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The Laughing Stranger
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Join date : 2013-08-29

PostSubject: Homecoming   Wed 29 Jan 2014, 16:23

A weak plume of grey-blue smoke rose to the east. The Comanche camp had not moved in months, and that made his mouth dry. He urged his horse on, weaving his way quickly down through the piney scrub to the edge of the cluster of teepees. The hide tents were battered, the old animal flesh drooping with neglect. One or two were just smoldering heaps, little more than ashes and blackened bone. An uneven line of leather-wrapped bundles snaked among the teepees, some man-sized, others smaller. He could smell the rotting meat of man and buffalo, the soft drone of the flies like a lazy drawling lullaby.

He saw a child sitting in the dust near one of the teepees, the young boy looking up at him with an idle stare. "Little Buffalo..." the rider dismounted and approached the boy, his son. Little Buffalo's jaw was slack, his face lean and weary with hunger, and as he unsteadily rose to his feet, his father saw that the accursed fever burned in the boy. He grasped his son's hot shoulder, the sweat sticking to his fingertips. "It will be alright, son. The spirits will help us. They have given us medicine." The child nodded weakly, uncomprehending.

He threw open the flap to his teepee. A woman, one of his wives, sat like a statue cradling a child by a cold cooking fire. The mother's tan face was mottled with crusted pocked scars, and daughter's limp body was riddled with lesions. A fallen doll made of hide and corn cob lay half-buried in the fire's ashes. He did not say anything, simply watching. Eventually she looked up at him, one of her eyes the color of bloody milk. "You finally return to your people, Skills-are-Many." She said the name without inflection, but he knew it was an insult. "Please tell me- what did you find on your quest? Has the great spirit offered you her aid?"

He looked at her, and he saw how much she had suffered. Her flesh was warped, her babies dying or dead. Skills-are-Many opened his mouth as if to speak, to offer words of strength, to tell her that there were spirits willing to take away their pain and pay them back ten-fold for their sorrow. But something in her glance made him hesitate, and she spoke again, her voice flat.

"Singing Stream and Sparrow-Flight both died last week. Your two wives that might have given you your precious wolf-child that you always wanted are gone... and none are left to take them to the caves of the dead."  

No words came to Skills-are-Many. In that moment, his tongue and mind faltered. He wanted to tell her that she was wrong, that everything was going to be alright in the end. But he didn't.

Instead, he laughed. He laughed at her. He laughed at the Comanche, he laughed at the Uktena, he laughed at that damnable Gaia bitch. The woman's impassive, almost bland expression did not waver. Her one clear eye looked past him, out the teepee and into the distant hills. Skills-are-Many finally ceased laughing and he crouched down in front of her, picking up the doll and a long sharp shard of dog bone.    

"No, you are wrong, Red Willow. I no longer want a whelp to be given to me. I am going to strengthen our children, and their children after." With one long thumbnail he tore a hole in the doll down the middle and put the dog bone inside, its jagged edges protruding through the soft leather face. "They have born the sickness and survived, and now they will spread across the land until the end of all things. We will form a new warband, one that overshadows all others and stretches from the mountains to the sea. None can stop us, not the Dog Eaters, not the Tonkawa, not the damned white men." He drew close and tucked the doll into the folded arms of the dead girl.    

She looked up at him, her face finally betraying feelings other than numb despair as she trembled, and her cold child almost slipped from her grasp. "You are mad; I merely thought you a fool before- now I know the truth."  

"You are not wrong, but neither am I." He smiled at her and kissed her scarred forehead. "Tell whoever is left to break camp- we leave within the hour. We head south, toward the sacred places. There we will find deliverance."
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