It was not yet dawn and already he could smell death. It came to him in the scent of the bear fat mixed with red ochre that was the war paint smeared across his face. It was in the sulfur odor of his powder horn and in the stink of his own sweat-drenched body as he bent to the stroke of his paddle. It was in the air itself, something crisp and final, as if these were the last breaths he would ever draw, and it made his nostrils burn.
In the east, the sky hinted at color, a faint flush of red. The dark lake surface around the canoes carried a suggestion of the same hue, blood mixed with the juice of blackberries. The only sound was his own breathing and the occasional liquid gurgle of water as he swept his paddle back.
His name was Diindiisi, which meant Blue Jay. He was sixteen years old. He was Anishinaabeg, one of the Original People. This was his first war party.
For years his father and the other men of his village had been preparing him for this moment. Several days earlier, they'd painted him black, a sign that in this business he was not yet initiated. The night before, they'd forced him into the bitter-cold water of the lake, where he'd washed himself clean. Afterward they invited him to join in the preparations for battle. They painted their faces. Those who had the honor of doing so adorned their hair with eagle feathers, symbols of the enemies they'd slain. They attached the penasewiam, holding charms for invulnerability, to their belts or armlets or headdresses.
Now Blue Jay was among them, a warrior, his knife sharpened, his war club at hand, his flintlock cleaned and loaded. His father knelt in the stern of the birch-bark canoe. Blue Jay had the bow. He was afraid, more afraid than he'd ever been. He was also excited, and the two emotions waged a battle inside him that no man looking at his face could see.
There were ten canoes, two warriors in each, a small war party. The enemy were Dakota from the south. That alone was enough to get them killed. But they were hunters as well, trespassing, taking game the Anishinaabeg would need for their own people in the coming winter.
The canoes neared the shoreline. Blue Jay leaped silently to land and lifted the bow so that the bark of the hull wouldn't snag and tear. His father followed and together they settled the canoe on the shore. They gathered their weapons. In the gray light of early morning, they followed the others along a deer trail into the trees.
Blue Jay knew where the hunters were camped, which was in a clearing next to a fast-running stream. He knew because the enemy had been scouted and because he smelled the char from the fire they'd lit the night before. It was only a faint scent on the breeze, but in the deep woods it was profoundly distinct, especially to the heightened senses of a young man on his way to war.
Ozhaawashkwaabi, Black Eye, who led the party, lifted his hand, signaling them to stop. He pointed left and right, and the warriors fanned out. Blue Jay crept to a twisted-trunk cedar tree only a stone's throw from where his father knelt behind an uprooted pine that a powerful wind had pushed over sometime before. In the clearing in front of them lay a circle of ash from a fire. Strewn around it were the blanketed forms of the sleeping Dakota. Blue Jay counted thirteen.
His hand went to the hilt of his knife, then to the war club shoved into his belt. He slid the powder horn from his chest and set it at the base of the cedar. He raised his flintlock and waited. His heart beat so furiously he was afraid the tree he leaned against would begin to shake.
In his mind, he went over the things his father had said to him the night before.
"Choose one of the enemy and aim carefully. Wait until you hear Black Eye give his war whoop, then shoot. Shoot well. Bring your enemy down as you would any animal you hunt in the forest. Give your own war whoop. Make it fierce. It will fill you with courage and it will strike fear in the heart of the Dakota. Run to your enemy with your war club in your hand. Be wary. A man down is not a man dead. Smash the bone of his skull. And then take his scalp in the way I have told you. The scalp is important. It is proof of your kill, proof you are a warrior."
One of the Dakota began to stir. He sat up and stretched. He stood, scratched at his crotch, and lightly kicked the blanket of the man lying next to him. He spoke in a language Blue Jay didn't understand and then he laughed. The other blankets began to move. One by one the enemy awakened.
The sun had touched the tops of the aspen trees that edged the stream. A crow on a high branch began a long string of grating caws. One of the enemy turned to look, picked up a rock, and threw it to no effect. Blue Jay sighted his rifle barrel on the back of that enemy. With his thumb, he drew back the hammer of the flintlock. There was the smallest of clicks as the hammer locked, hardly more than the snap a very small twig might make. The Dakota nearest him turned suddenly in his direction. He peered directly at the cedar that shielded Blue Jay. He spun and shouted something to the others. At that same moment, Black Eye let fly his war cry.
Blue Jay squeezed the trigger. The hammer released. The flint hit the strike plate. The powder exploded. Through the drift of smoke that materialized in front of his face, Blue Jay saw his enemy jerk and collapse. Other Dakota hit the earth, though Blue Jay didn't hear the shots that brought them down, he was so intent on his own actions.
He dropped his flintlock and drew his war club. He gave a yell, so loud and harsh it seared his throat, and rushed forward into the clearing. All around him rose the cries of battle, sharp and desperate. He heard and did not hear. His mind was on the enemy he'd felled with his musket ball. The man lay on the ground, facedown. The ball had hit him in the right shoulder blade and blood welled up through a hole ragged with white bone fragments. The man didn't move. There appeared to be no breath in him, no life. Blue Jay gripped his war club in his right hand. With his left, he grasped the Dakota's shoulder and turned him over.
He was surprised. It was not a man but a boy not even as old as he. He was surprised again when the boy's eyes sprang open and his hand flew upward, thrusting a knife blade toward Blue Jay's belly. Blue Jay spun away, but not before the blade sliced his flesh. He swung his war club and knocked away the hand that held the knife. With a powerful sweep of his leg, the Dakota boy kicked Blue Jay's feet out from under him and he went down. The boy was on him. They grappled, rolling in the wet grass. The Dakota was strong and lithe, but the musket ball had weakened him. Blue Jay felt the boy's strength ebbing quickly. He wrenched his right hand free and swung his war club again. It hit the Dakota's head with a sound like chopping rotted wood. Blue Jay rolled away and came to his feet, but his enemy didn't move. He planted his foot on the Dakota's chest and swung his war club again and again, until the enemy's face and forehead were a bloody mush.
He stood breathing in gasps, staring down at what he'd done. He didn't feel elated. He didn't feel powerful. He felt only grateful that it was not him lying dead in the meadow grass.
Cries went up in celebration. He scanned the clearing where the slaughter was nearing an end. His father, tall and blood spattered, strode toward him, a scalp clenched in his fist. He looked down at the dead Dakota and nodded his approval.
"Now his scalp."
Blue Jay drew his knife. He'd skinned animals all his life, and skinning the head of the Dakota was easy. He slit the forehead just below the hairline, cut behind an ear, drew the blade across the base of the skull, then finished at the other ear. From the forehead back, he peeled the scalp away and held it up before his father. He'd done well. Now he felt the pride.
When it was finished, the war party gathered. They left the clearing, left their enemy unburied, left the bodies and pieces of bodies to be eaten by the scavengers of the forest. In the stories the Anishinaabeg would tell of this battle, they would call the clearing Miskwaa-mookomaan—Red Knife—for the color that flowed across their blades on that triumphant autumn morning.
Two hundred years later, on that same bloody acre, the citizens of Tamarack County, Minnesota, would build a school.
The words on the note folded around the check in his wallet read: Here's $500. A retainer. I need your help. See me today. The note and the money were from Alexander Kingbird, although it was signed Kakaik, which was the name of an Ojibwe war chief. It meant Hawk.
Five hundred dollars was a pretty sound enticement, but Cork O'Connor would have gone for nothing, just to satisfy his curiosity. Although the note didn't mention Kingbird's situation, it was easy to read between the lines. In Tamarack County, unless you were stupid or dead you knew that Alexander Kingbird and the Red Boyz were in trouble. How exactly, Cork wondered, did Kingbird think he could help?
Kingbird and his wife, Rayette, lived on the Iron Lake Reservation. Their home was a nice prefab, constructed to look like a log cabin and set back a hundred yards off the road, behind a stand of red pines. A narrow gravel lane cut straight through the trees to the house. As Cork drove up, his headlights swung across a shiny black Silverado parked in front. He knew it belonged to Tom Blessing, Kingbird's second-in-command. It was Blessing who'd delivered the note that afternoon.
And it was Blessing who opened the door when Cork knocked.
"About time," Blessing said.
He wasn't much more than a kid, twenty-one, maybe twenty-two. Long black hair falling freely down his back. Tall, lean, tense. He reminded Cork of a sapling that in the old days might have been used for a rabbit snare: delicately balanced, ready to snap.
"The note said today. It's still today, Tom," Cork said.
"My name's Waubishash."
Each of the Red Boyz, on joining the gang, took the name of an Ojibwe war chief.
"Let him in." The order was delivered from behind Blessing, from inside the house.
Blessing stepped back and Cork walked in.
Alexander Kingbird stood on the far side of his living room. "Thank you for coming."
He was twenty-five, by most standards still a young man, but his eyes weren't young at all. They were as brown as rich earth and, like earth, they were old. He wore his hair in two long braids tied at the end with strips of rawhide, each hung with an owl feather. A white scar ran from the corner of his right eye to the lobe of his ear. Cork had heard it happened in a knife fight while he was a guest of the California penal system.
Kingbird glanced at Blessing. "You can go."
Blessing shook his head. "Until this is over, you shouldn't be alone."
"Are you planning to shoot me, Mr. O'Connor?"
"I hadn't thought of it, but I may be the only guy in this county who hasn't."
Kingbird smiled. "I'll be fine, Waubishash. Go on."
Blessing hesitated. Maybe he was working on an argument; if so, he couldn't quite put it together. He finally nodded, turned, and left. A minute later, Cork heard the Silverado's big engine turn over, followed by the sound of the tires on gravel. Everything got quiet then, except for a baby cooing in a back room and the low, loving murmur of a woman in response.
"Mind taking your shoes off?" Kingbird said. "New carpet and Rayette's kind of particular about keeping it clean."
"No problem." Cork slipped his Salomons off and set them beside a pair of Red Wing boots and a pair of women's Skechers, which were on a mat next to the door.
"Sit down," Kingbird said.
Cork took a comfortable-looking easy chair upholstered in dark green. Kingbird sat on the sofa.
"You know why you're here?" he said to Cork.
"Instead of twenty questions, why don't you just tell me."
"Buck Reinhardt wants me dead."
"You blame him?"
"I'm not responsible for his daughter dying."
"No, but you're hiding the man who is."
"And you know this how?"
"Popular speculation. And he's one of the Red Boyz."
"I want to talk to Reinhardt."
Kingbird sat tall. He wore a green T-shirt, military issue it looked like. On his forearm was a tattoo. A bulldog—the Marine Corps devil dog—with USMC below.
"I have a daughter of my own," he said. His eyes moved a hair to the right, in the direction from which the cooing had come. "I understand how he feels."
"I don't think you do. Your daughter is still alive."
"My daughter will also never use drugs."
"In that, I wish you luck."
"Reinhardt and some of his men threatened one of my Red Boyz yesterday. He needs to understand that anything he does—to me or any of the Red Boyz—will be answered in kind. I've seen wars, O'Connor. It's easier to stop them before they get started."
"Then give him what he wants. Give him the man responsible for his daughter's death. Give him Lonnie Thunder."
The suggestion seemed to have no effect on Kingbird. "Will you arrange a meeting?"
"Because you're not just another white man. You've got some Ojibwe blood in your veins. Also you used to be sheriff around here and I figure that gives you a certain standing. And—" He held up a card, one of the business cards Cork routinely tacked to bulletin boards around Aurora. "—it's how you earn your living."
"How do I know, and how can Buck be sure, that you won't just shoot him as soon as he shows up?"
"Let him name the place and the time. You'll be there to observe and to maintain the peace."
"Five hundred dollars isn't nearly enough to get me to step between blazing guns."
"I'll be unarmed. You make sure Reinhardt is, too. And the five hundred dollars is a retainer. When this meeting is done, you'll have another five hundred."
Rayette Kingbird strolled into the room carrying her child. Misty had been born six months earlier. When Alexander Kingbird looked at his wife and his daughter, his face softened.
Cork stood up. "Evening, Rayette."
"Bedtime for Misty?"
She smiled. She was full-blood Ojibwe. Her life before Kingbird had been hard. Abandoned by her mother and raised by her grandparents, she'd been into every kind of trouble imaginable. When Cork was sheriff of Tamarack County, he'd picked her up a few times, juvenile offenses. She'd skipped childhood through no fault of her own and he'd thought that any youth she might have had had been squeezed out long ago. Then she met Kingbird and married him and things changed. She looked young and she looked happy.
"Past bedtime," she said. "She wants a kiss from her daddy."
Rayette held the baby out and Kingbird took his daughter. He nuzzled her neck. She gurgled. He kissed her forehead. She squirmed. "Night, little turtle," he said. He handed her back to his wife.
Rayette left with the child. Kingbird looked after them a moment, then turned to Cork.
"We've named her Misty, but her real name is Tomorrow. Every child's name is Tomorrow. You, me, Buck Reinhardt, we're Yesterday. Kristi Reinhardt shouldn't have died. No child's life should be cut short of tomorrow."
"Nice sentiment, Alex, but what are you going to offer Buck? What do I tell him that will make him agree to meet you?"
He ignored the fact that Cork had used his given name, not the one he'd taken as a member of the Red Boyz. He said, "Tell him he will have justice. Tell him I give my word."
© William Kent Krueger.