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Authors: Ellen Gray Massey

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BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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   Walking Owl smiled at him. “I watch. I look and listen. Signs tell me things.”
   “Well . . . ?” Marcus held out his arm and gestured for him to continue.
   Walking Owl studied his serious face. He looked at his well-cared-for grooming and clothing, and at his erect posture in his seat. “You will become a well-respected leader in the Nicodemus Town Company and perhaps be elected to the state legislature. You will prosper as a wheat farmer and raise championship black Angus cattle.”
   Marcus smiled. “Black Angus is the breed I want.”
   Walking Owl continued, “Liberty will become a schoolteacher, and like I did, go the White man's college. She'll be one of the few women of her race in Kansas to earn an advanced degree in education. She will help colored children have equal educational opportunities in this state.”
   “How do you know I want to be a teacher?” Liberty asked. 
   “I guessed it from you teaching Virgil to read so quickly.”
   “Yeah, and how did you know I like Black Angus cattle?” Marcus asked.
   Walking Owl smiled. “I used to be a scout. Though I've been doing most of the talking here tonight, I usually just listen and watch.” Then he pointed to a newspaper clipping papered to the wall above Marcus's bed pad. A picture of an Angus cow was circled in black ink.
   Hunter had been sitting quietly during this conversation, enjoying every bit of it. “It also helps that I have told him much about all of you,” he said grinning.
   “That too,” Walking Owl said laughing.
   Virgil had followed the discussion carefully. As the others did, he laughed too. “What about me, Walker?” he asked. “What will I do?”
   Walking Owl's face became serious. He looked long at Virgil before he answered. “You will follow your passion. When you are sure your family can manage without you, but not before, you will explore new places and mingle with new people. With your hands, you will create and build. Your spirit is strong. With it you will create goodwill and remind all that we must care for the land that nourishes us. 
   “You will live in three worlds. In your own world, understanding the true meanings and obligations of freedom, in the Osage world which strives to be one with the Sacred One, the Earth, and in the White world that now dominates the world, that of invention, money, and power.”
   “Oh, my!” Liberty exclaimed. “That's . . . I don't know a word to cover all that.”
   “You've done all that yourself, Walker,” Virgil said. “You've combined the best in both the White and Osage worlds.”
   “I've tried. But you, Virgil, will also include the world of the Black man.”
   Liberty glanced from Walking Owl to Virgil and back, studying both men. Again she exclaimed, “Oh, my! That's . . .”
   When she couldn't think of a word to describe it, she threw out her arms in a gesture to represent everything.
   “The word you are searching for, Liberty,” Walking Owl said, “is universal.”
Chapter Ten
 
   While doing his trading in the general store in Nicodemus, Virgil watched the little group just outside the open door. Several children and young people were gathered, standing or sitting on the ground. While people inside continued their business, they could easily hear Walking Owl's deep voice entertaining the group.
   “Long ago, so long that the oldest Indian living when the White man first came could only tell it as a story, that was when the sound of drums came from under the depths of the floor of the old sinkhole.”
   “What's a sinkhole?” one of the children asked.
   Walking Owl looked at the treeless plains he could see in every direction. “In the country far east of here, the land is much different from this.” He put out his hand to indicate the prairie around them. “There the hilly land is covered with trees and watered with many rivers and springs. The land has many, many caves. After millions of years of wind and rain, sometimes the roofs of the caves get weak and fall in. That makes a sinkhole.”
   “Oh!” the child said. “Are there any sinkholes here?”
   “No, not here. This was many days' march from here in the land of the rising sun.” Satisfied with his answer, the children settled down to listen.
   “Now the early settlers in that land, if they put their ears to the ground, could hear sounds coming from the sink hole, but they explained them as the sound of water falling from one underground cavern to another. They didn't believe the old story.”
   Walking Owl stopped and looked at each of the children. Then he saw Bruce, his apron tied around his waist, standing in the door of the store beside Hunter. He acknowledged Bruce's presence with a nod.
   “Walker sure likes to tell stories, don't he?” Bruce said to Hunter.
   “Yes, and he's got lots to tell.”
   “I know. His stories helped me get well. He was very patient with me when I asked him to tell them over and over.”
   Hunter nodded. “He's very patient in all things.”
   Bruce spoke to Walking Owl, “What was the old story, Walker?” he asked.
   Walking Owl smiled at him. He said in an aside to the children, “Bruce likes my stories. At my ranch I told him many stories.”
   Bruce nodded his head. “But you didn't tell this one.” He repeated, “Tell us the old story the settlers didn't believe?”
   “Yes, Walker,” Virgil said, joining Bruce and Hunter at the door, “tell us.” 
   When the children also encouraged Walking Owl, he said, “Way back in those long ago days life was good for the people in the land. There was peace. The days were warm. 
   “Corn hung on every stalk and berries on every vine. Deer and elk roamed the land while buffalo were easy to hunt for their meat and their warm hides. The young men didn't have to work. In their idleness they forgot they needed to exercise to build strong legs and arms. They played in the forests. They sang foolish songs to the young women. They did nothing to prepare for hard times or a possible attack from their enemies.
   “Grandfather the Sun was unhappy with their lazy and disrespectful ways. They were his special people. For them, he had fashioned the perfect land. For them he had sent down from his sky lodge his wise little old men to teach them how to live. When he looked down from his lodge in the sky, he was sad. Also sad was the Sacred One, the Earth. She did not feel the tread of useful, caring feet on her soil, only footsteps of idleness and greed. She didn't see people helping one another, just people who were selfish, wanting only for themselves.
“In that long ago time there was a big cavern with a small opening leading into the darkness inside. The careless young men lit pine branches to see by and carrying their drums went inside. They went deeper and deeper into the cave's depths, laughing and idling away their time. They beat their drums in mockery of the teachings of their elders that they should tend to the wants of those less fortunate than they and that they should care for and protect the land that nourishes them. They sang dirty, disrespectful songs and cursed their teachers.
“Grandfather the Sun looked down from the sky and was angry with his people. Dark clouds covered his face. A cold wind swept the darkened land. 
   The earth trembled beneath their feet and people heard deep below the cavern floor the grinding of stones and rumblings of soil. Then all was quiet. Some women crept to where the opening of the cavern used to be. Instead there was a big round sinkhole. There was no sound. No rumblings from the earth. No drums from the young men. Nothing.”
   Walking Owl stopped. His audience waited anxiously for him to continue.
   “Then what happened?” Bruce asked. “You always have something at the end of your stories.”
   Walking Owl's mouth gave a suggestion of a smile. “A long time later, one of the wise men lay resting on the ground in the floor of that old sinkhole. He heard drums.” To dramatize his story, Walking Owl beat his hand like a dirge slowly but steadily against the wooden stool he was sitting on.
   The children looked fearfully at one another. “Can you still hear the drums,” one asked.
   Walking Owl nodded slowly, leaned forward and spoke almost in a whisper. “If you are very quiet, when the moon is bright and the wind is still, if you listen carefully, you can hear the drums of the mocking young men. But they have changed the rhythm of their beating. Now instead of loud and mocking, it is sad and solemn.” He gave three more slow, dramatic beats.
When Walking Owl stopped, someone asked, “Tell us another.”
   “Maybe one more,” he said, “then I must go. I'll tell about the Spaniards coming from the mountains in Colorado, who–-”
   “Don't tell that,” Bruce blurted out. “That's enough stories for now. You kids better get a-going from here.”
   Walking Owl glanced at Bruce in surprise. Then he nodded and said, “Bruce is right. This is enough for now.”
   When the children left, Walking Owl watched Bruce's retreating back as he hurried into the back of the store where he resumed stacking some produce.
   “What's gotten into him?” Walking Owl asked Virgil and Hunter.
   Hunter shrugged that he didn't know.
   “That's the way he is,” Virgil said. “You never know how he will act. Everything goes along fine and then he suddenly stops or leaves.”
   Walking Owl joined Bruce in the back of the store. “Why didn't you want me to tell that story?” he asked.
   “Uh . . . Uh, people were blocking the door. Bad for trade.”
   Without saying anything more, Walking Owl returned to Virgil. He looked back at Bruce who was busily lifting boxes onto shelves. “He's still not well. It's as if the lynching rope cut his spirit in two. That story about the Spaniards and their gold was one of his favorite stories. When he was at my ranch, he asked me to tell it over and over.”
   Something nagged at Virgil, but he couldn't quite figure out what it was.
   “I guess he just didn't want to share that story with the children,” Walking Owl said.
   “That's it,” Virgil exclaimed. “Yes! I think I understand it now.”
   “What's it?” Walking Owl asked.
   “I think I know why Bruce wants my farm. Was the story you were going to tell about the Spaniards who hid their gold in a rocky area on a river just before your ancestors caught up with them and killed them?”
   “Yes. Have you heard it?”
   “A while back Hunter told me the story about hiding the Spanish gold and no one ever finding it. Where did it take place? Hunter didn't say.”
   “Somewhere in the Missouri Ozarks.”
   “Did you tell Bruce that?”
   “I don't know. Probably not. It's a story that was passed down from my people when we lived in the hills in Missouri before we moved to Kansas back in the early eighteen hundreds. Does it matter where it was?”
   “I think so. I'm guessing that Bruce believes the Spaniards hid the gold here. And since the ford across the Solomon at my place is the only rocky place near here along the river, he may think the gold is hidden there.”
   “That's crazy,” Hunter said.
   “No, it isn't,” Virgil said. “He's desperate for money to bring his family here. Hidden treasure would be just the thing if he could get us off the place and he file on it. And you just said he still isn't right in his mind from the lynching. Besides that, twice I've caught him poking around in the bank at my ford. When I yelled at him the first time he was so scared that he fell into the river. The second time he stammered and left.”
   The men thought for a few minutes.
   “Are you sure the legend takes place in Missouri?” Virgil asked.
   “Yes.”
   “Bruce seems sure it's here. He won't sign up for any land, even though there's been some good sections become available. And he don't try for any jobs nearby where he can make some money. I've always wondered why when he so obviously needs both land and money. Does the legend say the gold was in the hills?”
   Walking Owl thought for a moment. “No, not that I ever heard anyone tell it.” He turned to Hunter. “Have you heard any other versions of it but the one I tell?”
   “Yes, but none of them give a specific location.”
   “We all just assumed it was in the Ozarks,” Walking Owl said, “because that's where we had our villages and spent most of the year. And the region has lots of caves and rocky hiding places on rivers. It is on the route from the gold mines in the Colorado Rockies to the Mississippi.”
   “So is the Solomon River here,” Virgil said. He looked south of town where a mile away he could see the thin line of trees hugging the river. When he turned back toward the men, he saw through the store door Bruce carrying a box to the front counter. He asked Walking Owl, “The Spaniards could have traveled through this area, don't you think?”
   “Yes. It was probably on their route.”
   “Maybe Bruce is right. Maybe the gold is at my place.” Virgil laughed as he said it, not believing it.
   “Tell me what your rocky ford looks like,” Walking Owl said.
   Virgil described the sloping land to the rock-covered crossing and upriver the rock formation on the north side.
   “Let's go search,” Walking Owl said, walking to his horse ready to mount.
   “Are you serious?”
   “Yes.”
   “Let's go,” Hunter said.
 
 
*     *     *
 
 
   As the three men loped up to the Landers' sod house, Virgil called out to Marcus who was working inside the parents' room. With hammer in his hand, he came to the door. Liberty was right behind him. “Come join us,” Virgil called. “We're going to the ford to check for buried treasure.”
   “And I'm going to fly to the moon,” Marcus said back in jest. When he noticed the two Osages, both with serious expressions, he asked, “What's gotten into you fellers?”
   “We think the reason Bruce wants our place is because he thinks there is Spanish gold hidden in the rocks at our ford. Remember the tale Hunter told me?”
   When Marcus nodded, Virgil continued, “Bruce heard the story, too, and we believe he thinks our ford is where the gold is hidden. Walker wants to check it out.”
   “Come with us,” Walking Owl said. “We can prove to Bruce it isn't here so he'll leave you alone.”
   “I've got better things to do than look for hidden treasure.” Marcus reentered the soddy.
“Wait, I'll come,” Liberty said. She ran up to Lady. Virgil gave her his hand and pulled her up behind him. The three horses loped the short distance to the river.
   Walking Owl dismounted. Closely followed by the others, he stood at the ford, studying the whole scene including the rock formation just up river. 
   “What do you think?” Liberty asked. She was too excited to wait for him to study everything.
   “Interesting,” he said. “It's been a long time, but I've been here before. I was a boy with my father and one or two others. We were searching for beaver sign. I remember we started to set our traps over here.” The water being low after the recent dry spell, he waded across the river at the ford to the other side. “But my father decided it wasn't worth it. We had much better rivers for beaver back home. We were more interested in finding the buffalo herd. So we left.”
   Liberty asked Hunter, “How does he remember so clearly a spot he visited briefly long ago?”
   Hunter said, “He's like an atlas. That's why he was such a good scout. He has pictures in his mind of everyplace he has ever been.”
   Walking Owl said without taking his eyes from the river, “Virgil has the same ability.”
   “He also can hear anything anyone says.” Hunter laughed. “You better not tell secrets near him.”
   “How do you know that about me?” Virgil asked. “I've never talked of it to anyone.”
   “Your description of this place was accurate to every detail,” Walking Owl explained as he studied the sloping bank on the south side that fell off less abruptly from the prairie than it did elsewhere along that side of the river. He then waded back to the north side where the curving river again turned east when it hit the rocky ledge.
   Liberty asked, “Could the Spanish gold be hidden here?”
BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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