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The hardest thing for man to bear
Is to lose a love so true and fair.
To lose something you never thought you could love
Is like a plaintive curse thereof.
For the harshest words of the written pen
Are the words that say “It might have been.”
Colonel Birmingham steadied himself on the base of the dugout Indian canoe and gripped the reed sides of the boat as she sliced through the gentle lapping water of the river. Men on either side, rifles at the ready and eyes scanning the shore in search of any movement, the colonel lifted his eyeglass and raised it ostentatiously and full of contempt. Behind him, trembling like a wounded bird too fearful to attempt to fly, sat a young Indian girl. She was comely and slight of figure, with nimble bronze hands and dark penetrating eyes full of a brazen defiance that never left Colonel Birmingham as he scowled at the pines and redwoods that stood guard to whatever lay behind its veiled curtain. Cursing under his breath, he spat in the water and watched it ripple.
Restless from searching the shore for hours, the colonel turned sharply and struck the girl on the cheek.
“Colonel!” one of the men screamed in horror, dropping his gun to the base of the canoe. “Them derned Injuns’ll be watchin’ us this very minute, I’s reckon. It ain’t smart to touch her, no siree, not when one o’ dem braves kin slice through yer very heart in the blink o’ an eye, I’s reckon. Seen ‘em done it, too.”
Apprehensively, Colonel Birmingham went back to watching the shoreline.
“They’s out there,” he murmured, scratching his beard and cursing under his breath again. “Somewheres. And I intend to find ‘em.”
There was chaos at Tumbleweed Camp when the men arrived with the pretty young Indian girl. The men had not seen a woman in over two years, and the sight of an innocent young face in their camp was just about more than they could manage. At least thirty men crowded into the crude cabin at the edge of the clearing to get a look at the girl. With a malicious smile on his face, the colonel held the bound woman in the middle of the room and let the men lecherously feast their eyes on her for a few minutes. At last he said, “Enjoy her boys.”
Petrified with terror, the girl shrunk into the farthest corner and the wretched thing clawed at the dirt walls in an effort to get away. One of the men pulled out a harmonica and began to play while the others laughed and cheered as a man named Amos Jennings stepped out from the crowd and walked boldly towards her. Letting out a horrified scream, the girl dropped to the dirt floor and covered her head as the man grabbed her by the arms and lifted her to her feet. One of his comrades decided to help him out and supported the back of the girl up and kept her arms pinned down.
“Enough!” a man screamed from the crowd. Amos dropped the trembling girl to the floor and shamefully stepped away from her. Out of the little band of men stepped one of the youngest of the group, a man by the name of James Cooper, no more than twenty and the nephew of Colonel Birmingham.
“James!” exclaimed the colonel angrily, stepping forward and laying a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “Let the men have some sport! Too long they have been without a pretty face.” He laughed and the men laughed with him, sending a cursory glance to the quavering savage girl.
James ran his hands angrily through his dark brown hair and turned sharply on his men: “And you call her people savages,” he exclaimed. Angrily, he ranted about the men’s ignorance when their entire exploration was a mission to make peace with the mountainous Indians. Catching his breath at the warning in the girl’s eye, James realized that he had been staring at her throughout the length of his discourse and quickly turned to face his men in the cabin. Biting his lip, he wondered if anyone had noticed. To his relief, everyone seemed oblivious. The colonel stared at his nephew in shock that he would dare defy him, but something about the presence of the youth put the men at ease and, though still grumbling, they returned to their cabins without touching the girl again.
Off in the distance, on a hill overlooking the barren clearing of Tumbleweed Camp, were five Indian braves, all conversing angrily with each other in whispers scarcely heard even amongst themselves. At last, one of them lifted an arrow to his bow and sent it whizzing down to a tree on the outskirt of the valley, deep in the forest, landing with a gentle thud in the trunk of a redwood.
They were not quite sure what to think or even what to do about the chaos they heard, the screams that had woken them in the dead of night, rousing them from their wigwams. Her screams had been heard, echoing through the trees that stood over the Indian village just hidden between the gorge of two mountains that stood like formidable sentinels on either side. The wails of a mother shrieking for her child and the desperate wails of a girl, cries of sorrow and agony, resounded in the settlement, waking all.
But there was one thing for certain. They would never be friends with the white man.
“Koda!” whispered James in a hushed whisper. In the thin sliver of the moon that cut through the small cabin, James whisked out his knife and slit the rope knots that held the Indian girl’s arms behind her back. “Are you alright?”
Too exhausted to speak, Koda collapsed on the cold dirt floor, coughing for breath. Wearily, she wrapped her arms around James and he kissed her chestnut cheek.
“There isn’t much time,” he murmured. Hand in hand, they opened up the door of the musty cabin and blinding moonlight shone in, illuminating them both in the hazy dark shadow of the hut. James looked both ways and scanned the still horizon of Tumbleweed Camp, the huts laid out like scattered cubes in a game of Liar’s Dice. The thicket of trees blocked any vision through the brush, but Koda stiffened and gripped James’ hand harder than before.
“My people,” she hissed between clenched teeth, with an uncharacteristic fear in her voice. “They come to save me. They not show mercy. My people planned raid for many moons. They not listen. Word of a woman is kwitappeh to them.”
Neither knew exactly how it had come about this way. James insisted that it was just luck. Koda protested that it was destiny, that the great Coyote had mysteriously brought them together to unite their people. In either case, the two were completely, fervently, unconditionally, passionately and irrevocably in love, and had been for many months. One day, James had come across Koda picking berries in the wood, singing to herself in the smooth Shoshone language of the midwestern Indians. When he had shown himself, Koda surprised him with her gentle serenity and adept tongue at English. At a young age, she helped a small band of Englishmen find a safe passage through her home mountains, and during the excursions, she had become fluent in their foreign language as the only Shoshone of the tribe to be able to converse with the white man. She and James had been secretly engaged for quite some time now and had been planning a secret escape from Tumbleweed Camp to head east where they were to be married and have a comfortable home.
Clenched with dread, James perceived that much was at stake as the two streaked across the valley, past cabins glowering with the yellow light of a flickering candle, past men splitting whiskey and dealing tarots, past fist fights and the sound of crashing furniture...and into the deepest canopy curtain of the forest. Koda’s ears immediately picked up war whoops from the other side of the valley, and she warned James that his men would be in grave danger if the two left without notice. The braves would come after her, she warned White Feather, as she called her dearest James. They continued on in silence through the wood, a sliver of light occasionally cutting through the canopy of vines and boughs overhead. James recoiled every time his boots would snap a twig or whenever he would crackle dry leaves as he clumsily tried to follow Koda through the brush. The dense wall of trees all around was impenetrable even as his eyes adjusted to the deep velvet darkness of the forest at twilight. Weighted down by apprehension, James felt the gloom that seemed to hover over the wood begin to settle on his shoulders with every step down the lone path that Koda seemed to intuitively know by heart. Suddenly, however, she gasped and pointed at a lone tree, standing in the middle of the forest like a barren statue covered in its armor of soft green moss that crept along the bark on every side. Protruding from its branches, was a thin wooden arrow, its crude tip carved from stone and dripping with crimson blood. Without a word, she collapsed to the ground and pulled James down with her, clinging to him with all of the strength she had left and murmuring in her native Shoshone tongue.
“Namaso’hai!” she screamed, clawing at her face. “Hurry! My people are coming! It is sign of war. Namasi! We must hurry, White Feather. No time to lose.”
With that, she determinedly took off into the forest in the direction of her village, buried deep between the gorge of two mountains. Her soft leather moccasins made no sound to James’ untrained ears, and though he wondered if their parting was indefinite, he stood not long in the heavy darkness of the wood before turning back and following Koda’s lead, returning to Tumbleweed Camp. Shortly thereafter, he found he was able to retrace their steps in the wood with the little consolation that the moonlight offered. By the time he stepped foot out of the forest and into the clearing of the open valley, he presumed that Koda was now desperately trying to stop the braves from their raid—but he knew nonetheless that there was little time, whether she succeeded or failed on her fateful mission. Without a second thought, he ran to his uncle’s cabin and pounded on the door, screaming for him to wake up; as soon as he heard movement inside, he continued on to the next cabin and aroused them.
“Wake up!” he screamed, unleashing the horses and snapping at the stableboy to get to work.
“What is all of this nonsense about?” demanded Colonel Birmingham, skidding out of his cabin with his suspenders half down his legs. James took no delay in telling the men that the Indians were making a raid on their valley and that there was little time to lose.
“We must be prepared to defend ourselves!” he shouted as loudly as he dared, wondering if the natives were hearing him. “But we must not harm the indigenous unless provoked!”
“Fight? They wanna fight wit’ us?” a man named Benny Jenkins bellowed, firing his pistol into the air. “Den let’s start de fight wit’ ‘em!”
The men roared their approval and the chaos ran wild as they strapped guns into their belts and randomly fired shots into the air. James at first thought their enthusiasm would die down, that they would eventually find fear in the thought of waging a war with people who could walk silently through a forest they knew like the palm of their hand, when they themselves made racket that could be heard for miles. However, to his horror, the storm never abated. With deafening shouts from every side of the valley, braves on horseback came galloping into Tumbleweed Camp, mercilessly slaying whatever happened to be in their path. The men fired their pistols and laughed drunkenly as braves caught their chest and, with a heart wrenching scream, slid off the back of the brutes and writhed wretchedly on the dirt ground. Many were brutally shot seven, or even eight, times before the white man was killed in turn, stabbed by a knife or pierced from an arrow.
Dumb with shock and horror at the bloody massacre before his eyes, James scanned every horse and his rider for any sign of Koda on her failed mission. Dodging arrows and jumping over the lifeless bodies of his comrades, James scoured the valley for Koda, but there was no sign of her sprightly little body, her dark black hair and her sweet, melodious voice.
“Koda!” he screamed. “Koda where are you?”
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up in trepidation as he scanned the piles of bodies that littered the dell.
“White Feather?” came a meek little voice from the ground below him. Flooded with euphoria and desperate relief James stopped short and knelt beside her. Her face was pale with a forced wan smile, and James, frightened by the pallor in her complexion and the timidity in her voice, lifted her languid head off of the bed of trodden dirt. Blood was pouring from her stomach, seeping through her dress from where a bullet had ruined every hope and ambition they had shared together.
“Koda…” he whispered dolorously, burying his face in her bronze neck. “I have failed.”
He heard the footsteps behind him approach, but cared not what happened now. With a cry of grief and a breaking heart, Koda watched James collapse to the ground beside her, an arrow with a white feather rising from his chest. Struggling to lift his head, James looked out at the slopes in the distance, bathed in their luster and the glimmering shadows of the darkening wood, the spectral indigo of the rigid peaks against the gray night sky, and it seemed to him as if all of the mystic beauty of nature at twilight had been intensified as if to mock his despair. Chaos surrounded the two lovers entwined in each others’ arms, and the fighting, the red splatters of scarlet, the last cries of a dying man all began to fade into a oblivion, melt into a fusion of color, light, sound and motion. The wind whistled through the bare branches of the surrounding trees and their sepulcher was dappled in the silvery light of the full moon, so tauntingly bright and cheerful. The eerie shadows dissolved, taking every syllable and every vision with it.
They slept all that night, united, but never to awaken again. The gulch in the mountains where the Shoshone live is still haunted, they say, by the spirit of Koda and her dearest White Feather. United in death. Parted in life. Separated by prejudice and greed. But beneath the beams of the lustrous full moon in the Tumbleweed clearing, if one listens close enough, they can still hear Koda’s gentle voice whispering through the trees, calling for her White Feather.