Courtney Miller is the multi-award winning author of the acclaimed 7-book series, The Cherokee Chronicles, which follows a fictional Cherokee family through the ages from antiquity through relocation.
His celebrated cozy mysteries and geezer-lit novels, The White Feather Mysteries, pit a Cherokee elder against a rural sheriff’s office in the Wet Mountain Valley of Colorado. He has authored over 200 articles on the art, archaeology, astronomy, history and cultures of Native America and is considered an expert on ancient Native American cultures. He currently lives in the Wet Mountain Valley of southern Colorado with his wife, Lin.
The following is an excerpt from “Gihli, The Chief Named Dog.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
This excerpt comes from near the center of the book, Chapters 52 and 53. It is the lull between the abduction of Ali by renegade Tagwa warriors and the onset of war.
With the return of the bestowal troop, optimism abounded in the little village of Tsikohi. Anxious to get this bad chapter in their lives behind them, the residents hoped that happiness would soon return.
Ali sat on the edge of her bed and watched her tired grandmother sleeping peacefully. She gazed out the window at the tall pine growing across the street.
She remembered that an old woman used to sit in the shade of that tree and watch her play. Kalona had told her that as a young girl, the old woman had protected the tree while it was a sapling and the grateful mature tree paid her back with shade.
In old age, the tree was the only companion for the old lady since all of her relatives had died. When the old woman died, Ali’s grandmother and great-grandfather had tended to her burial. But no one had come to remove her house and it was now rotting and about to fall down. Ali suspected that the old woman’s spirit now dwelled in the tree that was still growing taller and stronger.
She had been a little afraid of the old woman and the old woman had never tried to befriend little Ali. She had just sat there weaving baskets and glaring at the little girl and her twin brother as they played.
Ali now wished that she had tried to make friends with her. Now she wondered what the old woman had thought about and what she was really like. She had made special baskets for her great-grandfather and her grandmother. Kalona had visited with her and took food to her and sometimes sat and talked with her. But Grandmother was a friend to everyone and the old woman did not appear to be close to Kalona. Ali made a mental note to ask her grandmother about the old woman.
Ali felt good that morning. She was getting her strength back now. Today, a piece of her wanted to go outside, but a piece of her did not want to leave the security of the house. She walked over to the window to look out and feel the cool air from outside. She looked at the spot where the old woman used to sit. It was empty now. But then she detected movement in the old decrepit house. It was like a shadow moving inside; like the old woman’s spirit roaming around in her old house. She searched through the windows and cracks for the allusive shadow, but now the house was still. It made her shiver. It felt as if the old woman’s ghost was staring back at her.
For a moment, she thought she might go outside and search inside the old house, but then she returned across the room and lay back down on the bed, curled into a fetal position, and closed her eyes. She did not know why she was so afraid to go out. Something deep within her bade her stay near her bed or the hearth in the next room with her grandmother. Thinking of leaving brought great anxiety to her.
Ali rolled over on her back and stretched out taking in a deep breath. She rose up and forced herself to leave the bedroom. Her body felt oddly light and her head a bit dizzy as she stepped into the main room. Warm embers glowed in the hearth inviting her to sit. She strolled over to the door of her great-grandfather’s room and found it empty.
It felt good to be walking about so she wandered into her great-grandfather’s room to admire the baskets and pouches full of wondrous things. As a little girl, she had secretly investigated the contents. There were many pretty beads and shells and feathers. There were many plants and roots. She could remember the smell of dirt, the sweet smell of berries, and the pungent odor of some of the roots.
Ali ran her hand over the stiff basket weaves—probably woven by the old woman under the tree. The smell of her grandfather was in the room. She longed to talk with her grandfather again about her dreams, but she knew he would just advise her to let the dreams unveil the gaps in her memories in their own time.
She looked at the corner behind the bunk beds where her brother kept his personal items, stacked neatly, unlike the random piles of her grandfather.
She touched the top bunk where Atselvdi slept. Just a woven mat and a buffalo blanket satisfied her serious and dedicated brother, but she also felt something furry and stiff. It was the ragged rabbit skin that her brother had needed to sleep with at night as a small boy. She suspected he still clutched the skin at night, but no one spoke of it now.
She felt something against her foot. She reached down and pulled out a wooden box. She remembered that her great-grandfather had shoved it under the bed when she came in to ask about her dreams the previous night.
She sat on the bed cradling it in her lap as her great-grandfather had done. It had an unusual handle on the top. She studied it and then grasped it. It was a huge bird’s claw!
Images flashed in her head as she touched it—images of a campsite in a canyon. Ali shivered. She drew back her hand, but then she realized that she had been there. The image of the three Tagwa warriors flashed into her head and she could see Delagalis bound to stakes in the ground with a giant warrior sleeping next to her. Ali realized that she was starting to remember.
She regripped the claw and pushed her mind to remember more. She remembered being tied to a tree and the excruciating pain in her arms and wrists and ankles. The images suddenly started flooding back: the brutal stabbings of the other girls; the tormenting Tagwa that slugged her in the stomach; and the nauseating pain.
Then she saw the naked Tagwa angrily swaggering up to her with the huge knife! Ali threw down the box, grabbed her hair and screamed until she passed out.
It was her great-grandfather who found her unconscious on his bed. His heart quaked when he spotted his secret box lying on the floor. He quickly shoved it back under the bed and then sat down beside Ali.
Feeling a sadness that comes when a parent observes a child losing his/her innocence, he lamented, it has all been revealed to her!
It was cool in the shade by the water. The occasional breeze rocked the trees and funneled its way through the canyon carved out by the Long Man. Ali sat next to her twin brother below the beaver dams in silence.
She was amused by her brother’s childish playing. He held the trunk end of a small tree branch in both hands, dipped the leafy branches into the water, and watched the ripples in the water. Once the water calmed, he flicked the branch upward sending a spray of water into the air. He quickly moved the branch away to let the droplets fall back into the water and watched the circling ripples mingling with the waves of the disturbed waters as they radiated outward, merging, spreading, calming.
Ali sat with her chin on her knees studying the water. She threaded her fingers into her hair falling across her forehead and pushed the flowing black hair up onto the top of her head, turned her head at an angle and stared at her brother.
“What are you doing?”
Atselvdi jumped as if he had forgotten about his sister sitting next to him. They had been sitting for a long time wrapped up in their individual thoughts and just enjoying a lazy, cool afternoon. It was so peaceful in this, his favorite spot, where he had told her he did his best thinking.
“Grandfather says that the droplets show how one drop affects the entire pond just as one man’s actions affect all men.”
He submerged the branch tip back into the water and waited for the waters to calm.
“Grandfather told me that this demonstrates how life absorbs tragedies and upheavals. He told me that patience restores the calm; that time maintains the balance; that all things find their place; and that the natural way of things is peace.”
She sensed that Atselvdi had been surprised but elated when she had accepted his offer to walk with him. He had tried to strike up a conversation, but she had been reluctant to chat. It had been less than a moon cycle since she had remembered the abduction. The dreadful memories had left her withdrawn and moody and she had only rarely ventured outdoors. As they passed by the old woman’s crumbling house, she thought she detected movement inside again. She had gasped and Atselvdi had embraced her to comfort her. She had told him about the ghost she thought she had seen in the old house numerous times. Oddly, Atselvdi had just changed the subject. She found it odd that her brother was not interested in the dead searching for their ancestors in spite of his being a priest.
Ali turned her attention to her brother still studying the water in the pond. He was deep in thought. “What are you thinking now?” she asked softly.
“I was thinking that soon you will find peace. I was thinking that the Tagwa warriors disturbed the peace of Tsikohi, too, and now peace is returning to the village. Just as the waters eventually smooth out, people return to their normal activities, hearts mend, and in time, you will be your happy self again.”
Ali looked back at the water, released her hair and wrapped both arms around her legs. Maybe he was right. Maybe the ripples from her ordeal—more like waves—would soon smooth out like the water.
Atselvdi flipped the branch up again sending a spray of water into the air, moved the branch to one side and watched the droplets fall back into the water. She wondered if he was demonstrating his theory for her again or if there were ripples in his life right now. She wondered what deep thoughts might be troubling her serious brother. She speculated that he must be pondering issues of the priesthood or perhaps some troubling affliction of one of his patients. She would have been amused by the heavy concerns weighing on his mind: Was he just a droplet in One Thing’s life that would soon disappear from her thoughts? Had the ripples of their encounter already disappeared?
A noise from the forest caused them to turn to glimpse a vague shadow hiding in the trees. It was a scary shadow that she had seen before! It was the feeling she had gotten looking at the old woman’s house across the street … the feeling that someone was spying on her. She gasped and leaped into her brother’s arms. As she trembled in fear, she blurted out, “It’s the shadow, Atselvdi!”
Atselvdi looked back and then began to giggle. She angrily pulled away and glared at her insensitive twin brother.
“I’m sorry, Sis,” Atselvdi offered, “but I just saw the mysterious shadow you speak of and I know who it is. Wait here.”
“I will not!” protested Ali grabbing him again, “Don’t you dare leave me here alone.”
Atselvdi hugged his frightened sister. “Okay, but don’t you want to know who’s been spying on you?”
“Spying on me?” the trembling girl quizzed.
“HI YEE! Waya Usti!” Atselvdi shouted. “Come join us!”
The tall, muscular, bashful young man stepped out from behind the tree and shyly walked toward Ali and her brother. Ali stood. She recognized the young man as the boy everyone kidded because of his shyness and silly name. She had felt sorry for him and had never participated in any of the cruel teasing. As they had grown older, Ali had come to admire the quiet, strong Wolf Puppy.
As Waya Usti approached, much to the anguish of the young man, Atselvdi continued, “When Waya Usti learned about your abduction, he was the first to join the search party. He was first to follow your screams to the Tagwa camp, and he was the one who carried you back to the village.”
Waya Usti stared at the ground as if completely humiliated. Ali clasped her hands in front of her modestly, straightened her arms and gently swayed back and forth as she smiled sweetly and studied the bashful young man before her.
Atselvdi was enjoying embarrassing his friend and sister, so he continued, “He has appointed himself to be your protector and has watched over you from the shadows ever since.”
Waya Usti clenched his teeth and growled, “Enough, Atselvdi!”
Ali giggled delightfully. She had never taken Waya Usti seriously. She was flattered by his attention. She had also not noticed how he had matured. Suddenly, she realized that the tormented kid she had protected years ago was now a strong, handsome young man.
Waya Usti was blushing and stirring the dirt with his foot. He looked like he might turn and run home to his mother.
Ali wanted to rescue him. “We were just sitting by the beaver dams. Do you want to join us?”
The forlorn young man suddenly appeared to be soaring! “Uh huh!” he muttered dumbly.
Atselvdi glanced up at Grandmother Sun. “Ali, I need to go. Grandfather wants me to help with ball play practice. Will you be all right?”
Ali pouted. “Ball play! Why so soon after …”
“Grandfather thinks it is time.”
Ali hissed her contempt. Atselvdi persisted, “Grandfather thinks it is just what Tsikohi needs to get back to normal.”
“I’ll be fine. Maybe Waya Usti will stay with me.”
The twins looked at their bashful friend who opened his mouth, but no words came out.