This story is by David H. Safford and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She would have immediately fetched the gun and shot him if she hadn’t been burying her husband. The November ground was already frozen, the dirt stubborn as the dead man himself, and the chore required hauling fifty stones from the surrounding plain to cover his remains. She was carrying the final stone when she heard the gallop of a horse, and turned.
She wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her dress, holding a stone over her chest. There was a young man, a warrior, with an older man sitting before him. His head was bowed and frail.
The younger raised a finger, pointing at her middle.
With one hand, she grasped the hefty mass protruding from her belly. Her lip curled at the sensation of tiny limbs churning within.
“Medicine?” the Indian said.
She didn’t answer.
He pointed to the pile of rocks behind her. “Dead man,” he declared. “Medicine?”
She looked to the elder Indian and saw that his eyes were heavy as he leaned over the horse’s mane. Blood smeared his flesh. She glanced behind them, to the horizon.
“They’re following you,” she said. “Aren’t they.”
“Heal him!” the younger bellowed, and he drew a knife and pointed it at her.
She took a breath to calm her heartbeat. “I can try.”
He lowered the knife, dismounted his horse, and took the elder by the hand.
“Inside,” he commanded, gesturing toward her slouched, mud-walled home. “Now!”
She swallowed, dropped the rock, and obeyed.
The wound was deep in the leg, the musket ball still inside. The elder breathed with desperate gasps. He should be dead, she thought, yet was rebelliously alive.
“I can get the bullet out, but it won’t be comfortable,” she said.
“He is strong,” the Indian said. “He has known worse pain.”
She took her surgical instruments from their case. In years past, she had hoped nothing more than to be a physician in New England. But as her fingers massaged a numbing ointment into the wound, she saw the face of her husband, younger in memory, scoffing at her dreams.
The Indian squatted by the door while she worked, peering into the east. When the musket ball finally emerged, the elder moaned in his own poetry. She sutured the gaping flesh and washed her hands in frigid water.
“You are a skilled healer,” the Indian said, and placed a hand on the elder’s forehead. He knelt and began to pray in a murmur.
She watched him closely, silently reaching into the grassy lattice of the hut’s roof. Her hands found her rifle hidden there. She took it down and swung it toward him.
“Leave!” she ordered.
“Soon,” he said.
“Go!” she screamed. “I’ve killed an Indian before! I’ll do it again!”
“My father must sleep. He is weary.”
“The militia’s coming for you, isn’t it?”
He was silent.
“They come around all the time,” she said. “Would’ve joined up myself if it weren’t for my husband.”
“And now he is dead,” the Indian said.
She stepped toward him, the barrel trained on his sturdy face. “If they come and find me helping you, they’ll kill me and my child. Now leave!”
The threat did not move him. Instead he studied her, his eyes welling with fearless power. He stepped forward and placed a hand on the barrel of the rifle.
“We will leave before sunrise,” he said. “For now, my father must rest.”
Anger filled her with a burning desire to pull the trigger. But the child suddenly flailed within, and she doubled over, cringing.
He took the rifle, laying it on the floor.
“You are a life-giver, Nach-tay-yaw. Not one who kills.”
“What did you call me?” she groaned, cradling her belly.
“Nach-tay-yaw: Water-is-Roaring. You are a life-giver with the fury of the mightiest rapids.”
“Go,” she whispered, her strength vanishing. “Just go.”
His eyes were gentle, respecting her like none ever had before.
“Do not worry. I will.”
She warmed some stew over the fire while he took strips of meat and ate them. He removed his buckskin cloak and set it by the hearth.
“You should go,” she said, massaging her belly. “The militia rides when it wants to, day and night.”
“How soon for your child?” he said.
She took a sip of broth. “Very soon.”
He smiled. “May I tell you of my people?”
She sighed at his persistence, but nodded.
He told her stories of the great buffalo hunts and the journeys to hidden places he would not name. He spoke of tests of manhood and witnessing the secret Sun Dance. With each story she leaned forward, her eyes glowing in the firelight.
And then he told her of his Vision Quest.
“I had not eaten in thirty days. Then Be-He-Teiht revealed my vision.” He spoke in a whisper. “Healing hands. Strong heart. A mother of great people.” He paused. “What do you think?”
A chill paralyzed her that she couldn’t explain. Sweat was forming in her palms.
“I don’t know anything about visions,” she said.
“Did you have a vision of your husband? Before you knew him?”
“I didn’t need one,” she said. “He said he loved me, and that was enough. Back then, at least.”
The man nodded. “That is honorable to say.”
The fire popped and hissed while she digested the story of the vision. She looked up at him. “Why did you tell me all of this?”
“Because you are strong.”
She laughed. “Not strong enough. I’m alone and winter’s already come.”
“The quietest stream feeds the fiercest ocean.”
He smiled. “When I watched you heal, Nach-tay-yaw, I knew.”
“Knew what?” she asked, growing breathless.
“In my vision: it was you.”
She bowed her head, hot with blood and shame. Her eyes found shelter in the dirt floor.
“Please go,” she said finally.
He stood, and she wondered if this meant he would indeed leave, but instead he said, “You give me hope, Nach-tay-yaw.”
He extended his open hand, black with earth sown deep into his flesh, and said, “May I touch your strength, my living vision?”
“No,” she said. “I just buried my husband with these hands. How dare they touch yours!”
“Your hands are strong, and proud. They will be needed for many hard winters.”
He was waiting in the glow, his eyes beckoning, brown like good soil. And as she looked back, her gaze suddenly wove into his, and for a blinking moment she felt every knotted worry, fear, and wounded corner of her heart sigh and breathe, unshackled at last. She let her arm fall.
He took her hand in his, and gently brushed his fingertips over hers. Warmth surged up her arm, sparking a sudden fire in a winterized heart. She closed her eyes.
But then the child thrashed in protest, and she took back her hand.
He sighed and backed away.
“Why did you do that?” she asked.
He sat with his back to her.
“Tell me,” she insisted.
“Because I have loved that woman, that vision, for many years.”
“I’m not your ‘vision,’” she whispered. “I can’t be.”
He did not answer, and said no more for a very long time. She watched him, trembling and listening for his voice, while the tips of her fingers buzzed with the fading warmth of his touch.
She awoke to the sound of men and horses, their cries shattering the cold morning.
“We have stayed too long,” the Indian cried, his eyes wide. “They’ve come!”
He roused the elder and took the rifle, placing it in her hands. “Shoot at us. It will save your life.”
She ran after him as he fled outside and readied the horse, setting his father upon it. She peered into the red East where a hundred voices grew like a thunderhead.
“Don’t go yet,” she said.
He turned to her.
“Maybe… I could come-”
He cupped her face in his hands.
“Do not be weak,” he said.
“Tell me your name!”
She began to answer by rote, giving the only name she had ever known. Then she found his eyes.
“Strong healer. Mother of a great people!”
A raucous shout sounded from the approaching militia. So close now.
His hands left her face and took the swell of her belly. They were still warm.
“Heal your people,” he said. “Teach the child!”
And then he mounted his horse, and was gone.
She watched as they galloped into the West where they could hide in the distant mountains, at least for a while. Her heart felt a strange, churning sorrow, and she aimed the rifle and fired.
But then a new, searing pain ripped down her abdomen. She gasped, fell to her knees, and screamed as the militia rode past, its hooves deafening like the pounding of rain.
Her ears roared, and she closed her eyes.
The child had come.
Thank you to Dr. Andrew Cowell, University of Colorado, for help with translations.