Just how I found my poor bedeviled self standing over a gulchful of expired trees, staring down the barrel of a prewar flintlock fowler toted by a crazy old cross-eyed prospector bent on dispatching yours truly, Huckleberry Finn, if not off to some other world, at least to the bottom of the mournful gulch below us, is something you ought know about on account of it being a historical moment — or ruther, like that decrepit shotgun pointed at me, a PREhistorical one. I warn’t so afraid of the old buzzard shooting me as I was of that rusty musket going off of its own cantankerousness and fatally abusing us both. Pap used to wave one of them cussed things around, blowed off his big toe with it in a drunk one night, then give me a wrathful hiding afterwards like I’d been the one who done it.
I’d only went prospecting with Deadwood that day because he wanted company and needed watching after, him being the sort to mosey off and get et by wild bears out of pure unmindfulness. If I’d knowed we’d be a-finding gold, I’d a stayed down in the tepee, because there ain’t much worse can happen to a body than getting rich. All gold is fool’s gold, and I warn’t in that neighborhood on its account. Drawed out by Tom Sawyer’s stories and still here long after he’d upped and gone, I’d spent nigh half my life in the Territories, working one job or t’other. I was sometimes homesick for the Big River, but I mostly got used to the Territories and they got used to me, neither of us giving nor asking much, a way of easing through time that suited me when the world ’lowed it.
Making camp in Lakota country warn’t legal, but the tribe had took me in a few years ago when I got snakebit and cured me of it, and so I had lived and hunted with them a spell and learnt something of the way they jabbered. It was the Lakota brave Eeteh who found me, all swoll up and near dead of rattler pison. He sucked the pison out and throwed me over my horse and took me to their medicine man, who poulticed me with prickly-pear and poured ammonie down my throat, which was worse’n dying.
The Lakota was mighty warriors and they did not like white folks like me. I was deathly afraid of them and would a run away if I could a run at all. It was Lakota braves who’d ambushed poor Dan Harper and his fellow troopers and left them so full of arrows they looked like pin-cushions, so I reckoned they was just fattening me up for supper. But in the end they was good to me and I come to find them tolerable friendly, if maybe a bit quick to take a body’s head-hair off. They was heathens like me, though they had some foolish notions on the side they’d got from chawing dead cactus that I could only smile at and chaw along with them.
I even had a Crow woman for a time, till she couldn’t stand me no more. She had been took during a Lakota raid and was used around some before they give her to me, probably as a joke. Kiwi didn’t have no nose and was at least half as ugly as me, and she was considerable inscrutable, not because she was a native, but due to her being a woman, whose species are by nature beyond my misunderstanding. They also give me a horse, probably a joke like Kiwi because nobody could ride him, but he took me on a grand adventure and I stayed with him the whole time, and we ain’t hardly left each other since.
Eeteh was having about the same kind of trouble with his tribe as I was having with mine, so him and me got on and we traveled together after that whenever we could. That’s how it was that when the tribe, in their hunt for the disappearing buffalo, ported their lodges up into high Wyoming Territory, not far from the wagon trail where I’d met Dan, I trailed along, even though I knowed it was deathly bad luck to return to where a friend had got murdered. And it was. Because of Eeteh’s turncoat Lakota brother, that ornery fancypants general found me up there again. General Hard Ass is what his soldiers called him, or else General Ringlets for his long curly hair which he lathered with a cinnamon oil that smelt a mile away. He was really only a colonel, but everybody called him general, because he wanted them to. He was on the warpath against the Lakota for what they done to some of his soldier boys and he wanted me to set a trap for him. Maybe I should a done, but I didn’t.
If the general asked you to do something and you warn’t of a mind to, you was inviting yourself to your own hanging party, specially if you messed his plans. So I followed Eeteh’s sejestion and busted straight for the Black Hills, where I knowed the general was less than welcome. Hanging was as good as I deserved for the wicked thing I done, it was an out-and-out doublecross, but I was already black with sin, so I seen no reason not to add one more wrongfulness to the list and skaddle out of the hangman’s reach. The Black Hills was sacrid to the Lakota, but Eeteh says the only Great Spirit that could be found there was what was stilled up by an old hermit whisky-maker residing in the Gulch, and that’s where he’d look for me.
When I rode Ne Tongo into the little hid-away cluster of unpainted broke-down shanties and raggedy tents at the edge of Deadwood Gulch, nigh to cricks too fast and shallow for rafting, but prime for fishing — there was even a patch of sweetly clovered meadow beside the crick for Tongo to graze on — I knowed I was at home. A place I could take my boots off all day long. It was the rainy season, so him and me settled into a comfortable cave in the hills above the crick, shooed the bats away, and waited for Eeteh.
From “Huck Out West” by Robert Coover. Copyright © 2017 by Robert Coover. Published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.