The Testing of White Eagle

White Eagle stopped suddenly. He forgot the deer he had been trailing as he stared at a Conestoga wagon drawn up in the clearing. Instinct urged him to flee, but he was overwhelmed with curiosity. White Eagle had never seen the strange covered wagons except from a distance, and sometimes they were blurred by clouds of dust.

The Indian youth cautiously circled the clumsy boat-like vehicle. His dark eyes were glittering with excitement, but he was poised for instant flight. He had seen people traveling in wagon trains, one wagon behind the other, creeping like a string of ants across the plains. He wondered why just one wagon had stopped here. Was it abandoned? There were no horses nearby.

As he approached the rear of the wagon, he was startled by a sudden sound of crying. “If I had the sense of a groundhog, I would run away like the wind,” he murmured. His father, Chief Running Horse, had warned him about rashness many times. I’ll just peek inside quickly and then go, the bronzed youth decided, trying not to visualize his father’s stern and disapproving face.

Looking inside, White Eagle saw that it was a newborn baby who was making the strange crying sound. He stared from the baby to the young mother lying still. White Eagle wondered if she were dead, but her eyes opened in terror when White Eagle touched her feverish cheek with his cool hand. He quickly backed away and spread his hands apart, signaling that he meant no harm to her and the infant.

“Water … water. Please!” she whispered. White Eagle could not understand her, but her hot cheeks and cracked lips showed her need. He knew that the river was nearby, but White Eagle had nothing in which to carry water. He tried to convey this message by motioning with his hands.

The young mother weakly pointed to a round-top trunk near the front of the wagon. Then she made motions of drinking. Water in a box? She must be delirious from the fever.

Lifting the trunk’s lid, White Eagle found a shallow tray filled with small bundles. He handed one of the bundles to the sick woman and watched as she unrolled the cloth, revealing the most beautiful drinking vessel he had ever seen. Pretending to sip from it, she motioned outside and tapped the side of the wagon. Of course! She meant the barrels lashed to the wagon. White Eagle dashed out to a barrel and brought water in the cup. He lifted her head to help her drink.

Wonder filled his face as he looked at the delicate china cup. It was snow white, light as a bubble, and decorated with bright pink flowers. Gleaming gold scallops were all around the top. How he wished that he might have such a treasure! But he knew that it belonged to the woman; so he carefully placed it nearby where it would not be broken.

The woman grew more tired and visibly weaker as she tried to tell him by sign language what had happened. White Eagle understood that they had missed joining a wagon train because the young mother had become ill. After one horse ran away, her husband took the other horse and rode for help.

White Eagle’s scalp prickled with dread as the woman kept pushing the baby toward him. She wanted him to take her baby to his people! How could White Eagle make her understand that she was asking him to do something impossible? He was alone in the forest without food or weapons as a test of approaching manhood. If for any reason he went back before his allotted time, both he and his father, the chief, would be disgraced and White Eagle would fail his survival trial and prove himself unfit to be a brave!

Several times White Eagle prepared to leave, but he could not. Both mother and child would surely die without his help. Why had he, White Eagle, been saddled with such a problem? Had he already failed the test by having contact with the ill woman? Would he be forced to leave his tribe in disgrace?

Remembering the difficult days and nights he had already endured, White Eagle sighed with despair, but he could not just go away and leave the mother and baby to die. He knew that his mother would know how to make the young woman well again. His aunt had a young baby and she could easily care for this child too. If only this were the last day of his test and he could seek help from his family. But White Eagle had three more days of survival before he could return to his people!

Suddenly the boy thought of a solution—a way he might get help without going to the village. Taking one of the horse blankets from the wagon, White Eagle climbed to the top of the bluffs beside the river and built a fire of green brush. A thick column of smoke soon rose high, and he began to signal. White Eagle sighed with relief as he finally sighted puffs of smoke rising in reply from across the plains.

The boy stayed beside the wagon, giving sips of water to the sick woman. When he heard horses approaching, White Eagle fled into the forest and watched from a distance as his uncle, Red Feather, and several other braves dismounted. Red Feather noticed White Eagle’s moccasin tracks. The braves will not harm the woman and child; they are now in good hands, the boy decided as he turned and left.

When White Eagle returned to his snares, he found the first two untouched, but his stomach rumbled with anticipation as he saw a rabbit caught in the third. He had not eaten since the evening before. Although he had prepared warm gruel from food in the wagon for the sick woman, White Eagle did not eat. According to the test, he was to provide and prepare his own food. The woman was very ill and had slept most of the time. No one would have known if he had cheated, but it was a matter of honor that he did not.

Rising at dawn three days later, White Eagle prepared to return to his people. He sorted and rolled his possessions in a deer hide, which when cured would make new moccasins and a shirt. He had come into the forest without food or weapons; he was returning with the deer hide, many small animal pelts, a bow, arrows, sharp bone knives and scrapers he had made, and a handsome claw necklace. He knew he had earned the bright feathers his father would thrust into his beaded headband—unless helping the white woman and child had violated the conditions of his test! That worry nagged at him.

A muted drumbeat signaled his approach as White Eagle entered the village. The women came out of their tepees and smiling braves watched as the youth approached the chief’s lodge. Small boys and dogs excitedly trailed along behind him.

As his father stepped out of his lodge, there was pride, not disapproval, reflected in the chief’s eyes. The tribe gathered around, and each one watched with respect as the youth opened his bundle and displayed the pelts and the weapons.

White Eagle stood straight and tall when his father began to speak. “An Indian brave may collect many feathers, but according to our laws he cannot wear them until he wins that right. White Eagle not only passed his test, but he showed compassion and saved two lives. We know this because we saw the grateful white man drive the wagon away only yesterday with his wife beside him and their child cradled in her arms. White Eagle has earned the right to wear the feather prized above all others—that of the golden eagle, which represents this bird’s great strength and courage.”

White Eagle caught his breath as the chief removed a magnificent fourteen-inch feather from his ceremonial headdress and tucked it into his son’s headband. From the feather’s white color and dark brown tip, the new brave knew that it was one of the thirteen tail feathers of the adult eagle. These prized feathers were considered to possess great medicine. White Eagle had not expected such an honor!

There were gasps of astonishment as White Eagle’s mother emerged from the tepee with a jewel-like drinking vessel balanced on a matching saucer, the gold trim glistening in the sunlight. She told White Eagle the cup was a gift to him from the young mother.

“Such a vessel belongs only to a chief,” White Eagle said, handing the delicate set to his father. “Someday when I have proved worthy, I will reclaim it.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Van Demark