After the fourth beating that week, Pa using the whip he only ever used on the slaves, Pete Teyssou decided to pack the compass, knife, pistola—the one his Uncle Pierre gave him, stole off the body of a dead Mexican at San Jacinto, so he told—and saddle up one of the bays and quit for Texas himself, even if Uncle Pierre did end up back in Natchitoches, whipping the slaves to pass the time. Pete could never figure out how anyone could stand all the wailing and screaming and crying; the whole plantation seemed seeded in misery to him, even if the magnolias splayed about absorbed some of the tears. Pa was the sort who thought until a boy whipped a slave by his own hand, he could hardly call himself a man. Pete so far had escaped that initiation, which, grateful as he was, suggested to Pete the sum of Pa's private assessment of him.
Not that he hadn't thought about running before, just that this whipping lit in him the thought hotter than ever. Since the night of his twelfth birthday, when Pa set afire his bed blanket in plain spite, older brother Tony watching like a tree—he'd been beat to submission long before—Pete's mind ran through the ways he might survive in the wild. How much in provisions to carry to make it so far, how much water to load up. Pete even brought up in conversation, as casually as he could, an interest in New Orleans, and in visiting it to see his Aunt Therese, who lived there. Laying crumbs in the wrong direction.
Then on Sunday, feast of St. Joseph, on the walk back from mass, Pete, Tony and Pa heard Tops Purcell telling Isaiah Root about a Comanche—Kiowa, maybe it was—an Indian raid, anyway, on a place called Hartsburg, somewhere west of the Red River, that took a boy straight out of his mother's arms. The Ellis boy, he was called. Pete saw his brother Tony's eyes fill with dread as the story unfolded, and Pete, too, feigned fear of the Indians, but silently thought to himself, full of overconfidence and ignorance, better to meet a satiated bear. Now is the time to face Comanche, if ever. Or Kiowa. No going west except through them, anyway.
He crept out that night after the singing from the slave shack died down, Tony having begun his snoring, and Pa right after, louder than anyone. So that for a time, the singing coming on the night's breeze through the window over his bed— akin, Pete thought, to the wailing of a whipping, but yet so enchanted as to have the effect of spearing his soul while raising his spirit—blended with the sawing of his family, a composition that stirred all his senses, the shadows of the night never starker. He took the remnants of last night's hoecake and stuck it in his pouch, and so, so slowly opened the door leading outside.
He knew taking the bay would mean pursuit. If it was only him missing come dawn, then nobody might notice until sundown. But taking the bay, that would be spotted right off. But the thought of walking to Texas seemed crazier than riding, even a stolen horse. He carefully dodged the magnolia's dried leaves that spread across the path, sending him swishing through some high grass before turning to rejoin the way.
He rode the bay out of the barn and onto the path, passing again the slave shack. Peering through the dark, he saw the shape of a boy, about his age, standing at the door, sending piss into a puddle in his direction. The boy looked up and their eyes met. Sam. He didn't know the slaves' names usually, his father demanding distance, told tales of skin diseases, witchcraft, whatever the priest might have raged about on Sunday. But Pete knew Sam. In the darkness, he yet could see the whites of Sam's eyes, moving from Pete's eyes to the pistola at his side, to the horse, to the pack of supplies tied to the horse's back. The slave boy, shaking the drops of piss off himself, understood: the white boy is running. And even in the darkness, Pete could see the envy in the slave boy's eyes, as clearly as if he was looking him face-to-face.
Pete pondered on it. If the doings of the plantation sent him running, would not bringing along Sam, in his own escape, be at least partial redemption? If nothing more, it would be another possession of Pa's in his hand. And yet, he thought, arresting his impulse, a white boy with a black boy would without doubt invite more scrutiny than Pete alone would.
Before Pete could decide not to take the risk, Sam had already sunk back inside the shack, moonbeams now sparkling in the puddle of piss. Pete rode on, finding soon the road to Shreveport, the night's fading canopy still offering enough glow to avoid falling off the path. Two hours later, Pete saw the sunrays dimpling off the Red River to announce the day's start. Judging by how drunk his father and brother got at supper, their day's start likely still had some distance.
He made it a third of the way to Shreveport before the night came on, moon slim enough now to ensure Tony would not discover him, if he forewent the New Orleans hunt and headed north instead. But Pete remembered the dread in his eyes at the tale of the Ellis boy and figured, west will be his last choice. He would head south to Galveston, east to God knows, all the way to Georgia maybe, before casting wary eyes west. True enough that a fourteen-year-old might not be so common traveling alone in the west, yet it wasn't so uncommon, so that Pete could put his mind at ease enough to ponder on other things.
It pondered again on Sam, pissing in the dark. He remembered the first time he'd heard the boy's name. Pete then was seven years old, come inside from throwing rocks at ducks. His oldest brother saw him, said, "Why's Pa whippin' your ass now?" Except Pa hadn't been for once, so, told that, the brother said, "Musta been that nigger boy Sam then. You two cry the same when Pa whips your asses." Pete then felt a kinship with Sam, forged in like wails, and wondered sometimes about Sam's awful life there.
He didn't see anybody on the road to Shreveport, and then for a week on the Texas Trail, he saw only rabbits and squirrels across his path, which rolled through woods thick with pines, bluejack, and dogwoods. He was glad not to hurry— the air so heavy and wet Pete decided it was air best suited to a saunter. He watered the bay and himself in any creek he came across, filled up his canteen even when only a quarter empty. At sundown Pete would collect wood and fix a fire to warm some beans over, or cook a shot rabbit, keeping his pistola loaded in case of bear, or Indian. He knew most the Caddo had gone, either on their own or otherwise. "Encouragement," Uncle Pierre had called it once, patting the pistola, before he gave it to Pete. And even the ones who ran on their own, that was only because they could see some pistola was coming anyway. Pete understood their reasoning entirely.
He wasn't exactly sure where he would stop. Trail led somewhere, he told himself. Still had enough of Pa's gold and half-eagles so he could buy what he needed for a spell yet. And Pete knew enough from watching the slaves work the plantation, that he felt he could fake it well enough to find work on a farm somewhere. Top of all that, after trapping a couple of rabbits on the trail, then skinning and cooking them, like he'd seen done a thousand times, only with lambs mostly, Pete felt he could survive in the wild, too. He was starting to like Texas.
He lost track of the days. He tried traveling at night, resting in the heat. But the sounds of the night—coyote howls, panther wails, sounds he couldn't recognize—reminded him of the quiet of the day, when the beasts slept, and how he missed it, and so suffered the day's heat for the its silence. He lost also the trail somewhere, for he knew there were settlements not so many days away. And yet he saw none. Not that it bothered him so much, these days being freer and happier than any others he could remember.
The land gave way to a rise, hickories bowing to grassland. Pete rode to the top of the rise, and saw below, alongside a stream, maybe three hundred yards away, an Indian camp—a dozen dwellings in all, dome-shaped, topped in grass. Five women worked a hide over a rock near some trees to the right. With them was a white boy, young, Pete thought, younger than him anyway. Pete saw no others.
He backed his horse down onto the low side of the rise. He dismounted and scrambled again through the grass to peek at the scene below. The women wore feathers in their long black hair, and colorful beads lined the buckskin they wore. The boy was tied, and bloodstains colored his torn white shirt and the cuts on the pale skin beneath. The kidnapped Ellis boy, Pete guessed. He watched them silently for a few more minutes, then wondered where the men of the tribe were. On a hunt—or a raid, it occurred to him. Not the actions of a satiated bear, Pete noted.
Beneath a wide, blue sky, with only the trees to offer protection, Pete suddenly felt less sure of the appetites of others, and retreated and remounted his horse and turned south, down the other side of the hill, where after an hour's ride he caught the stream rolling south and followed it. He decided against making camp that afternoon and rode straight through the night. His heavy eyes fought sleep, then saw the silhouette of a steeple in the distance against a pinkening sky.
The town wasn't much more than a courthouse built of logs, the church—Church of the Good Reckoning, painted straight above the door—a saloon and a general store. The thought of a glass of milk stirred him, and Pete tied his horse out front. The door was bolted shut from the night before, so Pete sat there on the planks, underneath a creaking sign announcing "Sugar Cane Saloon," stretched his legs, and fell straight asleep. He woke to the sound of boots stomping past him and the squeaking of the door hinges.
Inside, streaks of sunlight cut through the cracks between the pine boards comprising the wall, sending light and shadow at all angles within. Pete took a seat at the bar. "Glass of milk, please, if you got it," Pete said, and the bartender was glad the boy didn't ask for whiskey.
Pete took a long swallow of milk. The cream coated his throat. He heard two voices behind him, one voice high-pitched and squeaky, the other raspy, older.
"Five thousand dollars? For one boy?"
"Ellis Family's loaded, Ben. Won't even notice it's missing."
"Would solve a few of my problems."
"Problem being, first you gotta find the Comanch that got him, then you gotta take him back from them same Comanch. Tall order."
Pete blurted out through milk-frosted lips, "I saw them Indians yesterday."
He looked at the older man. The dust blanketing his beard hid the grey but added years, skeptical brown eyes surrounded by the trails of experience. "That so, sonny?" he croaked. "And you lived to tell the tale, did you?"
"Near the river, a half-day's ride north. Saw a dozen or so huts, rounded at the top and covered in grass, and there was a boy, with five squaws. I saw it all."
The old man looked at Ben, the younger man next to him. Ben's gaze stayed on Pete. "You size us up as fools, boy? No Comanch builds domes—they live in tepees. And the Ellis boy, like I was saying, he was taken by Comanch. You look to run some schoolhouse con, you can find some other goddamn fool."
Pete said, "Maybe whoever said it was the Comanch got it wrong."
The old man peered at Pete. "Or you took a savage boy for one civilized. Young boys are prone to blur the distinction."
"That boy's skin was whiter'n mine, and mine's whiter'n any red man's I ever heard of. Anyway, it's a day's ride. I could show you the way, if you're inclined. Fair share, 'course."
Ben looked at the old man. "Bet we could trade for the boy, if it's him. Them folks give whole cities for a few beads, ain't that the tale? Bet we could get the boy for half that, at least. Pretty good profit to be made." The old man wasn't tipping his thoughts. "We doing anything else, next couple days?"
The old man looked at Pete, oleaginous smile revealing a broken set of teeth within. "Only squaws, you say?"
* * *
They cobbled together seventeen dollars—Spanish silver mostly, a couple of U.S. gold coins—and rode out after Pete swallowed the last of his hoecakes, the men—called Jasper Rosewood and Ben Cooper, Pete learned—sharing a bottle throughout with a third they brought, young T.J. Trotter, a man of some girth and a couple of chins, who they snuck off the Trotter pig farm a mile from town. Safety in numbers, they told him, and Pete saw their point. T.J. even added five more dollars, except he only had Redbacks, so it was almost like he added nothing except his gun, but maybe the Indians wouldn't know the difference.
Soon enough Ben, Jasper and T.J. were making known their thoughts on all manner of things along the way: politics ("I shook Lamar's hand once. Limper'n I expected"), religion ("Them preachers know so much about damnation, all the talk they do, makes you wonder where they been spending all their time"), and horses ("Best horse I ever had's the sorrel I got when my pa died—every single one since been worse than the prior"). At camp that night, over the crackling of burning wood and the trickling of a nearby stream, Pete heard tales of card-cheating, goat-stealing, about how they'd once snuck off with a church's tithing chest somewhere in Arkansas. By the end of it, Pete'd sworn to himself to avoid partners in the future if he could. Pete could almost hear Uncle Pierre laughing beside them.
The sun was well on its way up the sky before Ben, T.J. and Jasper came to consciousness. Pete led them the short ride to the ridge overlooking the Indian camp. The Ellis boy was now working a bone over a deer hide, while a fat woman shouted at him and beat him with a stick as she pointed at the hide. "Wichita," Jasper said. "Thank the good Lord." Ben told T.J. to stay up on the ridge, and to hold his rifle so it could be seen by them below. Ben, Jasper and Pete rode down into the valley to see about a bargain.
They were met by an older man, with grey hair that hung in a stripe along his crown, and shaved clean along the sides. Fading black ink tattoos marked leathery skin in stripes, and a tomahawk with a blade about the size of a hand hung from a leather string at his waist. Behind him stood another old man, his grey hair falling over to one side and decorated with a few feathers on an otherwise shaved head. Leatherface said some words in Spanish to them. Jasper responded likewise, his broken Spanish acting the valve upon his smile's unctuousness.
Except the old warrior didn't want to make a deal. He frowned at Jasper's greeting. Jasper looked at Ben, said, "He won't take the dollars. I even told him they was Spanish mostly."
Ben stared at the Indian, trying to read his inscrutable eyes, a heat rising in him. "What's he want for the boy then, he's such a grand bargainer?" The easy Ellis Five Thousand seemed to stretch away from his grasp.
After another flurry of Spanish, Jasper turned back to Ben. "He said Laughing Bear of the Nokoni Comanch got eighty dollars for a boy even older than the one he's got."
"Eighty dollars? We ain't got eighty damn dollars." Ben's face flushed, and he counted the old men and women he could see. At least ten, and more likely in their huts. He figured he, Jasper and T.J. were probably good for at least three dead Indians each. But the boy?
A thought occurred, and Ben said it before considering it. "Throw in the boy."
Pete wasn't sure he heard that right.
"The boy?" asked Jasper, likewise confused.
"Tell him he'll get the twenty-three dollars, and still have an older boy to sell for eighty dollars."
Ben stared at Jasper, and Jasper looked at Pete, who still wasn't sure he'd understood. Did Ben just offer up his own partner?
Another round of Spanish, then a pause. Pete watched as the old leather-faced Indian turned his gaze on him. Black eyes, black like the slaves' eyes back home, the whites like bone. Pete's stomach dropped as he heard another few Spanish words he didn't know and then a laugh. Jasper turned to Ben: "He said he'll do it." Pete saw Ben's dry lips curl into a crooked smile. Ben's eyes followed, turning on Pete, and Pete now understood what Ben and Jasper and the ancient Indian man intended. Pete watched as Ben reached for his arm.
"Sorry, boy," Ben said, "but a deal's a deal."
In one swift move, Pete reached, grabbed, pulled and swung Leatherface's tomahawk, yanking it clean from the leather string and swinging it hard at the first person the blade could find. Its edge found Jasper's neck, right at the base, slicing through the thin, soft flesh to hit neckbone. Blood splashed red onto Ben's cheek as his mouth dropped in shock.
Leatherface and Featherhead both laughed at the sight of the white boy cutting the white man's neck. Jasper fell to his knees, blood spilling down his neck onto his arms, dripping off his hands onto the dirt. Ben grabbed at Pete's tomahawk, yanked hard on the boy's arms, throwing him to the ground hard and then kicking him harder, the boot getting the boy right in the jaw, cutting his tongue good and knocking him out. The Wichita men stopped laughing.
But by then Jasper was already toppled over, the blood gushing from his neck straight onto the ground now, his eyes lifeless, staring at seeming nothingness. Ben handed the tomahawk back to Leatherface, who whipped it from Ben's hand, now-angry eyes accusing Ben he knew not of what.
Leatherface crouched down and put his hand on Pete's chest, feeling the breaths. His tribesman joined him, and, satisfied their prize was not irreparably harmed, they picked Pete's body off the ground and laid him over the back of Featherhead's horse. Featherhead mounted the horse and heeled it and rode back to the congregation of huts. Ben watched as some women pulled the lifeless Pete off the back of the horse, and handed over the Ellis boy.
Ben pulled Jasper's pistol from his holster, then mounted his horse and watched as Featherhead brought back the Ellis boy. A few minutes later, Ben, T.J. Trotter and the Ellis boy rode back to town, and Leatherface and Featherhead shared a smile, knowing they had exchanged a rabbit for a wolf.
* * *
When Pete regained consciousness, he saw staring at him dozens of faces shrouded in shadow, flames from a nearby fire sending the shadows dancing across the faces, across black stripes and circles tattooed into faces, shaved heads, black hair tangled with feathers hanging down at him, bony teeth shining down on him. He gasped for air and a howl of cries and shrieks broke out from all around, and tawny hands and arms brought down sticks of hard hickory on Pete's head, chest, legs, and arms. He felt the pain shoot through him and cried out, staggered to his feet, tried to escape the beating. Except the Wichita all laughed and tripped him up with their hickory sticks, sending him falling into dirt again, sticks raining down on him, Pete holding up his arm to fend off the blows until he couldn't anymore, until he learned he was theirs, and he blacked out again, his mind reeling back to the beatings that sent him into this land before finally succumbing to the darkness.
As those first days with the Wichita passed, Pete noticed that, when he struck back at his tormentors, wrested a stick from one of their hands, struck blood, he would not then be beat worse, like Pa would do, but instead sensed something else in their laughs and taunts. He sensed they cheered him on.
Over the next two summers and the winter in-between, Pete was taught the tribe's way, fighting at first against whatever the tribe had for him, before learning the freedom of the buffalo hunt and the satisfaction of the spear-kill, of feeling the animal's force in your hands, and it draining into death once the animal fell. After he killed his first deer on his own, spearing it first with an arrow through the neck, then digging his knife into its heart, the men poured its blood down his throat and shaved his head, and Leatherhead gave him his old tomahawk, a gift and a welcome.
But the memory of Ben's smile as the deal was done never left his mind; it held there in the back like a ghost, watching his every move. For these Wichita, deer were a boy's prey; the Wichita boys near his own age killed bears and wildcats to become men of the tribe. White Killer, as the tribe now called him, decided that he would kill Ben Cooper.
But neither Leatherface nor Featherhead nor any of the other elders would allow White Killer to go on this hunt, fearful White Killer would return to the white man and reveal their ways to them, where they hunted and where they hid. White Killer protested he only wanted a trophy like the others, but not even Leatherface was convinced. White Killer sulked, and didn't kill a single deer on the autumn hunt. He told Leatherface the deer have come to fear him, but the old man saw something else in the young man's eyes. When, under clear skies and a full moon, Leatherface watched White Killer arise when the others slept, and watched him duck out into the night, old tomahawk in hand, the old man kept silent, and listened as a horse neighed somewhere. He heard it run off into a distance. Leatherface did not have to see to know that White Killer was astride it.
* * *
White Killer tied his pinto to the post out front and stepped straight into the Sugar Cane Saloon in his buckskins, head shaved at his temple, skin burnt brown, a brute savage to anyone laying eyes. He got thrown out about ten seconds later, Lem Hopkins and T.J. Trotter doing the honors, tossing him into the dirt past the waiting horse. Both had been warming their bellies before setting to the day's work, and Trotter'd failed to recognize White Killer, though White Killer recognized T.J. the moment he saw the skin folding over his chins.
"You are T.J. Trotter, who once shook the hand of Mirabeau Lamar, only to find it limper'n expected?" White Killer was surprised at how easily he spoke the tongue he had not spoken since he had answered to the name Pete. He got back on his feet, moccasins covered in dust.
"Don't see how that's any business of any damned savage, no matter how good's your talk."
"I ain't savage, fool—didn't used to be. Your friend Ben Cooper gave me to the Wichita."
"Ben Cooper? Ben Cooper's dead six months." Trotter looked more confused than usual.
"Fever, or some other way?" asked White Killer.
"Shot in the gut. Right there in the Sugar Cane." He pointed to the saloon, looked back at White Killer, head cocked a crack. "You sure you're savage? You talk better'n any I ever heard."
White Killer ignored the question. "Who killed him?"
Trotter peered hard at White Killer, and a hint of recognition fluttered in his brain, enough to justify telling the tale to yet another semi-stranger: "No one knows who it was. Ben and I, we were th'only ones there in the saloon so early, and I's filling a glass, so missed the prelude. But heard the shot, and then heard the killer say this, as drunk as I got after, I'll never forget it, he said, 'When you stab a man in the back, better stab his brother, too.' Then he ran out. And I ran to Ben but he's dead already, and the man was long gone."
White Killer nodded, mounted his horse, and headed east.
* * *
White Killer took the road through the east country many days, back across the border into the United States, into his home state. He could not distinguish between the hot, wet air of Texas Republic and the hot, wet air of Louisiana and would not have known when he'd left the one for the other, were it not for the cool, lemony scent of the magnolia blossoms that wafted along the lifeless breeze and seemed to invigorate it, the trees rising from the Louisiana soil like silent sentries along his path.
The blossoms could not soothe the fire that burned hotter than ever within the chasm above his guts. The news of Ben's death failed to quench it, indeed did the opposite, for the death was at the hand of another. White Killer could no longer avenge himself, a thought that seemed to open a void within right beside the hot fire, each threatening to consume the other. Ben was dead, but the spirit of the man who wronged him would dance free. White Killer grew impatient to join the spirit world.
He rode east, day into night, his mind wandering into dreams that came at the fall of night or in the shadows of the long afternoon. Not far from Fort Jesup, he stopped beside a stream that had not yet dried under the summer sun and crouched to drink, then saw ahead on the road, coming out of the darkness of a hollow, a figure on horseback, with a young man on a rope walking ahead. White Killer knew, somehow, who it was, and his hand by instinct gripped the handle of his tomahawk.
Tony recognized White Killer right away, too, got right off the horse and approached his brother. "Well, howdy, Pete, been looking high and low for y'awhile now." Tony embraced White Killer, and White Killer absorbed the embrace, hand still on his tomahawk, until Tony stepped back, said, "Heard you ran into some trouble somewhere along the line." White Killer looked down at Sam, the rope tied around his neck like a noose, feet bare, mud-caked, his eyes looking away to the horizon. Tony went on: "You look a sight, what the hell you even got on, boy? What did they do to you? Sure as shit glad I found you, Pete. Pa and Uncle Pierre will be, too."
White Killer didn't say anything. His eyes moved off of Sam's eyes, past the whip curled at the horse's side, and fell on Tony's. Tony's self-satisfied smile acted like a bellows on White Killer's inner furnace.
Tony laughed awkwardly, adjusted the Paterson stuffed into his belt and jabbing his gut, said "Shit, where's your manners, anyway? This here monkey boy, whose name, if he's got one, I've forgotten—more likely, never knew—but least he ken say howdy, after I hit him right a spell or two. Ken't you even say as much? Or do I gotta hit yer sorry ass, too? Just said I been lookin' 'cross all Louisiana and half Texas since I ken't 'member when."
"You were lookin' in the wrong places I guess. You kill Ben Cooper?" White Killer asked.
"Killed the man who sold you to the Comanch. If that's Ben Cooper, then, shit, guess I killed Ben Cooper," said Tony, chin jutting up so he could look down on White Killer a little more.
"The quarrel was mine," said White Killer.
"You made shit work of it. Not that I'm surprised. Found him sucking down whiskey with a whore on his lap, so whatever punishment you was fixin' up, he wasn't suff'rin' it. Now get on the horse, we're going home," said Tony, already turning his attention to turning the horse, expecting Sam to turn around on his own. "Get you outta them buckskins and make you look human again."
"His blood was mine to spill, not yours." White Killer looked at his brother. He did not want to go with him, but wondered who would give way first, if he resisted. His hand reached for the handle of Leatherface's old tomahawk again, wishful of feeling the old warrior's spirit.
"Like I said. Now best get on that horse 'fore I put the whip to you like I do him." Tony reached out to grab White Killer, but White Killer ducked, and Tony grabbed air. Tony wasn't expecting air and lost his balance, and White Killer caught him, held his brother up, then saw Sam reach down at Tony's hip and grab the handle of his Paterson, yank it from Tony's hip. Pete held Tony as Sam aimed the pistol and pulled the trigger. Tony wasn't sure he heard the crack of the gun, but Pete heard it. It rang in Pete's ear and for a bit that's all he heard, all other sounds fading away into silence. Blood gushed from Tony's guts, staining his blue shirt purple and dripping red onto the dirt road. Tony lost his balance again, falling heavy as Pete held him up, and Sam pulled the trigger again, and Tony went limp. Pete laid him down. Blood from the second shot drained from Tony's chest, then dribbled to a stop as the life went out of him.
Sam looked at White Killer in fear, the gun dangling from his fingers, shaking. He shoved the pistol in his pants and mounted Tony's horse, eyes on White Killer the whole time, daring him to stop him. White Killer didn't. Sam grabbed the reins and heeled the horse and rode west down the road. White Killer watched them grow smaller in the distance until a speck. Then White Killer sat next to Tony's corpse and waited.
He later told the privates from Fort Jesup he didn't know the dead man, but that, right after he heard the gunshot, he saw a Negro boy run that way. The soldiers' gaze followed White Killer's finger east, and they peered down the empty road beneath a darkening sky. They told him he should get some clothes on, then they loaded Tony's body onto a travois and rode back to the fort.
White Killer secured his tomahawk to his buckskins, mounted the pinto and rode west. He caught up with Sam about two hours later, near the Texas border. White Killer told Sam, "There are no slaves in Santa Fe, if we can make it," so they heeled their horses, ever faster west.