Copyright © 2014 Karen Kay
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The Northwestern Plains of North America, 1816
The wet, clinging mists of early morning began to lift from the land, leaving the short, tanned prairie grasses glistening under the sun’s pale dawn rays. Higher up, on the bluffs and mountains overlooking this vast Western panorama, the dawn’s silver haze clung fast to every jutting rock. Sweeping downward from these lofty heights, the landscape assumed a gentler approach, the soft slopes gradually declining until the land leveled into a beautiful valley. On the descent, a few boulders projected up from the earth, each in a haphazard fashion, as though in some prehistoric age, the gods, much enraged, had hurled these immense stones at each other, perhaps in some long-forgotten battle.
It was here, upon this grand stretch of land, that the great Missouri River flowed, its fast currents and spinning eddies cutting through the endless grasslands as easily as if it had been formed by some giant blade. On this early morning in July, eighteen hundred and sixteen, the dew and mists rose above the savage, muddy water of the Missouri, its swirling masses creating moisture that, ascending into the air, patterned a fog that partially hid what lay beneath—at least for the moment.
And so it was that as the dawn gave way to the day, an image began to take hold, there on the golden shores of the Missouri. Gradually, through the dissipating mist, an impression of an Indian village took shape. It was a village so grand, it might have extended over three-quarters of a mile, housing within its perimeters four hundred lodges or more, and harboring maybe two thousand souls.
As the haze dispersed, life commenced to stir within that camp—dogs awakened, women stoked fires, young boys bounded up from their sleep, tearing from their lodges to run with soft steps through the gilt-colored grasses. Easily they plunged into the cool depths of the soil-stained Missouri.
Here the youngsters were followed at a more leisurely pace by their fathers, who, like their sons, by habit were addicted to the cold, invigorating morning bath.
A little more coyly, young girls stepped from their lodges, taking their first strides toward the water, where each would fill her parfleche bag full of the life-giving liquid. Many of the girls glanced out toward the environment, each one wondering if perhaps she were being watched.
And of course this was so. A few smitten boys, having quickly finished their baths, lay in waiting, hiding, observing the girls’ trail, hoping, praying for a glimpse of the one who had captured his heart. Perhaps, if one of these youths possessed the courage, he might stand up and speak to the maiden of his dreams. But more than likely, each of these youths would simply lie there, holding himself back from acting—watching and dreaming.
Meanwhile, smoke was curling from the “ears” of the tepee flaps as the wives and older women bent over their lodge fires, preparing the morning meal. Outside, hungry dogs whined, teased by the aroma of the smoke and the mouth-watering scent of roasting buffalo meat. With canine impatience, the animals kept an ever-ready vigil, licking their chops, awaiting their chance to steal a morsel or two.
It was here within this village that Swift Hawk lived, a youth of barely ten winters, if one were to compare his age against the commonly held notions of time. Son of a chief, member of the Burnt Chest Band within his tribe, he held a short stick in his hand, brandishing it back and forth as, having finished his bath, he stepped back in the direction of his lodge.
“My son,” came the deep voice of his father from behind him. “Come. It is time.”
Time for what? Swift Hawk wondered, but the words never formed on his lips. Possessing the utmost respect for his elders and, in particular, for his father, Swift Hawk would have sooner cast himself from the tallest bluff than talk back to his father.
He gave his father a brief nod before following orders, and changing the direction of his path, he trod after his parent, worrying that he might have committed some act for which he was to be chastised. In vain he tried to remember some mischief he might have accomplished, but nothing came to mind.
At last his father halted outside the lodge of White Claw, their clan’s medicine man. And then the strangest thing occurred.
Without salutation, without even a scratch upon the tepee’s entry flap to warn of their approach, Swift Hawk’s father, War Shield, flung back the flap and stepped into the medicine lodge. Odder still was the observation that not one person who was seated within the lodge showed concern over this overt breach of Indian etiquette.
The familiar scents of burning sage and sweet grass met Swift Hawk’s senses, and at any other time, that aroma would have calmed him. But not today. Here was a sense of anticipation, one that hung heavily over the crowd of assembled guests.
Pacing upon the leathery buffalo rug that covered the ground, Swift Hawk sensed the firm earth beneath his moccasined feet, his body feeling light in comparison. It was good, this connection to the earth. He was a part of this land, a part of this community. The awareness of that potent affinity gave him strength.
Secretly, however, as he stepped slowly around the lodge’s circle, he studied each occupant, that he might be alert as to the reason for such a meeting.
He noted that three other youths, along with their fathers, sat within the council circle, no two youths being from the same tribal band. Four bands in total comprised Swift Hawk’s tribe, each band representing a group of families that lived together and hunted together when the tribe was not in full assembly.
Without emitting a single sound, Swift Hawk took his place beside his father, and sitting down as noiselessly as possible on the toughened buffalo rug, he prepared to listen.
At once, White Claw, the medicine man, nodded and produced a pipe, filling it with the sacred tobacco. The old medicine man lit the tobacco with a special stick from the fire, and as he did so, smoke coiled upward, toward the open tepee flap and onward, up to the heavens. Then this wise old man sent a prayer up to the sun, to the moon and to the four directions before he passed the pipe around the circle, although never was the pipe allowed to proceed across the entryway, as was custom.
Every person assembled there smoked, even each youngster. Although this might be the first time the youths had ever held a pipe to their lips, not one of them coughed or made a noise.
Finally, the formalities of council being dispensed with in the right way, White Claw nodded to each boy in turn. “This is a very important day,” he said, “for today you boys will become men.”
Pride filled Swift Hawk at these words, and though he cast his glance respectfully downward, he lifted his chin a little higher and sat up straighter.
“I am certain,” continued White Claw, “that you youngsters have questions you would like to ask: Why are you here? Why do we hold council before the day has reached its zenith? Why have you alone been called? But I would bid you to hold these questions within you for a few moments longer.”
The old man paused, and silence fell over the circle. But no one interrupted that quietness. After all, to the Indian way of thinking, such peace was sacred.
At length, the old medicine man continued. “And now I have a question to put to you boys, each one. What say you? Have you awakened today, after having gone to sleep yesterday?”
Each of the four youngsters nodded, though Swift Hawk wondered at these strange words. Of course they had all lain down to sleep the previous evening. He remembered it vividly.
“Ah,” said White Claw, “and so it would seem to you. But hear me now, it is time that you know the truth.”
“Haiya,” continued old White Claw. “It is time. But I go before myself. Let me start at the onset of the affair, that you might understand.” Looking sagely around the circle at these four youths, the old man began his story. “It started long ago, so far back that my memory can no longer recall the exact day.” He sighed.
“It began on a day as beautiful as this one. The Piksan, or the buffalo jump, had been successful. The people had run the buffalo over the cliff, our brothers, the buffalo, sacrificing themselves, that the people might endure. There was much happiness in the camp that day, and all were busy preparing the meat, giving feasts. There was much laughing, much joking, and…there was dancing, beautiful, graceful dancing.” Here, the old man drew a deep breath, pausing. Then, almost sadly, “Yes, it had been a good day. But, alas, in this world there is always someone who is not content. And so it was that a great evil was committed by the men of our tribe, an evil that was followed by a terrible storm. And so swiftly did the weather change that many innocents were caught out in the open.
“You have seen such storms, even to this day. Within the breath of a moment, winds bring black clouds that accumulate fast, a terrible cold comes upon us, and if one is not prepared, disaster may occur…as it did this day. I know. Though I was then but a young man, I was there…”
“My mother, come quickly to shelter,” said the young White Claw, holding out his hand to the woman. “Do not hesitate.”
“Yes, son. But in a moment. I will not lose these skins that I have been working over this day.”
As the wind kicked up, a breeze rocked White Claw and practically swept him from his feet. At the same time anxiety filled his soul. Had his mother not heard? Did she not know? Or did she, like others in the tribe, disbelieve the sacred signs? White Claw said, “Leave them, Mother. I fear this storm.”
“This storm?” Though middle-aged, White Claw’s mother, Blue Shawl Woman, was still a beautiful woman, and she raised a clenched fist toward the heavens, as though daring the weather to do its worst. She even laughed as a burst of wind swept her hair against her face, yet it almost tossed her forward. But Blue Shawl Woman held fast to her position. “I have seen many a storm worse than this.”
“Worse perhaps,” White Claw conceded, “but none so evil, I think. Do you see how black it has become? And so speedily?”
“The night is dark also, my son. Do you fear it too?”
It was a carefully spoken insult. White Claw cast his glance to the ground, swallowing noisily. He must be patient, he knew. His mother simply did not know that anger, danger, even great harm were in the air.
But he could sense it. And it was this that gave him a problem. How was he to convey this feeling of dread, this sense of urgency to his mother?
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, White Claw at last threw himself to the ground, and seeing the skins his mother worked over, he picked up one of them, that he might hurry the woman.
Blue Shawl Woman brushed him away. “Do you wish to humiliate me, that you would do my work for me?”
“Nay, Mother. But you must hurry.”
“Yes, son. I am.”
There was nothing else for it. White Claw came to his feet, though his movements were uneasy. So strong was the worry within him that he thought he might burst with it. “A large bird, and a very beautiful bird—one that no one could recognize—attempted to stop our hunters from slaughtering all the game within the herd of buffalo. Our men killed the bird.”
“Good,” said Blue Shawl Woman. “We need that buffalo meat, and if the bird was truly a large one, there will be even more food for the people.”
“Nay, Mother, it is not good. For the bird acted only after our hunters had killed many buffalo…perhaps too many buffalo.”
“There is no such thing as taking too much meat.”
“I disagree. Have not our wise men always said that there must be harmony, a balance in all things? And I think perhaps we were too greedy today.”
Blue Shawl Woman snorted.
“Perhaps it was a sacred bird that they slew,” suggested White Claw. “Maybe one of the Thunderer’s children.”
Blue Shawl Woman paused in her work, her glance at her son inquisitive. “Why do you say this?”
White Claw shrugged. “It is well known that the Thunderer can take the form of either bird or man.”
“And are the skies not dark, though it is but the middle of the day?” He paused. “You have heard my uncle tell me often enough that before a hunter takes an arrow to a kill, he should be certain of what it is he seeks to bring down.”
“Yes, but, my son,” said Blue Shawl Woman, “the Thunderer? I ask you, did these hunters say a prayer over the dead carcass of this bird?”
White Claw nodded. “They did.”
Blue Shawl Woman breathed out a sigh. “Then there is no need for alarm. The hunters did right; the people must have sufficient food. They must eat.”
“Yes. Yet we had already killed more than two hundred buffalo. Had we not taken all the meat that our people could eat? Was it not enough to sustain us through the winter and well into the spring?”
“True, but having more than one believes he needs is not a bad thing. One can never be certain of the length of the winter snows.”
White Claw shook his head. “Nay. I disagree.”
Blue Shawl Woman would not be swayed, and she shrugged. “It is our right to take what is here to take, so long as we say the proper prayer. Do not the wolves feast on a juicy morsel of rabbit? Does not the mountain lion kill meat enough for her young? If we do not seize what is here to take, someone else, something else will. Better for our people that we have it.”
“Is it?” White Claw questioned. “Do you forget the teachings of our wise men? Is not overkill a sign of greed?”
Glancing up toward him, Blue Shawl Woman reached out to pat his hand and smiled gently. It was the same sort of gesture that White Claw had always cherished. She said, “You worry needlessly.”
Even as the words left her lips, the skies filled with rain—not the gentle downpour of a spring rain that blesses the earth, but rather a heavy, pounding torrent of impending winter. Though most of the people abandoned their projects to seek shelter, White Claw’s mother did not. Instead, she continued folding her skins, seeming to have time to spare.
“Please, I urge you to hurry.”
Blue Shawl Woman shook her head. “Go along and cease this worry.” She waved him away. “I will join you shortly.”
There was nothing else he could do without disobeying his mother, a thing no Indian youth would ever consider. So White Claw spun around, not to leave, as his mother urged, but rather to find his uncle, for the man could not be far away. Perhaps his uncle would lend support to White Claw’s plea.
He was gone but a moment. No more. But in that interval, a crack of thunder burst down upon the land; so loud it was, that White Claw felt a deep chasm split through him. His hands flew to his ears even as the ground shook all around him.
It was the Thunderer.
A foreboding filled him. And without looking, he knew…
It was the Thunderer…and his mother…
Stunned, fearing what he might discover if he looked behind him, White Claw turned slowly around, his movements, for all the youth and strength in his reflexes, seemed more dreamlike than real.
And that’s when he saw them.
His mother—though she was in a misty, spirit form—and the Thunderer.
Briefly, the image that was his mother turned to White Claw and, raising her hand, motioned him to stay away. And then they were gone, the Thunderer and his mother, leaving the shell of his mother’s body lying there upon the ground.
Emerging from a haze, White Claw rushed forward, toward his parent, and knelt beside her body. His stomach twisted painfully.
“Mother, come back!”
Shaking his head to clear it, White Claw took her lithe form into his arms, his fingers traveling over her face, her neck, her arms. As her flesh molded softly beneath his, he knew it was no use. He could feel no life within her.
She was gone. Stolen by the Thunderer.
The knowledge was almost more than he could bear. Unabashedly, tears gathered in his eyes. He glanced down, noticing that those skins his mother had been folding were strewn around her, their importance now insignificant.
Rising onto his feet and with his mother’s body held fast within his arms, White Claw turned around and paced toward their home.
Another crash of thunder sounded behind him, along with a shattering rumble in the ground. A scream followed. No! Had the Thunderer claimed someone else?
Though at some other time, White Claw might have experienced sympathy for another’s desperate plight, he felt no such thing. Haiya. Not now. Now, where in the breadth of his arms lay the woman he had loved deeply all his life, she who had given him life. “Mother,” he cried over her body, “come back. Please do not leave me.”
There was no answer.
A sob rose from White Claw’s throat, though he never let the sound escape his lips. Instead, quietly, he placed Blue Shawl Woman’s body over a soft buffalo robe, staring over her for a moment before raising his face toward the lodge’s entrance. He cried, “You! Thunderer! You are a scoundrel and a murderer. Hear me, now. For I swear I will have my revenge upon you.”
No reply was forthcoming save the clap of thunder and a pounding shake of the ground, this one causing yet another wail from a different part of the tribe.
Glancing down, White Claw spoke softly to his mother, as though she could hear him. “Why didn’t you come to the lodge when you could have?”
It was useless. Even if his mother had heeded his advice, would it have made a difference? In the end, if the Thunderer had truly wanted Blue Shawl Woman, would their meager lodge have kept the god away?
The tepee flap fell back, and White Claw’s uncle, Three Moons, entered. Briefly the man stared from White Claw to the woman, then back to White Claw.
“She is gone,” White Claw said simply. “My mother, your sister, has been taken by the Thunderer.”
At first this statement was met by confusion, but soon Three Moons bent over Blue Shawl Woman’s still body. Taking her hand in his, he held it to his face, eyes closed. After a moment, the elder man said, “This is, indeed, an evil day.”
White Claw nodded.
“My son, bear up, for I have worse news. She is not the only one to be stolen. Three other women are gone also. Their spirits have been taken by the Thunderer.”
Silence, long and eerie, met this revelation.
“But come,” voiced Three Moons at last, “let us go and avenge your mother’s death, and that of the other women of our tribe. Warriors are gathering in the center of our village that we might repel this god who comes to steal our own. Grab up your shield, my son; take up your spear, your bow and arrows, while I seek out your grandmother that she might attend to her daughter. Hurry, for our men are assembling.”
White Claw nodded.
Still, though his uncle had departed forthwith, White Claw paused. Laying his hand upon his mother’s breast, he vowed, “I will avenge you, Mother. Fear not.” A tear coursed down his cheek. “Fear not.”