My name is Smoke on Distant Mountain. I am a Cherokee warrior. I am born of the Real People, and I am a human being, but I am not only human. I live with a light inside. When I was a child, my grandmother told me it is an angel’s light. I am a young brave now, and I have learned that fighting my own nature is a miserable thing to do, so I try to pay attention when my angel shows me things others cannot see.
This morning, after many moons seeing no other humans, I came out of the woods, looked out over a valley, and noticed a swollen shadow squatting above a rough log dwelling. It was a peaceful scene, but the greasy darkness was distinct, hunkering like a bloated snake next to the cooking smoke still rising from the chimney. I knew what I would find before I went down to that cabin, but ugly and needless, it was still as terrible a thing as I have seen, and I have witnessed many dark acts in my short life. The man had his head twisted around on his neck, the woman was desecrated, and the boy, only a handful of years old, had been beaten until most of his bones were broken. I do not particularly care for white folk, but what someone, more monster than man, did to the boy and his mother is abhorrent to me and intolerable to my angel. Men sin, creatures abuse, the innocent and the weak are always the victims.
The angel in me has given me several gifts. One is The Sight, but I can see only dimly into the future. I’ve been following the killer’s spoor for the last hour, and I sense a sad ending in front of me, but as I have already said, I cannot deny my angel, so I will not give up until I can find and stop this evil. The quick rhythm of a horse’s hooves lets me know someone is riding up hard from the valley behind. I search with my God-light and see it is a young life, hardly more than a boy. His soul is badly agitated.
Pretty sure that he’s seen what I have—I am also pretty sure he will try to shoot me. I hide in his path, using a large tree. It has to be big because I am a very large man. I am also fast. As he rides by, I reach out and pull him off his horse, then tie him up before he can recover his wits. I take his pistol and whistle for his pony. The boy is a wiry youth with tousled red hair and a wagonload of freckles. He looks very much like the mother and child in the cabin. He is spitting mad, his eyes filled with hate.
“Son or brother?” I ask in the good English taught to me on the reservation.
Unable to contain his rage, he screams at me, “You killed my sister and her family!” Then, helpless, he starts to cry. I go to fetch the pony as it has wandered back our way. I tie her to a tree. He has been unable to wipe away his furious tears and the snot running from his nose. I take pity and clean his face with his shirt. The crying fit slows, and he looks up. Miserable, his heart breaking, he has one word for me, “Why?”
I tell him, “I did not kill your family. I am hunting their murderer. You are slowing me down.”
He goes as still as a fawn under cover, and I can see him thinking hard. I am patient. Finally, he mumbles in a much-subdued voice, “I was on the ridge. I saw you walking up to my sister’s house. You went inside, then came out a few minutes later and bent low to the ground, searching for something. You seemed to find what you were looking for, and you moved away from the cabin. I rode down and found”—here he gulps, then repeats in a steadier voice—“and found what I found.” He pauses, gathers his wits while looking me up and down, then says clearly, “I thought you weren’t in there long enough to have done all that damage, but I was scared and mad, and you’re an Indian.”
I cannot help a small smile. “I am a Cherokee. You can call me Smoke.” I untie the youngster but do not give him back his pistol.
He stands up, rubbing his wrists, not making a move. “If you’re going after the one who killed my sister, I want to go with you.” I consider his words, as well as the one who speaks them. I want to tell him, “No,” but decide he will go after the killer by himself. He has no idea what he faces. The sadness I have seen at the end of this trail might mean that he will be unlucky enough to find the devil by himself, or more likely, that the murderer finds him.
“What is your name,” I ask while I ponder.
“Toby,” he says defiantly. He no longer sees me as the enemy, but as my teacher used to say about me, he is not going to give an inch.
“OK, you can come with me.” I hand him back his pistol. “But, there is something you should know about the one we hunt.” He takes the gun, looks at it for a moment, then holsters it decisively. He doesn’t say anything, just climbs stiffly back atop his horse and looks at me, waiting. I take his reins so he can hear while I talk, find the spoor again, then resume my tracking while I weigh how to put what I have to say into words. It takes the rest of the morning to convince him, but I am not sure he ever really understands—until it is too late.