Warmed by the medicine man’s healing fire inside the earthen lodge, Little Wind’s all-day vigil is over. For the valiant heart of the old buffalo—injured in a senseless and shameful slaughter two days before—is still beating.
Curled against the shaggy warmth of the great beast, the exhausted boy dreams of the sky people, then sleeps …
The first long, frosted slivers of light pierced the night sky over the tablelands. Ten Days Walking stepped out of his tepee, pulled a buffalo robe around him, and headed toward the earthen lodge. He entered quietly and stood for a long moment in the little bit of night still hiding inside, his eyes upon Little Wind, his son, who lay asleep with his head pillowed against the old buffalo. The ancient beast’s sides no longer rose and fell with a steady cadence.
Ten Days Walking stepped closer and put his ear to the animal’s side, but there was no heartbeat.
Little Wind stirred, then awoke. The look on his father’s face told him all he feared to know. His dark eyes widened and studied the creature beside him, then his vision was blurred by a thin veil of tears. “He only sleeps, Father.” Little Wind whispered with wishful uncertainty.
“It is the long sleep, my son,” Ten Days Walking uttered with reverent matter-of-factness. “The Great Spirit has called it home.”
“But I prayed so hard. It cannot be!” Little Wind buried his face in the old creature’s soft fur and wept.
Ten Days Walking sat down beside the boy and leaned back against the still warm bison. Gently and slowly he ran his large hand through Little Wind’s long hair, then he spoke. “Was it not this great one’s time, small warrior?” he asked. “No man or beast can remain on this earth place beyond his given time. This old four-legged had fathered countless of its kind and given much majesty and dignity to Mother Earth. Would it not perhaps be wrong now, maybe even selfish, to deny it its blessed rest?”
Little Wind could not—even in his pain—deny the simple wisdom of his father’s words. He nodded through his tears and snuggled himself against the big warrior who enclosed him in his great robe.
For a long while Little Wind watched the new light grow brighter in the lodge, spilling down through the hole in the center of the thatched roof and shedding its glow on the old buffalo. Then he muttered softly, “Grandfather says that life is like a blossom and that death is like the flower unfolding. What does he mean, Father?”
Ten Days Walking smiled knowingly. “Red Owl Watching means that to become like the Great Spirit, we must first become like a little child, like a … blossom … that opens into its greater self in the brighter light of heaven.”
Little Wind looked confused. Ten Days Walking’s smile broadened and he went on. “What your grandfather means is that he is anxious to leave his earth lodge and enter the great lodge of your Father and mine and to share in the wondrous things that await every valiant warrior who has served his Creator well.”
Little Wind didn’t know if he felt better because of his father’s strong arms around him or because of his wise counsel. Maybe it was both. Whatever it was, it was something to cling to every time his eyes returned to the old buffalo or to the lodge where his Grandfather, Red Owl Watching, lay in a long illness. “Will Grandfather die soon also?” he wondered out loud.
Ten Days Walking held his smile. There was a sadness in his voice at the thought of the old man’s leaving, but also the sound of hope. “Yes, it will very soon be his time. But as time rushes by like wind over a bird’s wing, my son, we will soon be together again. It is all part of a very wise plan.”
It was Little Wind’s unusual compassion and regard for the buffalo that caused his father to give the old four-legged special consideration. A great scaffold was prepared and its body carried on a litter to the sacred burial grounds that stood on the high jagged cliffs above the village. It was the first time such a thing had been done for any but a Sioux in the history of their people.
Little Wind climbed the steep trail in the icy November wind to the top of the butte to pay final tribute to the old buffalo. He watched as the mighty beast was hoisted up onto the scaffold, covered with furs, and secured with rope. Little Wind’s mother and little sister, Night Fawn, along with a few other village women, heaped brambles at the base of the scaffold to keep away wild animals. Then Ten Days Walking and the others left Little Wind alone to express his mourning.
When the sun had made its journey across the heavens, Little Wind turned from the wind-lashed scaffold and descended the darkened mesa to the village below.
In the days and weeks that followed, driving prairie rains beat unmercifully upon the little Sioux lodges. Winds howled and thunder boomed like the white soldiers’ cannons. Little Wind sat huddled in his family’s tepee, listening to the strange, wonderful stories spun by his grandfather from within the immense warm hides of his sickbed. The stories were of great battles fought and fine prizes won long, long ago.
Then one day came the great white silence. Little Wind pushed back the door flap and gazed upon it, wide-eyed. Winter had come in all its chilly white grandness.
The boy pulled his fur wrappings tightly about himself and stepped out, marveling at this shivering white Eden. Nothing stirred, and there was not a single footprint or track in sight. Mine will be the very first! he thought as he moved forward across the crusted snow.
The sun had just begun to rise above the huge white cliffs and had sprayed a silvery glow of near-blinding brightness over the valley mist. Suddenly his breathless wonderment was broken by the frightened whinnying of the village horses. He looked through the misty light toward the corral at the far end of the lodges. Vague, ghostly shapes moved stealthily among the ponies. They were the shapes of warriors warmly dressed against the weather … but not of his tribe!
Little Wind dashed quickly and silently into the tepee and shook his father from his sleep. “Father!” he cried in a loud whisper. “There are strangers in our village!”
Ten Days Walking sprang to his feet, grabbed a buffalo horn club and shield hanging next to his war medicine bundle, and bolted outside. He shouted an alarm to the other sleeping villagers.
Red Owl Watching strained up onto an elbow. “Young Shoshones,” he uttered in a raspy, unworried voice. “They come to take our horses, not to take scalps.” He arched his neck and gazed up at Little Wind, who stood tensely by the door. “It is the way of things. It is honorable to take ponies from an enemy tribe and return triumphant to your village. It shows much courage and brings dignity to any young warrior.”
Little Wind’s mother looked harshly at the old warrior in the ermine blanket. “We cannot let our horses be taken just so some young Shoshone brave can paint victory marks on his leggings, old man! Without our ponies we will—”
Red Owl Watching chuckled and placed a quivery, reassuring hand on Laughing Water’s arm, then beamed at Little Wind. “It is also honorable for a young Sioux brave to disgrace a Shoshone brave.”
“How is this done, Grandfather?” Little Wind questioned.
The ancient Indian broke into a toothless grin. “Simply by keeping him from stealing a Sioux pony.”
“And how is that best done?” Little Wind pressed eagerly.
“It is best done quickly!” was the reply.
Little Wind was gone in the shake of a pony’s tail. Laughing Water argued with motherly concern, “He’s still a boy, old man!”
Again Red Owl Watching softly patted the woman’s arm. “Yes. But do boys learn to become men just by listening to tales of valor, or must they at some point take part in those deeds that lift them beyond themselves to that high, noble place of manhood?”
Laughing Water twisted her face. Can I never win an argument with this old one? she wondered. “Must you always be so wise?” she asked aloud.
The toothless grin once again returned to the old face. “Old age does have its rewards, good mother.” Then the two peered outside through the hide flap where the village was alive with warmly outfitted combatants. The warriors were dashing in and out in a ragged pattern, waving stone clubs and feathered lances. But as Red Owl Watching had testified, there was no noticeable desire to inflict grave injury upon each other. They were just taking coup—the touching or striking of an armed enemy with a lance or any other object and getting away unscratched. It was a deed far more noble than taking a scalp or inflicting a fatal injury.
Ten Days Walking had jumped atop the corral fence and had leaped onto a mounted Shoshone, wrestling man and animal to the ground. The enemy’s horse whirled about wild-eyed, then crashed into and broke a section of fence. Eighteen of the tribe’s twenty-two fine ponies, spooked by all the excited hoots and frenzied activity, plunged through the opening in the crude fence and disappeared into the mist. And with the fading sound of exiting, pounding hooves filling his concerned ears, Ten Days Walking quickly whacked his foe with his shield and sent him sprawling among the four remaining ponies. One of them, the warrior chief’s great buffalo runner, whirled by instinct toward the grounded Shoshone and nickered defiantly. The frightened Shoshone scrambled to his feet and ran off. Ten Days Walking hooted victoriously and gestured tribute to his war-horse. Then he plunged back into the fray.
At the same time, Little Wind darted in a low run through the tinseled fog, scooped up a broken lance, and leaped onto the back of an enemy brave who had pinned down a Sioux tribesman. Holding both ends of the lance in his hands, Little Wind quickly looped it over the Shoshone’s head and pressed it tightly against his throat. The Indian abandoned his grip, yelled angrily, and toppled over backward onto Little Wind, his wolf headdress falling off in the process. Before the startled would-be horse thief could get a fair look at his boy attacker, Little Wind had vanished with his prize, the wolf headdress, into the frozen brushwood.
By now the whole village was swarming with armed Sioux men, and even some of the women were wielding bone clubs and whatever else they could come up with. And the small band of hapless Shoshones, seeing themselves hopelessly outnumbered, reluctantly mounted their ponies and fled in shame, rubbing their wounds and suffering the sting of injured pride.
Joyous shouts burst forth in splendid unison from every lodge in the little community. But there was still an important matter to be attended to—recovering the tribe’s eighteen ponies. They would have to be found quickly before they were adopted by another tribe or before gathering clouds ushered in another storm.
Ten Days Walking sprang onto his buffalo runner and hastily instructed three braves nearby to get the three remaining horses and assist him in the hunt. Then he glanced at Little Wind with a flash of pride that seemed to lift the boy ten feet off the ground. After all, was it not he who first warned the village of the presence of an enemy tribe? And was not that a Shoshone headdress hanging from his belt?
The boy watched his father’s horse plunge away into the frigid whiteness. Then he started back toward his tepee, anxious to share the story of his first coup with his mother, grandfather, and little sister. But he had only gone a few steps when someone pulled at his arm. It was Yellow Fox, a village boy. “Your pony is gone too,” he said excitedly. “I saw it run away when the Shoshones first came!”
“My father will find it, with the others,” Little Wind responded confidently.
“He’ll not find your pony!” Yellow Fox insisted. “I saw your horse go toward the high rock county. Your father and the others rode off in another direction. They’ll not find your pony. But maybe a Shoshone will.”
Little Wind gazed anxiously toward the great mountains veiled in glacial mist. His pony had been given to him as a gift by his father before the big hunt. It was priceless to him. He had to find it before the next storm or he might never see it again. If he hurried, he could be back before his mother even knew he was gone. If he waited for his father to return with the horses, it might be too late. I’m well dressed against the weather in this big otter coat Mother made me, he assured himself. Besides, my pony probably hasn’t gone very far.
Little Wind pulled his wrappings snugly around him, gave a quick glance toward his tepee, and hurried off in the direction of the hoofprints in the snow.
What Little Wind did not know was that a new storm was gathering just beyond the mesas. Hidden behind the fog, it crouched like some huge, nameless beast ready to lunge across the sky and engulf anyone or anything careless enough to leave the fires of home.
(To be concluded.)