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Dark clouds slipped soundlessly across the sky as night fell. The faintest glow could be made out in the periodic breaks between the flooded trees. The lead canoe sailed silently forward, driven by the fatigued strokes of two young men. Unease reflected in the youths' dark eyes. Behind them brown water rippled in the expanding V of their wake. It licked at the trunks of bitter pecan and water oak, then lapped against pioneer stands of sweetgum, hackberry, and ash that rose above the backswamp.
In the dusky shadows, three more slim vessels followed, the occupants silently paddling their craft. On occasion they glanced warily about at the hanging beards of moss, at the silvered webs spun by hand-sized yellow spiders, and at the clinging mass of vines. Occasionally a copperhead draped from a water-crested branch.
"White Bird, are you sure you know where you are going?" a young paddler called from the second boat. He spoke in the language of the river—a Trade pidgin that had grown over generations.
"I know these backswamps as surely as you know the twists and turns of your forests back home, Hazel Fire. Trust me." White Bird blinked his eyes where he sat in the rear of the lead canoe, his back pressed hard against the matting that cushioned the concave stern. He had hoped to be home by nightfall. Ahead of him, Yellow Spider's paddle moved mechanically, his arms as tired and loose-jointed as White Bird's own.
"I don't blame them for being nervous." Yellow Spider scratched at a chigger bite on his calf. "It is a frightening thing, being cast loose in so much water, never knowing which way you are going. Remember how we felt in their country?"
Twelve long moons had passed since they had struck north, following the winding course of the Father Water, keeping to the backwaters, avoiding the river's current as they battled their way upstream. By the fall equinox they had landed their canoe in the far northern country of the Wolf People.
Trade was old, but it was mostly conducted between peoples, or by solitary Traders in canoes who traveled the rivers. The key was the river system that linked the huge continental interior. Copper from the great northern lakes, special chert from Flint Ridge in the northeast, soapstone from the eastern mountains, and hematite from the northwest were but a few of the exotic Trade items prized by the Sun People. But goods moved slowly and in a trickle. The farther a person traveled from the source, the more valuable the Trade was. The farther a Trader traveled, the less likely he would have the items he started with. The Power of Trade was that items be Traded at each stop.
White Bird and Yellow Spider had tried a different tack. They had carefully avoided the River Peoples, often traveling by night, on their journey northward. Upon their arrival, with their Trade intact, they elected to spend the winter. That meant freezing and shivering in the Wolf People's thatch-sided huts while snow twirled out of the cold gray skies, and frigid winds moaned through the naked trees. In that time they had traded judiciously, offering their beautifully dyed textiles, their basswood rope and cordage, small sections of alligator hide, and necklaces made of the beast's teeth and claws. They had pitched in with the hunting, packing firewood, and generally making themselves useful. Both had struggled to learn as much of the language as they could. As honored guests, each had been provided with a young woman, and by the time of their departure, their wives had begun to swell with children.
"These women," the chief had told them, "they do not wish to go south and live with strangers. Their families, clans, and people are here. They will be here when you come back."
Their Trade had been wildly successful. So much so that the piles of goods stacked in their small hut would have overflowed their single canoe. In the end it had taken all of White Bird's guile, the promise of immense wealth, and the gift of half of his profits, to talk three additional canoes into accompanying them south.
With the breaking of the river ice, White Bird, Yellow Spider, and the Wolf Traders had loaded their canoes and slipped them into the frigid current. The descent of the river had taken but two moons, a third the time needed to paddle upstream. Nor had the journey been as dangerous, their travel time through potentially hostile country being shorter, their numbers larger and more threatening to potential raiders.
As they neared the end of the long voyage, their narrow craft were stacked gunwale high with fabric sacks that contained the winter's Trade: chipped stone blanks, copper beads, thin sections of ground slate, polished greenstone celts, and adzes. In addition they had large winter hides from buffalo, elk, and a highly prized hide from the great silver bear. Smaller prime hides came from beaver, northern bobcat, mink, and marten. One hide, traded from the far north, came from something called a carcajou—an animal they had never seen—but the fur was black, lustrous, and soft. Other pouches contained herbs and medicinal plants: wild licorice for sore throats; alum root for diarrhea; gayfeather for heart and urinary problems; puccoon for wounds, menstrual problems, and to stay awake; mint for tea, the relief of gas, and stomach problems; yucca root for joint soreness and a laxative; and coneflower for toothaches.
But in White Bird's mind the most important thing he carried was the fabric sack of goosefoot seeds that rested between his feet. That was the journey's greatest prize. And for that, he would gamble everything. What would the People do for a man who offered them the future?
"I thought we would be there by now," Yellow Spider muttered, banking his paddle long enough to roll his muscular shoulders.
"The cut across from the crevasse is longer than you remember." White Bird smiled. "Besides, if you will recall, we were fresh and excited when we left here last spring."
"And the backswamp is deeper," Yellow Spider added. "Look at this." He gestured at the high water ringing the trees. "Fishing must be more difficult this spring with such deep water. People will be adding on to their nets. We should have gone northwest for ironstone. Given the depth of the water and the size of the nets needed to fish these currents, net sinkers will be in demand."
"We did fine." White Bird tapped the sack of goosefoot seed with his foot. "Besides, had we gone northwest, the mountain people wouldn't have provided their women. Not like those Wolf People." He paused thoughtfully as he stroked with his paddle. "I, for one, will miss Lark. She kept the robes more than warm."
As Yellow Spider picked up his paddle, White Bird rested his across the gunwales and rolled his weary shoulders. Fatigue ran from his fingers, up his arms, and into the middle of his back. His belly had run empty long ago, as though nothing but hunger lay behind the corded muscles. An image of Lark flashed in his head. He remembered the sparkle in her eyes that first night when she had crawled into his bed. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel her hands tracing the swell of his chest and the ripple of muscle that led down past his navel. Her gasp of delight as she reached down to grip his manhood lingered in his ears.
"Yes," he whispered into the stillness of the swamp, "I shall miss you, Lark." In his nineteen turning of seasons he had never had a full-time woman before. The notion that she had been waiting every time he returned to their cozy home had grown on him. She was a strange one, true, raised as she was by a different people with different gods and peculiar beliefs, but she had been pretty, devoted to him, and always there. Rot take it, a man could get used to living like that.
"I wouldn't worry," Yellow Spider said smugly as he ducked a clump of hanging moss. "Your mother probably has a whole string of women lined up for you. Not only are you worthy—as our return will prove—but you're in line to replace your uncle." He hesitated tactfully. "If you haven't already."
"Uncle Cloud Heron will be fine. Owl help me if he isn't."
Yellow Spider laughed. "Oh, stop it. You'll be a better Speaker for the clan than anyone I know. You have a way about you, White Bird. A calm assurance that no one else has. People can't help but like you. Look at how we did up north. Look at the return we got. How are you going to explain that you gave half of your Trade to these barbarians?"
"Watch your tongue." White Bird shot a quick look back over his shoulder. "You never know if any of them have been learning our language. Lark and Robin were learning it quickly enough."
"I was just thinking how much I miss that Robin." Yellow Spider sighed. "Somehow I think the clan is going to marry me off quick as a snap. Who knows whom they'll pick for me." He paused. "Unlike you. Or are you sorry that Lark isn't in your canoe instead of me?"
"Come on, Cousin. Think! Lark and Robin belong up there. That's where their families are. They'd be strangers here, cast loose without kin of any kind. And, you're right. The clan will have you married to at least one other woman, perhaps two, within the turning of seasons."
Yellow Spider lowered his voice. "Do you think Spring Cypress is a woman yet?"
White Bird shrugged. "If she is, she may be married already." Did his voice cloak the sudden sense of worry? She'd begun her fourteenth summer when he and Yellow Spider had left for the north. But for a late menstruation, she'd have been married—most girls were by that age.
"I talked to Spring Cypress before I left. It was a risk we had to take. Even if she passed her moon, her uncle, Speaker Clay Fat, could have been persuaded to wait."
"Or not, as the case may be."
"Are you always so gloomy?"
"No, I'm just connected to this world. You, my cousin, live in another. Take those seeds you're so enamored of. Goosefoot is goosefoot. We have our own. Why invest in someone else's?"
"Because these seeds are twice as big as ours."
"If they'll even grow here." Yellow Spider smashed a mosquito that managed to penetrate the grease he'd smeared on his skin. "The dirt's different."
"Shows what you know. And the seasons are different. It doesn't get as cold here. Maybe those seeds are just like ours and…and it's the cold that makes them get that big?"
Yellow Spider nodded in the shadowy half-light that penetrated the canopy of trees and filtered through the hanging moss and vines. "To be sure, Cousin. I've trusted you this far, and look where it has gotten me. I am coming home with the most successful Trading venture ever. Not just a canoeful of goods, but four! We own the world, Cousin!"
White Bird smiled into the increasing darkness. They did indeed own the world. No matter that the Wolf Traders considered half of their canoes' contents to be theirs, the fact was, it would all end up being spread among the clans. The credit would be his. People would listen to him. His influence would maintain his clan's position, and if anything, add to Owl Clan's prestige. The seeds at his feet were the next step in changing the people, making them greater than they had ever been.
Suffused with the glow of success, he barely heard the whisper of wings in the darkness as an owl circled above, charting their progress.
Copyright © 2003 by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear