A Wild West Story

Tse was running, feeling but ignoring the cold and damp morning air. Last night’s rain had left the fallen leaves wet and grey, and the ground beneath him still transported the water deep into itself. Soon he heard what he was after, and when he was close he stopped behind a large boulder. The moss underneath his feet let out some water, and Tse felt it through his moccasins. He heard the great bear behind the rock and began to prepare his rope. Arm length by arm length he breathed, focusing his whole being on the task ahead. His brethren were in position too; the cuckoo signals had sounded. All sounds apart from those of the bear and his brethren ceased.

The woods, October 2016. Photo by Jessica Zarins

The bear was in great pain and complained loudly. The wound on his hind leg was an ugly one, oozing yellow. He had terrorised the village for a week, possibly out of a hatred for humans. No one knew where the bear came from or how he got the wound. But his suffering would end now, and Tse prayed silently to the Mother to forgive him for what he was about to do, to understand and allow the bear a swift shift into the next life.

Then he was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a rider. The bear heard it too and fell silent. Tse could even hear singing. The whole village knew what was going on in the forest today; whoever neared had a wish to die. Unable to move from his position, Tse remained where he was, waiting for catastrophe.

So did the bear. When the rider finally entered the clearing the bear rose up on his hind legs and gave out a roar that shook some of the last leaves off the trees. The beautiful black horse shrieked with fear and stood on his hind legs too, attempting to back up and turn around. Tse got only a brief look at the rider, but without a doubt he saw that it was a white! The horse managed to turn around and ran for his life, despite the efforts of the rider. The bear was extremely angry but would never be able to catch up. This was their moment to catch him and kill him, but Tse could not let the white rider go. When the others began to perform the well-rehearsed act of capturing the bear, Tse messaged Sik’Is that he would follow the rider.

He ran in the footsteps of the horse. The trail took him through thick, wet vegetation, and his clothes were darkened by rainwater. The horse had run far; patience and stamina were required to find them. When he did, the horse had run himself to death. Tse scaled a tree nearby, where he could see without being seen. The rider was one of the whites indeed, its head covered by a large piece of clothing. It was embracing the dead horse, possibly crying. It sat down beside the horse and took off the head-dress. It was a woman. She began to take more clothes off; from her hands, her arms and shoulders and from her waist down – but she always had something more on underneath. Tse could see the white skin of her neck and the top of her shoulders as she fanned herself with the head-dress. When she turned around he could see her face, her collar bones and some of her chest. She was very white. So were her bare, small hands; fragile and unused to any kind of labour. Tse watched her for some time, enjoying the nuts and fruit he had, while the white woman walked to and fro down there. She was unable to leave her horse, as if his dead body somehow provided protection from the bear.

When she prepared to put her clothes back on, Tse came down the tree, and made sure she heard him. She froze. He approached her, hands out, looking deep into eyes that got whiter with each step he took. She stumbled and got a knife from a saddle pocket which she held high, talking at him in an agitated voice. Tse touched both hands to his heart, held them out again, but did not stop. He looked deep into her eyes and a peace fell upon the hill where the horse had met his end. The wind ceased, the rustle of the leaves died, the singing of the birds moved elsewhere, the life of the Under Earthlings crawled deeper and did not disturb them. They were alone. It was quiet. But the clouds moved, and the last rays of the autumn sun broke through the trees and reached them. The white skin of the woman became prickled; she closed her eyes and faced the sun. She smiled, and so did the rest of the forest. When she opened her eyes Tse was quite close. He gave her the pouch that still had some fruit and nuts in it, and while she ate life returned to the hill. The sun began to set behind the great clouds, the birds returned and the ground again began its subtle vibration of life and traffic.

She spoke to him.

‘Tse,’ he replied.

She raised her eyebrows. She spoke again. He put both his hands on himself and said slowly:

‘Tse.’

She smiled and indicated herself and spoke again.

‘Elizabeth,’ Tse repeated, looking into her eyes, then at her white skin.

The peace broke. The woman began to speak very quickly, redressing herself. When she was done, Tse interrupted her by taking her hand.

‘Come,’ he said.

She stopped immediately and pulled back her hand. She looked questioningly at Tse. He looked anywhere but in her eyes. He took her hand again; it was moist. The other he placed on his heart, then at hers.

‘Come.’

Her fear was infectious; none of them knew where the word came from. The magic peace that had been touchable a moment ago had vanished. But she came. He did not use the word again. He was shaking slightly but pulled her with him out of the forest, back to his village where the fires were burning high in the night, and the sounds of drums echoed through the atmosphere.

***

Every Indian in the settlement was out. Their long shadows moved swiftly, dark and distorted, forming monstrous shapes wherever they touched: the ground, the walls of the mud-huts, their bodies. They were dancing, moving to the drums and their chant, guided by their savage spirits. The fires they danced around were high and hungry; they provided as much pulse and energy as the drum- and heartbeats.

The Indian from the forest led Elizabeth in a crescent around the settlement, merging with the shadows. Avoiding the light and the dancing shadows they made their way over the coarse sand, moving through the maze of mud-huts and tents. His hand was strong and his feet certain despite the dark. Before one mud-hut Tse stopped and listened. Elizabeth knew he could see the whites of her eyes by the light of some fire. He pulled up the curtain that covered the entrance and more forcefully than before pulled Elizabeth in. She stumbled and fell over the mattresses and blankets that covered the floor. She turned. The Indian stood above her in the dark with the curtain closed again. He sat down and leaned over towards her, and she was just about to scream when his face was so close that she could see the glow of his eyes in the heavy darkness. He put a finger to his mouth.

‘Ssh.’

Outside the drums and the dancing could still be heard; it was a celebration. The chants were positive, people were happy. His eyes really did glow, and he smiled. The heat of his skin touched Elizabeth, the smell his breath and his hair were so close to her face. He reached out a hand, but not to touch her; to light a small light. It hung in the ceiling, like a bird cage, but with light as its inmate. The interior of the hut now glowed in a warm red light, and the patterned, colourful fabrics that clad the floor and the walls made it feel soft and safe like a womb. It was a small space and they were very close. The light reflected off the slight perspiration of his skin. Elizabeth unbuttoned her dress at the collar.

‘Need to breathe,’ she said and swallowed.

The Indian, Tse, looked at her.

‘Breathe…’ he said. He began to breathe heavily, moving his arms together with his chest. ‘Breathe?’ he asked.

Elizabeth’s eyes grew. ‘Yes, that’s breathe,’ she said.

He nodded. ‘Elizabeth.’

She moved towards him. ‘Yes?’ She put her hand on his upper arm and felt the muscle directly beneath the skin. She looked at him; all that power, ready to be unleashed at any time, separated from her only by that thin layer of skin. The drums felt farther away but sounded louder, so loud.

‘You said come,’ she whispered. ‘In the forest. You told me to come.’

‘I said…’ Tse began, his eyes travelling rapidly from her to himself, ‘…come.’ He moved away, his face distorted. He put his hands on his chest and nearly hyperventilated again, but this time not by choice. He looked at his hands and back at Elizabeth.

Then he froze. He rose and turned towards the entrance, his hand reaching for the knife in his belt. Before Elizabeth had heard anything the curtain was pulled open, Tse drew his knife and a girl entered. She looked at Tse and the knife in his hand, unimpressed. He lowered it and the girl saw Elizabeth. She stared at her, and before Tse could speak she had pulled him out.

***

‘Shadi…’ he moaned.

‘What is she doing here? Who is she, and what are you thinking? Where have you been, why did you not help with the bear? I suppose you were busy with greater, paler prey.’

‘Shadi, I…’ He looked at the ground, scarcely knowing how to continue. ‘I felt something with her, like one. She was lost and scared. I felt called upon to help her.’

With crossed arms over her chest Shadi looked at him piercingly. ‘Brother, do you speak to her?’

He looked up at her. ‘How did you… Why do you ask that, Shadi?’

It was her turn to look for answers on the ground. They would not come.

‘Brother dear, I care for you.’ She placed a hand on his shoulder and he smiled. ‘Be careful with this.’

‘Care for doing something dangerous?’

She smiled too. ‘Always.’

‘Help me hide the white girl.’

Shadi nodded.

‘Take her to our mother’s hogan, feed her and let her sleep. This bachelors’ hogan is not safe. She is tired, and tomorrow before dawn I will take her back to her people. She needs strength.’

He told Shadi how she had frightened the bear and how he had followed her, but not how he had understood her language.

‘Yes brother, I will help you. It seems to be the wish of the Mother.’

‘Ah-sheh’heh, sister.’

They went into the hogan, and Elizabeth moved back towards the wall like a frightened hare. Tse moved closer to her with a smile and an outreached hand.

‘Come,’ he said. He pointed at the other Navajo. ‘Shadi. Sister, safe. Come. Safe. Safe.’

***

Elizabeth slowly gave him her hand and rose without much certainty to meet the other woman. She also had that inner strength and immense power, but hers lay in her head.

‘Sister Shadi,’ Tse said again. ‘Safe. Trust. Come, come.’ He spoke to his sister, and once Elizabeth heard her own name mentioned. Shadi nodded to him, then spoke to Elizabeth and took her hand. The words were lost upon Elizabeth, but Shadi’s smile and reassuring voice and hand told her that she would be fine. They left, and Elizabeth cast a last look at Tse before the curtain of the little house fell and parted them.

A few hours later, in the house Shadi had taken her to, Elizabeth was still dreaming when she heard her name whispered in the dark by Tse.

‘Yes?’ she said before she opened her eyes.

‘Time,’ he said. ‘Come.’

He took her the shortest route out of the village. His palomino coated mustang was waiting patiently, neither tired nor surprised.

‘Cheveyo,’ he said. ‘Elizabeth. Elizabeth, Cheveyo.’

‘Cheveyo,’ said Elizabeth, taking off her glove to pat her nuzzle. ‘Hello, beautiful.’

***

As the distance between the travellers and the village grew, silence grew too. Tse and Elizabeth were distanced in each other’s proximity. She had not told him where she lived and he had not told her where they were going. The forest where they had met was even darker than the plain, and it was thanks to well-serving instincts that Tse and Cheveyo made their way through its great halls of foliage and tall trunks. The spirits of the trees had come out to watch them; they were in a regal presence, an immediate closeness with life. Elizabeth moved her arms from her sides and placed them around the strong, warm torso of the man in front of her and rested her cheek against his back. She closed her eyes and her peaceful breathing made Tse smile. He breathed deeper too.

When Cheveyo stopped on the hill of their first meeting dawn was very close. In the dim, grey light Elizabeth saw her Panther, still running in his stressful death. Tse dismounted Cheveyo, mumbling prayers under his breath. He circled the dead horse, took out his knife and freed him from the saddle and reins. Then he produced some incense from a pouch which he lit with flint, and cleansed the energy of the hill to help the horse’s spirit into the next world. Elizabeth watched him dance and chant; it was beautiful. He channelled the Divine Energy from the Mother to the horse. The spirits of the forest arrived and Energy flowed through them as well. The sun began to rise with force and the light changed from cold grey to warm gold. The little hill filled up with life; the whole forest was working to call the horse’s spirit into peace. There was a pulse as vibrant as the rhythm of the Dineh’s drums, though not a sound was uttered apart from Tse’s chanting. The Mother was present. Suddenly, from deep within the forest, came a rush of cold, strong wind, and in it was the spirit of the dead horse. He stopped on the top of the hill, the cold wind with him, in front of his organic vessel.

‘Is it so?’ the spirit asked without words.

‘Yes. It is time,’ replied Tse in the same way. ‘You have nothing to fear, the forest spirits know where you are going.’

Elizabeth stared at Tse. The gust of cold wind had made her turn away with squint eyes, they were watery now. She rubbed them as the sun rose and reached them with its full force and light. It engulfed every spirit on the hill, and a new day began. Tse turned to the light and said one last prayer. He then returned fully to the physical hill and went back to Elizabeth on Cheveyo.

‘Panther,’ he said, smiling. ‘Safe. Peace.’ He touched his fingers to his lips, confounded, but soon removed them and laughed.

‘I don’t understand,’ Elizabeth said. ‘What did you see…’

‘No understand. No have to,’ Tse said as he climbed back up on Cheveyo. He pointed to the sky. ‘The Mother. She has power.’

They took off in the direction opposite of the rising sun, and Elizabeth cast one last look at Panther’s still body. There was no more power waiting to be unleashed beneath the black coat she now left behind.

***

Elizabeth’s hands remained clasped in front of Tse. When they left the forest the sun was fairly high, the morning light strong and rejuvenating. Tse was humming a little melody and Elizabeth was thinking. She looked around her and saw only mystery. She looked at Tse’s neck in front of her and saw a small, almost circular mark on it. It was paler than the rest of his skin, not quite a birthmark. She touched her own neck and further down on the left shoulder, knowing what was there.

‘Tse,’ she said. ‘Do you understand me?’

‘Yes, Elizabeth,’ he replied cheerfully.

‘How did you learn?’

‘I not know. I just know. Maybe always know.’

‘Or maybe someone taught you,’ she said, treading carefully.

Tse began to whistle the tune he had been humming.

‘Did someone teach you that song?’ Elizabeth asked.

Tse gave a sigh. ‘I not know, I just always know.’

Elizabeth was quiet for but a moment. ‘What about your name, Tse? What does it mean?’

‘Tse… Tse hard place.’ He fought for the words, Elizabeth waited. ‘A high place, see far. Hard ground, high ground. This Tse.’

‘A mountain?’ She pointed north, where far away the snow was already covering the mountain tops.

‘No no, is like…’ He thought for another moment. ‘Rock. A rock. Steady, where things safe, hard, high, safe place.’

‘Oh I see,’ said Elizabeth. ‘We have a name for that word in my language too.’

Changing the subject, Tse asked: ‘You then? Why you far from home, riding in forest?’

It was Elizabeth’s turn to sigh. How could she tell him? How could she make him understand the place she came from? Would he be able to conceive how badly she and her father were treated there because they followed a different faith? She was helping Tse find the New Jerusalem of the Latter Days Saints, the Mormons. Along the same route her father had travelled more than two decades previously, and on the brink of death had met her mother in a chance encounter that saved his life. Elizabeth had heard the story countless times. It had helped her sleep, it had comforted her when she had felt the loss too keenly, and strengthened her when she had felt utterly alone. But the distance and proximity to Tse was still an unknown land, and crossing it would be difficult and take time.

‘I don’t know,’ she said finally. ‘Hope, perhaps.’

Tse turned around to look at her. The golden light of morning was turning into the white light of day, and they saw deep into one another.

‘I too need hope,’ he said as he turned back around. ‘I too ride out alone. Think who I am and what I want. Life not easy, always.’

Elizabeth tightened her arms around him and smiled as she pressed her rosy cheek to his back. He had understood after all.

***

The sun climbed slowly, and slowly Tse steered Cheveyo to the white people’s settlement. He saw the wonders of the world and felt the fresh air in his lungs. It had been a powerful morning and his spirit was high. He liked her behind him, she felt warm and soft. He heard her breathing change; she must have fallen asleep. He felt happy that she was comfortable. He thought of her in her pale skin with red cheeks like early autumn apples, her brown hair over her shoulders and her eyes, her blue, blue eyes. How had he not seen that before? He began humming his tune again, the one he had always hummed or whistled when he had been particularly emotional. Elizabeth began to sing along to the tune, words he did not recognise. He had never had words to his tune, had they been stolen in his sleep by this white girl? He did not quite understand them, but they belonged there. When the tune came to its end he asked:

‘What mean your words?’

‘It’s a love song. My father taught it to me when I was very young, and I imagined that it was my mother who sang it to me. That she would always be with me, for as long as I would keep her in my memory. How do you know the melody?’ Elizabeth asked again.

‘I know… I not know. I have it here, always.’ He patted his heart.

There was silence again as they left the forest. Tse wanted to sing but could not. Her grip around his waist felt tight. He twisted and Cheveyo stopped.

‘See, sun. High. Late. There, your village?’ Tse pointed towards the cluster of strange buildings in the distance; a couple of miles away at most. ‘You strong? You strong alone?’

‘Yes, I can walk the rest of the way,’ Elizabeth answered and climbed off the horse. ‘Thank you for all your help. I lack words to express the extent of my gratitude. And I am sorry if I in any way insulted…’

‘Too long words,’ Tse interrupted. ‘Tse no understand. Now go, I go Dineh. Good bye.’

He turned Cheveyo around and left Elizabeth. He could barely make out her whisper of good bye as he galloped off in a cloud of dust. He struggled to find the rhythm with Cheveyo; his mind was elsewhere. The song… A mother who left her child but promised to be with him always, if he could remember her. Had she meant she would be with him beyond death, into a new life? Had Tse’s mother really sung the song to him?

‘Perhaps it is all a coincidence,’ he said to Cheveyo. ‘Perhaps the song means that the Universal Mother is always with us, and we should remember Her.’ Indeed, he did remember the Universal Mother and his first encounter with Her. It was in his eighth summer he did his initiation rite, like every Dineh before and after him. It had been one day and night of unbearable pain, cold, hunger, loneliness and suffering; it had been a cleansing. Thinking of this he remained out of mental rhythm with Cheveyo until they came back to the village.

Though the ride home had been quick, most of the day had already been spent. Tse was very tired and hungry when he entered the village. Life had returned to normality after the great celebration of the night before, though the movements of the Dineh were slow. Tse left Cheveyo at her usual spot and strode resolutely to his hogan. He tore open the curtain to find the other bachelors there, some sleeping, others smoking. Without entering or greeting them Tse turned and left and headed to his mother’s hogan. As he approached it he remembered that that was where Elizabeth had slept, and she was on his mind again as he entered to greet his parents. But they were not alone; his sister, together with the village elders and the Chief, were also seated in there with the air and light-hatches open. Tse hid the thought of Elizabeth in his mind.

When he left the hogan a little while later the sky was darkening, clouds speeding up night time, and he was in tears. He screamed to the skies, making all the Dineh close by turn around towards him. He sat on his haunches, clawed at his skin and beat the ground, still crying with all his body and voice. The words coming out of him were incomprehensible to the Dineh; he knew they thought he had been possessed by an evil spirit. He left the spot of his outburst and went outside the village, and did not cease to cry from pain. Again the memory of his initiation night returned, how excited and self-confident he had been going into the forest all on his own, with nothing but a pouch of Spirit Dust, his own two hands and his head and his heart. He had been full of vanity and pride, thinking he would meet the Mother painlessly through Her appearance and that his pure young heart would grant him initiation instantaneously. He had been dangerously wrong and severely disappointed. During the day he had made himself a rope and found a sharp stone, with which he had managed to make himself a shelter and collect some edible roots and plants. But by twilight he still had not made a fire, and he sat cold and scared under his makeshift roof. It had begun to rain; soon he was wet and freezing as well as hungry. He had never felt so alone, so abandoned by his family, his people, the Mother. Until that moment in the hogan, until now. He no longer felt the tiredness or the hunger; he simply ran back to Cheveyo, threw himself on her back and raced towards the setting sun.

***

Elizabeth watched the sunset from the roof of the stables of her father’s house. The house was placed in the western outskirts of Salt Lake City, and although climbing onto rooftops was another frivolous activity frowned upon by the Church elders, she felt safe enough there to do it. She knew her father did not like it very much, but he never told anyone about it, like he had not told anyone about her not coming home the night before. She had never seen her father so relieved as when she returned a few hours earlier. She thought of Panther; his absence would be difficult to explain. Before it got too dark Elizabeth climbed down and went for a stroll through the town where she had grown up. Mrs Dorota Gray happened to be standing outside her house collecting the washing when Elizabeth passed.

‘Elizabeth! Your father told us you were ill yesterday and spent the day in bed. I’m glad to see you have returned to health.’

‘Yes,’ Elizabeth said, ‘it was very strange, it came very suddenly and left very suddenly. I hope it’s not infectious.’

‘Indeed, let’s pray it’s not,’ Mrs Dorota Gray replied, keeping her distance. ‘We have eleven children in the house, if one of them catches something the others are sure to follow.’

‘Do they all share a bedchamber?’

‘No, thank the Lord. Mr Gray is a good man and generous with space. All us wives have our own rooms and share with only our own children, and Mr Gray alternates between the three of us. But they all have their meals together, and many of them share clothes. So any illness spreads like a wildfire.’

‘I can imagine. I shall keep you no longer then, as I am sure you have plenty of chores to see to. Good night, Mrs Gray.’

‘Good night and God bless you and keep you, my dear.’ Mrs Dorota Gray was the same age as Elizabeth.

‘But Elizabeth,’ she added cautiously, making Elizabeth move closer so she could hear the lowered voice. ‘Be careful. Lehi Young has been seen out on the streets tonight. You might be wise to return home to your father’s hearth and a sound book.’

‘Thank you, my friend,’ Elizabeth said. ‘You are a good woman. May God keep and bless you for your kindness.’

They parted hastily with smiles, but Elizabeth found herself unable to return home just yet. She had come out to reach the Eastern gate of the town and still wished to do so, despite the looming darkness. She walked rapidly and thought of Mrs Dorota Gray and her suggestion that Elizabeth should read a book. Like most Mormon women, Dorota was illiterate. Elizabeth had been fortunate to be raised differently by her father, enjoying much more freedom and independence than other women. She had plenty of spirit, the town folk said, and this put her slightly out of favour with the elders, but also seemed to make her more desirable. She had rejected more than one proposal, but knew that soon she would have to accept one if she wished to remain in town and have some kind of influence and contact with her father.

She reached the gate and saw the forest ahead of her in the starlight. The forest where Panther lay, and the Indian village beyond it. Would she be able to find it again, if she tried?

‘Not without a good horse,’ she said to herself before she had heard her name whispered by an unknown voice in the dark.

***

He knew it was her as soon as he saw her. Gazing towards the forest where they had met, her posture had been the same as when he rode off. He had left Cheveyo a safe distance away, and she was happy that she finally got to rest and graze. He had then sat down close, but not too close, to the village border with the intention of waiting patiently until Elizabeth would appear. It had not been a long wait, however, and her name had left him as sigh of relief when he saw her. She turned around with fright, her body stiff but unprepared when he rose and embraced her like a lost love.

‘Elizabeth,’ he whispered again.

‘Tse! What are you doing here?’ she said into his shoulder, but Tse silenced her with a kiss on her lips so passionate and loving that all her questions were superfluous.

‘Thank you,’ he said. Elizabeth pulled away and wiped her mouth, looking anywhere but in his eyes. He looked down too.

‘Pardon me?’ she said as if she needed him to repeat something.

‘Elizabeth, I was born a white…’

But a sound interrupted them. They heard it at the same time, and he saw that Elizabeth knew what it meant.

‘Quick,’ she said. ‘You must not be seen. Follow me.’

She grabbed his hand and led him in a crescent around the village, trying to merge with the shadows of the buildings. They were all large, square and wooden, and made Tse pray for the trees they had once been. There were large air and light-hatches in them. Through some he could see lights, through others only darkness, whilst in others still he could see a light which the people seemed to try to disguise.

They made their way around as silently as they could and as fast as they dared. After a while they had to enter the village and walk amongst the buildings, most of which seemed to be living quarters. The paths between them were empty despite it being clear and not too cold, and still not too late. There were no fires outside, no people outside talking, playing or singing. It was all very, very quiet. Tse felt Elizabeth’s hand tug. He had been dying to see her and to talk to her about what the Chief had told him in the hogan, but now he realised how far removed he was from safety and from home.

All of a sudden, in the middle of one of the many straight paths, Elizabeth stopped. The sound that had interrupted their conversation earlier returned, and it was closer. Elizabeth put a finger to her mouth. Tse nodded. She crouched down close to one of the buildings and stayed there with Tse behind her. The sound was continuous, getting closer, and the rhythm of it sounded like horses’ hooves. Then, from behind one of the buildings, came a rider on a horse so brightly white it was clearly seen in the night. It was the hard ground the horse was walking on which created the loud sound. The whites had laid that bigger path with big flat stones in similar sizes, in order to create a flatter and more even surface. Tse shook his head. Everything here was straight and square, flat and sharp. He was relieved when the rider on the white horse disappeared and Elizabeth rose and urged him on. They soon reached their destination, a small wooden adobe that might fall over in a strong gust of wind. It was one of the places where the people inside pretended to have no light on. Elizabeth shuffled him in and he found himself in a part of the building with large pieces of carved, hard, dead wood, the purpose of which he did not see until Elizabeth bade him to sit down on one of them. There was also a fireplace with some utensils close to it, and realised what the room was for.

‘You cook inside?’ he asked Elizabeth, who was rekindling the fire to create a bit more light. She did not answer, and Tse contemplated the lack of freedom one must feel in a square, dead home in an unnatural and non-organic village. Then an older man entered. He walked with a stick and his back was not very straight. He placed a bundle of something on the wooden surface in front of Tse to ease his way. Tse wondered how hard his life had been, and whether he had always been inside a hard, dark, cold, flat wooden room. The old man looked at Tse.

‘Is this..?’

‘Yes, father,’ said Elizabeth and helped him to sit down next to Tse. ‘This is the Indian I told you about.’

‘Indian..?’ mumbled Tse.

The old man held out his hand to Tse, who gave it a brief look. Instead Elizabeth’s father put it on Tse’s shoulder and said: ‘My name is Elijah Jones, son. Thank you for helping my daughter, you are always more than welcome to my house.’

‘Elijah Jones, I am Tse of the Northern Navajo Dineh. I honour to you. But, perhaps I more close to you than you know.’ Tse felt the confusion his speech stirred as the other two looked at one another. But it did not change their welcoming and good-willed attitude towards him. Still, he moved around on the bench, trying to find a better way to sit. As he did, he noticed a small pale mark in the shape of a circle on Elijah Jones’s neck. Tse forgot about the seat and scratched his own neck.

‘You were not seen, were you, on your way here?’

‘We saw rider man with white horse,’ Tse answered.

‘Good God, did he see you?’ Elijah Jones’s eyes were large with worry.

‘No, I don’t believe he did, Papa,’ said Elizabeth as she pulled up another piece of shaped wood and sat down on it. ‘But Tse, now you must tell me all about this dreaded business that brought you back here.’

Tse told them everything he had learnt and how he had wanted to leave his family forever, abandoning them the way he felt that they had abandoned him.

‘And now, here with you, I feel warmth, love. But outside strong danger, I feel less home than ever with the Dineh,’ he finished.

Elijah Jones gave a heavy sigh and said:

‘Well, son, they didn’t really abandon you, did they? Not the Navajos, the people who raised you. They sound like decent, good-hearted people who saved the life of a little boy of an enemy race for no other reason than it being the right thing to do. You should be proud to call these people your parents.’

Tse had no words. He obeyed silently when Elizabeth reached for the bundle of white man’s clothes that her father had brought, and asked him to wear them. He felt the truth of being able to choose who one’s family is. A family is more than blood: it is love, responsibility and commitment, something his Azhé’é and Amá had always given him. It was what Elizabeth and Elijah Jones were showing him now, despite the danger it posed to their own lives.

He was struggling with the new clothes, and was more bare than dressed when there was a knock from outside. Elizabeth, who had turned her back to the men when Tse undressed, turned around deathly pale, but blushed deeply when she saw Tse. Tse thought of the moment in the hogan the night before, before Shadi had entered, and wondered if Elizabeth thought of it too. If she did, she did not do it for long, for she came up to him and began to help him while Elijah Jones went to let the guest in. Tse lifted the curtain from the window and saw a bright white horse tied to a pole outside. Elizabeth dressed him quickly with trembling fingers as they heard her father greet someone. She struggled to close the shirt along his chest and he felt her pale fingers brush his skin.

‘Sorry,’ she whispered. She swallowed.

Tse thought of how he had watched her from the tree after Panther died. He thought of the song she had sung. Elizabeth was not the first white woman to dress him in clothes like these. She tore out the feathers and pearls in his hair with speed rather than care, and from her own attire she pulled out a piece of fabric with which she tied his hair. She brushed it with her fingers to smooth it. This she did delicately, and Tse wondered how much time they had. Then she put moccasins of stiff leather on his feet, which made Tse wince.

‘Don’t be a baby.’

Did Elizabeth say this or was it a memory? An isolation from every spirit and natural wonder crept up on him the more white clothes he wore. When Elizabeth shuffled him towards the other room, where Elijah Jones and the stranger were, Tse worried about his appearance, his long hair and sunkissed face, something he had never thought of before. He prayed to the Mother.

‘This is my nephew from the south, Tim Jones,’ said Elijah Jones when they entered.

‘Pleasure,’ said the guest. He was a very short man with light hair that looked wet and combed across his head. In his smile his teeth were small and far apart and he licked his lips every time after he spoke. He held out his right hand to Tse, just as Elijah Jones had, and Tse looked at it before putting his own on the short man’s shoulder. Elijah Jones cleared his throat before he said:

‘And this is the Honourable Lehi Young. Salt Lake City’s own Master Police Constable.’

‘Pleasure,’ Tse copied.

‘So what brings you to our great City, Tim? And where in the south is it you’re from?’ Lehi Young asked as they all sat down in different corners of the room. Tse’s palms were wet. There was a ticking noise coming from a wooden box on the wall. It was deafening.

‘Yes, he’s from Europe, in fact, and he comes so rarely. We are very happy to finally see him again,’ Elijah Jones intervened. ‘In fact, I have not seen him since he was a pup. Can we get the Master Constable anything to drink?’

‘No thank you. Tell me more about yourself, Tim. It is Tim, isn’t it? I am curious about you. What do you do?’

Tse glanced at Elijah Jones. ‘When?’

‘I mean for a living, of course,’ the little man said, with his open mouthed smile and licking his lips.

‘Just live,’ Tse answered.

Elijah Jones laughed nervously. ‘Yes, young Tim here is a bit of a drifter who takes odd jobs where he can get them, don’t you, son? Yes, yes, oh to be young again. And aren’t we glad he has remembered his old uncle and come to visit us?’

‘Oh indeed we are,’ said Elizabeth with a pasted smile.

Lehi Young looked at Tse. He had not stopped smiling, but his smile was more of an open mouth and slightly curved lips than a positive disposition.

‘Yes, I quite like a good ride myself,’ he said. ‘Do you hunt, Tim?’

Tse shrugged his shoulders.

‘A common interest of ours, then. I must say I quite enjoy it. I have quite a collection of trophies in my house, if you would be interested. Just last week I actually shot a great bear, will you believe it. But I must have only maimed it, though; it ran away and I couldn’t find it. I guess mother nature had its cause with it,’ he said with a little laugh. Tse frowned. He stood up.

‘I come to Elijah Jones and Elizabeth. Not you or death. Please understand.’

Lehi Young stood up too. His mouth was still half open and curved upwards, without a trace of a smile. ‘Indeed I do. It was grand of you to come, but perhaps it is better for all if you leave tomorrow, early. This city is a great place, but could possibly be strange and even dangerous for a man of the old continent. This is the Wild West, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, or your friends. Would we?’

Lehi Young held out his right hand again. Tse gave him his own.

‘They are family, not friends.’

The two men looked into each other’s eyes.

‘No, I am sure they will be safe. I will make sure of it, as is my duty,’ the smaller man said, licked his lips and left Elizabeth’s home. Just outside he turned around again.

‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, ‘that was one of the reasons I came here. I wished to speak of an engagement of marriage between Miss Elizabeth and myself. That way I will always be able to keep her safe. But as you have company, Mr Jones, maybe another more formal visit will be in order. I will be back tomorrow to find you without your visitor, I’m sure. Good night, good people, and God bless.’ The two inhabitants and their guest watched Lehi Young mount his startlingly white horse and ride off.

‘Who is this man? He dangerous?’ Tse asked when they were back inside.

‘Yes, he is,’ said Elijah Jones. ‘He is one of the most powerful men in this city. He is the youngest son of the first wife of the great Brigham Young, the founder of this city and the state of Utah. He is the Master Police Constable and the one who really runs things for the Church and Government, which are basically the same.’

‘What he do?’

‘He and his men ride around all day and night and keep an eye on people. They claim it’s for their own safety and protection, and that they take care of whoever disturbs the peace and safety by acting disagreeably.’

Tse raised his eyebrows.

‘They say that certain activities are improper and unchristian,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Like too many people meeting too late at night. That’s common. But really they are just afraid of threats to their authority.’

‘His, his family’s power and safety over their people’s?’

‘Yes,’ Elizabeth said, ‘precisely. And they would not look kindly upon an Indian savage coming into their father’s town. We know who you truly are but that is all they would see you as. Anyone not like them or their peers are a threat and an abomination in the eyes of God. Oh dear, I wonder if he realised…’ Elizabeth stood up and paced about the room for a moment, then sat down next to Tse and fixed her blue eyes on his. ‘I think it’s sad but wise of you to leave tomorrow,’ she said.

Tse nodded.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I too much danger for you. But little man who thinks himself big will return tomorrow. He want to take you, Elizabeth. Danger is great for you, with me here or not.’

‘It reminds me of the time before Elizabeth was born,’ said Elijah Jones. ‘Her mother was much desired even after I came along. And still, after we married they tried to convince me to take another wife.’ He looked at Elizabeth. ‘It was only because…’

‘Yes, Papa, I know,’ said Elizabeth and put her hand on his knee. ‘I know, it was neither of our faults.’

‘Tell him no. And leave with me.’ Tse was thinking of how to get all three of them to Cheveyo.

Elijah and Elizabeth laughed rather than wept.

‘That will not work, Tse,’ said Elizabeth. ‘He doesn’t take a no from anyone, and he will not let anyone leave. He will kill us if we do either.’

Tse rose slightly from his seat. ‘Kill you?’

‘Yes. It is not uncommon that people – fathers, mothers or whole families – disappear in the middle of the night. After that no one speaks about them because everyone knows what has happened. Lehi Young and his men got to them when they tried to leave.’

‘This evil doings, what bad spirit runs him? How he knows when people want to leave?’

‘Many think that he speaks directly to God,’ Elijah Jones said. ‘That God tells him what people are thinking and then blesses him to stop them.’

The cruelty of these men and their God was unfathomable to Tse, and he thought of his own religion; the Mother who had adopted him, just like his Amá, not seeing him as either white or Navajo, but as a human soul. Again he remembered the night of his initiation. In the pouring rain and freezing cold, shaking with hunger and crying with pain, when he thought he had lost his life to the forces of Nature and had been forever abandoned by the people he thought loved him, he had remembered the pouch of magic Spirit Dust that hung around his waist. He had not known what he was meant to do with it, since it could not warm him, not protect him against the rain, it could not call his family to rescue him; in no way could it end the initiation. The only thing he had thought of doing with it was eating it; maybe it could still his hunger. He had tried, but it did not. He had struggled to swallow it but had managed with some rain water. The hunger, freeze and solitude had remained. He had laid himself down without shaking or crying, just calm. He had handed his life over to the forces; he had laid down to die. Then he had looked around himself and only then seen the beauty of the forest. He had thought God must have been happy when he created this place, which made it a good place to die. He had closed his eyes and let out what he thought would be his last breath.

But then, within his eyes, he had seen the Mother appear in all Her glory. She had smiled and brought him warmth. She had told him not to worry, using only Her mind. She had told him he was in the right place at the right time and he was doing the right thing. She had given him all Her love, a feeling so overwhelming Tse had begun to cry again, but out of wonder and happiness. He had opened his eyes, and he had seen. He had seen every spirit and life of the great forest. The great tree spirit, tall and proud and stabile. The forgetful but caring squirrel, the fragile and beautiful bird, along with the rabbit, the rock, the moss, the grass, the flower, the eagle, the deer, the maggot, the beetle, the fungus, the rain, the cloud, the air, the bacteria, and everything else. And he had seen himself. His own spirit had left his body and had greeted him, smiled and given him the greatest advice of his life: Trust Yourself. And he had seen that he was beautiful. He had seen that the World is beautiful, and the World became his lover. All night he had seen, learnt, felt and known. All the spirits are part of a great Universe, a cycle of time and life, and everything is connected. Nothing begins, nothing ends; all is connected in a field of energy where nothing is certain, where no matter exists. Tse had felt his own body dissolve into particles, the same particles as the tree’s, the rock’s and the eagle’s. They were all one and would always be so, and in this world it did not matter who one’s birth parents were. Tse was part of the Dineh and the Universe, and there he would return.

‘I know where I belong now,’ he said to Elizabeth and Elijah Jones. ‘It is not here with you. It is with my own people.’

Elizabeth smiled.

‘I believe you’re right, Tse,’ she said. ‘But as your place is with your people, our place is unfortunately here. My father is old and weak, and although we are not entirely welcome here we might be even less welcome amongst your people. Tse,’ she said and took his hands in hers, ‘I’m afraid we have to stay.’

Tse nodded. They embraced long and lovingly, with Elijah Jones he did the same. He changed back into his normal clothes and let out his hair again. They all knew he would find his way out of Salt Lake City and back to Cheveyo. He had been awake for nearly two full day and night circles, but did not feel tired; he would not be seen. He would ride off home to a happy, natural, spiritual life. Elizabeth wept when she kissed him one last time before he left the house and said:

‘Remember us, Tse. We will never forget you.’

‘You will always be with me, for I will always remember you,’ he said, and silently hummed the song they had sung together. Elizabeth dried her eyes and smiled, and bid him farewell.

5 thoughts on “A Wild West Story

Add yours

  1. Beautiful work, Jess. Well-paced & even & you find a way to emphasise cultural & animal differences/similarities without being heavy-handed or clichéd. I enjoyed that the ‘savage’ speaks of the ‘white’ as ‘it’ – really deftly done. And, also how the bear ‘possibly out of a hatred for humans’ had terrorised the village…

    Thanks, Nick.

    Like

      1. Really enjoyed it, Jess.
        Do you look on it fondly, or maybe with an older, more critical eye?
        Some pieces seem to stand the test of time, and sometimes they make us cringe! – well, mine do.

        Like

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