The Kill (by Yvonne)

Synopsis:  Understanding the boundaries set by the treaty.

Category:  Broken Arrow
Genre:  Western
Rating:  G
Word Count:  4,140


 

He stood ramrod straight to his full height, motionless. The long grasses, dried yellow with summer heat, rustled against the deerhide of his soft, calf-length boots, dappled shade flecked his bare skin in camouflage, the muscles of his back slowly rippling through his long hair as he drew back gently on the bow, fitted with the hunting arrow.  Jeffords crouched in concealment behind him, glancing down the slope to where the deer had lifted his head from the stream, muzzle dripping water, ears flicking nervously. Slowly, slowly, Cochise increased the tension on the bow, his profile carved in stone along the line of his aim.  Jeffords wondered why he waited, utterly still; then the point of the arrow moved slightly with the deer’s faltering steps.  The animal seemed to look right at him, as though he grew as naturally from the ground as a rock or tree, then, with a delicate, sudden whip!, the arrow vanished and Cochise lowered his arm and the bow straightened again.

Jeffords stared down the hill in utter astonishment and saw the fine legs of the deer thrashing briefly, then it was still.  Cochise sighed and relaxed.  The quiver of arrows slung across his back caught the bright sunshine as they started down to the kill.  Although he had been watching carefully, Jeffords had not seen the arrow fly nor heard a single sound to disturb the lazy drone of insects on this hot afternoon. The arrowhead had perfectly pierced through the windpipe, crushing it closed.  There was an obscene, bright smear of blood on the grass.  Jeffords sensed the Indian’s homage as he thanked the Great Spirit for this meat for his tribe.

Young braves burst from the rocks in excited whoops and swarmed around the deer to butcher it.  Nachise’s eyes glowed with pride and his irrepressible smile broadened as Cochise gazed fondly upon his younger son.  Tonight, with the sweet, hot juices from the roasted meat running down their fingers as they sat around the fire, there would be much bragging of the great chief’s hunting prowess and the fabulous kill shot of the supreme marksman.  His father.

Cochise looked soberly at Jeffords.  “This peace must not change a way of life,” he said, then suddenly he thrust the bow forward.  “Here, my brother, you try.”

Jeffords took it doubtfully, awed by the compliment; it was easily half his height, feather-light and smooth, fine and supple, crafted by Cochise himself.  The string was some kind of very finely twisted cord; when he pulled tentatively on it, the bow curtsied in response.  His heart leapt with unexpected pleasure.  Beautiful.  Cochise watched him keenly with inscrutable, dark eyes, then reached for an arrow from the quiver, the feathered tail carrying the special mark of his tribe.  The boys had stopped their work and watched wide-eyed, struck into silence, at the unique sight of a white man holding their traditional weapons. The weapons of their chief.  Cochise showed him how to fit the arrow and, standing behind him, guided his hands, drawing back the string, letting him feel the responsive current of tension as the wood arched gracefully.  Jeffords sighted along the shaft as he would his rifle, the arrow tip glinting in the hot sun.  His blood beat with a sudden, thrilling excitement, then Cochise relaxed the stance and the bow quieted once again.

The white man’s disappointment was so obvious the youths laughed good-naturedly.  Cochise’s austere face was pensive but his eyes were bright as he pointed away towards the wooded hills across the stream.

“See if you can hit that tree, Sheekasay” he said.

“Which one?”  Jeffords frowned, settling out his weight on the balls of his feet in anticipation.

“Any one,” Cochise answered seriously, and the braves howled with delight, the meat already bundled into hide bags.  They stood and waited expectantly.  There would be much talk around the campfires tonight.

Jeffords threw off his hat and jacket, lifted the bow again, acutely aware of his audience, fitted the arrow and selected his mark, the nearest tree across the water.  He drew back carefully, the fingers hooked in the string brushing against his cheek.  The arrow begged for flight and he released it with a loud twang.  It fluttered into the stream.  Nachise retrieved it and ran easily back up the steep hill to ceremoniously place it in Jeffords’ hands with a wide smile, then the group turned back to the stronghold.  They did not laugh, as this time it would have been considered disrespectful.  Jeffords watched them with a wry grin, true children of nature, wearing only leggings, dark skin gleaming in the sun, their black hair tossing about their shoulders as they broke into a homeward jog, superbly fit.  He turned to Cochise and held out the bow and arrow, mindful not to thank him.  Thinking in Apache…

Cochise looked thoughtfully at him.  “They are yours,” he said, “you try the Indian way.  I try the white man’s way.”

*****

There was laughter all around him in the balmy evening air as the deer was shared out in the tribe; they threw teasing looks at him, set chunks of tender stew in bowls at his side, asked him about the tree that had run away from the white man’s arrow.  Tiswin.  Strong, dark, bitter-sweet Apache beer.  It ran smoothly down his throat.  He basked in its glow; Chee refilled the bowl, re-enacting the afternoon’s events in his comical manner so the young men laughed again, eyes glittering in the firelight.  Jeffords had never known anyone to take such a childlike pleasure in stories as the Apache.  Content, with a full belly, he sat companionably on the ground with them, one of them, and so it was some time before he realized Cochise was missing.  At last, he rose stiffly, still unable to sit for long in the Indian’s cross-legged fashion, his eyes roaming through the camp, snagging on Taza’s habitually hostile face.   He stared back at Cochise’s elder son, locking his eyes, then Taza turned away disdainfully.  Jeffords took a turgid skin of the tiswin and his drinking bowl to Cochise’s wickiup, standing politely outside, watching the shadow of dancing flame.

Suddenly, the rug was flung back from the doorway and Cochise beckoned him inside, his face solemn.  He stood characteristically proud to his full height, arms folded.  At six foot-three, he was the tallest Indian Jeffords had ever seen, yet tonight even the spacious wickiup seemed barely able to contain him, such was his demeanor. The small fire in the middle of the beaten floor glowed upon his bare chest and shoulders and the religious charms around his neck, throwing dark hollows across the swarthy face. Jeffords sensed an unfamiliar distance, although he stood close enough to hear him breathe.

Cochise sat, folding himself lithely upon bright rugs.  Jeffords also sat, choosing a place directly opposite him, removing his hat and placing the skin between them.  Wait.  Do not speak.

Cochise stared sullenly into the fire, his glowing eyes already dilated with tiswin, his clear forehead beneath the headband sheened with sweat.  He grasped the skin and poured for them both.  He gulped deeply as though the potent beer was water from a mountain stream, his shoulders hunched through his long, grey hair, his face inscrutable, brooding.  Jeffords drained his tiswin, too quickly, aware of the heaviness in his brother’s heart..

“This peace does not go easily, I think,” Cochise said at last, reaching again for the skin.

“Each day the pile of stones grows larger,” Jeffords said, “for many days now there has been peace.  Tomorrow can be the same, and the next day and the next day.  Cochise has not yet had to remove a single stone to mark a day of battle.”

“This line the white man draws on the earth,” Cochise said contemptuously, still staring into the flames, “separates the Apache from all of his land, forbids him to walk freely where his grandfathers walked.  This is hard to accept.”

“The stream marks one edge of this line,” Jeffords leaned forward earnestly, keeping his voice mild, “this is easy for all Apaches to see.  You must not cross it.  This would break the treaty, and then soon Cochise would need to take a stone from the pile, I think.  This would be a sad thing.”

“The deer was killed on Apache land,” Cochise said as though in litany.

“Yes.”

“If the deer had been on the other side of the stream, then we could not have killed it.”

“No.”

“But it is the same deer,” Cochise argued, eyes heavy with scorn. “How are my people to understand this?  How are they to respect a treaty which depends on the whims of animals?  How can they respect a chief who argues for this kind of peace?”  His blood rose hot beneath his skin with passion and the familiar pounding began again in his head.

Jeffords studied him carefully, saw the pain in his eyes.  Tiswin had loosened the constraints and now the doubting of his own wisdom poisoned his soul.

“Cochise has made a treaty with the white man so his people will survive,” he said simply.  “Apaches can still walk the land, but not as far.  They can hunt and raise their children in safety.  But now your women need not weep because their men have not returned from battle.  Sons will have their fathers to teach them Apache ways and pass on the knowledge of the ancient ones.  And the white man thanks Cochise for this treaty where his word alone is law and offers grain and cattle in return for this line upon the earth.  I am brother to a wise chief; there is no glory in the needless death of a warrior and the starvation of his waiting family.  Both Indian and white man pay a price for peace.  It is a trading.”

“No family has ever starved in my camp.  We have always cared for our own; those with the least have always been given the most.  My brother knows this.”

Jeffords remained silent.

Cochise sullenly recalled the successful raids across the border, the booty, the praise of his people as he rode back into the stronghold, triumphant, his wounds as badges, remembered the warpaint, flaring his nostrils at its remembered, pungent smell.  He also remembered the Mexican and the ants that swarmed over his face, and his skin started with a cold sweat as he heard the screaming and the curse, and as he drank more tiswin, the demons were freed and raced, shrieking, around the dancing shadows on the domed walls.

*****

Night’s cooling hush settled within the stronghold as the people retired to their pallets and a midnight breeze harried across the wickiup floor, startling the glowing embers.  Jeffords reached across and laid his hand gently on the knotted muscles in Cochise’s brawny shoulder.  The Indian flinched in surprise and slowly lifted his head and gazed at him, as though he had forgotten his presence, and Jeffords saw the tiswin had died from his eyes, leaving only the sadness there of a haunted spirit.  “I see bad things in my brother’s face,” he said shrewdly, “ I think memories torment him.  Perhaps this peace will mean his own sons will not suffer these bad things.”  He was extremely tired and the alcohol had fogged his brain.

Cochise slowly relaxed.  “I will think on this,” he said. “Now you sleep on my pallet.  The tiswin has confused your feet.”

“And where will Cochise sleep?” Jeffords asked, immensely relieved to see the rugged features calm once again.

“I will not sleep.  My mind is full of thoughts, like knives.  Rest, my brother.  Tomorrow you must practice killing your tree.”  Cochise looked clearly into Jeffords’ eyes.  “It is on white man’s land.”

“And if I cannot, then must I return the gift of the bow and arrow?”

“No!” Cochise grunted in the deepening gloom, “you will keep trying and you will succeed.”

“Yes,” said Jeffords, smiling, “as will you.”

*****

When Jeffords awoke, Cochise was gone.  The doorway flap had been tied back and the cool, sweet breeze of dawn tousled his hair as he lay on the pallet, flushing the last of the ghosts from the wickiup.  As he prepared to leave and threw the heavy saddle over the Appaloosa, the sun bit through his shirt and leaded his eyes, starting a dull headache.  Too much tiswin.  The brassy sky above the stronghold cliffs heralded another hot, dry day.

Jeffords pressed his hat low over his fair hair against the glare of early morning and mounted with effort, feeling unwell, riding slowly from the camp with the familiar feeling of regret, back to the agency.  The young men who had teased him the day before nodded and smiled as he passed.  Taza watched him with the usual resentment.  Maybe one day….

Jeffords reflected on Cochise’s words as he cantered into the agency’s compound and felt increasingly disheartened.  Slung over his back was his bow, the single arrow tied to it with string. Honor and brotherly love alone bound the fragile peace, but for how long?   The responsibility of his friendship with Cochise exhausted him; he was shunned by the very white folk who praised him for getting the mail safely through Indian territory.  Now, they were suspicious of him, as were many Chiricahuas.  He thought of Taza.

Jeffords’ headache had escalated to a nauseous severity and the Arizona heat crushed him; it took all his strength to unsaddle and water his horse.  He wearily climbed the steps to the door, standing weakly in the shade of the long, low porch; a lazy breeze skittered the dust and clanked the tin of the feed store roof.

I am completely alone here …what on earth am I doing?

The silent room seemed alien to him after the smells and sounds of Cochise’s camp; there was no mark of him here.  Then he remembered the bow still slung on his shoulder and slipped it off, feeling the vibrant spring of some inner life in the nurtured, slender wood.  The neat bed in the corner was only that; his pallet with its woven rugs in the wickiup was a personal and private place of peace and rest.  Jeffords drew some water from the pitcher and drank deeply.  His belly cramped and he shivered.  Tiswin.  Never again.  He looked wearily around the agency, his aching eyes caught by the big box stored neatly in the corner near the fireplace.  It contained the records and forms and requisitions required to manage the reservation. Cochise managed the reservation….

What do I know about being an Indian agent, keeping books?  My best friend is simply an Apache.  What qualification is that?   The mail run, prospecting, scouting.  That’s what I do.

Sleep.  He needed sleep.  Suddenly, he felt ashamed of preaching to Cochise about lines on the earth.  The beautiful gift in his hands humbled him.  What was he doing? Later.  He would reason it out later.  He heard Cochise’s deep, thoughtful voice, “I will think on it….”.

Jeffords staggered to the bed and sprawled across it, head pounding….my thoughts are like knives… Now he understood.

He drifted and dozed and the shafts of sunlight lengthened across the bare, grey boards of the floor.  He was hot and restless, heard noises and whisperings, dreamed and started in sudden fear and longed for the cooling breeze of the mountains.  And then he felt stirrings in the air and heard the loud scraping of the door being softly opened. His head felt heavy and drugged.

Jeffords struggled up with enormous effort, propped on an elbow, his hair tousled over burning eyes that rebelled at the light.  A vaguely familiar form stood before him and when he shook his head to clear his vision, the bursting headache pounded fiercely again.  The Indian stood calmly before him in soft doeskin pants and calf-high boots, black hair across his broad shoulders, muscular and graceful, like his father.

“Taza?”

“I come for my father’s bow,” Taza said curtly.

Never before had Taza, always aloof and sullen in Jeffords’ presence, entered the agency.  This unreality could have been a nightmare except for the raging thirst that sent him stumbling to the water pitcher.  He could barely lift the ladle, so heavy it seemed.  He had to steady it with both hands.  Taza watched him stonily, black eyes flat and hard with contempt.  He made not the slightest move.

“It was a gift,” Jeffords said at last, his words slurred, sitting heavily at the table, trying to think, “I cannot give it to another.  It is a matter of honor, Taza.  I do not need to tell you about honor.  Your people have taught me.”

“You would do well to remember that, white man,” said Taza sourly, “My father, the greatest hunter and warrior of the Chiricahuas, made that bow.  No hand except his own had ever touched it.  He would have given it to me as the elder son.  You did not know this, maybe.”

“If your father asks, it will be returned to him.”

“One day I will be elected chief,” Taza said, his shoulders straightening proudly, still standing within arm’s reach of the bow and its single arrow. “Remember, you are not my blood brother.”

Jeffords sighed, stunned, defeated.  He lifted his burning face to gaze with detached regret at the young Apache.  All this will be for nothing…

“You will do what you will do, “ he said, automatically speaking in the Indian lilt of fatalism. Then he totally dismissed Taza from his mind, walking unsteadily to the door, the room collapsing on him, the heat squeezing the breath from his body.  He opened it with difficulty, concentrating on the task, aware that Taza had stepped forward and snatched up the bow and had turned to depart.  The late afternoon breeze chilled Jeffords’ sweat.  He lifted his face and looked directly into the eyes of Cochise.

*****

He held his rifle, his face harsh, glancing past Jeffords at Taza, standing poised, trapped, with the bow in his hand, then looked back at Jeffords, gripping his shoulder to steady him.

“There is sickness within you,” Cochise said. “Does Taza come to help the friend of the Chiricahuas?” He stepped past Jeffords and strode to his son, stopping a short distance from him, standing with legs braced and the rifle resting on the floor, hands around its muzzle.

“The bow of the Chiricahua chief does not belong in white man’s hands.” Taza simply looked at him and waited. “It is a thing of pride to his people.”

Cochise stood a moment longer, his dark eyes glittering hard as stones, mouth pinched white with bitter disappointment. Suddenly, he snatched up the rifle by its muzzle, and with all the gathered force of his strength and fury, swung it like a club, striking Taza a fearful blow across the head with the butt, sending him sprawling heavily onto the floor, blood bursting in bright drops from a crack along his cheekbone.  Jeffords, utterly shocked, was unable to move.  Cochise slowly lowered the rifle to the floor again.

Taza, trembling, slowly stood before his father, dazed, the blood dripping gently onto his chest.  He leaned the bow against the fireplace, his face unrepentant, then stepped around him and strode out past Jeffords, his jaws locked tight against rage and pain.  He swung lightly onto his horse and cantered unhurriedly from the agency.

Cochise remained motionless then sighed, his great shoulders broken.  He turned to Jeffords and grasped his arm, helping him back to the bed, his face set rigid.  Jeffords could only guess at the burning in his heart.  “The peace is hard for even the best of Cochise’s warriors,” he said carefully.  “There are many things to learn, difficult things to accept.  This will take many moons.  A wise chief knows when to forgive mistakes. If a wrong has been made against a man, then it is the right of that man to seek justice.”

Cochise stood regarding him impassively, considering. “You are sick.  I made the decision for you as I would for any other of my sick people. I chose leniency, as you would have done.”

Jeffords stared at him.

“Leniency?”

“Taza lives,” said Cochise.

*****

The lamp flickered ancient shadows on the walls when he awoke and the door stood open to the cool, night air.  Cochise sat at the end of the bed, relaxed in a chair, leaning thoughtfully on the rifle, watching him.  Jeffords had no idea how long he had slept. ”Welcome to my wickiup,” he mumbled and a wry smile crossed the Indian’s impassive face.

“The sickness has passed,” Cochise said.  He stood and filled the ladle with water.  Jeffords drank it gratefully.  “Now you are recovered.”

“Tiswin, I think,” Jeffords said, cautiously sitting forward, braced for the headache.  Pain had exhausted him.

“Not tiswin.  White man’s sickness,” said Cochise smoothly with the utmost certainty.  No headache, no nausea.  Jeffords could see the studded desert sky through the open door.  He swung his legs to the floor and stood up carefully.

“Now Cochise can return to his people,” he said, “they have need of him.”  Oblique words of thanks, in the Apache custom.  And see to your son….

Cochise also stood, picked up his rifle, glancing at the bow leaning against the fireplace where Taza had left it. Outside, he lifted his head to gaze at the flat, white stare of the moon, its light flooding the porch where he stood. “I know the things in Taza’s heart,” he said wistfully in his rich, deep voice, “for they are also in mine.  Many nights the voices whisper in my head and I cannot sleep; I watch the moon walk the sky, as now.”  He looked at Jeffords, deep lines etched beneath his eloquent eyes.

“We cannot know the future,” Jeffords said.  “But we have shown that the Indian and white man can be brothers.  This is a good beginning.” It suddenly occurred to him that he was the only white man Cochise trusted.  Perhaps that was the only qualification he needed to be Indian Agent.

Cochise turned towards his horse then halted, his face masked in shadows.

“Sometimes I wonder, Sheekasay, whether it would have been better for my people to die in battle, fighting for their land.  Only the children of my sons will know whether I have chosen the right path for the Chiricahuas.  This is a hard thing.”

Jeffords walked to him and looked up into his troubled face, lay his hand upon the powerful shoulder. “This is also a brave thing,” he said, “and my brother is not alone.”

*****

They were there, all around him, yet he was entirely alone, standing braced, drawing back slowly on the string, eye unwavering along the intended flight of the arrow.  Dried summer smells rose from the tall, yellow grasses that swayed gently against his legs.  Still further he tensioned the string, the bow arching gracefully, willingly, in response.

Now! The entire stalk and hunt hinged on this split-second decision.  The arrow flashed past his cheek and thudded into the deer’s chest, spinning it around.  The young warriors burst from their hiding places and swarmed down to it, leaping past Jeffords, the bow once again quiescent by his side.  They quickly killed his quarry and he was glad; he would never be an outstanding hunter.

He glanced up the hill where Cochise awaited him astride his pinto, silhouetted against the sky, and saw him raise his rifle in salute.  By the time Jeffords reached him, the others had left with the fresh meat, heading for the stronghold at a tireless trot.  The sun was hot and he felt his running sweat and was exultant.  Nachise had helped him practice endlessly, scolding, encouraging, and now he felt he had returned the compliment of the gift to his friend.  He took his horse’s reins and mounted, caught the pride in Cochise’s glance as they turned towards the camp together, the bow once again slung over his shoulder.  These last few days, he had felt incomplete without it.

For a while they rode in silence along the ridge, the sweeping valleys, skirted with boulders, falling away from them.  The sun polished the Indian’s copper skin, the horses’ hooves thudded pleasantly on the tough grass, the inevitable breeze began to stir at day’s end, pungent with the smells of hot dust and desert.  The sun and sky and earth soaked into Cochise and bound him to his beloved land. “Today, a white man, with a bow and arrow, has hunted for my tribe.  Perhaps many other things are also possible.  Tonight there will be feasting.”

“And tiswin,” Jeffords added.

*****End*****

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