Red Paint River
The sweat on the back of George’s neck went cold, the ache from the stub of his amputated finger swept aside as he stared at the lump of raw metal in his bandaged hand.
Even encrusted with dirt as it was, there was no mistaking that yellow luster, deep and dark—almost as dark as the marigolds in his mother’s garden.
It was gold, pure gold, and a sizable nugget, too, the size of a hen’s egg. He felt the weight of it in his hand. At seven or eight ounces, it represented the better part of a year’s wages for a laborer or a clerk or…
Or a soldier, he though with dim regret. Like I once was.
A voice, followed by the sound of gentle laughter, brought him back to his surroundings. George looked up from the nugget and into smiling faces.
The chiefs of the Great Council, the ruling body of what the Americans called the Cheyenne Alliance, sat around him, watching him. They were Indians—”savages,” George would have called them just a few short weeks before. Now, as he himself looked around, he knew them instead as comrades-in-arms, as friends, and in a few cases, almost as family.
They all sat cross-legged on the ground. The buffalo hides that covered lodge’s conical frame had been pulled up to let in the breeze of early summer. It was a double-sized lodge—nearly twenty feet tall at its peak—and was reserved solely for the Council’s use.
Beyond the perimeter of the lodgepoles the people of the camp had gathered to hear the proceedings. They sat and stood in the bright sunshine outside, silent each and every one, waiting to hear what would be said next.
Within the lodgepoles and under the shade of the lodgeskin, the sixty chiefs sat. They sat with their backs to the place where the doorflap would have been, facing the place of honor at the back of the lodge, the place where the principal chief sat. Three Trees Together was an ancient Cheyenne; his face was lined and deeply creased, turning his features into an unreadable mask. His long braided hair was altogether white. George had been told that the man was more than a hundred years old and, judging by his appearance, George couldn’t doubt it, but his hooded eyes were lucid beneath wrinkled lids and when he spoke his voice was clear and deliberate.
With the old man sat two of the secondary chiefs, both old and respected men in their own rights.
George, as a guest invited to speak with the Council, sat near the front, among the elder, more respected members. With him was Storm Arriving, a warrior of repute, and George’s friend.
One of the chiefs near George said something else and the men laughed again.
“Stone Bear speaks,” Storm Arriving said, translating his own Cheyenne language into French for George’s benefit. “He says that the yellow chief-metal does not make vé’hó’e crazy like we thought. It makes them stupid.”
Vé’hó’e. There was that word again. It was the Cheyenne word for white men, but it was also somehow inextricably tied to their word for spider, web-weaver, and to the name of some ancient Trickster-god. George did not fully understand the implications of the word, but he had always known that he didn’t like it.
“One Who Flies,” Storm Arriving said, using the name the Cheyenne had given George. “Stone Bear is teasing. It was not an insult.”
George calmed himself, aware that composure was a great virtue among these people. He had been thrown off-balance by the sudden revelation of a nearby deposit of gold. Stone Bear’s teasing was meant in good humor.
Besides, George thought. I am a whiteman. A vé’ho’e. One of them.
“Stone Bear is right,” George said in French. Storm Arriving began to translate. “But it only makes us stupid for a short while. Crazy comes later, and it is crazy you need to worry about.”
He looked around the lodge.
Nearby was One Bear, a chief of the Tree People band and father of the woman who had found the exposed vein of gold in a granite outcropping a few miles distant. He looked at George with calm attention. His face concealed all except for the interest in his eyes.
From the vá’ôhtáma, the place of honor at the back of the lodge, Three Trees Together sat forward with his forearms on his knees. The old man’s hands toyed with the medicine bag that hung from his neck and he chewed on his bottom lip and stared at George through squinted eyes.
They were all listening, polite and attentive, listening to what he, an outsider—a vé’ho’e—had to say. And George knew they would give his words just as much weight as those of any tribesman.
“Mâsêhavé’ho’e,” he said. “‘Crazy white man.’ I hear you say this all the time. Vé’hó’e are crazy. Vé’hó’e don’t know how to act. We don’t know where the sun is in the sky. We’re deaf to the spirits of the earth. We bury our dead in the ground and pile stones up into the sky. We do everything backwards. We’re crazy.” He held up the nugget. It shone in the shaft of light that stole in through the smokehole above.
“No matter how crazy we seem to you, this metal will make us ten times worse. This gold can be a great tool for you, and with it a great many problems might be solved. But it also brings with it a whole new set of risks. Its presence here must be kept secret—if at all possible—for if the vé’hó’e out across the Big Greasy ever learn of it, they will go crazy in the worst way and you will never keep them from your lands.”
He put the lump of gold down at the edge of the cold hearthpit.
“That is all I have to say.” He waited for Storm Arriving to finish translating his words.
The chiefs were silent a while as was their custom between speakers. Finally, Three Trees Together straightened up and put his hands on his knees.
“This seems like good advice to me,” George heard through Storm Arriving’s translation. “We should keep this knowledge with the People, and keep the vé’hó’e of the Horse Nations from learning it.” There was general assent to this statement, and George saw the agreement pass beyond the perimeter of the lodge and into the crowd that surrounded it.
“I would be interested,” the old chief continued, “in hearing more of how we might use this yellow chief-metal. Later, perhaps, One Who Flies can tell us more of his ideas, but at the moment, there is work to be done. We have spent nearly a moon here, waiting for our war party to return from the City of White Stone. The coup they counted on the chiefs of the Horse Nations was great, but now we must lay to rest those who fell along that path, and after that, we must move the People. The buffalo are far ahead of us, and there is hunting to do.”
George looked down, flexing his wounded hand, remembering the past month. Physically, his only lasting scar would be the loss of the little finger of his left hand, blown off by an explosion in the Capitol rotunda. In his soul, however, the injuries cut much deeper.