To bring readers up to date, Moon Hawk has caught Winter Man's attention, but her plan to marry him has had unforeseen consequences. Instead of taking her in his arms, he's joined a raid against the Shoshone, stealing a horse picketed outside its owner's tipi so as to gain a Grand Coup. The raid hasn't gone according to plan, and now Winter Man has to stand by his honour.
The other members of the party had cut a large number of horses from the unguarded herd on the hills surrounding the Shoshone village. Running Fisher had sent them on ahead while he’d waited alone for his three remaining men. They waited now, the horses rested, the men crowding around Skins The Wolf, eagerly listening to details of his coup.
Winter Man felt his heart grow heavy as he rode towards them. There were many questions still in his mind, questions to which he’d found no ready answers.
Hillside slipped from his mount’s back before it had fully drawn to a halt, almost running in his haste to reach Skins The Wolf. He hit him in the shoulder with such force that he nearly knocked him off his feet.
‘You could have killed us!’ he roared.
Skins The Wolf stared at him. Spider and Otter Robe stared, too. Hillside was boiling with such fury that he could hardly speak.
‘Your foolery nearly cost us our lives!’
Skins The Wolf squared his shoulders and took a menacing step towards his accuser. ‘Foolery? I gained a grand coup. You saw me gain it. Are you going to stand before these men and say that you were blind?’
Running Fisher cut between them, separating them with his arms. He looked quickly from one to the other, finally resting his gaze on Skins The Wolf.
‘What is this?’
Skins The Wolf beat his chest with his closed fist. ‘I gained a grand coup,’ he said, his pride glowing in his face.
Ignoring Hillside, Running Fisher turned to Winter Man and called him into the circle. ‘Did you see this coup being taken?’
Winter Man’s stomach knotted. He’d known he would be asked to verify the deed. What was he supposed to say? A man never lied, it was an outrage against one’s Medicine, against First Maker, but could he stand before others and accuse the friend with whom he’d shared so much over the years of leaving himself and Hillside to die at the hands of the Shoshone?
He twisted the riding-thong about his fingers as he stood before Running Fisher. The tired roan nuzzled at his neck.
‘It was a good coup,’ he said in a clear voice. ‘A man and woman were walking between the tipis. Skins The Wolf gave warning of his presence. The man turned to attack him and he took the coup, knocking the man to the ground. The woman began to scream and he hit her with his club.’
‘Smashed in her skull,’ Skins The Wolf qualified with enthusiasm. ‘I felt it shatter beneath the blow.’
‘She fell on the man as he was trying to rise. It gave Skins The Wolf time to strike him, too.’
Winter Man looked straight into Running Fisher’s eyes. Running Fisher stared unflinchingly back into his.
Winter Man could not say it. There had to be a reason for Skins The Wolf doing what he had, some fact of which he was not aware.
‘And then?’ Running Fisher repeated.
‘I cannot say with certainty what happened next. There was much confusion. I’d taken the picketed horse and—’
‘You were not on its back! I gained my coup first.’
Winter Man felt his jaw sag open, and quickly gritted his teeth to cover his astonishment. From his own lips Skins The Wolf was telling him that he’d known their positions. He’d simply ignored their safety. Winter Man didn’t want to believe what he was hearing.
‘Winter Man had gained the picketed horse,’ Hillside countered vehemently.
‘I had not cut its restraining line,’ Winter Man said. ‘I was waiting in the shadow of the horse for the two Shoshone to pass me.’
‘They would have seen you,’ Skins The Wolf snorted.
For the first time since he’d been called as a witness, Winter Man turned to look at him, and he did not like what he saw. Skins The Wolf was brimming with self admiration. He could hardly keep himself from strutting before them all.
‘I do not think so,’ Winter Man answered thickly. ‘I do not think so.’
‘Then the coup was good?’ Running Fisher asked. Winter Man had to acknowledge that it was. ‘It seems to me that you gained your coups at the same time within sight of one another. Both will stand. Neither will be devalued. It is rare that honours are gained this way, but it does happen.’ He looked from one to the other of them for signs of objections. There was none. ‘Then that is how it will be told.’
Skins The Wolf threw his arms up in jubilation. Whatever Running Fisher said, a grand coup always took precedence over a picketed horse. He curled his arms round the shoulders of Otter Robe and Spider and led them away to tell them, yet again, of the details.
Winter Man turned away, thankful to be able to tend to his new horse as an excuse to be away from the others. He had begun to rub the roan with grass when Running Fisher drew close.
‘Is there anything you wish to tell me?’
‘Tell you?’ he echoed.
‘That you would, perhaps, not wish the others to hear?’
Winter Man forced himself to look at the pipe-carrier. It was obvious the older man knew something was amiss.
‘Skins The Wolf took a horse from me a good while before you and Hillside came into view,’ Running Fisher prompted.
Winter Man ran his hand under the roan’s belly giving himself the opportunity of averting his eyes. ‘I have said. There was much confusion.’
An ominous silence gathered between them. It spoke much of Running Fisher’s true belief. He dropped his gaze and began to turn away, before pulling himself up to look back at his subordinate.
‘A man always holds the truth in his heart. Sometimes his words are the same, sometimes they are slightly different. Keep the truth in your heart in your heart, Winter Man.’
Winter Man watched Running Fisher walk into the darkness, his chest and stomach heaving until he felt bile rise into his throat. He turned to the roan and pushed his face into its flank in an attempt to hide his anguish.
Keep the truth in your heart in your heart. He had been called a liar. As near as possible without the word being spoken, he had been called a liar by a pipe-carrier, by a Good Man. Never change your story, that was what he’d been warned. Never speak of what is truly in your heart now that you have denied its existence.
The shame... The humiliation…
He felt a hand drop heavily on to his shoulder and shuddered under the impact, believing his thoughts had been discovered. It was Hillside.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so harsh. I’m angry with myself. That back of yours will need a salve.’
Winter Man worked his shoulders. ‘It does feel stiff.’
‘A lance skimmed you, I think. Your Medicine was strong today.’ Hillside showed him his arm. It was covered in dried blood from shoulder to elbow. ‘I was nicked by an arrow.’ He chuckled. ‘Both our Medicines were strong today.’ His amusement faded. ‘What did Running Fisher want?’
Winter Man wondered, fleetingly, if he’d the courage to speak of his dishonour, then realised he needed someone to confide in. ‘He wished to know what was truly in my heart. I couldn’t tell him. He called me a liar.’ He hung his head. Would he ever be able to hold it high again? He heard Hillside’s gasp of astonishment, and the pain in his chest increased until he had to grasp the roan for support.
‘To your face? He accused you to your face?’
Winter Man shook his head. ‘His words were couched very well, but he’ll never trust me again.’
‘Will he . . . Will he say this to others?’
‘He won’t need to. He’ll pick men to ride with him and he’ll not pick me. How many times will that happen before others wonder why? I’m disgraced.’
‘No,’ Hillside told him. ‘You are not disgraced. Running Fisher came to me, too, but I added nothing to what you’d witnessed before us all. I’m not disgraced. You are not disgraced. It is Skins The Wolf who has disgraced himself.’
He took a half step back, angling his shoulders as to leave, and then swung round again. ‘Why did he do it? He was there to guard your back, not to take himself a coup. He could have killed us. Why did he do it?’
‘Perhaps he couldn’t resist the opportunity when it presented itself.’
Hillside scoffed. ‘A man says that in defence of a boy on his first raid, not in defence of an experienced man like Skins The Wolf.’ He shook his head, not wanting to believe what had happened. ‘To gain such a coup and then turn and run, leaving us to the Shoshone…’ He raised his head, waving a finger a Winter Man. ‘You came back for me,’ he said. ‘You’d escaped and you rode that horse back into the Shoshone village to rescue me. I told Running Fisher that, and shall recount it to the village when we return. I shall recount it to the members of the Fox society. I shall not forget that you saved my life.’ He patted Winter Man on the arm, and walked away.
The roan turned in a tight circle and came to nuzzle at its new owner. Winter Man slipped a hand under its jaw and patted it. He should have felt exhilarated gaining such a coup, taking such a fine horse. Songs would be sung about the deed. Songs would be sung about his rescue of Hillside. He would be paraded around the village, his valour brought to the notice of everyone. His family, his clan, they would all be proud of him. The women would trill for him. Moon Hawk would trill for him. None of it would wipe away his shame. That would be with him for ever.