Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 168

   

Onakara declined to accompany us into the village, which did absolutely nothing to increase my confidence in our prospects. Jamie thanked him and saw him off, with one of the horses, a good knife, and a flask of whisky in payment for his services.

We buried the rest of the whisky, hiding it carefully some distance outside the village.

“Will they understand what we want?” I asked, as we remounted. “Is Tuscarora close enough to Mohawk for us to talk to them?”

“It’s no quite the same, Auntie, but close,” Ian said. It was snowing lightly, and the flakes clung melting to his eyelashes. “Like the differences between Italian and Spanish, maybe. But Onakara says that the sachem and a few others have a bit of English, though they mostly dinna choose to use it. But the Mohawk fought with the English against the French; there will be some who ken it.”

“Well, then.” Jamie smiled at us and laid his musket across the saddle in front of him. “Let’s go and try our luck.”

54

CAPTIVITY I

February 1770

He had been in the Mohawk village nearly three months, by the reckoning of his knotted string. At first he had not known who they were; only that they were a different kind of Indian than his captors—and that his captors were afraid of them.

He had stood numb with exhaustion while the men who had brought him talked and pointed. The new Indians were different; they were dressed for the cold, in fur and leather, and many of the men’s faces were tattooed.

One of them prodded him with the point of a knife, and made him undress. He was forced to stand nak*d in the middle of a long wooden house while several men—and women—poked and jeered at him. His right foot was badly swollen; the deep cut had become infected. He could still walk, but each step sent jabs of pain through his leg, and he burned intermittently with fever.

They shoved him, pushing him to the door of the house. There was a lot of noise outside. He recognized the gauntlet; a double row of shouting savages, all armed with sticks and clubs. Someone behind poked him in the buttock with the point of a knife, and he felt a warm trickle of blood run down his leg. “Cours!” they said. Run.

The ground was trampled, snow packed into grimy ice. It burned his feet as a shove in his back sent him staggering into pandemonium.

He stayed upright most of the way, lurching one way, then another, as the clubs struck him to and fro and sticks lashed at his legs and back. There was no way to avoid the blows. All he could do was keep going, as fast as possible.

Close to the end, a club swung straight and took him hard across the belly; he doubled over and another swatted him behind the ear. He rolled bonelessly into the snow, barely feeling the cold on his broken skin.

A switch stung his legs, then lashed him hard just under the balls. He jerked his legs up in reflex, rolled again, and found himself on hands and knees, still somehow going, the blood from his nose and mouth mixing with the frozen mud.

He reached the end, and with the last blows still stinging on his back, grasped the poles of a longhouse and pulled himself slowly to his feet. He turned to face them, holding on to the poles to keep from falling. They liked that; they were laughing, with high-pitched yips that made them sound like a pack of dogs. He bowed low, and straightened up, head whirling. They laughed harder. He’d always known how to please a crowd.

They took him inside then, gave him water to wash with, some food. They gave him back his ragged shirt and filthy breeches, but not his coat or shoes. It was warm in the house; there were several fires burning at intervals down the length of the long structure, each with its own open smokehole above. He crawled into a corner and fell asleep, his hand on the lumpy seam of his breeches.

After this reception, the Mohawk treated him with general indifference but no great cruelty. He was the slave of the longhouse, at the use of anyone who lived there. If he did not understand an order, they would show him—once. If he refused or pretended not to understand, they beat him, and he refused no more. Still, he shared equally in their food and was given a decent place to sleep, at the end of the house.

As it was winter, the main work was in gathering wood and fetching water, though now and then a hunting party would take him along to help in butchering and carrying meat. The Indians made no great effort to communicate with him, but by careful listening he acquired a little of the language.

He began, with great caution, to try a few words. He chose a young girl to begin with, feeling her less dangerous. She stared at him, then laughed, delighted as if she had heard a crow talk. She called a friend to come and hear, and another, and the three of them crouched in front of him, laughing softly behind their hands and looking sideways at him from the corners of their eyes. He said all the words he knew, pointing at the objects—fire, pot, blanket, corn—then pointed at a string of dried fish overhead and raised his eyebrows.

“Yona’kensyonk,” said his new friend promptly, and giggled when he repeated it. Over the next days and weeks, the girls taught him a great deal; it was from them that he finally learned where he was. Or not where, precisely, but in whose hands.

They were Kahnyen’kehaka, they told him proudly, with looks of surprise that he did not know that. Mohawk. Keepers of the Eastern Gate of the Iroquois League. He, on the other hand, was Kakonhoaerhas. It took a certain amount of discussion to determine the exact meaning of this term; he finally discovered, when one of the girls dragged in a mongrel in illustration, that it meant “dogface.”

“Thanks,” he said, fingering the thick growth of his beard. He bared his teeth at them and growled, and they shrieked with laughter.

One of the girls’ mothers became interested; seeing that his foot was still swollen, she brought ointment and bathed it, bandaging it for him with lichen and corn husks. The women began to speak to him when he brought them wood or water.

He made no attempt at escape; not yet. Winter kept its grip on the village, with frequent snows and bitter wind. He wouldn’t get far, unarmed, lame, and with no protection from the weather. He bided his time. And he dreamed at night of lost worlds, waking often in the dawn to the smell of fresh grass, with the ache of his need spilled warm on his belly.

The edges of the river were still frozen when the Jesuit came.

Roger had the run of the village; he was outside when the dogs began to bark and yelps from the sentries signaled the arrival of visitors. People began to gather, and he went with them, curious.

The new arrivals were a large group of Mohawk, men and women both, all on foot, burdened with the usual bundles of traveling gear. That seemed odd; such visitors as had come to the village before were small hunting parties. What was odder was that the visitors had with them a white man—the pale winter sun gleamed on the man’s fair hair.

Roger moved closer, eager to see, but was shoved back by some of the villagers. Not before seeing that the man was a priest, though; the tattered remnants of a long black robe showed beneath a bearskin cape, over leather leggings and moccasins.

The priest didn’t act like a prisoner, nor was he bound. And yet Roger had the feeling that he traveled under compulsion; there were lines of strain in an otherwise young face. The priest and several of his companions disappeared into the longhouse where the sachem held council; Roger had never been inside, but had heard the women talk.

One of the older women from his own longhouse saw him loitering in the crowd, and ordered him sharply to fetch more wood. He went, and didn’t see the priest again, though the faces of the new arrivals showed in the village, scattered among the longhouses to share the hospitality of their hearths.

Something was happening in the village; he could feel the currents of it eddying around him but did not understand them. The men sat later by the fires in the evenings, talking, and the women murmured to each other as they worked, but the discussion was far beyond the grasp of Roger’s rudimentary comprehension. He asked one of the little girls about the new visitors; she could tell him only that they came from a village to the north—why they had come, she did not know, save it had to do with the Black Robe, the Kahontsi’yatawi.

It was more than a week later that Roger went out with a hunting party. The weather was cold but clear, and they traveled far, eventually finding and killing a moose. Roger was stunned, not only by the size of the thing but by its stupidity. He could understand the attitude of the hunters: There was no honor in killing such a thing; it was only meat.

It was a lot of meat. He was burdened like a pack mule, and the extra weight bore hard on his lame foot; by the time they returned to the village, he was limping so badly that he couldn’t keep up with the hunting party, but lagged far behind, desperately trying to keep them in view lest he be lost in the forest.

To his surprise, several men were waiting for him when he finally limped into view of the village palisades. They grabbed him, relieved him of the burden of meat, and hustled him into the village. They didn’t take him to his own longhouse, but to a small hut that stood at the far end of the central clearing.

He hadn’t enough Mohawk to ask questions, and didn’t think they would be answered in any case. They shoved him inside the hut, and left him.

There was a small fire burning, but the interior was so dark after the brightness of the day outside that he was momentarily blinded.

“Who are you?” said a startled voice in French.

Roger blinked several times, and made out a slight figure rising from its seat beside the fire. The priest.

“Roger MacKenzie,” he said. “Et vous” He experienced a sudden and unexpected flood of happiness at the simple speaking of his name. The Indians didn’t care what his name was; they called him dogface when they wanted him.

“Alexandre.” The priest came forward, looking both pleased and incredulous. “Père Alexandre Ferigault. Vous êtes anglais?”

“Scots,” said Roger, and sat down suddenly, his lame leg giving way.

“A Scotsman? How do you come here? You are a soldier?”

“A prisoner.”

The priest squatted by him, looking him over curiously. He was fairly young—in his late twenties or early thirties, though his fair skin was chapped and weathered by the cold.

“You will eat with me?” He gestured to a small collection of clay pots and baskets that held food and water.

Speaking in his own language seemed to be as much a relief for the priest as speaking freely was for Roger. By the time the meal was concluded, they had gleaned a cautious knowledge of each other’s basic past—if no explanation as yet for their present situation.

“Why have they put me here with you?” Roger asked, wiping grease from his mouth. He didn’t think it was to provide the priest with company. Thoughtfulness was not an outstanding Mohawk characteristic, so far as he’d noticed.

“I cannot say. I was in fact astonished to see another white man.”

Roger glanced at the door of the hut. It moved slightly; there was someone outside.

“Are you a prisoner?” he asked, in some surprise. The priest hesitated, then shrugged, with a small smile.

“I cannot say that, either. With the Mohawk, one is Kahnyen’kehaka or one is—other. And if one is other, the line between guest and prisoner can alter in a moment. Leave it that I have lived among them for several years—but I have not been adopted into the tribe. I am still ‘other.’ ” He coughed and changed the subject. “How did you come to be taken captive?”

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