An Excerpt from Whiskey Kills
The wind ... biting, cold, unrelenting.
The sky ... gunmetal gray, ugly, ominous.
The ground ... barren, frozen, hard.
All matched Daniel Killstraight’s mood.
For three days, he had been riding, hardly eating, barely sleeping, searching, freezing, swearing. Three days without seeing anyone, or anything except ravens, a red-tailed hawk, and a few scrawny, ticky Texas longhorns. Three days without any lessening of his anger. Three days of bitter memories. Three days since they had buried Sehebi, whom the Pale Eyes knew as Willow. The four-year-old daughter of Toyarocho. Granddaughter of Teepee That Stands Alone.
He had crossed the North Fork of the Red River, knew he was beyond the reservation of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache, knew he was out of his jurisdiction, that he had no authority for what he had been hoping to do for three days now. Daniel had ridden into disputed Greer County, which the Texians had claimed since before Daniel was born, even before his father had been born, ignoring the United States government that designated this land as part of Indian Territory. He knew what those Texians would likely do to him if they caught him.
Daniel Killstraight did not care.
Catching the scent of wood smoke, he tugged on the braided-leather hackamore, and swung off the buckskin mare. For the past three or four miles, he had been riding in a narrow gully, partly to escape the wind, mostly to escape detection. Not many white settlers had dared to try to make a home in Greer County, but those that did remained far from friendly to any stranger, especially a Comanche Indian wearing a badge. A post office had been established recently, one post office covering 1.5 million acres, but he was nowhere near that post office.
A moment after he climbed out of the gully, he spotted the smoke.
His coat was gray, too small for him, stained, full of holes, surviving the years after the Centennial Exposition in some forgotten crate before being handed down to the Tribal Police. Although the wool pricked like goat heads, the coat did offer some protection from the wind. Pinned beneath a missing button was a shield badge, stamped with a bow with two crossed arrows, and the words Indian Police. Dropping his head, Daniel stared momentarily at the piece of tin, before scanning the countryside again. His trousers were made of deerskin, and he wore Comanche moccasins, a sutler’s red shirt, bear-claw necklace, and a stiff-brimmed, high-crowned black hat with a hawk feather stuck in the band. His clothes revealed part white man, part Indian, and that’s how Daniel often felt himself, even if he had not one drop of taibo blood in his veins. Yes, his mother had been Mescalero, but Daniel was Nermernuh. The People. Comanche.
He dropped back into the gully, grabbed the hackamore, and led the mare through the winding ditch, their feet crunching the ice, then sloshing through water, an inch deep at first, growing deeper, until it reached Daniel’s ankles, and he stopped, hearing the wind moan through the blackjacks. Before climbing out of the gully, he drew the Remington as the buckskin lowered her head to drink.
Out of the gully, Daniel lay on his belly, staring ahead at the stand of blackjacks. He could hear the voices, smell not only wood smoke, but the aroma of salt pork frying in a skillet, and his stomach growled. He pulled the revolver’s hammer until it clicked, then carefully rotated the cylinder, checking the percussion caps on the rusty relic the agency gave the Indian policemen.
For an instant, he hesitated, wondering if he should ride back for help. Are you afraid? he asked himself with bitterness. A raucous laugh roared out of the blackjacks, and Daniel remembered again, blood and anger rushing to his head. He lowered the hammer, and crawled on his belly toward the trees, hearing but no longer feeling the wind, seeing those blackjacks transform into the Wichita Mountains, fifty or sixty miles northeast.
The smoke turned into images of Sehebi, Toyarocho, and Teepee That Stands Alone, and wind became cries of mourning. He thought of Sehebi, and why he had traveled so far.
The sky remained a perfect blue except for one small white cloud standing over the Wichitas, as the tall grass waved in the cold wind. Daniel and Ben Buffalo Bone were the first to arrive at the Toyarocho’s camp, having left Leviticus Ellenbogen and Grace Morning Star behind. The new Indian agent showed himself to be a mighty poor rider, and Grace Morning Star was in no hurry to see Toyarocho’s daughter again.
In front of the lone teepee, Toyarocho’s wife - the one wife the agents had let him keep - sat on her knees, blood running in rivulets down both arms, her long, black hair chopped short, singing a wailing song, while other women stood around her, crying their songs of grief.
Off to the right, Toyarocho sat on a lichen-covered chunk of granite. He, too, sang, although he had not slashed his arms or hair, and his song was not one of pain. His arm waved with the music, an empty bottle tight in his hand.
“Whiskey,” he sang in the little English he knew. “Whiskey. Whiskey. Whiskey. Me good Comanch. Whiskey. Whiskey. Whiskey.”
He stank of it.
Like most men of The People, Toyarocho was short, chubby, with a round, fat face, thick arms, and glistening, black hair that fell in two long braids. He was slightly shorter, and somewhat heavier than Daniel, beaten by the reservation, beaten by whiskey. He still dressed like a Kwahadi of old, but his bloodshot eyes looked dead. Beside him, Daniel saw a mountain of broken glass. Despite the chill, Toyarocho was shirtless, his sides raked with scratches along his ribcage. Most of the wounds had clotted, but one had reopened, sending blood dripping down his side, staining his deerskin. Toyarocho was too drunk to notice, or care.
In front of Toyarocho’s lodge, like an ancient cottonwood tree, waited Teepee That Stands Alone. Daniel turned to Ben Buffalo Bone, and signaled his friend to take care of Toyarocho. The tribal policeman reached behind his gun belt, and found the iron handcuffs, but Daniel shook his head, and walked to the teepee.
At six-foot-one, Teepee That Stands Alone towered over most of The People. He was a Kwahadi puhakat, a healer of much importance, of great power, for The People. Medicine man, the Pale Eyes called them, but the taibos knew little of The People. In the old days, before a continuous war with the Texians and bluecoats began, puhakats had been the real leaders of The People. The ones who could talk to the Great Spirit, who helped the younger men and boys on their vision quests, who could heal the sick, solve problems, point The People down the right path to follow. War changed that, bringing the war leaders to power, pushing back the healers. Yet Teepee That Stands Alone had never lost his standing. Before the Kwahadi band had surrendered when Daniel was just a boy, Quanah Parker had always sought the counsel of the great puhakat, Teepee That Stands Alone. Even after the Pale Eyes had made Quanah Parker the chief of all The People, men - bluecoats, black robes, Texians and The People - continued to seek out Teepee That Stands Alone for his wisdom.
Nothing from the Pale Eyes could be found on him. He wore a full-feathered bonnet, deerskin leggings, shirt, and moccasins. Even his lance was made the old way, its wooden point sharpened, and hardened by fire. Most of The People used steel points, acquired from the Pale Eyes by raid or trade. All of The People knew that if Teepee That Stands Alone ever wore something not made by The People, his puha would vanish, and he would become a worthless old man, powerless, forgotten.
He looked older, but no less forceful, than Daniel remembered. Even the tears streaming down his face could not lessen his presence. Yet when he spoke, his voice quavered, “I could ... do ... nothing,” he spoke in Comanche, and, limping aside from the opening, using his lance as a crutch, joined the women in song.
Swallowing, trying to steel himself for what he knew he would find in the lodge, Daniel ducked inside.
Inside, he knelt, sighing heavily, as he reached out and touched the cold body of the four-year-old. Gently, he lifted her hands, saw the blood under her fingernails. Outside, Toyarocho sang his drunken song, and Daniel pictured the scratches on his sides, recalling what Grace Morning Star had told them at the agency near Fort Sill. The sound of cantering horses rose above the songs of mourning, and he knew Grace Morning Star and Leviticus Ellenbogen had arrived. Before leaving the teepee, he covered Sehebi’s face with an ancient buffalo robe.
He moved past the mourners, glancing over his shoulder at Ben Buffalo Bone and Sehebi’s drunken father, and walked directly to the agent. Grace Morning Star ran past him, tears streaming down her face. It had been the silver-haired Grace Morning Star, the last surviving wife of Teepee That Stands Alone, who had found Sehebi, tried to revive her, then ridden all the way to the agency in hopes of returning with a Pale Eyes doctor who could stop Sehebi from taking the journey to The Land Beyond The Sun.
No luck. There was no doctor at the agency, never had been, and the major at Fort Sill said, with measured regret, that he had to operate on a bluecoat soldier, and that his assistant surgeon was in the field, that neither couldn’t make it to the Wichitas to check on some Comanche kid until the next day at the earliest. It didn’t matter.
Leviticus Ellenbogen dropped the reins to his bay gelding, raising a gloved right hand to cover his mouth. He had arrived from Buffalo, New York, the latest appointment to the post, and so far had seldom traveled more than a couple of miles from the agency. He had witnessed ration day, but had never seen, probably never even imagined, how The People would react to the death of a child, or any loved one. Self-mutilation. Wailing. Now Teepee That Stands Alone had removed his beautiful bonnet, and had sawed off one of his long braids, tossing it onto the fire. As he worked to cut off the other braid, Grace Morning Star took a knife from Toyarocho’s wife, laid her own hand against a rock, and chopped off the tip of her little finger.
Ellenbogen’s dark eyes stared, uncomprehending, unprepared, and when he finally lowered his hand, he said in an ugly whisper, “That’s ....”
Daniel finished the sentence for him. “Barbaric?”
The agent’s mouth closed sharply, and he looked sternly at Daniel. He was a gangly man in black broadcloth and a blue greatcoat, dark hair turning gray, with eyes almost as dark as Daniel’s. He spoke with a German accent Daniel had often heard during his years east at the Carlisle Industrial School as well as in the Pennsylvania mines, and a thin, six-pointed star, instead of a cross, dangled from a gold necklace that hung over his puffy navy tie.
The Pale Eyes in Washington City had sent many agents to oversee the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache: Quakers and Methodists, ex-soldiers and Texians. Most did not last long. They either couldn’t handle their “wards” or they were forced to resign after being caught cheating their Indian subjects, and filling their own pockets with money. Grafters. Frauds. Hypocrites. Bastards. Daniel had had the last agent, Ephraim Rueben, taken into custody by federal officers - Comanche policemen weren’t allowed to arrest white men - and Rueben was now imprisoned in the federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Daniel didn’t really know Leviticus Ellenbogen, but considered him to be as useless, as corrupt as all of his predecessors.
Ellenbogen’s eyelids knotted, and he started to speak, decided against it, and took a deep breath, slowly exhaling and then tugging on his thick graying beard.
“Make your report, Sergeant Killstraight.”
“It’s like Grace Morning Star said. Sehebi is dead. Killed by her father.” Daniel tilted his head toward Toyarocho, who had stopped singing as Ben Buffalo Bone led him to the horses.
“She put up a fight,” Ellenbogen said. He had seen the scratches on Toyarocho’s bare chest. “Was his intent ...?”
“The People do not beat our children,” Daniel said. “We aren’t as barbaric as some races.” Frowning harder, Ellenbogen clenched both fists, but said nothing.
“Toyarocho is a drunk,” Daniel continued. “He has been one for years. He returned to his lodge this morning, drunk, and passed out on top of Sehebi. She clawed him, but Toyarocho would not waken, would not roll over. She suffocated.”
“His wife was in that teepee!” Ellenbogen yelled.
Daniel blinked, staring, not believing the tears in the agent’s eyes.
“Didn’t she hear the noise?” the agent cried. “Couldn’t she feel her child kicking, fighting for her life?”
Daniel looked down. “Likely,” he said softly, “she was drunk, too.”
“My God!” Ellenbogen roared. He bowed his head into hands, too large for the rest of his body.
Daniel left the grieving agent alone, found Ben Buffalo Bone, and helped get Toyarocho into the saddle.
“Where do I take him?” Ben Buffalo Bone asked in Comanche.
“Narawekwi,” he answered. The jail at Fort Sill would have to hold Toyarocho for now.
“What will become of Toyarocho?”
“I don’t know,” Daniel said wearily in English. “It will be up to Quanah.”
“No!” Daniel turned to the voice. Agent Leviticus Ellenbogen strode toward them, stopped, his face red underneath that wide-brimmed black hat. “A father killing his daughter will not be heard at your Court of Indian Offenses. No, by thunder. Never. Yes, Mister Buffalo Bone, you take that ... that ...” The tall agent tried to steady himself. “You take him to Fort Sill, you tell the colonel that this murderer is to be arraigned in Wichita Falls. You tell -”
Toyarocho started singing again. The agent blinked, his mouth open. Finally, Ellenbogen swallowed, and, turning in revulsion, barked a final order, “Get that drunkard out of my sight!” Ellenbogen walked toward Teepee That Stands Alone, and Daniel looked up at Ben Buffalo Bone.
“You heard him,” Daniel said.
“Yes.” Ben Buffalo Bone’s head fell. “She was a sweet little girl. It does not seem fair.”
“It isn’t.” Daniel turned, and followed Agent Ellenbogen.
Copyright 2010 by Johnny D. Boggs