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Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Englishman’s Boy

© 1997

To Montana Dan Shapiro ,

a true-blue man to ride the river with.

“ ‘Historicism’ (the science of history) scientifically speaking, is the affirmation that life and reality are history and history alone.”

– BENEDETTO CROCE

“History is the record of an encounter between character and circumstance… the encounter between character and circumstance is essentially a story.”

– DONALD CREIGHTON

1

Even from such a distance Fine Man could smell their camp, the fried-pig stink of white men. He took up a pinch of dirt, placed it under his tongue, and made a prayer. Keep me close, Mother Earth, hide me, Mother Earth. It was light as day, the moon’s bright face a trader’s steel mirror, the grey leaves of the sage and wolf willow shining silver, as if coated with hoarfrost. Under a full moon, it was dangerous to steal horses – even from foolish white men.

One of the wolfers rose from his blanket and stepped away from the fire. The one with the ugly hair, red like a fox’s, he stood making his water and talking over his shoulder. A noisy man lacking in dignity. It must be a poor thing to be a wolf-poisoner, to be ugly, to eat pork, to hate silence. There was nothing to envy these people for, except their guns and horses.

The red-haired one rolled himself back up in his blanket and lay like a log beside the fire. “Say goodnight to Jesus,” said one of the other men wrapped in blankets. They all laughed. More noise.

Fine Man felt Broken Horn’s body relax beside him and knew Horn had been covering Red Hair with the “fukes,” a sawed-off Hudson’s Bay musket, the only gun they carried between them. Broken Horn was edgy. Fine Man sensed Horn no longer believed in the promises and the truth of his dream.

In his dream, there was heavy snow, biting cold. Many starving, shivering horses, coats white with frost, had come stumbling through the high drifts to crowd the entrance of Fine Man’s lodge. There the grass of spring pushed up sweet green blades through the crust of the snow, tenderness piercing ice, and gave itself to strengthen the horses, even though it was the black months of winter. Fine Man read this as a power sign that somewhere there were horses wishing to belong to the Assiniboine. But Broken Horn did not trust Fine Man’s sign any more, and Fine Man did not trust Horn with a gun in his hand.

Suddenly the white men’s horses began to mill about, hopping in their hobbles like jack-rabbits. Powdery dust rose like mist, to hang swirling and shaking in the moonlight. Fine Man shifted his eyes to the fire. But none of the lumps under the greasy grey blankets raised a head, their ears were deaf. How did white men distinguish their corpses from those who had only gone to sleep?

The herd broke apart, horses turning and spinning, bumping one another like pans of ice in the grip of a swift current. A moment of complete confusion, rumps and heads bucking above the dust, then the strong current found a shape and stood alone, a big blue roan, broken hobbles dangling from its forelegs, teeth bared, ears laid back.

Lit by the moon, the roan was stained a faint blue, the colour of late-winter-afternoon shadows on crusted snow. Coat smooth as ice, chest and haunches hard as ice, eyes cold as ice, a Nez Perce horse from beyond the mountains which wore snow on their heads all the year round, a horse from behind the Backbone of the World.

When he saw him, Fine Man knew the promise of the dream was true and he rose from behind the juniper bush to show himself plain to the winter horse. Broken Horn’s sharp intake of breath through the teeth was a warning, but Fine Man gave no indication he heard him, his ears were stopped to any sound except the singing inside him, the power chanting in him. He stood upright in the moonlight, upright in his Thunderbird moccasins with the beaded Bird green on each foot, upright in the breechclout his Sits-Beside-Him wife had cut from the striped Hudson’s Bay blanket. He gazed down at his hands, at the skin of his muscled thighs, at his belly, and understood. White moonlight was his blizzard, a blizzard to blind the eyes of his enemies who lay frozen to the ground in the grip of his medicine-dream, drifted over by the heavy snow of sleep.

He edged toward the horse, addressing him in a soft voice, politely. Fifty yards to his left, the fire was rustling, hot embers cracking like nuts, spitting like fat. Behind him, Horn lifted himself to one knee, swiftly spiking three arrows in the ground near where his bow lay, and aimed the fukes at the sleeping body of a wolfer.

“Little Cousin,” said Fine Man in a soothing voice, “Little Cousin, do not be afraid. Don’t you recognize me? I am the man you dreamed, the man with the lodge of plenty. I am the man you led your brothers to.” He stopped for a moment. “Take a good look at me. There is no harm in my hands,” he murmured, displaying empty palms to the roan. Turning and pointing to Broken Horn, crouched with his musket levelled at the sleeping white man, he said, “That man there came with me to find you. Some of your brothers may choose to live with him – if they so decide. It is for them to choose.” He stepped forward lightly, words rustling lightly. “Cousin, you are a beautiful being. I do not say this to flatter you. The white man rides you with steel spurs and a steel bit in your mouth. This is not how to sit upon a beautiful being – with cruelty.” They were face to face now, he and the blue roan. He removed his left moccasin, the moccasin of the heart side. “Feel, Cousin, there is no harm upon my feet,” he said, reaching up carefully to gently stroke the roan’s nose with the moccasin. He pursed his lips and blew softly into the left nostril of the horse, who snorted Fine Man’s breath back in surprise, shaking his head from side to side.

“Now you know there is no harm in my heart. Now you know that I am the good man who you dreamed. Tell your brothers,” Fine Man coaxed.

Broken Horn was signalling him desperately to come now, leave this place, clear out, but Fine Man was making his way carefully and deliberately from horse to horse, showing each his knife before severing the hobbles. When he finished, he returned to the blue roan, stood at its withers, took a fistful of mane and walked it away, his legs matching its forelegs stride for stride. Hesitantly, the other horses followed the man and the blue roan, nineteen horses strung out in a winding procession through buck-brush and sage, black shadows stark on the ground, edges sharp as a knife-cut.

Without haste, they picked their way across the river bottom and to the feet of steep, eroded hills which, washed in the cold light of the moon, became reflections of moon’s own face, old and worn and pocked and bright.

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