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Authors: Frederick Manfred

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BOOK: Conquering Horse
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Owl Above appeared in the midst of the dogs, still naked, angrily waggling his maple knurl. He saw where the dogs looked. He too stared up into the cottonwood. Light from the flickering fat flames gave his eyes the glowing sharpness of a bobcat.

Full Kettle ran up. “Where is he?” she cried. “Where is this thief who would rob a maiden of her trading goods?”

Braided heads began to poke out of the door flaps all around the camp circle. “What is it?” some cried. Most eyes were pink with sleep. Some looked on with open mouths.

Full Kettle saw them. “There is a hymen thief in the tree!” she shrilled. “He tried to steal our daughter’s price!”

“Woman, hold thy tongue!” Owl Above commanded. “There is already enough shame in our lodge.”

Full Kettle looked at a certain tepee on the west end of the camp circle. “I see that our old chief sleeps through all the noise. Perhaps he is very tired from having given a new name to the son of Speaks Once.”

Owl Above roared, “Woman, hold thy tongue! Dogs, be silent! Someone is in the tree, yet how can he be heard in all the noise?”

Just then the fat in the fire gave out, and darkness, more intense than before, swooped in again.

“Ai!” Full Kettle wailed. “Now he will get away.”

Owl Above cursed. “Woman, back to thy bed. I will bind our daughter again. I will tie the dogs to the tree to hold the thief safe until morning. Go.” And grumbling, throwing aside his warclub, he lashed the four dogs to the roots of the cottonwood. Upon that all the doors around the camp circle flapped shut again.

No Name sat very still in the tree. He trembled like a squirrel waiting for a hunter’s arrow to find him.

The dogs slowly quieted down. Presently No Name heard the mutter of low talk in the tepee below. He guessed it was Owl Above busy repairing the cut thongs and retying Leaf to the stakes.

He heard Leaf protesting. There was a low sibilant reply. Then Leaf said, loud and clear, “My mother, my father will not let me go outside and sit a moment.”

At that Owl Above let out a roar again. “Woman, stay in thy bed! Daughter, wait until morning! I have said.”

Silence.

No Name sat crouched inside his fur robe. His thoughts were as black as the night. In the morning the lynx-eyed boys would help Owl Above spot him in the leaves. What laughter there’d be. The whole camp would go into a laughing fit over this son
of a great chief who as yet had no name and who was foolish enough to get caught in a tree. Ae, and the loudest to laugh would be Circling Hawk.

He sat very still in the rustling tree. A wind moved down from the north bluffs. It stirred the outer leaves, finally touched his brow. There was the smell of a far-off place in it, of ice and snow. The white giant of the north was at last awakening out of his long summer sleep. Slowly No Name stiffened up. Gradually he fell into a stupor.

Just before dawn, suddenly, as if startled in sleep by a bad dream, a certain she-dog gave an agonized yelp. The yelp awoke her and she broke into a prolonged yowling cry. The cry then awoke the other dogs around the camp circle, and before the echo of it came back from the hills, they joined in, one by one, soulful, piercing. It was a crying from a dark time, all of it discordant. It rose to such a pitch that No Name’s ears began to bellow with it. It roused him out of his stupor.

After a moment, blinking, shivering, he decided he ought to take advantage of the horrible clamor and do something about getting down out of the tree.

Carefully, somewhat stiffly, he crept along the limb. Bark broke off in his hand. Once a soft-center twig snapped in two.

He came to the main trunk, a massive corrugated bulk. He felt around it for another limb higher up. In so doing his hand came upon a thick grapevine. It was only then that he remembered how late in the Moon of Ripe Corn he and his friend Strikes Twice had climbed the cottonwood to pick wild grapes. The vine reached almost to the top of the tree. Quickly, while the yowling still owhed and owhed in echoing waves below him, he climbed the gnarled vine until he found where it divided in two. He broke off the smaller of the two branches, jerked it free of the bark and twigs, then going out on a limb on the west side, away from the four dogs, fastened one end to the limb and let the other down to the ground. He knotted the robe around his
waist, then eased himself off the limb, catching at the dangling vine with his legs. He let himself slide down, slowly, surely, letting his toes, then his hands, find their own way. Hand over hand he lowered himself down through the rustling leaves, down into the howling darkness.

The moment his toes touched ground he ran leaping for his father’s lodge.

The old she-dog was the first to quit howling. In a moment, the other dogs fell out after her, one by one. The raucous concert gradually died away. A strange unearthly silence followed.

6

The next morning when No Name saw Leaf and her mother heading down the valley with baskets on their arms, he painted two red circles around his eyes and stole after them. The two women followed the path by the River of the Double Bend. The path curved north away from Falling Water, went through a thicket of red willows, climbed a bench of grassy land, and descended into a narrow ravine coming down out of the north bluffs. The ravine was the place where many fat rosebuds grew.

No Name followed them into the tangled bushes. The two women sometimes had to creep on hands and knees to get through, going down tiny narrow paths made by grouse and gophers. Full Kettle glanced back several times, but on each occasion No Name managed to duck out of sight in time, once in a washout and another behind a red stone.

The two women picked along, talking. Every now and then their talk erupted into laughter. No Name knew what they were laughing about. And he understood why Full Kettle might make
merry about his undignified flight up the tree in the dark cold night, but not Leaf.

He stole after them, eyes glittering.

The sun rose slowly.

He heard Leaf exclaim about something. Carefully he parted the tangled brush, pushing until the furzy pricks stung him through the buckskin shirt.

Leaf was holding up a turtle by its stub tail. It was about the size of a man’s full hand. The turtle’s knob head kept poking around while its feet clawed air.

“It will make good soup,” Full Kettle said. “Owl Above will like it.”

Leaf laughed at its antics.

“Why do you laugh, my daughter?”

“It reminds one of how men are, my mother.”

Full Kettle looked down at the turtle a moment, then laughed too, her face wrinkling on either side of her pocked nose. “My daughter knows too many things for a maiden.”

Leaf gave her mother a wise look. “Thy daughter was given eyes to see with, my mother.”

“My daughter, remember, we are a family which has not yet had one bad woman in it.”

“I have that which no man has yet touched.”

“No man?”

“My mother, man has yet to put pestle to my mortar.”

“It is good. Come, the sun rises. Owl Above will be hungry if we do not work. Fill your basket and then we will return.”

“My mother, it is your basket that needs filling.”

No Name watched Leaf’s slim tough fingers search along the vines. Swiftly they caught up handfuls of rose hips. He admired her nimble fingers. She worked with her back to him and all he could see of her was the painted part of her black hair and her moving plucking fingers. Watching her, his eyes filled with involuntary tears. He loved the round back of her head.

At high noon Full Kettle said she was tired. “Let us eat a little of the pemmican we took with us.”

“Father waits, my mother.”

“We have picked many rose berries. Also, sometimes your father says I am a lazy squaw. Well, then I shall be a lazy squaw this once.”

They sat against a pink boulder. The sun shone on them. It was suddenly warm after the frosty night. They nibbled at the pemmican. They brushed sweat from their brows. After a time Leaf loosened the thongs across her chest and drew her dress down over her shoulders and arms, exposing her breasts to the sun.

Full Kettle sighed. “Me. Water. I wish.”

“I will get you some,” Leaf said, springing up. “Also, I will take my bath for the day.”

“Do that. I will sleep a little sleep.”

No Name watched her slip light-footed down the slope toward the river. No Name smiled to himself. At last his time had come. He followed her silently down the other side of the ravine.

He hid behind a fringe of wild plum trees. A few late plums hung dotted among the yellowing leaves. He watched her step out of her clothes on the golden beach. He had stroked her with her clothes on many times and knew her to be as lovely as mourning doves, but watching her now poised on her toes in the bright sunlight he knew her to be as lovely as tufted redbirds. Where the sun struck her thighs her flesh was exactly the hue of polished pipestone. Her tufty loins resembled a blackbird about to lift into flight. A torment of passion smoked in him. He watched her cup water over her redbird breasts. He watched the water stream down her belly.

He slipped out of his clothes. He picked two of the dark ripe plums and tiptoed toward her. He held his fingers to his lips to warn her not to cry out. He was halfway across the soft sand when a pebble squeaked under his big toe. She flashed a look
up and around. “Oo-ee!” she cried, low. Then she saw his fingers pressed to his lips and quickly clapped palm to mouth.

He paused, ear cocked for the wild rosebushes above them, waiting to see if the little cry had awakened her mother. Both stood listening, he still on tiptoe on the pink-gold sand, she in water up to her knees. When no sound came from above, their eyes opened warmly on each other.

He threw her one of the plums. She caught it and blushed a dusky red.

He ate his plum. She ate hers.

He desired her, openly. She wondered at his manliness, openly. The sun was warm upon them. He toed to the edge of the flowing water. “Are you looking for pretty clams?”

She looked at the circles of vermilion painted around his eyes. She pretended the circles made him look very fierce. “Swimming in the river will wash them away.”

“Looking at the maiden I want as my wife has made me forgetful.”

She looked at him full again and then looked down. “I speak with my face the other way.”

He took a step toward her. Water ran cold over his toes. “Your mother will sleep long. We have the whole day yet.”

She stepped away from him into the water, until it rose doubling over her thighs, hiding her. “Remember, I have that which no man has yet touched.”

He smiled thickly. “You have used sorcery on me. I cannot help myself. You have taken part of me and eaten me and now I desire to have myself back. I cannot help myself. I have said.” “Tomorrow you will sing about me.”

He stepped deeper into the water, until a doubling wave also washed over his hips. “I have come to you.”

“Have you?”

“I have seen a young maiden who looks so beautiful to me I feel sick when I think about her.”

“Do you?” She stood with her feet straight and close together,
her palms pressed tightly against her thighs. “Have you brought ten horses?” She pretended to look for them up on the bank. “My father says he cannot let me go until he has seen ten horses before his door.”

“But I cannot have my father’s horses until my guardian spirit has come to me in a vision.”

A smile moved across her brown moon face. The pink of her lips was exactly the pink of her fingernails. “You will tire of me soon and put me aside. Thus I want some property for the day when you do.”

He stepped closer. Gliding threads of water tickled the inside of his legs. “Marry me. When father dies we will have many horses.”

“You will marry without a vision?”

He placed his hands on her welling hips. Under the water her skin was as smooth as waterworn stone. “Come.”

She laughed at him. “My lover has wings.” She trembled under his hand. The urging water pushed them together. “My lover flies into the rustling tree like a crow when danger approaches.”

“I suffer patiently until my anger goes off.”

She leaned away from him, still laughing. “Did you find a place to sleep in a bird nest?”

“It is sometimes good to rest in the great space between heaven and earth.”

He trembled in love for her. Her breasts slept on her chest like curled-up squirrels. She turned her head. Her braids swung with it and settled over her breasts, partially hiding them. The brown eye of each breast peeked out at him. “You will tire of me soon.” “Come, let us fly to my uncle Red Hail. He will be kind to us.”

“Where is your feather?”

“Come, let me use you like a good wife. I wish it. Come.”

“Where is your new name?”

He groaned.

“Sometimes I am glad when I see you. But not always.” She
glanced at his naked chest. “When will you torment yourself?”

He groaned. “The torment I have is already great.”

“Afterwards my father will say to me, ‘Go, sleep again in the holes of the young unmarried men. My daughter, you are not worth an old horse now.’ ”

He looked at the glowing rust of her hair where the sun shone on it. Vermilion lay a deep dusty red down the parting. The smell of wood smoke still lingered in her braids. His right hand stroked her smooth hollow back while his left hand spilled water over her belly. He groaned. “Come. I am naked. I need a wife.”

“My father says that a man should suffer and see a vision first before he lies with a woman. Otherwise he will not become a great man. When he remains a virgin he smells good to the gods. When a man has used a woman he smells bad to the gods.”

“But my guardian spirit will not come to me!” he cried.

“Perhaps your god does not like it that you have the name of No Name.”

“Come, let us fly!”

“Perhaps your god does not like it that you desire me as a husband desires a wife.”

He placed his left hand where no man had touched her before. “Come. I only want a sign from you that you are in earnest that you love me.”

“Ooee!” She cried, startled. Then, with a wild little laugh, she cupped her hands full of water and splashed him in the face. Turning, she dove for the deepest part of the channel. Her black hair lashed back and forth in the water. He stood momentarily blinded; then dove after her. Both swam swiftly. She saw him coming and headed for the other shore. They reached it at the same time and emerged with water spraying golden to all sides. Some of the vermilion around his eyes had washed off. She ran up the bank, shrilling a low wild laugh, one hand over her mouth. He bounded after her, one hand reaching for the wet tail of her hair. She sped for a thicket of red willows higher on the bank. She flew into them. The red withes parted before
her as if by magic. He was but a step behind and the red twigs whipped his red belly as they swung back into place. The red willows deepened and thickened. Her skin blended with the red bark. He watched the tail of her rust-black hair lash back and forth through the yellowing leaves. He caught her by the hair just as the willows opened on a bare patch of glistening pink sand. “Ooee!” she cried, laughing, falling back against him. She quivered when she felt his urgent pressing. “I have you!” he cried. Together they fell to earth. They tumbled over each other a moment. Then he rose over her and pushed his knee between her legs and held her very tenderly. He saw her eyes softening under him. Gleams of black velvet laughter slowly changed to a look of soft red-brown love. Her thighs gave way. Her eyes half closed. Blood rushed to his head. He hardened to the game of love. He thrust at her. “Ooee!” she cried. Her head turned from side to side. She tried to double up under him. Then, again giving way, she abruptly joined with him in a rolling rhythmic rocking. He remembered her holding the small land turtle and his eyes closed and he began to swim under ebbing blood.

BOOK: Conquering Horse
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