Authors: Kerry Newcomb
In the Season of the Sun
For Patty, Amy Rose, and P.J.,
with all my love.
one Walker's song began as a whisper, quiet and fragile like the breeze that set the brittle stalks of buffalo grass trembling. As the sun broke free of the horizon and washed each distant hill in molten gold light, the voice of the Blackfoot deepened and grew resonant. His singing pulsed like blood in the veins and brought life to the stillness, to morning; it summoned the power of air and water and earth so that the world would not die.
Lone Walker outstretched his arms in the tribal sign for “day.” In his left hand he held a ceremonial arrow, its flint-tipped shaft banded with red and black markings and circled with a leather strip from which dangled a raven feather. His right hand slowly uncupped and he sprinkled the earth with sacred meal.
“All-Father, Great Spirit,
Your power is astride the hills.
See it burn the tips of the grass.
See it chase the darkness from the sky.”
A prayer on the wind, a voice fading, reverberations cease; the words are gone, but the mystery remains
Lone Walker turned his finely formed features away from the breeze and felt the wind's cool breath upon his naked back. He dusted the last of the sacred meal from his palm and then, closing his hand, touched the thumb and index finger together in the sign for heart and brought his hand to his breast.
“O Sacred Wind,
Flow through me.
Lead this one,
Guide this one on his journey.
I follow the vision.
The earth beneath my feet is good.
The wind is good.
And though my heart is heavy,
I will follow.”
The Blackfoot warrior lingered atop the mounded earth, allowing the warmth of the newly risen sun to seep into his bones. He smiled as a couple of prairie dog pups raced up the gentle slope toward him. Suddenly their black tails raised in alert and the two pups stopped, aware of the man's presence. They scampered down the mound and raced for the protection of the closest burrow. The pups paused at the freshly dug entrance to stare at the man on the hillock, who had made no move toward them. Since he posed no threat, the chattering pups resumed their play. Such a chorus of yips alerted half a dozen other prairie dogs, who emerged from the tunnels dotting the plain and joined in the fun.
A bright yellow meadowlark rose out of a cluster of tall filmy weeds and took to the air, exuberant in flight, its flutelike trilling carried away on the wings of the wind.
Lone Walker nodded. It was time for him to leave as well. He retraced his path down the north side of the hill to the coulee where he had made his camp. His mountain ponies stamped the earth as Lone Walker approached. The ground underfoot was cropped clean where the tethered horses had grazed during the night. The pinto neighed as the brave approached; the bay whinnied and shook its head.
The Blackfoot sang softly to the beasts, “Be gentle, be gentle,” and the animals quieted. Lone Walker proceeded to cover his scarred torso with a beaded buckskin shirt that hung to just above his knees. His leggings were of the same soft-brushed hide and adorned with a triangular pattern of beadwork down the sides of his calves and thighs, a design mirrored along the hem of his fringed shirt. The beadwork brought his thoughts back to Sparrow Woman, his wife, and his heart ached to hold her in his arms again, to ease her suffering. Yet he too suffered. During the Hard-Faced Moon, his tears had mingled with hers as he carried the body of his only child to the Hill of the Dead and placed his lifeless frozen body upon the burial scaffold.
Young Bull had drowned in the twelfth winter of his life. Death had stolen him away from his mother and father, and there would be no other children. Sparrow Woman had walked in a dream and heard the All-Father tell her she would remain barren. How great was her grief.
But Sparrow Woman was not the only person who spoke with dreams. Lone Walker too had journeyed in the realm of the spirit and had listened as the Above Ones instructed him to take up his war shield and lance, his elk horn bow and quiver of arrows, and ride away from the Piegan Village nestled in the heart of Ever Shadow. Only in such an undertaking could he free his soul from black sorrow. Lone Walker did not understand how this might come about nor did he ask why. But a wise man heeded his dreams.
Lone Walker looked north and in his mind's eye imagined the sun brightening the serrated ridges and snow-capped summits of Ever Shadow, pictured in his memory morning breaking clear and fine in the valleys and on the people who lived there.
His people. His wife.
“Sparrow Woman, I have your heart with me,” he whispered, hoping in some miraculous way to ease her suffering across this vast distance.
Then Lone Walker smothered the last few embers of his campfire, gathered up his weapons and blanket, and swung up onto the back of the bay. The brave dug a smooth flat stone out of his buckskin pouch, spat on one end, and tossed it to the ground a few feet in front of him. The stone landed with the moistened end pointing south.
It was good enough for Lone Walker. He nudged his heels against the bay's flanks and the mare immediately started forward. The pinto obediently fell in behind.
Lone Walker no longer wondered how long the journey would last. And yet he was certain he would know when it had ended.
He followed the spirit trail which led him into the heart of the rolling plains, a vanishing figure beneath an eternity of blue sky sweeping down to meet the yellow grass, a man alone with his sorrow and his song.
ou got more nerve than a cracked tooth, Jacob,” Tom Milam said to his older brother as he retreated to a safe distance and glanced over his shoulder as if expecting to see their father come striding toward them from the bluff overlooking the Platte River. His gaze lingered a second or two before returning to Jacob and the rattlesnake that was coiled in the middle of the deer trail.
At thirteen years, Jacob was shooting up in size; one day he would be as big boned and broad shouldered as his father. Jacob brushed a strand of sun-bleached gold hair out of his eyes, waved a forked stick in the rattler's face, and jumped back as the brown-and-black-banded reptile cracked like a whip. It missed its mark by inches and immediately coiled again, tail rattling and tongue flicking in the direction of the thirteen-year-old.
Ten-year-old Tom Milam was slim and dark, as quick and wary as a fox, in truth the bearer of his mother's attributes. He lifted the rifle Jacob had set aside and pointed it at the reptile. The gun barrel wavered, for the long gun was heavy as hell for him to hold. Jacob caught a glimpse of his brother out of the corner of his eye.
“Put it down, Tommy,” the older boy remarked. “You're as like to hit me as ol' Beelzebub here.” The snake struck again and Jacob once more leapt out of harm's way. This time as the snake retreated to coil anew, Jacob attacked. He darted in and with a flick of the wrist pinned the rattler to the ground, catching the snake's lethal head in the fork of the stick. Jacob reached for his “Arkansas toothpick,” a knife with a fourteen-inch blade of double-edged steel. One quick flash of steel and Jacob lifted a headless length of meat that writhed and twisted in his grasp. The rattler's severed head bared its fangs, a reflex that death had yet to still. Jacob opened a pouch hung at his side and dropped the remains of the snake inside.
“What do you aim to do with that?” Tom grimaced.
“Eat it,” Jacob replied matter of factly. “And make a belt of its hide.”
“You gotta be kidding,” Tom said.
“Injuns do all the time,” Jacob explained. “That's what Kilhenny told me, and seeing as he's part redskin, he ought to know.”
“Well, I ain't eating no snake, so we better hunt us up a buck or buffalo calf or even a plump rabbit,” Tom said, his mouth watering at the thought. He looked over his shoulder, southward toward the Platte River where the Milams and four other families had camped for the night. “Maybe we better not wander too far. You never can tell, we might run into some Injuns.” Tom brandished the rifle, though it was much too big for him.
“What would Injuns want with us,” Jacob scoffed.
Tom looked up at his older brother, a grin on his face. “That snake of yours. An Injun'd rather eat rattler than plum pudding any day.” He laughed aloud, worked the rifle behind Jacob's legs, and gave a shove, then scampered off as Jacob landed hard on his bottom in the buffalo grass.
“Tom â¦ you!”
But Tom was running flat out and Jacob could only crawl to his feet and race after him. Tom was quick, fleet of foot, and possessed the boundless energy of a jackrabbit, but Jacob's long-legged gait offset his younger brother's speed and he quickly closed on his prey. Tom managed to glance over his shoulder and spying his brother, started laughing uncontrollably and blundered into a covey of quail that exploded from the yellow grass and tripped him up. Tom tossed the rifle aside, almost impaling himself on the barrel, and tumbled out of sight and groaned in agony.
Jacob rushed toward the huddled shape of his brother. Tom lay curled and suffering as Jacob slid to a halt and knelt at his side.
“For God's sake, Tom, what happened? Where are you hurt?”
“Oh, Jacob, I think I busted it,” Tom moaned. The side of his face was matted with dirt and strands of grass, and his eyes rolled up until only the whites showed. He clawed at his chest and managed to open his shirt.
“What's the matter?” Jacob repeated, really worried now.
Tom fumbled with the buttons of his shirt, reached inside, and gasped. “See for yourself, Jacob. It's broke.”