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Older Than I Once Was

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Napi starts trading with white men in the winter of 1890, when the buffalo are gone and his people are dying. He trades away useless trinkets, lying to his clients that they'll be protected from curses or beasts or whatever it is they seem to fear.

At first it surprises him when they believe these stories; that men who have done so much harm could be so naive is stunning to him. But they give him meat and flour and some of their paper currency, so Napi takes it back to his people, and maybe a few more of them survive the winter than they would have otherwise.

Later it becomes boring, watching the white people get excited at the idea of speaking to an Indian and then getting disappointed that his English is fluent. Of course it is. They don't even know that they've created a world in which the children of his people are stolen away and can't communicate with their families. Napi learned English for them, and French, and he always listens when they try and speak to him, though every year fewer and fewer do.

The people who believe in Napi say he went away to the West, and they are not wrong. But the nice thing about the West, Napi thinks as he walks the world, is that if you go that way long enough, it becomes the East.

And though he travels, he does not forget his people. He keeps trading with white men, building up a rapport even as he takes everything he can from them, just as they had from his people. He still sends back what he makes, never forgetting the ones he left behind and still doing his best to take care of them while he is away.

Napi finds himself in England in the early days of the war, watching some of his people disembark from large, stinking boats. He is proud to see how straight their backs are, how unfazed their expressions. They are here to fight a war, here to be warriors. He is glad to see them, even if their faces stand out stark against the sea of white ones that they walk between.

The white men know that many of Napi's people don't understand them. They laugh and tease in the way of a bully who knows his target cannot understand. The men know when they are talked about, they understand that each of them is "Chief" to these alleged allies. They have been stripped of their names, which is infuriating to Napi. A man deserves his name, especially the one that belonged to his fathers before him.

He watches as they go through training, most of them designated as scouts or sharpshooters as if they can only do those jobs, as if they are not good enough to be in jobs that won't put them in the crosshairs.

And when they sleep in their long barracks, like the Mohawk in their longhouses, Napi walks between the beds and touches the foreheads of the men who know him. He says his blessing for each of them, hoping that against all odds, he will see them home.

When the first of his people arrives at the front, Napi is there with him. The front is an abomination, a place where the white men have killed anything living, leaving a gray and stark husk in a place where once there had been people and animals and trees.

This isn't surprising to Napi, this is how the white people have always fought. They kill everything they can, up to and including the earth that they themselves need, in the name of winning. Napi's people are fierce. They fight wars, most recently fighting off the Cree even after the tribe had been decimated by the scourge of smallpox. But they have respect enough to kill their enemy and not the land.

Napi walks along the trenches unseen by most; there are a few who know him, and they are allowed to see. They are allowed to take his comfort, and spread his name.

He hears an awed whisper in a trench in France where there are three Peigan men huddled together as bombs burst overhead. "The Old Man has come back," he hears, and he wonders if they know he never really left.

Later more will recognize him; Mohawk and Choctaw and Cree, and Napi knows they're being told his stories. They're asking for his protection, and he gives them what he can before moving on.

One of the men he trades with, one on the other side of the trenches, asks him how he got to Europe, what a guy like him is doing in Belgium. Napi shakes his head and shrugs.

"I walked here," he tells the man, and declines to elaborate.

He steals guns from one side and sells them to the other. He doesn't see a huge difference between them, other than the fact that his men are in one trench and not the other. If a white man thinks a Blackfoot and a Micmac are the same, why should he bother to tell which one of them is German and which one is American? It's not like they go out of their ways to wear distinctive markings in their dark trenches.

He learns that one side likes tea, and one likes beer. They all like books and guns, though why they have this obsession with the obscene Tarzan stories are beyond him. It seems like something only a white man could come up with; a white child raised in the forest who ends up ruling it. But if they'll pay more than it's worth, Napi will sell it, and perhaps back home, they can use the money to buy medicine for an actual child.

There is something about this war that creeps into some men's minds; they find themselves curled into balls or sitting, staring straight ahead with wide smiles on their faces. They can't be roused, or they can't stop screaming. Napi has seen something like this before, but not to this extent. He's never seen the catatonia or panic in his men, in any war he's ever fought. He doesn't know what causes it, only that these men are damaged by their experiences, injured by the bombs and the bullets and the constant pressure of being under attack.

The first man he sees broken like that is a white man, with short red hair. He's serving alongside a Kanai man named Eagle Ribs. Both of them are sharpshooters, laying down fire from afar to protect other soldiers. It's a good job, as jobs go, but it's dangerous.

Shells are bursting overhead as they fire, the war hot and active and frightening, even to Napi. He understands why some would stay home from this kind of thing. Another burst close by their position paints the whole trench a ghostly green, the color of light under water.

The shouting starts almost immediately, some men screaming that it's gas, it's poison, it's airy death. The men have masks, and they fumble to shield their faces from the coming cloud. Napi does not have one, but he manages to hold his breath until the all-clear is sounded, though he somehow doubts the eerie shadow would have harmed him. He thinks it probably knew who he is, and would pass him over in respect.

When the air clears, Napi looks for Eagle Ribs and his friends, finding them huddled together behind the great wall of their trench.

Eagle Ribs is shaking the red-headed man, who is smiling up at Napi.

"Charlie," Eagle Ribs calls the man's name. "Charlie, can you hear me?"

The redheaded man begins to scream, a wailing noise of distress.

"Shut him up!" a man yells, rushing towards them. "He'll give us away!"

Napi does not want to see this; he thinks he knows where it goes and it is not any place good. Probably they will kill the red-haired man, to be free of his noise. He turns his back, but the sound of the gunshot doesn't come.

Instead it is the voice of Eagle Ribs, soft under the screams of his panicked friend. "Please, Old Man," he says, looking towards Napi. "Help him. Protect me."

Napi tastes bitter on his tongue; he doesn't want to help this white man, but Eagle Ribs is right, it is the best way to ensure his safety. And Napi promised to always keep his people safe.

He crouches down in front of the screaming man, who seems to calm upon meeting Napi's eye, though the noises don't stop. "I am Napi," he begins, keeping his cadence rhythmic, trying to bring this man into a calmer state. "I stole the sun's leggings. I made the big-horn sheep and the antelope. I let my wife decide that men should die, and how their faces would look. I am Napi. I am the Old Man, and I created the world. I gave kingfisher his war bonnet, and chipmunk his stripes. I put the slashes into the birch. I took bobcat's tail for eating my meat. I am the Old Man. I am Napi. You will be well again."

It works; Napi knew it would work. By the time he is done reciting his deeds, the man has stopped screaming, and is now just whimpering. Eagle Ribs smiles, his face open and grateful and awed. "Thank you," he whispers.

Napi does not say anything; he merely nods to the young man before taking his leave of the trench.

He does not go in any more trenches for a few months, he watches battles from afar and does what he can to care for the men he came here to protect. He does not want to be pulled into this any more than he already is, does not want any more of his power used for the good of the white man.

Napi sets up outposts, a series of campsites near the front where his people can come to find him, and where others can come to find goods.

It keeps him close, if distant.

This is where he sees the red-haired man again, several months after their encounter in the trench. He is not well again, not yet. For all Napi's power, he cannot move time any faster than it chooses to go. And these kinds of injuries, the ones that creep into the mind and steal the senses, are ones that can only be healed with the passage of time.

The man's hand shakes as he raises it to greet Napi. "Hello," he offers, as though he doesn't know any name to call him.

"What will you buy?" Napi asks, not moving from his fireside.

"I'm Charlie," the man offers, moving a little closer. "I think you know-- I mean, I think we've met."

Napi nods. "We have."

"I don't know your name," Charlie tells him. "I know you told me. You told me a lot of things. I don't-- I can't remember them."

"They call me Chief," Napi tells him.

"They call all of you Chief," Charlie says, his voice sharp with something that Napi thinks might be disapproval. "Doesn't actually seem to be anyone's name."

Napi smiles and shifts to the side, gesturing for Charlie to join him at the fire. "You may call me Napi."

Charlie pauses, as if he's unsure whether he should move or not, but he takes the offered seat after only a moment's hesitation. "Thank you," he says. "For what you did that day."

"What did I do?" Napi asks, warming his hands.

"Bugger if I know," Charlie shrugs, his voice sounding a little thin, as if there's been more screaming in the past few months than he's ready to admit. "But you-- I think I mighta lost it, if you hadn't been there. Funny thing, I don't remember seeing you before the fighting started, and you didn't have a mask. So how were you--"

Napi holds up a hand. "What do you want to buy?"

The moment hangs heavy, with only the wind between them as Charlie seems to teeter on the edge of pressing the matter. His hands are still shaking, and Napi wonders if he's still able to shoot, or if he's useless in the field now.

"I hear you have beer," Charlie says, after a moment. "I want beer."

"I have beer," Napi says. "One bottle is twenty bullets."

"Twenty?" Charlie says, his eyebrows raised to his hairline. "You want my bollocks, too?"

Napi wrinkles his nose. "I don't know what a bollocks is, but I don't think I'm interested."

Charlie tosses his head back and laughs. "Americans," he says, grinning. "You're all the same."

"I am not an American," Napi prickles.

"Canadian, then," Charlie shrugs. "What's the difference?"

"No," Napi says again. "Make no mistake, Charlie. We live on land they took from us and so graciously gave us back at a premium. We fight in their wars. We receive their aid because they killed our food. But we are not their people. They-- they do not want us to live as we did, but they do not want us to be like them, either. They do not want us, except when they can use us. I'm not American, and I'm not Canadian. I am Blackfoot and I do not want to be anything else."

Charlie stares deeply into the fire for a long time, as if he is trying to understand Napi's words. Perhaps he cannot, Napi thinks. Perhaps it is the curse of his people to be unable to comprehend these things.

"I'll give you thirty bullets for two beers," he says after a long moment. "And a promise to never call you American ever again."

Napi smiles and holds out his hand. "Deal."

Charlie does not come often, but when he does he is chasing his shakes away with beer. It seems odd to Napi, but he doesn't question it. There are some things he thinks can be left alone.

One night, almost a year after they first met, Charlie brings two other men to the fire; a white man and a man with a darker complexion than Napi's. They are introduced as Steve and Sammy, and they both greet Napi with warmth, and with gifts. They bring coats and bullets and guns, as well as some whiskey and books; it's a small crate of goods, and Napi knows it's payment before they ask the favor.

"Do you ever smuggle people?" Charlie asks, after they've exchanged hellos.

Napi feels a chill on the back of his neck. He doesn't like the implication, the idea of stealing people away in the dark of night. It feels too much like something that would be done to him to be something he is willing to do.

"No," he says.

"Told you," Steve says, sighing deeply. "Sorry to bother you, Chief--"

"I do guide them," Napi offers, though he isn't sure how he feels about these new people. "Depending on where they want to go."

Sammy nods and exchanges a look with Charlie. "We-- Steve and I," he offers, his voice tinted with an accent that Napi doesn't know, but he likes very much. "We're spies, you see. We need to get across the line, and we need to do it quietly and quickly. We heard you were the man to see."

Napi sets his jaw, watching the fire. He isn't sure he should help them, to be honest. He feels ambushed, like this is expected of the Helpful Indian Guide, and not an actual favor.

"What do you need to do over there?"

Another look is exchanged, and an uncomfortable shifting of weight from the three men. "The gas," Steve finally says. "The Germans are gassing the trenches. And we want to know where they're making it, so we can stop it."

"Your side uses gas, too," Napi says. "Why should I help you and not them?"

Steve closes his eyes, looking young and tired in a way that feels familiar to Napi; it's the look soldiers in this war get when they've been fighting too long.

"You probably shouldn't," Steve says softly. "But if this war ends, we all get to go home. And the only way it's going to end is if someone wins. Someone wins and the dying stops." He opens his eyes and fixes his gaze to Napi's. "You don't have to help us, Chief. Say no and we'll thank you for your time and move on. But I'm still going to ask. Will you please help me and Sammy get across No Man's Land? So we can go home?"

Napi considers for a moment, thinking of the men who he's already seen home, stored in pine boxes in the bellies of those big, lumbering ships.

"Yes," he says softly. "I will help you get home."

They stay the day at his campsite, and Napi tries not to get too attached to the men who will probably die in the next few weeks.

"Where are you from?" Steve asks, over a lunch of tinned corned beef and biscuits while the other two rest not far away.

Napi shrugs. "I spent some time all over," he says. "I've been travelling for a long time."

Steve nods. "You have a family?"

"A wife," Napi says. "And people. I send back what I can. You?"

Steve shrugs. "No," he says. "Charlie's got a girl, and Sammy's got someone he won't talk about. But I-- what I had back home isn't waiting for me anymore."

"Then why do you want to go there?" Napi asks, watching the white man closely.

"Because it's home," Steve says simply. "Because war isn't really a place I want to be. Because-- because just cause no one is waiting for me doesn't mean there's nothing there to go back to."

Napi smiles sadly, staring into the middle distance. He thinks he understands that. He misses his home, though he hasn't been there in a long time. Perhaps when this is over, he'll go back and see his people, see what they need and how he can care for them. Perhaps it is time.

"Get some rest," he says, standing. "We'll leave when the sun goes down."

It's easy to get Steve and Sammy across the trenches and into enemy territory, because they listen and do as he says. If they had thought they knew better, he never would have taken them, it would have gotten all of them killed. Charlie split off before they crossed, heading back to his commander to report that the spies were on their way.

Napi sees them safely across and parts with them before the moon fully rises. He spends a few hours walking the Axis trench, watching the faces of the young men there as they nod with weariness at the hour, at the prolonged fighting. He meets a few, men who he's seen before, and swaps some tea and some books for a few pints of ale and some guns. The weariness, the hardened fear, is as thick over here as it is on the other side, all these men shooting and killing and never really knowing why.

Steve is right, he thinks. They all just need to find their way home.

He sees Steve again a month or so later. The white man appears at his fireside once again armed with gifts and requests, but this time alone.

"I brought you sugar," Steve says, by way of greeting. "I thought you might be able to use it out here."

"And what do you want in return for your sugar?" Napi asks, his shoulders tight. He doesn't know what to do about white men who bring presents. Historically, they don't turn out well for his people.

Steve smiles, the kind of crooked smile that must impress women. It does not impress Napi.

"I need a uniform," he says. "A German one."

Napi raises an eyebrow. "And you want me to steal it for you?"

"Well--" Steve shrugs. "If you want. Or I was thinking you could maybe help me across the lines again.

"No," Napi says, sternly. He doesn't trust this, doesn't know why this man thinks it’s okay to come into his camp and ask for things.

"Can I ask why?" Steve says.

"You can ask," Napi shrugs. "But all you need to know is that I don't work for you. I'm not in your army, and I don't fight for you. If you have something that you want me to do, you should probably start by asking me what I want in return, and not bringing things you think I need. You don't know me. You are not my friend. Don't insult me."

Steve nods. "That's-- well, that's fair, Chief. I'm gonna leave this here, though, and-- and tell me what to bring when I come back? If I do come back?"

Napi narrows his eyes, and tries to decide if the contrite act is at all sincere. "Five pounds to cross no man's land. Each way. Ten to steal. Bring me guns or whiskey or tea, and I'll lower it. But just because you bring me money doesn't mean I'll help you. I can still say no."

"Yes," Steve says softly. "You can. I'm sorry if-- I'm sorry that I gave you any other impression."

Napi turns his back, poking at the fire gently. "It wouldn't hurt to bring one of your other friends," he says, not looking up. "I like them better than you."

Steve laughs, a warm sound. "You have good taste. They're good men. I'll be on my way, then."

The night is waning, the sun already threatening to peek over the horizon and the sky turning an ashy purple, and this man seems deeply stupid for someone who survived his last foray into the enemy's camp.

"Don't try to cross the lines in the light," Napi says. "You can stay the day, if you don't have anywhere to go."

"Thanks," Steve says, though he doesn't move. "I-- Yes. Thank you. I'll stay."

Napi spends his day doing the mundane chores of his work-- walking trap lines, checking his drops for orders and cleaning some game that will last a week.

Steve sleeps most of the morning away, but he's awake by midday, and dying to talk about something. Anything.

"How did you get over here?" he asks, as Napi carefully skins a rabbit.

"I walked," Napi says absently, and Steve laughs. Of course he does. "I was here before the war started. And I'll be here until it ends."

Steve thinks about that for a moment. "You didn't enlist?"

Napi shakes his head. "Look at how I'm dressed. Do you think any of your people would let a soldier carry these clothes on his back into battle?"

"No," Steve admits, rooting through his bag until he finds a canteen and taking a deep drink of water. "No, that should have been obvious, huh? I-- I admit, I don't know a lot about Indians. What are you, Cherokee?"

"No," Napi says, the word feeling bitter in his mouth. "But if you can name two other tribes, I'll give you a shilling."

Steve holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I can't," he says. "I won't pretend I can."

"Maybe you should learn," Napi says. "If you're going to live on their land, maybe you should find out who you took it from."

"Me?" Steve shakes his head. "Chief, I'm sorry, but I didn't steal anything."

Napi raises an eyebrow, meeting Steve's eyes carefully. "Maybe not. But you didn't come by it honestly."

"Who are you?" Steve says, which is not at all the kind of aggression Napi expected. He's not used to white men who hear these things and don't try and fight him about it. "I mean, you're not a soldier, you're not an actor from one of those Red Indian shows that used to tour. You can cross lines, you trade with everyone, you don't seem to sleep-- who are you?"

"I am not anyone you know about," Napi says sadly. "But maybe, if you live long enough, you'll find out."

Steve laughs. "Fair enough," he says, watching Napi's hands move over the animal he's dressing. "Where did you learn to do that?"

Napi shrugs. "You know, you ask a lot of questions."

"I do," Steve agrees. "It’s kinda my job."

"Tell me something true about yourself, Steve," Napi says, deciding that this will be a test. If the man lies, then he'll know enough about him to know what to do.

Steve thinks for a long time, the silence stretching out between them. "My dad gave me this watch," he says, holding up his wrist. "Before he died. And I-- I sometimes wonder, if I make it through this, if I find a woman and have a family, will I give it to my son? What if I don't have a son? What if I don't have any kids? Who's going to carry it on?"

Napi nods. "And what do you decide?"

"I don't," Steve says. "I guess I'd give it to someone who might want it. Or need it. I don't know. Hopefully I never have to find out."

"Hopefully," Napi echoes. "Do you think you'll survive the war?"

"Sometimes I do," Steve says, his words still bluntly honest. "Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I'm not sure I should, when there are good men who won't. What about you?"

"I will survive," Napi says. "I always survive."

Steve smiles sadly, as though the weight of that sentence is heavy on his shoulders. "I used to think like that, too," he says. "I don't anymore."

Napi shakes his head. He didn't expect this man to understand, not really, but for a moment he had hope that he might have been understood.

"And you may surprise yourself," Napi says softly, turning back to his work, though he has a feeling that it isn't likely.

Steve comes back, and he comes back, and he comes back. Sometimes he brings things, sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he asks for help, and sometimes he just wants to sit at the fire and talk, as though they were friends.

Napi doesn't understand what this man is getting out of these interactions, but he doesn't push it. He lets him come and go. And sometimes he helps, and sometimes he doesn't.

Somehow, it feels easy. Steve never presses for answers, always takes no for an answer. Napi still isn't sure he trusts the man, but he has a grudging respect for him that only seems to grow over time.

So when he gets word that he's coming with three others, and that they might need help getting across the lines, Napi isn't surprised. He decides to wait until he meets the others to see if he'll help, but a part of him is glad, as it always is, that Steve is at least still alive.

The others are Charlie and Sammy and a woman. Napi trusts white women less even than white men; he's seen how they use their power to hurt and kill people like him.

It takes him a second to see the truth of her; she's pretty, as her kind goes, but she isn't a woman any more than he's a man. They're more, both of them, and he can feel her differentness, her specialness, radiating off of her in waves.

He offers a hand and his name, and her reaction belies her truth; she knows who he is, and perhaps what.

Napi has always been a warrior, but he has never been a soldier. He has never seen the point of joining an army. But when he meets Diana, when he looks into her eyes and speaks his truth, he knows that this is a woman he will follow into battle. For her, he will fight.

There isn't much time for thinking once Diana is with him; they do the things that need to be done. They fight, they win, they fight again.

It's all a blur until he finds himself standing on a tarmac, the sun rising and the dim realization in his mind that Steve is gone. He's always known it would happen, but he'd never thought he would be there for it. All he can do is stand at Diana's side with Sammy and Charlie, staring at the watch clutched in her hand.

There is much to do, he knows that. The fighting isn't done, the peace papers aren't signed. There are still more men who will die in the trenches, and men who will go home scarred and broken and never be the same.

He has to get back to the front lines, back to his bonfire. He has people to look after. He has men to see home.

The armistice is signed.

They celebrate around him, the people of London joyous in their victory. Napi knows it isn't real; it's a stall. He can see the violence etched into the buildings of this city. These people will fight again, they will kill again and his people will be pulled back into it.

The walls are papered with the men who are missing in action. Steve is there, but so are some of his people; Kainai and Peigan and Siksika next to the men they fought alongside of.

No one came out of this war unscathed.

When it is done, when the last of his men have boarded their boats to head home, Napi thinks he will walk west again. He will head toward home, and see what there is to see on the way. And eventually, if he walks long enough, he thinks he might find himself right back where he started.