that man ‘at ‘ad ‘ad nothing to do with that woman. And there’d been emancipation for twenty years, but you still get lynched, and you couldn’t vote. And you could feel they wanted us to go, you could feel it all around. Lots of folks wanted to go back, where they had a whole country just for us, where we could be free without being freed.
My great granddad proved up a claim in South Dakota. He had to keep trees on some of it and stay for five years, and then it was his. He’s dead, but when I was little we would drive by it, really slow, and if my mom saw a truck or a new barn or something, she would cry. Once we tried knocking so my mom could see if these were the same people who bought it from her family, but no one answered. That place was a sea long ago, and we would find shark teeth in the hill.
You boil sorghum down and when it’s thick enough, its molasses, but if you boil it too long then you have to throw it out. A horse or a donkey cranks the stalks through the mill by walking around in a circle, and the juice pours out. It looks like corn when you grow it, only it doesn’t need so much water. It tastes like honey, and if you ferment it you can make rum. That’s why they made the slaves grow it, but there’s not so much of it anymore, or some people just feed it to their cows.
I closed my eyes in the spirit of the Meeting. Silence, when you listen, is very full—it takes great care and attention. This is a way of holding yourself, and I was trying with all my soul to hold myself and to attend. Opening my eyes, I found that the bench just behind my friends, empty moments ago, now held a chief and braves, all painted for war. The chief looked into my eyes, then closed his own. I believe that no one had heard or seen them enter. They remained silent a while, then departed without a sound.
You could shoot blackbirds all day, but you could never shoot them all. And if you left them lying around, you got coyotes and buzzards and maybe wolves. The grasshoppers were always bad. Then sometimes it wouldn’t rain for weeks. Summer hail or fire could kill a whole field off in ten minutes. Sometimes a hot, dry, dust-wind would blow for a few hours, and then it was just like the whole farm had been in the oven—all burnt up. Sometimes the seed would have gone bad even before you planted it. Farming was always too terrifying for me.
My daddy and us ran this little general store over in Clarksville, and we sold everything folks needed. One thing I remember makes me smile now—the flour would come in these huge sacks, fifty pounds, a hundred pounds, and ladies made dresses out of the sacks. So after a while, the flour companies started printing on the sacks—flowers, stripes, polka dots, all sorts of pictures and designs. And then the ladies started coming into the store to pick out their own sacks of flour, and sometimes they’d even fight over `em. They all wanted the most fashionable sacks.
There were lots of fights in those days. The canal teams were always the same, and these got to be like gangs. The Irish gangs fought like hell with German gangs, mostly after hours, but sometimes in the middle of the day. Lots of times you’d wake up to news of killings. We found tons of Indian shit when we would dig, burial things and camp remains and such. The Indian boundary was good and west, but sometimes you’d see a line of them heading somewhere for treaty, so there was always this fear in the back of your mind.
Most of them actually just want to be sucked. They think it’s cleaner I guess. I think what’s funny is that a lot of them fake it, like when I’m sucking them I’m not going to realize that they faked it! But they fake it anyway. They’re too nervous I guess. There’s something about it, how they really want it, but then when they get to the room, it’s not what they wanted. Sometimes they get nasty afterwards, but mostly they’re real polite and quiet, like you just gave them some sort of bad news. They make it so complicated.
I could hear the children screaming, and I was sure that Freddy was one. They screamed and screamed like nothing anyone can imagine—unearthly, tortured, horrible, horrible, hour after hour. I had savage dark thoughts—I wanted to dance in Indian blood. I wanted to butcher and violate Indian children. I wanted to run away for a thousand miles. But I couldn’t. In the afternoon there were shots and the screaming stopped. I wanted only to die, only to die. I would have given anything to be able to die. Often I still feel that. But not by Indian hands.
Well, they’ll tell you that the Cherokee were all moved along the Trail of Tears through here, but the truth is that every other person out here is half Cherokee. See lots of ‘em just said fuck this and decided to run off into the woods and live by themselves. No one was going to go after them—what for? The main point was to split them up, to break their spirit. Now they want a great big casino, see, so they didn’t even lose their spirit. Pretty soon they’ll be living the fucking American dream, rich as all hell.
Wolves were a big problem out here—they ran in huge packs, not timid like now. Once we found a man from our outfit eaten to the bones. He was alone, cutting a tree, and it fell and pinned him to the ground. We don’t know if he was awake, but it must have been that same night that the wolves found him. There were bones and bloody paw prints everywhere. His people were near unraveled. Sometimes you’d be closing up at night and you’d see’em sitting real quiet, just past the trees, watching to see if you’d forget anything.
There was this outfit that came through every summer; they’d sell you this stuff, this tonic. And then there was another set that would come through and stage stories about cowboys and Indians and such. There was a group that would put on plays that the ladies liked especially, about life in France and such. There was a group that would bring exotic animals. It seems there was always someone coming through. It was as if somewhere it had been decided that we all had spare money, and it needed to be stripped from us, like a coat of paint.
You had all sorts of things made from cigar boxes—guitars, banjos, fiddles. And you could blow a jug for deep notes. You could make a string bass with a broomstick and a washtub. I’ve seen fellows play washboards, spoons, and saws. The Irish had their little penny whistles and the Bohemians had their hurdy-gurdys. Germans had their scheitholts and zithers. There were Jew’s harps and mouth organs and all kinds of drums and tambourines. Someone would have a fife or a kazoo. The Italians, their mandolins. The slaves just sang: Hoe Emma Hoe, Gilead, Hambone, Wade in the Water.
I prospected for a few years—now that’s a good life. Fresh air, and so forth. I worked streams for a while and did real well and then I moved to Chicago. But that’s a filthy city and having money can’t make you cleaner. They talk in a hundred different languages, and having money can’t make you understand them. There’s terrible disease, and money can’t cure you. So I moved back out west and I set up alone, right near an Indian camp. I gave’em half of everything I found, and I asked nothing back except to be left alone.
Lots of corn bread. And I like it—I know that some people like the white flour. But you can’t get that flour made here—you have to buy it from some fancy mill far away. The cornbread tastes like it grew here, because it did. And that means that the dirt under your fingernails and the rainwater in the barrel and the chicken drumstick on your plate and the sunshine in your eyes—they’re all the same, they’re all parts of one here. This corn, soil, rain, sun, milk, meat, air, body, house, fence, hoe—it’s all one thing.
I have slept in a tipi with Sioux many times, men and women together. This is a pleasant and proper lodging, and I recommend it. It matters that the tipi belonged to me—-the owner always enjoys pride of place in what can become a crowded scene. Besides the convenience of shared cooking and the companionship, one is always far safer when one is separated from one’s enemies by the beds of Sioux warriors. Meanwhile, the men are last to enter at night and first to leave in the morning, ensuring perfect propriety. I have never seen a Sioux naked.
I went to work with my brother, but I was drawn back, and I found myself visiting our battlefields. What awful things we did—I could stand on an empty field and see them all, but this time in the coolness of reason. I shot men low, because wounds would leave them alive for a time, a draw on their fellows. I saw men take meat from corpses. One man wasn’t even fighting—I shot him merely to clear my view. Somehow the cool reason of that moment and the cool reason in which I recall it are horribly different.
After grandpa’s death there was contention. There was a will, but it had been changed, and this led to scraps. The factions disagreed on a grave marker: no one wanted to pay for a decent one, or let anyone else put one up. So the grave went unmarked, which was shameful. But one day a big crate arrived, and inside we found a big marker with grandpa’s name and a prayer and all. It looked just like stone, but it was really hollow zinc, but you could hardly tell. Grandpa had already ordered his own tombstone out of a catalog!
America? My brother-in-law had gone over. My wife was happy to think that we would do better over there. But a lot of the things we heard turned out to be untrue. My brother-in-law was doing well, but his business turned out to be dishonest. The winter was colder than anything. There were bugs in our beds, in our hair. Wages were too low to live. The schools were poor and dangerous. The streets were filthy and crowded. The police were Irish--they hated us. The town leaders were corrupt. The food we could buy was often half rotten. America?
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