Words Never Lost
by DaVaun Sanders
Imala spat on the schoolhouse’s brittle timbers as she passed, slipping behind the Tyre Orphan School’s woeful outbuildings and through the fence. A lashing awaited anyone caught here, but she had broken her promise to meet Vachaspah one too many times.
The soft crack of fledgling bone pulled her eyes up. An owl had perched atop a nearby saguaro, its dead barrel bleached white. Pitiful screeches and wet, tearing sounds floated from a wicked nest made entirely of long thorns. The owl’s wet beak dipped down again and again, skewering its floundering owlets. Bloodstained tufts of soft down littered the ground.
Imala fled across the wash. The undergrowth traced fresh welts over the bruises on her sun-brown forearms, pulling her dark curls free of their twin-tails. Her schoolteachers scoffed at Apache ways, but owls heralded lurking ghosts as surely as Christian prayers brought calloused knees. She desired no encounter with the ghost bound to an owl that devoured its own young.
A bizarre clearing stopped her flight. Angular letters left seeping wounds in the nearby palo verde like a wasting sickness. At the center of it all stood Vachaspah, gouging words into the earth with his bone-handled steel blade. Hair the color of rainless clouds swayed about his shoulders, tangled with the carved charms and turquoise amulets adorning his neck. Never before had Imala been so convinced of the shaman’s madness.
“If anyone sees this …” Imala held in a shriek. “I promised you more paper!”
“You promise many things.” Vachaspah did not look up. “You promise children who desire our ways.”
“They’re afraid of you,” Imala lied. She feared him, and his lessons about the spirits. “And you never meet in the same place twice.”
“Your pale teachers’ words twist the tongue even worse than the eye.” Vachaspah gestured to his careful scribbling. “This story speaks of how Coyote tricked the Mountain People. You should listen.”
“We need words, not stories. Elan wants to write his father’s line, and Jacali’s afraid she’ll forget her aunt’s lullabies. They’ve all lost our tongue, except for me.” Older orphans spat in Imala’s porridge when she turned her back, for knowing more Apache despite her half blood. The younger traded her favors for teaching them, but Vachaspah need not know that. “Besides, your stories are too long to write.”
“Easier to place them here instead.” Vachaspah’s knife traced a circle on the withered skin over his heart. “Without them we’re dust on the wind.”
“I hid your words on my skin last time,” Imala insisted, holding out her purpled forearms. She had rubbed herself raw with soap for days so the ink faded faster. “Headmaster Seare lashed me every morning he saw them. No one else will come. Paper is better.”
Stubborn, blind child.” Vachaspah snorted, stepping lithely across the mud to preserve his story. He pulled a hidden bundle from the drooping, thorny branches of an acacia and motioned Imala closer.
“What’s this?” She eyed the offering like a scorpion’s tail.
“Your mother made it before those lost men witched her away from us to live in their tomb. Her power saw far past day and night. I fear it stirs in you.”
“My father was not lost.” Imala’s stomach clenched, though her fingers itched to open the flaking buckskin. Inviting memory of the dead gave them easier purchase among the living. “I’ll learn your story. Just … tell me more of her?”
“My story,” Vachaspah repeated. “But is it yours?”
Imala parted her lips, but his stern gaze refused any more lies. “I’ll learn,” she insisted.
“We will see. Your power brought you here, yes?”
“I don’t …” She remembered the owl’s evil yellow eyes, a nestling wing dangling from its beak. The omen curdled her bones no matter how she denied it.
“Child? What did it show you?”
“An old man playing in the mud!” Imala snapped. “Spirits never help me escape the lash! I’m alone, except for you and your mad – ”
She swallowed the cruel words too late. Suddenly weary, Vachaspah dug into a pouch at his waist as if all his long years had betrayed him at once. He produced a bundle of dried willow, dogwood and goldenseal. “This will help you endure the pain.”
“Elder …” Imala bit her lip as he pressed the herbs into her palms. “My welts are already healed. I don’t – ”
She spun at the sound of a snapping branch. Headmaster Seare slipped through the distant trees like a hunched-over spider in his dark overcoat. He wore a permanently sorrowful expression behind his wire-framed spectacles. “Child?” he called.
The two men shadowing him on horseback made Imala’s feet itch to run. Each sported blue, sun-faded uniforms that gnawed at her memory. The cast of their eyes warned of the worst sort of strangers, the kind who made children’s blankets taste like tears.
Vachaspah went rigid. “Death comes.”
Imala snatched his knife away. “They’ll kill you!” she hissed, stuffing it in her mother’s bundle beside his herbs. “Stay quiet.”
“Appears we’ve uncovered your discipline problem,” the first cavalryman drawled. His green eyes twinkled under the brim of his hat, full of secrets no one else cared to know. Imala wished for the Thunder People to send a lightning arrow straight for his head, but none came.
The headmaster made the tut-tutting sound usually reserved for just before he fetched the soap and brush. “One willful child is easily rebuked, Mr. Parsons.”
“Least we could do for your accommodations.” Parsons glanced at the graying sky. “Looking like rain again. Can’t have Newton catch a chill.”
“Respect the elements, I say.” The second cavalryman leered down at Imala. A pink, puckered scar traced a jagged path beneath his hairline. “Nothing tame about this one. Halfbreed, too … more trouble than the mossback, I reckon.”
“Yup. Only a matter of time before she’s sullied your whole school.” Parsons fingered the cord of a braided necklace hidden beneath his collar. “Hair could wash out a stewpot, at least.”
Fury welled up in Imala at their laughter.
Seare’s pinched gaze wavered uncertainly between Imala and Vachaspah. He abruptly turned on his heel. “My leniency caused this offense. I will see it rectified.”
Cold sweat formed on Imala’s back as the soldiers prodded them forward. Vachaspah descended into his mad muttering. The shaman’s hidden knife grew heavier at the unspoken promise of lust in the cavalrymen’s eyes.
A sliver of sun still kissed the sky as they were marched across the Tyre Orphan School’s yard, a miserable swath of dust separating the gate and schoolhouse, dotted with parched sage and mesquite.
The soldiers dismounted, knuckling their backs. Two younger orphans emerged from the boys’ dormitory, sneaking curious smiles at Vachaspah.
“No whippin’ post?” Newton’s lips quirked. “Small wonder there’s trouble. Fence will do.”
“Unnecessary,” Seare said curtly. “We seldom – ”
“Free lesson for everyone watching. Only costs you my tired arm.” Parsons grinned. “Now, which one will it be?”
Imala’s stomach quavered as Seare murmured instructions for the two boys. They darted off. Within moments all of the school’s fifty-odd students somberly filled the yard, nudged forward by solemn teachers.
Vachaspah peered into the twilight. “Evil is strong this night.” He clutched Imala’s shoulders, babbling urgently. “The morning will see you free from death!”
“Use their words!” she pleaded. “He’ll – ”
“Lucianna!” Seare’s face reddened. “Cease that devil’s tongue!”
Parsons and Newton seized Vachaspah, dragging him roughly to the fence. They bound him with his own faded leathers. Whimpers spilled from the younger children. Approving teachers pressed them closer.
Imala could bear no more. “I’ll speak whatever I’ve a mind to say!”
The yard grew deathly silent. The cavalrymen stared as she continued in Vachaspah’s words. In her words. “Your ways are no better than ours. All your soap and scripture won’t change it!”
Parsons stalked forward, face purpling. Imala’s hand plunged into the buckskin pack. “That filthy Apache will bring more pain than you ever – ”
“Parsons, hold up.”
“What?” Parsons snapped, spinning around.
Newton peered into the dusk beyond the gate, pistol drawn. “Ain’t we the only couriers the colonel sent out?”
The shadows released a lone rider. He wore the same blue uniform and hat as the cavalrymen, and rode a deep-chested blood bay that made less noise than a mountain cat.
“Damnation. Those are officer’s stripes.” Parsons licked his lips. “Who goes?”
The rider stopped just inside Tyre’s fence. The teachers’ lantern light revealed skin even browner than Imala’s, cradled by a salt-and-pepper beard. “Ernest Jackson, Ninth Cavalry.”
Imala’s breath caught.
“Ninth? Buffalo soldiers?” Parsons’s sneer set Imala’s teeth on edge. “Whereabouts you camped, boy?”
Jackson’s mouth twisted ruefully. “Nowhere, presently. My men finally found what we’ve been ranging for.” He flashed Vachaspah a grin before his gaze settled on Imala. “I know you recognize me, girl. You best get over here before we both fall down.”
The rest of the world shrank away as Jackson dismounted. Imala dropped her mother’s pack and dashed forward, burying herself in his embrace. The cavalrymen lowered their pistols uncertainly.
“Papa … you were dead,” she breathed. “They all said so!”
“I’m here now, child.” Jackson cleared his throat roughly and squeezed her tight. “I’m here.”
Seare gaped at them both. “Lucianna? How is this …”
Jackson pulled free of Imala’s arms, closing the distance in two strides. His backhand sent Seare sprawling. Shocked cries rose among the teachers. The cavalrymen snapped their pistols back up.
“That’s what you do here?” Jackson thundered. “Learn folks outside of who they are? Get it right, or I’ll get you right!”
The headmaster’s jaw tightened. “Imala … Two Rivers Crossing … Jackson.”
“You said your men, before.” A tremor undercut Newton’s drawl. “What’s your rank and troop, soldier?”
“J Troop. I suppose you could name me captain.” Steel entered Jackson’s voice. “And I’ve no time for men who don’t know their proper place in this world.”
He let out a low whistle. Outside Tyre’s fence, the night gave way to a dozen more Negro cavalrymen.
“Heaven’s mercy,” Headmaster Seare pleaded from the dust. “We’re God-fearing folk!”
Chaos reigned as orphans and teachers scattered. Parsons and Newton broke for their horses, knocking down anyone underfoot. They mounted and tore around the dormitory, whooping for more speed.
“Sergeant Pierce!” Jackson called.
A cavalryman wearing a faded yellow sash around his neck trotted up on a gelding. “Captain?”
“Send Franklin and King to walk them down.”
“Yessir.” Pierce’s eyes snapped to Imala, and she blanched at the murder hidden there. “She looks like you, Ernest. What a blessing.” He wheeled around, bellowing orders. Two riders peeled away in a storm of hoofs.
Imala found her wits and untied Vachaspah. He ignored her father’s outstretched hand.
“Been hunting you a long time, medicine man.”
“Papa?” Imala frowned as four Negro cavalrymen immediately surrounded the shaman.
“Your kind are not welcome here,” Vachaspah growled.
“We’re not welcome anywhere.” Jackson flashed a beleaguered grin. “That’ll change, once – ”
Vachaspah spat at his feet. “Give the earth my blood. I will not aid you.”
Enraged cries erupted among the soldiers. “If you knew what we’ve lost …!” Pierce hissed. He whipped out a pistol, trained it on the shaman from his saddle.
Vachaspah stepped forward so the muzzle pressed into his forehead. “Then do this and lose what remains.”
“Papa, stop!” Imala shouted.
“We need him, daughter.”
“Old buzzard’ll likely steer us wrong,” a soldier called. “What about her, Captain?”
“No.” Jackson’s voice grew dangerously soft.
“Her mother’s blood is strong in her face, too.” Pierce’s eyes weighed Imala intently. “Did this place beat your tongue out of you?”
“I’ll speak for you,” Imala blurted, edging between Pierce and Vachaspah. “Just leave him be.”
“Absolutely not,” her father said.
“Captain – ”
“I said no, goddamnit!”
The buffalo soldiers exchanged sullen looks. Pierce holstered his gun, muttering darkly.
“Papa?” Imala refused to believe that small sound was her voice. “You don’t want me with you?”
“Of course I do.” Jackson’s leather-gloved hands closed over hers. “And we truly need you, Lord help us. Need us a translator.”
“We’ll keep her safe, Captain,” Pierce called, a sentiment quickly echoed by the surrounding men.
“I can keep myself safe,” Imala said. “I’ll be your translator. There’s nothing for me here.”
Pierce let out a triumphant whoop. “Forward scouts, out!”
“Okay then. Up you go.” Jackson extended his hand. “Hard riding ahead to reach the fort in time.”
Flies swirled away from a patch of sticky blood on the bay’s flank, soiling Imala’s dress as she settled in behind him. Vachaspah extended her forgotten buckskin pack, face wooden. Imala accepted it.
“You will need your mother’s gift,” he said. “When – ”
His words were lost as Jackson heeled his mount, plunging J Troop back into darkness. Imala held tight, scarcely believing her good fortune.
They slowed after two miles. J Troop used no lanterns. Low juniper formed indistinct waves over the countryside. Imala no longer remembered the stars’ real names, but they told her the cavalrymen rode west.
“What did that medicine man give you?” Jackson asked.
“Real clothes,” Imala whispered. Her pack carried soft moccasins, leggings, and more, along with the shaman’s knife and herbs. “My mother made them for me. Vachaspah said her power was strong.”
“The strongest.” Jackson shifted. “You were so young when the army attacked us, Imala. We thought the desert had taken you both. I should’ve searched longer.”
“Headmaster Seare told me some homesteaders – ” Imala stopped when her father’s shoulders slumped. “It doesn’t matter. You’re here now. I want to know everything about her and you. Everything!”
“Fair enough.” Jackson chuckled softly. “Where to start? I met a great man, once. Victorio.” The other soldiers quieted, listening. “We were in a regiment that chased him to the border. Ain’t proud of it. He stole into our camp one night, on my watch – had me dead to rights. Victorio asked me a question I’ll never forget before he slipped off. ‘How long will Negroes be the glove that keeps Apache blood off white hands?’”
“You hunted our people.” Imala nodded slowly. “That’s why Vachaspah hates you.”
Jackson said nothing. Imala wondered if the shaman would hate her too, if not for her mother’s blood.
“We deserted, not long after,” Pierce added quietly. “Gathered up any Apache who wanted a life away from the reservation, or damned schools like yourn.”
“Founded us a place.” Pride rose in Jackson’s voice. “Fort Audacia. Your mother called it home.”
“Then that means it’s my home, too.”
“Halfway point,” announced a burly cavalryman who sat his saddle like a sack of flour. “Maybe stop and rest the horses?”
Raucous laughter made Imala jump: guffaws from a soldier shaved bald save his whiskers, a high-spirited cackle from the bird-thin man whose eyes never stopped scouting the night.
Jackson’s deep chuckle stirred a memory loose. “You used to laugh like that,” Imala said. “In … the water?”
“A spring, yes. You splashed me whenever I dunked you. Now look at you … big enough to dunk me.”
“I can’t wait to see it again.”
J Troop approached a ridge topped by a dead cottonwood with shadowy branches. A distant shout made the quivering limbs explode in a chorus of ravens’ caws. Dozens of birds circled overhead. The soldiers drew rein, facing the rise behind them.
Imala’s power whispered. Death on every side.
“King and Franklin,” someone called.
Two cavalrymen cut down the slope. The first to reach them offered a curt salute. “We didn’t catch ‘em.”
“Cavalry’s hot on our backsides, Captain,” the second soldier added in a calm, gravelly drawl. They might be discussing what to throw in the stewpot for supper. “Two troops, I reckon.”
“We ain’t got time for this.” Jackson slapped his reins against his palm.
“Not to mention ammo,” Pierce interjected.
Jackson twisted, grabbing Imala and settling her on the ground in one motion. His strength made her gasp.
“You mean to fight them?” she asked.
“I want you to know …” he paused, muttering to himself. “There’s good cover past that tree. Go! We’ll find you.”
Every step tore pieces from Imala’s core. Broken eggshells crunched underfoot. The ravens … her power sang with danger. “No!” she growled at it. “I won’t lose him again.”
Torches bloomed on the eastern ridge above a rank of pale faces. Imala immediately recognized Parsons and Newton, rifles drawn like all the rest. A knot clenched her stomach. They outnumbered J Troop three to one.
A man with more golden thread on his uniform than any other led a roan forward. “Lay down them arms!”
Jackson produced a white scarf from his saddlebags and waved it high. “Colonel, let’s talk! We – ”
“I’ll waste no words on deserters! Send these bastards to hell!”
Rifle fire split the air. Imala clapped both hands over her ears, screaming as the barrage kicked Jackson from his saddle. He sprawled backwards in a lifeless heap. Pierce and Franklin crumpled over until their screaming horses pitched them. The white cavalrymen whooped and cursed, reloaded and shot until every buffalo soldier lay still.
Torchlight cast ghastly shadows on the colonel’s satisfied face. “Check for scouts. Relieve survivors of their worldly effects, but I want every last one of those uniforms burned.”
Two cavalrymen galloped straight for Imala’s hiding place. She hunched low in the sage, biting her knuckle to hold in a wail.
“I call first pickings!” Parsons strode toward her slain father. He slapped away Jackson’s bloodstained hat and drew a long knife, grinning as he gripped an ear. The blade dipped for her father’s temple, slicing back and forth.
Imala tore her eyes away as the scouts crested the ridge.
“Sick sumbitch,” he muttered. “Ain’t no one else out here.”
“Not anymore.” The other scout jerked. “What in … there’s a girl hiding damn near in your pocket!”
“It’s an Apache witch!”
Imala scrambled to her knees. Dancing hooves blocked her escape. She screamed, but louder shouts drowned her out. Both cavalrymen twisted in confusion before tearing back down the slope.
In the middle of the killing ground, Ernest Jackson rose to his feet. Imala’s relief faded to horror. Bullet holes marred his blue coat and dark blood soaked his beard. Parsons spluttered as her father’s gloved fingers tightened around his throat.
“Dear God – ”
A twist of Jackson’s wrist cut the plea short. Parsons’ limp body dropped.
The white colonel crossed himself. “I never believed it,” he rasped. “You fools cut a deal with the devil!”
Jackson’s smile didn’t light his eyes. “No devil out here ‘cept the ones that burned our home.”
More buffalo soldiers stirred. Ragged rents spoiled King and Pierce’s coats; Franklin rose from a dark crimson pool. One by one they all stood, bloodlust in their eyes.
“Say the word,” Pierce sneered. “About time we got some get-back.”
Jackson raised his hand, but froze when his eyes fell on Imala. “I’ve no time for your reckoning tonight,” he announced. J Troop went dangerously silent.
The cavalrymen scrambled for their saddles well before the colonel’s frantic order. “Mount!” he screamed. “Ride!”
Imala pressed her arms tight around her sides as Jackson ran to her. “You’re all cursed,” she whispered. The owl … the ravens: all eating their young. She should have seen it. “My power warned me against you.”
“I never wanted this.” A shadow crossed Jackson’s face as she flinched from his touch. “Imala, please – ”
“I have no father, only a wandering ghost come to drag me to the underworld!” A wail clawed free of her throat, pouring from a wound she had thought scarred over. “I have no mother, no home anywhere … and I’ll have no part of you!”
“We’d go, but we don’t know the way!” Pierce handed Jackson his sash. Her father tied it around his temple, hiding his mangled ear. “We need you to speak with the ones who can guide us.”
Imala’s breath grew shallow. “Spirits?”
“They’ll lead us home, I know it,” Jackson declared. “Heaven knows we don’t deserve it.”
Another cavalryman brought up Jackson’s bay. Blood dripped from its snout. He mounted, hope glistening in his eyes. “Please. We’ve never been this close. We lose a little more of ourselves every day.”
Pierce glanced skyward. “Still some night left. The old man can’t have gone far.”
“No. She’ll help us.” Jackson beckoned to Imala. “You’re my daughter.”
She wanted nothing more than to press her palms over the ragged holes in his coat, bandage his ear, pretend like all might return to the days she had lost. But her parents were dead, and her power sang against this evil, no matter how Imala denied it.
The moment stretched. Jackson let his hand fall.
Parsons’s mare whinnied behind them, her reins caught in a palo verde. Imala retrieved her buckskin pack and strode toward her.
“I’ll go,” she said finally. “My mother’s heart would break to see what you’ve become.”
Jackson’s face darkened. He wordlessly signaled the soldiers to mount. Their eyes bored into Imala the entire ride, cold knives in her back. Her mare barely kept to their merciless pace. The horses were just as trapped in this world as the dead men who rode them.
Dawn grayed the eastern sky as they neared Fort Audacia. Imala dropped from the saddle, legs throbbing as she stared. The ruins lay cold and still; ash and windswept sand covered brick and crumbling mortar.
“Shelled us to dust. Wouldn’t heed our flag, same as that colonel.” Pain marred her father’s recollection. “We got some families out. But us … ”
“Rose from the dead, but no further.” Pierce wiped a hand across his eyes. “We’re praying you can tell us why.”
J Troop gathered silently before the only standing wall. Imala pulled away when Jackson bent to kiss her forehead. He sighed and joined them. “Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe our gods are here now.”
“Don’t wander, girl,” Franklin warned. “Your papa would hate if we had to haunt you.”
The sun broke over the horizon, and J Troop vanished. A pile of bleached skulls rested where they had last stood, fixed in place with dried mud. A plank nailed into the stone held a carved warning:
Let all who turn their backs on God and country suffer the same fate.
A plaintive whicker pulled Imala back to her senses. The cavalrymen’s horses were gone, too – her mount remained. The morning will see you free from death, Vachaspah had said. She pulled the pack bearing her mother’s clothes from the saddlebags, looking around cautiously.
A small hollow in the mountainside beckoned, uphill from the ruins and shaded from the rising sun. Broken potsherds led Imala to a path where acacia and sagebrush still grew. A pool with water clear enough to reveal the sandy bottom nestled under a sheer brown cliff, surrounded with clusters of blooming red cholla, tall willow and cottonwood.
“Our spring,” she said softly. She drank her fill of water and washed her face, wondering what spirits would heed the pleas of these dead men. The clothes in her mother’s buckskin fit perfectly. “I never wanted this power, but Vachaspah says it’s mine. Speak to me now if that’s true!”
Imala yelped as a rattlesnake slithered out from beneath the bristling cholla. She scrambled back, but it did not strike. Three thin, scaled tails hung from the serpent’s mouth. It stared at her before gliding out of sight on a swollen belly. Imala flung a potsherd after it.
Exhaustion overtook her. She fashioned a sling from her torn dress, strong enough to tie her to a stout willow limb overhanging the spring. Slumber came, but no rest.
She awoke to a rough hand on her shoulder. Pierce stood over her, his eyes glowing with unexpected hope. “Lost a bet, thanks to you.”
Imala said nothing. The dead man shrugged and stuck two fingers between his lips, whistling loudly. Her eyes went wide. His knuckles shone with the white of slick bone. “He told you … we lose a little more each sunrise. Won’t be much left, soon.”
J Troop soon converged on the spring. Doubt, hunger and hope warred on their faces. “Found it quick, didn’t she?” Jackson pushed through them with a triumphant smile.
I was drawn here, she realized.
The spring rippled. A toad emerged, covered with glistening, burned skin. Imala’s heart quickened. It circled the spring, round and round on its belly.
“Worse than before,” Pierce murmured, shaken. “What does it mean?”
Imala remembered Vachaspah’s words about her mother. Her power saw far past day and night. I fear it stirs in you. For the first time in her life, Imala did not hide from it. Her mouth went dry as Audacia’s ashes.
“The spirits … are dying.”
Moans rippled through the troop. “White men know how to kill gods,” Franklin whispered. “That’s their secret.”
“Gods can’t be killed, fool,” Jackson snapped. “Otherwise what we doing here?”
That set the whole troop to muttering. “Maybe we the gods now.”
“We get to lay the curses. Sounds about right to me.”
“Quiet!” Imala’s vision wavered as she stared into the spring … beyond it. She took up a handful of dust and released it upon the surface. Not one grain sank. She twisted her power’s revelation into the buffalo soldiers’ tongue. “You’ll forever wander between day and night.”
“We aim to change that,” Jackson said thickly. “We figure our gods live far off, across the ocean. We never learned their ways in life. It’s right fair we do in death. Tell them!”
“I’ll … try.”
Imala swirled her palms in the spring. The water churned brown. Her grip closed on something sharp. She jerked her hands free with a snap of bone. Pain lanced through her palm as a white antler pulled loose of the sand. Crimson stained the spring.
Jackson gently took the antler from her trembling grasp. “This looks bad,” he said quietly, catching her eyes. She knew he meant more than the wound. “King, grab that rag.”
The scout cut strips of Imala’s dress from the willow tree and proffered one.
Pierce paced as Jackson carefully wrapped Imala’s hand. “Well? Speak up!”
A wind quickened as Imala faced them, tugging at her twin-tails. “You don’t know the words of our spirits. But you don’t know your own gods, either.” She took a deep breath. “So they don’t know you.”
The lost men raged. King spit into the rippling water. Franklin fell to his knees, pleading to the empty sky. “Merciful Father, why – ?”
Pierce kicked him in the ribs. “I done told you! There’s no help, and she’s the proof!”
“Why should we believe this witch?” another soldier screamed.
“Saying no gods’ll have us! Someone will have us!”
Jackson planted himself between them and Imala. She clutched Vachaspah’s knife, fist shaking. He gripped his cutlass hilt.
“We’ve never turned on each other,” he pleaded. “She at least – ”
“Papa …” Imala mumbled. A powerful gust of wind deposited yellow blossoms on the water. They promptly turned black. Imala’s power seized her tongue. “The spirits offer a bargain. ‘End us,’ they say. Then they’ll take you to your ancestors’ lands.”
Shocked silence fell upon the soldiers.
“End them?” Jackson asked, incredulous.
“How?” the sergeant demanded. “Say the word and it’s done!”
Unbidden, unbelievable words surged from Imala’s throat. “Speech binds us to our people, but we die as they forget. We seek rest. End our tongue forever … starting with this child. Choose now.”
The unnatural wind rose to a howl. Imala clamped a hand over her mouth. The signs she had seen – owl, raven, rattlesnake. Her power had not warned against her father, but the tormented spirits of her own people.
The buffalo soldiers cried out as more wind ripped over the spring, tearing at them with invisible claws. Pierce screamed as a hole near his collar widened to expose more bone. “Captain! Stand aside!”
“Stand down!” Jackson roared, yanking his cutlass free. The rusted blade’s arc kept the men from descending on Imala. Another gust ripped at his trousers. The exposed patch of skin crumbled away into dust. “What’s to say they’ll keep their word?”
Imala gasped as a lone coyote appeared behind J Troop. Pierce and King scrambled back, cursing as the animal loped through them for the water’s edge. A half-healed gash marred one eye, and white ribs protruded from her gray, matted fur.
Ignoring the tempest, she dipped her head to drink.
The spring’s surface shimmered. Lush lands appeared, rolling grass, men and women brown as her father, singing in villages that were alien yet familiar, impossibly tall trees and strange animals. The blue-coated men stared, still as statues caught in a lost dream.
“There must be another way,” Imala whispered. The coyote’s yellow eye offered no escape.
“I am sorry, Ernest.” Pierce aimed his pistol at Imala.
“Go to hell, all of you!” Jackson lunged forward, bowling Pierce aside. The coyote leaped to meet him. Rotted teeth and rusted cutlass danced back and forth.
“Imala, get to your horse!” Jackson stabbed the coyote through a back haunch. Its howl jolted Pierce and the rest from their daze. They dove into the duel. Within moments Jackson’s cutlass flew free.
“Papa, no!” Imala screamed.
A sharp yelp sounded. The soldiers abruptly pulled back. Jackson sneered at them, blood staining his teeth. Dust trickled from beneath his tattered uniform. One of his powerful arms encircled the coyote’s ragged neck.
“Best back off,” he rasped. “Or no one goes home. Imala, get on to your school!”
Pierce studied Imala, nodding to himself. “Killing it won’t change a thing … will it, girl?”
Imala’s face crumpled. The fire leached out of her father when she didn’t meet his eyes. More coyotes appeared among the men. Jackson released the one-eyed coyote and rose, resigned. Imala clutched his hand as they retreated, back toward the spring. Her moccasins filled with biting cold water.
“Please, Captain.” Franklin hefted Jackson’s saber. The wind had scoured the skin off his cheekbone; he had more skull than face now. “Don’t draw this out.”
Jackson squeezed Imala’s hand. “These spirits are yours,” he whispered hoarsely, a desperate light in his eyes. “But my gods are, too. We’re blood. You … could come with us.”
The one-eyed coyote peered at them knowingly. The spring water turned cold around Imala’s ankles, tight as death.
“They will allow it,” she breathed.
“Then come with us.”
Imala thought of Vachaspah, the last elder she knew who kept their words alive. Kept the spirits alive. Her mind grew leaden, as if the numbing water had seeped behind her eyes. She remembered the young orphans who begged her for their words. “Papa …”
“I can’t lose you again. Please.”
“Papa, how long …” Her teeth chattered. She forced her lips to work. “How long will we be the glove?”
Jackson searched her face, his eyes flashing. “Not ever again.” He pulled her free of the water with a shout. A protesting gust of wind shook the mountainside. The buffalo soldiers howled as their skin withered before it.
Pierce pounced on Jackson in a flash, fingers more bone than flesh squeezing her father’s neck. “You’ll damn us for all eternity!”
Imala raised the shaman’s knife. “Leave him alone.”
The coyotes stood waiting as the dead men staggered closer. Jackson raged and wrestled. “Imala, run!”
“Papa, let it be. I’ll see you home.”
“But – ”
“You’ll die if no one’s left to tell your stories.” Imala used her people’s words, pointing the blade at the one-eyed coyote. Her heart pounded with what she must do. “I and one other still know our tongue.” Imala touched the metal to her chest. “If we cannot speak, will you see these men home?”
The coyote’s yellow eye shifted. The wind lessened. Her father and Pierce ceased grappling, as the pack howled as one. They accepted her bargain.
Imala steeled herself. The strip of her white dress, still wrapped around her hand, gave her a firm grip. In her other hand, she raised the knife. Jackson’s eyes widened, but Pierce held him back.
“Oh my God, Imala no!”
Imala grasped her tongue. The shaman’s blade bit deep. A low keening poured from her throat as she cut, and the world went white with pain. Blood bubbled in her mouth, her throat, spilled down her lips. All of time froze as she sliced, back and forth, back and forth. The flesh tore free.
She collapsed with a wordless shriek. Only her father’s embrace kept her from writhing into the spring.
“Fool, fool girl!” He tore another strip of the sullied white dress and filled her mouth with it, weeping. Blood spattered her mother’s clothes when Imala coughed.
The half-blind coyote limped up to the flesh that had once been hers. She gave Imala a piercing look and lapped up the severed tongue.
“I will – ” Jackson stilled at Imala’s hand on his shoulder. She pointed feebly as the coyote loped to the water’s edge.
The pack gathered close, each animal horridly mangled or scarred. One licked Pierce’s hand. He followed it into the spring, sinking deeper than the bottom accounted for.
“Been an honor, sir. I’m sorry.” Pierce shot one last tormented salute to Jackson. “Imala … thank you.”
The ripples stilled. No trace of them remained. Another coyote dipped his nose in the water, and another soldier stepped forward. “I’ll see you on the other side, Captain. May all of heaven bless you, Imala Jackson.”
One by one the dead men descended, until none were left save her father. Jackson held her tight as the remaining coyotes watched.
She coughed again. More blood dribbled down her chin. Fresh tears came as Jackson rested her gently beside the spring. She wanted to tell him farewell, at least. The pain overwhelmed Imala, slipping her into a dark quiet where no spirits followed.
She awoke to an owl’s call.
Long furrows etched the soft earth before her. Mud covered the heels of her moccasins. Imala touched a hand to her lips. Her face ached, but a coolness kept some of the misery at bay. Her bandage had been replaced, and the scent of herbs triggered some dim memory of Vachaspah, from a time before agony was all she knew. This will help you endure the pain.
“Imala?” came a hopeful voice.
A low fire burned nearby. The shaman’s knife lay beside it, the blade charred black. She stood on weak legs. Fresh pain bloomed in her mouth when she tried to answer, nearly folding her in two. A shadow stirred beside the flames.
“Best … get over here before we both fall down …”
“Papa?” A muffled, ruined sound escaped her bandage as she staggered forward, sobbing. “Papa, Papa …”
Jackson crumpled to his knees, more dust and bone than flesh. His threadbare uniform shivered and flaked apart as he stretched his arms wide. Imala embraced him, crying out when rib splintered beneath the blue. “Had to quench your wound,” he rasped. “Didn’t trust them …”
Yellow eyes circled beyond the fire’s light. The coyotes drew closer as she picked up Vachaspah’s knife and scrawled in the mud with a trembling hand. They trust me. Our words won’t be spoken, but they won’t be lost. I won’t allow it.
A twinkle lit Jackson’s eyes. “Your mother taught me some stories. I remember Coyote … a trickster. You pulled one over on him. For us.”
She kissed his cheek and wrote. For you.
The one-eyed coyote awaited her father in the spring. Weak as she was, Imala helped him rise. Each step forward grew easier, lighter, as Ernest Jackson wasted away in her arms. He broke the surface with a gasp. “Your mother will be proud.”
The water stilled and he was gone … home, to learn his words anew.
About the Author
DaVaun Sanders resides in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and toddler twins. He’s presently hard at work editing the final three novels of his World Breach series, studying up on disaster prep, and perfecting the art of pillow fort construction. Check out more of DaVaun’s work in Fiyah Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, and the forthcoming Ride the Star Wind anthology by Broken Eye Books. Keep up to date with his latest projects at davaunsanders.com.