“I think I see a dead one over there,” Manay said. She shifted the ax she carried from one shoulder to the other.
“Lead the way,” said Mati, looking into the distant prairie to their left. “I don’t see it.”
“That’s because you’re day dreaming again,” said Manay, hooking her sister’s arm and spinning Mati to the right. “The trees are over there.”
Mati and Manay trudged through the prairie grass toward the small stand of trees. They had managed to stretch their search for dead wood into a task that occupied all of the morning and into the afternoon. It was one of the few chores that took them out of the village or its adjoining fields. The settled agricultural life of the Ojibwa provided a more stable and varied food base for its people, but it also demanded long stays in one location while crops grew. Early attempts by previous generations to plant and return for harvest after following the buffalo all summer met with less and less success as opportunistic tribes discovered more and more unattended fields. Semi-nomadic tribes were eventually forced to pick between either a nomadic or agrarian existence to reap the full benefits available from either. The young of both systems seemed to always long for life in the other.
The girls kicked up insects from the grass around them as they progressed. They stopped periodically to brush off any particularly annoying offenders that landed on them. There was no escaping bugs on the prairie, especially in summer. The buzzing nuisances went about their obscure insect lives until a person or animal happened by. Whichever one was unimportant to the insects. The more innocuous bugs, more a danger to plants than anything else, buzzed around in a rage at being disturbed. They orbited, annoyed, and departed. The more insidious, parasitic types of insects were driven by biological need to find a host. Their cycle of life required a host for sustenance and transport to a new breeding ground. Sometimes, the host was the breeding ground, as well.
Late summer was the worst time of year for insects on the prairie. The long period of warm weather became nearly insufferable at its height in July and August. It allowed all manner of pestering and biting creatures to thrive. The only relief was the first cold snap that killed off all the creatures unable to find shelter against the freezing cold. Scattered chigger bites, most heavily concentrated around the girls’ ankles, extended up each leg and caused itching that kept the girls awake at night.
Manay’s dress, the hem falling to mid-calf, offered more protection than Mati’s, which rode above her knee, but the difference was minimal. Once latched upon an exposed piece of skin, the insects went where they pleased until thwarted.
“I can hardly wait for summer to be over,” Manay said, waving at the cloud of insects engulfing the girls. “I hate these things.”
“The bugs are better to deal with than the sitting around waiting for spring to come,” said Mati, as she slapped at her bug-chewed leg. “Was that deadwood standing or on the ground?”
“It is on the ground, so it’s hard to see,” said Manay, continuing their trek toward the trees. The drying grass crunched under their moccasins as they walked. The individual pieces of grass were called blades for a reason. The edges cut as they scraped overs the girls’ legs, leaving a crisscross of discolored marks along their skin.
“Do you ever wonder what it would be like if our people followed the buffalo again?” Mati said.
“Sometimes,” Manay said. “There would definitely be no fields to toil in while the men went out hunting.” The girls continued their march toward the trees. Their eyes fixed on the tree line that broke the horizon.
“Do you think the women get to hunt in those tribes?” Mati said. A look of fantastical imaginations crossed her face. “Just imagine. Riding out for several days. Shooting a deer or a buffalo. Setting snares for rabbits and such.”
“You are dreaming again,” Manay said. She lifted the ax from her shoulder and held it out toward Mati. “Here. You carry this thing for a while.” Mati took the ax and laid it against her shoulder as she walked.
“Ow, ow, ow. I think I have a tick biting me,” Mati said. She stopped and in one movement, bunched up the hem of her dress and twisted her upper body toward Manay to inspect the back of her leg. “I can’t see it, but I know it here. Do you see it?” The gathered up hem of Mati’s dress revealed fading bruises from a recent encounter with a switch. The long, narrow welts went across the backs of her thighs running parallel to the ground and wrapped around toward the front of her right leg. The wielder was right handed, and the buckskin material of the dress reminded Mati each time it slid across the marks.
“I don’t…see…There it is.” The tick had embedded its head in one of the darker portions of the bruising. “It’s not bloated, yet.” Manay reached out and grasped the tick between her thumb and forefinger. A steady, twisting pull dislodged it, head and all, leaving behind a dot of blood that turned into a trickle. Manay crushed the unwelcome hitchhiker and pitched it to the side.
“Thanks,” Mati said, as she released her dress and rubbed her palm on the bite site. The pair resumed walking toward the stand of trees. The excitement of the bug bite had derailed the conversation, so the girls trudged on in silence.
This was Mati’s favorite of the two dresses she possessed. The other, traditional in its length, reached the middle of her shins, like Manay’s. Mati had taken a knife to this one and trimmed the hem until it laid a hand’s width above her knee. The rough edge of the cut had not been yet been worn soft by time.
“Tall Waterfall might be paying Father your bride price,” Manay said, as they walked. Manay slapped a mosquito on her neck and inspected the mangled carcass in her hand. “No blood. I got him before he got me.”
“Ugh, him. Why won’t he leave me alone?” Mati said. She pushed the stray strands of hair that had fallen against the side of her face back behind her somewhat out of proportion ear. “He is ugly.”
“Be happy you have men coming to your tent,” said Manay. She looked at Mati and curled back her lips to reveal bucked front teeth and their neighbors placed nearly sideways. “Once the men see these, I’m lucky to get any offers at all.” Manay tripped on a dirt clod while here attention was diverted, but stumbled her way into regaining her footing. “It is easy for you to be choosy.” Manay returned her gaze to the approaching tree line.
“Then you won’t find a shallow man,” said Mati. “And there is more to life than a man, anyway.”
“Only if you don’t want a family.”
“I want a family. I just don’t want the only thing in my life that changes to be the tee-pee,” Mati said. “Don’t you long for at least one adventure? Something that doesn’t involve fetching wood all day or making food that is gobbled up by someone who expects you to do it? Just one thing you can remember and smile about?”
“Like the little adventure that earned you those stripes from mother?” said Manay, gesturing at the backs of Mati’s thighs.
“Father wasn’t upset,” Mati said. “And I remember someone who had a similar adventure of her own.”
“Because Father doesn’t know you were doing more than checking traps with Broken Bow,” Manay said. “Oh, my wonderful little Mati can’t do anything wrong. Mother sees through the black magic you cast on Father. And besides, he and I were in love.”
“Oh, that’s what love looks like?” Mati said. “Making me stand lookout while you and Dark Sun screwed in the corn field? The least you could have done was let me stop working while he sweated all over you.”
“Well, I learned my lesson,” Manay said. “I am just biding my time. Unlike you, if I turn up missing, it will be because I left for good. Not to waste my time with some friend of Father’s who will live in the village for the rest of his life.”
“What’s that?” Mati said. She pointed toward the stand of trees.
“Don’t change the subject,” said Manay.
“I’m not playing. Look.”
“I don’t see anything,” Manay said. Mati dropped the ax from her shoulder onto the ground and ducked down beneath the grass. She grabbed Manay’s arm as she descended. Manay’s knees thudded into the ground as her sister yanked her down. The pair crouched on their hands and knees peeking their heads above the tops of the grass for a better view of the stand of trees.
“Do you still see it? What do you see?” Manay said. She peered over her sister’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Mati said. She stuck out her arm for Manay to sight along. “Just past those first few trees.” Manay hunched down behind Mati’s shoulder looking along her arm and beyond the thin stand of trees in front of them. On the other side were two young Indians. Their forms flashed between the tree trunks as they moved back and forth. Busy with some sort of task on the ground, they appeared and disappeared from sight.
“We should go closer,” Mati said.
“What if they are hostile?” said Manay.
“We will approach carefully. Not give ourselves away,” Mati responded. “If they seem friendly, we say ‘hello.’ If not, we sneak away with them none the wiser.” Manay considered her sister’s proposal for a moment. The two Indians seemed to be of similar age to them. They moved with youthful grace and made no particular attempts to conceal their presence.
“All right,” Manay said. “But at the first sign of trouble, we leave. Got it?” Mati nodded her head until the tips of her braided hair danced.
The two girls plotted their course for a moment before they ducked down into the tall prairie grass. Mati picked up the ax, and the pair made for the narrow stand of trees hunched over on hands and knees. They zigzagged from tall clumps of grass to small rises of earth to shallow depressions until they reached the opposite side of the cluster of trees that obscured the other two Indians.
Manay and Mati peered between the tree trunks with ease at the shorter distance. From their perch, the two Indian girls spied the objects of their interest were young. If they were old enough to have taken wives, it was a recent event. The pair wore traditional Plains Indian attire of only moccasins and breechclouts. They had stripped off the leggings that afforded the protection of pants legs and discarded them to the side prior to commencing their work in the sun. The hems of the breechclouts swayed around their upper legs as they worked. The swirling cloth accented their well-developed thigh muscles which played peek-a-boo to the girls’ enjoyment.
The pair still possessed some of the scrawniness of youth, but showed the beginnings of well-developed musculature earned from long days hunting for the tribe. Miles upon miles spent atop a horse, and additional miles tracking game on foot, had developed their legs. Their arms, shoulders, and backs were lean and ropey from wrestling animal carcasses for transport and butchering. These were not tee-pee Indians who sat around watching their crops grow. They went into the wild hinterlands and brought down their food through strength and cunning.
“They are handsome,” Manay whispered. “What people are they?”
“I don’t know,” Mati said. “But they aren’t from around here. That’s for sure.” The girls craned their necks to see what business the two strange Indians attended to. The pair were butchering a deer that lay on the ground. Rather than waste time gutting the animal as was the practice of the White Man, they had skinned the deer where it fell and were cutting off the desired portions of meat. They had already worked one side down to the bone. White ribs showed down the flank of the deer from where the pair had already worked. The front and back legs on one side of the carcass had been removed and laid on the inside of the hide. The pair worked together with the deftness and speed of experience.
Their knives moved in long, fast stokes. Their economical movements subdivided the animal efficiently. The pair of Indians shuffled beside the carcass as they worked, occasionally bumping one another, but never actually hindering the other. Practiced strokes of their knives cut rings around the lower leg joints before a hand placed on either side of the cut braced the limb against a knee. A fast push against the joint in the direction opposite of its natural angle broke the connecting tissue free. One last deft cut through the remaining tissue severed the lower deer leg entirely before being tossed to the side for whatever scavenging animal found it.
A feather hung from the left ear of one of the Indians. The quill pierced thought his lobe from back to front and allowed it to swing out of the way along the side of his neck. The feather moved rhythmically in the false breeze created by its wear’s movement. His long hair was twisted into a single strand and folded back onto itself. It was tied at the base of his neck with a piece of rawhide. Sweat glistened on his face as he worked in the sun. He paused periodically to wipe the perspiration off with his forearm before he resumed his work.
The other Indian held his knife with only three fingers of his hand. The pinky stuck out useless; perpendicular to the rest. It did not seem to slow him down. He lopped off large chunks of deer meat with the same ease as his compatriot. Vaguely slighter of build, his torso muscles undulated noticeably as he worked, even at the distance from which the girls watched. Matching braids ran along each side of his head. They parted his hair down the middle as they hung behind his head and straight down.
“They are definitely not from about here,” Manay whispered. She leaned close to her sister. “I would remember them.”
“I would do more than remember them,” Mati said. She curled in her lips and wet them with the tip of her tongue. Manay recoiled from her sister. “But since you insist on being in love, you can stand watch for the three of us.”
“Stop that,” Manay hissed. She reached out and pinched Mati’s side. “You’re terrible.” Mati twisted away from her sister’s hand and stifled a guilty giggle. The girls watched as the pair continued hunched over in their butchering ballet. The two butchers did not slow until the last of the meat was removed from the now skeletal carcass and placed on the deer hide with the edges folded over the pile. They stood up with their backs toward the girls and replaced their knives in the sheaths tucked into their belts. The pair of hunters admired their catch while they rested. They wiped their brows with their forearms. Their shoulders rose and fell as they inhaled large breathes.
“It’s rather rude to spy,” the Indian with the deformed pinky called out, without turning around. “We spotted you before you started sneaking up on us.”
“Please, come introduce yourselves,” said the other Indian.
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