It’s hard to choose sides when you’re a half-breed.
“I snuck away. My father had taken the army out for another patrol around the cliffs and wooded areas to make sure that the Kiowa weren’t preparing to war. My father’s name was General William Tyler, and he had been in the army too long. He took us first to Mississippi and Florida for Indian uprisings there, and then to Texas where Indians had fought with Mexicans against our kind at the Alamo. No, Father didn’t get to them in time. I didn’t like this place any better than the rest and I told Father I was nearly old enough now—16 going on 30—to decide when and if I’d move with him again.
“Lynelle, you will do only as I say until you are wed,” he lectured to me.
“Ah! He then ordered me, like I was some kind of renegade soldier, to stay inside the fort for my own protection. And I tried, really, but the soldier guards teased and tormented me until I ran out for my sanity, while wondering if somehow I’d left it behind. I was the only girl in the fort. The only one! And they kept reminding me by … oh, yes.”
“I begged Father to let my brothers protect me, but he only laughed. Said I’d have to pick one of them sooner or later. And he hoped it wasn’t later! I’d rather die.
“So he was gone for the day and I snuck off to the river because the heat of the day had already made me half crazy, with the soldiers doing the rest. Oh, that water looked so good! I took off my shoes and lifted my skirt. I stepped onto the rocks where the river wasn’t very deep but the rocks were slick and I landed on my rear, getting my dress soaked.
“I walked further downstream to where the river widened and went still, a pond but not over my head, I could tell. And inside a glistening breeze the cool water called me to come play. I ducked behind a tree and looked around. All those obscene drunken soldiers, I felt sure one of them had followed me to watch. Oh, let them. I unbuttoned my bodice and let the dress fall to a heap at my feet. My undergarment made me struggle and sweat and I heard it rip but finally I had all my clothes neatly tucked at the base of the tree, and, daring any soldier who might be watching, I jumped into the water.
“Right into a school of fish. I found out why my father warned me not to swim naked. After I started to swim I had to stand again, to pry a fish from between my legs where it had entangled. I held this little fish to my face by its tail. It gaped at me, gasping—wondering if I was a good girl or a bad one. I tossed it upward to flop down in the middle of the river. “A bad one,” I said with a laugh. “But good enough to fool ‘em.
“On my back in the gently flowing river, I swam on my back like I was taught by the only man I’d ever loved to that point, a soldier who was killed last year in a skirmish with hungry natives who wanted his cattle. “Give them one and they’ll leave you!” I screamed at his poor bloody corpse at my feet. I told him he was wrong—there were two sides to every story, not one, and I wouldn’t mourn him much longer because he never stopped to find out the right side.
“My parents always quarreled and I never took sides. Finally my mother kicked my father out and he dragged me kicking and screaming along with him. I did a lot of that around him, I guess. I found out later my mother felt I’d be better off with his discipline.
“After a goodly distance with my backstroke I turned over to do a vigorous front stroke. At first I thought I’d hit my head on a rock. I gasped, taking in water and stood, coughing and wiping my face. When I could finally see I tried to run backward. An Indian!”
“Mama, is this the story about how you met my father?”
Lynelle, sitting half in the water at the Arkansas River’s bank with her arm around her 10-year-old son Boone, looked out at the waving weeds on the other side of the river as though her past were happening at that moment. She talked on as though she couldn’t hear him because, where she was, he wasn’t born yet.
“I screamed, but his face was kind and he said some good English words to me. Still, I ran for the shore, and as he followed, I could see that he was naked, just like me. Oh.” She closed her eyes. “I never met a man, before or since, who was so gentle, so kind. I was only a child, a little girl next to him, and he could have taken advantage of me, but he did not. We only swam and tried to talk. I found out he didn’t know much English, but somehow we managed. And I saw him in secret every day for two months after that.”
“Did you love him?”
Startled, she looked down at her hazel-eyed, half-Kiowa son. “With all my heart, and soul, too. I learned to understand his ways, and his people’s humor and generosity captured my heart. Oh, they could be cruel, too, but always with reason. I married him. And not too much later…” Lynelle pulled Boone into her arms and sobbed. “Oh, you’re not old enough for this, my little tadpole.” She brushed his black hair out of his eyes and kissed his freckled nose. “So much like him, and yet not. Oh Boonie…”
“I have to hear the whole story, Mama, if you ever expect me to be a man.”
Her sigh was more a trembling gasp. “Your grandfather’s cavalry attacked our village, swarmed like so many locusts! Oh Boone, it was horrible! Women, children, bodies shot up who had been so innocently sleeping.” Her eyes closed as she entered that world again. “The smell of gunpowder and blood, the screams and pleas for help. I kept telling them to shoot me, too! One child awoke with half a face. I had to knife her to stop her suffering. But they did not hurt me. Oh, no. They dragged me back to town, given back to my father who locked me in my room, and the Kiowa who still lived were chased far off.”
“What about my Pa?”
Lynelle looked around as though the army waited to ambush them again. She grabbed Boone’s arm and dragged him to his feet and to the small shack she tried to make home. Once safely inside she sat him down and hugged him. “He had to stay with his people. And I let my father take me far away. I left your father, because I could see the massacre happening over and over again. Before you were born, I had to decide which world would keep you safe. I chose the white world, far from the pain of what would happen to him, to us, over and over and over…”
The Wish Rock
Life in Kansas had gotten harsher with the arrival of the Missouri Regulators, as some came to call them. Lynelle knew she should move her son far from this bloody border where the status of owning slaves, or not, could get anyone killed. They left her alone when they realized she was just a poor homesteader with southern roots, but the sound of their horse hooves off anywhere in the distance sent her spiraling into fear that the Kiowa were coming, as Boone’s father had promised. And now the Atchison men were armed and plenty dangerous, so an Indian war might start and her beloved could be killed. At least then he couldn’t take her son away—oh, how torn to be a woman protecting her son from the father she loved.
She knelt, shaking off those horse hooves from her mind, but tears streamed down her face and arms as she dug in the dirt of her garden harvesting a meager bean and carrot crop. “No, it won’t do for my son to see me like this,” so she wiped a dirt stain on her face to erase the tears. Lynelle Tyler wasn’t as worried about the meager crop or the bloody border as she was about the coming of winter and Boone’s 13th birthday. There simply was no relief to be found from the nagging pain in her chest. The letter telling her that her father had died she buried like so much rubbish to fertilize the garden. That wasn’t her pain—oh no, this pain traveled her soul ever since Boone turned 12, last December.
Fighting a shiver, she squinted into the distance at the grumbling clouds gathered around the setting sun as the horse hooves faded away. She hadn’t cared about her father in years, but still, his death meant she never could again. No, she knew this other feeling by name, because she had birthed the horror.
Boone’s father was coming for him. There was nothing she could do about the ravages of time or the anger she felt toward the man she still so desperately loved. She didn’t know what she would do when she saw Kae-Gon again, but she would never live to see him take her son.
Nothing in his world had changed in twelve years. Nothing. Still so much hatred by her people toward his. Even without her father. But she missed his world terribly. They were a happy, contented people when left alone. They had no need for the trappings of the white world—although some believed that possessing white goods made them stronger or smarter. Kae-Gon. His name still made her shiver, like meeting him for the first time in a cold river. She wasn’t sure what his name meant, because they had not yet learned to communicate that well when she was forced away from him. He told her to call him Elk Lying. Or flying.
“Flying would be the perfect solution. Grab Boone and fly over the trees, far from any trouble or danger, ever again.” Lynelle put the small carrots, beans and squash into the basket with the heavy realization that this garden would give them nothing more this year, and went back into the house.
“Where’s my vagabond mama been this time?” Boone was sprawled out on the dirt floor etching pictures with his whittled stick, his tousled dark hair still coated with the sand from that morning’s swim. She taught him new words every day but so far vagabond was his favorite.
“Trying to find ways to make a boy grow faster so that his mama doesn’t have to work so hard.” She smiled at her lanky son deep in concentration, one foot absently kicking up small dry dust clouds behind him. “Boone Tyler, did you check your garden yet?”
“Look, Mama, the horse is running free as the wind. And I drew me over here, so that it is running to me.” Boone looked so much like his father—except for the freckles on his small nose and flecks of green in his brown eyes—that her heart ached. She loved Kae-Gon over and over whenever she looked at Boone. Yet she couldn’t let him back into their lives.
With my dying breath I will stop him! I cannot see Boone living with Indians. Even with her father dead, his disapproval gone, his kind’s hatred of her husband’s people would never die, and there was nothing she could do to change that. The bloodiness of that attack still visited her dreams, making her nights sleepless as long as she had a boy to protect.
“The garden, Boone.” She had sent him to white schools a few times, but they tormented him there, forcing him into the corner in the front of the room with his desk so no one would worry about their scalps by sitting in front of him. How she hated the white world! But in this world alone he would be safe—the dominant world with its dominant culture. Her white people had to accept him as one of them eventually. They just needed more time.
He’d ask questions about his father, beyond name and tribe, questions she couldn’t answer because she hadn’t lived there long enough. She wanted Boone to love his father, as she once did. Still did! When Boone was eight she removed him from that poor excuse for white education and taught him herself.
But his father wanted him in the Kiowa world now. She could barely survive the thought.
She looked around at what they called home—the dirt floor, clumsy stone fireplace that never stayed lit on cold nights, sawbuck table and one straw mattress for the two of them. She didn’t do that badly. But they needed another bed. He was too old to sleep with her. And she no longer needed Grizzly Jack to remind her of this. Not after his wet dream last night.
Lynelle couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Boone in a little straw bed away from her warm arms, where he felt safe and protected. But he was becoming a man, and she could hardly bear the thought of that, either.
Boone finally finished his drawing in the dirt floor and stood. “You won’t eat without me if I pick those wicked potatoes, will you? Your baking smells good today.”
“Oh, and what day doesn’t it?” The small shack had filled with the smell of Boston brown bread, cornmeal and rye steamed in molasses. Lynelle would serve it for their lunch with Indian pudding, “a pudding not from Indians,” Boone would lecture her solemnly. She took great care to teach him everything about the Indian culture but what she knew wasn’t near enough. She didn’t know how to teach him enough to survive in the wild, in case … well, just in case. “Now go. If you don’t get out there and pick, those potatoes will pack their bags and leave.”
“Oh mama, that’s such a tall one.” Boone looked down at what he drew—a kind of half-circle with an odd design inside. “You must be patient when I am creating.” He dropped to his knees again and made some adjustments to the drawing. “You forget how hard I work, and need some time to play. You ought to pay more attention.”
Lynelle felt her fear turn into anger, as though he could read her mind. She bit back the shiver she always felt when he said such things. How could a child sound so old? She counted to three to let the heat inside her chest subside before rapping him over the head with a sticky wooden spoon. “Don’t try me, young man. I can tell the difference between frivolous pursuits and earnest study. Now git!”
Boone scrambled outside before she could rap his behind. Frivolous pursuits? He planned to be a great artist or a horse tamer someday. But that last design he worked on welled up from a silent corner of his heart. He didn’t know what that drawing was, a kind of half-circle with arrows inside, but he liked it.
“Watch da path, your feet, Tadpole.”
“Oh!” Boone had been studying the ground and almost ran into Jack—Big Grizzly, as he asked to be called. Jack came down from the Dakotas when a tribe of Lakota he lived with had grown too familiar for his own comfort. Catching a young white boy in one of his bear traps hadn’t improved any white/Indian relations, either.
Jack had on his plain buckskin coat this time, not the fringed one that Boone admired. He kept his ball and powder six-shooter tucked in the pants that he kept roped tight, and the tail of his fox hat bobbed as he laughed and helped Boone stand back up again. Jack had told Boone once that the whites could take all the land out east they wanted, but as long as the Indians had the Dakotas they would remain free. He pitied this country should anyone ever try to take those sacred lands. Those Indians were fighters when they were riled. “Hey, Tadpole, no hurry, earth still be here, another day yet.”
“Hello, Mr. Jack. Gotta find me some potatoes now!”
Boone ran from Jack as though he had twenty things to do and couldn’t do any of them fast enough. Truth was Big Grizzly Jack frightened him. His mama raised him, his mama alone. He had one male teacher who used to whip his behind—just for pleasure, Boone was sure—to “beat the wildness” out of him. He didn’t know how to respond to the beatings because he didn’t think he had any wildness in him.
He felt Jack’s eyes on him as he bent to the garden to dig into the earth for mounds of food, wishing he could get inside people and dig out what they were really thinking, like little spuds from the ground.