Thomas shut his eyes against the shower of sparks that leapt from under the musket’s frizzen. The combusting pinch of gunpowder in the pan shot a jet of flame through the touchhole in the musket’s breech and ignited the main powder charge. The stock recoiled into Thomas’ shoulder as the smokepole belched lead and flame. Thomas rocked back as the projectile hurtled across the clearing and slammed into the tree trunk a hand’s width above a blaze gouged out of the bark.
Tehtehma, hands cupped over her ears against the report, watched as Thomas recovered from the thumping. His hair, grown out from its Spring clipping to touch his shoulders again, continued to swing forward as Thomas stopped and then back like a black curtain pushed by a breeze. Thomas blinked his eyes against the dissipating smoke cloud and allowed the muzzle end of the musket to droop. Convinced the noise had echoed away, Tehtehma lowered her hands from her ears.
Thomas cocked his head up from its resting place on the stock and peered over top of the musket’s barrel through the remaining wisps of gun smoke trickling from the muzzle. He squinted his eyes in vain to find the impact point in the tree trunk.
“I think that was too much powder,” Tehtehma said. “It looked like it hit you really hard.”
“It’s the same amount I always use,” said Thomas. He lowered the musket and walked toward the target tree with the musket dangling from his hand at his side. Tehtehma followed with hurried steps to catch up. The beaded hem of her buckskin dress swished around her calves as they strode through the plain’s late summer grass. Tehtehma paused at a small patch of blue flax and plucked one of the pale pastel blue flowers from its prairie perineal. She held the flower up to her nose. Her eyes closed in expectation of the mild, nutty scent imparted to the flowers by the flax seeds.
Tehtehma’s nose wrinkled at the mild fishy smell she encountered instead. The seed pods had begun to go rancid in the late summer heat. She had to content herself with the color left in the bloom. This late in the season, the petals had taken on a slight wrinkle as the flowers began to dry in preparation for the coming winter and returning to the earth to await next spring. Tehtehma’s hand drew the flower down to her side. She shook her head and snorted the offending scent of the dying flower out of her nostrils. Her narrow nose wrinkled as her nostrils flared in their fight to pull in a fresh breath.
Tehtehma looked at Thomas as he continued toward the tree. The distance between them increased as the young man strode with a peculiar confidence. His usual hunched-shoulder shuffle was not to be found. Thomas’ cleft chin led the way for the rest of his face as his eyes focused on where he wanted to be instead of the ground he trod. Tehtehma reached down the outside of her thighs, gathered a bundle of her deerskin dress in each hand, and dashed to catch up with Thomas with the flower stem still pinched between the thumb and forefinger of her hand.
By the time Tehtehma caught up to Thomas, he stood at the base of the tree rubbing his finger around the edge of the bullet hole left from his projectile. Tehtehma stood side by side with Thomas as the pair admired Thomas’ marksmanship. Their arms brushed against one another.
“That’s good,” said Tehtehma, as she extended her hand toward the tree. She slid her left hand beneath Thomas’ and probed the depth of the bullet hole with her little finger. The back of Tehtehma’s hand brushed against the palm of Thomas’. Neither attempted to break contact. Tehtehma’s finger penetrated the tree trunk to the second knuckle before the tip encountered the lead ball. It was still warm to the touch from the fiery expulsion that hurtled it across the open field.
“It’s the best I can expect from a musket,” said Thomas. He relaxed his hand so it draped over Tehtehma’s. She turned her head and looked into Thomas’ Spring blue eyes; the same color shared with his father and siblings, and an impossibility judging by his mother’s Gros Ventre lineage. “I could do better with my father’s rifle,” Thomas said.
“Show me how,” said Tehtehma. She curled her finger out from the bullet hole, turned her hand beneath Thomas’ without breaking contact, and interlocked her fingers with his.
“To shoot?” said Thomas, raising eyebrows possessed with the thinness of youth.
“Yes,” Tehtehma said, as she drew back the corners of her mouth into a smile. Thomas’ gaze lingered on her well-formed, nacreous teeth. The earthy, red ocher hue of Tehtehma’s lips contrasted and framed her dentition. Following the ridge where Tehtehma’s lips transitioned into the rest of her tawny face was the black outline of hand poked tattooing that identified her as a Gros Ventre woman of marriageable age. The far corners of Tehtehma’s mouth, where the upper and lower lips met, contained traces of scabbing not yet healed from the touch of the thorn that had embedded the liner. Thomas returned the smile. It faded in stages as Tehtehma’s smile remained reinforcing her earnestness.
“I don’t know,” Thomas said, as he knitted his sloped brow. Thomas’ eyes narrowed around the broad nose they framed. “I don’t know any girls that shoot.” Thomas leaned back at the prospect.
“Then I can be your first,” Tehtehma said, giving Thomas’ captured hand several soft, rapid squeezes. Thomas’ hand went cold in hers. Tehtehma’s smile expanded farther across her face and accentuated her flushing cheekbones. “I can trade you something for the lesson, if you like.”
“Uh…,” Thomas’ face went slack. Tehtehma twisted and swayed where she stood facing Thomas with her right hand behind her back. “What do you propose to trade?” Thomas sputtered.
“This,” said Tehtehma. She brought the hand from behind her and thrust it toward Thomas’ face. Thomas recoiled his head back as Tehtehma’s flower-clenching fist approached. The flower stopped and stood in the air where it would have rested against the tip of Thomas’ nose. Thomas relaxed his head and leaned it forward looking at Tehtehma. He dipped his nose toward the petals as their eyes locked. Tehtehma twisted the stem between her thumb and forefinger. Thomas sniffed at the revolving petals and scrunched his face as the putrid fish smell of the decaying flower crawled up his nostrils.
“That smells terrible,” Thomas said, as he jerked his head back and to the side. Tehtehma giggled. She pulled on Thomas’ hand, bending him at the waist toward her, and pushed the flower to his nose again.
“You don’t like flowers?” Tehtehma teased, as Thomas squirmed away and out of her grip. Thomas stood facing Tehtehma with his hands straight down his sides as he mustered the sternest expression he possessed in his young repertoire.
“Not when they smell like a rotting deer carcass,” Thomas blurted, his smile gone. Tehtehma twisted her face into a pout.
“Then I will have to be in your debt until I find a flower you like the fragrance of,” Tehtehma said, through her pursed lips. She cast a mock gaze downward. “But I’d really like for you to show me how to shoot.” Thomas’ scowl melted into a grin. He gave Tehtehma a quick beckon of his hand to follow him.
“Follow me,” Thomas said, as he turned and walked back toward where he made the initial shot. Tehtehma’s face blossomed into a grin as she looked up. She cast the putrid flower aside and broke into a saunter behind Thomas.
“You said you shoot better with your father’s gun,” Tehtehma said, as she caught up to Thomas. “What makes it better?”
“That’s because it’s a rifle. The barrel has groves on the inside that make it more accurate,” Thomas said. “Also, it uses those newfangled caps to set off the charge, so there’s no sparks in your face to queer your aim.” Thomas stopped at the tree where he had leaned his musket. Tehtehma stood beside Thomas as he reached down, grasped the stock ahead of the trigger guard, and stood up straight. He turned to face Tehtehma and held the musket at chest height. Thomas pointed to index finger of his free hand at the musket’s lock.
“All this is different on my father’s rifle,” said Thomas, as he pointed at the pan and frizzen. Tehtehma nodded her head. Thomas placed the musket, butt down, on the ground between them. He gripped the forend of the musket where the ramrod protruded from the wooden stock and pointed at the muzzle. “See the inside. It’s smooth. No grooves on the inside.” Tehtehma placed her hand over Thomas’ where it gripped the stock. She tilted the muzzle toward her and leaned forward toward Thomas at the same time. She peered into the bore.
Tehtehma allowed her gaze to linger on the smoothness of the bore as she craned her neck, bringing the side of her face near Thomas’. The scent of Prairie Sage wafted to Thomas’ nostrils from Tehtehma’s hair. Thomas turned his head inward until his nose almost buried itself in the iron pot darkness of hair piled on top of Tehtehma’s head. A stray lock had worked its way loose and teased Thomas as it dangled down the front of her ear. She heard Thomas inhale.
“Do you like it?” Tehtehma said, as she cast her eyes to the left and gave Thomas a sidelong glance.
“Like what?” said Thomas, as he jerked himself erect. His eyes widened. Thomas’ grip on the musket loosened, but Tehtehma’s hand over his pinned the young Métis in place. She straightened and faced Thomas. The musket skidded on its butt until it was between the pair.
“The way my hair smells.”
“It smells nice.”
“It’s Prairie Sage. We can put some in your hair, if you like,” Tehtehma smiled. She reached up to Thomas’ collar and flittered her fingertips along the bottom edge of Thomas’ hair. “You don’t have much hair, so it won’t take much.”
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