White Man’s Dog raised his eyes to the west and followed the Backbone of the World from south to north until he could pick out Chief Mountain. It stood a little apart from the other mountains, not as tall as some but strong, its square granite face a landmark to all who passed. But it was more than a landmark to the Pikunis, Kainahs, and Siksikas, the three tribes of the Blackfeet, for it was on top of Chief Mountain that the blackhorn skull pillows of the great warriors still lay. On those skulls Eagle Head and Iron Breast had dreamed their visions in the long-ago, and the animal helpers had made them strong in spirit and fortunate in war.
[White Man’s Dog] had never touched the body of a woman. His friends teased him and called him dog-lover. […] [A friend] offered White Man’s dog some of his Liars’ Medicine to make himself attractive but it did no good. Even the bad girls who hung around the forts wanted nothing to do with him. Because he did not own a fine gun and a strong horse they ignored him.
Yellow Kidney watched the young men as they chopped down some small spear-leaf trees. These are good human beings, he thought, not like Owl Child and his bunch. His face grew dark as he thought this. He had been hearing around the Pikunis that Owl Child and his gang had been causing trouble with the Napikwans, driving away horses and cattle, and had recently killed a party of woodcutters near Many Houses fort. It would be only a matter of time before the Napikwans sent their seizers to make war on the Pikunis. The people would suffer greatly.
[White Man’s Dog] pulled back the entrance skin and saw several dark shapes around the perimeter of the lodge. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that the shapes weren’t breathing. Then, opposite him, of the shapes lifted its sleeping robe and he saw that it was a young white-faced girl. She beckoned to him, and in fright he turned to leave. But as he turned away he looked back and saw that the girl’s eyes desired him. Then all the dark shapes began to move and he saw that they were all young girls, naked and with the same look in their eyes. The white-faced girl stood and held out her arms and White Man’s Dog moved toward her. It was at this point that he would wake up.
[White Man’s Dog] prayed to Sun Chief, who watched over the Pikunis and all the things of this world. Then he dropped his head and made a vow. He vowed that if he was successful and returned home unharmed, he would sacrifice before the Medicine Pole at the next Sun Dance. Finally, he sang his war song, his voice low and distinct. When he lifted his head he saw that the other men had painted their faces. Yellow Kidney had painted the left half of his face white with a series of small blue dots in a familiar pattern. Seven Persons, thought White Man’s Dog.
“I have had a bad dream and it troubles me. I came and went so fast, I could make little of it. In my dream I saw a small white horse wandering in the snow. Its hooves were split and it had sores all over. It was wearing a bridle and the reins trailed after it. But it was the eyes. I looked into the eyes and they were white and unseeing. As I drew closer I saw across its back fingers of blood.”
White Man’s Dog had settled down into the routine of the winter camp but there were days when he longed to travel, to experience the excitement of entering enemy country. Sometimes he even thought of looking for Yellow Kidney. In some ways he felt responsible, at least partially so, for the horse-taker’s disappearance. When he slept he tried to will himself to dream about Yellow Kidney. Once he dreamed about Red Old Man’s Butte and the war lodge there, but Yellow Kidney was not in it. The country between the Two Medicine River and the Crow camp on the Bighorn was as vast as the sky, and to try to find one man, without a sign, would be impossible. And so he waited for a sign.
But [White Man’s Dog] killed many animals on his solitary hunts and he left many of them outside the lodge of Heavy Shield Woman. Sometimes he left a whole blackhorn there, for only the blackhorn could provide for all the needs of a family. Although the women possessed kettles and steel knives, they still preferred to make spoons and dippers out of the horns of the blackhorn. They used the hair of the head and heard to make braided halters and bridles and soft-padded saddles. They used the hooves to make rattles or glue, and the tails to swat flies. And they dressed the dehaired skins to make lodge covers and linings and clothes and winding cloths. Without the blackhorn, the Piknuis would be as sad as the little bigmouths who howled all night.
“It surprises you that I speak the language of the two-leggeds. It’s easy, for I have lived among you many times in my travel. I speak many languages. I converse with the blackhorns and the real-bears and the wood-biters. Bigmouth and I discuss many things.” Raven made a face. “I even deign to speak once in a while with the swift silver people who live in the water—but they are dumb and lead lives without interest. I myself am very wise. That is why Mik-api treats me to a smoke now and then.”
Three Bears turned to Fast Horse. “We do not want trouble with the whites. Now that the great war in that place where Sun Chief rises is over, the blue-coat seizers come out to our country. Their chiefs have warned us more than once that if we make life tough for their people, they will ride against us.” He pointed his pipe in the direction of Owl Child. “If these foolish young men continue their raiding and killing of the Napikwans, we will all suffer. The seizers will kill us, and the Pikuni people will be as the shadows on the land. This must not happen.”
But all that had changed now because Fast Horse had changed. He had become an outsider within his own band. He no longer sought the company of others, and they avoided him. The girls who had once looked so admiringly on him now averted their eyes when he passed. The young men considered him a source of bad medicine, and the older ones did not invite him for a smoke. Even his own father had begun to look upon him with doubt and regret. As for Fast Horse, the more he stared at the Beaver Medicine, the more it lost meaning for him. That would not be the way of his power. His power would be tangible and immediate.
“[…] It was there, that day while looking at my scars and my hands, that I knew why I had been punished so severely. As you men of the warrior societies know, in all things, to the extent of my ability, I have tried to act honorably. But there in that Crow lodge, in that lodge of death, I had broken one of the simplest decencies by which people live. In fornicating with the dying girl, I had taken her honor, her opportunity to die virtuously. I have taken the path traveled only by the meanest scavengers. And so Old Man, as he created me, took away my life many times and left me like this, worse than dead, to think of my transgression every day, to be reminded every time I attempt the smallest act that men take for granted.”
White Man’s Dog looked into the wrinkled face and tried to read the emotions there. For while the lips were curved into a smile, the eyes had become wet. It was as though Mad Plume remembered Little Dog both fondly and sadly. Yet there was something else there, something in the way the lips trembled, as though he wanted to say something more. White Man’s Dog remember the reason given for the killing of Little Dog, and now he wondered if some part of Mad Plume not only understood that reason but perhaps condoned it. The killers of Little Dog felt the head chief had put the interests of the Napikwans before those of the Pikunis. It was he who betrayed the people.
“It is good to see you again, brother,” [Skunk Bear] said. “I have got myself caught again and there is no one around but you.”
“But why is it so white, Skunk Bear?” White Man’s Dog had to shield his eyes from the glare.
“That’s the way it is now. All the breathing things are gone—except for us. But hurry, brother, for I feel my strength slipping away.”
In six days White Man’s Dog would ride with the war party against the Crows. As she rubbed her neck and looked off to the Sweet Grass Hills, she felt again the dread that came whenever she allowed herself to think. She had tried to stay busy, but even a momentary lapse in concentration allowed that dreaded thought to steal through her whole body. She knew that war parties were part of a man’s life and she knew that she should be proud that White Man’s Dog had been selected to count coup on behalf of her father, Yellow Kidney. But it was because of Yellow Kidney that she felt so fearful.
He had hated White Grass then, and it had been this hatred which gave him the strength to kill him. Now he felt a mild regret that his old enemy was no longer around. With his victory, Fox Eyes had lost something, the desire to make his enemies pay dearly, to ride among them with a savage heart. He had lived forty-three winters, and he wished to live forty-three more in peace.
White Man’s Dog stood and watched the burial and thought of the afternoon a few days before when Sun Chief hid his face. And he thought of Fox Eyes riding down on Bull Shield instead of taking the simple shot that would have killed the Crow. White Man’s Dog couldn’t shake the feeling that Fox Eyes knew he was going to die, perhaps even wanted to. Only great chiefs died when Sun hid his face.
“You saw our war party attack the camp of Bull Shield!”
“Oh, yes. You killed twenty-three men. Alas, you also killed six women and one child.” Raven sighed. “Such is war.”
“Then you saw me kill the two warriors!” Fools Crow exclaimed. “You saw me trick Bull Shield!”
Raven reached down and picked at the silver bracelet. It jingled on the rock, the tiny sound echoing around the basin. “I don’t think you fooled him, do you? The one you got your name for?”
Fools Crow felt his face grow hot with shame. “I fell,” he said weakly. “I thought I had been shot. I had been shot, but…”
[Red Paint] sat back on her heels and watched the slippery swimmer that had stationed himself in an eddy behind a yellow rock. […] She had been tempted for three days now to catch him and taste his flesh. Her own people scorned those who ate the underwater swimmers, but she had a cousin who had married into the Fish Eaters band of the Siksikas, and he had become fond of the silver creatures. […] Today she would make a bone hook. She would catch him for Fools Crow. In the solitude of the Backbone they would taste the flesh of this swimmer together.
The thought came into [Fools Crow’s] mind without warning, the sudden understanding of what Fast Horse found so attractive in running with Owl Child. It was this freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group, that was so alluring. As long as one thought himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions. So it was for Owl Child and Fast Horse to roam. And so it was for the Pikunis to suffer.
These people have not changed, thought Kipp, but the world they live in has. You could look at it one of two ways: Either their world is shrinking or that other world, the one the white man brought with him, is expanding. Either way, the Pikuni loses, and Kipp—well, Joe Kipp is somewhere in the middle—and has a job to do. He slipped a big gold Ingersoll from his waist-coat pocket and sprung the lid. One o’clock. He could deliver his message to the Lone Eaters and make the Hard Topknots’ camp by nightfall.
“We will lose our grandchildren, Three Bears. They will be wiped out or they will turn into Napikwans. Already some of our children attend their school at the agency. Our men wear trousers and the women prefer the trade-cloth to skins. We wear their blankets, cook in their kettles, and kill the blackhorns with their bullets. Soon our young women will marry them, like the Liars and the Cutthroats.”
“I do not fear for my people now. As you say, we will go to a happier place, far from the Napikwans, this disease and starvation. But I grieve for our children and their children, who will not know the life their people once lived. I see them on the yellow skin and they are dressed like Napikwans, they watch the Napikwans and learn much from them, but they are not happy. They lose their own way.”
“Much will be lost to them,” said Feather Woman. “But they will know the way it was. The stories will be handed down, and they will see that their people were proud and lived in accordance with the Below Ones, the Underwater People—and the Above Ones.”
“We must think of our children,” [Fools Crow] said. He lowered his eyes to the red puppy and it was quiet all around. The few survivors stared at the red puppy, who had rolled onto his back, his front legs tucked against his chest. They had no children.
From the fires of the camps, out on the rain-dark prairies, in the swales and washes, on the rolling hills, the rivers of great animals moved. Their backs were dark with rain and the rain gathered and trickled down their shaggy heads. Some grazed, some slept. Some had begun to molt. Their dark horns glistened in the rain as they stood guard over the sleeping calves. The blackhorns had returned, and, all around, it was as it should be.