The three children watched big-eyed but uncomplaining as their grandmother filled the visitor’s bowl with the watery, meatless stew. She served the small amount left in the pot to the children, not taking any for herself.
Black Elk compared his portion with that for the children, then poured more than half of it back into the pot. He unrolled his pack and removed most of a cooked rabbit left from his noonday meal. The smiling children ate ravenously. They had not had meat for many days.
He speared a chunk of meat with his knife and handed it to the woman. “Eat!” he said to the gaunt-looking grandmother. She had missed many meals, sacrificing for the children. And, still, they were too thin. The sad plight of the little family troubled the Indian youth, who had seen the lone tepee and had stopped for the night.
When the children were asleep, he and the woman talked by the fire. “My son,” she said, “was killed by a wounded bear last fall. The children, their mother, and I wintered here alone after that. Then the mother took cold and died of a fever. My joints are stiff and I am too lame to hunt game,” she sighed. “We have survived on roots, nuts, and greens still growing in sheltered spots; but the children grow weaker by the day. I am so old and weary … I—I fear for them,” she added hopelessly.
Black Elk slept little that night. It had snowed lightly and he rose at dawn, stiff and chilled. The children shivered in tattered blankets by the fire as the old one brewed herb tea for breakfast. The youth felt ashamed when his stomach growled protests at such meager fare.
He urged the woman to return with him to his village, a week’s journey from here, but she refused. It was almost spring. Her tribe would come searching for the lost family. There was another son. He and his wife would take his brother’s children for their own. She must wait here.
Black Elk was dismayed by her refusal. But since she would not budge, he could not leave them alone to starve. By chance, they had all become his responsibility! He was only a youth, and Black Elk felt overwhelmed by such a heavy burden.
He taught the older girl, Singing Bird, to set snares for small game. He and the boy, Brown Tree, fished through the ice that still covered the lake, and hunted large game that was sparse in the area.
The woman was a good cook, and every scrap of fur she turned into warm clothing for the children, whose thin faces were rounding out as they became sleek and well fed. The old one became stronger, and the baby no longer coughed during the night. Black Elk felt pride as he looked at them. He was a good provider for the little family, as he must someday become for a family of his own.
As the weeks passed, he began to worry more and more about his own people. The braves, thinking him lost, would certainly have searched for him after so long a time, but his tribe seldom hunted in this area where game was scarce. Had they given up hope of finding him? Was his mother mourning his death? And suppose this family’s people failed to come! Black Elk felt despair as he considered the possibility.
The old one saw that Black Elk was deeply troubled and homesick. “You have helped us enough. Return to your own people,” she urged gently one evening.
Black Elk looked at the dimpled baby making happy sounds as she played with rolling pine cones. “I cannot … yet,” he murmured miserably, turning away.
Pink fingers of light probed the eastern sky a few days later as the youth awoke to the sound of approaching horses. He rolled out of the wickiup he had erected beside the tattered tepee and snatched up his bow and arrows. Are the visitors friends or enemies? he wondered. The old one and Brown Tree stood bravely beside him. Singing Bird carried the baby into the forest to hide.
They listened. There were many horses! It was foolish to greet such a large group with weapons. Black Elk and the boy laid them aside and stood stiffly, waiting. The first Indians entered the clearing. Then Black Elk relaxed as the woman uttered a joyful cry and ran forward to greet her kinsmen!
The youth would have preferred to slip away unnoticed and return to his people, but the children’s uncle refused to permit it. Black Elk had taken the place of a dead brave and preserved his family from certain death. There must be a feast and dance in his honor.
The next morning Black Elk turned for a last look at the village of tepees that had sprouted like mushrooms. There was a haze of smoke from the cooking fires. He was leaving many new friends and the family he had nourished and cared for. When he said a sad farewell to the old woman and the children his eyes stung and his throat seemed strangely choked as the baby clung to him and cried. He would miss them.
Now he had long miles to travel. Miles that would go fast on the back of the beautiful spotted pony the uncle had given him. Other relatives had placed fine necklaces around his neck and a new skinning knife in his sheath.
But the most treasured gift was for his mother, from the old one. It was a magnificent woven rug of many colors. “To turn her tears of sorrow into tears of joy and pride in her son, who has proven he is a brave, returning to her in honor and high regard,” the grandmother said, clasping his hand for a moment.