It was a beautiful morning in late summer. The prairie seemed draped in gold as far as Red Moon could see. The vivid yellow blanket was made of goldenrod blooms and bright yellow daisies still glistening with dew. The flowers bowed and rippled in constant motion from the soft wind that stirred them. Along the edge of the forest, the leaves of the sumac and sassafras trees were already tinged with a melon red that signaled the end of summer. Migrating birds were beginning to come together in flocks, in preparation for the long journey to the south.
Ordinarily, the surrounding beauty would have elated the Indian girl. But not today. She stayed well behind her grandfather, trying not to intrude upon his privacy. Hers was an unpleasant assignment. She loved White Eagle deeply and understood his anger and humiliation. Butwhy do I have to be the target for his resentment? she pondered.
White Eagle had been very ill for three moons. His strong heart had grown weary. Sorrowfully, for he was the oldest and most respected member of the tribe, his people had begun to prepare for his death. Then the old man had rallied and left his tepee to sit in the warm sun. The women whispered that the old brave’s spirit had only returned for a short while, to bid farewell to the forest and streams he loved so well.
Red Moon felt that this was true. Why else had her grandfather waited until all the braves and young men were away to decide to go fishing? He was too weak to walk to the river alone, but he seemed determined. He had brushed aside his wife’s pleas and stalked away.
The girl and her worried grandmother watched the old brave leave. “You must follow!” Sequa said. “He may collapse on the way or faint and fall into the water. If so, run back quickly for help. But don’t let him see you follow,” she warned. “His feebleness shames him.”
The Indian girl had drifted along like a shadow. She had walked carefully and stayed well behind her grandfather, but the old hunter was still too crafty to be fooled. Red Moon stopped and stood trembling when White Eagle suddenly stepped out where the trail curved and confronted her. Clouds of anger were on his face, and the piercing black eyes reflected outrage.
“Why do you stalk me with footsteps that would roll a sleeping bear out of his cave?” White Eagle snapped. “Does your grandmother think I’m a frail and feeble child that must be tethered to a keeper? And a girl at that, when I have eight strong, young grandsons! I want to be alone. Return to the village at once and stay there!” he commanded. Red Moon shivered with dread.
“I cannot,” his stricken granddaughter whispered, her head bowed and not looking at him.
White Eagle was a proud man. He felt overwhelmed with frustration and resentment. An old warrior should be allowed to die in the forest alone if he wished. How dare his relatives interfere!
The old man’s eyes softened as he stared down at Red Moon’s bowed head. He could see the misery of the granddaughter he loved, and he understood her dilemma. She had always been an obedient, respectful child, but how could she obey both her grandparents this time?
“Well, then. Since your grandmother has foolishly set you upon me like a dog after a crippled fox, you may follow. But stay away from me!” White Eagle barked. He wheeled and started off down a slope toward the river.
The old man’s full stride alarmed Red Moon. His heart was too weak for such exertion, and his anger didn’t help. Fear swept over her when she saw White Eagle sag against a tree and put one hand to his chest. His bronzed face appeared washed over with gray paint. Even from a distance Red Moon could see that he was panting for breath! How can I slow him down without further injuring his pride? she wondered.
Then, noticing a log lying across the path, she deliberately tripped over it and cried out as she fell sprawling.
White Eagle hesitated, then turned back when he saw her cradling an “injured” leg. He sat down and removed her worn beaded moccasin. Tears trickled down her woebegone face, but there was no mark on the small foot or leg. A fleeting smile crossed the old man’s wrinkled face.
“We’ll rest here until it feels better,” he said softly, pulling her close. Red Moon leaned against his shoulder, holding her breath to keep from sobbing out her sorrow. Resting, White Eagle’s rapid, shallow breathing slowed.
Later when they reached the river, White Eagle selected a mossy bank, spread his blanket to sit on, and leaned back against a tree. It was an ancient oak, old when he was a boy. With trembling hands, he laid out fishhooks of bone and some lengths of hide for lines.
Then he sat quietly contemplating the beauty of one of his favorite haunts. He looked happy and content as he began to speak, his sham of going fishing now forgotten.
“Death is a dreaded enemy to youth, as it should be,” he said softly. “But it is a friend to the old ones. I have lived and hunted for over seventy-five years. My sons are grown and have become braves, and I have seen many grandchildren. I am happy. And I am not afraid, for it is only natural that I should now return and become a part of all the beauty of the earth. Now I ask you once again to leave me here alone. There should be young woodchucks under a rock ledge at the bottom of Turkey Hill. Will you go there and watch them play until the sun touches the treetops?”
Neither I nor Grandmother can keep death from coming, Red Moon thought. White Eagle deserves to greet it alone and with dignity. A brave’s final wish should be granted. She rose slowly and smiled, trying to see her grandfather’s serene face through blurred eyes. His spirit would be gone when she returned, she knew. Then she would cover him with her blanket and return to tell her grandmother.