HIS MASTER’S VOICE, testy, from the direction of the main house. He had to obey, eventually, but pretended not to hear, giving himself time, sliding his hand along the stomach line from dewlap to udder, feeling for an unfamiliar bulge or irritated patch. Good. Nothing for worry. He was sure what awaited him was another meaningless chore, or errand easily assigned to one of the others. A task not worthy of a hilis haya. A healer. He was just turned twelve, mostly a man.
Hadjo chewed a lazy cud, her eyes calm, but he knew better than to believe she couldn’t just as well deliver a fast kick, whether hurt or merely displeased, and kept his body from her firing line. She still showed no sign of shakes, thank the Great Spirit. She was full of personality among her dimmer colleagues, a bit of a show-off. He’d named her himself, Hadjo, the Creek word for jokester. No one else would understand his choice of favorite. They’d choose the cow that calved often and gave the most milk, or one with big haunches for a tasty stew, or the strongest, or they’d refuse to pick at all, unable to see differences, as if one cow substituted for another. She might not fetch highest price if put to sale, but Tom preferred clever.
A week ago, when Hadjo refused her suckling, and turned from the grass at feed time, he worried she’d caught milk sickness. But
now he thought it nothing more than a passing malady, without potential to hurt the tribe. He personally hand-fed Hadjo grain mixed with oil from the dried, ripe seeds of the flax plant, in the way of Old Turtle, and already saw improvement in both appetite and movement. Once sure she posed no danger, he would return her to graze with the others as she passed her time on this earth until her end, providing her milk for the tribe and her meat for the tribe, or until she was sold for currency held by Chief Yargee for the benefit of all. Once Tom ran her, he’d know whether Hadjo was infected with the slows. If her legs didn’t buckle, he would declare her well. If she weakened and fell to the ground, he would separate her from the others until she succumbed, and bury the remains deep so none could feast on her poison. He owed that much to the People. If beef of milk-sick cows was eaten, or milk drunk, the system of the People would be contaminated. He’d seen it before, in the time of his old master, before Chief Yargee. First came the person’s loss of energy for days or weeks, followed by the terrible shaking, followed by the final gasp of breath. And the cow long dead. Old Turtle taught him the connection.
He patted Hadjo on the rump, not daring to ignore the call again.
“Back directly,” he promised in Mvskoke, and then again in English. He practiced every chance, the words in both languages true on his tongue.
Hadjo continued about her business, unconcerned.
Tom sped cross-pasture and nudged Old Turtle where he nodded under a moss-draped live oak close to the sluggish stream.
“Chief Yargee calls,” Tom said. “I’m gone from the herd.”
“Humph.” Old Turtle tightened his lips and squinted hard at Tom. The intense sun and passing years had turned his skin leathery, burnished to the color of dried figs, his expression unyielding. “Don’t show too smart, boy. Mind your tongue around master.”
“He calls for his hilis haya,” bragged Tom. “Second healer,” he
immediately corrected, not wanting to offend. “Next to you, best in the tribe.”
The advance of blindness and age slowed his mentor, but rheumy-eyed Old Turtle was still better in the healing of cattle than the most able-bodied man in Alabama, black or Indian. And Tom was the young hilis haya of the five hundred cattle in the herd, having watched Old Turtle minister to livestock on first Master McIntosh’s plantation, and now, among the Upper Creeks on Chief Yargee’s plantation.
“You and me, we’re as much slave on this place as the last, though the master be more tolerable here,” said Old Turtle.
“But we’re Creek too,” insisted Tom. He touched the red strings in his turban for luck.
“We are what we are. Owned by tribe’s not the same as tribe,” said Old Turtle. “Straight off now and see to what the chief wants. And don’t overstep.”
Tom followed the banks of the Alabama River, tromping through the tall grass in the direction of the chief’s house. He rounded the corner of the side yard’s vegetable garden.
Two unfamiliar horses lazed in front of his master’s logged cabin, a three-hand roan with a fancy horned leather saddle and a smaller paint with broad pinto spotting, draped with a coarse wool riding blanket. He knew now why he’d been called. Visitors.
Four figures stood in an awkward knot outside the house, waiting, a different flavor of annoyance written across each distinctive face, Indian, black, and white. He caught the eye of the other Tom on the plantation, a tall pecan-colored slave two years his senior, already sprouting the beginnings of a mustache on his upper lip, caught up in the net of the same name. The other Tom answered the call more quickly, most probably from the stable, where he shod the tribe’s ponies. They’d found themselves in this situation before, the two Toms, and after the briefest flicker of recognition, Tom concentrated on his master, figuring how much trouble he might be in for taking too long.
Chief Yargee threw up his hands when he saw Tom. He seemed more nettled that he had to deal with a white man than that he’d had to wait. His master didn’t take to strangers, especially English-speaking strangers. Yargee was full-blood, devoted more to old ways than new, and if the chief could have lived his life through without ever seeing a white face or being vulnerable to the confusing ways of the Wachenas, he would have died a man content.
“What took so long?” asked Yargee in Mvskoke.
“Cattle trouble,” said Tom. He thought of Old Turtle’s warning and said nothing more, holding his breath as he waited for Chief Yargee’s reaction.
Distracted, Chief Yargee skimmed past Tom’s delay and waved away the other Tom with an impatient gesture. “They talk crazy,” he said.
The two strangers looked uncomfortable. The short white man was smaller than the chief, dressed in a mishmash of clothing, some Indian, some store-bought cloth and American fashion, like Tom had seen before on the old plantation. The dark-skinned man wore a feathered turban, a blanket wrapped around his body Indian-style, and breeches with fur around the bottom.
“I am yatika.” The black stranger spoke in thick-tongued Mvskoke, so heavily accented he was difficult to understand.
“What’s he say, Tom?” Yargee asked.
The situation came clear. Chief Yargee had little tolerance for unfamiliarity with his language. Tom had thrown himself into mastering Mvskoke as well as Creek customs and dress when Yargee bought him into the nation as his property. This white man had the foresight to bring his own interpreter, but Yargee didn’t approve of the abuse of the language in the black man’s mouth.
“I am yatika for Chief Yargee,” Tom said in English.
He ignored the black man’s look of surprise and the mirrored expression of the little white man. Tom was used to doubt, to challenge, to underestimation, because he was twelve and looked younger still.
“Chief Yargee asks the reason for your visit.”
This time the white man spoke, in English. He too had an accent, but Tom made internal adjustments for his odd lilt and speech, and found him understandable.
“I’m passing through, writing about Indians in Alabama. For my own amusement. Yes?”
Tom wasn’t sure how much Mvskoke the black man really understood, so he mostly performed a straight translation of the white man’s words for Yargee without commentary or shading, but he left out the part about amusement. Chief Yargee wouldn’t respond well, and he wanted to keep the exchange going, fascinated that a white man brought his slave dressed Cherokee-style with him as he traveled through Alabama.
“We feed them,” Yargee said in Mvskoke to Tom, “then they go.”
“The chief invites you to sup,” Tom translated, “before going on your way.” The white man seemed grateful at the offer, so Tom added, “You and your estelvste.”
The black man straightened up at this last, his face suddenly flinty.
“I am not his,” he said in English, pulling his blanket tighter around his shoulders. “I am a free man, belonging only to myself. I have papers for proof. I travel without permission.”
This man was as dark as Tom, maybe even a shade darker, his hair kinky beneath his turban, his face broad without the slightest hint of Indian blood. Every black man, woman, boy, or girl Tom had ever known was owned by white or Indian. Masters differed in temperament and treatment, in wealth and in influence, but so far as he knew, any with one drop of Negro blood were slaves. He’d seen official papers before, sheaves of parchment his former master kept in a locked rolltop desk no one was allowed to touch, except to keep dusted. Master McIntosh used to pull these papers out each month and worry over them, scratching black ink across the pages with a goose-quill feather pen. He’d add new sheets to the stack
whenever he made a sale or a purchase on the plantation. Tom wondered if the black man’s proof papers looked like those.
Tom wasn’t supposed to know how to read or write, but Master McIntosh sent his son to the white man’s school, and in the beginning, the boy showed Tom the individual squiggles of letters he said were the mortar and pestle of the white men’s books in his father’s library. Tom practiced them when alone. That was before the son outgrew their small-boy friendship and went on to embrace the life his father laid out for him, where Tom’s function was to serve, not accompany. But Tom could write his own name and pick out some words. Once he came to Yargee, the chief didn’t care one way or the other if Tom could read, so long as he performed his chores. Yargee had no knowledge of the written word, and cared about only the valuable cattle-tending skills gained for the tribe when he bought in Old Turtle and young Tom together.
Tom looked to Yargee, but his master had scant interest in an exchange in a language he didn’t understand and which promised to impact him little. Still, Tom translated the black man’s words, the freedom declaration.
Yargee didn’t comment, but didn’t laugh either, or protest the absurdity of the claim. A free black man. Sometimes you had to see a thing to know the possibility of it. He’d ask Old Turtle later.
“Mightn’t I ask Chief Yargee about his life as Upper Creek in Alabama?” asked the white man.
The chief grabbed up his bois d’arc bow and a full quiver of arrows. “Have cook lay supper and food for them to carry away,” he said in Mvskoke.
“Chief Yargee meets with Council now, but asks me to see you eat and drink to your fill.”
He’d get these men to himself before sending them off. If only he could learn how one came by freedom, with papers as proof. Or glimpse a world beyond an Alabama plantation.
The white man seemed particularly disappointed, but that didn’t burden Chief Yargee. He pulled Tom to the side.
“From now, won’t be two Toms,” Yargee whispered in Mvskoke. “Your name is Cow Tom, and his is Horse Tom, and you come soon as I call.”
“Yes, Chief Yargee.”
Yargee headed toward the woods without a backward glance, leaving Cow Tom to handle the visitors.
Later, alone, with the two men fed and on their way, Tom found the twinkle of the star that never moved in the northern sky to accept his nightly prayer. He conjured up his most precious memory. His mother, her callused hands so warm at the nape of his neck, humming some nameless, soothing tune as she tilted his head and spooned her concocted herbal brew between his lips as he lay sick of a childhood disease on a straw pallet. A pause to her crooning, and something cool on his forehead, and the timbre of her voice, rich enough to tame pain or hurt that he still played back the melody of it whenever he fell into sadness. “Come, boy,” she said then. “My Tom. Be well. You’re meant for special things. Be well now.”
He missed her.
His star called to him. First, he wished his mother safe. He wished she would come back. He wished for guidance on how to be special. And now he had something new to add to his list. He wished he was paper-free.