‘A wife!' Winter Man guffawed. '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!’
Moon Hawk prodded the ground with her digging-stick, desperate to keep her mind on her chore. As a woman, collecting roots to supplement her family’s meat-dependent diet was one of the many tasks she undertook, but because it was always dangerous to be so far from the village, women went on such forays as a group, for company as well as safety. The day had been long, and hot for so late in the autumn. The women with Moon Hawk talked and sang as they worked, stopping every once in a while to pick herbs, play dice or simply to laze beneath the sun. Outriders had accompanied them to keep open a wary eye, but root-digging was women’s work and the young men stayed at a distance, talking and laughing and singing among themselves. Such an expedition was not unusual and raised no speculations. Only Moon Hawk, Little Face and a few selected clan-grandmothers knew it had been organised with precision simply to intercept Winter Man on his return from a hunting trip.
Moon Hawk felt the tight clasp of her mother’s hand on her shoulder.
‘The outriders have given the signal for approaching men,’ she said briskly. ‘Winter Man is on his way.’
‘It might be Lakota warriors,’ Moon Hawk offered, hard put, in her moment of nervousness, to decide which would be the worse.
‘Nonsense! Even a child knows the difference between a hunting party and enemy raiders.’ She pulled the red-painted yoke of her daughter’s dress further on to her shoulders, making its bright shell ornamentation tinkle and dance against the soft elk-skin. A quick eye checked the blue and white beaded belt about her daughter’s slim waist, and the subtly decorated leggings and moccasins peeping beneath her calf-length dress. She brushed a suggestion of dust from Moon Hawk’s cheek.
‘I should have painted your eyes a darker vermilion, I think, and added a little more to your cheeks.’ She stood back and looked at her daughter’s face. ‘Perhaps not. After all, this is supposed to be a chance meeting, not a feast. Is it clear what you have to do?’
Moon Hawk nodded. Her teeth were chattering so much she dared not risk saying a word.
‘And smile! Be confident! A faint heart does not win a man his coups and neither does it win a woman her man.’
A grandmother called a warning, drawing Little Face’s attention, and Moon Hawk slipped away to her appointed place.
The grandmothers were instigating a little horse-play between the younger women and the outriders, who needed short encouragement to come down from their hill once they knew what was happening. No occasion for flirting was overlooked by men of their youth. The young people ranged themselves in two lines facing one another, the women with their roots piled at their feet for missiles. The ribald banter began from the unmarried women, growing to almost a raucous harangue before the bravest young man attempted to cross the ground to take a kiss from the woman of his choice. He was met by a hail of small nobbly turnips, as were the rest, and then, amid thunderous shrieks and laughter, it was every man for himself. Into the midst of this rode the hunters.
Moon Hawk recognised Winter Man at once and her heart turned to jelly. What if he were angry? What if he called her a stupid little girl? What if he rode away without saying anything at all?
She let her eyes run over those who rode with him. There was Hillside, Frost, Skins The Wolf and Walking Backwards. Between them they’d had a good hunt, for a butchered elk and two big-horn sheep were lashed to a travois being dragged by a loose horse, and each rider had a small antelope slung over his mount’s neck.
The hunters drew their horses to a standstill and looked on at the antics of their more youthful cousins with a mixture of amusement and disdain. Men who had counted coup did not begrime their prestige by entering into such games, but they all remembered when they had.
Moon Hawk had eyes only for Winter Man. He flanked the group, a mercy she gave thanks to First Maker for. She’d no idea what she would have done if he’d been surrounded by his friends. Despite being away from the village for more than four days, his raven-black hair was as immaculately dressed as ever she had seen it, its length almost touching his horse’s rump, the quiff above his brow erect and as whitened as a swan’s tail. His leggings were stained with mud and water to the knee, speaking much of his industry on the hunt. No shirt stopped the sun from shining on this bronzed skin, and only a looped necklace of tiny bone discs adorned his well-developed chest. Moon Hawk’s eyes traced the slight shadow of each rib beneath his muscled arm, and followed the expanse of firm flesh down past his breechclout belt to his powerful thigh. Just looking at him brought a thrill of expectation.
Putting such thoughts from her mind, she drew a determined breath. If she didn’t act now… Pulling back her arm she threw her chosen missile with accuracy. A small, shrivelled turnip caught Winter Man full on the base of the neck. Such a well-balanced rider needed more to unhorse him, but the blow made him lurch to such an extent that his mount shied. Regaining control, he swung round on his attacker, astonishment sharpening his high cheekbones and widening his eyes.
‘Did you throw that?’
Moon Hawk swallowed her fear and lifted her chin. ‘I didn’t mean to hit you,’ she said. ‘My throw was wild.’
‘Wild? No woman’s throw can be that wild!’
Moon Hawk flashed her eyes at him to give her words more vehemence. ‘I slipped,’ she said, and pointed behind her to some imaginary obstacle in the grass. ‘Do you think I would waste a hit on you?’
She glanced across to the young people disporting themselves in the sunshine. As she knew he would, Winter Man followed her gaze. She looked back at him in time to see his face registering utter disbelief that any young woman would prefer someone of no account to him.
‘I am Winter Man!’ he bellowed indignantly. ‘I am a Good Young Man.’
Moon Hawk gave a casual shrug of her shoulders. ‘I know that.’
Her reply seemed to cut him to the quick. She took a step towards her friends.
‘Ha!’ Winter Man spat after her. ‘Your lover seems to have deserted you. No boy waits for you that I can see.’
Moon Hawk’s heart sang. He’d drawn on the bait as her mother had said he would. She swallowed her smile of excitement and turned back to him with a look of disdain.
‘Lover? I have no lover! I am chaste. There’s not a man alive who can entice me.’
Before he could respond, she spun on her heel and strode off into the throng of kissing youngsters.
The temptation to turn and see if he was still watching her was great, but one she managed to ignore. Picking up her root-bag she pushed a few discarded turnips into it before sauntering over to where her mother was sitting with the older women.
Little Face, for all her easy stance, was as breathless as herself. ‘You did it! You did it! Do not look back now. I guarantee that he will be outside our lodge within a few days; then we shall put the second part of our plan into action.’
Her clan-grandmothers laughed and joked and pushed at one another, remembering with pleasure their own courting days and how they’d led the young men a dance. Only Little Face had eyes for the departing hunters, but as she watched them laugh and taunt Winter Man, her smile faded and her lips turned to a thin line of concern.
‘What is it?’ Moon Hawk asked.
The smile again in place, her eyes darted back to her daughter. ‘Nothing,’ Little Face insisted. ‘Everything went well. Didn’t I say it would? No man of his reputation could possibly resist such a challenge. His friends would laugh him to the peaks of the Shining Mountains and back!’
Moon Hawk smiled as her mother curled a protective arm about her shoulders and ushered her back into the welcoming throng of her relatives, but, deep within, her heart did not beat with the same fervour that it had. She wanted Winter Man for her husband, had always wanted him, but was this the best way of gaining what she sought? It wasn’t altogether honourable.
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