Mary 'Joe' Hartford has been on the run from her family since she was twelve-years-old. Tending to stay away from white settlements for feat someone will figure out who she is, she has grown up in the wilderness with only her trusty horse Sheban to keep her company. Knowing it isn't safe to travel as a girl, she's always disguised herself as a man. What happens when an Indian hunting party stumbles upon her camp? Will she make it out alive? And how do they and the rest of their people react to her gift? Will she finally have a place to call home?
Chapt.1: Always Alone:
I was twelve and everything in my family was going great. Dad had just brought more cattle after selling the calves, mom was making good money with selling her jams in town at the General Store, Gram and Gramp had just moved in with us because they couldn't live by themselves anymore. My siblings and I had just gotten out of school and dad was going to teach me how to shoot a bow and arrows, said I was old enough to be able to keep my younger siblings safe in case of an injun attack. I honestly didn't think we had anything to worry about on the injun front; they hadn't been attacking, in fact they had actually helped during the hard winter last year. But dad said one could never be too careful nowadays.
I had to admit he was right on that front. It was also the summer that I learned how to fear for my life, but it weren't because of no injuns. Sure, I could have easily blamed it on them but I didn't have anyone to blame but myself. Gram had told me to keep it a secret, that if anyone found out, I'd be hung for it, but I didn't have a choice. My folks didn't see it that way. They were good Christians and when they learned that their eldest daughter was practicing the ways of the devil, they tried to have me killed.
Gram kept me hidden under hers and Gramps bed and told my folks I had gone off to the woods. Gramps stayed behind, said he was too old to go trampsing through the woods. Fortunately for me, he was on my side. Soon after they left, Grams pulled me out, made me dress in her brothers injun clothes and put a deerskin dress in a bag. They put food and water in the saddlebags, enough money to keep me tied over if I needed it, a sleeping roll on the back and then Gramps helped me up. He gave me his hat and told me to keep my hair hidden before handing up the bow and arrows. He told me to ride for Indian Country and to never look back. I looked back only once, at the bend, they waved once before heading back inside. I knew that I would never see them again in this lifetime. And I knew that my family would never stop hunting me. I got out and away from our little neck of the woods fast and true to my word, I never looked back.
It's been six years since I fled my home. It's been Sheban and me ever since. It's the way it has to be, safer for everyone if I'm on my own. I live in Indian Territory and keep to myself. I've become an avid hunter, skinning, cooking and jerking any meat I manage to kill. I don't stay in one place long enough. Over the years, I've run into a few people who think they know me and want to take me back to my family but they never got that chance. I learned that they put a bounty on my head and the word 'witch' was used on several of the posters but nobody was ever able to catch me.
Sheban whinnied as I came out of the small shelter I had erected a few days ago. It was about two days ride from an Indian village, though I didn't know the tribe. Sheban was laying down, her blanket covered in snow. I had tried to get her to sleep in the poorly erected barn-to (like a lean-to) but she wouldn't have anything of it so I'd put a blanket over her. This was to be out home for the winter as I knew nobody would be stupid enough to search for anyone in the dead winter.
I pulled the blanket from Sheban's back and hung it over the fire to dry. I replaced it with a dry blanket. Hearing a twig snap, my head shot up and I grabbed for the rifle I had bought about two years ago. A bow and arrows was okay but one needed more protection than that when traveling alone. I smiled when Shupta walked into the camp. Shupta had taken to Sheban after her mother had been killed by a bear. The doe was a great friend and companion to Sheban, though I worried about her so close to the village.
I grabbed a rope and tried on end around Shupta's neck and the other around Sheban's. They would keep each other safe while we were so close to other humans. Indians ate deer's and used their skin to make clothes; we needed to keep Shupta close for now. Grabbing my herb bag, I walked out of camp, my two companions following and headed farther into the woods. I needed some herbs for a tea and poultice. The tea was for me; the poultice was for a wound on Sheban's leg that she had sustained a few days before.
We didn't go far because I knew that there were hunting parties out and about but I didn't expect to run into anyone. I figured many of the Indians were in the village. I wasn't expecting to run into a young Indian girl who looked to be injured. I knew I shouldn't have intervened, but I couldn't let her freeze to death either. Little did I know what I was about to get myself into.
Chapt.2: Breath & Life:
An Injured Girl:
I walked cautiously up to the girl unawares that she was unconscious or that I was being watched. Once I'd assessed that she was alright, I wrapped her in the blanket I pulled from Sheban, lifted her up and headed back to camp. Horse and deer followed, intent on staying with their owner. Once back at camp, I moved inside my shelter and laid the young girl down. I removed the blanket I used as a door and put it over Sheban who had lain down. Shupta also lay down, not intent on being in the way.
I moved to the fire and set a pot of water over the coals. Once the water was hot enough, I added some herbs and made sure it was nice and steamed before pouring a cup. I moved back to the girl, to get her to drink the tea. After a few attempts, she drank freely. Once the tea was gone, I lay her head down and sat next to the fire, making a poultice to spread on her chest. I figured she'd been in the cold for some time and since her breathing was already labored, the poultice would ease her breathing. As I as making the poultice, I heard the sounds of many footsteps approaching. I ignored them mostly; the girl was sick, I needed to get her better before I dealt with anyone else.
As I stood up to go back to the girl, I saw them. They watched from the edge of the camp. Ignoring them again, I bent down next to the girl and started applying the poultice. Still unconscious, she knew nothing of what was happening. It was probably better that way. By the time I was done, she was breathing better. I set the bowl just outside the shelter and went to check on the tea. Grabbing another cup, I drank a little before grabbing another bowl and making another poultice. This time I went to Sheban and got her to stand up. When she was standing, I applied the poultice to her leg and then wrapped a bandage around it. I gave her some tea, did the same with Shupta, then drank the rest. When I was finally done, I turned towards the group of hunters who were now crouching at the edge of my camp.
They watched me for a few minutes longer before standing up and turning to leave. They obviously believed the young girl was safe with me. I didn't know what to say but knew that the girl needed her people. We would leave for the village in the morning, but for now, it was going to be a long night I knew I wasn't going to get any sleep, so I leaned against my shelter and kept the fire going. It would do neither of us any good if we froze during the night.
When morning came, I was up and about. I kept Sheban and Shupta tethered together as I didn't need Shupta wandering about and getting lost. Grabbing the saddle blanket and saddle, I saddled Sheban and then got to packing my gear. I put some of my preserves and the jerked meat into my front saddle bags, tied all the blankets together leaving one tied around Shupta, and grabbed the animal skins and slung them over Sheban's neck next to the front saddle bags. Grabbing my cooking utensils and pottery, I put them in the back saddlebags before grabbing my herb pouch. I slung the pouch around my neck and shoulders, put my sling of arrows on my back, secured both the rifle and bow to the saddle in their places, and then finally turned back towards the girl. My hat was lying next to her.
I grabbed my hat, put my hair up and shoved my hat onto my head then turned toward the girl again. I bent down and lifted her with ease before heading back to Sheban. I set the young girl on the saddle then pulled myself up. I maneuvered the girl onto my lap, turned out of camp and headed to the village. The girl had yet to utter a single word. I figured she was afraid of me, being white and all. I kicked Sheban into a trot and since Shupta was still tethered to her, the young deer did her best to keep up.
When I felt the young girl relax, I knew she'd fallen asleep. For many years I had lived near Indian villages, but this would be my first time within a village and I didn't know how they would react. The young girl would live, that much I was sure of. But what I wasn't sure of was how the villagers would react to being around me. For all I knew, I could very well be the first white person any of them had seen. I wasn't too keen on getting scalped for no reason whatsoever.
It took the better part of a day to ride to the edge of the village. I stopped about two miles out and made camp for the night. We would ride into the village during the day so as not to get myself shot. It was another sleepless night for me as I watched the young girl. I adjusted the blanket around her but couldn't get any sleep myself. When morning came, I once again saddled Sheban and got everything packed onto her, only this time I put some saddle bags on Shupta so the villages would know that she was a pet and not food. The young der seemed content to helping in anyways she could.
We headed out shortly after breakfast of tea and biscuits, which the young girl didn't really like, though she at them anyways. Once we were both on Sheban, I headed for the village. There was a rise just before the village. As I got to the top of the hill and looked down, I saw that the villagers were up and about. I didn't notice anyone looking up towards us, so I pushed Sheban forward. As I reached the village, a young girl in her teens stepped out of her tipi and noticed me. Her scream brought the villagers running towards us.
"Wasichu! Wasichu! Wasichu!"
I knew what that word meant. It was the common name for all the Indian tribes. It meant 'White person'; which meant that I was not welcome. I pulled Sheban's reins and she stopped. Shupta cowered silently next to Sheban and slightly under her belly. Before anyone could pull me from my horse, one of the hunters from the other night stepped up. In a rush of words, he told his people that I was a friend and explained what he had witnessed.
The young girl, having woken up at the sound of screaming, was pulled from my arms by a strong woman and taken away, most likely to the Medicine Man. The hunter grabbed the reins and pulled Sheban forward. I gave her a nudge and she started to move, forcing Shupta to move as well. When we finally came to a stop, we were outside a large lodge. It was then that I realized that more than one tribe was here but they were united under one chief. The hunter motioned for me to dismount and I did so.
A nod to a young man and my horse, deer and belongings were taken away. I was about to say something when English words were spoken.
"Do not be afraid, they will be taken care of. Your belongings will be taken to a hut for you to stay in. Please come in, there is much to speak of."
Not really knowing how to react or what to say, I did as I was asked. I sat where I was told and moved my hand up to my hat. As I pulled it off, my hair cascaded down, though not as bad since it was braided.
The Chief's Meeting:
The hunters must have told the chief that I dressed like a man for they were not surprised at my disguise but it was the Chief's first question among many. The translator was ready as the Chief began.
"Why do you dress like a man?"
"It is and always has been safer. If I dress like a woman, I could be attacked but nobody messes with me when they think I am a man."
"Good answer and very wise choice. How did you come upon our young Pretty Feather?"
"I wanted to gather herbs. It being winter, I ventured a little farther than normal. My horse, Sheban, was wounded a couple days back. I made her a poultice to help her heal."
"So you are a healer?"
"Of sorts, yes. But it's normally just me, Sheban and Shupta, her adopted foal. Shupta's mother was killed by a bear a few years ago. Sheban bonded with her and it's been the three of us ever since."
"And what of your family? Do they not worry?"
I snorted lightly before answering, "My parents have been hunting me since I was twelve. They thought my version of healing was witchcraft. Only my grandparents cared and helped me flee. I've been on my own ever since. I don't mean to be rude, but I really should be heading out soon. I don't stay in one place for very long, even after all these years."
"And how many moons has it been?"
"I'm eighteen now, so about six years. I was twelves in a half when I ran."
"Is it not lonely for you to be by yourself?"
"I've gotten used to it. I don't make friends for fear my birth family will find out, find me and kill me. It's just safer that way."
"Well, there is no need to leave yet. It is winter; you need to rest and so do your animals. You will stay with us for the winter. If you wish to leave in the Spring that is up to you, but it will do you no good to be on your own this winter. I thank you for what you did for Pretty Feather."
"You are welcome and thank you for your hospitality."
"No need to thank. You will be staying with my sister and her family. Pretty Feather is my sister's daughter. She will be honored to house you."
"Thank you. And please let me know if I can help in any way. I am a pretty good hunter."
"Growing up alone in the wilderness you would be. But there is no need to send a hunting party out just now. One has already come back with enough meat to feed the people for a few weeks. Go now, you must be tired. Our hunters said you stayed awake keep Pretty Feather warm."
"Thank you Chief. And yes, I could do with some rest and maybe a bath. Haven't had one since winter set in."
"Let my sister know, she'll show you where you can bathe."
With that, I bowed, grabbed my and was escorted from the hut. With no need to hide my hair, I let it hang down my back but put my hat back on.
Chapt.3: Winter Lodging:
Yellow Feather's Hut:
When we got to the hut, the young man went first and I followed, removing my hat as I went. It would have been rude to keep my hat on in someone else's home, that much I remembered from when I was a young girl. Men always removed their hats when entering a building. My eye flitted around the main room, landing on the little girl on the small bed against the wall. There was an older man bending over her with what looked like an eagle feather and something smoking in a bowl. I guessed him to be the Medicine Man.
I was brought back to what was going on at that moment by a small touch on my shoulder. They were speaking in their own language but I couldn't understand the,. Finally my escort left and came back with a young woman who I presumed was to be my translator as she started to speak.
"This is Yellow Feather's hut and you are an honored guest. Her husband Quick Fist has moved your belongings into the room adjacent to the main room. Your horse and deer are tied out back. Can we get your name?"
I am Ma…you can call me Joe, everyone else does."
"Joe is a man's name, for which you would need it on the trail. Here you are a woman and need your woman name."
"I was born Mary, but like I said I used the name Joe."
"Mary is a nice name. Your escort is called Little Bear. He is the Chief's grandson. Healing Hands is our Medicine Man. He says your medicine made Pretty Feather breathe better."
"It's just a poultice I've had to use a few times; her breathing should keep getting better if I keep applying it. Please ask Healing Hands and her parents if it is alright to do so."
"They say it is. You must be tired. Clothes will be set out for you so you can change. Yellow Feather will show you where to bather and clean your clothes once you are ready."
"Thank you, can I ask what your name is?"
"I'm sorry; my name is Snake Maiden. I've always had a way with charming snakes. Maybe one day they will leave us alone."
"Maybe; can I ask one more question before you leave?"
"Yes, you may."
"Since I am going to be here for the winter, would you teach me your language so I will not need an interpreter all the time?"
"Of course, Little Bear and I would be happy to. I will say English, he will say Lakota. I will see you later then."
"Thank you Snake Maiden."
"You are welcome."
Yellow Feather showed me to the room I would be staying in then left me to get situated. First thing I noticed was that my weapons were missing. They obviously didn't trust me that much or they would have left my weapons alone. The saddle, blankets and bags were in a corner, with my sleeping roll laid out on one of the sleeping racks. I was an Honored Guest, but they still suspected me of being bad.
I removed my sling of arrows, setting them under the sleeping rack, pulled out my brush, the dress my Grams had given me and grabbed a towel. A soap bar was wrapped and in my herb bag. Stepping out of the room, I nodded at Yellow Feather, who gave me a small smile. Seeing the towel, she stood and motioned for me to follow her. She showed me to where I could bathe then turned and left. I nodded my thanks before she left and proceeded to undress. So used to undressing in the wilderness, I felt right at home by the river.
Stepping into the water, I grabbed the soap and started to bathe myself. Not having anything for my hair, I used the soap bar that I used on my body on my hair as well. Ten minutes later and I was done. I grabbed the towel and dried off. I slipped the dress over my head, dried my hair and braided it. Grabbing everything up, I slipped into my boots and headed back to Yellow Feather's hut. Before heading inside, I went to check on Shupta and Sheban. When they saw me, Sheban whinnied and I pulled out a sugar cube from my herb pouch. I reassured her by scratching her forehead and patted Shupta's neck. They were still tied together and the Indians were kind enough to leave the blankets on. Turning around, I was met by Snake Maiden who smiled at me.
"We will get you some moccasins later. Your boots will work for now. Come, Healing Hands asks for you."
"Snake Maiden, why have my weapons and ammo been taken from me? As a guest, I believed nothing would be taken."
"All weapons are housed in the same room of each lodge. Your weapons were kept together but placed in the 'Weapons Room' as White's call it. Only warriors and hunters use weapons. They will be given back to you when you need them. Come, Pretty Feather needs healing."