It was still dark when Gray Cougar awoke. The Indian boy faced the red fingers of light in the eastern sky and prayed as he did each morning. Last night he had not expected to see another dawn! Despite the pain in his right shoulder and ribs, he was filled with gratitude.
Now if I can only find the strength to get back to my village and the medicine man, he thought. Or would it be better, perhaps, if I didn’t go back? he began to wonder.
He had failed his mission. How his older brothers would laugh! They had said he was too young to scale the buttes and bring back an eagle feather. Not that he had intended to pluck one from a living eagle, however. Just the thought of their strong talons made him shiver with dread, to say nothing of the powerful wings and formidable beak!
Gray Cougar had hoped to be lucky enough to find a shed tail feather among the rocks. He was weary of the good-natured gibes of Red Fox and Standing Bear, his brothers, who were almost braves. Eagle feathers were highly prized among his people, and owning such a trophy would bring respect.
The Indian boy clenched his jaw to keep from groaning aloud as he moved down the steep boulder-strewn slope. He crept like an old man and held his injured arm tightly against his chest to ease the pain. Last night he hadn’t expected the fierce wind on the high irregular hilltops, but he had fought it and almost reached a huge nest of sticks when his moccasin slipped. Gray Cougar had dangled helplessly by his hands for what seemed like hours, feeling for a foothold. Then a mighty gust blasted him loose and he had fallen onto the slope below, where he rolled down against a large rock. He had slept a deathlike sleep for a long time, and the sun was setting when he opened his eyes. And with darkness upon him, he had not yet reached the canyon floor. Gray Cougar slumped down between boulders as drowsiness overcame him.
A white youth would have died of thirst in the blistering desert heat as the sun rose higher, but even in his delirium Gray Cougar knew where to dig holes in the sand and how to be patient as the water seeped in. It was bitter, but safe to drink. There were cool springs and threads of waterfalls among the buttes, but he had no strength to climb them.
Because he was dazed and sick, Gray Cougar was not as cautious as he would normally have been. At a turn in the canyon, his eyes widened with fear when he saw oxen and a covered wagon! He could not run. The bronzed youth sagged against a boulder and stoically watched a white man snatch up a long gun and turn. Gray Cougar closed his eyes. Will I hear the lightning crack of the shot—or will the pain come first? he wondered matter-of-factly. He was too feverish and sick to worry about it. But it seemed ironic that he had struggled so hard to reach his death place!
The man could easily have slain him from beside the wagon. Consequently, Gray Cougar felt hope as he heard him approach. The boy opened his eyes and tried to understand the strange-sounding words, but all he could make out was a series of croaks. Then he noticed the man’s swollen tongue and cracked lips and the lowered heads and glazed eyes of the team of oxen. The stranger, who wore fancy clothing from the east, must be asking for water!
Gray Cougar looked around, trying to concentrate on where he was. His face lit up when he saw the towering needle rock far above them. There, he knew, was a cool spring with lush green grass growing all around it just south of the stone needle. But I cannot help him, he worried. I cannot climb to show the way, and we cannot speak to each other. Then Gray Cougar had an idea. I can draw a map in the sand!
The sick youth pointed to the high rock then moved his finger south. He pretended to scoop up water and drink. Then he knelt and made marks in the hot sand. “How far? How far?” the white man cried. But Gray Cougar only stared in puzzlement and pointed to his injured shoulder and side.
“I’m sorry. I am hurt. I cannot lead you there,” he said, thinking that was what the man asked.
The man took two canteens and a wooden bucket from the wagon. He copied the crude map on a paper then disappeared among the rocks. Gray Cougar crawled beneath the heavy wagon and dozed off in the shade.
Splashes of cold water from an overflowing barrel lashed to the back of the wagon shocked the boy awake. The man must have made many trips to fill it, Gray Cougar thought. He gritted his teeth to keep from crying out when he tried to squirm from under the covered wagon. With every heartbeat the pain throbbed agonizingly.
The white man stooped to help prop the young Indian against one of the wagon wheels. He probed gently, watching the boy’s face. Then tearing a blanket into long pieces, he wrapped some strips tightly around the bruised ribs. Gray Cougar took a deep breath and smiled. There was no more knife-like pain. Next the man folded a square cloth into a triangle and made a sling that he knotted and slipped around Gray Cougar’s neck. The throbbing shoulder eased when his arm was supported. They smiled at each other. Each had helped the other. Words were not needed.
After they had eaten, they sat by the fire. The desert chilled quickly once the sun was gone. Gray Cougar wished he could talk to the man. Why is he here alone? Where is he going? What do the large black markings painted on the canvas mean? He stood and traced the letters with his finger then looked wonderingly at his companion, unaware that the letters spelled TAXIDERMIST.
The man chuckled, then began to pull boxes from the wagon. Gray Cougar stared in amazement when the man lifted out a stuffed red squirrel that was standing upright with a nut in its paws. It looked so alive he expected it to scurry away! There were birds, other small mammals, and even a coiled and deadly looking rattlesnake.
“They are for a new museum in San Francisco,” the man said proudly, as though Gray Cougar could understand. “I’m going to settle there and open a shop. Here, take a look at this one. A man found it dead beside the river and gave it to me.”
“Aiii!” Gray Cougar gasped, as a very large box yielded up an adult golden eagle, frozen in timeless splendor.
Eyes glowing with excitement, the youth pointed to the tail feathers, the bluffs, and then to his injured side. The man’s face cleared, and he made a motion as though sticking a feather in his long black hair. He knew eagle feathers were prized by the Indians. The boy was probably injured while searching for one, he decided. The taxidermist had collected many extra feathers to fill out the plumage of his specimens. Now he began to sort through a long, flat box. There were many bright feathers, but there were none from an eagle. He was sorry he could not give one to Gray Cougar.
The Indian youth examined the feathers, ignoring familiar ones. He gasped again as he lifted out an iridescent peacock feather. The end of it seemed to have an eye surrounded by rainbow colors! What manner of bird can be so richly dressed! he wondered. Gray Cougar could not even imagine what such a bird would look like. He was awed and delighted when the white man put the jewel-like plume in the boy’s hair and closed the box. His brothers and the other villagers would be astounded and impressed when the boy returned home wearing the exotic feather.
The man tried to describe a peacock. He strutted back and forth and swept his hands in a huge circle. Then he measured where the bird’s head would reach.
It was difficult to believe the man, yet he had no reason to lie. His feather came from a great bird that walked proudly but could not fly! And its tail feathers formed a huge warbonnet like a chief’s!
Gray Cougar grinned mischievously as he considered the flood of questions Red Fox and Standing Bear would ask. They would never believe such a bird existed. He decided he would just smile mysteriously and not answer. They would probably not tease him again. Instead, they and the other envious youths would rush off to the buttes to try to find feathers like his.
As though he could read Gray Cougar’s thoughts, the white man’s laughter boomed out at the thought of such scrambling.