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Authors: Larry McMurtry

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BOOK: Zeke and Ned
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In the hills and flatlands where the Cherokee people lived, news traveled faster than horses. It was nearly thirty miles from the Beck mill to Ned's Mountain, but Ned had the news to chew on an hour before Zeke and Tuxie came riding up.

“Both of you men are in trouble,” Ned announced when he walked out to greet his guests. “Zeke's in trouble with the law, and Tuxie's in trouble with Dale. She's done sent your oldest boy over here twice to tell you she expects you home.”

Ned saw at once that Zeke Proctor was in bad shape.

“Get down, Zeke,” he said. “Jewel's cooking a possum, we'll be eating pretty soon.”

Zeke did not want to eat. Whiskey, confusion, and remorse were churning in him like the rapids along the Arkansas River. He was relieved to see Ned, at least. Though Ned was the younger man by more than a decade, there was something about him that was solid— in his company, people got the feeling that if things got bad, Ned could handle them. Ned Christie stayed calm in situations that would cause most people to go wild and act foolish. He had the ability to keep on doing one thing at a time, until the crisis passed.

It was his calm authority that had caused Zeke to travel thirty miles to see him on a day when life had gone terribly wrong. The fact of Polly's death would be a tragedy forever, but the world had not ended, not yet. Something would have to happen next, whether Zeke wanted it to or not. He could not crawl in a hole and give up, like a sick goat would be apt to do.

Besides the possum, Jewel had made a squirrel stew and a mess of wild greens. Tuxie kept telling himself he ought to get on home before Dale got any madder, but he was not a man to willingly turn away from squirrel stew, especially since Dale refused to cook varmints. In her view, squirrels were varmints.

Jewel was shocked to see how sad her father looked. When she was younger, he had been ingenious at making dolls for her, out of corncobs and bits of rag. Zeke had always been the jolly one of the household. When her mother was low, Zeke would make jokes or whistle tunes, until he had everyone, including Becca, cheered up.

Zeke hugged Jewel hard when he first came in, but after that, he seemed hardly to know where he was, or who he was with. He sat at the pine-slab table looking blank, saying nothing. He ate only a bite or two, although Jewel dished him up the first plate of stew.

She had heard the talk, of course, between her cousin, Soldier, and her husband, Ned. Her cousin said that Zeke had killed some woman he meant to take to wife. The news was so upsetting that Jewel would have preferred not to hear it. For one thing, she did not think her mother would have wanted Zeke to have another wife. Jewel knew men sometimes had more than one wife, but she had just become a wife herself, to a husband she loved with all her heart. What if Ned showed up one day with another woman, and told her she would have to accept the new woman as his second wife? Jewel knew she would never be able to stand it—she would not share her husband with
woman. If Ned tried to bring a new woman to their home, Jewel knew she would have to be strong enough to leave.

It was just a problem in her mind, of course; Ned had given no sign that he had any such intention. A few days after he brought her home to be his wife, he walked with her down to the spring and whispered to her that he wanted babies. Jewel was startled by the ways of men; she did not say yes or no. She wanted Ned to have what he wanted, and if he wanted a baby, then she wanted one, too. She wanted to be a good wife to Ned for as long as she was allowed, although the only part of being a wife that she felt confident about so far was cooking. Ned must want the baby very much, she thought. He came to her almost every night now.

Jewel fried the possum meat and cooked the squirrel stew, even though she was upset by what her father had done. In the years of her childhood, Zeke had never raised a hand to Jewel, or spoken a cross
word to her. Yet, he had wanted to be with this new woman, Polly Beck, so much that he had ended up killing her. The thought of upsetting Becca had not checked him, nor had he minded taking Polly away from the husband she had married. What it meant to Jewel was that men would have their way where women were concerned, no matter what women might want.

She had just begun to experience the power of a man. There was pleasure in it, but no certainty. At times after Ned had been with her, Jewel wished she could go home and be certain of life again—home with her mother, and her father, and her sister, and the triplets.

She wished it, but she knew it could not be. She was Ned Christie's wife, and she always would be, until one of them met their death. It was enough that her husband wanted her; she wanted to live so that
her husband wanted her. She did not want some stranger to appear one day and want her so much that he killed her husband—or else killed her—the very thing her father had just done.

“My Jewel's the best cook on the Mountain,” Ned said proudly. He could not get enough of praising Jewel. That she had learned the wifing part of life so quickly made him feel like a lucky man. His only complaint—not that he voiced it to anyone except Tuxie Miller—was that in her shyness, Jewel rarely spoke. She worked with a will, but what she felt as she went through her days, or lay with him on their old shuck mattress at night, he did not know. Jewel, so far, had been a good wife, but a silent one.

Ned had made the remark about Jewel's cooking in the hope that talk of vittles or other light matters might divert Zeke some from his grieving.

Zeke looked up briefly at Jewel, lovely and quiet. The time when he had her at home as a daughter seemed a long time lost, though she had been gone only a few weeks.

“Yes, we miss her at home,” Zeke said. “Becca's too forgetful. She forgets, and burns the mush.”

“Dale can cook, only she don't cook varmints,” Tuxie said. “It's deer meat or cabbage at our house, mostly.”

“Dale will be cooking
if you don't behave better,” Ned observed. He liked Dale Miller, even though she was violent. When her temper was up, which was often, she would grab whatever was handy and chunk it. She chunked accurately, too. Once, when he had teased her a little too hard, Dale flattened him with a stick of firewood,
thrown from twenty feet. Ned had half meant to marry Dale himself, but he was shy about his courting. The next thing he knew, she had married Tuxie and started spilling out children. There were nine, to date. Despite being scared to death of Dale, Tuxie did manage to keep her spilling out children.

Zeke was not diverted long by mention of Jewel's cooking. The bad thing he had done was sure to have consequences, and how bad the consequences might get was the thing he wanted to talk to Ned about. Zeke trusted his Keetoowah brother completely. The Keetoowah Society denounced white authority of any kind, and were strong supporters of treaty rights of independence within the Cherokee Nation. Strong avengement would be taken against anyone who harmed a Keetoowah brother, and Zeke knew Ned would do what he could to keep him safe from the white marshals, if they came.

“It was an accident that I shot Polly, but the white law won't see it that way,” Zeke said.

“Even if they believe it, they won't care,” Ned replied. “You best eat that stew—you might have to go on the scout for a while, and if you do you won't be eating vittles as good as these.”

Zeke found it impossible to enjoy the tasty vittles with so much trouble hanging over him. He was so upset, he could barely think at all.

“You better turn yourself in to Judge Sixkiller, him or the tribal sheriff, one,” Ned said. “Maybe if you do, the white law will stay over in Arkansas. We don't need the federals in a case like this.”

“Need it? We never need it,” Tuxie Miller said. Then he got up from the table and shot out the door, headed home to Dale. Tuxie had to work up the nerve to face Dale. The minute he had his nerve worked up, he was gone.

Judge B. H. Sixkiller, the man Ned wanted Zeke to turn himself in to, was Jewel's great-grandfather. When Judge Sixkiller heard that Jewel had left home to be the wife of Ned Christie, he sent her a red blanket and a good stone crock. The blanket was one he himself had been wrapped in when he was a baby in the Old Place, long before he and all the Cherokees had been forced to march to the new Cherokee Nation along the Trail of Tears, more than thirty years before. It was an old blanket, soft from much use. Jewel kept it safe in a tight box where the mice could not get at it. She meant to use it to wrap her babies in, when they came.

Now her great-grandfather would be sitting as judge over Zeke. There were not many families in the Going Snake District, and most of them were related to one another, through marriages or elopements. B. H. Sixkiller was a fair man, and a busy judge. Jewel had not seen him in almost two years, and she did not know what he would think of Zeke killing a woman he wanted to take to wife. It had been an accident, Jewel felt sure of that; but still, the woman was dead.

Ned himself was not certain what action Zeke ought to take. Going on the scout—that is, hiding in the hills—would be the simplest procedure. Zeke was already in the hills. That was what most Cherokees did when they found they had run afoul of the law. The fact remained that T Spade Beck was a white man; he would no doubt appeal to the white law in Fort Smith, Arkansas. But if Zeke presented himself to the tribal authorities promptly and admitted the accident, perhaps T Spade would wait. If the Beck clan knew that Zeke was going to be tried properly before a tribal court, they might not take up arms against him—at least, not until the verdict was in.

After thinking about the matter, Ned concluded that Zeke ought to present himself to the Judge right away, and give an account of his actions. When blood was shed and a life lost, there had to be legal proceedings; otherwise, everybody in the District would soon be shooting at one another.

The worst element of the problem was not Zeke, or Judge Sixkiller, or the Sheriff of the District, Charley Bobtail: the man Zeke finally had to fear was Judge Isaac Parker—known throughout the Territory as the hanging judge—who held court in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a day's horseback ride away. Judge Parker had no respect for tribal law, and he did not believe that Cherokees or any other Indians ought to get to try themselves, unless the crimes in question were so low on the scale of crimes that it was not worth sending a marshal over to the Going Snake District to collar the miscreant. If the crime was more serious than stealing chickens, Judge Parker wanted to make sure that he had the criminal in his court where he would be subject to white law, which often meant the noose.

That was not the way it was supposed to be. By treaty with the United States government and approved by Congress, Cherokees and the other tribes in Indian Territory had the right to try their own criminals in their own courts. That was supposed to be the law of the land,
but it did not seem to apply in Fort Smith. Judge Parker was always sending the marshals into the Going Snake District to drag back criminals. Many times, he was after the whiskeysellers, Indian or white— but if the marshals could not catch the whiskeysellers, they would grab any Indian who was handy and pretend they found whiskey on his property. Judge Parker was the reason most Cherokees preferred to go on the scout when they got in trouble. Often, Judge Parker's marshals would try to take prisoners right out of the Tahlequah jail and haul them off to Arkansas.

“Sheriff Bobtail don't like me,” Zeke pointed out. “I trust Judge Sixkiller, but I don't know what Charley Bobtail might do.”

“Why don't he like you?” Ned asked. It was the first he had heard of any problems between Zeke and the Sheriff.

“Because my horse beat his horse in a horse race,” Zeke said. “It was over in Siloam Springs, three years ago. I bet him ten dollars, and I won. Charley's held a grudge ever since.”

“Which horse?” Ned asked. “Not that sorrel?”

“Yep,” Zeke said. “That sorrel.”

“I don't know why he thinks that horse can run,” Ned said. “I've seen mules who can outrun that horse.”

“There's the Squirrels, too,” Zeke reminded him. “If I'm sitting there in jail, with no better guard than Charley Bobtail, what's to stop the Squirrels from coming in that jail and shooting me like a possum in a trap—or, if not the Squirrels, then the Becks?”

Ned had forgotten about the Squirrels. He had been wanting to get along and marry Jewel the day the Squirrel brothers warned Zeke in Tahlequah. Now it came back to him: Polly Beck had been a Squirrel, and Zeke was right to be cautious about surrender. Moses Squirrel was capable of immediate murder, in Ned's view, and Rat Squirrel was not much better than an egg-sucking dog. That left Jim, who was friendly unless he was drunk. When he was drunk, he liked to curse and strike out.

While Ned watched, Zeke's head drooped down on his chest. Jewel noticed, too. She quickly made her father a pallet by the fireplace. She did not want Ned to be worrying him about going to jail until he had a good night's rest.

Ned was of the same opinion—Zeke looked like he was about to topple into the gravy.

“Go on and rest, Zeke,” Ned advised. “We can go see the Judge tomorrow.”

Zeke was grateful for the pallet. He lay down, but kept his three guns handy. He had locked his dog Pete in the springhouse before he left for the Beck mill. He was afraid Pete might get barky and give him away. Now, he lacked his watchdog, just when he needed him.

“Pete's cooped up in the springhouse. I hope Becca remembers to let him out,” he said, just before he fell asleep.


their guns.

On the Mountain, the only weapon Ned usually carried was his old single-shot squirrel gun, unless he was after deer, in which case he took his Winchester. This morning, though, Ned cleaned his two .44s and his Winchester, and Zeke did the same with his three weapons. There was no talk at the table. The men took their coffee and biscuits, but then concentrated on their weapons.

BOOK: Zeke and Ned
13.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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