The song was loud and bawdy and sung with gusto. It finished with a high-pitched cry, such as a warrior might exclaim on the taking of a coup, and the singers playfully laid about each other’s horses with the long thonging of their riding quirts in an effort to make the animals unseat their riders. Only Frost looked unsteady on his mount, and his companions laughed and jeered at him, making him blush and bluster and blame an unseen prairie dog hole beneath the hooves of his paint.
‘What you need,’ Skins The Wolf sneered, ‘is a woman to teach you how to ride!’
‘What he needs,’ countered Hillside, ‘is a woman to make a man of him!’
Frost blushed deeper still, almost the colour of the vermilion he wore about his eyes, but he wouldn’t rise to that particular bait. His friends jeered him once again, all except the tallest. Winter Man slipped a long-fingered hand behind his neck and drew the length of his unbound, blue-black hair behind his broad shoulders. Finely dressed with the grease of a young fawn and smelling of sweetgrass, it surged down his bronzed back as if water from a breached beaver dam. The tips of each thick lock danced about his waist, reaching for the hip-hugging belt which kept his breechclout and leggings in place. Other men glued hair into their own to gain such a length, but Winter Man needed no red-painted balls of pitch in his hair; it was all his own.
He pursed his lips as his gaze swept over his companions. His raven eyes grew wide and bright as he grinned in mischief.
‘Tokens!’ he cried. ‘Tokens!’
Displaying lovers’ tokens was a favourite pastime for young men away from the village, and they quickly drew their horses to a halt and arranged themselves in a tight circle. Winter Man was the first to pull his from his belt, a tasselled otter-skin bag no bigger than his palm, and press it to his heart.
‘Given to me in love, I swear, from the beautiful hand of Kills By The Water.’
His statement was met by wide-eyed astonishment. It was Hillside who broke the silence.
‘Kills By The— She is Butterfly’s wife!’
Winter Man looked at him, his face a mask of innocence. ‘I did not seek her. I seek no man’s wife, you know that.’
Walking Backwards nodded wistfully, ‘Oh, yes, we know you don’t seek them, but if any smile at you . . .’ He raised a warning finger. ‘Word will get back to Butterfly, Winter Man, it always does, and he’s not noted for his forgiving ways.’
‘You’re merely jealous!’ Winter Man lifted himself on his pad saddle to over-ride their noisy derision. ‘Besides, who’ll tell him? You four are the only ones who know.’ He gazed at each of them in turn and watched their smiles fade. The displaying of lovers’ tokens while on the hunt was, by custom, cloaked in secrecy. Winter Man was almost insinuating that one of them might disclose the knowledge, that there was among them a man lacking in a warrior’s honour.
The humour was wrenched away from the moment, and for a while no one said anything; then Hillside forced a chuckle from his lips to alleviate the strain, and hooked up one of the three bone and bead necklaces he wore about his neck.
‘Given to me in love,’ he avowed, ‘from the hand of my beautiful Jay.’
The others groaned, and shook their heads, and smiled good-naturedly. ‘If we hear any more about your wife . . .’
Hillside deflected their disparaging remarks with a flick of his wrist. ‘One day,’ he retorted, ‘one day you will all find yourselves wives, and then you’ll know what you’ve been missing.’
With a flourish, Skins The Wolf lifted a small beaded pouch into the air. ‘Given to me with love, I swear, by Mint, so that I might forever smell of the herb which gave her its name.’
Winter Man was fast with a cutting response. ‘Because you stink from never washing, you mean!’ The others laughed, but Skins The Wolf did not bear the joke well and scowled at him.
Walking Backwards began to wail, making a great point of brushing aside feigned tears. ‘No one loves me!’
There were great hoots of laughter. Hillside pushed him playfully in the shoulder with his quirt. ‘So, Cherry has had her eyes cleared at last! I salute her! What she ever saw in your ugly face I can’t imagine!’
‘Give Winter Man a horse,’ one of them interjected. ‘Perhaps he can find a blind cousin for you!’
The banter slowly abated. It was Frost’s turn to produce a token. The youngest of the group, he didn’t lack valour in the face of his people’s numerous enemies, and had gained himself a minor coup, but to the knowledge of his friends he’d never had the courage to tempt a woman to be his lover.
‘A token!’ he cried. ‘From Pine Fire, my lover!’
There was a resounding cheer, and with help from Hillside the ornament was tied into the back of his hair to show it off to its full effect. Brandishing their quirts as if to strike a grand coup on some imagined enemy, the group kicked their horses into a gallop and charged abreast across the rolling grasslands.
Winter Man was the first to draw his mount back to a walk, Hillside following soon after. They rode together a while, calling both encouragement and derision to the racers until they could no longer be heard.
‘You knew about Pine Fire,’ Hillside mused.
Winter Man nodded, an indulgent smile pulling at his lips. ‘She’s very friendly with my youngest sister — and my youngest sister talks.’ He opened his arms in an expansive gesture. ‘Frost is her first, too. It’s a good time for them both. I’m happy for them.’
Hillside almost choked. ‘You — who have had so many women to warm your nights — sit astride that horse with eyes as bright as a maiden’s on her first courting!’
‘Ah! You’re an old married man. You’ve lost your sense of excitement, your sense of challenge!’
The laughter faded from Hillside’s sunburnt features and he gazed at his friend through narrowing eyes. ‘And what was that challenge you laid at our feet? You spoke as if we’d the honour of Piegan dogs. Your joke was not appreciated, Winter Man.’
‘It was no joke. Remember Squirrel?’
Hillside remembered Squirrel. Like so many women, she had been a former lover of Winter Man.
‘She came to me only the once, during the berry-picking. She was unhappy. Marks The Trail and she were not sitting well together. She wanted a little understanding.’ He shrugged. ‘She wasn’t looking for my embraces, neither was I for hers: it simply happened.’ His voice took on a harder edge. ‘But someone told Marks The Trail — told him that I’d been her constant lover since the day of their marriage. He took her out of the village where her family couldn’t see and interfere, and he beat her until she could hardly stand!’ His anger whistled free between clenched teeth. ‘I heard of it later from one of her clan-sisters who thought I’d been boasting of my seduction. I went to Marks The Trail and gave him the truth.’
‘Did he believe you?’
‘Not until I offered him one of my best horses and swore on his pipe.’
Hillside shook his head. ‘I can’t say I’m surprised. You do have a reputation with women. I wondered why Marks The Trail had left the village to join another band. Is Squirrel still with him?’
‘She considered her punishment deserved and wouldn’t return to her father’s lodge.’
‘It’s left you with a sick taste, I can see.’
Winter Man turned an uncompromising glare on him. ‘It was done for spite, pure and simple.’
‘But to whom? Not necessarily you, my friend. It could have been done to spite Marks The Trail, even Squirrel herself. You can’t be sure.’
Winter Man didn’t reply. He gazed out across the grasslands towards the dark band of trees which marked the foothills of the Shining Mountains.
‘What I can’t understand,’ Hillside continued, ‘is that this pain still rages in your heart, yet you’ve just placed Kills By The Water in the same position.’
Winter Man snorted. ‘Kills By The Water is a different woman altogether. She makes free with every man she can lay her hands on! You’d think she was gathering a conquest bundle to outmatch an Hidatsa’s.’
‘But it might happen. Butterfly is a jealous man.’
‘And if it does, then I’ll know that I’m the one who is the target for someone’s spite.’ His eyes searched out their distant companions. ‘And I’ll have narrowed the possibilities considerably.’
‘That doesn’t say much for me,’ Hillside murmured.
Winter Man turned and slapped him on the shoulder.
‘Not you! You’re as much my brother as if the same woman had suckled us.’ He smiled broadly, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes, and when Hillside’s expression failed to change, his smile slipped away completely.
‘It’s difficult,’ he said. ‘We’re all strong-hearted Apsaroke living our lives to the full, knowing that we’ll probably die young, hoping that we’ll die courageously. Our warriors are outnumbered many times, by Lakota, by Piegan, Shoshone . . . The list is longer than the fingers of my hands. I’d give my life for any one of our people, Hillside, and I always believed that others felt the same. To think that one might not sears the shadow of my soul.’
‘Grave words. They’d well suit the respected leader of a band. If anyone else had heard them coming from your lips they’d have thought themselves touched by First Maker!’
Winter Man tossed back his long hair, and laughed. ‘I should have known! I speak to you of my feelings and all you can do is make jokes.’
‘I don’t joke. In a few more years, when you’ve tried every woman there is to try, and finally got yourself a wife—’
‘A wife! You sound like a blackbird that can sing only one song! What do I want with a wife?’
Hillside lifted his head and gave him a look powerful enough to wither the grass. ‘The question is,’ he retorted, ‘what woman would possibly want you as a husband!’
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