Pioneers and Indians
The bedsheet scooped the startled grasshoppers from the dry grass. They leapt into the air as the sheet bore down on them, hitting it with a snap. Then, scrabbling for purchase on the stained rayon, they tumbled into the fold at the bottom. The boys' father had bought the sheet at a variety store in Lansing, Iowa for the specific purpose of grasshopper harvesting. The boys themselves never slept in sheets while they were with their father.
"C'mon, Daniel! You're laggin'!" shouted Fred, the elder of the brothers. He ran faster, tugging his end of the sheet. "The chickens ain't fat enough yet!"
Daniel laughed, his eight-year-old legs stumbling to keep the sheet taut between them. The sheet’s bottom edge slid through the grass with a hiss. Grasshoppers leapt from cover, only to fall into the billowy trap.
The tall grass grew on the Kentucky side of the river, between the sandbar and the pines. For almost two weeks they had harvested the same area with no discernible effect on the bug population. Daniel imagined insects swarming out of the ground at night to replenish their kidnapped comrades, an inexhaustible supply of protein for their small flock of hens.
"That's cool, Daniel. Let's dump it."
In a practiced maneuver, the boys gathered the ends of the sheet and shook it out into a five-gallon bucket rigged with a funnel. They had appropriated the bucket from a bakery dumpster in the Quad Cities. Heavy use and weather had worn away most of the labeling, but Daniel could still read the words "Whole Cherry Filling." A cartoon of a baby falling into a bucket adorned the other side, with the warning "Aviso! Ninos pueden caerse en un cubo y ahogarse." Grasshoppers filled a third of the bucket, scratching and leaping futilely within the plastic.
Fred shielded his eyes and looked at the Missouri bank and the low sun. "We should be heading back soon. Dad'll be expecting us." He took the bucket in one hand, and Daniel's hand in the other. Fred neared the age that the previous century would have rewarded with the privilege to drive an automobile, but he was just young enough to hold his brother's hand.
It was late in the season, and their afternoon shadows stretched long and red along the ground. It was a melancholy time of year, the last days of summer freedom before they headed downstream to their mother and the weaklings of the city.
They walked back along the edge of the sandbar, a desert of dead grass and driftwood four miles long. A tugboat churned slowly past, pushing eighteen coal barges to the power plants of the Midwest. Soy-diesel exhaust wafted off the smoke stack, stinking of French fries. Fred and Daniel waved, and the pilot responded immediately with a horn blast. The tug crews were always spying from the pilot house, bored by their long months on the river. At night, they shined their spotlights on the camp, waking up the boys. Their dad said the crews meant no harm by it. Weaklings were naturally curious about the People.
Fred spotted the tracks before Daniel. He knelt to the sand to examine the two inter-weaving grooves. "Looks like a mountainbike."
"Is it one of us?"
Fred sneered with adolescent superiority. "You ever hear of a weakling pedaling their fat butt around? There isn't a road within miles of here."
Sometimes they saw locals tear around the sandbars on antique ATVs. The weaklings would save up months of ethanol credits, or painstakingly distill their own fuel, for an hour or two of fun. But Daniel had never seen a weakling come to the river under his own power.
"Let's get back to Dad." Fred uncoiled his sling and put a hefty ball bearing in the pocket. "Just in case."
They ran for camp. Daniel held his hands flat and aerodynamic like his brother had taught him. His bare feet cratered the sand like meteors hitting the moon. But still Fred pulled ahead, the sling and bug-bucket barely holding him back.
"Fred! Don't leave me! Run slower!"
The older boy ran sideways for a few paces, laughing. "Don't be such a whiner! Run faster!"
"I can't!" The sprint made Daniel’s breath ragged. "You're bigger than me!"
Fred fell back, slapping Daniel's fanny with the bug-sheet, laughing as his brother fought with frustrated sobs. "C'mon, Danny! It's just a little way more."
The camp grew in detail as they approached, swelling from a dark smudge on the vista of sand, into a clutter of equipment. Their houseboat lay anchored just offshore in a shallow slough. Their father had built their home years ago by welding scrap-metal pontoons to an aluminum deck. A hut covered two thirds of the boat, the roof devoted to solar panels and tomato trellises. The camp consisted of plastic-tarp shelters, buckets of food and provisions, a solar reflector that powered the water distillery, and a collapsible chicken-wire coop with a dozen fat hens pecking at the sand. The previous grasshopper harvest dried between a pair of screen doors they had pried from a flooded mobile home.
At that time of day, their father would normally have exploited the last of the solar power for his contract work. He had a project with a bio-informatics company in Pittsburgh that required a lot of net time. That afternoon, he spoke to their visitor, the woman with the mountainbike.
Daniel almost tripped in surprise. On the river, women were somewhat less common than fifty-pound catfish.
Fred discretely coiled the sling before his father saw him brandishing a weapon in front of a guest.
Their father nodded as his children approached the campsite. "Boys, you're back. This is Sunset MacClaine. Sunset, these are my boys. Fred is the tall one, and the little one hiding behind him is Daniel."
Daniel tugged at his brother's sleeve, whispering, "I'm not little."
Sunset MacClaine was no weakling. A riot of ritualized scars decorated her brown arms. Dreadlocks cascaded down her back like snakes, a hemp cord bundling them into a rough ponytail. Casually, she leaned against the frame of a mountainbike covered in stickers and pannier bags. Even from the edge of camp, Daniel could smell her patchouli and hot sweat. She gave the boys a polite nod.
Their father leaned forward in his deckchair, scratching his beard. "So. There's no way to talk them out of it, Sunset? I can't believe they won't listen to reason."
Sunset shook her head. "Nope. That rant you posted on Tribalnet got them pretty livid. I'm not sure if I would have called a belligerent warrior cult a 'bunch of regressive isolationists.' At least not on a public forum."
"We could break camp."
"And then what? Ask the weaklings for help? Running will only make them madder. If their hackers can track you this far, they can find you as long as you make posts. You want them to silence you?"
Fred looked from one to the other, flustered and confused. "Who's mad? What's going on?"
Sunset gave him a sympathetic look. "It's the Ghost Dancers. They don't like something your dad said. They're on the warpath."
Fred pinched his brother's arm and spoke quietly, almost reverentially into Daniel's ear. "Indi'ns, Danny! She's talking about Indi'ns!"
"Well, that's it then." Their father shared none of Fred's excitement. "I'll have to call in some of my people. Jacobi's family is just down the river a ways. And I think there's a caravan in the Shawnee forest."
"Oh, you don't have time for that. You can expect the attack sometime this evening. I ran across the war party up in Cairo." Sunset correctly pronounced the name 'cay-roe,' instead of the way a big-city weakling would say it. "They told me to warn you. They're probably just over in that tree cover."
Both Daniel and Fred glanced at the distant shore, but they only saw a blur of green.
"It's their whole council and a few flunkies. Say ten--," Sunset hooked her fingers into sarcastic quotes, "--'braves.' They promised not to use firearms or edged weapons. Just war clubs and coup sticks."
Fred uncoiled his sling, the ball bearing still in the pocket. He held the thongs in his right fist, swinging the weapon like a pendulum. "We can take them. Can't we, Dad?"
"You're going to stay out of this, Fred," his father snapped.
"I'm serious, son. You're a non-combatant. I can't risk you getting hurt over this." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes in frustrated resignation. "What a stupid way to resolve an argument. Now, Fred, hop into the boat and bring me the spare paddle. The good one."
"Okay, Dad." Fred scowled but he obeyed. He dropped his gear and took off at a run.
Sunset laughed dryly. "You going to paddle them?"
"If Musashi could kill Ganryu with an oar, then I think I can at least knock some blowhard silly with a paddle."
Sunset carefully lay her bike on its side. "Well. Then I'll have to get some weapons myself. Do you have a saw I can borrow?" At a look from Daniel's father she added, "I can't let the greatest social engineer since Plato go it alone, now can I?"
"I just told some folks to live in the country." Daniel's father smiled wryly. "But thank you, Sunset. I’d be honored to fight with a ranger."
Daniel had heard of the rangers. They traveled the country from coast to coast, helping the People who got in trouble with the weaklings. They lived by a strict code: no more possessions than they could carry, no home but the road, and no master but the cause. Rangers took an oath to never sleep beneath a roof until all the People were free.
"No, sir. It would be my honor." Sunset clasped her hands behind her back, pulling herself into a martial posture. "I know what's at stake. The People must be united in the coming conflicts. We have to work out the differences with the Ghost Dancers by any means possible."
Daniel was dispatched with the Swede saw to gather the evening's firewood and given instructions to help Sunset find a pair of clubs. They crossed the slough to an island with an ancient brace of pines. Daniel steered the inflatable with the lesser of the spare paddles. Sunset reclined against the bow, a toothpick-thin ganja cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. She assumed an air of resplendence like Cleopatra in her barge.
"What did you mean by 'social engineer?'" Daniel asked when he figured they were far enough from shore that his father wouldn't overhear.
"You really don't know, Daniel?"
He shook his head, biting his lower lip. His father never talked about his work, or the things he did on the internet.
"Ah, well. We're both here because of your father. To some extent." She gave him a languid wink. "You see all this out here? The land's empty. Almost all the weaklings have left. They just drained away into the cities or into their media. Your father was one of the first to recognize rural space as a new frontier. Or a recycled one at any rate. A place where the People wouldn't have to work until they died to maintain their illusions and the leisure of the few." She gave him a grin that broke the rhythm of Daniel's paddle stroke. "I like the aesthetic of your camp, by the way. Very minimal. What do your Birthday cards look like, Daniel? Duct-tape and bark?"
It took a few moments for Daniel to figure out what she meant. "Dad says we shouldn't buy a lot of pretty things, you know? Mom disagreed. That's why she lives with the weaklings. Down in the city."
Sunset smirked as she drew from the ganja. "Some people are like that."
Daniel tied the inflatable to a gnarled root, and they climbed the steep bank. Shadows like twilight brooded beneath the pines, and a thick duff covered the ground like a mattress. The needles felt dry and spongy to Daniel's bare feet. Far on the Missouri bank, a train roared by as it ferried passengers between fat, weakling cities.
Sunset turned over a fallen branch with the toe of her sandals, then kicked it aside. "So, tell me, Daniel. What do you do around here for fun?"
"Oh, we play sandbar golf a lot. We find tennis balls, you know? And then we hit them around. My Dad's really good at it."
"You don't do any fishing?" She picked up another stick and tossed it aside contemptuously.
"We don't eat a lotta fish. 'Cause, you know, all the sewage and stuff. Sometimes my Dad and my brother noodle for catfish. But I'm too little."
"Goodness. Isn't that where you use your fingers as bait?"
"Oh, yeah. Last month? My Dad? He grabbed this one catfish, you know? It swallowed his whole arm! And it spun. It was bigger than me. We weighed it."
Sunset grabbed Daniel's sleeve. "Could you cut that log for me? Yeah, that one. Give me about three feet."
The Swede saw cut through the spongy wood in a few strokes. Daniel handed her the shorter end. "Is that good?"
"Yeah. That's great." Sunset hefted it a few times, then swiveled and hurled it at a thicket of gooseberries.
There was a surprised yelp, and Daniel saw a man leap up and run away. The man had hunter's camo, a towering mohawk, and a long braid that thrashed as he fled.
"Come back tonight, Black Horse!" Sunset yelled. "And I'll ream you one!"
Daniel remembered to close his mouth. He had just seen an Indi'n. A real, live Indi'n! He couldn't wait to tell Fred.
Sunset clapped Daniel on the shoulder. "We better wrap this up and head back. I'm beginning to get the munchies."
They shared dinner with Sunset. It was Fred's turn to cook, so he made a stir-fry of beans, eggs, garlic, and chipotle, with hummus and sourdough flat-bread on the side. In honor of the guest, he topped the stir-fry with the last of their tomatoes.
As the sun set, their father sent the boys to the boat, where they would be safe during the attack. He and Sunset stoked a bonfire in the middle of camp and settled in to wait. Their father sat in his canvas deck chair, the paddle across his knees. Sunset squatted nearby, a pair of clubs tucked into her armpit. She had chosen two-foot lengths of a baby silver maple that had suffocated in the shadows of the pines. She had shown Daniel a few escrima moves, the thin clubs spinning in blurs.
"What do you think they're talking about?" Daniel whispered. He and his brother sat inside the houseboat, watching the camp through the Plexiglas windows.
Fred shrugged. "I dunno. Whatever it is the grown-ups think is so important, I guess."
Daniel grew tired of waiting first. He fell asleep on the old Chevy seat they used as a bench. The next thing he knew, his brother was shaking him and pressing a finger against his lips for quiet.
"It's starting, Daniel," he whispered. "Listen."
The bonfire had burned down to coals, and neither their father nor Sunset were sitting. They stood just at the edge of the circle of light, their makeshift bludgeons at the ready. Daniel could see the tarps and camp equipment as dim shadows, but everything beyond lay in darkness.
A night bird called from the upstream side of camp, to be answered by a similar call downstream.
"The Indi'ns have the camp surrounded." Fred could barely keep the excitement from his voice. "They've been signaling each other to get into position."
Without warning, their father and Sunset stepped out of the light and disappeared. The boys pressed their noses against the Plexiglas and shaded the glare from their eyes, but they couldn't see the adults anywhere.
The night erupted in Ghost Dancer war cries. Through the thin walls of the hut, they could hear the whinnying of horses and the sharp crack of blows landing on flesh.
"I can't see anything in here!" Fred ground his teeth. "I'm going outside to see what's going on."
"Fred! Dad said to stay in here!"
"It's okay, Danny. You stay put. I'll be right back." Fred pushed out the door, carefully closing it behind him so the spring wouldn't creak.
Daniel put his nose back to the Plexiglas. He thought he saw shadows flitting across the pale sand. Then he saw a brave ride up to the fire. He sat astride a real, live Indi'n pony. Fearsome war paint streaked his face, and he wore a black, military sweater with leather patches on the shoulders. A feather and fur-bedecked staff dangled from his fist. A mohawk crested his head.
A familiar whipping sound issued from the deck, and a moment later, the Ghost Dancer's mohawk parted. The Indi'n glared at the boat, calm and collected, despite the steel ball bearing that came within centimeters of splitting his skull.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Fred howled. He burst back into the hut, his sling hanging from his hand by the loop. "Hide, Danny! Hurry!"
The brave leapt through the water toward the boat, howling ferociously.
"Under the bench, Danny! Quick!" Fred shoved his brother out of sight, kicking the secondary paddle into the boy's hands.
The boat lurched onto the starboard pontoon as the Indi'n climbed aboard.
Fred moved to the back of the boat, tearing down the bug screen that served as a stern wall. He whistled. "In here! C'mon! I'm in here!"
The door slammed open, smashing against Daniel's hiding place. The boy peeked a hair's breadth around the edge of the bench. He could see the Ghost Dancer's army surplus combat boots and his deerskin leggings dripping river water. The staff was tipped by a scaly claw; four desiccated toes frozen in a menacing flex.
The Indi'n pointed the claw at Fred's chest. "You missed, boy."
Fred leapt from the boat, launching himself from the ancient Evinrude outboard with one foot. The Indi'n followed without hesitation. Daniel could hear them splashing through chest-deep water.
Without thinking, Daniel followed them.
He leapt over the Evinrude, the paddle held over his head. It was a cheap excuse for a paddle, nothing more than an aluminum tube with a plastic blade, but as his father had said of the better paddle, it would do just fine for whacking.
Fred ran through the shallows, leaping to clear his legs from the water, his pursuer close behind. Then the boy tripped, going down in a surge of froth. When he came up, twisting to defend himself, the clawed staff hovered at his eyes.
The Indi'n touched the claw to Fred's forehead. "Gotcha, kid."
The first blow came overhand, the flat of the paddle connecting squarely with the back of the brave's head. The man fell to his knees, dropping his staff and clutching his skull.
"What the fuck? Who hit me?"
With the Indi'n's head now at a level with his own, Daniel wound up the paddle like a baseball bat, lining up the edge of the blade with the crook of the man's jaw. Daniel stuck his tongue out the corner of his mouth and swung.
At the sound of his father's voice, Daniel instinctively checked the blow. The blade splashed harmlessly in the river.
"It's all over, Daniel. Everybody's safe now." Daniel could see his father silhouetted on the sandbar, strange men surrounding him. "We’ve declared a truce."
"Jesus, kid. You pack one helluva wallop there." The brave grinned at Daniel, rubbing his head with one hand and helping Fred to his feet with the other.
"Come back to the fire, you guys." An Indi'n Daniel hadn't seen before came to the edge of the river, waving the three of them back to shore. "We brought Leinies!"
Three of the fattest hens roasted on stakes by the rebuilt bonfire. The war party sat in a rough circle, passing Leinenkugel long-necks amongst themselves and to Daniel's family. Their father had told the boys they could each have a bottle on account of the occasion. A coup stick had struck him hard enough that he couldn’t move his right arm, but he still engaged the Ghost Dancers in animated debate, gesturing with his left hand.
While Sunset and Daniel had prepared the hens for roasting, she had explained the raid to him. "It's not the way that weaklings make war, Daniel. The Ghost Dancers are only worried about their honor; saving face. They got all hepped-up and then they had to blow off steam; let everyone know they’re still damn macho. Counting coup is how they show they're big men without much more slaughter than a big bar brawl. Of course if someone isn't actually trying to kill you, counting coup is just touching people with sticks. And nobody wants that."
Sunset could afford to be condescending. The ranger had clobbered four of the Ghost Dancers with her escrima moves. True to her promise, she had knocked Black Horse unconscious. Another brave had a broken clavicle. Another had yet to wake after receiving multiple blows to the head from the hardwood clubs. They had flopped him near the fire, his body sprawled so awkwardly that no one would mistake him for a sleeper.
Sunset had shown no remorse for the damage she had inflicted. "Once all the machismo is out of their system, men can talk like sensible human beings."
And the men talked into the night, jabbering on grown-up subjects that bored Daniel silly.
"You're missing the point. Weakling society is tyrannical because the individual exists just to perpetuate the institutions." Daniel's father gestured with his Leinie bottle, the beer foaming and spilling out the neck. "They spend their lives in the economic nourishment of government, commerce, religion, industry, transportation, you name it. They're literally working themselves to death. For systems that would gladly see them dead. Sure, you guys are scrapping the modern institutions, but the old institutions aren't necessarily better."
"That's it. Where did I put that coup stick?" The man that had chased Fred pretended to look beneath his armpits, to the amusement of the other Ghost Dancers. Now that Daniel saw him in the light, he noticed that the brave's eyes had the look of an East Asian. Of the men around the fire, only a handful looked like actual American Indians.
"Don't get me wrong, guys. The First Nations have always been better than Western institutions. The puritans used to post guards to keep their people from running off and going native. Even then, civilization wasn't much fun. But the institutions needed their labor. Needed their obedience."
Daniel wandered off. He preferred petting the war party's ponies to listening to his father lecture.
As he left the camp, he noticed his brother sitting all alone, hugging his knees and staring out on the river. "Fred? Watcha doing?"
"Nothin'. Leave me alone."
Daniel knelt by his brother. Tears glistened on Fred's cheeks in the starlight. "What's wrong, Fred? Is something wrong?"
Fred wiped his eyes. "I'm leaving, Danny. In the morning."
"You can't do that. We're going down to Mom in a few days."
"It was time I was grown up, Danny. I failed, Danny. What happened tonight..."
"You had to run. He was bigger than you."
"That's not it. I missed. I choked and I missed. Weaklings miss. Posers miss." Fred sniffed, gathering his internal composure. "Walking Eagle says I can go with them. They're riding up to the Black Hills for the deer hunt. He said if I do well, I can go on a spirit quest. I can join the tribe."
"Are you really sure you want to do that?" Sunset MacClaine moseyed up to the boys and plopped down on the other side of Fred. Casually, she tossed her clubs into the water. "Don't get me wrong, the Ghost Dancers are great guys, but they’re all machismo and nostalgia. I really don't see you as one of them."
"Walking Eagle says he can make a man out of me," Fred said through gritted teeth.
"Yeah, the Ghost Dancers are good for making men. In fact, the whole damn organization is men. Kind of like the Boy Scouts, but without the good deeds." Sunset lit a ganja cigarette and passed it to Fred who took a drag with studious nonchalance. "I see you in an organization with more girls, Fred. I happen to be on my way up to Madison for the harvest fest? There's a young lady I know who's going to be there, and I think she might want to meet you."
Daniel could tell that his brother had been sold at the first mention of girls.
"That sounds interesting, Ms. MacClaine." Fred took on a shrewd look. "Could you train me to be a ranger? I already know about the wilderness. And media, kinda. I usually don't miss with the sling."
Sunset kept silent for a moment. "Our peace with the weaklings is coming to an end. In Madison I'll represent my affinity group at a council of war. The People will be marching into the cities soon, and maybe, if tonight goes well, the Ghost Dancers will be with us. But the rangers will take the brunt of the war. I won't be doing you any favors by making you one of us." She took a deep breath, slapped her stout bicyclist legs, and stood. "Tell ya what. I'll let you tag along, show you the ropes and stuff. Give you a few escrima moves. There's a descent bike shop in Cairo. If we head out soon, we could have you outfitted by tomorrow morning."
"That sounds good, I guess." Fred handed back the ganja.
"Good kid. You should go pack. I'll be apologizing to Black Horse for reaming him. In my tent. Privately. That shouldn't take more than an hour. Then we'll be off." She gave Fred a wink and returned to the campfire.
"C'mon, Daniel. Ya gotta help me pack."
"I don't wanna." Daniel wiped his nose. To his embarrassment, he found that he was crying. "I don't want you to go."
"I've gotta go, Danny. I'm practically a man now." He squatted down in front of Daniel, squeezing his brother's shoulder. "I can't go back to the city anymore. I don't belong there."
Memories of all the summers they had spent on the river came back to Daniel, all the long months of exploration and discovery. He had somehow thought that it would go on like that forever, with the two of them barefoot and covered in river muck up to the knees. Daniel realized that he would go on without his brother, spending summers with their father alone. He wiped his tears with one corner of his tattered T-shirt. "Alright, big brother. I'll help you pack."
The brothers walked back to the boat hand in hand.