art by Liz Clarke
The Sacred Tree
by Mike Resnick
There was a time when the Yakima tribe lived in peace with its surroundings and its neighbors. We welcomed the changing of the seasons, the migration of the birds, the spawning of the fish. We harvested our crops, hunted for meat when we desired it, paid tribute to the sacred tree that protected our people. We had lived this way for many hundreds of years; we expected to live this way for many hundreds more.
Then the white man came.
We tried to be neighborly and accommodating at first, but whatever we offered he took, and whatever we did not offer he also took. It was when he began taking first our land and then our women, against our will and theirs, that we realized we had to do something.
Since it had been many years since we had gone to war, we had no war chief, and because I am the tribe's medicine man, it was not long before my people came to me for guidance.
"Tell us how to rid our land of the White Eyes," they begged me. "You are the wisest of us all, Uqualla. Your word is our command, and you must tell us how to be free of the White Eyes once and for all."
"I will sit by the sacred tree that guards our village and commune with the spirits of those medicine men who came before me," I replied. "Then you will have your answer."
"Tomorrow?" they asked.
"I do not know," I answered. "One cannot rush the spirits."
That night, as I was eating the evening meal, prior to consulting the spirits, there was a small commotion on the trail approaching the village. Many of our dogs began barking, and finally two of the White Eyes rode into the middle of the village on horseback. One was Combs, who claimed to be the Indian Agent, whatever that was, for clearly he was not one of the People and we had never met in council with his leaders. The other I had never seen before: he was tall, with a black patch over his left eye, and he wore a pistol on each hip, with another tucked in his boot.
"Hello, Uqualla," said Combs, not deigning to dismount.
I stared at him and made no answer.
"This is Mr. Sims," he said, indicating his one-eyed companion. "He will be working with me."
He stared at me for a long moment.
"Have you nothing to say?" Combs said at last.
"You have asked no questions," I replied.
"I'm about to," he said. "How many men live in this village?"
"Why?" I said.
"My government wishes to know."
"Again, why?" I replied.
"We will be conscripting every fifth able-bodied man to join the army."
"What does 'conscripting' mean?" I asked.
"We will be asking them to take the oath of allegiance and serve three years in the cavalry, probably as scouts."
"They will say no," I told him.
"They will not have a choice," answered Combs.
"Ah," I said. "Conscripting means forcing."
"Try not to look at it that way."
"You will be forcing our men to join your wars against our brothers with whom we have lived in peace for many years," I pointed out. "How would you look at it?"
"I am sorry you cannot see it our way," said Combs. "Now, how many men are in the village?"
"I will not answer," I said.
"Pete?" said Combs, turning to his companion.
The man named Sims pulled out his pistol and shot two of our men before anyone realized what was happening. Both of them fell to the ground, dead.
"We won't count those two," said Combs. "Now how many men have you?"
"Forty-three," I said, for I knew if I did not answer he would kill more.
"Good," he said. "I will return next week with Mr. Sims and a number of his friends, and I will expect nine men to be ready to join us. I hope you will not consider doing anything foolish."
He turned his horse and trotted away, followed by Sims, who looked disappointed that he had only been allowed to kill two of us.
Once they were gone, most of the village gathered around me. Only two of them spoke English, and I explained to the rest what Combs had said.
"So we must wear their uniforms and kill the Kalispel and the Quileute and the Suquamish or they will come here and kill us?" demanded Gray Wolf.
"I will not join the White Eyes to kill my brothers!" swore Screaming Hawk.
"Nor I!" cried half a dozen others.
"I will kill," said Tall Badger, and all eyes turned to him. "But I will kill whom I want to kill. And right now I want to kill Combs and the one-eyed man!"
"Can your magic protect us, Uqualla?" asked Thunder Bear.
"I do not know," I said truthfully. "It can probably protect you against the two who came tonight, but if you kill them they will be followed by four, and then fifteen and then one hundred. I must seek guidance." I paused and looked at them. "I will sit by the sacred tree and speak all night with the spirits, and tomorrow morning I will know the answer."