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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



Nezpique Bayou, Louisianna

    After motoring two and a half miles along the winding Nezpique Bayou, Templeton pointed up through a gap in the canopy. “There. Smoke. Up ahead.”

    “Smoke?” Eckdahl echoed. “A camp?”

    Quinn shook his head. “More like an invitation, I think. Karl, nice and slow now. Winkelman, you keep that lever-gun lower and relax.”

    “Sir,” said the big soldier from Jena, “will they even know what this weapon is, since they have not –?”

    “Winkelman, firstly, they may not know what a lever-action rifle is, but you can be damned sure they know it’s a gun of some kind. And secondly, your primary job, even before using that rifle, is to know how to take orders. Particularly ones that you might not agree with or might make you anxious. I thought you had learned that lesson back on the Calc. Have you forgotten that, or do you remain capable of carrying out your orders?”

    Winkelman nodded tightly. “Yes, Herr Major. My apologies.”

    “You keep calm and everything is going to be fine. They wouldn’t start a fire unless they were looking to meet us. And they wouldn’t want to meet us unless they were at least curious, and possibly friendly.”

    Karl canted his voice so the others in the boat couldn’t hear it, not even keen-eared Wright. “Or maybe the fire is to draw us to a place where we may be most conveniently ambushed?”

    “Karl,” Quinn muttered, “just drive the boat. And use that big brain of yours for another minute. Why is that fear pretty much nonsense?”

    The young man from Ingolstadt grew still, then nodded. “They know this bayou so well that they must have dozens of points along the shore from which they could ambush us. It has been as narrow as twenty feet across, in some stretches. So it is extremely unlikely that they would need to lure us to a single spot, and thereby, alert us to their presence. As they have done now.”

    “There you go. See? Nothing to be afraid of,” Larry said with a smile as he congratulated himself for keeping his teeth from chattering. Because although everything he said was logical, they were still pushing into unknown waters to meet an unknown tribe with unknown intentions toward visitors — or trespassers — upon their lands. Suddenly, he heard the line from a movie he hadn’t seen in years — Apocalypse Now — in which another commander had guided a small boat through a jungle-walled maze of muddy, serpentine waterways. But that major had offered very different counsel to his men: “Don’t get off the boat.”

    As the Sportsman 180 rounded a bend, the dense foliage seemed to slouch aside to reveal a long, straight stretch in the Nezpique Bayou. A hundred yards ahead, the trees fell back from the right bank, where a small fire was burning and two figures were waiting beside it. It was fronted by a sandy skirt of shoreline that slipped into the water at a gentle angle. With the dark shadowed woods hemming it in behind, and the beachlike landing disappearing into muddy, weed-choked shallows beyond, it momentarily struck Larry as a kind of natural bandshell scalloped out of the dark waters and jungle. “Show time,” he murmured.

    “Not a very big cast, though,” observed Templeton.

    “Not that we can see,” emphasized his countryman Wright.

    Quinn nodded. “Okay. Karl, you come with me. Stay right by my side. Vogel,” — who was calm, quick, and was not prone to question orders — “you follow us, two paces behind. No sudden motions. And no guns. Wright,” — who combined level-headedness with a quiet ability to take charge — “you’re in command. And you already know there’s more than meets our eye in the current surroundings.”

    “Most assuredly, sir. Motor running, or off?”

    “That’s a good question.” Larry mulled over the possible ramifications. “Leave it turning over, as low as she can go. They’ve never heard it off, so they probably won’t think much of it on low rpms.”

    “And if our hosts turn out to be, er, less motivated by curiosity than we hope?”

    Wright smiled. Even in the 1600’s, he found occasion to admire the singular British gift for understatement and irony that often masqueraded as excessive tactfulness. “I won’t shackle you with a list of do’s and don’ts. If you think you can get us out of there and not start a wholesale massacre, do so. If not, or if there is any reasonable possibility that you are misreading native actions as aggressive, then wait an extra moment. Like the Englishman sang, ‘give peace a chance.'”

    Wright’s lean face contracted into a maze of perplexed creases and wrinkles. “Which Englishman was that, sir?”

    “One who hasn’t been born. And now, never will be. Wish us luck.”

    With the silt hissing along the keel, Larry hopped out, steadied himself and the boat, made sure that it rested only lightly on the bank. Karl slid over the side, the water not quite up to the crotch of his breeches. Larry waited until Vogel had joined them, and with a nod, led them toward the shore.

    The two figures by the fire stood, dressed sparingly, as seemed common among the sub-tropical Amerinds. Both were men, one fairly advanced in years, the other about Larry’s age, maybe a little bit older. Probably a former chief or counselor and the current chief, respectively. Or maybe the chief’s lieutenant, Quinn corrected. It was only sensible that the contact with unknown visitors be made by persons who were, fundamentally, expendable. After all, that was why he, Larry Quinn, was here, not Mike Stearns or Gustav Adolf, or any of the other big shots back home. If Larry Quinn died here, well, there might be some moist eyes in Grantville, but no policy or war or social program would miss a beat. He was, ultimately, just a very small cog in a very big machine.

    Quinn stopped at a distance of about ten feet, spread his fingers, held up his hands, showed them to be empty, showed their backs.

    The older of the two men nodded, and copied the motions, tried a few words in a language that Larry didn’t recognize. “Did you catch that?” he murmured sideways at Karl.

    “No, sir. But I don’t think it was a local Amerind language. It sounded more akin to a pidgin dialect of some kind. Maybe of — French?”

    Well, that could be. Semi-permanent French tent towns of buccaneers and native traders were known to be sprinkled in the Florida Keys, but would any have come this far? Or would these natives have traveled so far to trade? Well, one way to find out. “Help me, here Karl. My French is going to run out after about two seconds. ‘Allo! Parlez vous francais?”

    The two natives exchanged glances, shrugged, turned back to their guests and shook their heads.

    “Would you like me to try the Natchez words we have, Major?” Karl wondered.

    “Hell, can’t hurt,” Larry said with a sigh. Personally, he had wondered if all the research it had taken to find the few words of Gulf-coast native American languages buried in the books and journals of the Grantville library had been worth it. But Admiral Simpson had insisted on it, pointing out that if the contact team understood just one word in common with the natives, that could make the difference between striking up a relationship, or parting with a sense of permanent futility.

    Klemm held up a hand, kept his fingers closed. “I’c,” he articulated slowly.

    The two natives stared for a moment, and then the older one’s eyes widened. “I’c!” he repeated. “I’c!” He held up his own hand. “Woc! Woc!” he exclaimed.

    “Woc,” Klemm repeated nodding. “Woc.” Then, sideways to Larry: “Not Natchez, Major, but he recognized it.” Karl nodded at the natives again, waited a moment, and presented his hand anew. “Hand,” he emphasized, “hand.”

    The natives understood immediately, repeated the word with fair accuracy and growing smiles. Nodding, they gestured to mats arrayed near the fire, and seated themselves on the two furthest away from the shore.

    Larry patted Klemm on the shoulder. “An invitation to sit means we’re halfway there, Karl. Keep going.”

    The attempt at establishing common language hit a snag almost immediately thereafter. Karl, ever the logician, tried moving on to numbers, starting, sensibly enough, with ‘one’, which he signified by raising his a finger. They offered their word — n?k — and waited. Karl offered raised another digit, his index finger, for which they produced a clearly related word: wokn?k. But when Karl raised a third finger, confusion ensued. The natives doubled back to n?k, then variations on it, and shook their heads in frustration when Karl unhelpfully held up a fourth finger.

    It took a few minutes of careful reconstruction to discover what would have probably seemed quite obvious, had everyone not had so much at stake in making sure that clear communications were established. While Karl was trying to work on translating numbers, the natives had quite logically presumed he was continuing with a list of body parts, and thus answered with their word for finger, and then “index finger” when he held up a second digit.

    But with that confusion out of the way, the numbers came along quickly. They then turned to the naming of body parts, then yes versus no, common objects such as man, woman, and finally personal names. The younger man was named Katkoshyok and the older one Tulak, who eagerly learned the names of their visitors and nodded approvingly. So, things were going pretty well, after all. Time to find out if they were, indeed, speaking with the Atakapa. “Karl, tell me, have you learned their word for ‘big,’ yet?”

    “I have.”

    “And family?”

    “I — I think so.”

    “Ask them if they are of the big, big family Atakapa.” Karl did so.

    The younger of the two natives rose slowly, his smile having undergone a rapid conversion to confusion tending toward rage. The older man remained seated, also looked annoyed, but was more a study in perplexity. He shook his head. “Atakapa no,” he insisted. “Ata kapa,” he articulated the words more separately. “Man food,” and shook his head in something like disgust and contempt.

    “Man food?” echoed Larry, glancing at Karl.

    Klemm was frowning, tried the word he had learned in their language that meant “no”, followed it with “atta kappa.” Then he stopped, murmured the two sounds several times, and his eyes opened wide. “Gott in himmel!” he hissed to himself. Going back over the words he had learned from the two natives, he confirmed the word for food, then mimed eating. The response from the old man that identified the act of eating food sounded like a garbled, shortened version of Atakapa.

    “Karl?” asked Quinn, starting to wonder if the younger native would ever sit down again or stop frowning. “What’s going on?”

    “Our word for their tribe is wrong.”


    “Yes. It’s not their name for themselves. It’s what they were called by others. It must be a slur, maybe by the Spanish.”

    “So Atakapa doesn’t mean ‘man food?'”

    “Not quite. It means, ‘eaters of men.””

    Oh. Well, yes, that might be a pretty upsetting mistranslation. On the other hand, it means that they either weren’t cannibals, as most of the Grantville sources had claimed, or at least, did so as a matter of special ritual, not a means of getting routine nourishment. Which was good news. As long as the linguistic blunder by which they’d learned it didn’t get them killed. Or, yeah: eaten.

     Klemm seemed to be working on preventing exactly that outcome. “You great family no Atakapa. Our great family no Atakapa. Our great family,” — he gestured toward all the Europeans — “People of Far Boats.”

    The younger fellow looked a little less angry, but also a little more confused. However, the older man nodded vigorously. “Our great family,” and he gestured toward himself, his companion, and the jungle around them, “are Sunrise People.” Which sounded a great deal like ee-shak.

    Klemm struck his head with his palm. “Ishak. They are the Ishak. The tribe was mentioned in one list that I saw, a list which did not include the name Atakapa. So, yes: Atakapa is not their name for themselves. They are the Ishak.” And he smiled, triumphantly, at the older man.

    Who nodded back happily, touched his own head and pointed to Klemm’s, and then nodded again. The younger fellow’s confusion was already fading when the older man directed a long stream of the liquid Ishak language at him, interspersed with a few chuckles, one of which elicited a full-throated laugh from the other. Then he waved at the woods, as if summoning the trees to come toward him.

    Instead, similarly dressed persons emerged from deep in the shadows, the men approaching cautiously, the women somewhat hesitantly, the children eagerly — so eager that they raced straight past the newcomers. Stunned, Larry turned to follow their progress and learned what rated more interest than a group of strangely equipped, strangely speaking pale men who had come from afar.

    It was the bright red boat that drew them like summer bugs to an unshaded lightbulb. They did slow as they drew closer to the water’s edge, but their pointing fingers and unmistakable tones of whispered yet giddy speculation reminded Larry of the first vintage car show he’d ever gone to. His eyes had been every bit as big as theirs, his hands itching to touch the shiny, sleek vehicles as if, somehow, that would make them more real, would allow him to take some microscopic part of their essence away with him.

    Larry turned to the two Ishak who had been selected, obviously for their intelligence and bravery, to contact the pale-skinned newcomers. He jerked his head at the excited children with a smile. “Kids,” he said with a slight shake of his head.

    “Nomc,” Klemm translated, along with the same smile that was all at once rueful and indulgent.

    The older Ishak returned the same smile and nodded. “Yes,” he answered with a laugh. “Kids.”

    And Quinn realized: we’re going to be okay. All of us. See, Larry? Not so hard, after all!

    But that glib self-assurance flew in the face of the risks he’d rightly anticipated upon contacting native peoples whose only prior experience of Europeans was likely to involve deceit, theft, rapine, and pillage.

    Larry Quinn glanced south, hoping that the most uncertain of the fleet’s various indigenous contact missions worked out as well as his had today.

    And if not, that they got away alive.

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