‘Is it true? Are they back?’
Moon Hawk’s eldest brother gazed at her in open-mouthed astonishment. Adult siblings maintained a strict sense of dignity in their exchanges. His sister’s lack of propriety embarrassed him. Turning to their mother, he spoke directly to her.
‘Bear On The Flat sends me to tell you that Running Fisher has returned with horses and coups. He said that you’d be eager to know.’
Little Face took a step towards him, smiling. ‘Thank you, my son. Were there any injuries?’
He shook his head. ‘Not that I’ve heard. There will be a great deal of singing tonight. Here, I’ve brought you something.’ He opened his hand and showed her the slender dentalium shells he had hidden there. ‘These will look well hanging from your ears.’
Little Face uttered her delight as he tipped them into her offered palm. ‘You’re a good son, Antelope Dancer. You make a mother proud.’
He smiled, nodding his acceptance of her thanks. Without a glance towards Moon Hawk, he bowed his head and went out through the door opening.
Little Face frowned at her daughter. ‘If you talk to him like that again, he’ll refuse to visit us while you’re here.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t think. I’m—’
‘I know. I know. You’ve been like it for days. I don’t know which is worse, falling over Winter Man every time I leave the lodge, or coping with your anxieties when he’s away from the village. I’ll be pleased when it’s all over.’
Moon Hawk relaxed a little, and smiled. ‘Mother . . . You know you’re enjoying every moment.’
‘Perhaps,’ she mused. ‘But I’ll still be pleased when his family offer you an elk-tooth dress.’
An elk-tooth dress. A wedding gift. It was all Moon Hawk could dream of, that and lying in Winter Man’s arms.
‘Don’t stand there like something carved,’ Little Face admonished. ‘Bathe. Dress. I must paint your face and oil your hair. He will be here soon!’
The face of Skins The Wolf seemed to be set in a permanent scowl. While Otter Robe had dressed his hair and attached bright beaded temple ornaments to the thin braids he wore in front of his ears, Spider had painstakingly painted his eyes vermilion and his face black, the honour colours of a coup-taker. Running Fisher had divided the captured Shoshone horses, generously keeping no more for himself than he had given to his men, but Skins The Wolf could speak of nothing but the group of boys they’d met some little while before.
‘They’ll have run straight to the village and told everyone we’re here. What surprise will there be when we ride among the lodges now?’
It was the third time he had said those same words. Hillside bent his head nearer Winter Man’s ear as he applied vermilion to the torn skin of his back.
‘He likes to hear his own voice. He sounds like a prairie chicken trying to encourage a mate.’
Winter Man turned his blackened face so that he could see Hillside from the corner of his eye. ‘You sound like something, too, ridiculing his every move.’
Hillside narrowed his eyes. ‘I carry a fire in my chest for him, the way he’s treated us. I don’t know how you can remain so calm.’
Calm? Winter Man nearly laughed. Was that how he looked to Hillside? Was that how he looked to them all?
‘I feel unworthy. I have gained a coup, taken a picketed horse—’
‘—and rescued me.’
Winter Man sighed. ‘I don’t feel that it should be my shoulders these honours should be heaped on.’
‘Then whose shoulders should they be heaped on? Those of Skins The Wolf for deserting us? Your only mistake was to protect him by not disclosing all you saw to Running Fisher. It’s too late to alter that now. It’s gone; it’s past. Your honours are good. You’ll stand tall and raise your head high. What will people think if you skulk into the village hiding your face? What will Moon Hawk think? She’ll be waiting for you to pass her lodge.’ He slapped Winter Man playfully on the shoulder. ‘Say that she won’t be there, all coy and affecting a tired disinterest, while she wears her most prized clothing for you. Ah, you’ll feel differently when the celebrations begin.’
Winter Man hoped so.
When Running Fisher felt the time was right, he told his men to mount their horses. They began at a sedate pace, singing songs of valour and cunning, but as they neared the tipis they eased their mounts into a trot, finally entering the village at a gallop, driving the stolen horses before them.
The village erupted in its excitement. There were calls and shouts. People waved painted robes and ran alongside the horses of the returning men. The air was filled with dust and noise; the women’s continuous high-pitched trilling punctuated by the deafening booms of powder-guns. Round the village, the stolen horses were driven by every tipi so that all might see and admire them.
Once the horses had been shown, Running Fisher paraded his men: Skins The Wolf to the fore in recognition of the precedence of his grand coup, Winter Man behind him leading the roan, the wolves came next, in honour of their duties, and finally Hillside, Otter Robe and Spider in a line bringing up the rear. They stopped outside the lodge of Running Fisher so that his family and clan members could hear the deeds of the raid and applaud his leadership. They stopped outside the lodge of Skins The Wolf so that he could re-enact the taking of his coup for his family. They stopped outside Winter Man’s lodge so that all there might hear at first hand how he’d come to take the roan and save the life of Hillside. Slowly the raiders made their way through the rejoicing village, stopping before a group of Lumpwood society members who sang songs for Skins The Wolf, and again before a group of Fox society members who sang songs for Winter Man.
It was as Hillside had predicted. The jubilation forced all melancholy thoughts from Winter Man’s mind. He was treated as a hero – and he felt like one. He told his tale time and time again, showing off the red-painted wound on his back, emphasizing his bravery as custom demanded. One of his clan-grandfathers, a mentor since before the time of his vision quest, loudly recalled the other deeds Winter Man had accomplished: the taking of a gun, the striking of a second and a third coup, so that the people might know and remember that he was a Good Young Man with a strong heart, destined for mighty things.
Swallow came to hug him and bathe in his glory. Several of his cast-off lovers did the same, but not Moon Hawk. He wondered if she had been standing outside her father’s lodge as the men had paraded by it. He had made a point of not looking, half-hoping that she would seek him out herself.
As the sun slipped towards the mountains and the clamour of the village began to subside, Winter Man felt a new excitement kindle within him. He was pleased Moon Hawk hadn’t come to fawn over him the way his lovers had. Very likely, it would have meant an end to their game. But she hadn’t come. The game was still on – and it was his turn to play.
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