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Lynelle Tyler, a poor homesteader with southern roots, worked her garden but the sound of galloping horse hooves sent her spiraling into fear. “Please don’t let it be Boone’s father!”
She waited, breath held and fingers embedded in dirt, until the sound of hooves died off again. Life in Kansas had gotten distressing with the arrival of the Missouri Regulators, as some called them. But she feared no one the way she feared Boone’s Kiowa father. Lynelle wanted to move young Boone far from this bloody border, where the status of owning slaves could get anyone killed—and where Kae-gon, her Kiowa husband, could find her. But where would they go?
She has not seen Kae-gon since she threatened him with death if he came anywhere near their son, back when Boone was seven. But she could not erase her love for him from her heart, or his final words from her head. “I will have the boy before his 13th year.”
The Atchison men were armed and even the Kiowa feared them, so an Indian war might start and Kae-gon could be killed. The thought filled her with the contradiction of bliss and anxiety until she thought she might go mad. She didn’t want to lose the man she both loved and hated.
Boone Tyler knelt in his potato garden, not too far from his mama, watching her and feeling her fears. She didn’t seem to know he was there, feeling herself alone in her small garden world. Boone saw her tears and knew she often cried about his father. She told him the story once of how her father, General Tyler, attacked Kae-gon’s village to get her back, killing many in the process.
“Let my father move in with us,” Boone told her over and over.
“He cannot leave his people,” she responded over and over.
Boone knew the story of how his parents met—she told him many times. “Oh, how I loved him. Oh, how gentle he was when we met in the river. I wore no clothes and to make me comfortable he took his off. But we just talked, Boone, because he knew some English and I knew some signing. He came to see me every day, and my father never knew. Then came the day I went to his village and never looked back. Until my father came to get me … and that terrible raid.” She did not like to talk about that day of the killings, except to remind Boone that he must never live with them, as if a litany, a fairy tale to be retold at bedtime. “You must always stay white. Your father’s people are doomed.”
Boone loved his mother and he believed her. But he also wondered if her love of his father drove her crazy. She made him love his father, and promise never to live with his father.
She knelt at the garden again, still nervous and scared at the sound of the horse riders. That’s why Boone was in a hurry to be a man, so he could help her feel safe again. He could feel her tears as she dug into the dirt to harvest their bean and carrot crop, watched as she wiped her tears away with dirty hands. She told Boone that Kae-gon’s world was too dangerous. They were a happy, contented people when left alone, but also a people torn by both desire and disdain for white world goods. She believed that alone would destroy them.
But why did she shiver every time she talked about Kae-gon? Was that love or hate … or something else?
Lynelle put the small carrots, beans and squash into the basket, her shoulders slumping as she counted her meager harvest, and went back into the house.
Boone had beaten Lynelle back inside. He had sprawled out on the dirt floor, picked up his etching stick, and appeared busy drawing pictures when she came in. His tousled black hair was still coated with the sand and sweat from the morning’s chore. “Where’s my vagabond mama been this time?” He took to calling her vagabond because lately she’d taken to wandering off for hours at a time.
She smiled at her lanky son deep in concentration, one foot kicking up small dry dust clouds behind him. “Boone Tyler, did you check your garden yet?” Boone looked like his father—except for the freckles on his small nose and flecks of green in his brown eyes. The whites called him a “half-breed,” and she feared he would grow not knowing which side he belonged to. She was determined to keep him on the white side, whatever it took.
“Look, Mama, the horse is running free as the wind. And I drew me over here, so that it runs to me.”
Even with General Tyler dead, his paternal disapproval gone, his kind’s hatred of Kae-gon’s people would never die, and having a child as a blend of both would never change that. She often found one of her Shakespeare tales to fit every situation—the two of them would search long into the night to find something that made them sigh in understanding. She and Kae-gon were Romeo & Juliet, and Boone understood her sighs whenever they read that balcony scene together.
“The garden, Boone. We can do some Shakespeare after dinner.” She had sent him to white schools a few times but they had tormented him, forcing his desk into the corner in the front of the room so no one would worry about their scalps by sitting too close to him. But she told Boone he would only stay safe in the white world, so she kept sending him there. And made it up to him by teaching him Shakespeare and the joys of acting the words out loud as he learned to read.
“It is a shame my twin brother died. Maybe he could do some chores and you would leave me alone sometimes.” Boone often said things that just popped into his head.
This time she grabbed him, yanked him to his feet, and threw him outside. Without a word. He got to his feet and brushed off, not surprised by her sudden moods. He peeked in the window. She stared down at the dirt floor, her hands pulling at her hair. “Booonnnieeeee!”
He ran back in and sat by her, and she held him with trembling arms. “How did you know about him? No, no, don’t answer that. Answer that you love me. That you love our home. Tell me, Boonie!” He nodded and she pulled him tight again. “I have a hard time keeping that stone fireplace lit, and our eating table wobbles and we need to have two beds now. What to do what to do.”
Boone knew that his twin brother had died at birth. She told him so. Didn’t she? She must have. Why couldn’t they talk about him?
She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve as she pushed him away. “Boone, why are you sitting here? I told you, git. Harvest your garden. Mind your mama.”
“I already picked all my potatoes for today. See?” He pointed toward the corner, hoping she would laugh at his prank.
“Boone! How can you try to fool me? You know those are yesterday’s potatoes. Now do as I say! Or miss your Shakespeare tonight.” She got up to stir the beans.
Boone bit his sigh back as he got to his feet. “You won’t eat without me, 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. “If you don’t get out there, 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, and fixed the spot that got a little messed up when she grabbed him. “I don’t think they are ready today. But I will look. And one day, you will see that I’m old enough to do my work without being told.”
He jumped up and ran out before she could rap his head with her sticky wooden spoon.
Boone walked back to his potato garden while thinking about that last design that 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 almost ran into Jack—Big Grizzly, as he asked to be called. Jack lived in a shack up on the hill, moved from the Dakotas when a tribe of Lakota had grown too familiar for his own comfort. Catching a young white boy in one of his bear traps hadn’t improved relations, either. “Sorry!” Boone backed away as though on fire.
Jack had on his plain buckskin coat, 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 at the boy. “Hey, Tadpole, no hurry, earth still be here, another day yet.”
“Gotta find some potatoes now!” Boone ran from Jack as though he had twenty things to do. Big Grizzly Jack frightened him, like that man teacher who often reached for the whip around the children. He felt Jack’s eyes on him as he dug into the earth for spuds.
There was more to Jack than he was telling. He seemed like a friend and yet, not.
Lynelle stood beside Big Grizzly as the boy bent over his garden.
“He’s of ripenin’ age, Lynelle.”
“I know. I worry what will happen to him if there’s war like they keep talking. To protect slavery,” she said as though the words tasted dirty.
“You have more war in your heart. Talk on him his papa.” An old French fur trapper, Jack hung onto his bad English like a lifeline to the Old World.
“Oh, I already told him everything.” She wrapped her arms around herself and rubbed hard. “He’s picked enough potatoes today. He’s not going to find any more.”
“Time to treat him like man he is become.”
“No! He can’t grow up. Ever. Come on, have some coffee with me. It’s been so long.”
That first day they met, a year ago, he had been out trapping, suspecting he could catch that family of muskrats down near the river. He came upon her crying over an empty bucket.
“I caught no fish. My line got away from me.” She wiped her face with dirty hands, causing streaks that looked like war paint. “Well, we’ll just have to make more bread.”
Jack had turned away as though to leave her alone, but he reached into his pocket. “Here.”
Lynelle wiped her nose with a dirty sleeve. “What is this?”
“Make it myself. Possum meat.”
Lynelle’s hand trembled as she took the dried meat.
“It ain’t much. Traps tomorrow might fill. Meet you here?”
“Oh, no! I couldn’t!” She ran from him at that first meeting, leaving Jack scratching his beard.
Later that same day she found Big Grizzly Jack and Boone standing in the river, though not close, watching each other’s fishing lines. Boone listened as Jack told him about the fine art of catching those nibblers. She learned later that Boone had been too terrified of him to move.
Now Boone could catch fish with his bare hands but still didn’t cotton to Big Grizzly. Maybe he would once the size difference lessened. His father was so much taller than any white man she knew and Boone fast approached that stature.
Jack grunted a happy thanks for the coffee she’d made in silence as he watched her.
“You ever have children, Big Grizzly?” She took out a shiny knife to start chopping vegetables.
“Seen plenty half breed. Not have my own, but marry plenty Indian woman too.”
He used the term half breed with respect, unlike some others who eyed her son with distaste—like her father, the great General Beauford Tyler, Indian killer. Good riddance. She quickly crossed herself to rid the negative thoughts. She didn’t tell Boone about the letter she received last month, telling of his death, because she wanted only to pretend now that he never existed.
“When I teach you boy to trap last week he give me gift.” Jack slapped a rock down on her table. “He calls it wish rock and say he wish for you to let him meet his papa.”
Lynelle grabbed the table for support. “No.”
“You love dis Indian papa. You boy should love him, too.”
“Why did he give the rock to you?”
“He say not good rock. Wish not come true.”
Lynelle picked up the simple piece of granite with what looked like an etched ‘s’. “Some wishes aren’t meant to come true.”
“Kiowa are not bad people---.”
“I don’t want Boone to die!” Lynelle looked back over her shoulder to make sure Jack hadn’t disappeared before dumping her carrots in water. Jack put one leg up and easy over the other and, with his nose in the air, appreciably smelled the bread. “Would you like to stay on?” She thought about having Jack over more often, maybe suggest he use some lye in his clothing wash and perhaps give himself shave. She pulled the carrots out of the water and picked up her knife.
“I plenty food. You keep for growing boy. Tell me about Kae-gon.”
“He found me two years after Boone’s birth. Said he would come when the boy was 12. Came again a few more times, just so I wouldn’t forget. Boone will be 13 in the snows of December.” She whipped the knife into the carrots, unable to meet Jack’s eyes.
“Not bad he meets Papa. Give boy’s papa a listen.”
Lynelle slammed the knife down. “He said take!” She paused to catch her breath and refilled his coffee. “Boone’s only chance at a good life is in the white world. Oh, Jack, you can see that, can’t you?”
“Sound like you listen to white folk too much.” Jack sipped at the dark liquid. “I believe tribes will keep own land. Your son can talk Indian to whites. He can heal both worlds---.”
“My son is no savior!” Lynelle covered her eyes for a second and looked at Jack with fierce determination. “I will protect my son. With my life I will.”
He patted her hand. “Dis is good, your feelings. Dey yours, so good. But boy must know. Protect him, but he must know what you protect.”
“Jack, do you think there will be war? Out east?”
“War is already here until they settle this thing.” Only the week before a few of the Regulators tried to string him up for calling them “nigger lovers.” But Jack beat two of them senseless before the rest ran off. “You not worry. I let no one hurt you.”
When Jack came back out of the house, Boone stood and flicked at the clumps of dirt hanging on his knees and elbows, unable to look at the big man. He wanted to go back inside but not while Big Grizzly was in there.
“Got some good potatoes?” Jack asked as he approached, respectful of the boy’s space.
Boone held one out, and then two. “For you.”
“Day’s good ones. I tank ya.” Jack pocketed them and followed as Boone headed for the river to wash up. “Your mama not sure how to tell you about life. You must learn to ask.”
Boone splashed water on his arms. “What Mama and I talk about is none of your bloody affair.” Arms wet and still half muddy he jumped to his feet and started up the hill with his empty sack.
Jack grabbed his arm. The big man’s face was the nightmare Boone had of a grizzly that chased him for playing with its young. “You getting to be a man. You have right to know your papa.”
Boone jerked his arm free. “Why do you care, anyway?”
Jack only shrugged and walked back to his mule to take his fill of water from his jug.
Boone ran back up the hill. “Mama!” He ran into the shack. “What you got to tell me?”
Lynelle was on her hands and knees, digging in the dirt floor. She looked up at Boone as he burst in, hair half covering her wild eyes as she patted her small hole down. She forced a smile and sat back. “Oh, Boonie.”
“Mama? You gonna grow something in here for me to weed now?”
“Silly Boone. Come here and sit on the floor beside me.” She patted down the dirt long after it needed patting. With a gentle hand she traced the dirt on his face. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Your father used to rub dirt on my face so the whites would not take me away.”
Boone sat away from the mysterious ground to her other side and she pulled him close. “Does Papa hate us? Is that why he won’t live with us?”
“I promise you, your father does not hate us.” Lynelle wiped the tears from her face and with the same hand wiped the dirt on Boone’s face, creating streaks on his cheeks. “Your father is the son of a Kiowa leader, keepers of the medicine. He can’t leave his people. And Boone, as much as I loved your father, I’m just not strong enough to live with him.”
“What did you bury in the floor, Mama?” He didn’t like secrets. Mama once said secrets, like badgers, can bite.
“Boone, I will sleep outside tonight, and tomorrow we’ll make a new bed for you.”
She gave him a quick hug and pushed him away. “Tell me why you don’t like Big Grizzly.”
“There’s something bad about him. Something quiet and dark.”
“Your mama needs a man in her life.”
“Not him. Papa.”
“Tell me why Papa won’t live here.”
She pulled him close and kissed his head. “If you were a girl, your father would have left you alone.” She hurried on. “Shush now, just listen. Did you ever hear about the Cherokees? About how they had a great home back east and learned to adapt to white civilization, and yet were still forced to leave? Indians don’t understand how whites own the land. We see it … I mean, the Kiowa see it as providing the resources needed to survive. No one can own that.” She stood and threw wood on the fire still burning strong. “Boone, how can I explain how I feel? The Kiowa … can’t hold off a whole country wanting their land and their resources. If you live with the Indians, you will die with them. And your father will never leave his people.”
“But I can help them talk to whites. Even Jack says so.”
She shook her head, struggling not to cry. “I must teach you history. Do you remember the story of Jesus on the cross?” When he nodded she brushed his cheek. “You are not a savior.”
“Did you love my Pa?”
“Always believe that I did, Boone. But I had to give him up to keep you safe.” She threw her arms around him. “Promise you’ll stay with me and be safe, promise me, Boone!”
“I’d never leave you, Mama.”
“Shhhhh!” Lynelle pointed at the bed in the small room that they shared. “Hide. I heard a noise.” Years of training made Boone respond without question. He hid under the buffalo skin while she ran outside.
Sun Hero was his favorite Indian story … hide until the time to come out and shine. But how to know when to be a hero? As Boone wondered, he fell asleep.
“Mama, I had a new dream last night.” Boone had found a round piece of rubber that he worried between his palms as Lynelle finished cooking the oatmeal with maple syrup, his favorite breakfast.
“What this time? Fire monsters that fly and eat the rolling fire horses? I wish you would learn to start a fire as well as you dream it.”
“At first it seemed horrible like that. I was alone and screaming because I was cold. But then so many warm hands surrounded me and as they clapped, the air around me warmed, and I floated on a cloud. And the cloud turned dark and stormy but I wasn’t afraid because you held me up, and Papa held you up, and even though the ground began to tremble---.”
Lynelle stood frozen as she stared outside. “Boone! Get to your feet!”
“No, Mama. My dream said to be a man and protect you.”
“I said get to your feet! Go out the window by the bed, go out the window and run.” She pulled him away from the table and pushed him to the bed. “Run like you never ran before and don’t look back, do you hear! Don’t look back!”
Boone pushed the tarp aside but hesitated. “I want to stay.”
Lynelle gave him a shove and he rolled out the window onto the hard ground below. At first he couldn’t get up because the air had poofed out of him. He heard the sounds of many horses and the shouts of men, sounds as unintelligible as the grunts of animals. Then he heard the lingo of Kiowa speak. He crept up along the house and peeked into the window.
Five Indians had come inside and faced his mama but she stood them off, yelling at them in return, her knife clutched tight in her hand. The tallest must be his papa, and he had a hand on her arm.
Boone ducked back down. Papa looked so terrible, so ready to kill her! He wanted to stay and help her but he was afraid. He turned and ran, down through the fields and up another hill to Big Grizzly’s house. Mama still loved Kae-gon. If he left them alone, maybe she’d find a way.
Why rebuke you him that loves you so? The Shakespeare line came into his head without bidding. He escaped thoughts of his parents and instead remembered his grandfather and the move across the Mississippi when he was two … the big waters—the big river, his mama called it—wider than anything young Boone had ever seen. He clung to his mama’s leg in fear. Her father, General Tyler, barked orders at the three men who followed them everywhere. Boone hated those men because they tried to get between him and his mama, and he thought she hated them, too. The men got out their axes to fell some trees for a raft, but then they saw a keelboat headed across the river toward them.
Boone kept saying, “No water, no water!” So General Tyler picked him up and threw him into the river. Lynelle screamed and bit her hand as Boone thrashed around until he managed a pretty mean dog paddle back to shore. Not very far, really, before Boone found land under his feet again.
The General laughed and pointed, a hand holding back one of the men who wanted to go in after the boy. “Told ya—part animal.”
Lynelle ran to Boone when he got to shore, careful not to sound frightened. By the time she stripped him down he was laughing. “See me, Mama, see me?”
Lynelle found an oversized shirt for him to wear until his clothes dried. “You’ll be a great swimmer someday, Boone.” Boone nearly went back into the river again on her encouragement but she grabbed and hugged him.
The keelboat got close enough for the boatman to call out, “Engagee?”
The General grumbled. “Shoot, it’s a Frenchie. Anyone know any?”
“I know a little,” Philip, his tall soldier, stepped forward, and using French said, “Across the river. You take us.”
Boone and Lynelle busied themselves with emptying the wagon that would be left behind, to be used by someone who crossed from the other side.
“Oh. Oui. Cost you,” Frenchie nodded as Philip interpreted.
“Huh, I understood that much,” said the General. “What’s your price?”
“One horse!” The General turned and waved at his adjutant. “Give him that rangy mule.” He turned back. “Ask him if he wants it in the keelboat.”
Turned out he didn’t. Frenchie gave a wave of his own and two Indians ran out. His mother’s eyes closed again, as though Boone had just been tossed back into the water. They grabbed the offered mule and ran off.
“You are good company!” Frenchie shouted in English. He waved them on board.
Halfway over Frenchie decided to demonstrate the sturdiness of the boat by making it sway while talking nonstop in French. When he got a little too close to Lynelle she gave him a shove and he tumbled backward with the swaying, right into the river. While the men struggled to get him back on board, Boone and Lynelle clung to the side.
“Mama, am I a good swimmer now?”
“Not yet, Boone. But don’t worry, you won’t drown. You’ll be a great man someday.”
Once across they all leaped out, pulled their horses up to shore on the lines they attached so the horses could swim behind, and ran up the hill without a look back and nary a thanks. Up, up a hill, they stumbled on rocks and caught shoes in the shrubbery, better at first than being on the water but soon Boone thought he would go crazy from being tired, cold and always wet, first from river, then from rain. They found no wagons this side of the river, which meant just to keep running and sometimes share a horse, but they found the fort and the general got them all more horses to ride.
But they had to go back into the wilderness because Grandpa didn’t want this fort. The wagon trail they got on sometimes disappeared, like a hole had opened up and swallowed them. “Will it swallow me?”
But his mama told him that in some places grasses grow faster than other places. “No, Boone, not you. You are meant for better things.”
The trees slapped him like he said a bad word and every few minutes he thought he heard the hoot of an Indian, and told his mama so.
“Owl, Boone,” Lynelle reminded him. “Would you like to hear a story, Boonie?”
“Yes, tell me why you’re so afraid.”
“Oh, let’s save that for after I’m gone.”
Boone didn’t want Jack’s help, either. He didn’t want Jack telling them she would feel better if she had a man. One day Boone will remind Big Grizzly that she has her son.
That day would be tomorrow. For now he crept into Mr. Jack’s shed and curled up under the standing hay. He had to be patient, and hoped his mama and papa could learn to love again.
Boone pushed the door open and peeked inside. The home that Lynelle had always kept so neat was in shambles. “Mama?” Their bed had been thrown aside, buffalo skin lying in a heap on the floor. “Mama?” He had waited a whole day in Jack’s shed for her to come. Was she off wandering again?
Boone saw her knife stuck in the table. He grabbed hold of the handle and wrenched it free. The blade was covered with blood. Maybe she killed them all. He heard a thump outside and ran back to the door.
Big Grizzly Jack stood outside the house. “Sump’en wrong, boy?”
“I can’t find my mama. The Indians were here yesterday, and---.”
Jack pushed his way inside and scanned the room, his brow wrinkled in a frown. His heavy eyes focused on the buffalo skin on the floor. Boone noticed the skin covered something that had darkened in one spot. The tips of three fingers protruded from the buffalo skin.
“Mama!” Boone ran to her side and fell to his knees. He picked up the corner of the skin and saw his mother’s face, eyes open and empty, mouth slightly sagging. She will never be afraid again. Tears rolled down his cheeks, tears hot and wet that spilled onto his dead mama as though to wash her knife wound away.
“Sorry, son.” Jack stood over him, a heavily breathing, lumbering bear. “So sorry.”
Boone’s hand trembled as he patted her hair. “I should have stayed. I should have protected her! I would have gone with him to protect her.”
Jack shook his head. “She attack. Only way they would do this.” He bent over her and examined the wound.
Boone saw that she had been digging in the dirt, in the same place where she had buried something. He dug where her fingers had started a hole, until he found a small solid object. A rock. He held the rock up for Jack to see. “This is the wish rock I gave you. Why was it buried?”
“Her wish, boy—never to live without you.”
“She wouldn’t let me stay with her, and now I lost them both.” He flung the rock at the overturned bed and grabbed the knife off the table. “Because now, when I meet my father, I will kill him.” Boone slipped the skin off her face so she could watch him. “You were wrong, Mama. Living with the Indians is better than this.” He threw the knife to the floor next to her and picked up the small wood chair lying on the floor. “Better than not living at all!” He slammed the chair to the floor, splitting it into quarters. “You looked for months to find a shack where the door faced east! You wanted to be like them! Why couldn’t you live with them?” He flung her cooking pot against a far wall. “Now you’re dead!” He dug his hands into a pile of broken glass. He flung the handful of smashed goods to the ground. When he saw his hands bloodied he burst into fresh hot tears and flung himself to the floor next to her. He grabbed the skin with the ribbons she sewed as fringes, now covered with her smell and her blood, and pressed his wet face into it. His mama looked blankly up at him from the floor, answers on silenced lips.
Boone rocked and sobbed, hugging his knees. When he lay still, exhausted, Jack put his hands underneath the boy and picked him up. Boone allowed the gentle giant to carry him but kept the skin clutched tight, completely exposing his dead mother.
“I will kill my father,” he muttered against Jack’s leathered chest.
“He did not kill her.”
“I will kill him.” Boone passed out.
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