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art by Liz Clarke

The Sacred Tree

Mike Resnick is, according to Locus, the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short science fiction. He was won 5 Hugos (from a record 35 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Poland, Croatia and Spain. He is the author of 68 novels, 250 short stories, and two screenplays, and the editor of 40+ anthologies. He served as a consulting science fiction editor for BenBella Books frim 2004 to 2006, and as executive editor of Jim Baen's Universe from 2007 to 2010. His work has been translated into 26 languages. He has been announced as the Guest of Honor at the 2012 World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago. [Thanks to DragonCon for this bio. He's attending DragonCon while he's simultaneously GOH at WorldCon via Skype. The distant future, using technology that should have been readily available as of 1975, has finally arrived!]

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."
One by one they returned to their dwellings, and I did as I had said I would. I communed with the Great Spirit that lives within the sacred tree, and by morning I had the answer.
They approached me at sunrise, my people, and asked for my guidance.
"I will not tell you to attack the White Eyes," I began. "They have guns that fire many times, and you have only arrows and knives, and once you have unleashed an arrow you cannot get it back."
"Are you forbidding us to kill them, then?" demanded Screaming Hawk.
I shook my head. "I am only saying that I am not ordering you to do so."
"But if we do…" said Thunder Bear.
"If you do, then I will protect you."
"Will you grow us as tall as the sacred tree?" he asked. "Or will the White Eyes' bullets bounce off us?"
I shook my head. "You will still be men, and you can still be killed."
"Then what do you mean when you say that you protect us?" demanded Gray Wolf.
"Listen," I said, "and I shall tell you."
When I was finished, they all looked doubtful.
"Is it possible?" asked Tall Badger at last.
"It is possible," I assured him. "But only if you return here. I cannot protect you in the land of the White Eyes, or even in the lands of the Quileute or the Kalispel."
"We shall do as you say," promised Gray Wolf.
The four of them mounted their ponies and rode away from the village of the People, and I did not see them again for three days. Then I noticed clouds of dust on the horizon, and a moment later the four of them raced into the village and dismounted in front of me.
"We have ridden fast and far," said Thunder Bear.
"Did you accomplish your purpose?" I asked.
"Combs and One-Eye are both dead," said Thunder Bear, spitting on the ground.
"But more White Eyes will be here soon," added Gray Wolf.
"Do they know which of the People they are looking for?" I asked.
"They saw Screaming Hawk, and they saw me," said Gray Wolf. "They may have seen the others. I do not know."
"You said to come to you when our mission was accomplished," said Tall Badger. "We have done as you said. Are you still prepared to protect us?"
"Have I ever lied to the People?" I replied.
"Whatever it is you must do, you had better do it soon," said Screaming Hawk, peering off into the distance. "Because here come our pursuers."
"Gather around the sacred tree," I said, "and I shall chant the spell that will protect you."
And so I did.
The White Eyes arrived five minutes later, six of them, all armed with both pistols and rifles. They knew exactly who they were looking for. They walked past the sacred tree and entered the village, shoving men and women aside, walking into every dwelling, threatening to kill us if we did not reveal the location of their prey. But we pled ignorance, and invited them to remain as long as they wished.
"Damn it!" said their leader. "I know Gray Wolf is a member of your tribe, and so is Bright Hawk or Screaming Hawk or whatever the hell kind of hawk he thinks he is."
"You may search again," I said. "We will not stop you."
"As if you could!" he snorted contemptuously.
"Stay as long as you wish."
He made a face as if remaining was the most unpleasant thing he could imagine. They made one last brief search of the village, then mounted their horses.
"If I find out you were hiding them…" began the leader. He drew his gun, aimed it at a dog, and pulled the trigger. The dog yelped and fell over, whining and twitching in agony. "I'll do to you and five of your men exactly what I did to the dog."
"But he'll aim better," said a second man, and all the White Eyes laughed.
Then they rode away, and one of the women took a spear and ended the dog's suffering.
The next morning I was approached by Kamaiakan.
"That was my dog they killed," he said. "I will go into the kingdom of the White Eyes until I find the man who shot him, and then I will kill him." He paused. "Will you protect me?"
"It is not I who protects the People, but the Great Spirit who speaks to me through the sacred tree."
"Will the Spirit and the tree protect me? I will kill him regardless, but I do not wish to leave my two daughters without a father."
"The tree will protect you, Great Eagle, as it protected the four men yesterday."
"I am Kamaiakan," he corrected me.
I shook my head. "From this day forward, you are Great Eagle."
"But I am named for the greatest chief in our history," he protested.
"If you want my protection, and the protection of the sacred tree, you are Great Eagle," I said. "What is your decision?"
He considered for a moment, then nodded his head. "I am Great Eagle."
I laid a hand upon his shoulder. "Go and do what must be done."
He thanked me, and a moment later he was riding south and east, into the morning sun.
The next four days were uneventful. Then Great Eagle returned, dismounted, and approached me.
"The deed is done," he announced.
"You killed just the one?" I asked.
"Just the man who killed my dog."
"Were you seen?"
"It was the middle of the night. I was seen, but I do not think I was identified."
"Do not stray far from the village, Great Eagle," I told him.
"I will go only to other villages of the People to find a dog for my daughters."
I shook my head. "Not yet."
"Then when?"
"I will tell you when."
The White Eyes' law officer--they called him a sheriff, but I do not know how he differed from the previous one, who was called a marshal--appeared the next day, accompanied by two other men who also wore metal stars on their shirts. They searched the village and questioned many of the men and women, but they could not find Great Eagle, and finally they returned to the city of the White Eyes.
A few hours later I told Great Eagle he could now leave to find a dog for his daughters.
Thus it went for the next year. The White Eyes would find some new way to threaten or harm the People, and Gray Wolf and the others would visit the city of the White Eyes under cover of night and take their revenge, then come back here, where the power of the sacred tree would hide and protect them.
After a year things changed. I do not know if the White Eyes got new leadership, or if they merely tired of riding out to our village and never finding what they were looking for, but after that year there were no more abuses, at least not to the Yakima.
I could not be sure that this new condition would continue, and so I explained to my warriors that they owed a tribute to the sacred tree, and that the tribute was their everlasting presence and vigilance. They all agreed, even Great Eagle, though it meant that he would rarely, if ever, hold his daughters again, and from that day forth they have been mute guards of the People, ready to come forth and avenge any wrongs done against us by the White Eyes.
And the White Eyes? They have ceased being enemies and have become something entirely new. The term is "tourists", and when they visit the land of the People, armed not with pistols and rifles, but with cameras and dollars, the first thing they see, and the thing that most fascinates them, is the sacred tree.
Of course, we see different things when we look at it. I see my warriors, silently guarding the People as they pledged to do, ready to manifest themselves and come forth whenever it should prove necessary. The "tourists" see only a hawk, a bear, a wolf, a badger and an eagle.
They call it a totem pole, and now and then they remark that the eyes of the creatures seem to be following them, watching their every movement as they walk through the village that they once thought to conquer.
There is another tree at the far end of the village, not sacred but profane. It displays hideous creatures, their faces contorted by their death throes for all eternity. The "tourists" think them only monsters from legend, created by the wood-carver's art, but when I look at them I can see the faces of Combs and Sims and others who did us harm, begging for a release that will never come.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 2nd, 2012
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