Great Spirit (by Yvonne)

Synopsis:  Illness visits the camp, it will take a Great Spirit to heal.

Category:  Broken Arrow
Genre:  Western
Rating:  G
Word Count:  3,390


 

He rode away from the agency at an easy canter as the hot sun burned down the western sky.  The great, thrusting rocks reared above him, flaring orange in afternoon’s glow, as the big Appaloosa turned easily onto the winding trail upward into the mountains, hoof beats muffled now in the tough, stunted grass of the foothills.  A lazy breeze tousled the scrub, stirring scents of cooling earth and dust, heralding the welcome dusk of summer.

Jeffords drew rein on the upward climb, sitting relaxed in the saddle, gazing around him at the tough and broken country, mellowing in the softness of day’s end, the crags creeping grey mantles across the sagebrush.  He sighed and pushed back his hat, steeped in the familiar, curious feeling of aloneness and anticipation.  Here, he was on the reservation, on Cochise’s land.  Here, he shed the frustration and bigotry and hatred of his white man’s life, like lizard skin, and went on again, as only himself.  The big gelding pricked his ears at signs of home; Jeffords touched him lightly with his heels and cantered the final track, picking his way through the tight waist of rocks, suddenly in the stronghold.

The Apaches glanced at him and nodded as he rode slowly past the wickiups, no surprise at the sudden appearance of the white man on the great, spotted horse.  He watched for running children as he would in the streets of Tucson, remembering his surprise of long ago to find that children were the same everywhere, laughed the same, played the same.  He halted before Cochise’s wickiup, the sky now hardening to silver above the encircling rocks, the fragrance of approaching night stealing through the camp and mingling with the aromatic smells from cooking pots and leather and the dried, woven reeds of the great wickiups where a tall man could stretch up his hand and not touch the roof.  The guttural talk about him was content, families settled for meals, their movements peaceful and unhurried, soothing to Jefford’s soul, as always.  As he dismounted, a young boy stepped forward courteously to take his horse.  Jeffords smiled at him, careful not to thank him, then turned to the entrance of Cochise’s home, hung with a woven rug of brilliant colours, waiting.  Cochise would have been long aware of his journey.  But it was Nochalo who ducked through suddenly to stand before him, his gaunt face frozen in his habitual disdain for white men.  Jeffords stared at him in surprise and waited silently in the Apache custom.

The old shaman crossed his thin, sinewy arms and sucked in his cheeks, the early night carving inscrutable shadows into his hostile face.  His stance was unyielding.

“You have no place here,” he said at last in clipped barks, “Cochise lies ill and cannot see you.”

Jeffords removed his hat and looked at Nochalo thoughtfully, resisting the temptation to brush past the old man.

“What sickens Cochise?” he asked, “that his own brother cannot see him?”

“Fever,” Nochalo spat the word, face closed, “I have given him strong medicine.  Now the Great Spirit will decide whether he lives or dies. You go now.”  He turned in dismissal then stopped, for the white man with the blue eyes and tumbled, fair hair had settled on the ground, legs crossed in the Indian fashion.

“I will wait,” he said evenly, “You must beg the Great Spirit to spare Cochise. Tell my brother I am here and give my strength.”

“There will be no talking,” Nochalo said contemptuously.  Of peace….

Jeffords continued to sit impassively, the mildness of his gaze belying the turmoil in his heart.  He had learned much from the Chiricahuas, many times using such knowledge to his advantage,  and now his silence spoke volumes. Abruptly, Nochalo was gone with an angry flick of the blanket.  Jeffords waited anxiously; surely the tribe knew of its chief’s illness, yet the evening routine continued uninterrupted.  It was in the hands of the Great Spirit. He still struggled with many concepts of Apache philosophy…it shall be so….  This camp, his second home, was also another world where even time itself had a different meaning.  He was already rising in an agony of impatience when Nochalo reappeared, his features stony in the fading light.  For a long moment the flat, black eyes of the shaman pierced through to Jefford’s soul, then he stood aside, folding his arms again as though to ward off the white man’s presence.

Jeffords ducked under the blanket and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dancing light of a small fire in the centre of the wickiup. It reflected on the curved walls hung with Cochise’s bows and arrows and spears.  On a pallet near the fire lay the Chiricahua chief, eyes closed, his austere face shining with sweat, soft fur rugs upon his restless body.  His great chest rose with ragged breaths.  Jeffords strode to him and knelt by his side.  The wickiup was hot and contained, huddling around Cochise in his illness.  The air was pungent with burning herbs; the yellow smoke slightly irritated Jeffords’ eyes.  A small, clay pot simmered with medicine.

Nochalo had quietly entered, face taut, and stood near the doorway in the shadows in palpable disapproval.

“Cochise!” Jeffords spoke in soft urgency, gripping his friend’s clammy shoulder, frowning at the heat of his skin.  The Indian stirred and turned his head in recognition, opening glazed eyes briefly to gaze upon Jeffords’ face.

“Sheekasay,” he muttered, “darkness touches me.”

“Now you must listen to me,” Jeffords sat beside him, leaning forward earnestly, “it is not yet time for the great Chiricahua chief to begin his final journey.  He must become well and once again lead his people in this new peace with the white man.”

Cochise sighed wearily, his face sunken and aged, his features closed in resignation.  Only his unsteady breathing disturbed the silence.

“He will die maybe,” Nochalo said emotionlessly.

*****

They had ridden from early morning into the spiralling heat of the day, finally stopping by Apache Wells, still some hours from the stronghold, where they rested the blowing horses and cooled them before letting them plunge their muzzles into the sweet water.  Jeffords sat back gratefully in the shade after refilling his canteen, watching the haze shimmering from the rocks, anxiety keeping him silent.  Dr. John Farrell unslung his medical bag and walked over reflectively.

“Don’t be too hopeful, Tom,” he warned, “I can only do my best.  It’s quite a responsibility you’re placing on me.  What if Cochise dies?”

“Then we will be at war again, back where we started,” Jeffords replied as Farrell eased himself wearily onto the dappled ground, “those Apaches are kept in check only by Cochise’s iron control. Make no mistake, John, no-one else could hold them.  For the warriors it’s a question of pride, losing a way of life.  Many would sooner die in battle than live on a reservation.  And I will have lost my best friend.”

“Well,” Farrell smiled wryly, “that makes me feel better.”

Jeffords stood suddenly, gazing ahead to the mountains that reared a great, ragged spine against the bleached sky.

“We’d better ride,” he said, scooping up the Appaloosa’s reins, then he flung a boyish grin at the doctor, “don’t worry, we’ll take it easy.  It’s not the horses I’m worried about, but your old bones!”

*****

They had pushed the horses as hard as they dared, turning into the stronghold with relief and a raging thirst, the sun flinting gold from the canyons below as the evening breeze lifted the heat.  Once again, Nochalo appeared from Cochise’s wickiup, mouth compressed in habitual disapproval, although he knew the white doctor was expected, had tended their sick people before.

“I am sorry to hear Cochise is ill, Nochalo,” Farrell greeted him politely, dismounting, “I hope to work with you to make him well again.”

Jeffords translated, but the shaman made no reply.

Nachise appeared by Jeffords’ side, silent as a shadow, holding a skinful of water.  His eyes glowed eloquently as he offered it, then he turned and walked quickly away.  Farrell gratefully accepted it and drank deeply, but Jeffords had already gone into the wickiup and was kneeling once more by his friend.  Anxiously, he scanned his austere face.

Farrell joined him and studied Cochise intently for a moment then drew off his coat.

“My God, Tom,” he muttered quietly, “it’s hot in here.”

“Don’t touch anything,” Jeffords warned, “Nochalo’s medicine is everywhere, the herbs and potions.  He is already annoyed at our intrusion.  I think it would please him if we angered the Great Spirit.”

“I thought he wanted our help.  How did you manage to get me in here?”

“Being blood brother to the chief has certain advantages,” Jeffords said dryly, moving back to give Farrell more room. “Well, John, what is it?  Can you help him?”

“Cochise certainly has a high fever.  We must reduce that immediately.  We must get him to drink as soon as possible.  Are you sure of the water quality around here?  Let’s get these rugs off.  And put out that fire.  Can you get some water and cloths?  We must cool him down.  Get that rug off the doorway.  We need fresh air.  Let’s prop him up to ease his breathing.  Do they have such things as pillows?”  Farrell worked quickly as he spoke.  Nachise, hovering outside, was sent for the water, and on returning, seized the opportunity to duck past Nochalo with eyes averted, tense with worry, to look upon his father at last. Jeffords took the bowl from him and smiled encouragingly.  The boy moved into the corner and sat silently, watching.

“Maybe we can give the Great Spirit a hand,” Farrell said.

*****

“Tom!” Farrell was shaking him roughly, “come quickly!  I can’t speak damn Apache!”

Drugged with exhaustion, unable to even remember how he came to be asleep in his own lodging, Jeffords stumbled from his blankets into the pinching cold of the night.  The studded darkness was beginning to melt into grey.  He ran after Farrell into Cochise’s wickiup and stopped short, heart hammering with apprehension.  Cochise was stirring, struggling to rise.  Nochalo sat at his post just inside the entrance, carved of stone.  What will be, will be….  Nachise had moved closer to his father and sat with fearful, wide eyes fixed on the white men, catching their urgency.

“Get him up!” Farrell urged, slopping water clumsily from the skin into a bowl. Jeffords spoke rapidly to Nachise and together they lifted Cochise from behind then Jeffords supported him against his chest.  Although the fever had broken, Cochise’s body sagged heavily in his arms.  His dusky skin was rough and his grey hair streaked with sweat.  His eyes flickered briefly as Nachise grabbed the bowl and offered it to him.

“You must help the Great Spirit heal you,” Jeffords said and watched with relief as Cochise reached for the brimming water and gulped it deeply, his hands trembling with effort.  Take my strength, my brother…

“Sheekasay,” he said, “I will rest now.”

*****

Dawn light pooled beneath the doorway, a tracery of silver on the beaten floor.  He stared at it absently, smelled the fragrance of damp earth and trees and rocks on the cool air, listened to the steady breathing of Cochise in restful sleep.  Nachise had gone to seek Taza with joy. Except for the occasional soft footfall of deerhide boots, the camp was silent.

Jeffords moved stiffly, watching this man who called him brother.  His death would have been tragic for the infant peace which met with such hostility and scepticism from both red man and white; renewed war would have been inevitable and would have meant the annihilation of the Chiricahua people, the destruction of this place which fitted him so comfortably and soothed the otherwise inescapable restlessness of his spirit. Cochise’s loss would also have been an insurmountable personal tragedy; he was the only person Jeffords loved.  The thought of what might have been flooded him with prickles of horror.

Farrell slept like the dead in Jeffords’ own wickiup, having been under enormous stress; had Cochise died, the Indians would have blamed him, although Nochalo had haughtily retired to await the decision of the Great Spirit.  He had treated the illness symptomatically, his ministering made all the more difficult since he could not talk to his patient.  He had given a sedative to induce rest in the strong and powerful body, giving nature a chance, keeping the fever in check and coaxing Cochise to drink at every lucid opportunity.  The illness itself remained a mystery and seemed simply to have run its course.  Nochalo announced the Great Spirit had spared the Chiricahua chief.

Nachise had returned to remain close to his father and Jeffords paid him the compliment of ignoring him.  The boy had not yet mastered the steely reserve of his brother, Taza, whose own face remained an inscrutable mask in the Apache custom. Nachise’s expressive eyes, so like his father’s, glowed with appreciation at this oblique permission to remain.  Thus, he was aligned with Jeffords for the rest of his life, in trust and respect.

The day was growing brighter; already the baleful eye of the sun was blazing over the canyon rim, flooding the stronghold crags with lemon and pink.  Jeffords stood and stretched, gazing down upon the relaxed, rugged features framed within grey hair, wondering at the enigma that was Cochise, a man of violence, passion and great dignity, quick to both anger and generosity, wise in decision, ruthless in punishment.  Thus, he maintained a unique rule over his people which, however harsh, was motivated by love as he strove for a peace with honour.  Each sunrise, another stone had been added to the growing cairn marking the days without bloodshed; Cochise nurtured it like a living plant, and so it grew.  Jeffords had added the stone for him yesterday, aware Taza watched the small ceremony with mixed feelings.  Memories of betrayal soured his mind.

Nochalo suddenly entered, a steaming bowl of deermeat in his hand.  He placed it before Jeffords then sprinkled a small pouch of crushed herbs around Cochise’s head.  He did not look at the white man.  He pulled a skin from the discarded pile and covered Cochise with it.  Jeffords pulled it up higher across his chest.  Nochalo watched grimly, then left, satisfied.  Perhaps one day, the ancient wisdom of the Indian medicine man and the craft of the white doctor would be combined.  Jeffords dwelled wistfully on this pleasant thought as Cochise simply opened his eyes and stared at him.

“Water,” he said.

*****

They walked slowly together.  The smell of his camp, the sun and air and mountains, throbbed through his being, burgeoning his strength; the breeze that flowed around his bare chest cleansed him and dried the fever sweat in his hair.  He regarded the rock Jeffords had placed the previous day on the cairn with deep satisfaction, and now bent to select another and set it on the pile.

“Many days now,” he said, “the treaty holds.”

Then he turned and walked through the orderly rows of wickiups, touching the children’s glossy heads lightly as they ran and ducked past him.  Our hope is our children, our survival as a people. He was greeted warmly, respectfully by the men and the women looked up and smiled at him with his white brother beside him, and Jeffords did not feel out of place with them, encompassed in their acceptance and approval.

Cochise headed purposefully out of the stronghold, his breathing one again laboured, and although Jeffords tried to stay him, he was determined to climb the tumbled rocks to the great boulder where they had often stood together, talking, above the expanse of Apache territory below.  Here, Cochise’s spirit soared like the great eagles over his home, over the tors and slanting cliffs, the plunging canyons, the wooded, winding valley where, far below, the stream winked in the sun through interlaced branches.  His heart swelled with love and pride for his land, his home, tough and resilient, like the Apache; steadfast and timeless.  From here he could not see the place of the invisible line the white man drew on the earth which marked the reservation.  The bitter taste of rancour rose in his mouth.

The tremors of effort rippled from his body as he rested.  His breathing gradually slowed as he lifted his head gratefully into the soft breeze swarming up the mountainside.

Jeffords waited quietly, accustomed at last to the Indian’s concept of time.  He remembered the utter frustration in the early days of their friendship when burning questions had tumbled in exasperation in his mind, while the great chief had seemingly ignored him, gazing silently over this rolling Arizona vista, his spirit sweeping over this home bequeathed his people by many grandfathers, ignoring the restlessness of the white man beside him, his mind steeped in the things of the earth and sky.

Jeffords compressed his lips to remain silent in familiar struggle as Cochise continued to stand there, tall and straight and graceful, legs braced, arms folded.  Sometimes Jeffords suspected his blood brother tested him, and covertly studied the serene profile, the high, flat cheeks, the clear forehead beneath the red brow band, the dark, eloquent eyes and generous mouth, now relaxed in a secret smile.  The breeze swept the long, greying hair from his bare shoulders.  If only the Tucson folk could see him now, Jeffords thought, broad as an oak, amulets around his neck and muscular arms.

“The Great Spirit has restored me to my people,” Cochise said so suddenly that Jeffords started in surprise.

“It was Dr. Farrell,” Jeffords argued mildly.

“Then the Great Spirit wished it to be Dr. Farrell,” Cochise replied smoothly.

Jeffords laughed.

“I wish the Great Spirit bade Nochalo to like me,” he said wryly.

“Nochalo does.”

Jeffords laughed again, enjoying their rare banter.

“Dr. Farrell travels in safety,” Cochise said, continuing to stare across the landscape.

“So I told him,” Jeffords followed his gaze, “he is bewildered to be under the protection of Indians, I think.”

“The Great Spirit is wise.  Farrell has been in my camp and will now say good things of the Apache in the white man’s fort.”

“Yes,” Jeffords said seriously, “It was therefore a good thing you almost died.”

Cochise turned to glance sharply at him at last with the superstitious dislike of the Apache for any mention of death.  He met a guileless gaze, then Jeffords’ good-natured grin disarmed him.   Cochise suspected his blood brother teased him.

“Nachise respects you also, Sheekasay, and is grateful for what you have done for me.  You will guide him when he is chief, I think, when I am no longer.”  Cochise looked earnestly into Jeffords’ blue eyes.  “He now trusts you as I do.  I have many more years than you, my brother, but my heart is now easy, for you will be at his side, as you have been by mine.  The peace must continue, or the Chiricahuas die.”

“Cochise will walk the earth for a long time yet.”

“Until the Great Spirit decides otherwise,” Cochise answered calmly.

Jeffords noticed the grey pallor of weariness in the strong-boned face and turned away reluctantly.

“I must return,” he said.  So you can rest again in your wickiup.

*****

The Appaloosa stamped impatiently and shook his mane as Jeffords swung into the saddle, the leather creaking pleasantly with his settling weight.  Cochise stood beside him, his hand gentle upon the horse’s neck to quieten him, his eyes warm with affection so that the years fell away from his face.

“Now you will stay well, my brother,” Jeffords said.

“Maybe.”

“Now you know that other white men can be friends to the Chiricahuas, like Dr. Farrell.”

“Maybe.”

“You will place many more stones to mark the days of peace.”

“Maybe.”

Cochise stepped back and raised his right arm.  Jeffords leaned down to grip it strongly in customary farewell.

“You will come again soon, Agent Jeffords!” Cochise declared in his deep, arresting voice.

Jeffords smiled broadly, pulling down the brim of his hat against the hot sun.

“Maybe,” he said, “if it is the wish of the Great Spirit.”

 

*****End*****

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