Read The Elk-Dog Heritage Online

Authors: Don Coldsmith

The Elk-Dog Heritage

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To the readers, who have shaped
my career, and have made my heart sing
In later years,
in the tribal history of the People, it would be remembered that the split began immediately after the Great Battle. It was curious that this should be. The tribe had adapted to the changing culture which included the elk-dog. The hunting of buffalo was now so much easier that the People had become an affluent and respected group on the Plains.
And then, under the leadership of Heads Off, the young hair-faced outsider who had brought the first elk-dogs, the Southern band had met the dreaded Head Splitters in battle. For the first time in tribal memory they had not only stood fast before this enemy, but soundly defeated him.
, the Great Battle would be retold in song for many generations!
The Southern band would henceforth be called the Elk-dog band, and Heads Off had reluctantly assumed the position of chief after the death of that leader in the battle. The Elk-dogs were now the most prestigious of the bands in the tribe. Their warriors' opinions were respected in the Big Council each summer at the Sun Dance. Their children were fat, and their women were happy. Their lodges were made of many skins, and each family owned increasing herds of elk-dogs.
So, it was a strange thing that at this time was to come the split that would nearly destroy the People from within. One would think that with the increasing wealth of the tribe, there could be no conflict. Yet it came to pass, in spite of the easy living that had become the expected norm.
Or, perhaps, because of it.
The People of earlier generations had been largely preoccupied with survival. It was difficult to hunt the buffalo on foot, before the advent of the elk-dog. If hunting was poor, the winter would be hard, and there would be mourning for the dead among the lodges in the Moon of Hunger. It had been, as one elder noted, a time of many worn-out moccasins.
Now, with the elk-dog, the hunt was easier. There was more time in which to dream and plan, and to gamble and sing songs of bravery.
And unfortunately, there was more time for the young hotbloods, striving for warrior status, to boast and threaten and dream of combat with the Head Splitters. For many of the warriors of the People, the Great Battle had furnished more than enough combat for a lifetime. But there were those who had not been present, or had transferred allegiance to the Elk-dog band for prestige since the fight, who now yearned for further war. It was these restless souls who provided the breeze that fanned the sparks of trouble into open flames.
At first the split into two warrior societies was almost unnoticed. The age-old Warrior Society was entered at manhood when a youngster proved himself in the hunt or, more rarely, in combat usually defensive in nature. Then came the elk-dogs, and those young hunters who were instructed in their use called themselves, jokingly at first, the Elk-dog Society. After the Great Battle, they had proudly assumed the name and its associated prestige.
Meanwhile the older warriors, those who had proudly fought beside their now fallen chief, began to refer to themselves as the Bowstring Society. In their pride of accomplishment they wished to make sure that the contribution of those who stood among the lodges and faced the charge on foot was not overlooked.
Thus, there were for a time two warrior societies, with mutual
admiration and respect. The early Elk-dog men, in effect, belonged to both societies. Both groups rigidly adhered to the rules of the council. This was all as it should be, and would have continued indefinitely, perhaps, had it not been for the restless activity of the troublemakers.
The first inkling of a splinter group actually could be seen, in retrospect, before the Great Battle. A handful of young men had set forth on their own foray. They had encountered a large band of the enemy, who had ceremonially tortured, killed, and left the bodies of the youths to be discovered by the People. Still, this had seemed only an isolated incident. It was unlike the young men of the People to defy tribal custom to engage in a private foray of this sort. The problem was compounded by one fact above all else. Until this time, there had been no tribal custom that would govern the deliberate seeking of a fight with the Head Splitters.
The old warrior
watched as his nephews clumsily began to skin the antelope. He was uneasy, because they had drifted farther into the country of the enemy than he had intended. What had started as a pleasant hunt to teach the sons of his sister was now a threatening situation. He glanced apprehensively at the fringe of brush along the rimrock. The antelope had fallen in the worst area he could imagine. They must butcher rapidly and retreat to safer country.
He straightened to get a better look at the dangerous fringe of cover above them. Was that a trace of motion that he detected? How the old man wished that his eyes were as keen as when he was the age of the two youngsters before him.
Something plucked against his shirt like a thrown rock, and he glanced down in alarm. He was startled to see protruding from his chest the feathered end of an arrow. Still, his senses refused to accept its significance. A great feeling of weakness came over him and he sank to his knees, the pain of the blow finally reaching his consciousness.
The two youngsters looked around in alarm. He motioned for them to run, as three armed warriors sprang from the rocks on the hill and came bounding toward them. The younger boy dashed toward the horses, grabbing a dangling rein and swinging nimbly astride.
The other boy stayed just a moment too long at the side of his dying uncle. The other horses, alarmed by the sudden movements,
leaped into a canter with their companion. The youngster still on foot made one futile grab at his horse's head. The rein burned through his fingers, and the horses were gone in a flurry of dust. He turned to face his attackers. He was unarmed, having laid aside his weapons to attend to the antelope. Even his skinning knife had been dropped in the excitement. He looked around. Not even a rock or a stick was available.
The three now surrounded him, young men little older than himself. One stepped forward and slapped him across the face with open palm. Counting honors by striking the enemy, he knew.
He had given up all hope of survival. The best he could hope for now was to die with dignity. Another of the enemy youths sprang and struck at him. He snatched at the other's weapon, but missed. Too bad, they would be more careful now. Vaguely, he wished that his captors would not feel it necessary to count too many honors today before getting on with it. It might be a very long day.
HEADS OFF, ONCE JUAN GARCIA, SON OF A SPANISH NOBLEMAN, sat comfortably before his lodge. He wriggled his shoulder against the willow backrest, and puffed slowly on the stone pipe. It was a beautiful spring day, and he was amused by the antics of his small son, Eagle, playing in the lodge doorway. Heads Off watched the lithe grace of his wife, the Tall One, as she moved efficiently around the fire, broiling a fat slab of hump ribs.
He could become easily aroused at any time by merely watching the lithe movements of her long body for a moment.
The girl glanced up at him and smiled, reading his thoughts. Their relationship had been a perfect one. Heads Off had never been aware of any marriage so meaningful in the far-off land of his birth.
He told himself that his reasons for remaining with the People were primarily based on accident—an injury, a pregnant mare which had been unable to travel, a broken lance point. Still, in the depths of his soul, he knew the truth. His primary reasons revolved around this slim girl and her family.
He could still scarcely believe that he had assumed the chieftainship of this band. There had been no leader surviving after the Great Battle, and the young warriors had asked him for leadership. Only with the help and counsel of his father-in-law, the Coyote, and the aging medicine man, White Buffalo, could he have accomplished it. And now, accepted in this position by the chiefs of the other bands in the Big Council, he had become more confident. Almost arrogant, if the truth were known.
He would long remember the manner in which his arrogance was shattered.
Hearing a commotion, Heads Off turned to look among the lodges at the edge of the camp. Three riders were approaching, singing and shouting and leading two more horses. His practiced horseman's eye immediately recognized that he had seen neither of the led horses before. This, even before he identified the riders.
The one in the lead was a cocky young man who had attracted his notice before. He had been sullen and inattentive during instruction sessions as a member of the Rabbit Society. Despite all his inattention, the boy had proved himself a passable horseman, though Heads Off despaired over his lack of discipline. What was his name, the chief tried to remember. The other boys had given him a nickname that had stuck. It had had to do with his unpleasant disposition. Ah, that was it! The youth was called the Badger. That animal was surly and aggressive, and the name fit very well.
Heads Off smiled at the appropriate way the People acquired their names. His own had been bestowed on him the first day he
was found by the People. Sick and injured, he had removed his soldier's helmet, but to the observers he appeared to take off his head. The joke had been on the scouts of the People, but the name had stuck. Few probably remembered the origin of the name, but it now seemed perfectly appropriate to the former Juan Garcia.
Badger was closer now, and Heads Off could see that he was brandishing weapons above his head, shouting and singing as he rode.
An uneasy feeling of alarm nudged at the young chiefs consciousness. He could not exactly identify the reason for his apprehension, but it was there. The irritating thing nagged at him like a festering thorn in a sore finger. What was it that was not quite right?
Coyote strolled over from his own lodge nearby, nodded to his son-in-law, and sat down. Heads Off could see that the older man's face also wore a look of concern. There was a definite feel of impending trouble in the air. Badger was singing, a tuneless chant reciting deeds of valor. The two men could catch only part of the words.
“——have met the enemy and killed him——counted many honors——have blooded ourselves anew———.”
Heads Off saw that across the foreheads of Badger and each of his two companions was a smear of blood. This was a ceremony sometimes employed to mark a young warrior's entry into manhood. A bit of blood from a youth's first buffalo kill was used to mark his face as a symbol of his success.
But, these young men had already been initiated into the warrior society. Why, then, the repeat ceremonial announcement?
Heads Off looked at the various weapons brandished by young Badger, and at the two unfamiliar horses the young men were leading. Reluctantly, still with the sinking feeling of dread,
he was forced to acknowledge the meaning of their repeated blood ritual.
The youths had encountered one or two of the Head Splitters and had successfully defeated them. The blooding had been repeated as a sign of the first human kill by these youngsters.
The young chief was a bit puzzled as to why this troubled him. He, himself, had killed before. Perhaps he would again, if necessary. If necessary. Perhaps that was the key phrase. Still, there was something else.
“It is a bad thing, Heads Off.” Coyote was speaking. “The young men must not go on private war parties without the consent of the chief and the council.”
Of course. The young chief was so new to the position of authority that he had overlooked the crux of the problem. To act as these young men had done was to flout his authority.
Moreover, such thoughtless actions might easily bring danger to the People. To expose one's own band to the threat of a vengeance raid by the Head Splitters was unthinkable.
“You will call a council?” Coyote asked in a matter-of-fact tone. Heads Off never ceased to marvel at his father-in-law's ability to suggest and advise without seeming to do so. Of course, a council was the appropriate step. He nodded agreement, just as White Buffalo, the medicine man, strode through the camp toward them. The old man stopped, slightly winded from his brisk walk.
“You saw?” he demanded.
“Of course.” It was Coyote who answered. “The chief will call a council for tonight to deal with this matter.”
He motioned for the newcomer to be seated, and the three began to discuss the matter at hand.

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