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Authors: Don Coldsmith

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BOOK: Raven Mocker
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30

T
he men quickly armed themselves and began to take defensive positions between the column, now halted, and the as yet unseen enemy. The horse herders pushed the herd closer to the column, and several warriors hurried to protect the animals from potential theft.

All of this was completely foreign to Snakewater. The Real People had not been at open warfare with anyone in her entire lifetime. There were some neighbors with whom they were allies, and others who were considered untrustworthy, but she had never seen this sort of preparation for combat.

“Will they attack us?” she asked Swan, not so much in fear as in amazement.

“No, no,” Swan assured her. “This is probably a band of Cheyennes, or maybe Kiowas, traveling to winter camp, like we are. They don’t want trouble any more than we do. Both groups have women and children with them, and a herd of loose horses. They have too much at stake to risk fighting. We aren’t at war with anyone.”

“So, what will happen?”

“Oh… the leaders will meet and talk. Brag a little… If these are friends, maybe exchange small gifts …Talk about the weather and the hunting …Where we intend to camp for the winter.”

“And if they’re
not
friends?” Snakewater asked anxiously.

“About the same, but more carefully. We have no real enemies just now. Sometimes we avoid Comanches, but they would be farther south and west. We don’t like Osages, but these wouldn’t be Osage.”

“Why not, Swan?”

“They don’t move as we do, lodges and all. We might meet one of their hunting parties, but we would have more warriors. Nothing would happen.”

“You said we’d tell them where we intend to winter You mean, even if they’re Comanche or Osage?”

“Of course.
Especially
if we don’t trust each other.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It saves a lot of trouble,” Swan said. “Look!” She swept an arm to indicate the column and the horse herd. “We can’t hide all this. They could find us if they mean us harm. It makes it simpler. Besides, it tells them what we intend, so there’s no misunderstanding. Even if they’re friends, we don’t want to winter too close together. Both must have grazing and browse for the horses, a little space to hunt …. Oh, look! Here they come.”

Far Thunder and three of the other men had moved their horses out in front of the column to greet a similar greeting party from the other group. They sat and waited. It was better, it seemed, to sit still and force the others to approach. This gave a technical advantage in the coming discourse. Around the shoulder of the hill could now be seen the other column, much like their own. Both had been traveling southward, and their courses had happened to coincide.

Snakewater moved her horse to a point where she could see better, and a young warrior cautioned her to stay back. She nodded understanding.

The newcomers drew their horses to a stop about a bow shot away and waited. Two could play the game of
you
come to
me.
Far Thunder and his companions moved forward at a walk. It was logical, Snakewater supposed, not to approach the family of a stranger too closely. That in itself might be considered offensive.

Now Thunder raised his hand in the palm-forward
signal
I come in peace
, and his counterpart in the other group did the same.

Then followed a series of hand signs that were difficult to follow at this distance. Some, however, were obvious to her.

“Arapaho?” she asked. “Trader People?”

Swan appeared surprised. “Yes… But you are Cherokee …. Oh! You have been with the traders.”

“Yes.”

“This is good!” Swan went on. “Arapahos are good neighbors. They get along with everybody.”

There was a general murmur of recognition and approval as the word passed quickly back along the column:
Arapaho. It is good ….

A
t the meeting point of the two parties the discussion was now frank and open. They spoke in Arapaho, which was a familiar tongue to Far Thunder.

“You move toward winter camp too?” he asked.

“Yes. We had thought to camp on the Arkansas River, maybe.”

Far Thunder nodded. “There is plenty of space. Has your hunting been good?”

“Good enough. We had hoped to see buffalo. A little more meat would be welcome,” said the Arapaho.

“For us too. Always, a little more is better than not enough.”

Both men chuckled.

“I would suggest a hunt together,” said Thunder, “except that there is nothing to hunt.”

The other man nodded. “Maybe another time. But… have we not met before?”

“Maybe… I am called Far Thunder. You are …?”

“Yellow Horse. Yes, I am certain … maybe ten seasons back. On the Washita, was it not?”

“I am made to think so. It is good. Shall we camp together tonight?”

“Why not? A day or two, maybe. Race some horses, maybe trade a few?” suggested the Arapaho.

“Let it be so,” agreed Thunder. “But keep the horse herds from mixing, no?”

“Of course.” Yellow Horse laughed.
“Aiee!
That would take many days to sort out! We will camp beyond the stream there, and keep our horses west of our camp. The young men can herd them.”

“Ours also… to the east of our camp, away from yours.”

S
o it was decided. Most of the men of these horseback cultures loved a contest of any sort. If there were horses involved, so much the better. If it could also lead to an opportunity to gamble on the results, and to trade horses, life was truly good. By sunset both bands had established their camps, and family campfires blossomed orange as purple shadows crept across the rolling plain and poured into the gullies and streambeds.

A gathering place had been chosen partway between the two groups, for a story fire and informal council. There was no deliberation or decision to be made. Most formalities were omitted, except for the expected social smoke among the circle of chiefs and subchiefs of both groups. The young men of the two bands would be boasting and challenging their counterparts to the contests that would be taking place tomorrow. The older and more experienced of both would smile and observe and enjoy memories of such contests in the exuberance of their own youth.

And it was good.

T
he Arapaho told of their tribal structure, and their close affiliation with the Cheyenne, whose organization was even more complicated. They had joined a band of Cheyennes for the spring hunt, which had been highly successful. They were hoping for a fall hunt, which would help the winter larder.

Snakewater’s recognized skill as a storyteller came into good use here, even with the language differences.
Everyone present was familiar with hand signs, and she was rapidly gaining confidence in their use.

The Arapaho were entranced with the Creation stories of the Real People, so different from their own and those of the other prairie people. Most First People came from
inside
the earth in their stories of the past, not from
above
it.

The stories lasted far into the night, and in other groups old men gambled with the plum stones or the stick game, while young men boasted about their horses and promised match races for the next day. There were tentative offers to trade horses, but not sight unseen.

“Let us consider trades
after
we see them run” was a common agreement.

The women, also, gathered in their own small groups to talk, boasting or complaining about their respective men, as occasion demanded. The younger women, giggling and flirtatious, discussed the possible romantic merits of the young men of the other party. It was possible that a few trysts might take place in the next day or two ….

T
he beginning of the new day saw the start of races and contests. Running races matched horse against horse, with heavy side betting. These began almost as soon as daylight permitted, and grew in tension and importance through the day. The crowd of observers grew also, with cheering sections as the gamblers urged on the contestants on whom they wagered. Much goods and property changed hands.

Aside from this, much horse trading was constantly in progress.

There were conversations, sometimes in hand signs, which were perfectly understood but would have made no sense to anyone but a member of these buffalo hunting cultures.

“He runs well. Does he favor right or left?”

“He runs to the right, mostly.”

“Too bad. I use the lance. But my brother, there, uses the bow. Talk to him!”

A horse, in pursuit of a running buffalo or, in later times, a steer, approaches the animal eagerly, running alongside. Then the rider executes his part—shooting, lancing, roping, or wrestling. Some horses prefer to approach from the right, some from the left. A right-handed bowman would find it next to impossible to shoot to his own right. But a lancer, with the spear in his right hand and the shaft under his arm, must be to the
left
of the quarry, and strike to his own right. Thus the selection of a horse for hunting buffalo depends much on the method to be employed by the hunter.

By noon several targets of skins stuffed with hay had been set up for practice and trial of horses intended for sale or trade. The hunter would mount and take a run to try the horse’s approach to the target, shooting an arrow or thrusting the lance as he passed. It was not long before someone painted a target spot on one of the skin targets. In another short while it had become a contest of skill, competing for accuracy as well as speed. Soon spectators were betting on
that.

All in all it was a good day. Many horses changed hands, some in trade and some lost and won in wagers.

New friendships were formed, and possibly a few grudges over lost races or lost wagers, but it was all in a tradition of marvelous games played by horsemen from the time they first rode astride in the dim and ancient past.

31

A
s if it had been planned, the scouts reported next morning that buffalo were approaching from the north. A plan was quickly organized by a selected cadre of leaders from both bands, who would direct the hunt. No one was to strike off on his own, until after the main hunt. At that point a long hunt should not be necessary.

“They all have lances or bows,” Snakewater remarked to Swan. “Your people do not have guns?”

“Of course!” laughed Swan. “But it is too hard to load on horseback, and you can’t dismount to do it in the chase. They leave the guns in camp.”

The plan was formulated, and hunters began to move into position. The scouts were watching the herd carefully, as it slowly grazed up the grassy valley. They could see, beyond the leading edge of the slowly moving leaders, the entire prairie blackened with buffalo. There was no other edge to the seething mass. It undulated with the rolling slopes and valleys of the prairie until it was lost in the mists of distance at the horizon.

The area selected for the hunt was a circular bowl perhaps a mile in diameter with the stream circling around one side. Hunters would take hidden positions in the timber and in small gullies that opened into the main meadow. They would try to cut off the first few hundred animals and force them to circle in the bowl-shaped area. The riders would attempt to keep them circling, while
they pressed the herd from the flanks, shooting and lancing as they ran.

The plan worked almost perfectly, as such complicated schemes sometimes will. The first of the buffalo made their way into the meadow shortly before noon, undisturbed and calmly grazing. As they spread out to look for better grass, the hunters waited, alert for the expected signal, still hidden in the brush and trees in the bend of the stream. A few more, not yet… maybe another hundred…
now!

Far Thunder and his riders charged out of the trees whooping and yelling, separating the buffalo in the meadow from the main herd. They managed to turn the leaders, which had wheeled to retreat and found their way blocked. They wheeled again and suddenly the whole mass of this smaller herd had begun to circle to their left, away from the trees that might conceal more riders. They were hotly pursued now.

As they passed each small gully through which they might have fled, other riders would rush out, turning back any that attempted escape. Quickly the milling herd was turned in upon itself, and the hunt began. Buffalo started to fall, pierced by lances and arrows, and a pall of dust began to form above the rumbling herd.

Snakewater and the other women watched from the ridge, able to see more from there than would have been possible in the thick of the hunt. Individual animals broke free from time to time, to head for open prairie. Mostly these were allowed to escape. No rider left his position in the narrowing circle to pursue a single buffalo. That would allow a breach through which many more animals might pour.

They circled, whooping, yelling, shooting, lancing …. More buffalo were stumbling, falling to lie kicking in the rising dust cloud as the harvest continued. The earth seemed to tremble with the impact of hundreds of galloping hooves.

Now the excitement of the activity in the meadow moved back toward the multitude in the open prairie. Animals that had escaped the gather fled in terror, and
the contagion spread as they ran among the others. In less time than it takes to tell, there was a change in the mood of the hundreds of thousands of slowly grazing animals. It began with a wave of restlessness that in the space of a few heartbeats became fear and then panic. The great herd began to run.

For Snakewater, who had never before seen even a few hundred buffalo at the same time, there was a moment of terror. The sound of galloping hooves in the meadow below became a trembling of the earth itself. The sound, like distant thunder, became a rumble and then a roar, as the dark blanket began to undulate in waves, into the distance. Dust began to rise like fog to overspread the distant hills, obscuring the dark blanket.

What have they done?
Snakewater thought in alarm. It was easy to wonder whether the earth itself would be shaken apart by the tremor.

The other women, although showing some concern, did not seem to feel the anxiety that swept over Snakewater.

“Is this not dangerous?” she asked.

“Not much,” said Swan. “They will probably go around us to the west.”

“But why? How do you know this?”

“The prairie is more open there. To the east are more trees—forests. Straight ahead, where we are, they have found trouble. They are made to think that safety is in the open. So… they will pass us on the west.”

“But … how do
they
know? That the open country is
west?”

Swan shrugged. “It is their way. Maybe their grandmothers came that way.”

“Our biggest problem,” observed Walks Alone with a wry chuckle, “is that they will foul the water.”

Snakewater had not even thought of that. A million bison, trampling across the landscape, pausing to drink at every stream, river, and spring… They must, of course, urinate and defecate, and the total volume… Ah, this
could
be a problem!

“There is a river to the north that we call ‘Dung River,’” Swan added. “It is fouled nearly every season.”

“What can be done?” asked Snakewater. If this was an annual problem, there must be a cure.

“Don’t drink much,” giggled Walks Alone. “Not from open water. Clear springs are safe. We dig seep springs sometimes.”

Here the language barrier became a problem. The concept of a shallow hand-dug water source was completely foreign to Snakewater, and did not lend itself well to hand signs.

“You will see,” said Swan. “But, look—the hunters are finishing!”

The milling buffalo in the meadow had managed to break their circling pattern in a dash for the prairie, through the line of horsemen that was closing around them.

“Let them go!” called Far Thunder. “We have enough.”

A few riders, unsatisfied with their own performance, pursued the retreating animals for a short distance. Another buffalo or two fell kicking, but the hunt was over. Any further kill would be too far from the rest of the harvest to be practical.

T
he butchering parties trooped over the ridge as the dust began to settle and a general evaluation of the results of the hunt could begin. Nearly a hundred buffalo lay strewn across the meadow. A few were still showing signs of life, and the hunters moved among them, administering a merciful final blow or spear thrust. And of course, even a mortally wounded animal could be dangerous.

The hunt had been effective, but not without cost. The horse of Black Wolf of the Arapahos had been gored by a huge bull and tossed high. It now lay gasping, its bowels gushing out in a series of white loops in the dirt. Sadly Wolf borrowed a stone ax to end its suffering. He had escaped with only minor scrapes and bruises.

One of Far Thunder’s young men had not been so
fortunate. Little Eagle’s horse had stepped into a gopher hole, throwing the rider to the ground. Eagle now sat in the grass cradling a shattered right arm with his left hand, still dazed by the fall. The doomed horse stood nearby, head down, a foreleg dangling at an improbable angle. Friends and family hurried to assist, while other people tended to other wounds of horses and men.

Several performed a ritual apology, addressing the deceased buffalo:

“I am sorry to kill you, my brother, but on your flesh my life depends, as your life depends on the grasses of the prairie ….”

Snakewater had never experienced such a scene as this. She was amazed at the incredible bravery of the young men, and at the magnitude of the hunt, both in effort and in results.

“Grandmother,” Far Thunder called, “can you help Little Eagle, there? His arm …”

“Of course!”

She hurried over to where a couple of young men were helping the injured Eagle to his feet.

“Bring him over there,” she ordered. “Does someone have a blanket?”

Someone hurried to spread a bed on soft grass, away from the activity that was now beginning in the meadow. Quickly she evaluated the young hunter’s injuries.
No sharp splinters of bone protruding through the skin … good! A clean break, a hand’s span above the elbow. Again, good.

She was more concerned about the bump above his right ear, half the size of a man’s fist. It might account for his confusion. But he must be watched carefully. Now, how to proceed?

A young woman hurried over and dropped to her knees beside the injured man.

“His wife?” Snakewater asked one of the other men.

“Yes—only a short time.”

“Can you get up?” the wife was asking.

“He should lie still,” Snakewater told her. “I can help him. I need some things from my packs.”

“A travois?” suggested one of the young men. “We can take him back to camp.”

“Of course!” said Snakewater. “It is good.”

She had been thinking in terms of bringing her medicine
here
, but this would be better.

“Bring the travois,” she went on. “I will stay here with him.”

She was already thinking of what treatments might help. For the pain, some of the smoke that had been so effective for Far Thunder. A potion of herbs… Maybe a poultice to the bump on the head…

Eagle lay back, eyes closed, pale in color.

“Is he all right, Grandmother?” asked the young wife anxiously.

Snakewater smiled and patted the woman’s shoulder.

“He is young and strong, no? That helps. You are a help, too, just by being here.”

Now
, she thought to herself,
the arm

“I need a thong,” she told the young woman. “We will hang the wrist from around his neck,
so
….” She gestured.

The woman nodded, and cut strips from the fringes of her own dress, knotting them together to form a thong of appropriate length.

Eagle’s friends returned with a horse and poles to provide transport for the injured man. They lifted him carefully and placed him on the platform. He opened his eyes ….
Pupils equal in size
, Snakewater noted. All signs remained good. Now she must watch him carefully, begin her medicines and her conjures, prevent his becoming too active. The pretty young wife could be a great help.

“Come, walk with me,” she told the girl, as the horse and travois started the slow and anxious journey back toward the camp.

BOOK: Raven Mocker
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