Big Sandy Creek is not a bad place, but I prefer the river country where it is an easy walk for a morning bath. Here there is water, but sometimes it just trickles then disappears, runs a little and disappears again, making small pools or seeps. Our camp is on the flat above the sandy creek bottom, mingling with the large cottonwoods whose bare branches offer little protection against the cold. Down the creek from us is the camp of Left Hand and the Arapaho. They are much smaller in number.
Standing Tall still does not speak to me. I bring him a fresh horse every day, but he takes the rope and ties it for himself, dismissing me with a nod. Sometimes I linger at the front of his lodge like White Talking Boy, hungry for attention.
There are things I want to ask him: Why do the soldiers at the white man's fort want us to surrender our guns? Why is it we have to ask them for permission to hunt on our own land? In the past, we did not need to ask for anything. We could feed ourselves whenever we wanted.
Two times Standing Tall has been hunting without me. The memory of my other hunts has faded like the brittle leaves that scatter the ground below the barren trees. I am back to wandering the area surrounding our camp, shooting rabbits and grouse or other small animals as I find them. Yellow Elbow nods when I bring them to her, but even she is distant.
Things do not seem much better for Two Crows. He follows his grandfather around, attending to his every need, and I know he is trying to earn his way back into good favor. If only I could do the same with Standing Tall. He is like the ice on the edges of the shallow pools in Sandy Creek. Many suns have passed, and there is nothing I can do to thaw him.
My only escape is when I am with the horses. During my night watch, I look up at the stars and do not feel lonely. I let the stars tell me stories of hunters and warriors, great coups and battles-stories of my people.
After a long, cold night watching the herd, I bring Standing Tall a fresh horse. Still thinking about the star stories, I tie it up and turn to leave. Suddenly Standing Tall comes from his lodge and says my name. I spin around, my heart leaping, but I am careful to keep my face serious and my eyes lowered.
"We are going for a walk," Standing Tall says. He has his bow and arrow with him, but I do not believe he has hunting on his mind. He plans to speak to me about my actions, and I know I must listen to some hard things. Even this, I think, is better than the silence between us.
The air has a cold bite to it as we leave camp and drop into the bottom of Sandy Creek. We walk for a long time without speaking, our moccasins barely making a sound in the sand. I glance at Standing Tall to read his face. He stares straight ahead, and there is no way to hurry him. Even with my hands, it would be rude to speak first.
A hawk circles above us and screams, diving and whistling as it plunges toward its prey. From where we are below the bank of the creek, I cannot see it strike. But the next instant it flies up, grasping a rabbit in its talons. For a few wing beats, the rabbit struggles and then falls limp.
"The Cheyenne are like a rabbit in the white man's claws." Standing Tall startles me from my thoughts. "The harder we struggle, the tighter the grip. Soon they will squeeze all the life from us."
"We are not weak like the rabbit," I sign to him. "We can fight back." I point to my heart and sign, "I can fight back."
This is when Standing Tall stops and turns toward me. His eyes penetrate like the sharp eyes of a hawk. "Not if you are spending time fighting with your own people." Standing Tall pins me in place and will not let me wriggle free.
A long breath escapes me. I am relieved to be caught. This is what I have been waiting for-a chance to explain-a chance to blame-a chance to tell Standing Tall how angry Two Crows makes me. I sign these things and wait.
Standing Tall does not move, just fixes me with his gaze.
I try again, explaining how Two Crows taunted us. I tell Standing Tall about how he treated Bull Boy. I finish by signing that Two Crows shows no humility. "He always boasts big on himself. It is not the Cheyenne way. These are the things every Cheyenne knows. You have taught me these things since I was small."
Standing Tall lifts one eyebrow but still does not budge. I am exhausted with my explanation that takes twice as long to do with my hands. I am frustrated that I cannot speak words, so that Standing Tall can understand that it is not me, but Two Crows who is the problem.
Finally he speaks. "Tell me, what does humility mean?"
"It means when you have done a great thing, you wait for someone else to tell your story. If you have counted coup or killed an enemy, you let others bring the news to camp and sing of it."
Standing Tall nods.
I continue, doing my best to sign this difficult thing. "It means you earn the respect of others by your deeds and actions. You do not have to speak of them. Good things are noticed by others."
Standing Tall nods again.
I continue, but I feel my face getting hot. "If your actions are right with the world, and right with the earth and sky spirits, it is enough. Doing what is right is the most important thing." When I am finished signing, my hands fall limply to my sides. All the strength has gone out of them.
Standing Tall nods, slowly this time. He keeps his eyes on me, but there is a softening around his eyes. Suddenly I understand. I have been so busy blaming Two Crows that I did not recognize my own wrongful pride. I did not see that all of the fighting with him was to prove that I was best. I wanted to make him small so that I would feel big. I did not show my own humility.
For a long while, I stare at the frozen sand near the toes of my moccasins.
"And so you are ready to be a warrior?" Standing Tall's voice is lighter now. It causes me to look up. He begins walking, and I have to double-step to catch up with him. When I do, he asks, "Your aim is true?"
"You are ready to fight to the death?"
"I am ready," I sign.
We walk farther up the sandy creek bed, saying nothing. All of a sudden, Standing Tall stops and pulls an arrow from his case. Before I know it, he aims and shoots at a cottonwood branch that has fallen from the mother tree on the shady side of Big Sandy Creek. The arrow splinters the dead wood.
Standing Tall pulls another arrow from his bag and hands me his bow. I shoot, splitting the wood in almost the same spot. A second and third time, Standing Tall shoots, and my arrows join his, feathering out like the tails of prairie grass from a single plant.
When I hand the bow back to him, he nods so small I am not sure I see it. But I do not miss the way his eyes glisten, just a little, like the glittering specks of ice in the moist sand. "You shoot well," Standing Tall says.
We climb the sandy bank and pull the arrows from the fallen branch, except for the last one that breaks when we try to twist it free. I recognize the reddish streaks in the wood that I sanded and the small knot I thought would never flatten. "The one I made for you?" I sign to Standing Tall. He nods, and I try once more to pull it free, hoping to save the finely honed point. It stays wedged in the tree.
At that moment, a cold gust of wind stirs the loose sand where we stand. I hear a cry of pain, but I am not sure if it is animal or human. When I spin around to look, I see nothing except the emptiness of Big Sandy Creek. Across from us, on the other side of the wide wash, a tiny stone rolls from the top of the embankment, making a small trail as it slides to a stop about halfway down the gentle slope.
Again I hear weeping, and my head feels light. Something I don't understand begins to happen. Transparent shapes drift up the dry creek coming from the direction of our camp. At first, I think it is white vapor rising into the air, but the shapes have a human form. There are many of them, a line of people walking up the sand of the creek bottom.
I hear the crying again, and it swells into a loud and mournful wailing as more shapes join in the walk. Single features begin to emerge from the formless shapes-the buckskin shirt of an old man-the braids of a young boy. My head starts to throb, and my chest begins to hurt. As the crying continues, my throat tightens as if a knife is held there. I know these feelings. One move and the blade will puncture my windpipe.
I am aware of nothing else until Standing Tall gently shakes my shoulder. "What are you staring at?" His words come from a faraway place. I finally hear them and look up. Standing Tall loosens his grip and drops his hand, waiting.
"You did not see them?" I motion toward the creek bottom. Standing Tall squints at the creek bed below us. When I follow his eyes to the place where I saw the wailing people, it is empty.
Standing Tall studies me for a long moment. "Was something there?"
I look down at my moccasins, not sure if I believe it myself. I cannot possibly describe what I saw with just my hands. I shrug and shake my head, pretending I have made a mistake.
Standing Tall is not convinced. "I think you are not telling me everything. I have seen the faces of people with visions before."
I shake my head again. I do not know if I have had a vision or if I have a craziness crawling inside me. "The sun and clouds are playing tricks on me," I sign.
Standing Tall studies me for another long moment, then slides down the embankment and starts back for camp. I follow him, glancing over my shoulder one last time to make sure we are alone. All I see is the broken arrow, jutting from the rotting cottonwood branch.
I am thankful when Standing Tall speaks again. "There are many warrior societies to choose from," he says, "and then there are tests and trials to go through, many things to learn."
My ears are wide open. Standing Tall has never told me about his initiation into the Bowstrings. I crave to hear more. Black Kettle was a Bowstring and later became an Elk Scraper. It is different for everyone. Some men choose to fight independently, joining war parties as they are formed, but many choose the society they wish to belong to. There are many decisions to make.
"Your brother, Two Crows, seems to think it is best to be a Dog Soldier," Standing Tall says.
I try hard to think of Two Crows as a brother and not be angry with him. It is
easier than before.
"What do you think?" Standing Tall asks.
There are so many things I am thinking; I cannot put them into signs. Always I have wanted to be a Bowstring like Standing Tall, but now I'm not sure. Most of the Bowstrings follow the advice of the peace chiefs. It is the Dog Soldiers who continue to fight. More than anything, I want to ride into battle as my ancestors have done. I want to have my deeds sung about in camp. I want to prove myself.
Standing Tall remains silent while I wrestle with these things. He does not press me for an answer. "I am leaving later today with the other hunters and will be gone for many suns," he says. "But when I return, I will help you with your training-for whatever you decide."
My heart leaps. I look over at Standing Tall to make sure he is serious. His face tells me he is. His word is good.
As we walk the remaining distance to camp, I notice the footprints we made earlier in the sandy wash. Although my footprints are the same size and shape, something about them has changed. The tracks going upstream are those of a child. The ones returning are those of a man.
My heart is still singing as I throw back the skin of our lodge and enter like the warrior I am soon to be. Yellow Elbow grumbles as she pulls a deerskin bag from between the backrests in our lodge. She shows me the dwindling supply of dried meat. "I see you have time to walk with your brother, but not enough time to hunt for something to put in our pot."
With one flick of Yellow Elbow's tongue, I am changed from a warrior back into a child. I grab my bow and arrow and hurry out.