Mississippi jack, p.28
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       Mississippi Jack, p.28

           L. A. Meyer
 

  "Tepeki-kweewa-nepi," she answers, and makes the same sign back at me.

  "Jacky Faber," I reply.

  "Yaw-kee-a-berra," she tries, and at this, all the others are consumed with fits of laughter. "Yaw-kee-a-berra! Yaw-kee-a-berra!" they chant over and over. With my keen sense of when I'm being mocked, I assume that my name, when mispronounced by them, means something crude or silly in their language.

  Then Tepeki-kweewa-nepi gets control of herself and admonishes the rest of them to knock it off and they do, which is good, for I didn't come here to be laughed at. She makes the sign for sorry and then pantomimes me playing the pennywhistle again, so I pull it out and start playing a simple dance tune.

  Immediately the girls get into a circle around me and commence a shuffling kind of dance, punctuated with songs and high trills, and I can tell from the signs that they are making that it is a dance of welcome.

  When they are done, I put my right hand at my shoulder level and bring it down sharply four inches or so. It is the sign for sit down, and they look at each other, but they do it. I open my bag of trade goods and pull out the string of sleigh bells I had gotten for a song back in Pittsburgh, and using my lacings from my vest, I tie up the bells in groups of three for each length of lacing. Then I kneel down and tie three bells to each girl's left ankle. I have just enough bells and just enough lace to do them all, with one bell left over, which I toss back into the bag. Never know when it might come in handy.

  "All right, everybody up," I say, motioning with my hands. Some things don't have to be in sign language. "Now let's do it again." And I play the same simple tune again, and again they do their shuffle dance, but this time it's shuffle, shuffle, ching! shuffle, shuffle, ching! shuffle, shuffle, ching!

  Their delight is plain on their faces. Tepeki, after singing an especially joyous song that the others respond to with yips and yi-yi-yi-yis and various other vocalizations that I do not understand but that do seem to fit, motions with her hand and the group shuffles and ching!s toward the center of the town. I'm beginning to suspect that this Tepeki is maybe a chief's daughter or something, 'cause she seems to have a good deal of cheek.

  We take our dance through the town and are applauded with shouts and, of course, many wah!s and yi-yi-yi-yis. I think we are a hit.

  We stop, eventually, on the outskirts of the village, at the tepee of a very old man, who sits cross-legged outside his home. By his side is a collection of many flutelike things. Tepeki shushes the other girls and sends them away. I suspect they are going back to the meadow next to the river. Then we sit as she addresses the old man in a very respectful tone and then gestures for me to play on my whistle.

  I do "Willow Garden," a slow and wistful piece, and when I am done, he nods and then picks up one of his own flutes and begins to play. He plays the thing by blowing across a hole rather than through a whistle, and the sound that comes out is breathy and woody and wondrously beautiful. He plays a sad song in a tuning I have never heard and will never be able to play, but it is plain why Tepeki brought me here—she brought me to sit at the feet of a master.

  When he is done, I take my pennywhistle and extend it to him as a gift. He takes it and runs his hands over it and smiles. Then he reaches over and picks one of his flutes, one that is similar in size to my pennywhistle, and he hands it to me. Tepeki gives me a nudge and we leave to go join the others in the meadow.

  No, it was not the same pennywhistle that Liam Delaney gave me back on the Dolphin—no, not that battered but holy old relic, which rests in honor in my sea chest, no—rather it's one of many that I have picked up in my travels. And now, in exchange for it, I have an American Indian version of the same.

  When Tepeki and I get back to the meadow, I once again take up my bag of trade goods and begin passing out gifts. There are mirrors and combs, of course, always a big hit with girls, no matter who they are or from what country, and yards and yards of ribbon to tie back their hair. There are satisfying expressions of delight.

  When all is passed out, Tepeki jabbers off some orders and two of the girls fly off to the town. Tepeki takes me by the arm and leads me down to the river, and there, they begin to undress me. And they begin to disrobe themselves.

  I express alarm and make the sign for Men?

  Tepeki shakes her head and signs, No ... Men. Girl. Swim. Place.

  Ah. So I let them take my clothes.

  They exclaim at the fairness of my skin and the pinkness of various of my parts and the blondness of my hair in all the locations it chooses to grow, but really, skinwise, I'm not much lighter than they are, especially in those places where I am tanned. They are certainly not red.

  My arm sheath raises some eyebrows, and my tattoo of course gets a lot of attention and comment. I cannot, however, come up with enough signs to explain that little item away.

  We plunge into the water and have a great time of it, hooting and hollering and splashing one another, just like any girls in the world, but before we get out to let the sun dry us off, Tepeki takes me to the edge of the river and cups some water in her hands and pours it with great ceremony over my head, intoning, "Wah-chinga-sote-caweena-que-tonk!" This, I suspect, is my new name.

  The two girls who had left come back, and we get out of the water and dry off with the blankets they have brought. They also bear gifts for me, and wondrous gifts they are.

  I am dressed, again with great ceremony, in a soft buckskin shirt that is embellished with much fringe and beadwork, its lapels decorated with porcupine quills. Then I step into a fringed skirt made of the same fine, almost-white buckskin, and I marvel how they could have tanned these fine things, not having tanning chemicals and such. The skirt comes to my knees, and then moccasin leggings that go up to mid calf are pulled onto my feet, laced, then tied up, to complete my costume.

  Tepeki signs to me, You Shawnee now, Wah-chinga.

  I sign back, Thanks, Sister.

  Tepeki signs to me that we should go get something to eat, and I'm all for that, so we walk back into the village together and—

  "Gor, blimey, Sarge! There's a little blond Injun there!"

  My jaw drops open as I see, lined up next to a tepee in the middle of the American wilderness, a squad of redcoated British Regulars, well armed and all spit and polish, and all of them staring right at me.

  "Damn me if it ain't," replies the sergeant. "Hullo, darlin'," he says, looking down at me standing there all astonished. "And what might your name be?"

  Damn! What the hell is this?

  "She's a darlin', she is," says one of the privates. "Wonder what the chief o' these here Hottentots 'd take for her?"

  "Trade him some bangles and stuff," says another. "I'm sure the wog'd go for it."

  "Roight, Willie," says yet another. "We could save her from these savages and have a bit of fun with her 'fore we gets her back to civ-il-za-tion and sets her back on the true and righteous path."

  "Sure, and she's got to have been around the block a few times, livin' here wi' these red fiends. Won't be no loss to her virtue, for certain," chimes in another. So far I've heard Welsh, Cockney, and Irish from this randy crew, and I'm about to flee when the sergeant says, "Tenn-HUT!" and this parcel of rogues snaps to attention as the tent flap on the tepee next to them opens and a Captain of Cavalry steps out ... and a very splendid Captain he is, too. No crossed belts across the chest for him, no. He wears a coat of the deepest scarlet with the purest white turnouts, with a good froth of lace at his throat and wrists. White britches, black boots, and a fine sword swinging at his side. He is young, maybe twenty-two, his cheeks still downy. His hair, which is tied back with a scarlet ribbon, is not very much darker than mine. Hmmm ...He is quite good-looking, I notice in all my confusion.

  He doesn't see me right off, and I think about slinking away, but I don't ... Those are very nicely tailored white britches, to be sure...

  "At Ease, men," the officer says. "Sergeant Bailey, the Special Agents will stay in this tent. I want a round-
the-clock two-man guard posted at the front. We will bivouac around back, where there is an open space. See to the pitching of the tents ... What the hell is it, Sergeant?"

  Sergeant Bailey peers around his superior officer and points at me. "Lookee there, Sir. It's a white girl."

  The Captain turns about and gazes upon me. "Well, ahem," he says, "and who might you be?"

  I shake my head and make the signs for no and speak, and then, by drawing my right forefinger across my eyes from left to right, paleface.

  "Hmmm. It's obvious she doesn't speak English. A captive, no doubt. Kidnapped as a baby, I suppose." He walks slowly about me as I stand straight and unmoving. "It's none of our concern, of course, but still it is a shock to see that blond mop in the midst of all this." He reaches into his vest pocket and pulls out a long cheroot. If I thought it was going to be a little present for a poor Indian girl, I was mistaken. It is a long black cigar that he takes out and places between his lips. "Set up the camp, Sergeant. Let's get to it."

  He turns back to me. "Can't a man get a light around here?" he says, tilting the long thin cigar up by thrusting out his lower jaw.

  I pretend not to know what he is talking about, but Tepeki-kweewa-nepi, practiced, I'm sure, in the ways of tobacco, nudges me toward a fire laid in front of a nearby tepee, and I go over and reach in to grab the cool end of a stick that is burning at its other end. I take it to the Captain and hold it up to him. He sticks his cigar into the flame and puffs deeply. Satisfied that he has a good light, he straightens up as he says, "Thank you, my dear. You are a neat little trick. We could have some real fun together. We surely could."

  And with that, he turns to go join his men, leaving me still standing there in astonishment. After a moment I turn and go with Tepeki to have dinner with her and her mother, my thoughts still churning.

  What the hell are these men here for?

  The dinner is good, a kind of stew made with meat and rice, eaten with the fingers with great gusto amongst Tepeki's sisters and little brothers. Her mother is nice to me, and I think she is pleased when I sign Food. Good. Thanks. And I was right, Tepeki is the chief's daughter.

  Later that evening, more chiefs from the Five Nations arrive and there is great ceremony of welcome and much joyous dancing. My group of jangle-ankled, buckskin-clad dancers shine, and we are much appreciated.

  The celebration goes on far into the night, but eventually things calm down and I bid Tepeki good night and go into Lightfoot's tent to sleep. I don't know what he told them, whether I was his wife, or his daughter, or what, but here is where I end up this day.

  I curl up on the ground, wrapped in a hide blanket that Tepeki has given me, and close my eyes.

  I am awakened much later when Lightfoot comes in to sleep. After I hear him settle in, I ask in the darkness of the tepee, "Lightfoot, the girls gave me a Shawnee name today. What does Wah-chinga-sote-caweena-que-tonk mean?"

  "She-Who-Dances-Like-Crazy-Rabbit."

  Hmmm ... Iguess that's all right. I've been called worse.

  After a bit, I again have a question. "Lightfoot, what do you think those English agents are up to?"

  "Don't know. But I 'spect they're up to no good. Prolly stirrin' up trouble. 'Tween the settlers and the Injuns, is what I figure. Bad medicine."

  I think on that for a while and am about to drop off to sleep again when Lightfoot says, quietly, "You know that Katy girl?"

  "Yes?"

  "Nex' time you talk to her..."

  "Yes?"

  "Tell her Lightfoot's willin'..."

  "Just tell her that?"

  "Yep. She'll know what I mean."

  Silence falls on us again, and I close my eyes and slip back into sleep.

  Good night, Jaimy. You wouldn't believe where I am right now, but be safe and soon ... soon...

  Chapter 49

  I help make breakfast with Chee-a-quat's wife, Nee-ah-hanta, a proud, handsome woman, brisk in her preparations for the morning meal, and not at all awed by my presence. To her, a girl is a girl, dark- or light-skinned, and, as such, should help tend the fire and stir the pot. I do it, of course, grateful for the chance to help in return for her hospitality.

  The breakfast is a porridge made mostly of rice and berries, as far as I can tell, and when it is hot enough, I take two bowls into the tepee and put them in front of Chee-a-quat and Lightfoot, and in return I get a couple of grunts that I take for thanks. Then I duck back out to get my own and to help Nee-ah-hanta feed her two kids, a boy of about two and a girl of about four. I plop the plump little fellow on my lap, sing him a song, and manage to spoon a good bit of the porridge into him. After I clean him up, I sign thanks to my hostess and go off to find Tepeki.

  I find her in the middle of the village, where more chiefs are arriving with their bands of warriors. Tepeki's father, as chief of this village, welcomes them all, and there is much public exchanging of formal greetings and gifts, after which the chiefs duck into tepees to talk in private. The village continues to buzz with excitement, with much sparking going on twixt the boys and girls, same as it ever was, no matter what the country or who the people.

  I haven't seen the British agents yet, but I am keeping my eyes peeled. When I got up this morning, I had put my hair in twin braids, so as to not stand out so much with my shaggy blond mop. I also keep Crow Jane's shawl over my shoulders to cover up if need be. No telling who those agents are or what they're up to.

  Tepeki and I wander about, hand in hand, taking in the sights and getting caught up in all the excitement. Every party that enters the town is dressed in their finest, and some fine stuff there is. There are feathers and plumes and brightly colored cloth. The men of some tribes have full heads of hair while others have plucked theirs to form high crests down the centers of their heads. Some wear feathered headdresses, while some sport turbans. Tepeki points out who's Creek and who's Chickasaw and all that, and—

  "Hey, girl."

  I look up alarmed. The British Captain of Cavalry stands next to me. I put on my frightened-doe look, which ain't hard considerin' the fact that if I get recognized by these people it's the noose for me for sure.

  "Yes, you. Come here."

  I drop Tepeki's hand and whip Crow Jane's shawl up over my head and look about for an escape route but find none as he grabs my arm and drags me out of the village and into the woods. I try to tug away, but his hand is too strong. I hear Tepeki running off. I think about pulling out my shiv, but no, not yet.

  "You come along, girl. Come on, I won't hurt you. We'll just have a little talk, is all."

  We come to a small clearing and he makes me sit down on the grass that grows there. I gather my skirt under me as he sits down beside me. He reaches out and pulls my shawl back off my head.

  "Now, my little light-haired woodland sprite, let's have that little talk." He points to his chest and says, "Me Richard Allen." Then he points at my chest and says, "What's your name?"

  "Wa—wah-chinga-sote-caweena-que-tonk," says Dances-Like-Rabbit, feeling very much like a scared rabbit under the fierceness of his gaze. I notice he has a scar on his right cheek. Probably from a saber, I'm thinking.

  "Why, that's quite a mouthful, ain't it, sweetheart," he says softly. "I think I'll just call you She-Is-Pretty-Thing-What-Showed-Up-in-the-Woods-Against-All-Odds-to-Cheer-Me-for-a-Little-While-in-This-Godforsaken-Hellhole-of-a-Country. She-Is-Pretty-Thing, for short. What do you think of that, Pretty-Thing?"

  I decide a little smile on Pretty-Thing's part wouldn't hurt, as he is quite good-looking—slim, tall, with a rugged yet fine-boned face—the very picture of the dashing young officer, a type I have always found most attractive. Plus his words are sweet, and what could it hurt?

  It could hurt a lot. He takes my smile for Full-Speed-Ahead-Not-a-Moment-to-Lose and slides his hand up the inside of my leg.

  "Wha—" I gasp. In my shock I almost say what, but change it to a wah! of shock and surprise.

  A smile spreads over his face. "I've often w
ondered what Indian girls wear under their skirts. Now, Pretty-Thing, I know. Sort of like what people wonder about Scotsmen, eh? But you don't understand a word I'm saying, do ye? Well, maybe you'll understand this." Without taking his hand off my inner thigh, he leans over, puts his other hand behind my head, pulls me forward, and puts his mouth on mine.

  My eyes open even wider.

  "How did you like that? Bet your Indian fellows don't do anything like that. How about if I was to buy you? Give old Sasquatch some firewater and haul you away with me? What do you think of that, girl? It'd be better than living here with these savages, wouldn't it, you Pretty-Thing, you?"

  A long rifle barrel appears at the Captain's temple. He starts and then looks cautiously to the side and then up the barrel to the man standing there, his finger tight on the trigger. "She ain't fer sale, soldier boy," he says, with real threat in his voice. Lightfoot is well named—I did not hear him coming and neither did Richard Allen.

  "You watch your mouth, man," says the Captain, his eyes gone as flinty as Lightfoot's. His hand goes to the sword that hangs by his side.

  I quickly sign This Man. I. No. Speak. Paleface.

  Lightfoot nods, understanding what I mean. "And you watch what you're doin' when you're here in this place, soldier boy," he says.

  Captain Allen gets to his feet. Lightfoot moves the barrel of the gun to point between the officer's eyes. I get up and stand behind Lightfoot, my hands on his waist, my face all wide-eyed and wondering as I peer at the officer.

  "And if I do not do that, renegade?" asks Allen, unabashed.

  "I'll kill you and take yer scalp and put it on my belt here with the others. Tell ever'body it come all the way from London just to hang here," says Lightfoot. "And you watch yer own mouth when it comes to callin' a man sumthin', y'hear?"

 
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