Without looking at his young son, Titus Bass nodded and eventually whispered, "Yes, Flea. In this country, you must consider everyone a stranger."
His own words stabbed into the frozen air, hung frostily for but a heartbeat, then were ripped away by a sharp, sudden gust that stirred up skiffs of the dry, two-day-old snow around them, where they lay on a ledge of bare rock.
"Get me the far-seeing glass," the fifty-three-year-old trapper said, never tearing his eyes off the distant objects plodding like black-backed sow beetles across the everywhere-white ablaze beneath the brilliant winter sun in a far-reaching sky.
Without making a sound in reply, the boy of ten winters scooted backward into the stunted cedar, where he rose in a crouch and quietly padded away, the soft crunch of his thick winter moccasins fading in the utter, aching silence that made itself known each time the winter wind died here on the brow of the low ridge. It wasn't long before Titus heard his son returning. Flea went to his knees, then plopped onto his belly to cover those last few yards, crawling right up beside his father, their elbows brushing.
"You are a good son," he whispered to his oldest boy in the child's strongest language, Crow--the tongue of Flea's mother.
Brushing some of his long, gray hair out of his face, Titus again vowed that he should teach his children more, much more, of his own American tongue in the months and years to come. Down in the marrow of him he was growing more certain with time that they would need that American tongue before they became adults. His children would grow into maturity and give birth to children of their own in a world that Bass knew nothing of. A world very much unlike the world he had grown up in at the edge of the frontier, back there in Kentucky--essentially the same world his own father had grown up in, and to a great extent the very same life his grandfather had known before them. Right in the same place, on the same land both father and grandfather had tilled, sweated into, and prayed over. But . . . Magpie, Flea, and little Jackrabbit would soon enough confront a world their father knew nothing of.
He smiled as Flea held out the long, brass spyglass to him. "You are a good lad," he said, this time in American, slowly too, pulling out the three sections to the spyglass's full length.
"Lad." Flea tried the word out, then paused slightly as he strung more words together, "I--am--a--good--lad."
"You're about the best lad ever could be," Titus confirmed, again in American, then patted his son on the shoulder.
Poking his trigger finger through the small slot cut in his thick buffalo-hair mittens so he could fire his rifle with those mittens on, Bass swiveled the tiny brass protective plate away from the eyepiece and brought the spyglass to his one good eye. Blinked several times. Then peered through the long instrument as he slowly scanned the far ground below them until the image of the riders flashed across his view. Back he brought the spyglass, then slowly, slowly twisted the last of the three sections to bring the figures into better focus.
"Here, Flea--have a look for your own self," he said as he handed the boy the spyglass. When his son had it against one eye, Bass spoke in Crow. "Turn it slow, like this, to see the riders come up close in your eye."
The man rubbed the long, pale scar that angled downward from the outside corner of his left eye while he waited for the boy to scan the ground ahead with that strange, foreign instrument. He had worn that scar for some fifteen winters now, cut there in a last, desperate fight he had with an old friend whose right hand had been replaced with a crude iron hook.
As the youth panned across the landscape, Flea jerked to a halt and held the spyglass steady, breathless too.
Titus asked, "How many you count?"
Flea's lips moved slightly as he continued to concentrate his attention on the distant objects. "Two-times-ten, perhaps a little more."
"No, in American."
The boy took the spyglass from his eye and concentrated now on this new problem. Then he said in his father's tongue, "Ten."
"No," Titus prodded in a whisper, speaking his own native language. "That's the wrong American word. Two-times-ten. So in American, you say twenty."
"Why is this number more important than those riders down there?" Flea asked with a youth's irritation.
Bass sighed and said, "You are right. We must think on the riders. All those horsemen--do you think they are enemies?"
With a nod, the boy answered in Crow, "Just as you said, in this country there are many strangers . . . and strangers could be enemies."
For a moment he glanced at Wah-to-Yah, the Spanish Peaks, rising against the blue winter sky off to the west. Then he asked the boy, "Tell me what you think about those riders. Do you see the horses that don't carry any riders? The animals loaded down with packs? What of this bunch coming our way--should we hurry back to your mother and the rest of our family? Should we get them into hiding fast?"
For a long moment Flea regarded his father as if it might just be a trick question. Then he whispered, "They don't ride like Indians."
"Why do you say they don't ride like Indians, son?"
"Because, Popo," Flea said, using that affectionate name for his father, "the Indians I know--they ride in single file."
"So these horsemen, what are they?"
"Say it in American for me."
"White men," Flea said assuredly. He knew those words. His father was one. Half his blood and bone and muscle was white.
"You see the dog?" he asked his son.
"Look carefully--and you'll spot him."
After some moments, Flea finally declared, "That dog is white--I did not see him for a long time because of the snow."
"Big dog, ain't it?" he asked in American.
"Injuns have dogs near big as that critter?"
The boy shook his head.
"That's right, son," Titus whispered. "Dog like that lopin' along them horses--it's a sign them are likely white men comin' our way."
Over the last few agonizing weeks Titus Bass had grown all the more certain that he would see that every one of his children knew everything he could teach them about the white man. Not just his language, but his ways. The good and the bad of the pale-skinned ones who were trickling out of the East. Titus would have to teach them everything he inherently knew about his own kind so that his half-blood children would not get eaten alive when the mountains grew crowded with strangers.
They knew of enemies. Iskoochiia. The Crow had always suffered the mighty enemies who surrounded their Absaroka homeland. But those forces still to come would be even mightier than the Sioux or Cheyenne, stronger still than the powerful Blackfoot too. Titus Bass had seen a glimpse of what was on its way to these mountains. That one meant more were sure to come--wagons--every last one of them filled with corncrackers, sodbusters, settlers . . . farmers with their women and their young'uns along, bringing their plows to dig up the ground and their Bibles to pacify the wildness out of this land. Almost seven years ago he had watched that first wagon with its dingy-gray canvas top wheel into their final rendezvous on the Green River, the fabled Seedskeedee Agie, or Prairie Hen, River. It hadn't been a trader's wagon. No, that wheeled contraption did not turn back for St. Louis when the annual trading fair was over. Instead, the sodbuster took his wagon and family on west . . . making for Oregon country.*
A few more of their kind had already come at earlier rendezvous--but only a string of preachers and their wives, missionaries come to the wilderness to take the wildness out of this primal place and its Indians. Come to bring the word of the Lord to the red man--to civilize these warriors and their squaws, turn them into God-fearing, land-tilling white folk just like everyone back east.
Damn them, anyway! To make over this land into their own image instead of leaving it just the way it had been when Titus Bass himself arrived back in eighteen and twenty-five. This coming spring would make it twenty-two years since he'd come to the mountains. He could count each and every season--every summer and every winter--marked inside his soul the way a fella could peer down and count each year of a tree's life.
"And those horses under their heavy packs--like a white man. Indians pull travois. These are white men, Popo," Flea whispered now, in Crow, taking the spyglass from his eye again. "Just like you."
"No," his father corrected patiently. "Don't you ever believe that just because a man has pale skin like me, that he is just like me, son. That thinking is downright dangerous. Most white men aren't at all like me."
"Not the . . . the," and Flea sought for the word. "Greasers? They're not like you?"
With a wag of his head, Titus explained. "No. Them greasers come to kill all the white folks from America what come down to Mexico. Kill any women married to them fellas. Greasers come to butcher their children--just because them young'uns was like you and had some white blood in 'em."
"That why we ran away, Popo?"
Laying his hand on his boy's shoulder, Titus vowed, "I'll run anywhere I have to, Flea--to save my family."
"We run away from these strangers?"
"Not just yet," Bass answered, considering the steel-gray, overcast sky. "We'll have us a close look come sundown when they make camp."
As they slid backward on their bellies through the snow-dusted cedar and juniper, Titus did his best to pray that those horsemen weren't renegade Mexicans or the Pueblo Indians who had thrown in together and let the wolf out to howl in Taos. They had prowled the streets for any American, even anyone who consorted with Americans, then hacked them apart with their machetes and farm implements. Titus Bass got his family out of the village and into the hills with no more than moments to spare. By the time they were approaching Turley's mill just north of town, the murderous mob was launching its attack on the mill's inhabitants. Titus struck out for the foothills with his family, and that of his long-ago partner, Josiah Paddock.
But right from the beginning it was clear they couldn't hold out forever with their loved ones, hiding in the foothills, waiting for any roving bands of Mexicans or Pueblos to discover them as they went about hunting for something to eat, collecting wood to fight off the numbing cold one snowstorm after another. So Bass volunteered to push north alone, across the pass, pointing his nose for a trading settlement founded by former trappers, a place called the Pueblo. After losing his horse and subsequent days of foundering on foot, nearly starving and close to freezing, Titus had stumbled into a cluster of canvas tents--a camp of westbound sojourners who called themselves the chosen Saints of God, a party of religious pioneers wintering near the trading post until the spring thaw would allow them to continue west, on to their promised land reputed to lie somewhere beyond the high mountains.
After those Saints delivered the half-dead old trapper to the gates of the traders' stockade, Titus hurriedly delivered the terrible news of the Pueblo revolt. Wringing their hands in anger and frustration, the former mountain men argued over what to do. Although there weren't near enough of the old trappers to beat back the hordes of Mexicans and Pueblos on a rampage, the Americans nonetheless voted to start south immediately--if only to be close enough to keep an eye on the village of Taos and be ready when the army's dragoons marched up from Santa Fe to put an end to the riot and murder. But before their ragtag band marched out south early the following morning, they sent one of their own to carry word of the uprising and brutal murder of the American governor himself to Bents' Fort on down the Arkansas River.
Wasn't a man there in that cold, hushed, dimly lit room at the Pueblo where Titus had told his story could argue that William Bent didn't deserve to know how his older brother, Charles, had been hacked apart by the Taos mob--just as fast as a runner could get a horse on down the Arkansas to that big adobe fort with the news.
Louy Simmons volunteered to make that ride east while the rest turned their faces south for the valley of the San Fernandez and that tiny village of Taos where the icy streets had run red with the blood of Americans. Although weary and weak from his ordeal in bringing the horrible news, Titus turned right around and started south, leading Mathew Kinkead and the others who were setting off to right a terrible wrong. With his family and old friends hiding out among the hills above Taos, he could do no less. Then somewhere along that trail, in those long, cold days spent racing back to his family, Bass had decided against joining in the retribution. Not that the Mexicans and Indians didn't have a judgment day coming--be it a dragoons' firing squad or a long drop at the end of a short rope noose tied by the hands of those American mountain men.
But this simply was not his fight.
By the time he had watched his half-blood children lunging toward him through the knee-deep snow, Titus Bass knew he would start his family north for the country where life was his fight. The others, like old friend Josiah Paddock--they had a decided stake in this land where the American army had come to conquer the Mexicans, this land where those chosen Saints of God had migrated to wrest their promised land from an unforgiving wilderness. As soon as he finally held his Crow wife tightly in his arms, rejoicing at their reunion, Titus realized if he did little else, he had to get his family far enough north that they would be in country the white man did not want. Only then would they be safe from those dangers he did not begin to understand.
Some dangers he could comprehend: the hatred between the Crow and their ancient adversaries to the north and east. Dangers such as the great white bears that could tear a man apart in heartbeats, or beasts that broke your leg so you could not move and slowly froze to death--those were the challenges and risks a man could fathom. They were a part of the life he had endured for more than two decades already. Such were the dangers that he reveled in, the very risks he had come west to conquer. Titus Bass could understand those challenges that had been an integral, and daily, part of his life for so long. But he did not care to make sense of armies coming to take away an old way of life from the Mexicans and Pueblo Indians, nor did he make sense of those Mexicans and Pueblos who staged a bloody revolt to drive out all those who were different. But what made him seek to hurry his family north even faster was his inability to make sense of those religious zealots who had come to the mountains to make a place only for their chosen few.
Excerpted from Wind Walker by Terry C. Johnston. Copyright © 2002 by Terry C. Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.