An excerpt from Guns of the Waste Land: Departure by Leverett Butts
What has come before: When I left home, Ma told me not to be asking nobody questions on account of they might take a hankering to kill me. That’s how I got lost. My dead grandfather woke me up one morning after I had been wandering for days. He told me I was a damned fool and he fixed me breakfast and helped me find the right trail before he gone off to be with the baby Jesus again. I was still a good ways from town when I come across an old campsite and decided to rest for the night.
I unpacked my gear and fed Lippy from his bag before turning my mind to a fire. There wasn’t no wood left but some charred little stubs. At first I was stymied; it was gonna be one cold night if I didn’t have a fire, and I didn’t relish having to snuggle up to Lippy again. He was warm, sure enough, but he smelled something awful. I told Lippy I’d be back directly, took Gramps’ hatchet, and walked off in search of wood.
Well, I hadn’t gone five minutes out from camp before I heard what sounded like running water somewhere. Now I admit I don’t know much, but I knowed I was in a desert, and they ain’t famous for their water, so I decided to investigate. If there was water, I figured there was also a chance of fish for dinner instead of bread.
Sure enough, there was a little stream not even a quarter mile from camp, and what was more, there was a few little scrub trees growing right up next to it. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to find me a branch on one that wasn’t too twisted and run fairly straight, so I took the hatchet to it, rolled up my pants legs (ain’t nothing worse than having to sleep in wet pants legs), took off my boots, and kinda sidled into the water to wait for a fish.
It wasn’t too long at all before I seen a little one swimming my way. I got all set to gig it, but I just wasn’t fast enough. I missed it by just a hair, but then my stick slipped on one of the creek rocks, and I fell backside first right into stream. I was sure glad Ma wasn’t around to hear what I said next. I ain’t never had a taste for castor oil.
“You know,” a laughing voice said from the other bank, “there are better ways to catch a dinner.”
I looked up and seen an old man sitting cross-legged under another scrub tree. At first I thought he was Gramps again, but when I looked closer, I seen he wasn’t nothing like Gramps. He was all dressed in leather, and his hair was mostly white, but it still had some black in it, and it was tied in two pigtails that hung down to both shoulders.
“This is how my Gramps taught me.” I wanted to ask him what he meant, but Ma told me not to ask no questions, so I just shrugged. “You’re an Indian.” I added.
“No, Pale Face,” he slowly rose up and limped into the water, “I am a Human Being, one of The People.”
I didn’t know what he meant so I just grunted. He waded out to the middle of the stream and stood next to me.
“Give me your stick.” Before I could hand it to him, he grabbed it from me and looked down at his feet. There was a whole school of fish swimming all around us now. I hadn’t even seen them coming.
The old man muttered something under his breath and jabbed my spear into the water four times. When he brung it up again, there was three fish on it stacked on top of each other. “It’s in the wrist,” he said as he walked back to the bank carrying my spear and the fish and favoring his left leg. I just stood where I was, wondering how Ma would feel if I beat up an old cripple and stole his fish. I had just about decided against it since there wasn’t likely to be no churches anywhere nearby when the old man got to his tree and turned around.
“Are you coming?” he waved the spear in my direction. “These fish cannot eat themselves, and I do not have all night.”
I had left my shoes on the other side of the creek, and even at sunset, the desert sand was awful hot on my toes. Fortunately, he didn’t lead me too far away. He had a tepee set up just over the hill from the creek, about five minutes off. For a fella with a limp, he sure could move fast. By the time I got to his tent, he had already disappeared inside it.
I stood outside wondering what to do next, and, to tell God’s honest truth, cursing Ma for making me make that stupid promise or else I could just ask him if I could come in when he stuck his head out of the tent flap.
“Is it against your religion to enter a tepee, Pale Face?” he asked me.
“No, sir,” I said.
“Do you have some ritual you must perform before you enter a dwelling?”
“No, sir,” I said.
“Alright, then,” he nodded and ducked his head back in the tent, but I wasn’t sure if that was an invitation or not, so I still didn’t know whether I should just go in, too, or wait.
“What is your name, Pale Face?” the old man asked form inside.
“Percy,” I said. “Percy Murratt.”
“Do I need to invite you in, Percypercymurratt?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I think so.”
“Well, Percypercymurratt, please come in and have a meal with me,” he said.
It didn’t take him long to clean and cook the fish. He had kept his fire embers smoldering while he’d been out. We sat across from each other in his tepee with the fire pit in between us. As we ate, I couldn’t help but notice how he’d every now and then wince and grab his upper left thigh when he didn’t think I was looking. I think he caught me staring once, but he didn’t say nothing about it, just fingered more fish into his mouth.
“Do you know how the world was made?” he asked around his food as he chewed.
“Ma told me all about it when I was little,” I replied. “I also read the bible a bit when I was learning my letters.”
The old man just nodded silently, so I continued. “God done it in seven days,” I said. “At first there wasn’t nothing, but God, he separated heaven and earth. He said, ‘Let there be light,’ and it come when he looked at the water.”
“Hmm,” the old man threw the bones of his fish into the fire, and motioned me to do the same. “Where did these waters come from?” he said.
“I reckon they come when he separated earth and heaven,” I said, tossing my own bones into the fire. The fire sparked up real bright when I done it and kind of startled me like.
“Your tale does not make sense, White Man,” he reached behind him and pulled around a little leather bag. “This is earth,” he winced as he kicked the dirt floor of his tepee. “You cannot drink earth. Where did the water come from? Where did the earth come from? Or the heavens?”
“God made them, I told you.”
“No, you said he separated them one from another.” He reached into his little bag and pulled out a long wooden pipe with gray feathers hanging from one end. “Then you said he created them after he separated them. How can someone make something that is already there?” He reached back in his bag for a thick smelling tobacco then started to fill his pipe.
“Ma said God can do anything.”
“White Man’s god is very powerful indeed if he can create something after it has been created.” He lit his pipe using an ember from the fire and took a long draw from it. He passed the pipe to me. “You smoke with me, White Man,” he said, “and I will tell you a tale.”
I took the pipe from him and inhaled. I hadn’t ever smoked before, but I had seen Gramps do it my whole life. He’d almost always smoke an old corn cob in the evening after dinner while Ma cleaned up. I don’t remember him coughing that much, though.
The old man looked at me all serious like.
“The water and earth were always there, but it began with the water.”
The longbefore time was a time of chaos. The earth was covered with dry deserts and volcanoes. Into this chaos, the Great Sky Father sent the water, the Great River Daughter, to heal the earth. She came first as a trickle but soon grew into a torrent that cooled the volcanoes and soaked the earth.
From the watersoaked earth there grew a great Yucca tree. The River Daughter looked upon Yucca and was well pleased. She came to him and they lay together, the tree and the water, and she carried his seeds throughout the land. Some of the seeds, those that took after their father the Yucca, grew into other trees and plants. Other seeds took after the River Daughter, now the River Mother. They had arms and legs and trunks like Father Yucca, but they were fluid and could move about like the River Mother. Indeed, when one of them was cut, muddy water flowed from it like spring water from the earth. These were the animals.
One animal was the greatest of all, for it most resembled both parents. It stood straight and tall like Father Yucca. In fact, its seed had not been carried downstream by River Mother. She had instead loosened the earth around Father Yucca’s roots so that they could spread. As they spread, River Mother smoothed their skins, making their passage through the desert clay easier until they could break the surface of the earth and reach, like their father, to the sky.
Even though this animal had roots that sunk far into the ground and sprung from the roots of Father Yucca, his spirit moved like his mother. Sometimes he could be calm like River Mother when she trickles through a stream on a warm summer day. At other times, he could be treacherous and violent, as when River Mother brings the melted ice down from the mountain when winter is over and spring has begun.
Only this animal could reason with ability close to that of Father Yucca and Great Sky Father. He was called, therefore, Man. But reason has two edges. It can help man achieve his higher nature, yes, but it also can tempt man to break his roots and call it freedom. This is what happened to man in the longbefore time when chaos was ending and order began.
We passed that pipe back and forth, and it seemed like days that we set there, the old man talking and me listening to every word. After a while, I started to see his story played out in the smoke drifting up from his fire. I could see the tree and the river, and I watched plants grow and people start to poke out of the ground. I tried shaking my head, but it didn’t do nothing but make them people sway back and forth, waving their hands in the air and looking like they was crying and angry about being stuck in the ground like that.
I figured I could relate on account of how many times I had found myself stuck in the river mud after trying too long to spear a fish. I remembered Gramps would always laugh at me as he pulled me free.
“I don’t know why you’re squalling so,” he’d say, “There’re worse things to be than stuck with your feet in the ground. Most folks,” and here he’d glance out to Pa’s grave, “ought to spend more time there.”
When I looked back across the fire pit at the old man, he looked like Gramps again but only for a second when the smoke come in between us. I felt like it was Gramps telling me to pay more attention, so I done that.
“One day Coyote spoke to the Men. Coyote grew from the seeds that were carried by River Mother, so his feet were not bound to the earth and he could move freely. Coyote always traveled near River Mother to be close to her nourishing waters, and he spoke of all the places he had seen, all the places River Mother flowed.”
The old man paused here, drew on the pipe, and stared almost sadly into the flames. When he spoke next, his voice had a kind of choked up sound to it like he had inhaled too much smoke. “But Coyote was not Man’s friend. He was jealous of the connection Man had to Father Yucca, for he desired to be the favorite. Eagle tried to warn man to pay little heed to Coyote, but after hearing Coyote’s words, the people grew tired of being in one place. They, too, wanted to move around and follow their mother to see where she flowed. So they ignored the warnings of Eagle.”
In the smoke, I saw the people reach below their feet with sickle blades and cut themselves free. When this happened, an air pocket in one of the firelogs split and a keening whistle, bout like a scream broke through.
“Father Yucca,” the old man continued, “was heart-broken. And he wept, for he knew that when man left his roots behind, he would yearn for them evermore.”
The People travelled the length and breadth of River Mother’s course. Each time, they stopped, River Mother asked them to remain and heal their roots so they could join again with Father Yucca. Many of the people did, but soon, others would remember Coyote’s words, and they would feel the pull of River Mother’s current, which even she could not control, and they desired to see more of the world.
Finally, the people were spread apart, and they began to speak differently and to look differently. Some even built boats when River Mother became Mother Ocean, and sailed to faraway lands, never to be heard from again. The others, who remained on the Land, became separated and while they each called themselves The People, the words sounded different for each tribe: Cheyenne, Lakota, Apache, Arapahoe.
Finally, Man understood what Eagle had tried to tell him. Most places looked like most other places. Eagle had flown over the Land in all directions, and he knew this to be true. Man began to yearn for Father Yucca again, but he had wandered so far and so long that he had no way of finding Father Yucca. Eagle was very little help; he could tell man that Father Yucca was to the north or to the south, but giving directions from air does not help a traveler on land. Coyote pretended to help, but he was wily, and had no desire to reunite Man with his Father. He led Man further and further away. Soon Apache blamed Arapahoe for leading him astray, and Cheyenne blamed Lakota. The People began to distrust each other, and Coyote encouraged this, often telling one tribe that another had dishonored them when no such dishonor occurred.
The Great Sky Father looked down upon his grandchildren and took pity on them.
“My family is divided,” he said sadly. “I must bring them together again.”
And so saying he spoke with his son, Father Yucca, and they agreed that such an endeavor would require the greatest of sacrifices. Father Yucca, therefore, gave up one of his branches and Great Sky Father carved it into a great knife. Father Yucca then gave up another branch, and Great Sky Father bent it into a long bow. Another branch Great Sky Father shaped into a dish, and another became a deep cup. He gave each of these into River Mother’s care and instructed her to give one each to each tribe of Man.
“Now,” Great Sky Father smiled to himself. “Man must work together in order to eat well, for one tribe will have the bow to kill buffalo, while another must use the knife to clean and prepare the meat. A third tribe will provide the dish on which to eat, and the last tribe will have the grail to fill with water from River Mother and to add to the feast. When this happens, the connection between Man and Yucca will be remade.”
“Let it be so,” said Father Yucca, who now only had one or two branches left, but he feared his sacrifice would be for nothing.
As the old man talked, I felt my head get heavy. I tried to pay attention, but I musta dozed off at some point because next thing I knowed I was standing a few feet aways from this big old desert tree, what Gramps used to call Joshua’s tree. I always wondered who Joshua was and why this tree of hisn wasn’t at his house, but I never did get chance to ask him. Only difference is this tree kept losing its limbs. They turned into all these different things, a bow and a cup and stuff, and floated down this river next to the tree. While all this was going on I could still hear the old man talking like he was far away, from the sky maybe.
“Coyote watched this from the scrub on the edge of the clearing.” The old man said, and I could see just a few feet off, a coyote peeking from behind some low brown bushes. He looked in my direction, and I don’t know if’n he seen me or not, but he hunkered down a bit more out of sight. “Though he had separated man from Father Yucca, he was no closer to replacing Man in Father Yucca’s heart. When he saw the sacrifice of Father Yucca’s limbs, Coyote grew angry with envy.
“‘No matter what I do,’ he said, ‘Father Yucca still yearns for his disobedient children. Look at how he tears himself apart with his grief! I will show him that the true nature of Man is destructive and cold.’”
From behind the bush, I heard a snort and the coyote run off down the desert following the river. Then I knowed I was dreaming because next thing I wasn’t in the clearing with Joshua’s tree; I was in an Indian camp and the coyote was there with his snout up to this one Indian’s ear. The Indian had a bow in his hand and every time he nodded his head at what coyote said, he’d grip the bow tighter and pull it in towards him more.
Next thing I was in another camp, and the coyote was whispering in the ear of another Indian. This one had been skinning a deer with a big ol’ wooden knife. Every time he nodded his head, he’d look out towards the horizon with a scowl and squeeze the handle of the knife tight like he figured someone’d show up directly to take it.
The same thing happened in another camp where an Indian woman hid a wooden plate under her blanket after the coyote whispered to her. And in a fourth camp, this one Indian woman buried her wooden cup and didn’t even mark where she done it so she could find it again.
“Coyote travelled to each tribe,” the old man spoke again, “and spoke with the guardians of the relics.
“‘The other tribes will be jealous of your treasure,’ he told each guardian, ‘for they work best together. Soon the other tribes will come to take it away from you.’
“When no tribes came, each guardian thought to himself, ‘If the treasures work better together, should we not also try to take the others before the tribes come for ours?’
“They spoke to their chiefs, who saw in the prospect of more treasure, the opportunity for more power. Soon Man no longer desired to reunite with Father Yucca, River Mother, and the Great Sky Father; he sought to supplant them.”
Then I seen Indians fighting on the plains. Sometimes, one group would get another’s relic, but most times it ended in a draw, and nobody got nothing but grief. I seen other tribes argue with themselves about how to get the other relics, and they’d split off into new tribes and fight over their one relic. After a while, I seen that all these Indian tribes was wandering all over everywhere looking for the relics. (I knowed that one lady shoulda marked where she buried the cup with a rock or something at least).
“When the Great Sky Father saw how Man had squandered his gifts, he grew even sadder. He knew that now Man had fallen so far away from Father Yucca that they might never be reunited. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘when no one wants gods and goddesses to nurture them.’
“Father Yucca, sagged down, twisting his trunk in his grief. ‘We are driven into the darkness,’ he cried. ‘Man has lost his way, and we cannot help him find it. He has severed his connection to me and to the earth, and only heartbreak shall follow.’
“River Mother sighed, and her waters slowed. ‘Soon,’ she declared, ‘summers will be flowerless, cows shall not give milk, and trees will bear no fruit. Oceans will be without fish, and poison will choke the rivers. Smoke will cover the earth, and the land will be covered in rock stacked to the sky. Man will weaken and have no shame: Judges will make unjust laws, honor will count for little, and warriors will betray each other and resort to thievery. There will come a time when there will be no more virtue left in this world.’
Then I seen men in long boats with yellow hair and horns in their heads burning villages and killing red and brown haired men. I seen men in metal suits beating other men in metal suits and burning more villages. I seen white men killing red men and red men killing each other. I seen white men beating brown men. I seen yellow men dressed funny and slicing each other up with swords. I seen yellow men and white men flying in the air dropping fire on each other from the sky, and I seen yellow haired men with blue eyes cooking brown haired men in ovens.
Then I seen it all again.
Gramps telling me to get up.
I seen the old man wince and rub his left leg.
“Don’t be asking foolish questions,” Ma told me, “if’n you see anything you don’t understand.”
“You’re gonna need to ask a question or two before it’s all over,” Gramps said told me. “Wake up before it is.”
The old man looked at me like he wanted something from me.
“You gotta ask the question,” Gramps said.
“It’ll get you killed,” Ma countered.
The old man rubbed his leg and squeezed his thigh with a wince.
“All life is transitory,” he said. “Even your children are not immortal.”
I waked up in the clearing with Lippy biting my pants leg and tugging me. He was all brushed clean, and someone had filled his oat sack with more of them giant oats. I stood up, and I seen another cooked fish next to a smoldering campfire I hadn’t ever made. I ate the fish and swallowed from my canteen what was all full now of cool water. My shoes was clean and set up next to my blanket, so I put them on. I knowed we still had days of desert riding ahead of us, so I folded my blanket for a saddle again, climbed up on Lippy, and headed out in the direction I figured Bretton was on account of the arrow someone had drawed in the dirt by the campfire.
When we passed where the old man’s tepee was last night, I couldn’t see hide nor hair of him to thank him for dinner and getting me back to camp safe. The ground looked like it hadn’t even been walked on, like he hadn’t even been there, but this didn’t raise no hackles on me. I knowed Indians are good at cleaning up after themselves like that.
Still when we passed the place, I got this funny feeling like I had forgot something but couldn’t for the devil figure out what it was.
Leverett Butts’ novella Guns of the Waste Land Departure is available as both an ebook and paperback. He is currently working on the follow-up novella, Guns of the Waste Land: Destination.