One Tree (Part 3)


Click Here for Part 1: In Which Billy Bob Finds his Journey Interrupted

Click Here for Part 2: Wherein we meet Arrowheart and One Tree

If he could take illness from one and give it to another, it was the first he’d heard of it. He was young, and according to his sibling angels, peculiar. No one had mentioned this particular skill, but he had not yet met Brother Owl and knew nothing of his rules. He had no doubt that Grandfather Death, with his black robes and scythe, could do it. It was doubtful, however, that he would interfere in the work of a plague or death angel, nor would he approve of Billy Bob impersonating Brother Owl or interfering.

Her shoulders sagged and she sat down hard, burying her face in her hands. “There is no one, as you know too well! My husband died in battle with another band. His father and mother were killed by white raiders and my only sister was carried off by them. My band calls me cursed. My family is nearly gone. I have just One Tree.” Her eyes glittered with unshed tears in the firelight. “One of his uncles must take him in, even if they did not want the burden of a second wife and a nephew before. He was strong and smart before the White Man’s sickness took root in him.”

“You could bear more children,” Billy Bob said. She was young and attractive, by Comanche or Anglo standards. It was a mystery to him why she hadn’t found another husband. He looked her over again, and she felt the question in his gaze.

“Even were I not cursed, I am not good at wifely chores. My beadwork is bad. My jerky is hard. The hides I tan, not supple. I’m good at hunting, and at haggling with traders. And I am cursed. Only ghosts will live in my lodge, if One Tree dies. No one will miss me, Brother Owl.”

“Cursed? What kind of foolish talk is this?”

“Death follows me everywhere. No offense, Brother Owl, but you are a strong curse.” She turned back to One Tree, who called for her with a piteous little mewling sound.

Muttering under his breath, he slipped out of the wikkiup and went in search of more dung and perhaps a bit of wood. The night wind hit him like a wall of needles, pushing chill through his duster as though it were no more than shirtsleeves. He was glad for his superior night vision as he worked his way along the frozen bank. Only when his pockets were full of dung and his arms full of sticks and one fine bit of driftwood did he return to the wikkiup.

Arrowheart looked up from sharpening an arrowhead. “I’m almost out of shot,” she replied to his unasked question, her eyes flicking to her long gun against the wall, to his empty gun belt, and then back to her work. “I must go out at first light and shoot a fine rabbit,” she said, “and cook a fine stew so that One Tree may get well from it after I am gone.”

“Arrowheart.” He knelt beside her, wood tumbling from his arms. He put his hands on her shoulders.

“You can take him to his uncle. Oha Esi, my horse, will show you the way,” she continued, speaking over him, refusing to meet his eyes.

“Arrowheart.” He gave her a little shake. “It’s too late.”

She bowed her head over the arrow and whetstone in her lap, revealing nothing but the red painted part in her hair. Slowly, she turned her head towards the buffalo robe bed where her lifeless son lay. Brother Owl had spirited away the child while Billy Bob gathered fuel and Arrowheart worked.

Click Here for Part 4

One Tree (Part 2)


The River in Winter

Click Here for Part 1: In Which Billy Bob Finds his Journey Interrupted

“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.

Click here for Part 3

One Tree (Part 1)


da Vinci’s study for the Sforza monument

February 1848, North Texas

Freezing rain made icy ropes of William Robert Travis’s horse’s mane and clotted the trail’s ruts in front of them. The Canadian River’s red water had a white crust along the banks, and stalactites of ice clung to every bush. He would not make Osiah Hertzog’s place before nightfall. There were Bone’s hooves to consider. There was no point risking a strained hock or worse. Bone snorted, as if to agree, her breath foggy puffs shooting from her nostrils. A cold camp wouldn’t do for either of them. He tugged on the reins and Bone delicately picked her way off the trail. Down by the water they might find a cut in the banks for shelter and dung to build a fire. Hertzog could wait until morning to meet his Maker.

He rode on into the twilight for a spell, the world gone white and silent around him. As far as he knew, an Angel of Death could not freeze to death himself, but the cold still seeped into his being. When he took on corporeal form, he was beholden to the laws of the mortal universe. It was inconvenient, but sometimes necessary for his mission. He belatedly regretted the trip in front of him. However much the dramatic act of riding in from the west might please Osiah Hertzog middle-aged and dying of pneumonia, he hadn’t needed to start some thirty miles away from the house.

Truth was, William Robert, Billy Bob to his friends, wanted to enjoy the mortal realm for a bit. He’d forgotten about the wretched weather of the High Plains in late winter. He could go incorporeal and rematerialize closer to Hertzog’s ranch, but he needed to conserve his energy in case Osiah ran. He thought it likely. The man didn’t seem ready to die quite yet.

Bone snorted again, this time in warning, and Billy Bob looked up from his reverie. A thin plume of smoke rose up ahead of them. A campfire, a mystery to be solved. Who would be desperate enough to camp here, at this time of year? Bone picked up his interest and increased to a trot, then ducked and shied as a rock flew past Billy Bob’s head.

“Get away!” Another rock, launched from a small, dark figure, punctuated the command.

In a cut in the bank, much like what he hoped to camp in, was a small brush hut. It was a wikkiup of the sort that local tribes used for shelter when the weather was too warm for a hide lodge. Only someone very poor or suicidal would try to camp in one in winter. The wikkiup’s resident scrabbled on hands and knees, searching for another missile to aim at Billy Bob’s head.

“Stand, Bone,” Billy Bob commanded, and slid out of the saddle with a sigh.

He didn’t want to deal with a suicide. It would only complicate his mission with Hertzog. The man was very ill. It would be no kindness to make him wait, and suicide by wikkiup might take quite a while, even with the bad weather. Wondering what fate and the Maker wanted of him, he strode forward, ignoring the volley of clods and small rocks, until he was close enough to reach out and touch her, but still she held her ground.

Click Here for Part 2