LA FEMME ROUGE

 

There was a buffalo carcass on the prairie. Small piles of internal organs, appearing to have been sorted, lay alongside in the grass. No sign of a person. Then the carcass began to rock slightly and out crawled a small Indian woman. She was red from head to toe, but her grin when she saw him was white as bone. Francois thought he’d seen everything but as he sat there on his horse — which was as braced as he was — he was staring like a transfixed prairie chicken. “La femme rouge!” he exclaimed.

The woman threw some organ or other onto one of her piles. He was too stunned to think about which organ it was. She laughed. Then she looked around in the grass for a small metal-headed hatchet and crawled back into the carcass with it. Francois dismounted to look into the bloody rib-arched cave where she whacked away with barely enough room to get leverage. She was very determined.

Pretty soon some other women came along with a horse and travois. By that time he had realized that this was the only way to approach such a big animal if you wanted the good nutrition arranged by nature inside. The women with their big knives whacked off pieces of the quivering dark liver and shared it with him. He relished it. The women skinned one side of the carcass, cutting the hide down the spine, and he helped roll it over onto the other side. By then some men had shown up on horseback, also grinning.

 

One saluted him. “Bon jour!” They had known at once he was a French trapper. And he could tell they were from the Blood sub-group of Blackfeet.

“Bon manger ce soir!” Francois called, and gave the signal for “good,” sweeping his horizontal forearm and flattened hand out from his chest. “Sokapi!” he said in Blackfeet, hoping he was saying it right. The Indian laughed, so probably he wasn’t. The Indian man said something in Blackfeet and they ALL laughed. The Indian cut off the buffalo’s tail and pretended to swat flies with it, but then “accidentally” hit himself and fell over, feigning damage.

Francois helped them load meat onto their travois. It had been a fat animal. They cracked open the long bones with their trading post hatchets and whatever stones were handy and scooped out the marrow into bags made of hide. Then they licked their fingers, smiling. All in all, they were a gleeful bunch, very pleased with themselves.

That night in camp they told stories, using enough gestures that Francois generally got the sense of them, and everyone roared with laughter. In the morning the women were busy slicing the meat into thin sheets to dry over smoky fires on improvised racks. He looked around the camp, trying to locate the bloody woman, but everyone was clean by now so he wasn’t sure which one she was. He could see that one stocky man was scowling at him.

One of the older men took him aside and made him understand — using sign talk — that the bloody woman was the scowling man’s wife. And he did not like sharing. Nothing had happened, to be sure, but they HAD been alone together for a while. So before Francois rode on his way, he unrolled part of the pack behind his saddle and took out a couple of yards of the rough red wool called “Stroud cloth” because it was woven in the town of Stroud in England. He knew better than to give it to the woman,

 

though he wanted to, since it was a sort of acknowledgment of her striking first appearance, so he gave it to the husband. For a moment the man continued to scowl, until Francois’ diplomat friend made the man understand that Francois was not trying to buy the woman — that it was a gift. Then he nodded, rolled up the wool under his arm, and strode off without offering thanks.

The woman — he recognized her now — stood grinning at him. He slipped her a handful of brass falconry bells before he rolled up his pack and left, rather quickly. It was just that she was cheerful and frank, so unlike the women he’d known growing up. Rather like a man, in fact. Strong. Competent.

Francois was not much of a Don Juan. The women who looked him over, whatever their kind or origin, tended to shrug and move on. Once in a while he’d manage a temporary arrangement, but trappers do not stay in one place for long. As the years went by, he found his mind wandering back to that bloody little female, that buffalo woman. He was romantic enough to understand that in the prairie Indian tribes, woman meant nourishment meant buffalo meat meant grass, and sometimes he even tried to scratch out a little poetry along those lines.

In sensible moments he realized that she must be aging just as he was and that she must have a lot of children by that scowling man. Once someone at rendezvous had a fiddle and sang “Scarlet Ribbons,” so he thought of her, then scolded himself for being silly. But when the beaver were exceedingly abundant, just before they all seemed to disappear at once, he spotted at the trading post a red Hudson’s Bay blanket with a black stripe and and four black marks at the edge, a blanket so thick it almost equalled a buffalo hide for warmth and weight. From then on, no matter where he was, cabin or camp, he slept rolled in it.

 

Finally it happened. Maybe it was inevitable. Along a stream in a familiar coulee often used by the prairie peoples, he pitched his camp in the cottonwoods and was enjoying the fire when a man and woman came riding up. No children. It was the scowling man and his wife, la femme rouge, who grinned at Francois, recognizing him at once. He offered them coffee and fried dough and they shared a bit of dry meat. Things were pleasant and harmonious. He was pleased to see the brass falconry bells he had given her were sewn in a row across the breast of her dress.

Finally they laid out their beds and the woman stared at Francois’ Hudson’s Bay blanket, red and heavy as a buffalo hide. She walked over and put a hand on it, took the edge and looked at the black hash marks. Her husband paid no attention. She looked at Francois, searching his face, then went to the fire with her hatchet and broke up some heavy fallen branches to hold the heat into the night, and then she lay down by her husband.

Francois slept soundly even though there was a full moon, which usually made him restless. He could not identify the sound that woke him. When he opened his eyes, the woman was standing there, bloody and gripping her bloody metal hatchet. By moonlight the red blood looked black. She made a peculiar gesture, holding her forearm straight up in front of her and then making it fall over.

She said, “Je l’ai tué.” And she signed, “Now I will go with you.” When he looked across the fire, he saw that her husband’s head was smashed. His scowl was gone. His teeth gleamed white in the moonlight. The bloody woman lay down beside Francois on his blanket.

At dawn she went to the stream to wash. Quickly he took all three horses and rode away at a gallop. He did not feel badly about leaving her alone on foot. She had her hatchet.

And he left her his four-beaver red Hudson’s Bay blanket.

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