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Authors: Frederick Manfred

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BOOK: Conquering Horse
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Again Thunder Close By, the crier, made the rounds of the camp, roaring out more orders for the day. “Clean up! Our helper the sun is here again. Clean up!” Almost immediately Star along with all the other women in camp bustled about,
dragging out the sleeping robes to give them an airing and sweeping the grass floors with rush brooms. They rooted out the mice and their nests, with eager yipping dogs killing as many as the women. The women next rolled up the leather bottoms of the tepees a foot to let the air pass through and freshen the interior. Mothers also checked over the little children, examining them for lice, redoing their braids, looking for dirt in the ears. All the while Thunder Close By kept up his roaring, making the rounds four times to make sure all the laggards had been routed out. “Clean up! Our helper the sun has come again. Clean up!”

At last Redbird looked at No Name. “My son, the horses wait and the night herder wishes to be relieved. Take Swift As Wind and bring her to the best grass with the other horses. Let her have water where it runs cool and clear.”

“I will go, my father.”

While Star packed his lunch in a heartskin, No Name drew on his clothes: clout and leggings and buckskin shirt and fresh moccasins. He tested the string on his bow, culled out the better arrows, slung bow and quiver over his back.

Just then there was a cry outside. The cry was of such a nature that No Name, Redbird, Star, all three, started. Their eyes became suddenly the glittering eyes of alert wolves.

Redbird rose up from his back-rest with a rush, poked his head out through the doorflap.

“What is it, my father? What do you see?”

After a moment Redbird heaved a huge sigh and withdrew his head. He gave his son a sad twisted look.

No Name looked for himself.

There, from behind the council lodge in the center of the camp, came Circling Hawk’s fat mother, Soft Berry, leading a string of ten handsome ponies, some black, some red, a few spotted. Nose high, puffed up with haughty pride, casting a scornful look in No Name’s direction, she paraded by. A troop of handsome young men followed her, trailing elegant elkhorn quirts, fluttering, chuckling, favoring the ladies with sheep’s eyes.
All came from Circling Hawk’s warrior society. She waddled up to Leaf’s tepee and with a stone hammer pounded a stake into the ground near the door. She picketed all ten of the horses to it and then spoke into the door. “We put our kindness before you so that you will remember it. We have a son who wishes to marry your daughter. We are poor, humble, therefore we have but ten horses. We know the value of your daughter and would, had we the wealth of a great chief, give a hundred horses for her. Remember us. I have said.” Then, with a final look of haughty triumph in No Name’s direction, she walked back to her tepee.

No Name was sick. Ten ponies! Leaf’s father and mother would surely accept the offer of marriage.

No Name turned. Quickly grabbing up his lunch, he ran around behind the tepee, loosened the picket rope, and leaped bareback on Swift As Wind. The red-spotted pony needed but a touch of the heel and they were off with a gathering clatter of hooves.


He sat alone on a high hill. It was noon, and as warm as summer again. Below him, in the bend of the river, the ponies grazed, some two hundred of them, sleek blacks, sun-burnished bays, lively sorrels, here and there a gray, with only a dozen or so of the most prized of all, spotted horses. Further along the bluff, northwest, sat another Yankton lad, No Name’s friend White Fingernail. He too sat watching a herd of horses. All the horses had just had their fill of water and were back to cropping grass in the meadow.

Far off to the north, where the River of the Double Bend made its last big turn before finally heading south to the Great Smoky Water, stood their camp. No Name could just barely make out the smoke-blackened tops of the tepees, all tilted slightly to the west the better to slip the prevailing winds. There was a shimmer in the hazy air, and sometimes the whole camp seemed to shift back and forth, as if the earth beneath were quaking. Sometimes too he could make out the children playing in the streaming red cataracts.

Like a wild animal ever alert for signs of danger, he watched on all sides. The Pawnees were known to make raids even in broad daylight. They were experts in picking exactly the right moment in which to sweep off a band of horses. He savored each bird call in his ear to make sure it was a true bird call. He studied every puff of wind in the tall grass. He examined with close attention the whistling of the gopher and the soft rustling passage of the rattlesnake.

After a while he felt sleepy. His lunch lay heavy on his stomach. He waved to his friend White Fingernail to watch both herds while he took a nap.

No Name placed his bow and quiver near to hand and lay on his belly on the hard ground. Eyes focusing up close, he spotted a red ant trying to drag the husk of a beetle four times its size through a clump of short grass. No Name watched the red ant for a while, finally decided it was stupid. A little to the right or the left and it could have had a clear path.

The shimmer of a fragile web next caught his eye. It hung just above where the red ant struggled in the clump of grass. He decided a spider was probably lurking nearby, set to pounce. He ran his eye up and down each blade of grass, finally spotted it. The spider had drawn itself up into a tiny ball in imitation of a head of seed.

He waited. He watched through half-closed eyelids. The spider stirred once, its movement resembling the twitching of an opening seed bud. He waited. And waiting, fell asleep.

A sound coming by way of the ground gradually woke him. Something was wrong. His eyes opened on the shimmering spider web, now but the length of a finger from his nose. Slowly he rolled over, pretending to be lazy, like a puppy casually lolling in the sun. He picked up his bow, strung it, took an arrow from his quiver, got set to leap to his feet. His eyes flicked from side to side, then all around.

He saw nothing. His friend White Fingernail still sat in stony repose on the far hill, intent upon the horses in the valley below.
The pony Swift As Wind was also at ease, cropping quietly in a coulee immediately below.

He sat up, quickly threw a look at the swale south of the hill, then around at all the horizons. The only thing different was the sky. The haze was gone. The wind had gone around to the north and all objects were now clear and sharp to the eye. His mother had been right to say that ducks southing meant cold was coming. He got to his feet, catching his quiver over his shoulder.

He waved to White Fingernail, received a wave in reply. He wasn’t satisfied. Something was still wrong. He walked a few steps back and forth, eyes glittering, examining everything closely, even the still things. The twoleggeds and the fourleggeds and the wingeds were easy to account for. It was the still things that were sometimes treacherous.

A meadowlark cheered from the twig of a small ash in the swale behind him. “Wake up! there is much to see.” He was about to imitate it for use as a secret call when out spying, when it struck him that the whistling was not quite the true meadowlark call. Ae! that was it. He stepped toward the swale some twenty paces, then called out, “Come up, my father. You are there under the little tree.”

No answer.

He studied the swale closely, blade for blade, watching the north wind stream through the grass. He also studied the stones to see if there might not be one that resembled a humped back. This was to be another of his father’s lessons and he was eager to show him how good he was at reading signs.

He considered. It was a good hour’s walk from camp. His father would hardly walk that far, not as long as he had a good riding horse in the corral behind the willows. That was it. Find the mare, Red Moon, and he would find where Redbird lay hidden.

His eye followed the swale down to where it fell away into a
ravine. The ravine in turn slowly curved east into the river. He decided his father had come in from the east, slipping into the ravine without being seen by White Fingernail and picketing his horse out of sight in the deepest part. Redbird was probably right now peering at him through the tall grass where water from the swale first trickled down into the ravine.

No Name smiled. He fitted an arrow to his bow and drew it back almost to its full length even as he aimed it.

Precisely at that moment Redbird rose in full view, a smile on his face. Redbird waved a hand to indicate the game was off. He stepped back into the ravine, vanishing completely for a moment, then reappeared astride the mare Red Moon, copper-tipped lance held high. A rawhide lariat rolled on his arm. Redbird rode up swiftly. He had not rebraided his hair that day and it streamed behind him as he came on. His black hair and bronzed chest and the black mane and the burnished bay of the horse glowed brightly in the lemon light of the afternoon. The black and bronze of the man and the black and burnished bay of the horse moved as one harmonious aspect of a single creature.

Redbird charged until he was almost on No Name; then, with a quick hauling up of the reins, drew Red Moon in, so sharply that the mare reared, kicking gravel and dust over No Name’s leggings.

No Name jumped back.

Redbird laughed down at his son. “Oho! So a certain son was asleep on his watch, ae?”

No Name laughed back at him. “Ho! So a certain father thought to surprise his son, ae? Yet his son heard him. It was the earth who told of his father’s coming.”

“Ha! I see a certain son has become such a nightwalker that he needs sleep in the day.”

“The meadowlark I heard sang very well.”

“Perhaps this son was seeking a vision while he napped.”

At that No Name’s face clouded over. A vision, ae. And a nightwalker, ae. By now Leaf’s mother and father had probably already accepted Soft Berry’s offer of ten ponies. Perhaps also by
now, at the very moment even, Leaf lay in Circling Hawk’s sleeping robes, cowed and a wife.

No Name did not dare search his father’s face for some hint of what might have happened back at camp. Instead he looked across to where White Fingernail sat watching the horses.

Redbird glanced up at the clear blue sky. “It was here that they came.”

“Who, my father?”

“The Thunders. One day a black cloud came. I went out to meet it, holding up my pipe to it. When I came to this high place, lightning jumped down. I fell on my face, hearing the Thunders roll a great stone across the sky. Then the Thunders spoke to me, telling me to get the green ball from the Porcupine Mountains and make a copper tip of it for my lance. It happened in the spring after my sixteenth winter and ever since I have been eager to smoke the pipe with them again.”

“They will not come today.”

“I am old. My bones make a breaking noise when I run. The Thunders will come some day soon and call on me again. Then they will take me with them.”

“Do not go yet, my father.”

Redbird slipped to the ground with a slow easy motion. He brushed horse hair from his crotch. “Thou art a good horse,” he said, petting Red Moon. The mare arched her head around and nipped playfully at the buckskin fringes of his leggings. Redbird laughed. Redbird loved the bay mare almost as much as he did Swift As Wind. From Red Moon he already had three fine colts, two bays and a black. Redbird’s only regret was she hadn’t dropped him spotted colts instead.

“My son,” Redbird said, right hand toying with the loose ends of his hair, “in the spring when the season of growing comes again, we will trade with our cousins the Teton Dakotas for a white stallion at the fair. We will give them good walnut bows and some redstone pipes for such a white one. The dark gray we have now has not helped much.”

“But such a white one is sacred, my father.”

“We will ask for a white stallion with a black mane. It is the white stallion with a burning mane that one must fear. Such a one is wakan. And with the red eyes.”

No Name fell silent.

Redbird pointed. “White Fingernail’s father has come. Good. Now we will hold a race to see if the slitting of the nose has helped the gelding named Lizard.” Redbird waved across to where White Fingernail and his father Speaks Once stood conversing. They waved back and after a moment began walking toward them.

Redbird had noticed that a certain flashy black gelding got off to a quicker start in a race than any other horse in his bunch. But then, after a couple of hundred yards, the gelding always faded. Redbird had thought much about why such a fine runner could not hold up. He had even consulted holy man Moon Dreamer on the matter. It was when he’d made a close-up inspection that he discovered the cause: the holes in the gelding’s nose were too small. Redbird was handy with the knife both in castration and in skinning, and out of his experience an idea came to him. He ordered the gelding hobbled and dropped on the ground, had him tied securely, and then operated on him, slitting the nostrils open and cutting away the excess flesh and cartilage and skin. He treated the bleeding wounds with an herb ointment. The gelding cried during the operation, much as he’d done when castrated. Afterwards, looking down at the raw nose, No Name had named the gelding Lizard.

White Fingernail and his father, Speaks Once, came striding up. Speaks Once said, “We have come. Has the nose healed?” Speaks Once was a heavy-hipped man with a broad face and thick lips. It was said of both Speaks Once and his son that they resembled the Chippewa, they of the thick lips. Also both he and his son, like Redbird, had the white scars of the sun dance on their chests.

Redbird handed his coiled lariat to No Name. “My son, get the gelding from the herd.”

White Fingernail pointed down at the grazing Swift As Wind. “Who will ride her against Lizard? Shall I?” White Fingernail had often begged for a chance to ride Redbird’s favorite mare.

Redbird smiled. “Come, we will cross the river and hold the race in the meadow below.” He looked at No Name again. “Well, my son, will you catch the gelding you named Lizard?”

No Name stripped down to his clout, tied his braids tight around his head, slung the lariat over his shoulder. Picking a handful of fresh red clover, he walked on silent moccasins toward the herd. He headed into the wind in such a way that the hobbled bell-mare, a gray named Old Wise One, was the first to catch his scent. She smelled him, lifted her head, snuffed again, finally lowered her head, satisfied. Keeping his lariat out of sight, No Name stepped softly on. He pinched the red clover leaves lightly. Almost immediately a sweet scent rose from his fingers. He held the sweet leaves out toward Lizard. A few of the nearer horses lifted their heads quizzically, ears working back and forth. They snuffed, snorted, came forward a few steps, stopped. They stared at him. But Lizard was cagey. He seemed to sense it was he they wanted. The operation on his nose, plus the castration, had made him wary of human beings. Ears down, he snaked out of sight behind the others.

BOOK: Conquering Horse
4.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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