Authors: Joseph Bruchac
hankfully, that first meeting with Phil Tall Bear was a brief one.
Uncle Lenard and Phil left together, giving me the rest of that day and the night to attempt to recover what little equanimity I had left. I was afraid that Aunt Mary was going to try to talk to me about Phil, about what a good young man he was and how it would all work out fine, our traveling together. But she didn't. Instead she busied herself putting things together for me in what she called her emergency pack.
Such as a pair of scissors, needles, and strong thread.
“For sewing up clothes orÂ .Â .Â . whatever,” she said. The fact that she added bandages and a plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a container of her own special herbal salve right after that left me no doubt about what the “whatever” might be.
I had acceptedÂ âÂ as much as I could accept itÂ âÂ the fact that I would be accompanied by the one person I most wanted to be with and was terrified about being with. So that night I had time to worry about other things. Things that were marked with big
s on the map that Aunt Mary placed in a plastic wrapper and stuck in the top of the emergency kit.
A shiver of fear about all those monsters waiting for me ran down my spine. Then, at that very moment, a little jumping mouse stuck its head in through our open tipi door. It looked up at me, and I couldn't help but smile.
“Hau, kola,” I said. That's “Hello, my friend” in Lakota.
The mouse chirruped and came leaping over to me.
I sat down and held out my hand. It hopped into my palm. I lifted it up close to my face and it began to play with my long hair with its tiny handlike paws as it kept up its little chirping chatter. It almost sounded as if it was saying “Wash-tey, wash-tey, wash-tey,” which means “good, good, good” in Lakota.
Aunt Mary was watching, nodding with her lips pursed together. “Well,” she said, “you are not going to lack for friends out there, Rose, honey.”
*Â *Â *
I had always been the first to get up before the sun. But it was not so the next day. To my surprise, when Phil showed up the next morning, I was still asleep. I was wakened by my friend, Jumping Mouse, who had spent the night asleep next to me on my pillow. I felt her cool little paws pulling at my hair and heard her voice chirping in my right ear before I realized that someone was at the door of our lodge and my Aunt Mary was talking to him.
“Poor dear,” Aunt Mary was saying, “she was more tired than she let on. That's just how my Rose is. She'll push herself till she drops and never admit she needs to take care of herself.”
“I understand,” Phil said in that soft, deep voice of his.
I felt my cheeks burning.
“Aunt Mary,” I called out. And regretted that I had done so because I could hear how strained my voice sounded.
The talking outside the tipi stopped abruptly. My aunt stuck her head in through the door.
“Rose, honey,” she said in a calm, perfectly controlled voice, “Phil Tall Bear is here, and I've got your breakfast ready.”
Even though I don't recall tasting it, I know that breakfast was a good one. Not the Dehy-Y-rations that we'd mostly be eating during our journey, but real food. Corn bread with a stew of beans and squash and deer meat sausage and porridge sweetened with honey. Our gardens had taken hold that spring and our summer harvests were already starting, along with the nearly inexhaustible mountain of Dehy-Y-rations that filled the huge storehouse at the back of Big Cave, there would be plenty of other food preserved and dried in the old-fashioned Lakota way to take us through the winter.
And as I thought of that, I wondered where I would be that winter. Back in Big Cave or just a pile of dry bones out on the prairie? My heart started to race again.
“Good-good-good,” Jumping Mouse chirped in my ear from her perch on my shoulder. I broke off a piece of corn bread and held it up to her. She took it, sat back, and began to eat, turning it in her paws.
“That is so sweet!” Phil said, pointing with his lips at Jumping Mouse. “Will your friend be traveling with us?”
I pretended I didn't hear him as I shoved a piece of cornbread into my mouth, and he didn't ask again.
*Â *Â *
It was a beautiful late summer day when we set out. I now had a sort of holster for the sawed-off shotgun, and it hung at my waist from a heavy belt. It was balanced on the other side by a long knife in a leather sheath.
Aunt Mary's favorite knife. She'd made it herself years ago from a long file, ground it to razor sharpness, and then fastened a carefully shaped piece of elk antler on for a handle.
“Good for cutting meatÂ .Â .Â . or whatever,” she said as she gave it to me.
A bandolier of shotgun shells hung over my shoulder, and there were more shells in one of the three packs I carried. I wore a black formfitting top, the kind that athletes used to wear under their uniforms back when there were organized sports. It was made of material that was almost impossible to cut or tear, and it washed easily. I was worried that it made my muscles too obvious and that it was too tight across my chest, but Aunt Mary had nodded when I put it on.
“Good choice, Rose,” she said. “You lookÂ .Â .Â .Â good.” Then she handed me a second top, a green one, to put into the pack that held my few other clothes, as well as a brush and a comb and some extra ties for my long hair, which was the only part of me that I would ever think of as actually being beautiful.
I also wore a vest over the top, with pockets in it to stash things, and that did cover up things some.
The jeans I wore were also pretty tight, being of that same tough, stretchy stuff that had been made in some now undoubtedly defunct factory in Mexico. Black, of course. As were the nearly indestructible comfortable boots on my feet.
A considerable crowd of people gathered just outside Big Cave to wave good-bye. Uncle Lenard was among them, with his arm around Aunt Mary. That was understandable, seeing as how he could not stand on his own. Though there was no need for her to be holding his hand like that.
I looked over at Phil. His outfit was pretty much the same as mine. We looked like twinsÂ âÂ fraternal, not identical, and me being the bigger and uglier one. But there were some differences in the way we were geared up. First of all, I did not have a big compound bow and a quiver of arrows over my shoulder like he did.
I knew where that bow and those arrows came from. They were a gift from Lenard Crazy Dog. Aunt Mary had told me about some of the conversation that Phil had with Uncle Lenard. How after Lenard had ascertained that Phil was pretty good with a bow and arrow, he'd told my traveling companion how to locate the stash where his spare weapons were hidden, which also included the big .45 revolver now holstered on Phil Tall Bear's belt.
And also there was no little mouse on his shoulder like there was on mine, half hidden by my thick black hair and squeaking encouraging sounds in my ear.
As he waved to the crowd, a smile on his face, Phil spoke to me out of the corner of his mouth.
“I don't know about you, Rose Eagle, but I am scared as hell.”
All I said back was “Me, too.”
e followed what used to be one of the main highways leading into the Ridge, old Route 2. Its cracked pavement had never been removed, even after the advent of the new modes of transport that didn't need conventional roads but could hover and then whiz across the countryside over any surface, whether rough or smooth.
The sun was still rising above the plain, its light no longer the deep gold of past centuries. It was still bright, but with a strange sheen to it as it shone through the Silver Cloud that now cloaked our planet. Fortunately, that Cloud seemed to let through enough of our star's energy for photosynthesis to take place. In fact, plants now seemed to be growing better and faster than they had before. Another reason why our gardens outside Big Cave were so abundant with produce.
If not for the monsters set loose on the land, that Cloud might even have been seen as a blessing in some ways. It had ended the rule of people who had become less human with every passing year, more indifferent to those they ruled, more capricious in their behavior. We never knew back then what strange edict they'd pass from one cycle to the next. Not just the Freedom From Religion Laws, but rules about what we could wear on certain days, new games they would invent that proles could play for the amusement of the Overlords, changes in the vid-feeds so that one week all we could watch were viddys about animals and the next it would be a steady diet of ancient movies from the twentieth century. Apparently only two things never changedÂ âÂ that we ordinaries were a source of amusement for them, and that we had no hope of anything but lives of work without real meaning. For us who labored in the Deeps, that meant endless work that was likely to eventually kill us.
The morning sun was in our faces as we trudged along. Our destination was to the northwest, but we were going in the opposite direction for now. That was because of the monsters. If we'd headed west to start with, we'd have been traveling straight into the realm of Old Three Paws and his pack of firewolves.
I paused and looked back over my shoulder. Phil's legs were almost as long as mine and the two of us had already covered several miles. Big Cave was no longer in sight, hidden by the folds of the land. But I could see the Black Hills in the distance to the westÂ âÂ our old sacred lands where an evil man named George Armstrong Custer found gold. If he'd lived in the time just before the Cloud came, Custer would surely have been one of the Overlords. There had once been a South Dakota town in our Black Hills, and even a county, named after him.
True, he met his fate when he foolishly attacked one Lakota village too many and died with all his soldiers, defeated by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
But that was our last great victory. We'd lost the Black Hills and most of our lands and then our livelihoods when the buffalo herds were wiped out. All we had for a time were our reservations. We'd tried to do our best with the bleak lands left to us. In fact, according to Aunt Mary, we'd started to rise again through education and the kind of caring for each other that began to solve problems like alcohol and drugs and joblessness. But that was before the long round of wars and the rise of men with money who were stronger than any governments and had no allegiance to anything other than their own power.
“Rose?” Phil said. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I said. Then, even though I knew he was offering me an opportunity to talk to him, I turned and started to walk.
I heard a twitter from my shoulder as I strode forward, felt Jumping Mouse tugging at my hair as she continued to trill in my right ear. It sounded as if she was scolding me for my rude behavior. And I knew she was right, but I kept on walking.
Phil continued to match my stride. He never came too close to my side, as if understanding I wanted him to keep his distance. But he also never strayed too far away. It was almost like the way a good hunting dog would walk by a person's side. Quiet, attentive, never interrupting. Ready to help or defend. It made me like Phil Tall Bear even moreÂ âÂ and feel even more tongue-tied around him.
I looked up. The dark speck in the sky above us turned into a sparrow hawk as it circled down and then dived toward us. Toward me.
With a high squeak, Jumping Mouse leaped off my shoulder to dive down into the front of my tight top, right between my breasts. Just a second later, the sparrow hawk landed on my shoulder where the little mouse had been perched.
The sparrow hawk cocked its head to look with one eye down my front. Then it chirped a few high notes and ruffled its neck feathers.
, it seemed to be saying to Jumping Mouse.
If I was after you, you wouldn't be getting away that easy!
The small hawk rotated its head to look up into my eyes, whistled three times and clacked its beak.
I understood, not exactly as if it had been said to me in words, but in a different kind of way, a knowing that went beyond language.
Then, just like that, the hawk spread its wings and sailed off my shoulder. It flapped once, twice, rose higher and higher, and was gone.
I turned my head toward Phil, whose eyes were fastened on my chest where Jumping Mouse's small head was now peering timidly up out of the cleft. Her squirming tickled, but I paid no attention to her. I just knit my brow as I looked at Phil. Color came to his cheeks and he quickly lifted his gaze to my face.
“It's true, isn't it?” he said.
“Birds talk to you. I'd heard that, but wasn't sure if I believed it. I think it's amazing.”
He was almost saying he liked meÂ âÂ or at least what I could do. How could I reply to thatÂ âÂ or should I just say nothing as usual? But then I sensed something else. I turned and looked in the direction of the thick stand of big cottonwoods rising on the left side of the road a mile ahead of us.
“There's something there in those trees. We need to take a detour.”
“Lead on,” Phil said, the smile coming back to his face. “You the boss!”
For some reason, that made me smile, too, even though I blushed when he said it.
“Let's go then.”
Despite my detour, which led us around a rise of land that kept us well hidden from that sinister stand of trees, we kept making good time. I didn't look at the map as we walked. Usually I can remember almost anything once I've studied it for a little while. We stopped only once near midday to eat some of the pemmican that Aunt Mary had made in the old way, pounding strips of venison, mixing in fat and wild cherries and then drying it all in the sun. It was a high-energy food that weighed little and would keep just about forever. We had also brought Y-rations, but were saving them for later. All we needed was water, which we got from a spring Phil located. Since water was no longer being drawn out of the earth for ore processing, little springs like that had started to reappear in places long dry, as if the land was coming back to life. Even the rivers were flowing with more waterÂ âÂ though that river water was still deeply polluted and not wise to drink.
We crossed the White River by way of an old bridge and came to a crossroads. It was the place where we would turn left to head into the Badlands.
Uncle Lenard had suggested we spend the night at this point on the map, even though it was well before dark. We could have continued on for several more hours, but that would have been pushing our luck. A whole day away from Big Cave without anything trying to kill and eat us? That was nothing short of amazing. It was time, as Aunt Mary used to sayÂ âÂ though I have no idea what it meantÂ âÂ to cash in our chips for the day and count our winnings.
“That's it?” Phil said, eyeing the large white concrete building in the midst of a series of burned-out ruins. It was a storage building of some sort. It had two huge doors in front, big enough to allow some very large machinery to move in and out. The massive iron doors, which had surely been operated by electricity, were tightly shut andÂ âÂ like the building itself with its rounded edgesÂ âÂ looked to be bombproof, unlike the rest of the buildings in this little town, which had been destroyed by something, burned down. That suggested firewolves to me, even though it was well north of what we'd thought was their territory. That was a little worrisome, but this was our best choice for tonight's shelter.
So I nodded to Phil. This was it.
“How do we get in?” Phil said.
I just turned and walked around the side of the building. There was another door there, a human-sized one that was also solid metal with heavy hinges. But what kept it shut was not electricity. It was a simple, very large old-fashioned padlock.
“Do we have to break that?” Phil asked.
I shook my head. This was the kind of lock that could not be pried open with a bar. Even blasting it with a gun like the .45 on Phil's belt would not break it.
I lifted it with my left hand, hefted it.
“Master,” I said, reading the word on its side.
Then I took out the key that Uncle Lenard Crazy DogÂ âÂ who'd put that lock there in the first placeÂ âÂ had given me.
“Oh,” Phil said as I twisted the key and the lock sprung open. I pulled it from the hasp, swung open the door. And as soon as I did so, two things happened at once.
Jumping Mouse started chattering in my earÂ âÂ “Danger-danger-danger!
And a musky scent reached my nostrils.
I stepped back, dropping the lock and reaching for the sawed-off shotgun on my belt.
“Something's in there,” I said, my voice choked with fear.
And like the good dog that he was, Phil tried to go in ahead of me.
“No!” I said, thumping my left fist against his chest and knocking him backward. I couldn't let my fear defeat me that easily. Plus, I was the one with the shotgun, which was the best weapon to use in close quarters. And, to be honest, I also didn't want Phil to get hurt. “I go first.”
And, shotgun in hand, I went through the door.