No soul can ever clearly see Another's highest, noblest part, Save through the sweet philosophy, And loving wisdom of the heart.
— Phoebe Cary
The Pacific Northwest
A fireplace dug out in the middle of the planked floor of the longhouse reflected the wavering light of its fire onto cedar walls hung with mats and various cooking and hunting paraphernalia, and onto sleeping platforms spread with several layers of bark, and soft, furry pelts. Overhead, berries and fish hung to dry from the crossbeams under the rafters. The smoke from the lodge fire was spiraling slowly toward the open cedar boards overhead, its gray wisps escaping upward, into the morning sky.
Chief Moon Elk rearranged his robe of black sea otter fur more comfortably around his lean shoulders, and pulled up his legs and squatted close to the fire. His steel-gray eyes were not large, but were bright and steady in their gaze, the skin of his copper face was fine in texture, although age and weather had wrinkled it.
"Remember always to walk softly, my son," Chief Moon Elk said as he peered at Strong Heart, who sat beside him feasting on a bowl of soup made from clams and wild vegetables. "While you are helping Four Winds escape from the white man's prison in Seattle, you must not shed blood. No good ever comes of killing whites. Our Suquamish people always suffer in the end."
Strong Heart paused momentarily from eating. "This I know," he said, nodding his head with grave dignity. "And no blood will be shed. I would do nothing to lead trouble to our village. By choice, our clan of Suquamish have kept ourselves from those who were tricked by the white man's treaties and promises. Because of this, ours has been a peaceful existence. So shall it continue to be, Father."
Chief Moon Elk's gaze moved slowly over Strong Heart, admiring his muscular son attired in fringed buckskin. "Your plan is to dress as a white man during the escape, and you will ride your horse instead of traveling by canoe to Seattle?" he asked, wiping his mouth with a cedar-bark napkin, his own stomach warmed comfortably with soup.
"Ah-hah, yes, that is my plan," Strong Heart said, leaning closer to the fire to ladle more clam soup into his elaborately carved wooden bowl. The ladle was decorated with the crest of his family: the red-tailed hawk.
Strong Heart began eating the soup again, needing his fill now, for he was not planning to stop for anything until he reached the outskirts of Seattle. His plans for Four Winds were several sunrises away. He had other chores to do before freeing his friend from the cruel clutches of the law.
Moon Elk studied his son for a moment without offering a response to what Strong Heart had said. It was like seeing himself in the mirror of the clear rivers and streams those many years ago when he could boast of being his son's age of twenty-nine winters. Moon Elk had begun to shrink with age, so he was no longer as tall as his son. Strong Heart was more than six feet in height, a giant among his Suquamish people, and most whites.
And not only was his son tall, he was powerfully built, broad shouldered, thin flanked, and lithe. His light copper-colored skin was smooth, with muscles that rippled beneath the flesh. He wore his dark brown hair long and loose, past his shoulders, and his gray eyes held strength and intelligence in their depths.
Ah-hah, Moon Elk thought proudly, there was a steel-like quality about his son.
His son was a man of daring and courage.
"My son, not only will the color of your skin give away your true identity, but also your dignified gracefulness. You are a noble man who towers over the white man," Moon Elk said. "This can perhaps betray your plans, my son. No white man walks with the dignity of my son, nor carries within their hearts such compassion."
Moon Elk leaned closer to Strong Heart and peered into his eyes. "My son, is Four Winds worth risking your life for? The world would be void of a much greater man should you die."
Strong Heart was unmoved by his father's steady stare, or his words. "Even now I am sure the white people are building a hanging platform for my friend, Four Winds," he said flatly. "My friend will not die with a noose around his neck. Do you not recall his dignity, Father? Being caged and awaiting his death, his dignity has been taken from him. And I see his life as no less valuable than mine. I will set him free, Father. And do not fear for my safety. I have faced worse odds in my lifetime than a cultus, worthless sheriff, who is blinded by the power he feels by caging men the same as some might cage a bird for entertainment's sake. It is he who should be caged, and put on display in a white man's circus!"
"Such a bitterness I hear in your voice," Moon Elk said, shaking his head sadly. "Now, when the autumn salmon harvest is near, and when your heart should be happy and your very soul should be filled with song, you are filled with bitterness over another man's misfortunes. That is me-sah-chie, bad, my son! Me-sah-chie! "
"Ah-hah, it is regrettable, yet is it not as regrettable that Four Winds was arrested unjustly?" Strong Heart said, setting his empty bowl aside. "You, as well as I, know his innocence. Although we have lost touch these past moons after his Suquamish clan moved north to Canada's shores, I know that his heart remains the same toward life. He could never ride with outlaws, killing and stealing! Never!"
"Who can say what drives a man, even to insanity?" Moon Elk rumbled. "The same could apply to a man who takes up the ways of a criminal. Is it not the same? Men are driven by many things to become who they are. As I recall him, Four Winds seemed a driven young man. You did not also see this, my son?"
Strong Heart arched an eyebrow and fell deep into thought as he peered into the flames of the fire. He was remembering many things about his friend Four Winds from when they were youths together. Some good. Some me-sah-chie, bad.
Strong Heart had overlooked the bad, for Four Winds's goodness had always outweighed his shortcomings.
"Ah-hah," Strong Heart finally said, looking back at his father. "I remember that Four Winds was in a sense driven, but not much more than I, Father. In games of competition, we both strived to excel."
"Do you not recall the times he would avoid you for days after losing at games with you?" Moon Elk persisted. "This is why I fear he may have changed now into someone you do not know. Or should not risk your life for."
"Father, this is not at all like you," Strong Heart said, rising. He then knelt on one knee before his father and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Trust my judgment, Father. Never before have you doubted me."
Moon Elk turned his eyes to Strong Heart and placed a hand over his son's. "It is not you I doubt," he said softly. "It is Four Winds. Remember this, my son, as you take the long ride to Seattle. I trust your judgment in all things. It is only that I worry too much over my son who is destined to one day be a great chief. Remember always the importance of being a tyee, chief. He is a man whose opinion carries more weight than his fellow tribesmen."
"I remember all of your teachings, Father," Strong Heart said, rising to his full height. "And I understand the importance of being a tyee. But that is in the future. I must do what I must now for a friend."
Moon Elk rose to his feet also. He walked with his son to the large cedar door and swung it open. Together they stepped outside to a blossoming new September day, the air heavy with the sweet fragrance of the cedar-and-pine forest which lay just beyond the village.
Moon Elk walked Strong Heart toward his san-de-lie, horse, a magnificent roan. "You will also search again for Proud Beaver, your grandfather?" he asked, his face drawn. "Your mother still grieves so over him, fearing that her father is dead."
Strong Heart turned and saw his mother coming toward them, having left the longhouse so son and father could speak in private about things that would only trouble her. She had busied herself by going to the river for water and walked with a huge earthenware jug balanced on her right shoulder.
It saddened Strong Heart to see his mother's change since the disappearance of her father. Her eyes were no longer filled with laughter. She scarcely ate, and had become frail and gaunt.
Then Strong Heart smiled as he looked at her pert nose. It had remained the same — tiny and toke-tie, pretty — the reason her parents had called her Pretty Nose on the day of her birthing.
Pretty Nose set her heavy jug on the ground and went to Strong Heart. Tears filling her eyes, she embraced him. "My son, return safely to me," she murmured. "This that you do is courageous, yet I cannot say that it pleases me. Courage is just a word. It cannot fill my arms if you are dead!"
"Mother," Strong Heart said, placing his hands at her tiny waist, holding her away from him so that their eyes could meet. "You worry too much. This son of yours will return soon. And I promise to search for Grandfather. I shall go back once more to our ancestral grounds where our village once stood. We all believe that is where Grandfather went when he disappeared a moon ago. He felt as if the spirits of our dead ancestors were beckoning him there. He spoke of that often to me."
Strong Heart lowered his head momentarily, then looked back at his mother. "Had I heeded the warning in his voice and words, never would he have left our village. I would have kept watch. I would have stopped him."
"Do not blame yourself, my son," Pretty Nose said, gently placing a hand to his cheek. She looked adoringly up at him. "How could you know that his mind was aging more quickly than his body? We have not lived beside the waters of Puget Sound for many moons now. Many moons ago, even before Chief Seattle signed treaties with the white people, our people took money from white people for their land. Those who did were ignorant enough to think the value of the money was worth more to them than the land. It was a mistake. It ate away at your grandfather like an open wound festering with disease. His regrets turned him away from us. Ah-hah, it has surely carried him 'home,' to our ancestral burial grounds."
She flung herself into her son's arms and clung to him, sobbing. "Please find him, Strong Heart," she whispered. "Please?"
"I shall try is all that I can say," Strong Heart said, easing her from his arms. He framed her face between his hands. His mouth went to her lips and he kissed her softly.
Then he turned and, with an easy grace, he mounted his horse, settling himself comfortably on the saddle stuffed with cottonwood and cattail down. He reached for his rawhide reins, and took a last look at his village before leaving. The long houses were built of cedar wood fitted so expertly together that there was no need of nails. Each home was decorated with its owner's family crest painted on the entryway door posts, and outside the square houses was erected a line of totem poles, carved with the animals and spirits sacred to the clan. Behind them the Duwamish River flowed peacefully downstream.
Strong Heart then shifted his gaze to the saddlebags on his horse, his thoughts sorting through what he had packed to ensure the success of this venture that he was embarking upon. He was taking a change of clothes which would give him the appearance of a white man — a flannel shirt, leather breeches, and jacket, and high-heeled boots. He was carrying a pair of Colt revolvers with seven-inch barrels and pearl handles. A sombrero hung from the saddle horn.
Ah-hah, he thought smugly to himself. All of this would be used when the time came for his masquerade.
Strong Heart patted the knife sheathed at his waist, then placed a hand on the rifle that was resting in its holster at his horse's flank. He valued this repeating rifle as if it were his right arm. It had gotten him through many scrapes when gangs of bandits had lurked beside the trails, waiting to attack any traveler who looked as if he might have something worth stealing.
Until recently, when they had been forced to go into hiding due to the many possess chasing them, the desperadoes had swarmed the countryside, attacking stations along the trail where travelers stopped to exchange tired horses for fresh ones for the next lap of their journey.
The robberies had lessened at the same time of Four Winds's arrest, yet Strong Heart still would not believe that his friend had any connection with the outlaws. It was surely a case of mistaken identity that made the posse think that Four Winds was a desperado.
Strong Heart looked at his parents, seeing the concern in their eyes for the dangers of his mission. Yet not even this could change his mind.
"I must go now," he said.
"Strong Heart, take many braves with you," Moon Elk said, in a final plea to his son. "They will ride beside you. They will help you."
"Father, as I have told you before, I must ride alone," Strong Heart said shortly. "Less trouble comes with lesser numbers. Many braves would draw attention — not avoid it. I, alone, can move about without being noticed."
Moon Elk nodded in acquiescence. Pretty Nose stepped closer to Strong Heart. Tears streamed from her dark eyes as she reached a hand toward him. "Kla-how-ya, good-bye, my son," she said, sobbing. "Hy-ak, hurry! Make haste in returning to me!"
"I will, Mother," Strong Heart said, then urged his horse away in a gallop, not looking back. He kept his eyes straight ahead as he left his village behind him, savoring the wild, deep free feeling of being alone on a journey of the heart. He loved the quiet power of it.
He soon forgot the heartache that he had left behind and enjoyed this land that was precious to him. It was a wild yet peaceable land, sunny and quiet. Strong Heart urged his horse in a steady pace along the trail. The wind was soft today, and the mountains beyond were misted and breathtakingly beautiful. There was fullness to everything.
* * *
When the haloed fire of the setting sun was fleeing before an ashen dusk, Strong Heart rode through familiar terrain. With his horse breathing heavily, he topped a rise.
Drawing rein, he took in the imposing view of the Cascade Range. No matter how often he saw the green-cloaked mountains with their thick covering of firs, hemlocks and cedars, he was in awe. And standing sentinel over all was the pure white peak of Mount Rainier.
Dwarfed by the mountains, the city of Seattle was not nearly so beautiful. Below, he recognized Skid Road, which took its name from the skids of logs that were pushed down from the slopes above to the ships on the waterfront, waiting to transport the lumber to faraway ports. The muddy, rutted road was lined on either side by bars and brothels, making it both noisy and occasionally dangerous.
Looming high above Seattle on another slope of land, yet just below where Strong Heart stood, was a long, ugly and ramshackle wooden building, with the name COPPER HILL PRISON written on a large sign at the front. He squinted his eyes, watching the men hammering outside the prison, the tell tale signs of a hanging platform taking shape.
Heaving a long sigh, Strong Heart shifted his eyes to where the Sound lay. He knew that among its sheltered coves and winding channels, salmon were swimming peacefully through the kelp forests. Soon they would be making their journey upriver. He would be there waiting for them, meeting them at the canyon for the autumn harvest.
Then something else caught his eye: a huge, four-masted ship approaching Seattle. He watched its movement through the choppy waves made by the cool northwest breeze. He always felt awe for these large vessels with their white sails catching the wind. He could not help but wonder whom this ship carried to the land that once belonged solely to the Suquamish.
His jaw tight, he wheeled his horse around and followed the slope of land that took him away from Copper Hill Prison.
Tonight and tomorrow he would renew his search for his grandfather.
Then he would return to study the prison, and how often people came and went from it.