Authors: Kerry Newcomb
Sacred Is the Wind
For Patty, Amy Rose, P.J., and Emily.
o dreams. Only silence of the heart. No song, only waiting. Storms raging over Spirit Mountain, north winds whipped into a tempest, spinning down from the Bitterroots where eagles roost in the crevices of the Great Divide, north wind, new wind, bringing rain to the forests below Spirit Mountain and the village of the Morning Star people who claimed the mountain as their own. The mountain, not the
dwelling there, for who can claim the Spirits. Men can only do their best, can only lift their hearts in prayer and raise their voices to be carried off by the wind. It is for men and women to tread the paths of their days beneath the ghostly scrutiny of the
and the love of the All-Father, the Great Spirit, the Beginning and the End.
In the last days of the buffalo, in the last days of the horse, Panther Burn had done his best. And it had not been enough. His features bunched in concentration as he tried to keep the faces of his friends from returning to his mind.
he muttered. “Go away. Go away.” He turned on his side and dug his shoulder into the bulrush mattress from which he had not moved for the past hour, ever since his father had sent him here to await the verdict of the council. He sighed, deeply, almost a moan. He glanced up, at the entrance to the tipi. Steps sounded, Panther Burn propped himself up on the backrest of willow shoots, waiting for the rawhide flap to be pushed back and the tall lean length of Yellow Eagle, his father, to scramble through. The coals crackled, popped, sent an ember arcing toward him. He caught the glowing morsel and ignoring the pain extinguished it in his palm. He listened as a shadow fell across the entrance, hesitated, then glided past; the footsteps faded. It might have been his mother. For Crescent Moon would never have shamed her son by entering and offering again the venison stew both her husband and Panther Burn had earlier refused. This was not a time for full bellies. Not when, elsewhere in the camp, another mother mourned her dead sons.
Panther Burn dropped the spent coal from his hand. There was an irregular crimson patch of burned flesh in the center of his palm but the pain was nothing compared to the hurt within his heart. Blood trickled toward his fingers, he wiped his hands on his buckskin shirt, the one his mother had made him before he left on the hunt. A warrior's shirt, he had thought then, as now â¦ only now he would have torn it from his body if it weren't for causing his mother grief. And one mother grieving in the camp was enough â¦ all because of him â¦ his pride â¦ his honor.
It began with a hawk.
It was a sprawling land of emerald meadows in those days, a lovely cloud-swept land, a killing ground, a realm of beauty and death. Nothing stirred among the deep thick stands of pine, no glimpse of movement save overall the sudden swift shadow of a hawk. The cry of the hawk rang out over the rolling landscape to dash against the Absarokas in their snowcapped granite robes of silence, the shrill cry returned in a succession of ghostly echoes. It is said that among the craggy battlements where the pine forest gives way to hard barren ground, the spirits wait, walk, dwell, and now and then sit content as if in audience to the deeds of men. It is said, and the Cheyenne believe, that the spirits argue in voices of thunder, they weep in the wind, they slumber in the gentle rains washing the earth in forgetful tears. But on this second morning of the Muddy-Face-Moon, men not
hunted in the foothills of the mighty peaks to the west. Panther Burn of the Spirit Mountain Cheyenne raised his coppery arms in unabashed prayer. He faced the east and thanked the All-Father for the gift of morning. A young man of twenty years, he stood just under six feet tall. His dark black hair hung past his shoulders; a single braid would have been lost in the thickness of his hair had the strand not been interwoven with two gray eagle feathers. His eyes were like flint chips, capable in anger of flashing sparks of light. He was naked to the waist though a beaded medallion fashioned of porcupine quills and blue and white trading beads hung around his neck. He stood strong and lithe in buckskin leggings, breechcloth, and beaded moccasins. His voice rang out, rich in tone, strong and commanding, his invocation cut through the stillness like an arrow in flight. In the deep band of purple-black above the golden glow of sunrise swelling upward from the horizon, a single star continued to flicker as if with a life of its own, joining in this warrior's song of the soul.
“All-Father â¦ thank you for today,” sang Panther Burn as warmth gradually eased into his chilled torso. “Thank you for this new beginning. Thank you for the mountains and the rivers.” He lifted his gaze to the dying dazzling sky jewel overhead. “Thank you for the morning star. Where it sings, I am with my people. I am never alone.” His hand drifted to the medallion against his chest. Within the round patch of stitched buckskin the beads had been worked into a striking design, a square cantered on a corner and set off by four lines, one to a side, radiating outward like rays of lightâthe Morning Star. His hand touched the medallion, gently gripping it as he repeated the song-prayer. When he finished, darkness had been leached from the sky. The March sun offered but a false promise of summer's warmth here in the high country. Panther Burn glanced down at the camp nestled in a pine grove at the base of the hill. Three figures, his companions on the hunt, were up and about, each tending to his own business, each welcoming the morning in his own way. The wind sighed in the buffalo grass, whipping black strands of hair against Panther Burn's cheek. There was power here in the Lonesome. And magic. But Panther Burn was not ready yet to understand the ways of magic and the spirit. He only knew that his heart was filled with life. He felt ready for brave deeds, great heroics that he might join his father in the Dog Soldier Society,
, the bravest of the brave. But Yellow Eagle, his father, had ordered his son and these three others to continue the hunt while the Dog Soldiers carried war to the mighty Crow. What honor was to be gained in the death of
, the deer? Full bellies for the people of his village, yes, but what of the heart, what of the spirit? Heart and spirit know hunger as well. The shadow of the hawk swept up the hillside, passed across the brave, rushed down to lose itself amid the treetops.
An arrow thwacked into the earth at Panther Burn's feet, shattering the young man's moment of reflection. Panther Burn flinched, leaped back, much to the amusement of one of his companions below, who held his bow aloft and shouted up the slope.
“I have counted coup on the panther,” laughed High Walker. He was a year younger than Panther Burn and one of the pranksters of the village from which they had all set out three days before. One packhorse was already loaded with rawhide packets of smoked venison. Another kill and the four young hunters could return home. High Walker continued to bait his friend. He trampled the dirt with a quick dancing step. “Now I may join the Clan of my father,” he laughed, “I have counted coup and proved my worthiness.” Little Coyote, High Walker's brother, the eldest of them and a man seldom given to smiles, ignored the antics of High Walker and busied himself with the Hawken rifle he had used to bring down their first kill. He sang his morning prayer in a soft voice, all the while readying his weapon. With his ramrod he tamped home a charge of powder and lead shot, placed a firing cap over the nipple, and gingerly lowered the hammer to hold the primer in place; he grew quiet, prayer completed, rifle loaded. Knows His Gun, the third brave by the campfire, was a slim, diminutive young man. Small-statured and conscious of it at a trace over five feet tall, Knows His Gun generally followed, seldom led. His character was flawed with an insolence that befitted a man broader, taller, and better able to contend with the enemies his attitude might help to create. Contrary to his name, he was the only one of the four without a rifle, a fact of which he was bitterly aware.
“Perhaps I should count coup as well,” Knows His Gun remarked as he reached for his elk-horn bow. Little Coyote nudged the weapon away with his foot. “The panther will laugh with High Walker because they are friends,” Little Coyote said, his solemn expression misleading. On closer observation his brown eyes registered concealed amusement. “But he might return your arrow to someplace other than your quiver. And right up to its turkey feathers.” Knows His Gun started to complain that he was not afraid of Panther Burn but he held his tongue, for everyone knew Little Coyote as a man wise in the ways of truth, capable of recognizing lies when he heard them.
“Better to give thanks for this morning,” Little Coyote added, glancing upward as the hawk suddenly ceased its lethargic spirals above the treetops and shot from the sky like a bolt of lightning. A tanager, its red head and bright yellow plumage gleaming in the dawn's glow, glided from the top of a hundred-and-seventy-foot-tall ponderosa pine and headed toward its nest among the branches of a smaller pine halfway up the slope opposite the camp. The tanager's high-pitched cry was cut short by an onrush of lethal talons as the hawk knifed through the air. Dark and deadly, its rust-red tailfeathers streaming back like living flames, the hawk snatched its prey from the sky. The impact sounded like a pistol shot to the men below. Its cry of triumph ringing down the wind, the hawk soared upward over the hilltop and lost itself among the conifers. Little Coyote glanced around and noticed Panther Burn standing like a statue on the hillside enrapt by the sight, a look of eagerness shining from his coppery face and flint-chip eyes. At last Panther Burn appeared to sense Little Coyote's stare, for the statue came to life and broke into a hurried trot down the last few yards of hillside.
“I hope you remember your father's words,” Little Coyote said, a premonition of impending disaster lurking on the fringes of his thought.
“Too well,” Panther Burn replied, tossing the arrow back at High Walker, who danced out of harm's way. “Yet it was I who cut the sign of our enemies, the Crow. It was I who alerted our village.”
“And you who watched your father and the other Dog Soldiers ride out to track these Crow dogs who have entered our hunting grounds,” Knows His Gun remarked offhandedly yet not without the knowledge of how his words stung the son of Yellow Eagle.
“And it is for us to bring food to our people,” Little Coyote said. “Which we will not accomplish standing here.” Little Coyote stooped over and took up Panther Burn's Hawken rifle, noting with satisfaction that it was already loaded and primed. Panther Burn might yearn to disobey his father, but at least he was setting a good example for the others.
“I think the others were afraid of how bravely we would count coup upon the Crow,” High Walker said, siding with Panther Burn. “They are afraid we would cover ourselves with glory and shame them with our bravery.” He slung his bow and quiver over his shoulder and took up his Hawken and gave a loud cry that echoed over the hills. Their horses nearby grazed unperturbed, already well accustomed to the antics of the young braves. Bees darted among splashes of pink and white bitterroot. The world ignored High Walker's challenge.