“Get away!” she repeated, and then launched into a stream of Comanche that took him a moment to decipher.
“That’s as may be, ma’am, but I ain’t here for no child-stealing,” he replied. “I’m on my way to Osiah Hertzog’s. You probably know him, if you travel through these parts often. I need to stop for the night. The weather,” he said with a shrug, rolling eyes heavenward.
“Forgive me, Brother Owl. I didn’t recognize you,” the woman replied. “Take me instead. One Tree is still a babe yet, for all that he walks and talks. He doesn’t deserve to die so young. Don’t let the white man’s sickness take him from me.”
He stood over where she crouched, studying her for a long moment. Her buckskin dress was tattered along its hem and her buffalo robe thin in places. But even with tragedy upon her, she had twisted her fine dark hair into warrior’s braids and her dark almond eyes challenged his.
“I’m not Brother Owl. I’m William Robert Travis.”
She nodded. “You go in disguise. I understand. It’s not safe here since the whites came. Not even for you.” A cough followed by a thin cry sounded from the wikkiup, and she dove inside.
Leaving Bone to huddle with the woman’s horse hobbled on the lee side of the wikkiup, he followed. Nestled in another threadbare buffalo robe, was a child no more than three years old. He was covered with smallpox lesions, fever wracking his small body even as he shivered in the cold. His mother added a few more dung chips from her meager supply to the tiny fire and stroked the boy’s head.
The hut spoke of poverty and abandonment. Little food, few belongings. An old gun leaned against the wall, along with a nearly empty shot bag. Near it rested a cracked bow with a threadbare string. The dented tin pot near the fire was filled with water, not soup.
“How long has he been sick?” Billy Bob asked, squatting down beside her. The little boy on the makeshift bed looked up at him with bloodstained, unseeing eyes.
“Eleven days. Eleven days we have camped here by the Goo-al-pah.”
“He won’t make twelve,” Billy Bob said, forcing the words past the regret clogging his throat.
“Take me instead,” she repeated. “I am Paaka Pihi, Arrowheart, and I am not afraid to die for my son!”
Clearly not, Billy Bob thought, since she had stayed even as her band had deserted them with few supplies and no assistance. He moved to a spot near the entrance and sat down, looking up at her. Her face and hands and what he could see of her legs above her fur leggings were clear of lesions. Perhaps by some miracle she had escaped contracting the disease herself while nursing her sick child.
“I know you can do it, Brother Owl,” she said. “I have heard of it. You can take his illness, and give it to me.”
“Arrowheart, dear one. If I could, who would look after him when you die? Where would I find kin to take him in?” he countered, stalling for time.