Easterly accepted the bowl from Atá Halné. “Beans and tortillas for breakfast. We lived better than this on the trail.”
The Navajo ignored the young Anglo’s gripe. “Did you come to your senses last night?”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought you might be sore enough this morning to give up the idea of breaking horses.”
“I’m sore, that’s sure enough, and I didn’t get much sleep to boot.”
“That’s your mind trying to give you a warning.”
“No. It was Hund’s snoring. He kicks in his sleep, too.” Easterly tilted his head to the brown dog sharing his antelope-hide rug.
Hund sat at the sound of his name and licked his lips with sloppy passes of his tongue. He was rewarded with another piece of the Mexican bread.
“You’re teaching him to beg,” Atá Halné said.
“And you’re sure against everything this morning. It’s this dark, dirty hogan. It smells like dirt.”
“You’d better get used to smelling dirt if you think you can break horses. You’re going to have it packed in your nose.”
“Mmph.” Easterly dragged his sleeve across his nostrils. “I need something in my nose to keep it from running after eating your fire-hot food.” He slid the bowl to Hund.
“If you didn’t like that dog’s snoring,” Atá Halné said, “wait ‘til he digests those beans. You’ll want your nose packed with something.”
Easterly watched Hund chew a few scorching beans, then pull his lips up as in a snarl and stretch his tongue out as far as it would go. The dog had to be tasting frijoles fired in a forge. Apparently, the burn would subside and he’d dip into the bowl for another bite.
Never taking his eyes from Hund, Easterly’s voice lowered a notch. “May I ask you something, Atá Halné?”
“I never thought of it before, it’s just since we’ve been here in Santa Fe, but … well, the other Indians here speak a broken sort of English. Some even communicate with grunts and pointing. Not you. You speak better than Doctor Poland back home. He was smart and educated, too.”
“I see. You believe I’m uneducated and not smart, then?”
Easterly shrugged and stroked Hund’s back.
Atá Halné tied the water gourd on the center post and sat next to Hund. “If we’re going to have this conversation, I want you to look at me.”
The dim light didn’t conceal Easterly’s blush. “All right, then,” he said. “I’m looking.”
Atá Halné smiled, “The straight of it is, the whites don’t expect Indians to know anything. The locals living here are acting in ways expected of them. It makes life easier. That’s why I asked you to call me ‘Arthur’ when around other Anglos.” He leaned forward to scratch Hund’s ear. “It’s the Christian name given me by the Methodist Episcopal missionaries at Fort Coffee where I received quite an education. A forced education, but extensive nonetheless.”
“Where’s Fort Coffee?”
“The Indian Territory.”
“How did you get way over there?”
“The missionaries said that my family had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time. I was ten when the Army came across us. They took me from my family and sent me to the school where I stayed until the Rebs captured it. The South wasn’t interested in the school so I was allowed to go home.” Atá Halné sighed. “I understand that the war was rough on the old school. I guess once a fort, always a fort.”
“So you’ve only been out of school for about …?”
“Five years. People always think I’m older than I am. This trip is my pilgrimage to reclaim the twelve years of family history Christianity beat out of me.”
Easterly jumped to his feet yelling, causing Hund to leap sideways. “You can’t talk about my religion that way.”
“Calm down, boy.” Atá Halné held up a hand. “There’s nothing wrong with the belief, or faith. I said it incorrectly. It’s the things done in the name of saving others that’s appalling. Let’s drop it, shall we?”
Easterly had his hands curled into fists, but his shoulders relaxed. “Fine. I’ve got stuff to do.”
“So you said. Now that you’re acting tough, I’m going along to watch you put that skewbald mare in her place.”
How will Atá Halné’s backstory change his relationship with Easterly, if at all? Leave a comment.
To read the series, click on September 2017, in the Archive list and start with Tales Old Roy Told.
Writing Fiction is published on Wednesdays.
Thank a veteran.