12.17.2016


An Excerpt from The Sacrifice of the Sage Hen

by Susie Schade-Brewer
Published by Swimming Kangaroo Books (2009)

PROLOGUE



Deep in the woods, a scream pierced the night, lifting
through the trees toward the sky. It was
shrill and enduring, a scream of pain and agony. Minutes later,
there came another scream and then another. Like echoes in a canyon, they bounced off snow-capped mountains, to finally be
swallowed up by the denseness of the pines.

With each outcry, the timid and frightened deer stopped
their late-afternoon feeding, lifted their heads, and flitted their
eyes in nervous uncertainty. Squirrels halted only long enough
to acknowledge the unfamiliar sound, then re turned to their
raucous harvesting. Overhead, an eagle mocked the sound and
circled cautiously, his eyes fixed on the ground and everything
happening there.

None of these wilderness sojourners had ever heard this
sound before, and chances were good they never would again,
so they regarded the screams with only passing wariness. For
Micah Fremont, though, who rushed on moccasin-ed feet
through the forest, dodging obstacles to maintain steady footing,
the mission was different. Caution be damned—he couldn't get
through fast enough. Darkness would cover him soon.

Inside a cabin built of sturdy cedars and insulated tight
against the mountain's elements, an orange glow from a hearth
cast across the room. Over the dying flames hung an untended
coffeepot. Steam rose from its spout until finally it emptied, and
the smell of burned chicory filled the room.

Several feet away, in a bed pulled into the warmest corner,
a woman's breathing quickened. She looked anxiously toward
the coffeepot she could not get to and panted through the
mounting pain. "Please hurry, my husband. How will I do this
without you?"

Fremont squinted through the heavy underbrush and to his
relief saw the yellow light from the cabin's only window. Never
slowing, he wheeled halfway to ensure his companions were still
behind him. Three sisters, women from the Arapaho village,
followed close on his heels. Their muffled steps fell in rhythmic
unison. In their arms they carried bundles of blankets and
provisions for the woman alone at the cabin and the baby who
would soon make its appearance.

Fremont finally reached the front entrance and flung the
door open. The three women hustled inside and immediately
began ministering. One reached for a large empty pot and
shoved it at Fremont.

"Nibi," she directed, and her voice demanded immediacy.

"Water?"

"Yes, nibi!" She waved him toward the door.

Another woman tended to the coffeepot. With a hearthglove,
she set it aside and then stoked the fire with sticks of
locust from the wood box nearby. It was clear in her manner
there was no time to waste.

The third rushed to the bedside of the panting woman who,
with her knuckles white, clung to the bedposts. A multi-colored
quilt blanketed her sweaty body up to her waist and sank low
between knees pulled up and propped apart. Beads of moisture
glistened over the laboring woman's face and arms, and she
chewed at her bloody lip.

The Indian caretaker pulled the quilt away. Fremont, still
holding his pot, paused at the door to glance back. His wife's
exposed belly, swollen and purple, was stretched tight as a
buffalo skin over a teepee. Below her nakedness, water and
blood saturated the bedding. When her frightened eyes found
him, Fremont froze where he stood. How could he leave her?
She needed him, and he started back toward her .

The Indian, reading his eyes, shuffled toward him. "No,
nibi!" she said, and opening the door, she impatiently shoved
him through.

Fremont heard the latch board when it dropped into its iron
cradle. Oh god, they were going to make him stay out. And the
blood—there was so much more than he'd expected. Before he
had been anxious. Now he was afraid.

Though he trusted the savvy and wisdom of the Indians—
twice they'd saved him from near death—his most precious
possession was in their hands. She was the only woman he had
ever loved; the one he bragged was the best woman-flesh God
had ever fashioned. How he hoped they knew what they were
doing.

He raced toward the running stream and dished up the cold
water. Following its delivery to the house, he was promptly
locked out again. Near panic, he shoved his thumbs into the
waist of his buckskin britches and paced the porch.

Above the spirals of wood smoke, a glistening crescent
moon settled in for the night, but Fremont paid little mind to its
beauty. Nor did he notice when the wind picked up slightly. The
wolf howls on the summit held no special meaning. Instead,
worry plagued him, as well as guilt for not coming home sooner.
Even just one day. What was so important about a few more
pelts that he couldn't get back in her most important time?
But how could he have known? What did he know of
women? The only birthings he'd ever seen were those of wolves
and mules.

The ensuing minutes seemed like hours. Hours became like
days. The screams of his beloved were becoming harder to
endure than the terrifying blizzard of '35. As with it, what else
could he do but wait it out? He was anxious to see his first child.
Taking a seat in his wife's slat-backed rocker, he knew there
would be no sleep tonight.

Before long, a delicate light mist arose from the earth,
allowing only the dark forms of the crystalline trees to shine
through. It carried a sweet fragrance of pine to him. He glanced
eastward at the mottled horizon where a bulging red sphere
began slicing through it. As often as he'd watched this scene
unfold in the top of these mountains, he had never tired of its
majesty and beauty.

He stood and walked to a clearing east of the cabin,
allowing his thoughts to be temporarily drawn away from the
drama going on behind him.

The air became still and quiet. Even the wind through the
trees hushed as if commanded to. "God, are you out there?" he
whispered. God had been on his mind a lot lately.
Another scream penetrated the stillness, but this time more
subdued. He turned and stared toward its source. He hoped his
wife's ordeal was winding down. She sounded near the end of
her endurance.

Walking a little further, he found a rock to sit upon where
he could watch the sunrise, but not so far away that he couldn't
hear the noises from the cabin. His mind reflected back to the
day he had married his beautiful Quaker wife. A pleasurable
smile covered his face.

Her father hadn't liked him at all, mountain man and
unsteady wanderer that he was. He'd thought Fremont way too
old for his young daughter. Several other suitors had been much
more to her father's liking. However, the young woman's eyes
had been only for him.

A tear touched the corner of his eye. Of all the bounteous
gifts God had ever bestowed upon him throughout his full life,
she was the very finest and most prized.

Behind him just then came a rustling in the underbrush.
From the corner of his eye, he saw movement, not an arm's
length from where he sat. Slowly, so as not to startle the visitor,
he turned his head.

A sage hen wandered into the clearing, perhaps in search of
food. She stopped beside some blackberry bushes a few feet
away, pulled one foot up into her brown marbled feathers, and
peered cautiously about. Then slowly, she put it back down and
proceeded forward. Behind her came another hen and then a
third, much smaller, which walked with a limp.

In single file, they continued past where Fremont sat,
oblivious to his presence, or at least not caring, and through
some underbrush to another clearing ten feet away. Fremont
watched as they joined several others. These were larger,
roosters with majestic head plumes that pricked abruptly up and
with bright orange pouches on their breasts. Where they'd come
from, Fremont didn't know.

For a few moments, the roosters stood curiously still in their
places. Then, becoming excited by the presence of the females,
one of them spread his tail feathers. His wings lifted and
unfolded slightly, and the long black plumes at the back of his
neck pricked upward. The large orange sacs on his breast thrust
forward and up several times, emitting loud pops.

Noting the advances of the rooster, one of the hen's wings
drooped and she walked forward, circling him as if she had
chosen him.

Spellbound, Fremont watched, until suddenly he heard a
beckoning from the cabin, and he jumped to his feet.
The sage chickens fled.

Fremont could not run fast enough. An excitement
tempered with dread infused him. Before the doorway, he saw
one of the Indian women. She waved him inside. As he entered,
he saw the other two beside his wife's bed in the warm corner.
One held a small, tightly wrapped parcel in her arms. Both
turned toward him, their dark eyes expressionless.
It was the lack of blissful excitement in their faces that
frightened him most.

His wife, her eyes seemingly glued to the ceiling, was pallid
and covered with sweat. Taking her hand in his, he sat on the
bed beside her. It was so cold.

Her gaze moved lethargically toward him, and she
managed a weak smile.

"My darling husband," she whispered through torn lips. "I
have given you a daughter to love."

A tear found its way down his cheek when he noticed the
way she spoke with practically no breath at all.
She coughed, struggled to get her words out. "You must
love her as much as you have loved me."

Her eyes closed, and in the deathly silence of the room, her
last breath left her body.