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Authors: Ellen Gray Massey

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BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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   But they probably weren't, was her next thought. Women aren't allowed to do nothing but keep house and raise babies.
   Grabbing some dried stalks she'd gathered, she lit the stove to warm up the left-over stew she'd prepared for their noon dinner. The aroma filled the soddy, almost covering the lingering stench from the geese.
 
 
*     *     *
 
 
   Dejectedly Virgil turned his back to the river and hiked home to spend the night. It was too late to search more today. In the dark, two hours later he reached their homestead. Trudging in alone and discouraged, he didn't need to tell his family he failed to find the two horses.
   “The hogs came back,” Liberty said. “But not the horses.”
   “The corn?” he asked.
   “No, we didn't finish.”
   Marcus shook his head when Virgil glanced at him.
   Virgil slumped in his chair.
   Liberty explained. “It took almost all day for the soil to dry out so we could get the ground ready again for the seed bed.”
   Virgil's shoulders drooped even farther.
   “But we got a lot done. We'll finish tomorrow.”
   “We'll need Lady again in the morning,” Marcus said.
   The dim candle light in the soddy matched Virgil's mood.
   “You'll find the horses tomorrow,” Liberty said touching his arm.
   Virgil nodded. “I lost their tracks at the river. "I'll look again in the morning.”
   The three bone-weary Lander siblings spread out their bed pads, each anticipating the activities of the next day. Virgil would tramp over the prairie, Marcus would finish his planting almost on schedule, and Liberty could work outside. Virgil rested his head comfortably on his new pillow. Marcus blew out the candle. Liberty cuddled Nicky to her. They were all soon asleep.
   Outside in the paddock Marcus had repaired from the storm's damage, the cow and calf bedded down. The sow and her pigs grunted contentedly as they rooted in the bare ground of their pen for the few grains of corn Marcus threw to them. The geese had already gone to roost even before Virgil returned.
Chapter Five
 
   The next day just as the sun was rising, Virgil was at his rocky ford. Removing his boots, shirt, and trousers and stowing them in his backpack, he waded across to the south side of the river, keeping to the shallower sandy areas when he could. The toes of his bare feet steadied him as he crossed the slab of slippery rock. The usual sluggish current of the river, restricted by the unusual rock formation, flowed more rapidly here. The cold water soaked him to his thighs. Safely across, shivering in the early morning coolness, he dressed quickly.
   “I thought I'd find you here,” a soft voice said.
   Trying not to show his surprise, he recognized the voice of Likes-to-Hunt, his Osage friend. 
   “Hunter!” Virgil exclaimed in delight. “You're back.”
   “Yes. We're here for a few days.”
   “It's good to see you.” Virgil pulled on his boots quickly and rose to greet his friend. Though tall, he didn't match Hunter's six foot five.
   “You won't be staying here long?”
   “No. The buffalo have left this country.”
   “Even that herd you hunted last year?”
   “Yes, they've gone farther west. Too many people here. The grass is being plowed up or it is being fenced.”
   Virgil knew that was exactly what he and all the settlers in Nicodemus Township were doing. To make a life here on the plains for themselves, they were destroying the traditional life style of the Osages and the buffalo. He didn't say anything.
   Hunter continued, “The buffalo are getting harder to find.”
   “I hate it that we're doing that to you.”
   “Everyone has to live and the land must support us all. My people have bought a county in Oklahoma from the Cherokee. We will soon all move there.”
   “Lots of changes. We aren't slaves anymore, but to get land for ourselves, we are taking the plains that have supported your people for centuries.”
   “Everyone has to adapt. Things change. We can't fight it. If we do, we'll be destroyed. We Osages survive by adapting.” Hunter paused. “It won't be many winters until the buffalo are gone.”
   Virgil couldn't respond to that, for he knew it was true. The buffalo bones he and Marcus gathered that helped them survive last winter were from the carcasses of herds left on the prairie by men who killed for sport and to make the land habitable for the settlers.
   Hunter studied Virgil's face for a moment then said, “Want to join us on one of our hunts?”
   Virgil couldn't think of anything he'd rather do than go on a buffalo hunt with the Osages, the masters of the Great Plains! They took only what they needed, using every part of the animal. He wanted to say, “Yes, yes, yes!” Instead he remembered his promise to his father. Then he thought about Liberty's and Marcus's need of him.
   When Virgil's happy face turned thoughtful, Hunter changed the subject. “You've been tracking your horses.”
   “You seen them?”
   Hunter nodded. “Their tracks. Up the river about an hour's walk. They were headed west.” He grinned. “Come, I'll show you.”
   Hunter was trotting off before Virgil had his boots laced. He hastily grabbed his backpack and rifle and caught up with him. Hunter sprinted across the open prairie instead of following the curving river through the brambles and over inlets as Virgil had been doing looking for tracks. Hunter knew where the tracks were. Without questioning him, Virgil followed. Though he couldn't go on an extended buffalo hunt, he could follow Hunter here. After all, his mission was to find the horses. 
   “I thought you'd be in the Ozarks trapping like you did last spring,” Virgil said as they jogged along side by side,
   “We're going there later.”
   “Your tribe used to live there, didn't they?”
   “Yes. My fathers wintered there in permanent lodges and the whole tribe hunted the buffalo here in the summer.” He glanced over the green prairie. “My people left there over seventy winters ago, but some of us go back each year to trap and hunt.”
   They jogged about a quarter of a mile without talking.
   “What it was like there?” Virgil asked.
   “Though we hunted all of the plains from the big river west to the mountains, we liked best the hills in the Ozarks. Winters aren't so cold. Summer's not so hot. Not much wind. Creeks, rivers, and springs every-where.”
   “It sounds like a paradise.”
   “It was—for the Osages. There were herds of deer, many birds, and fish. All kinds of game. The tales the old men tell say that berries hung on every bush and nuts weighted down the hickory, walnut, and pecan trees. 
   “And, of course, acorns for squirrels to get fat on. There was flint to make arrowheads and trees to build lodges. Everything anyone would need without traveling far.”
   “Is it still like that?”
   “In a way, but like what is happening here, the game is almost gone and people live in every valley. Many winters ago my people had to leave. We return now only on short trapping trips.”
   After a few minutes he added, “The old men tell lots of stories from the time we lived there.”
   “Tell me some,” Virgil said.
   “Most of the stories deal with the land, the springs, trees, streams, and either good and bad people.”
   When Virgil indicated he was interested, Hunter continued, “One I like tells how one night a big spring gushed up out of the ground. They say it is the eye of the Sacred One, the Earth, who is weeping because our people had grown fat and lazy. They were wasting the land. They were dirty and disorderly, were killing game they didn't need, and warring on their kinsmen.”
   “I like that story, too,” Virgil said.
   “One of the older warriors who joins us sometimes on our hunts tells lots of stories about that region. He grew up just west of there, went to a Yankee school, and was a Union scout in that area during the War Between the States. His name is Walking Owl. My favorite that he tells, and one I also like to tell is about Spanish gold.”
   “Tell me.” 
   Hunter grinned at Virgil. “All I have to do is mention ‘gold' and everyone, red, black, or white, wants to hear it.”
   “So do I,” Virgil said.
   As they jogged along the banks of the Solomon River, Hunter thought for a moment before beginning, “I'll tell it like Walking Owl does.” 
   He composed himself before he began. “Many, many winters ago when the Osages wintered in the hilly land of the Ozarks and spent the summers hunting the buffalo on the great plains, some Spaniards were taking the gold they found in the Colorado mountains by mule train across the plains to the Mississippi River. From there it was shipped down to Louisiana and then to Spain. To get to the big river they traveled through our hunting lands that spread for many, many days' journey all the way from the mountains to the big river.
   “Now at that time, gold didn't mean anything to my people except for some trinket for decoration. The tale goes that my ancestors trailed them because they wanted their mules. They caught up with the Spaniards and killed them all somewhere on their journey. But before they were captured, the Spaniards hid the gold in some cave or rocky formation along one of the many rivers they followed or crossed. The gold was never found, though many men have hunted for it over the years.”
   “I'll bet they did. I'd have looked myself. Finding Spanish gold would ease our problems and bring my parents here.” Virgil laughed. “Could that have been on a river in Kansas?”
“Probably not.” Hunter grinned.
   “No caves or good hiding places?”
   “Unless they hid it behind a clump of bunch grass,” Hunter said laughing. “Everyone reacts like you did. The first thing they think of when they hear the story is that they might find the gold themselves.”
   “Along a river, you said?”
   “Yes, so the story goes.” Hunter grinned. “And there are hundreds of rivers the Spaniards had to cross on their trip.”
   “And thousands of hiding places.”
   The tall young men ran on. Thinking about Hunter's story and wishing it really was this area where the Spaniards hid the gold, Virgil didn't watch where he was going. He almost collided with Hunter. The Osage had stopped and was looking down at the horses' tracks he'd noticed earlier that morning. He pointed north across the river, where the animals had entered the water and to the deep prints in the steep, wet bank on their side. A quick survey showed where the horses had spent the night. The grass was flattened where they rested. Fresh tracks headed west.
   “Let's go,” Hunter said. “We're not far behind them. We'll find them for you.”
Virgil spotted Beauty's halter dangling on a limb where she had rubbed it off. Forgetting the story of the Spanish gold, he tied the halter to his belt and followed Likes-to-Hunt as they traced the horses' trail up the south side of the Solomon River.
 
 
*     *     *
 
 
   The fine black soil glistened in the late afternoon sun. Marcus pulled his brown felt hat down farther on his face to protect his eyes when he and Lady faced the setting sun while marking off the last row for Liberty to plant the seeds.
   The row was straight east and west. Liberty knew how Marcus prided himself on his straight rows, both here and in the garden. 
   It was as if the plants wouldn't thrive as well if the rows varied even an inch one way or the other. And though he didn't actually measure the distance apart, she knew they measured exactly three feet each way.
   That's Marcus, she thought. Virgil wouldn't care, as long as the rows had enough space between them for Lady to pull the hand-held cultivator through to get rid of the weeds and grass.
   Though she was tired enough to drop, Liberty wished there was more work so she wouldn't have to go to the soddy to fix supper. She envisioned what it must have been like back in slavery days when her mother prepared all the meals for the plantation owners. All the Lady of the House had to do was wear a fancy dress, sit at an elegant table, and eat what the slaves set before her. No wonder people in the south fought a war to keep slavery. They didn't want to do all that work.
   But even the child she was, Liberty knew the trouble was much more than that. It was about money. About power. And something else she didn't understand, states' rights. That business was all over and done for now for lots of years, actually since she was born. She and her brothers were working for themselves now. And back in Kentucky her parents were working hard to get money to join them.
   But was it much better now? She was the Lady of the House, she, Liberty Lander. But the picture of her as a lady was all wrong. She wore no fancy dress or lacy fascinator over her hair. She owned only two dresses besides the calico one she had on that was patched and faded, and now covered with dirt. Nobody had clean clothes unless she washed them and hung them out on the line where the ceaseless wind blew strong enough to blow the hems out of her dresses. 
   Her table was not elegant. It was slabs of wood Virgil had cobbled together. At every meal she had to first wipe off the dirt that fell onto it from the sod roof. And far from being waited on, nobody at her house ate unless she herself prepared the meal.
   Working out in the field, her face protected by her sunbonnet, her hands by worn-out gloves, and a faded apron covering her patched dress, she rejoiced at being outside and working with Marcus. Here she could see her accomplishments. She covered the last kernels of corn at the end of the last row. When this crop she planted is harvested and fed to their hogs and the hogs fattened and sold, they would have money to send to her parents so they could come. She and the boys could actually bring them here.
   Liberty didn't notice the weariness in her legs and shoulders. She ignored the blisters on her hands as she ran skipping to the soddy where to her delight she saw Virgil dismount from Buck while holding Beauty's lead rope.
   “Virge!” she screamed. “You found them.” She danced around him admiring the horses who showed no signs of their wandering. She hugged Beauty. “And Virge, Marcus and I finished planting the corn. Ma and Pa will be here soon.”
   “Good. Good work, little sister,” Virgil answered, though he didn't follow her reasoning how that would bring their parents here. “Now, where's supper? I ain't had nothing but a cornbread sandwich all day.”
   As she entered the soddy, Liberty's bubble of happiness leaked a bit. Her lower lip protruded as she cut out a fat slice of ham meat from the joint hanging from a cottonwood pole that held the sod roof in place. 
   She slapped the ham into the skillet as if she hated it. She didn't feel like a Lady of the House, nor did she feel the thrill of achievement she had felt out in the cornfield. Instead she wondered if there was anything a colored girl could do to work for herself. Could she get a homestead claim. Or be a schoolteacher like Jenny Fletcher? Or . . . ? She saw no way she could do any of these things.
   The boys sat down to rest while she prepared their meal in the home that belonged to her brother. Then she looked at it another way and grinned as she said softly to Nicky who patiently waited for her to toss him a scrap. “This place belongs to someone in my family, and I'm cooking supper for my brothers, not for a pampered White Lady.”
BOOK: Morning in Nicodemus
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