As dusk settled into darkness, Tommy’s ability to read signs dwindled dramatically. When the tracks led him toward the Pyrch’s corn field–at least he thought he was seeing faint impressions in the dirt that could be tracks–his first thought was that his quarry hid among the corn stalks.
Then he cut the old cow trail.
Cattle, other animals, and people had walked the trail for probably over a hundred years, packing the dirt down. Obviously some of the traffic occurred during or after heavy rains, because the ground was brittle, as only churned mud could get, by baking under the Oklahoma sun.
Whether the tracks resumed past the hard ground, or the quarry followed the trail down to the creek, Tommy would never be able to discern without more light.
The corn field was a likely ambush site. Tommy avoided drawing closer than four yards, but decided to skirt the field to entice his quarry to launch the ambush from too far off.
Despite his precautions, the attack still caused Tommy’s heart to skip when it came.
The young Shawnee warrior burst from the corn and, with a savage battlecry, hurled his spear. Tommy tucked in his shoulder and rolled to his right. The spear sailed past, piercing the air where Tommy’s torso had been less than a second before.
Tommy came up from the roll on his feet and flung his tomahawk at the charging brave. His aim was true and it struck his quarry in the chest.
The liquor bottle thunked off Vince, landed on a rock and shattered.
Vince changed plans on the fly. Originally he intended to follow up his spear throw by wrestling his little brother into submission. But the sound of the breaking glass might very well summon Mr. or Mrs. Pyrch to investigate just who was fooling around in their corn patch.
He retrieved the car antenna he used for a spear, and told Tommy, "The creek. Come on."
They ran to the creek, crossed it, and kept running until they had enough distance that the Pyrch grownups could never find them in the dark.
Tommy was slightly upset at losing his weapon. The kind of alcohol their father preferred came in a flat rectangular glass vessel. The neck of the bottle was a little too short for a good handle–in fact, all the proportions were out of whack for a tomahawk–but all the angles of the object seemed more or less right to Tommy. And he couldn’t replace it at that moment and location, but their father had the yard in back of their trailer littered with spare tomahawks.
"I won," Tommy said. "My blade stuck you right in the heart."
"No," Vince said. "I was wearing armor under my shirt, so it didn’t even hurt."
"The Shawnee didn’t have armor!" Tommy fumed. "They didn’t even have shirts!"
"Sure they did, in the winter."
"It’s not winter, Vince. And that still doesn’t explain where the armor came from."
"It was a stove plate, like in that Clint Eastwood movie."
"You’re a cheater," Tommy grumbled. "You missed–I didn’t. But I always have to lose. You always have to win. You always get to be the Shawnee. I always have to be the white man, or the Iroquois, or the blue jacket."
Vince shoved him hard from the side, almost driving him into a tree they were passing. "Because you’re a punk."
Both boys had jet-black hair and red-bronze skin, like their parents. Tommy was a couple inches shorter, and thinner, while Vince was built sturdy, like a rock. Vince was starting to get weird about girls, but Tommy still knew girls were useless. Aside from that, they shared a lot of interests. Tommy didn’t even mind being the bad guy and losing most of the time…but losing all the time was getting old.
Now that the sky and land were dark, Tommy noticed an orange flicker in the distance. "Somebody’s got a fire burning in the Drum Gully," he observed.
The flickering they saw was actually the orange light of the flames reflected off the rock surfaces of the gully.
Vince held a finger to his lips. "Shh! Listen!"
They stopped walking and Tommy listened. A faint chorus of half-singing, half-chanting voices bounced around inside the gully and echoed off into the night.
"Somebody’s 49ing this weekend?" Tommy asked, not remembering any mention of an event.
"It’s a bunch of old farts," Vince said. "I heard Uncle Jay say something to Dad about it."
Vince didn’t like old people. He found them boring and useless, plus he often railed against the "perpetually stupid expressions carved in their faces." Younger grownups–like Uncle Jay–were only slightly less tiresome.
Vince resumed walking, now in the direction of Drum Gully.
"Where you going?" Tommy asked.
"Let’s go check it out," Vince said.
His big brother couldn’t see it in the dark, but Tommy rolled his eyes anyway. "I thought old people are boring, Vince. Why you wanna go over there?"
"We’ll make it interesting," Vince assured him, with mirthful malice in his tone.
Tommy knew what that meant: Vince was devising a plan, on the spot, for a cruel prank, teasing, heckling…Tommy wasn’t exactly sure what form it would take, but knew Vince intended to mess with the old ones somehow.
Tommy wouldn’t normally conceive the notion of messing with people who did him no harm. But Vince was a natural cure for boredom. The weekend would be much more enjoyable if Tommy kept in his good graces than if he chickened out.
As the boys drew closer to Drum Gully, they moved with greater stealth. With hand signals, Vince intimated how they should gather some rocks from a wash with plenty of gravel, then navigate to a vantage point on a brush-covered berm overlooking the gully.
Tommy liked this part of the scheme. Sneaking up on somebody was exciting. It made him feel like a real Shawnee…a warrior, who could move in for a surprise attack on an enemy camp if necessary. If time and circumstance were different, he might be doing it for real.
They gathered their rocks, made pouches by pulling up the hems of their shirts to carry them, and snuck over to the berm by the route Vince had indicated. Once there they began piling their rocks on the berm quietly.
While he worked, Tommy peered down into the gully. Several old ones were illuminated by the flickering firelight. But they didn’t surround the fire, as people normally did. Their circle sat to the side of it, and none of them looked directly into the flames. Two of them engaged in a conversation while the others listened, and now one of the two was giving a lengthy answer or explanation.
A few feet to Tommy’s side, VInce shifted to a more comfortable position on his stomach. He chose a rock from his pile and gazed down at the scene below, picking out a target.
Tommy studied the ground below for a place to throw his first rock. He didn’t want to hit anybody–just hoped to scare, confuse or irritate them, wondering where the rocks were coming from in the dark, or perhaps imagining a small animal made the noise.
There was a loud thumping sound over where Vince was. "What the…? You’re gonna blow our cover, you stupid…"
Tommy intended to retort, indignant that Vince could chastise when it was him making the noise.
"I can tell you what stupid is," said a deep voice behind them, several feet above the ground they lay on.
This scared Tommy, and he saw his prone brother recoil like a spooked snake.
Both boys rolled over and looked up toward the sound of the adult voice.
Uncle Jay loomed over them. "What are you doing with all the rocks?"
"Nothin’," Vince replied automatically, probably trying to sound innocent, but coming off contemptuous instead.
"Mmm-hmm. What are you doing here?" Uncle Jay asked.
"Why are you here?" Vince fired back. "Aren’t you too young for this Pow Wow?"
"Get up," Uncle Jay commanded. "Brush yourselves off."
The boys did. Tommy felt the heat of shame on his face. "How did you know we were here, Uncle?" he asked.
"You move like a drunken moose through a forest of cowbells," Uncle Jay replied. "And on a carpet of potato chips. Come with me. And keep your smart mouth shut, Vince."
Uncle Jay led them down into the gully. The old ones all watched with interest–some irritated; some flat-out angry at the interruption.
"What were you doing up there?" demanded one of of them.
The boys didn’t answer, and couldn’t meet the angry gazes fixed on them.
"They were planning on throwing rocks," Uncle Jay said.
A few of the old men grumbled. "Little brats!" one exclaimed. "No respect for anything. You know what we used to do with brats?"
"You have no business here!" declared another one, with a whistling voice. "Whose boys are you?"
"These are my nephews," Uncle Jay said.
There was more grumbling. Then a man with a deformed hand and an eye patch spoke up. "They are trying to be warriors. They practice movement in the dark, and stalking other men." He pointed to the car antenna still in Vince’s hand. "And this one even brought a weapon." He shifted his gaze to Tommy. "You have no weapon?"
Tommy pointed toward the prairie, away from the firelight. "I broke it a few miles back."
Michael Fastwater–the old man with the eye patch–now directed his attention back at his companions. "These two can substitute for their father in his absence."
A couple of them murmured some more. "Their father is…" one began, but stopped short at a cutting gesture and angry look from the one-eyed Fastwater.
Tommy recognized old Mr. Swope–the one in the cowboy hat–as he spoke. "Maybe we can allow it this one time."
"Come here, boys," Fastwater said, beckoning with his good hand.
Repentant and eager to please, Tommy approached him. Vince was slower to do it.
"Sit here on my blanket," Fastwater said. "Focus, and listen. Your intention was to harass some old people; but instead you have a chance to learn something."
Tommy sat on the corner of Michael’s blanket, but Vince sat directly on the ground, leaning back against a rock the size of a truck tire.
Everyone sat cross-legged, and most of the men present smoked something–cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Tommy noticed Uncle Jay lighting a cigarette across the circle.
"You know what we’re doing?" Fastwater asked, looking at Vince, who shrugged.
"You’re 49ing?" Tommy suggested, not wanting his brother’s attitude to cause their forgiveness to be revoked.
"That’s right," Fastwater said. "But why do we call it ’49ing’?"
Vince shrugged. "That’s just what it’s called."
"But where did the tradition get this name?" asked the one with the whistling voice. He had long, white hair. Tommy thought his name was Chance Drake.
"Did gold prospectors start the tradition?" Tommy asked.
Some of them muttered, while others chuckled. Fastwater motioned for attention and began to orate.
The flickering light from the fire, plus Fastwater’s knack for storytelling, had a hypnotic effect as Tommy watched and listened.
"Many years ago, 50 braves sat in a circle for many hours one night. The men were much younger than most of the men gathered here right now. They were strong young men–the best their nations and tribes had to offer."
Tommy estimated there were less than 30 old ones here, tonight. He considered counting, but was more interested in Fastwater’s story, for the time being.
"The world was in desperate trouble," Fastwater explained. "Evil men had raised great armies and were threatening all who lived. In the East was an evil man named Tojo. In the West were evil men named Mussolini and Hitler. If they weren’t stopped, they would eventually come here."
One who had remained silent up to now, about Uncle Jay’s age, cussed and interjected, "Stalin was the most evil of them all. He murdered more than all the rest combined. And if…"
"I’m telling you what we…what those young braves believed," interrupted Michael Fastwater. "It’s what they were told. What they heard on the radio; saw in the newsreels; read in the newspapers. And today we know the Axis couldn’t have invaded America; but Europe and China had already fallen. There was a real threat to Asia, Australia, North Africa; the Levant…"
Vince scowled at nobody in particular, which might mean he wasn’t sure what Fastwater was talking about. Tommy leaned over and levered off one knee to propel him to Vince’s ear. "He’s talking about World War Two," he whispered. "Hitler had taken most of Europe…"
Vince planted his hand in Tommy’s face and shoved. "I know that, punk."
Tommy returned to his previous position.
"America entered the war," Michael Fastwater continued. "Those young braves volunteered to fight. They believed in the cause. That night in the circle, they told stories of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They told of courage, honor, skill in battle and counting coup, like the Cheyenne, Arapaho and others do. Before the circle broke up the next morning, they all pledged brotherhood to each other. They knew they would be spread out to different units, and different battles, even if they all joined the same branch on the same day. Modern countries don’t think twice about breaking up families or tribes. But the 50 agreed that when the war was over, they would meet at that same spot and form the circle once again."
"The 50 were from plains tribes, then," Vince said, "if their ancestors counted coup."
Fastwater shrugged. "Some of them were. That’s why the pledge of brotherhood was important–different tribes and nations sent their braves to war. Look at Oklahoma–you would think only Pottawatomie, Sac and Fox, Kiowa…and people like them would be in this area. Yet the Cherokee are here. The Delaware are here. The Seminole, Miami, the Apache… Absentee Shawnee are here. And we all do business with each other. In this case, the 50 were all united by an idea–to free the world."
Fastwater paused, and there was no sound but the pops and crackling of the fire. Tommy was about to ask what happened to the 50 when the old man resumed.
"When the war was over, they returned and formed the circle, as they had agreed. But they were missing one warrior-brother, who never came home."
"He was killed in the war?" Vince asked.
Fastwater nodded.
"So that left 49," Tommy said. "Are you saying that’s why we call this ’49ing’?"
All the grownups nodded.
"The white man has his VFW," old Mr. Swope said. "Indians have the 49 Circle."
Vince made a scoffing sound. "I thought it was a red man tradition. It’s all because of some stupid white man’s war?"
There was no sound but the fire for a few moments. Then Uncle Jay spoke.
"I’ll tell you about a stupid white man. He was an FNG we called Howdy-Doody, because he looked like Howdy-Doody. Buck teeth, freckles, ears like radar dishes. He didn’t know who Howdy-Doody was, because his family never had a TV. Never had electricity, or indoor plumbing. He grew up barefoot, but got one hand-me-down pair of shoes for Christmas when he was 16, so he could wear them to Church. He had a hilarious accent, and used words like ‘gran’pappy,’ or ‘down in the holler.’ Everyone made fun of him. And I did, too."
Uncle Jay took a deep drag of his cigarette, and blew the smoke out in a stream.
"There was at least one VC spy at the base camp," Jay went on. "Too many of our missions were compromised before they got started. This one day, they knew what our LZ was…"
"LZ means ‘landing zone’," explained the one about Uncle Jay’s age. "VC is the Viet Cong, or ‘Charlie,’ and FNG was…freakin’ new guy."
"Charlie lit us up as soon as we started unassing the choppers," Uncle Jay said. "I think most of us were kind of pleased that Charlie was hitting us in such force. It meant he was going to try to fight us, rather than just sting and run away, like usual. At least that’s how I felt. But it was too much of a good thing. Turns out it was North Vietnamese Army regulars, not VC, and they had us outnumbered at least three to one. Anyway, they hit my chopper with an RPG–rocket-propelled grenade. I got clear in time, but took some shrapnel. I couldn’t move fast enough to catch the platoon. All I could do was crawl. Everyone assumed I was dead, after the helicopter blew up. And I figured that would be true, soon enough. If the NVA didn’t finish me off, I would bleed out there on the LZ."
Uncle Jay finished his cigarette, ground out the butt on the ground, then immediately fished a fresh one out of the pack in his shirt pocket.
"Howdy-Doody came back for me. I think he assumed I was dead, too. He was just checking–because he looked surprised when I stared him in the eye and asked for his help. He lifted me in a fireman’s carry and carried me out of there at a run. I felt him take a round before we caught up with our guys. But he didn’t stop until I was safe. Never cried out or complained. But he and I wound up getting medevaced out of there on the same dustoff."
A couple flicks of the wheel with his thumb, and Uncle Jay’s lighter sprouted flame. He lit the cigarette. Tommy had noticed an emblem on the lighter before, when Uncle Jay used it in daylight: a yellow shield with a black diagonal line across it and the silhouette of a horse’s head in the upper right corner.
"When his tour was over," Uncle Jay went on, "there were protesters with signs at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. They spit on him and called him names he didn’t understand. He had met some Georgia peach during training, before he left for the Nam. Wrote her letters every week in-country. He went back to find her, but she was shacked up with some hippie. She called him a baby-killer."
Uncle Jay shook his head and puffed more smoke. "After that, I never heard from him again."
Conversation didn’t resume right away, as everyone reflected on Uncle Jay’s story.
Uncle Jay stared directly at Vince. "Got anything else to say about stupid white men?"
Vince stared at the ground and fiddled with a dirt clod. "I didn’t mean anybody in particular. I just meant…you know: America."
Michael Fastwater said, "It’s popular to hate America, and her warriors, isn’t it? But from Pearl Harbor up to…well, to the Bay of Pigs I guess, you never heard people badmouth their country like they do now." He coughed and cleared his throat. "It’s foolish to hate all white men. It’s good that you appreciate your tribe, but it’s dangerous to take that too far. We lost our lands because we wouldn’t put aside our differences with other tribes and band together to defend the ideas we had in common."
Tommy took a closer look at Fastwater’s hand as he gesticulated. Most of it was gone, but the thumb and most of the index finger were intact and seemed functional.
"America is an idea," Fastwater said. "The idea is big enough for many tribes."
"You two need practice stalking," Chance Drake told the boys. "Our ears are old, but we heard you gathering the rocks."
The men laughed and made a few unflattering comments.
Fastwater broke out in a smile. "My life once depended on my stealth. There was a swamp covering a good part of the island we were on. I decided to go crocodile hunting, during one of those boring times between action. I would prove what a Great Red Hunter I was." He interrupted himself chuckling. "Never mind that a croc is big enough to swallow me whole and still be hungry. I was going to kill one, bring it back to the air strip, roast it, share it with my buddies, and send the hide back home so my mother could make a pair of boots and a purse, and brag about me.
"Less than a half mile into the bush, I heard movement. I found concealment right away. I kept hearing the noise, but the source of the noise wouldn’t come into view. My curiosity got the best of me and I crawled to another position for a better look. Well, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where a sound is coming from in the jungle. I crawled right into a Japanese patrol. I had to freeze in place, half exposed because any more movement would draw their attention. I stayed right there, pretending to be just another tangle of tree roots, while they passed by on both sides.
"It seemed to take years, but they finally got far enough away I could sneak back. I told the C.O. About the patrol and he sent the news up to regiment. Of course I acted like the Great Red Warrior when I joined my platoon again. The story got a little more dramatic every time I told it. I never did get my crocodile."
The old ones smiled at the story. Tommy kind of wished it had ended with a great battle. But still, the way Michael Fastwater told it, he could imagine being there in the jungle, feeling the rush.
Another old one served in the European Theater, and told of his exploits during the Battle of the Bulge. Using trickery and improvised munitions, he and a few survivors from his rifle company held up German tanks just long enough for reinforcements and resupply to arrive before the American lines completely gave way. He got frostbite in his ears and toes during that ordeal, and they had been twice as sensitive to the cold ever since.
One was a pilot shot down in Korea. He described his escape through hordes of Chinese and North Korean formations back to friendly lines, surviving off the land and using warrior savvy that would make any Shawnee brave proud.
Tommy listened to every word and let it all sink in. Even Vince paid rapt attention. All the old ones spoke of their war experiences as if they could still feel the fear, and pain, and exhaustion, and anguish, and cold or heat as the case was. But Tommy got the impression that every last one of them would go and do it again, if there was a need.
Before dawn broke, Vince had fallen asleep, but the old ones were still smoking and contemplating. So was Tommy.
Contemplating, that is–not smoking.
As the sun rose, Michael Fastwater asked Tommy for help folding his blanket. Tommy agreed, waiting for the old man to get off the blanket first, so they could begin.
"What you boys were doing was very disrespectful," Michael said. "Instead of punishing you, you were rewarded, by being allowed to sit in the circle."
"Yes sir," Tommy said. "I’m sorry. And thank-you."
Finally achieving a standing position, Michael limped off the blanket, hunched over and holding his hip. Tommy lifted up one side of the blanket, but instead of taking the other side, Michael took a long moment to stretch, right beside Tommy.
"I saw you paying attention," Michael said. "You thought we were just old men when you got here. Do you see more, now?"
"Yes sir. You’re warrior brothers–like the 50 in the story you told."
Fastwater fixed him with a sharpened look. "It’s a brotherhood most boys want to join, Tommy Scarred Wolf. Vince will probably grow out of it, like most boys do. I wonder about you, though."
Fastwater spoke as if he knew Tommy well. But how could he? They had never spoken to each other before last night.
Uncle Jay stood at the other side of the gully, obviously waiting for his nephews, but giving them privacy by his distance.
"Well, I would like to be a warrior," Tommy admitted. "And sometimes I have dreams about it…"
Fastwater nodded, as if he knew this, too. He chinned toward Tommy’s sleeping brother. "I know you and Vince only see your father as a drunk in a wheelchair. I wish you could see that he is much more than that."
Fastwater began to dig around in a leather pouch hanging from his belt. Many of the old ones were in the habit of carrying those pouches. "I went into town one time," he said. "One of the places I like to go is the military surplus store. The man who owns it is an old U.S. Marine, like me. Turns out we were both on Tarawa…anyway, he showed me something one day…"
Fastwater continued fiddling around in his leather pouch, and finally brought something out. It was a big medallion on a wide blue ribbon. The metal part was shaped like a star, with an eagle above it. The front of the blue ribbon had tiny white stars on it that reminded Tommy of the U.S. Flag.
Tommy’s gaze bounced from the object to Michael Fastwater’s face. Was he supposed to know what this thing was, or what was significant about finding it in a surplus store?
"It’s the Medal of Honor," Fastwater explained. "It’s the highest thanks the country can show somebody for great bravery and self-sacrifice. You can’t buy one of these, except on a battlefield. But my friend said somebody came into his store and hocked it. He tried to talk the man out of it, but the man was desperate. My friend offered to just give the man some money, but the man was too proud to accept a handout. Finally my friend took it in exchange for some cash, but would never sell it at any price. He gave it to me because the man who hocked it was Shawnee, and I knew him."
"Was it the 50th man?" Tommy asked, getting excited. He imagined a marine hiding out for over 40 years on some South Pacific island, assuming his country was still at war with Japan. "He finally came home?"
Fastwater chuckled and shook his head. "I never said I was part of the 50, Tommy. And besides, the man who earned this was much younger. He won it in Vietnam."
Tommy snapped his fingers. "Uncle Jay!"
Michael Fastwater shook his head again. "It was your father. He wasn’t always in a wheelchair, Tommy. That’s part of the price he paid to earn this."
Tommy scrunched his face up, wondering if the old man was joking.
Michael Fastwater pointed to a shiny gold tag that said "VALOR," gripped in the eagle’s talons.
"There’s a whole lot more to your father than you probably think," he said.
Fastwater let Tommy touch the medal, and rub the ribbon fabric between his fingers.
"How did he earn it?" Tommy asked, still not sure the old man was serious.
Fastwater sighed and tucked the medal back in his pouch. "If he never tells you…then maybe one day, if you’ve earned a place in the circle, I’ll tell you what he did."
"I’ll earn a place in the circle," Tommy promised. "I’m going to be a warrior, too."
Fastwater tousled his hair. "Maybe so. We’ll see." His grin faded. "Your father used to sit with us in the circle. Then he stopped coming. I hope he joins us again. I will give his medal back to him…when he’s ready. Now let’s fold this blanket and wake up your brother."
Uncle Jay escorted them out of Drum Gully, and to where his pickup truck was parked a couple miles away. The boys sat in the bed as Uncle Jay drove to their trailer lot.
Vince told Tommy he was stupid to believe their dad was a war hero. Michael Fastwater was either joking, or lying.
Tommy never would have guessed one of his alcoholic parents could be a war hero. He admitted to himself that Michael Fastwater must be right–there was much about his father he didn’t know.
However, Tommy now knew a little bit about the old ones who sat in the 49ing circle.
The real 49ing circle. The circle for warriors, who felt fear and pain and exhaustion and despair, just like anyone else, but who risked everything they had.
For an idea.