Spooked by a ravaging band of Shoshone hunters, Little Wind’s pony has escaped into high rock country. His father, Ten Days Walking, has ridden in another direction with several tribesmen to reclaim a band of village ponies that also fled during the melee.
Fearing that any delay will spoil the chance of catching his pony, Little Wind doesn’t tell his mother of his departure. But he is unaware that beyond the fog-shrouded mesa a giant winter storm is brewing.
Little Wind moved in a hurried, anxious fashion through the deepening drifts of snow. His young eyes eagerly searched the white wilderness beyond the hoof tracks for his stray pony, expecting at any moment to discover the animal patiently waiting for him in the swirls of mist. But as minutes multiplied into hours, all that greeted the boy’s intense anticipation were the dark shapes of some lightning-split scrub oak, a clump of rocks jutting up, or bunches of brushwood scratching together in the new wind.
The wind! It had returned. Its stirrings were barely noticeable at first in the wee rattlings of ice-cloaked underbrush. It was only the piercing chill that invaded even the warmth of Little Wind’s big otter coat that first kindled his awareness of the wind’s growing intensity.
The boy paused to wipe the wintry drippings from his frosted brow and looked with difficulty up the sides of the gigantic ice-blurred mesas. They loomed above him like dark mythical giants that grow out of the smoke and tales spun by the old ones around the great fires. Then Little Wind shuddered at the chilling sight of a formless black cloud mass that loomed over the top of the buttes and out of the mist.
The boy gathered the otter coat more tightly about himself and continued on at an even more urgent pace, all the while feverishly searching for any sign of his pony, whose tracks were now completely obliterated by the snow. He leaned heavily on his sense of hearing to assist him in his search, his ears straining beyond the sound of the crunching beneath his numbed, moccasined feet. But the strident whine of the ghostly wind would have made it impossible to hear the nicker of his pony, even if he were close-by.
More than once Little Wind glanced back over his shoulder through the whirling curtain of ice toward what he guessed was the direction of home. Home. How far away it seemed, farther away even than he was from heaven’s door.
Laughing Water, Little Wind’s mother, stepped out of the family tepee into the howling, icy wind. Worry spread across her countenance like mourning paint. It had been some time since Yellow Fox, himself concerned about his friend’s safety, had informed her of Little Wind’s departure from the village. The awesome skies and unusually cutting winds filled her anxious heart with mounting fear. Even her father-in-law, Red Owl Watching, who was usually optimistic, had lifted himself from his sickbed to gaze with troubled uncertainty. He had seen many frightful storms, but never one such as he now beheld.
Laughing Water had beseeched some of the husbands of the other families to seek out her son, but while they were in full sympathy with her fears and concern, they were without horses. And if they were to venture out into the killing freeze on foot—even a little way—they would most surely perish. Aside from the fact that they had their own families to care for, in the wild swirling snow they would not be able to see their hands in front of their faces, let alone a small boy in an invisible wilderness of driving ice.
Laughing Water brushed the unbidden tears from her dusky cheeks and gave a sidelong glance in the direction taken by Ten Days Walking and the others. His eyes were eagle sharp, even during the foulest weather or throughout the darkest night. She quickly looked back in the other direction, hoping somehow that Little Wind would suddenly appear alive, safe. But the only thing that broke forth from the worsening blizzard was another blast of gale-force wind. Red Owl Watching lifted his raspy, failing voice against the wind and begged Laughing Water to come inside by the fire. “We have enough souls to pray for, good mother. Let it not be that we must pray for you too.” She turned slowly and went inside.
The winds grew wilder still. Little Wind struggled along blindly in the wracking cold, banging his hands together in an effort to keep his blood from freezing up like the tiny prairie streams long since turned to ice. Still he tried to catch some glimpse of his pony, but it was useless. His hands had already become so numb that he could scarcely feel them, and his feet felt as though they were only extensions of his soaked leggings that plodded along through the drifts as if by instinct. The wind tore through his otter coat like a great spear. And everywhere shards of flying ice were so thick that he could not tell where he was going or where he had been.
Little Wind stumbled a few more feet, turning one way, then another. Whirling around to escape the stinging ice, he lost his footing, tripped over a small log fall, and collapsed in the snow. He tried to pull himself up, but a rushing wind slammed against him. In a moment the snow began to cover the small fallen form.
Ten Days Walking and the other braves had at last returned to the village, chilled but successful. Their scattered horses had been recovered. As the Sioux chief dismounted, Laughing Water clutched at his heavy wraps, tearfully recounting the story of Little Wind’s flight into the storm after his pony. Ten Days Walking wrapped his big furs back about his face so that only his eyes were visible, eyes filled with concern and fear. He mounted his buffalo runner again and faced the screaming storm. How can I possibly save Little Wind? he wondered sadly. It had been only with great difficulty that he and the other braves were able to find their village! And the storm was now so incredibly furious that he wondered if even the Great Spirit could find his boy. He reeled his horse around, eyed Laughing Water with stinging emotions, and pitched headlong into the savage white squall.
Little Wind lay beneath a cloak of snow. Still alive, yet unable to move, and on the edge of slipping off into a final, frozen sleep, his thoughts—untouched by the weather—raced home to his father’s fires, his mother’s steaming broth, and the warmth of loved ones pressing near. And with these warm memories, he was ready to make his final journey to the land of the Sky People, who lived beyond the fury of the wind and the thrashing winter blasts, a place where the sun shone forever and the plains were green and fine. He could almost see it now. Surely, he thought, I am on my way to heaven.
He dared to open one eye, just a little. And in his delirium he seemed to see something through the falling snow. It was a glow! Could it really be the welcoming fire in the village of the gods? Yet he had not left mother earth, for the storm still raged about him.
The light grew brighter, nearer. Little Wind opened both eyes, looking with awe and disbelief. The glow came from … an animal! It was the old buffalo that he had befriended in the great four-legged’s final hours, the one with the broken horn and the ghostly blue eyes! Little Wind looked harder, scarcely able to believe what his eyes were beholding—a white glow in a white wind. “The spirit of the great four-legged!” he muttered as the bison seemed to drift nearer still, its pale blue eyes watching the boy in the snow.
In his mind, Little Wind started to question the animal’s presence. Why would the old buffalo … ?
Suddenly his father’s words, spoken to him on the great hunt when he had pleaded compassionately for the bison, came back to him as if on the wind. “Such kindness,” Ten Days Walking had promised with prophetic surety, “will one day return itself upon you, my son, whether this old four-legged lives or dies. And this because of the goodness of your heart.”
The huge animal figure, still immersed in a strange glowing light, paused a moment before Little Wind then lay down beside him, its great fur coat engulfing the boy like a blanket of heavenly warmth.
Ten Days Walking plowed forward on a prayer through the raw, heaving weather, his cries for his son muffled by the louder cry of the wind. Suddenly he pulled up, for in the lee of a jack pine he saw the outline of a figure under the snow, one so clearly seen that it was almost as though a light pointed toward it.
Ten Days Walking piled off his horse and scooped Little Wind up into his arms. He quickly bundled the boy inside his furs. But how odd, he thought, that the boy still feels so warm! He wiped tears of thanksgiving from his eyes and stood there in the storm, thanking the Great Spirit for the life of his son.
After a moment, Little Wind spoke softly. “Did you see the light, Father? It was the spirit of the old buffalo. I saw him. The Great One sent him to keep me warm until you could find me.”
The mighty Sioux warrior chief hugged his son with matchless pride, lifted his head heavenward in the fury, and cried out his gratitude with a reverence Little Wind had never heard before. Then Ten Days Walking mounted his horse with Little Wind beneath his wrappings, gave the buffalo runner its lead, and let instinct carry it in the direction of home.
Little Wind never found his pony, but that day his testimony of the love of the Great Spirit soared as high as the eagles. Two weeks later his grandfather’s spirit made its journey to the lodge of the Great One. Fifteen years later, Little Wind would take his father’s place as chief of the tribe. And the story of that day, when the spirit of the old buffalo came to a young Sioux boy to return life for life, would be told and retold around the fires of every Indian nation for generations to come.