A cry from his mother rolled Black Beaver out of his warm bed furs. She stood outside the tepee, facing the mountains and pointing. There on the highest slopes of the tallest mountain, the one that his people considered sacred, was the sign they had waited to see—the wind and sun had shaped the snow into the form of a giant dove in flight. It meant that today he would climb up to search for White Horse, his grandfather, who had been trapped by a late spring blizzard. But how could the old one have survived up there alone for almost two weeks? the boy wondered. There seemed little hope of finding him alive now.
Black Beaver appeared calm as he prepared for the dangerous mission, but his heart hammered and his hands were moist and slippery. Was it the fear of failing, a dread of the unknown, or a combination of both? His younger brothers and sisters watched big-eyed and solemn as their mother handed him a backpack containing food, furs, and a coil of rope. “I—I wish you did not have to go alone,” his mother murmured, touching his dusky cheek.
Black Beaver wished, too, that it were not so. He had told no one, not even his family, about his fear of heights. He felt sure that White Horse had never understood why his eldest grandson refused to climb to the summit to fast and meditate as his ancestors had always done when they were troubled. “It is a place of incredible beauty and peace. It soothes the turmoil in a man’s spirit. Don’t you have faith in the ways of your people? Why do you turn away from the old ways?” his grandfather had asked.
The miserable youth had not replied. There were no words. How could he explain that he was both drawn and repelled by the mountain? He had seen his father and other relatives return from the summit renewed in spirit, a look of awe and serenity on their faces. How he envied them! The experience was one he yearned to share, but he always failed to reach even the timberline. He was not cowardly about other things, but he could not fight the choking panic that tightened his throat and shut off his breath. But could he now, to rescue his beloved grandfather? He wished that he had that much courage!
The youth had hunted on the lower slopes all his life, so he was familiar with the trails and made good time. He had not looked back to wave to his family, wanting to appear braver than he felt. The rising sun was warm on his back, but he dreaded the numbing cold and fierce winds that raked the mountain above the trees. He had heard about the trials necessary to reach the top, including the thin air that made the lungs ache. He pushed back the fear with thoughts of White Horse and climbed faster.
It was noticeably colder as Black Beaver stopped to rest his aching leg and shoulder muscles. He stared up at the snow and remembered his grandfather’s warning, “Never climb the mountain until the melting snow forms an outline of a soaring white dove, or you may be caught in a slide or some bottomless crevasse where the ice never melts. Always skirt the snow and follow the handholds and footholds around the bird’s left wing and you will be safe.”
Safe, the youth thought yearningly, trying not to look down. But it hadn’t been safe for White Horse even though the dove had flown when the old man climbed up for what he expected might be the last time. The raging blizzard had swept across the heights and trapped him. The dove was not visible on the morning they had waited for his return, and it had remained hidden until today. Suppose the bird vanished again in the night!
Black Beaver was hours above the timberline when he made his camp between boulders that blocked winds that tore at him. He looked down at the floor of the valley, hoping to see his family’s cooking fire, but it was too far away. He knew how anxiously they must have watched the mountain all day and it made him feel less lonely. This was the highest he had ever been and he was too numb and too exhausted to be frightened. He fell asleep in the heavy furs that had been too hot during the first part of his climb. Above him the giant white dove seemed to stir its wings as the snow glistened in the light of a full moon.
It was almost noon the next day when Black Beaver saw fresh moccasin tracks edging the snow. Grandfather has survived the blizzard! White Horse lives! thought the boy. Then he shuddered, remembering how many times he had dangled like a spider twirling on its web, out over the sheer drop to the bottom. Despite ancient notches carved in the stone face of the mountain, Black Beaver knew that without the rope he would not have made it to the top. The thin air made him drowsy and confused so that he often lost sight of the footholds his grandfather could follow in the dark. But he had done it and survived, and, somehow, White Horse had survived too.
The dove was disappointing up close. It was nothing more than a huge expanse of deep snow trapped in a vast fissure.
Black Beaver decided to rest for a moment. He was startled a short time later by his grandfather’s voice gently chiding, “Are you going to sit there and doze within just a few feet of the most soul-stirring sight you will ever see?” As the boy moved, White Horse cautioned, “Careful! Don’t leap up or you will go tumbling down into the valley.”
“You look well, Grandfather—for one who has been trapped up here for so long,” Black Beaver said boldly, as the thought occurred to him that he might have been tricked into the climb. He sniffed the air. “I smell food cooking!” he added incredulously. “Or have the heights made me delirious?”
White Horse arose stiffly and motioned his grandson to follow. The old one lumbered along like a bear in heavy fur garments Black Beaver had never seen before. Were they kept here for the final part of the climb? he wondered.
Black Beaver stopped and stared. “A cave! And it is stocked with many supplies. You were never in any real danger!” the boy accused grimly, thinking of his hazardous and needless climb. “You could have survived here for many more weeks or even climbed down, once the blizzards had passed!”
“Yes, but then you might never have seen the world from this mountain height as you longed to do,” White Horse said softly. “This one fear might have remained throughout your life and would probably have led to others. I had to trick you and force you to conquer the fear as my father tricked me so many years ago. I understood your fight more than you realized. I experienced all the same agonies and self-doubts as a youth. Now you have won. Come and eat with me.”
“No. First I must stand on the summit and feel the same beauty and awe as my ancestors,” Black Beaver said decisively. “Now that fear is no longer knotted around my throat like a rope, I am free. I will climb this and many other mountains throughout my life—thanks to the wisdom of White Horse.”