“They are a good match,” Little Badger said. “And they seem fond of each other, which is always a good omen.”
“That it is,” said Slow as He Goes. The measured pace of his words made discussion a swim against the current. “It is difficult to find one without the other of late.”
“Yes,” said Earth Mother. “I feel responsible at times for depriving one of you of a son and the other of a daughter because they visit my husband and I so frequently. Slow as He Goes, if this has created a burden, please tell me, and I will remedy the situation.”
“The situation has been thus for some time. I would not keep such a sentiment secret,” said Slow as He Goes. His neutral expression was interrupted by a quick twist in the corner of his mouth, which for Slow as He Goes counted as a smile. “I see the fondness between them, and at this stage, see no reason to discourage it.”
“I’m happy to see we are of similar minds,” said Little Badger. A bead of perspiration formed in her hairline at the temple and was absorbed into the black strands before it could escape down the side of her face.
The air inside the tee-pee had begun to thicken when Little Badger pulled the flap of the entrance closed behind her and Earth Mother. The morning sun pressing down on the buffalo hide shell warmed the air trapped inside faster than the surrounding air outside. The closed flap deprived the tee-pee of the cooling draft through the smoke hole at the top of the conical structure. Negotiations would have to conclude before the tee-pee became a sweat lodge.
“What brings you to my tee-pee today, Little Badger?” Slow as He Goes said. His lips moved up and down in two parallel lines without disturbing the rest of his face as the words drooled into the thickening air. “Gossip of our children’s infatuation with each other requires no secrecy.”
“That is true,” said Earth Mother. Slow as He Goes shifted his gaze from Little Badger to Earth Mother. “I apologize for interrupting, but I have knowledge about the depth of their relationship that influences this meeting.”
“Then which of you should I hear first?” said Slow as He Goes, bouncing his gaze between Little Badger and Earth Mother. “I hope it is not distressing.” Slow as He Goes’ eyes settled on Earth Mother. The dispassionate countenance of his face bore down on her until it pushed her lips into a nervous smile. Earth Mother’s eyes squinted as her chubby cheeks were caught between them and the corners of her mouth.
Slow as He Goes spoke with the cadence and measured tone of a man choosing his words deliberately. A birth defect of his facial muscles limited his ability to communicate through facial expression. The same defect impeded the ability of his lips to move when forming words, but since Slow as He Goes had learned to speak in spite of the impediment, his ability to form and utter words was largely unimpeded except for slow delivery. It benefitted him. From a young age, Slow as He Goes was perceived as wise, thoughtful, and serious. His face was incapable of betraying him.
“Not at all,” said Little Badger. She adjusted herself where she sat on the floor of the tee-pee next to Earth Mother and across the charred remains of the previous night’s fire from Slow as He Goes. She leaned forward. “It is news that can benefit both our families.”
“Tell me,” Slow as He Goes said.
“Tehtehma and Thomas have grown up together, but recently it seems their attachment has become more intense,” Little Badger said.
“Are you concerned they may be smitten with each other?” said Slow as He Goes. He looked to Earth Mother. “They are at your tee-pee as often as Little Badger’s. What have you noticed?”
“I believe they are smitten,” Little Badger said. Slow as He Goes shifted his attention back to her and nodded his head. “But I do not see it as something of concern so much as I see it as something to take advantage of.”
“In what way?” said Slow as He Goes. Earth Mother opened her mouth to speak and clapped it shut, pursing her lips into a tight line when Little Badger glared at her sideways. “Please, Little Badger. The tee-pee grows uncomfortable. Plead your case quickly.”
“Thomas and Tehtehma should marry,” Little Badger blurted. Slow as He Goes sat in his stony silence.
“Perhaps I have miscalculated,” said Slow as He Goes. “Have they fallen in love while I slept?”
“I don’t believe they have,” said Little Badger, “but they are well on their way.”
“Tehtehma has said nothing of this to me,” Slow as He Goes said.
“Nor would she at her age,” said Little Badger. “No more than Thomas would confide such a thing to me. Neither of them are yet able to understand what they feel. But the signs are there, and if both of our families are able to guide the sapling, we may produce a mighty tree.”
“You are both women and have understanding of life men do not possess,” said Slow as He Goes. “Do you see a successful match to be made for them and both families?”
“I do,” said Little Badger.
“As do I,” said Earth Mother. “I don’t think we would be able to prevent them if we wanted.”
“How do you mean?” said Slow as He Goes. He turned his wooden gaze to Earth Mother. She fidgeted where she sat on the ground.
“A few days ago, I spied them on the river bank,” Earth Mother said, her voice trailing off.
“I could not hear you,” Slow as He Goes said. “What were Thomas and Tehtehma doing on the river bank?”
“Well, I guess you could…,” Earth Mother stammered under the stare of Slow as He Goes. “I couldn’t see them very well, but I’d say they were frolicking in the water.”
“Yes. Frolicking. Or possibly cavorting. It was difficult to tell from my vantage point.
“Yes,” said Earth Mother. “Nude.”
“Nude?” said Slow as He Goes. Little Badger squinted her eyes shut and clenched her teeth at the exchange.
“Yes,” said Earth Mother. “They were skinny-dipping, basically.”
“Skinny-dipping. I see,” said Slow as He Goes. He shook his head as the words hung in the tee-pee’s heavy air. Both women braced themselves. Slow as He Goes sighed. “She’s just like her mother.” Little Badger and Earth Mother both let out the breath they were holding. They glanced at each other and back to Slow as He Goes as he shook his head.
“I was suspicious when she returned with damp hair,” said Slow as He Goes.
“This is why I think we would have an easy time making a match between them” Little Badger said. “They will cooperate.”
“No doubt they will cooperate,” Slow as He Goes said. He leaned forward placing his elbows on his knees and chin in the palm of one hand. Slow as He Goes’ eyelids lowered and raised several times as he looked through the space between Little Badger and Earth Mother. He contemplated the buffalo hide wall of the tee-pee behind the pair. After several moments of slow blinking, Slow as He Goes sat up, placed his hands on his thighs, and looked at Little Badger.
“They are clearly a willing match,” began Slow as He Goes, “but are their families an appropriate match?”
“How do you mean?” said Little Badger.
“They are both very young,” Slow as He Goes said.
“I recall the young women of this tribe in tears over Slow as He Goes, the most eligible of the few bachelor braves, removing himself as a possible suitor at such a young age,” said Earth Mother. “How old were you, again?”
“You know I was fifteen summers.”
“The same age as my nephew,” said Earth Mother.
“Your excellent memory should also recall that her husband, my last uncle, had recently been killed on a buffalo hunt, and she had three small children,” said Slow as He Goes.
“And your current wife?” said Little Badger. “How old was she when you married?”
“That was a political arrangement to strengthen the alliance with her tribe,” said Slow as He Goes.
“She had barely begun her monthly bleed,” said Little Badger. Slow as He Goes narrowed his eyes and tilted his head toward Little Badger. She returned the glare.
“What do the extraordinary circumstances between my two marriages have to do with your proposed marriage of your son to my daughter?” Slow as He Goes said.
“Please hear us,” said Earth Mother. Slow as He Goes righted his head and turned toward Earth Mother. “Little Badger does not propose they marry tomorrow. We simply want to know your thoughts on the matter should the two of them entertain the idea. Isn’t that right, Little Badger?” Slow as He Goes looked back to Little Badger. Her expressionless face, as dead as the one worn by Slow as He Goes, met him.
“My son has much to offer your daughter,” said Little Badger. The blood rising in her cheeks displaced the normal light brown color. “Just as your daughter has much to offer my son.”
“And at his young age, what does Thomas have to offer?” said Slow as He Goes. “Both to Tehtehma and to me to compensate for the loss of my daughter?”
“I imagine he has as much to offer Tehtehma as you had to offer your widowed Aunt,” said Earth Mother. The corners of Slow as He Goes’ mouth twitched up and down again at Earth Mother’s statement.
“Yes. I imagine you are right,” said Slow as He Goes. “What prospects does the boy possess to support a family?”
“He works hard for his age. He is smart and strong,” said Little Badger. “And he treats his brother and sister well. We have all seen how he treats Tehtehma. Does she have any complaints of Thomas’ treatment of her?”
“No,” said Slow as He Goes, “but as we agreed earlier, she would be loath to confide in her father.”
“True as that may be,” Earth Mother said, “I have never seen Thomas mistreat anyone.”
“The sort of boy he is indicates the sort of man he will become,” Little Badger said. “And his father has set aside and marked off a plot for Thomas’ future homestead. The two of them have already begun to clear it of trees.”
“And Thomas will take over his father’s trading post, in time,” added Earth Mother. Slow as He Goes raised his hand, bending it at the elbow so as it did not rise above the top of his ear, and lowered his hand.
“It is not the nature of his temperament which concerns me,” said Slow as He Goes, his hand coming to rest back on his thigh. Slow as He Goes ran a hand along the top of each of his thighs until the palms came to rest each cupping a knee. He straightened himself until his torso reached its full extent. His bare chest and abdomen displayed numerous scars of varying length, thickness, and agedness. “Where is Two Buffalo?”
“My husband is trapping with Thomas,” said Little Badger.
“Why is he not with us here?” said Slow as He Goes. “What you propose is a big event in a young man’s life.”
“We are at the very early stages of a long process,” said Little Badger, “and while his language skills in Gros Ventre are adequate for the needs of a Coureur des Bois, Two Buffalo lacks the finer points of romantic discourse,” said Little Badger.
“I assume he knows of our meeting today,” said Slow as He Goes.
“Not yet. I wanted to gauge your sentiments on the prospect, first,” said Little Badger. Slow as He Goes rolled his head in an incredulous nod. “However, my husband and I have discussed the possibility of our families merging, and he has no objections.”
“So a white man in the wilderness who married a Gros Ventre thinks nothing of further diluting the blood of my tribe?” said Slow as He Goes. “How magnanimous of him.” Little Badger’s eyes hardened. Her nostrils flared as she considered her response.
“If purity of the Gros Ventre tribe is of such importance to you,” Little Badger said in a measured tone, “you should examine your choices first.”
“Mongrelization of the Red Man across its many tribes is not a concern I have,” said Slow as He Goes. “I worry the White Man will abscond with one more thing belonging to my people.”
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