The True Account

The True Account by Howard Frank Mosher

Book: The True Account by Howard Frank Mosher Read Free Book Online
Authors: Howard Frank Mosher
past me.”
    After which he would think for a few moments, then smile slyly as though
this
time he would stump me once and for all, and say, “Little Nancy Ettycoat wears a white petticoat and has a red nose; the longer she stands, the shorter she grows.”
    â€œI can’t imagine,” I would say, after pretending to rack my brain. “You have me there, uncle. You have riddled me.”
    â€œA candle,” he would cry, and then I would smite
my
head as though I should have known the answer all along—as indeed I had.
    I was amazed by the flatness of the country. To a Vermont farm boy brought up in a land so tilted that it was said that the cows’ legs were a foot shorter on one side from grazing steep hillsides all day, the endless prairie was dizzying; and sometimes we both felt lost under the ever-widening sky. “Here we are, Ti,” my uncle would suddenly cry out, two or three times a day, with a jingle of his bell. To which I would always reply, “Here we are, sir.”
    When my head started to spin from the vastness of our surroundings, I found it best to fix my attention on some closer feature of the landscape or on my unchanging uncle, riding along with the sunshine flashing off his mail and trolling his old ballads. But exactly where we were, and exactly why, and exactly what sort of place this Louisiana might be, other than a very flat one, I could not say.
    I missed my father and mother, especially at night. Then we would get out our spyglass and gaze upward into the heavens until we felt like the only human beings in the universe, and my uncle would jingle the bell on his cap all over again to convince himself of his own existence.
    Â 
    I don’t know how a person knows when he’s being watched. He does, though. Just as he knows when he comes to a bad place in the woods where a killing or some other terrible thing has taken place. About ten o’clock one morning, we both felt it and knew someone was watching us from nearby. “We’re about to see your Indians, Ti,” my uncle told me. “Limber up your paintbrush.”
    At the time we were riding through some tall cottonwoods close to the river. As we reemerged onto the open prairie, we sighted no one, and by noon we had decided that whoever it was had gone on about their business. But the next morning we spotted three young men on horses across the river on a bluff where no one at all had been a moment earlier. They were armed with bows and arrows, and their long hair was dyed bright carmine, with one side of their faces painted black, the other white.
    Now, for reasons known only to himself, my uncle had long held the conviction that while our eastern Indians had probably originated from a band of nomadic hunters from the far north, western Indians might well have come from China. Therefore he called out loudly, in what he assured me was good Cantonese, “We greet your celestial personages with much respect and bring the felicitations of the Supreme Khan of America, Thomas Jefferson. We are travelers come to see your Great Wall from Vermont, where we have stone walls ourselves. And you must not think yours superior to ours, though I’m sure it’s very sturdy.”
    This salutation, uttered in a high, fast singsong, seemed to have no effect upon the Indians other than, after a minute, to cause them to laugh. Whereupon my vexed uncle said he was surprised that so polite a people as the Orientals had not taught their youth better manners, and for all he cared the three newcomers could “go straight back to China in a handbasket.”
    As we rode on, my uncle muttered to himself about the sad state to which the young had sunk the world over, while the Indians kept pace with us along the opposite side of the river. From their gaudy appearance, I believed they were out looking for enemies or for horses to steal, but I was not greatly alarmed so long as the Missouri lay between us.

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