At first I thought I’d been startled from sleep by the sound of my own snore. Then I began to remember the dream I’d been having. I couldn’t remember all of it, just snatches of screaming people, hundreds of lodges burning. These snatches were so frightening that I lay in my bed with one hand on my chest feeling the stuttering thump of my heart. It found an even brisker pace when my muddled gaze focused on what appeared to be an intruder. The morning light was weak, dawn smudging itself against the dusty panes of my only window. I continued to stare at the silent, watchful trespasser as the gray light filtering in gradually began to brighten the interior of my little one-room house. Finally I realized that I had been holding my breath on account of my own overalls, shirt, and hat sagging off the wall peg.
Oddly enough this was not a relief, for outside the cabin there wasn’t the normal morning birdsong, no final chirp of crickets. The quiet of this new day was overwhelming. And the silence triggered a long-buried memory. In an attempt to shake all of this off, I climbed out of bed and, dressed only in my nightshirt, puttered barefoot to the high chest of drawers standing to the left of my bed. Then, like the beginning of every morning, there I was, staring into the framed mirror hanging just above the bureau. The bad dream, the too-quiet of the morning, still held me in an almost strangling grip. Staring at my weary reflection, I knew this was not going to be just one more ordinary day.
A very long time ago, a very dear mystic-type friend tried hard to convince me that I shouldn’t be afraid of the nudges one might receive from the other realm. He said that what a person ought to do is follow the direction the spirits point in. Well, that was all fine and good for him. He fully embraced the spiritual. My instinctive reaction has always been to run in the opposite direction. But now I’m too old. With old legs there is no more running. Silently cursing my long dead friend, I called out, “My best friend! What is it you want?”
There was no answer from a disembodied voice, only silence and dust motes dancing inside the rays of feeble sunlight streaking through the window. After a minute or two of that, and to relieve my eyes of my own reflection while I awaited his revelation, I began to touch, then lift, each item neatly placed on the cabinet top. A wooden boar-bristle brush, a pair of tweezers, a glass bottle of witch hazel, a glass bottle of Jergen’s lotion. I love the smell of this lotion. I wear it every day. But only on my face so that I can smell it better. Setting the bottle down, I hesitantly lifted my eyes again to the reflection in the mirror. I tried to smile at the ugly old man there and he—with his craggy features, sagging jowls, deeply seamed wrinkles, bulbous nose, and hooded eyes, all of this framed by wild almost white hair—tried to smile back. I thought with a huff that if my long dead friend had nothing better to do in the beyond than to pester me about my ugliness, then his spirit must be extremely bored. I was about to turn away when a mist began to form over the mirror. Now, that caught my complete attention, and I peered again at the glass. The mist was not like the kind that comes whenever cold air meets warm. This mist was more like smoke. It moved. It swirled. And in the center of this movement, a face formed. A face covering over what I could see of my own. Both hands gripping the cabinet top, I watched transfixed as, gradually, I began to recognize the young man in the mirror. And I was so very glad to see him. So glad that I was nearing crazy with happy, as my wife used to say. That young man’s specter slowly dominated the glass. I knew that I, the old man that I am, still existed, but what I prayed, and mightily, was that the young man now gazing steadily back at me would stay for as long as possible. So I dared not move, was afraid to take so much as a deeply drawn breath, terrified that doing so would be enough to break our fragile connection.
I had never been one to stare so longingly at that young face. I’d felt back then that the nose was too stubby and the mouth, ever pressed in a thoughtful way, too grim. Then there were the unusually pronounced cheekbones, the deep pits, caused by smallpox, heavily littering the cheeks. Exactly how a young man like that ever attracted a beautiful highborn woman like Crying Wind I’ll never understand. I asked her about it once, and she’d said, “Probably because I wasn’t looking at your face.”
That made me laugh. Although I never stood any taller than five feet eight inches, my body was trim and firm. Crying Wind used to say that mine was the prettiest body a man could ever have. Her body, however, was phenomenal. I have never forgotten the first time I ever saw her legs. They had been wonderfully exposed because her skirt was pulled between them, the hem of the skirt tucked into the belt around a narrow waist as she stood in the shallows of a creek filling water containers. There had been a lot of other women standing in that creek and hordes of little children playing along its banks. Behind me, life in the camp was in its usual bustle. But when my eyes fastened on her, my attention tunneled. Suddenly there was only person in my universe.
We married two weeks later. For both of us, it was a second marriage. It was also a woefully unbalanced marriage for Crying Wind was beautiful and of our highest class, a born-to Onde, and I was of our nation’s middle class. Crying Wind also brought a son into our marriage. He was about four years old then, hardly able to talk without garbling every word. He was cute and at the time extremely likeable, so I adopted him, naming him after me, his new name being Tay-bodal’s Favorite Son. An odd name, really, when one considers that, widower though I was, I had no other children from whom to single him out as being my favorite. Then there was the fact that from almost the instant of my newly found paternity, I was continually at odds with him—for Favorite Son, even though he weighed slightly less than forty pounds, was a forty-pound mass of perpetual motion.
Thankfully, he wasn’t with us during our brief but dazzling honeymoon, but afterward he was with us for everything else, purposely putting himself between me and his mother. Not knowing what to do with the boy, I sought counsel from an ill-advised source. My friend and band chief, White Bear. Now, the reason that asking his advice was something of a blunder was because White Bear—legend, leader, and Orator of the Plains—was also a prankster of near mythical proportions. Of course I was well aware of this. A person would have had to have spent his entire life in an isolated cave not to have known it. But at the time I was in such distress that I truly believed that seeking help from a man who was himself a father at least twelve times over was the appropriate thing to do.
Oh, he gave me advice, all right. He said that what I ought to do was spank Favorite Son. Well, that went contrary to our custom. We didn’t spank our children. When they became hard to handle, we packed them off to aunties or uncles who did the hard disciplining. This custom saved harried parents from bouts of guilt as well any ill feelings from their own offspring. Even so, White Bear assured me that for adoptive fathers, customs were different.
No, they’re not.
I found that out just after giving Favorite Son’s round bottom one measly swat. That daring act was quickly followed by Crying Wind chasing me through the camp, hitting me on my head with a broom. I am told that White Bear laughed so long and so hard that he was weak for nearly two days.
I next turned to my best friend, Skywalker.
His name in Kiowa was Maman-ti. Meaning, He Walks In The Clouds . . . Skywalker. He was an Owl Doctor, a member of the society of prophets and seers, and he was the best of his kind. He was also a father. But even with all of these gifts, the best he could do was toss his hands in the air when it came to advising me about Favorite Son. But the thing I should have paid attention to was his saying, “As long as you are a slave to your lust for his mother, that boy will have power over you.”
Two years of marriage should have dampened my lust for my own wife, but it didn’t. Crying Wind was one of those freakish women who only became lovelier with the passing of time. And every time she took her dress off, I promptly fell to my knees in adoration. The upshot of all this lustful worship was that my son became worse, his unbridled anarchy controlling our lives. Finally in the early summer of 1868, the constant tensions in our home broke.
My life was beginning to fall apart just after our nation gathered at Medicine Lodge Creek, the same place we’d camped the previous summer. This time we were there for our Sun Dance. The summer before had been for the Medicine Lodge Treaty—a treaty that wasn’t working. The United States government blamed us, saying that Bad Boy Kiowas were tearing the treaty up. We Bad Boy Kiowas blamed J. H. Leavenworth.
Following the treaty signing, we had been told to go to Fort Cobb because the country around the fort would be our reserved land. But when all of our bands reached the fort, the band chiefs were told that Leavenworth had decided to move the agency to the Eureka Valley. We’d also been promised in the treaty that we would be within riding range of our allies, the Comanche and Cheyenne. What happened was, the Cheyenne and Comanche were sent up north, and Leavenworth chose a valley for us that was over three hundred miles to the south.
Col. Jesse Henry Leavenworth was a lot of things, but organized wasn’t one of them. On account of the distance between our agency and the fort—and Jesse Henry’s inept organizational skills—we Kiowa spent the winter season of 1867-68 huddled around waiting for the goods and foods promised to us for giving up our rightful homelands. After a few months everyone had run out of coffee and sugar—items we Kiowa had become addicted to. Not having these promised staples made everyone mad. Leavenworth begged for us to be a bit more patient. We tried.
Into this valley of frustration came a wily old Caddo known as Caddo George Washington, a notorious trafficker of whiskey. He also sold guns. As we had a surplus of tanned hides from the previous summer hunts, young men were able to buy both whiskey and guns. Pretty soon, both by day and at night, young men were staggering around drunk and shooting at the sky. Leavenworth’s answer to this noisome problem was to lecture the chiefly councils, expounding his “Great Vision.” He’d barely finished drying the tears streaking his face and putting away the white wiping cloth inside his long coat pocket when he went on to say—and without qualm or emotional quiver—that any Kiowas who did not share in his dream would be punished.
White Bear, along with his equally notable nephew, The Cheyenne Robber, took exception. Then they took all of the horses in the agency corral. Leavenworth, of course, demanded the return of the horses. White Bear refused, saying that he would no longer try to hold (restrain) his “Bad Boy Kiowas.” Enraged, Colonel Leavenworth sent for the army from Fort Cobb. It took over two weeks for the soldiers to arrive, and by the time they finally did, Leavenworth had changed his mind, ordering the soldiers to “leave his red children” alone. Well, that made the captain of those blue jackets pretty mad because just to get to the agency had meant a long wintery slog from Fort Cobb. Having arrived in “fighting kit,” the soldiers were quite ready and willing to give chase to the horse thieves. As for our side, a mass of hot-tempered Kiowa warriors were wanting to be chased, rattling their war shields and sounding their hollers, trying their best to goad the soldiers to come out and fight. But because one man had been unable to stick with any one decision, all that happened was the absurdity of soldiers and Indians just sort of milling around.
Not long after that, White Bear decided to take himself off to Fort Dodge and make a formal complaint against Colonel Leavenworth. I decided I would go with him. Mainly because I needed to get away from my wife. We were bickering almost constantly, and the tension within our home was steadily rising. I thought that if I just went away for a little while, my wife would simmer down. Now, basically I’m an incurable homebody. Especially during the cold season. But that particular cold season I was desperate, so I layered myself with my warmest clothing, which included a fine fur hat my wife had made for me, and chose my sturdiest horse: a short-limbed, round-bodied little brute that looked more like a goat than a horse but never seemed bothered by cold and was so surefooted that it could almost walk straight up a tree. There were eight of us making the journey: White Bear, The Cheyenne Robber, Skywalker, Hears The Wolf, Raven’s Wing, Big Tree, and Returned To Us—or Returned, as we simply called him—and me.
We were not well received at Fort Dodge, and were it not for the kindness of the fort’s sutler, we would have been left to sleep out in the cold and beg scraps from the kitchens. The sutler sheltered us in a room in his big store and gave us food as well as pot after pot of hot coffee. The sutler was named Tappan, and by his generosity he proved to White Bear that he truly loved Indian people. Secure in this man’s protection, we waited three days for the fort’s commander to consent to speak with us. Once we were finally granted an audience, we suffered that man’s air of total indifference as White Bear formally requested Leavenworth’s dismissal and that Mr. John Tappan be made our new agent. Through his interpreter the commander officially said that while he regretted our troubles, Father Washington only wanted Leavenworth. But that wasn’t what the commander had said at all.
We knew on account of Returned.
That young man was our secret weapon. Being only half Kiowa, he’d spent a great deal of his young life among the whites, and he knew their talk just as well as they did. It was cold in that hallway just outside the commander’s office, and Returned’s words floated out like frosty clouds as we were treated to what the commander had actually said:
“I’m not in the habit, nor do I intend taking it up, of accepting orders from a trounced old Indian. Tell him anything you want, just as long as whatever it is effectively sends him back to the dung pile from whence he came.”
White Bear stood silently, his face completely leached of blood. Then he turned, and with head high, shoulders squared and in measured strides, he walked the length of that long murky corridor.
We were only a few miles out of Fort Dodge when the slate-gray skies suddenly opened, and we found ourselves caught in the frigid heart of an ice storm. Within minutes the sleet had turned into long, thin icicles that hung from our protective clothing, and we held knifes in frozen hands as we cut saplings and hurriedly fashioned a shelter. It wasn’t big, and once we were inside it was certainly crowded, but it kept the worst of the weather off us and allowed a warming fire. Considering the scant availability of burnable fuel, we were lucky to even have a fire, and to keep it going we spent the remainder of that awful afternoon trying to protect the meager flames from the howling winds. We had some of the poor provisions we’d brought with us, but thanks to Mr. John Tappan, we also had a little bit of coffee, sugar, and bacon. In these coarse conditions we boiled up coffee in the pot White Bear always carried with him, and we fried up the bacon by skewering pieces onto sticks and holding the sticks over the flames. Because of the dripping bacon, it got very smoky in that pitiful shelter, but we didn’t care. We were all together, we were safe, and we were reasonably warm. On the trail, that was as good as it ever got. Warriors were used to such deprivations.