Walking Hawk moved slowly toward the fire in the center of the village and took a place in the shadows behind the other novice warriors. He tried not to look across the fire at Standing Elk, Eagle Claw, Buffalo Horn, or the other boys his own age who now had taken their places with the men.
Walking Hawk barely heard the talk at the council meeting. His impatience made all other thoughts grow dim. Perhaps if he hadn’t gone with the hunters in search of wild horses, he, too, would be sitting there with the men. A picture of the splendid young roan mare that had been his pay for helping in the horse hunt, however, filled his mind so that he wasn’t too envious of the other boys’ new position of manhood.
Most of the boys who had proven themselves during his absence had killed only antelope or deer, not the great buffalo.
Walking Hawk sat up straighter. That was what he would do. He would not settle for less than a buffalo. Then it wouldn’t matter so much that he hadn’t been among the first.
With the vow bright in his heart, Walking Hawk listened to the words of Long Arm, one of the most famous leaders among all the Sioux.
“The buffalo no longer come to this place as they have in the past,” Long Arm said. Then he paused, glancing around the circle of faces turned toward him. No one spoke.
“The season grows late for securing meat and hides and all else that the buffalo provides for our people. Winter will be upon us before we are prepared. We cannot wait any longer. Tomorrow we must go to the west in search of the buffalo.”
A murmur rose from the men in the circle, for there was danger in going farther west into Crow country, the land of their enemies.
Seeing nothing but a few straggler buffalo during the next three days, the Sioux’s hopes quickened when scouts reported signs that a large herd had been in the vicinity not many days before. The women were pleased when Long Arm announced that a more permanent camp would be made near the ragged, gray bluffs where they would have cover and shade. From here, the scouts would search for the buffalo herd and signal the men to ride out for the hunt.
It was barely dawn when the hunt leader rode out with a few of the most experienced scouts in search of the herd. For those left at camp, the day passed slowly. The waiting was hard for everyone.
Without really tasting it, Walking Hawk ate the supper his mother set in front of him that evening. He walked to the horse herd to watch the animals graze along the stream, and then came back to the tepee to sleep.
Early the next morning Walking Hawk stepped from the tepee. He could not stand this inactivity any longer. He had decided to slip away from the camp to find and kill a straggler buffalo. If no herd were found, he, at least, would have proved himself in his own hunt.
As he had on many mornings in the past, Walking Hawk searched the horse herd for his roan mare.
Impatience pushed at him but still he took time to rub the pony’s coat with a bunch of grass until it gleamed in the first morning light. He casually glanced around at the hunters who had now returned to the village for their morning meal.
Walking Hawk moved slowly, as though he were leading his pony to the stream for water and the better grass growing near there. At the stream, he mounted and sat astride his pony, studying the clouds overhead and the ripples in the water. Then pressing his heels in slightly, the roan started walking downstream. Once around the bend, Walking Hawk crouched forward and dug his heels into the pony’s sides.
He felt a strange uncertainty about running away without telling even his father about his plan. But when he returned with a buffalo, they would all be proud of him.
Walking Hawk had ridden quite a distance without seeing game of any kind, by the time the sun was straight overhead. He decided to ride only as far as the next rise with the stunted trees, and then he would turn back to camp.
Halfway to the trees, Walking Hawk quickly pulled the pony to a halt. Moving from the protection of the trees were two buffalo cows and a partly grown calf. They had not caught sight of him yet and the wind was in his favor.
Sliding off his pony’s back, Walking Hawk paused just long enough to fit an arrow to his bow. Then he ground-reined the pony and crept forward alone.
He would shoot the young cow since the calf was old enough to be weaned. The other cow was too old and tough. Walking Hawk was just about to let the arrow fly, but he paused for a moment. Had he seen a movement beyond the buffalo? His heart jumped like a startled coyote when he realized what the movement was.
In his excitement at seeing the buffalo, Walking Hawk had not been careful and had moved above the horizon line.
Now he had been seen by Crow warriors!
The horsemen were still some distance away, down the west side of the ridge. But they rode swiftly toward him.
The buffalo were forgotten as Walking Hawk bolted for his pony. Sensing his fear, the mare was in motion almost before he had mounted. With this much head start, he hoped to outrun the Crows to the camp.
Then suddenly Walking Hawk’s head reeled, for he recognized the mistake of his thinking. He must not ride toward the camp. To do so would give away the location of his people and make them easy prey for their enemies.
Swallowing his fear, Walking Hawk headed the pony off at an angle from their camp. He glanced over his shoulder and was relieved to see that the riders had not yet topped the ridge. Is it possible that they haven’t seen me, he wondered.
Twice more he glanced back. Five warriors had ridden into clear view.
Walking Hawk rode on all through the afternoon, beyond the time of dusk and into the night. Though his pony breathed hard, it did not falter. His heart sang with gratitude for such a fine animal.
At last, Walking Hawk brought his pony to a halt. Though there was no sound of his pursuers, he knew that they could be very near just waiting for morning to resume their chase. But now he and his pony must have rest. He wondered if he had come so far that he would be unable to find his way back to the camp.
Morning came quickly and as Walking Hawk scanned the horizon in all directions, he felt certain that he had lost the five warriors who had followed him all the previous day.
Though he was becoming faint from hunger, Walking Hawk climbed on his pony and rode toward camp. Dusk was settling like a heavy robe over the land when he caught sight of the familiar line of bluffs ahead. The camp was so well hidden that, without previous knowledge, he would never have guessed its location.
Walking Hawk swallowed hard at the rough command of a sentry who rose up from among the rocks with his bow and arrow poised.
“It is Walking Hawk, son of Red Feather,” he struggled for words. “I—I have returned.”
“You have brought concern to your family and danger to us all,” the sentry scolded him.
The sound of their voices brought Walking Hawk’s father in long strides. His face was dark with anger.
“Care for your horse,” Red Feather commanded. “And then you shall explain the worry that you have brought to your mother.” He strode away as quickly as he had come.
Walking Hawk wanted to make the task of caring for his pony stretch on for a long time, but he dared not. Never had he seen such anger on his father’s face.
Red Feather’s anger did not lessen as Walking Hawk told of his strong wish to become a successful hunter, of his plan for at last achieving it, of his near success, and then of the coming of the Crow warriors.
“So careless!” his father exploded. “Surely, my son would not be so foolish about his own safety or that of his people. Failing to creep carefully to the top of a ridge when in enemy country is unbelievable!”
As his father spoke, Walking Hawk began to realize the seriousness of his act. He tried to swallow the shame that rose bright in his heart. But he could not look at his father. Now he understood that the laws of his people were not just unreasonable rules set down by adults. His act had been a selfish one.
His father put Walking Hawk’s next thought into words. “No one among us has the right to bring danger to himself if it could also bring danger to our people. There can be no safety for any of our people unless each one accepts responsibility for the welfare of all.”
Walking Hawk nodded seriously. “When at last a buffalo herd is sighted,” he said, “I shall stay behind to help guard the camp. It is what I wish.”
Red Feather looked surprised. But as he left the tepee, his heart swelled with pride. Now Walking Hawk was indeed becoming a man!