Published on Friday, September 20, 2013
By Kathy Otten
Stretched out on his belly, Ky-yo-kosi peered through a thicket of choke cherries, watching the front of Grandfather's tipi. Much time had passed since the clan leaders and the white trader had gathered inside.
From the whispers and glances sent his way since the white trader arrived the day before, Ky-yo-kosi knew this meeting concerned him. His stomach so trembled with unease after this morning's swim, that he'd run from his aunt's cook fire without eating. Even when his friends, Lame Beaver and Red Fox called for him to hunt gophers, he lay hidden, silent and still.
The white man had arrived yesterday with the Siksika, who'd come for ako-katssinn, the gathering of the clans each summer to celebrate Natosi, the sun and giver of life.
West wind brought the scent of pipe tobacco from Grandfather's tipi to Ky-yo-kosi's hiding place on the cut bank above the river. An agreement had been reached.
One by one Grandfather and the other leaders of the Kainai emerged. The napikowann, stood apart, waiting.
"Ky-yo-kosi, " Grandfather's voice rang out.
Afraid, Ky-yo-kosi flattened himself in the grass. Grandfather called again. Something rustled through the thicket. His heart pounded against the earth. Sweat trailed down his temples and neck.
Dog pounced on him then. Tail wagging, he licked Ky-yo-kosi's ears and nudged him with his wet nose. Slowly Ky-yo-kosi rolled to his feet and stepped into the open. With Imitaa trailing on his heels, he walked forward, scuffing his moccasin clad feet through the grass.
"Ky-yo-kosi, " Grandfather said. "You have lain in wait with the patience of a fine hunter, but to ignore my call shows disrespect to me before this white man and brings shame to you."
Ky-yo-kosi hung his head, staring at the design of grass impressions in the skin of his bare legs. He lifted his gaze. "I am sorry, Grandfather."
The old man nodded. Long wisps of gray hair, loosed from his braids, blew across a leathery face, tooled with the wrinkles of wisdom and age. "We will speak together later. You are a good boy, Ky-yo-kosi and I am proud to be your grandfather."
The weight of his wide hand rested for a moment on Ky-yo-kosi's thin shoulder then he gestured toward the white man who stood a few feet away watching with eyes as blue as the expanse of sky behind him. Faint bruises marred the man's cheek and chin. Maybe it had not been easy to persuade the Siksika to allow him to travel here.
Good. Ky-yo-kosi smiled to himself. He did not want this strange man among Real People. Even as the thought crossed his mind, his throat tightened and an unexplained weight of sadness pressed against the back of his eyes.
"Why did our brothers bring him here?" He raised his chin and met his grandfather's gaze. "White traders bring only disease and alcohol to the Ni-tsi-ta-pi-ksi. "
"You do not question the decision of your elders."
Though shamed to be reprimanded in front of this stranger, Ky-yo-kosi wondered at the slight catch in his grandfather's voice and stepped closer to him.
The weight of Grandfather's hand returned to Ky-yo-kosi's shoulder, steady and reassuring. "This napikowann has traveled for many summers to find you. You will listen and think carefully before you answer the question he will ask."
Like the quaking of aspen leaves in the shifting wind before a storm, dread shuddered through his small body.
"We will not influence you in your choice nor will Crop Eared Wolf translate our language for him. And what you decide will be accepted by all."
Ky-yo-kosi's brow scrunched toward the bridge of his nose. If the white trader's words were not to be translated, how was he to understand? Grandfather backed away.
"Oki," The white trader greeted in the language of Kainai. He then switched to his own talk and tapped the center of his chest while he repeated a single word sound over and over. His expression grew earnest as he gestured back and forth between them, imploring Ky-yo-kosi to somehow make sense of the foreign sounds. Finally, the napikowann blew out a sigh and drove his fingers through his hair. Glancing around, he pointed.
Ky-yo-kosi followed the direction of the man's finger to the large herd grazing on the other side of Elk Creek. "Ponokaomitai-ksi, " he said.
The napikowann smiled and nodded. "Horses," he said in the white man's tongue and gestured for Ky-yo-kosi to repeat the word.
"Hor-ses." Ky-yo-kosi must have said it right for the grin on the man's face spread, and he pointed again, this time at the black and brown dog who had pounced on Ky-yo-kosi in the grass.
"Imitaa, " Ky-yo-kosi said.
"Dog," the white man translated.
"Da-awg," Ky-yo-kosi repeated.
The white trader raised his hand to shield his eyes against the brilliance of Natosi and pointed up. "Sun," he said.
"Suh-un," Ky-yo-kosi repeated.
Grass, tipi, man, woman, fire, the game continued with everything in every direction. As the words tripped off his tongue they felt less foreign and more familiar, as if he knew the words, but just couldn't find them.
The napikowann reached into the leather bag which hung diagonally across his chest. In his hand was something round, red like autumn leaves, with the green tint of grass.
Ky-yo-kosi had seen this thing before. The white word was there at the back of his tongue, stuck in his throat, down at the very base.
The word flew from a past he knew, but couldn't remember, across time to now.
It slammed into the white trader with an impact that knocked his shoulders back and left tears in his eyes. He blinked and swallowed several times then bringing the thing to his mouth, he took a bite and said, "Apple."
"P-ie." The strange word burst from Ky-yo-kosi's lips. Where it came from, he didn't know, but this white trader held the answer and suddenly nothing mattered but this man who now gestured for Ky-yo-kosi to sit close beside him.
Napikowann drew two figures in the soft dirt with a stick. He pointed to the smaller figure and then to Ky-yo-kosi. "Day-vee," he said.
Ky-yo-kosi shook his head, "Saa." Day-vee was not his name. He almost blurted his name, Bear Child, aloud, but to speak his own name would bring bad luck.
"Day-vee." The white trader repeated the word, pointed to the small figure and then at Ky-yo-kosi.
Again Ky-yo-kosi shook his head, no. "Saa."
The man's lips pressed together in a tight smile and he nodded. He then pointed to the taller figure and pressed his palm to his own chest, making the same, "Paaa," sound he had earlier.
Ky-yo-kosi imitated him. "Paaa."
The man nodded, encouraging him to say it again and again.
"Paaa. Paaa. Pa, pa. Papa?" Ky-yo-kosi's chest hurt as it did when Lame Beaver sat on him while they wrestled. In his mind he heard himself crying, curled inside a buffalo robe. Papa will come. Papa will come.
Ky-yo-kosi swallowed, staring at this man, who watched him so intently. "Papa?"
The white man swiped at his eyes and nodded.
Ky-yo-kosi scooted closer and touched Napikowann's arm. "Papa?" he asked then pointed to himself. "Papa, my?"
A rush of memory churned through his mind like ice on the Milk River during spring thaw, leaving him cold, as terror froze his body.
"Run, Davy! Run and hide!"
"No, Papa," he cried even as his father lowered him to the ground from where he sat on his father's horse. The war cries of many Indians carried across the open grass land.
His father was already pulling his rifle from its buckskin scabbard. The other men from the wagon train hunting party raced their horses back the way they'd come.
"Hide." Papa ordered again. "I'll lead them away and come back for you."
"No." Hot tears spilled down his small cheeks.
"You must be safe. But if the Cheyenne find you, they won't hurt you. Do what they tell you and wait for me. I will find you. Do you understand?"
"Good boy. Now go!"
Davy turned and ran, the grass scratching at his face, as he focused on the distant trees.
Behind him, his father's voice rose in a war cry. Davy whirled to see his father's arm raised, holding his rifle high. Then he swung around and raced his horse away. Davy could only see his father's head and shoulders for a few moments before he was gone. The Cheyenne thundered after Papa and the other men from the wagons, their yipping cries filling the air.
Davy turned and ran until he could run no more, then he lay down and cried. Papa will come, he told himself.
Near dusk the Cheyenne found him. One warrior pulled him up to ride in front of him. Papa will come.
When they reached the camp he was given to a woman who brought him into her tipi and gave him different clothes to wear. He tried to do what she wanted, but he didn't understand and she yelled at him a lot.
A white trader came to the village and took Davy from the woman. He asked the man to take him to Papa, but the man who smelled of bear grease and had hands as black as charred firewood, only laughed.
It would be all right. Papa promised. He would come.
After a few days ride, they came to a trading post and set up camp nearby. One evening the man staggered back carrying two jugs. Crop Eared Wolf followed and seeing Davy began to bargain with the man. They talked for a long time and Crop Eared Wolf brought the man the heavy black hide of Iinnii, and the man told Davy to go with him.
Once they were away from the white man's fort, others warriors joined them. They rode for many days always following the distant wall of high white topped, mountains. Finally they arrived at the place of the Kainai.
Grandfather had lost two sons to the white man's disease, small pox, and Crop Eared Wolf thought to give him an orphan to serve him.
At first Davy cried himself to sleep, wrapped up in a buffalo robe, chanting, "Papa will come. Papa will come." But Papa never came. Many summers passed. Davy became Bear Child. He was happy with the Blackfoot people. He grew and made friends and learned the way of Ni-tsi-ta-pi-ksi.
Now this white trader sat before him claiming to be his papa.
"Saa," Ky-yo-kosi shouted, as he shook his head in denial. He was not Davy. He slammed his small fist against Napikowann's chest. "You never came," he cried in the tongue of the Kainai. "You promised you would come. You promised!" Tears streamed down his cheeks.
The white trader rubbed his fingertips across his brow. His cheeks puffed and he released a long, windy breath. His tone was pleading as spoke, but Ky-yo-kosi didn't understand. A few of the white words jumped out at him, hurt and lost and never quit, but he didn't care. Papa had promised and he hadn't come.
Taking up the stick, the man drew again in the dirt. Tipis, two horses, and two riders. One large and one small, riding away from the camp. He pointed between Ky-yo-kosi and himself. "Come," he said.
Ky-yo-kosi stared at the drawing. Leave? His chest hurt. He glanced around at the people and the life he loved. Small children chased each other around the tipis. His aunt and her sisters sat together scrapping a hide. In the distance a hunting party returned with an elk tied on the back of a spotted pony. Leave home? Leave Grandfather? He jumped to his feet and stomped on the drawing, kicking the dust and grass around until the figures were no more.
Breathing as though he'd just run a race with Lame Beaver and Red Fox he turned to the white man, who now stood before him. Ky-yo-kosi raised his fists and punched the man in the stomach. "Saa," he cried. "Saa!"
The man wrapped his hands around Ky-yo-kosi's wrists holding them firmly away, preventing Ky-yo-kosi's fists from pummeling him.
He kicked the man instead.
"Ky-yo-kosi!" Grandfather's voice cut through the haze.
Ky-yo-kosi stopped, then freeing himself from the grip of the napikowann , he ran. He ran past the many tipis of the summer gathering, until nothing surrounded him but earth and sky. He ran so he could blame the tears filling his eyes on the wind. He ran as he had on that long ago day, until he could run no more, then he dropped to his knees and bending forward, pounded the earth with his fists and cried.
When tears came no more, he wiped his cheeks, the red ochre paint his aunt had applied to his face that morning, smeared across his finger tips. He wiped them on the leather of his breach clout and pushed to his feet. Grandfather would worry if he stayed away too long. Slowly he walked back to camp.
As he drew close, he searched the area for the napikowann and spotted him talking with Grandfather and Crop Eared Wolf, beside one of the white trader's horses. The animal carried a white man's saddle and nearby stood the mule, his once full pack, nearly empty.
Good, the napikowann was leaving. He mounted his horse and accepted from Crop Eared Wolf the weapons he had surrendered. He swiveled in the saddle and his gaze fell on Ky-yo-kosi.
Even across the distance Ky-yo-kosi sensed the white man asking him--asking Davy--one more time, to come. He didn't move.
Finally the man turned back to Grandfather, said a few more words, then with his hands, made the sign for, go and long time.
Good. He would not be back.
A moment later the white trader nudged his horse forward and moved outside the circle of tipis. He paused, raised the rifle in farewell and headed south, his pony breaking into an easy lope.
In that instant Ky-yo-kosi was four summers again and his father was racing off, rifle raised, leading the war party away from him.
"Papa," he whispered.
Lethargy weighted his limbs so that he could only stand and watch. A lump swelled inside his throat and his eyes burned. Papa.
"Saa, Papa!" The strength of his voice rose from his young warrior's soul and carried across the plain. Hurtling forward, he ran. The tangle of yellow grass and wildflowers whipped at his bare ankles and thighs. He extended his stride. A knot of short grass sent him stumbling forward, but arms flailing, he caught himself and raced onward. "Papa, no!"
The horse halted so fast its backend seemed to slide into its stiffened front legs, then in one smooth motion it spun around. Ky-yo-kosi ran harder. Horse and rider galloped forward, closing the gap until they were but a few feet apart. The horse skidded to another stop and Papa vaulted from its back. He took four long strides then dropped to his knees and flung his arms wide.
Ky-yo-kosi hurled himself against his papa's chest.
Strong arms enveloped him, in an embrace that squeezed the air from his lungs. Papa's nose pressed against the top of Ky-yo-kosi's head as the deep rumble of Papa's voice murmured words Ky-yo-kosi couldn't understand, yet found comforting.
He inhaled a sweet tobacco scent so different from the sharp, earthy smell of that which the people smoked. Yet that difference, like this man, felt so achingly familiar, so achingly right.
Davy was home.
Papa had come.
Kathy grew up watching reruns of The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Rin Tin Tin. In high school she sat in history class reading Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour and Max Brand. She is the published author of three historical western romance novels and multiple short stories, both historical and contemporary. She can be contacted through her web site at www.kathyotten.com.