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Authors: Stephanie Grace Whitson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction

Walks the Fire (10 page)

BOOK: Walks the Fire
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Once, Rides the Wind crouched down quickly, pulling Jesse down beside him. He pointed toward a hill in the distance, calling her attention to several elk, grazing undisturbed. He whispered, “Soon I will bring you fine elk skins.”

But Rides the Wind was not intent on hunting today. A few hundred yards across the prairie from them stood the objects of his interest. His own horse was grazing peacefully, and not far from him was a lovely little mare. Jesse didn’t know to admire the breadth of her chest, the angle of her hocks, or the smallness of her feet, all of which combined to make this pony a dependable, swift mount. Jesse did, however, notice the flowing red mane and tail, made all the brighter by the contrasting white spots that spread across the mare’s stout neck and back in an intricate pattern.

Rides the Wind whistled, a low sound that gradually rose in pitch until the horses lifted their heads and started toward him. Seeing Jesse, the two ponies stopped a few paces away and watched Rides the Wind. When he didn’t move, they dropped their heads to graze again. Holding Jesse’s hand, he approached the two horses. He felt Jesse stiffen.

“You have fear because you do not understand how the horse thinks. I will teach you. Your fear will go.” He added solemnly, “The women in the village will not laugh.”

Taking two jaw straps from the leather pouch at his side, Rides the Wind handed one to Jesse, demonstrating how it was to be held. Quietly he walked to his own horse’s side, lifted the pony’s head, and put the jaw strap on. The pony danced a bit in anticipation of a morning run. Jesse grew more tense.

“Wind is a hunter’s horse,” Rides the Wind explained. “He is swift and ready to do what his rider desires. He dances for the joy of the run, not because he wishes to hurt you. We are friends, he and I. Soon Red Star will be your friend, too.”

Jesse tried to quiet her fears and walked up to the mare. To her amazement, Red Star willingly lifted her head from the grass and stood quietly while Jesse fumbled with the jaw strap. Rides the Wind had bridled Wind in one quick motion. It took Jesse several attempts before she successfully slipped the noose over Red Star’s lower jaw and up over her neck. Through all the clumsiness, though, the mare stood quietly.

Jesse relaxed. Red Star turned her head toward Wind, staring at him when he snorted and pawed the ground. Jesse wondered if she was trying to say, “Calm down, you fool. Don’t you see this woman is nervous?”

Jesse reached up to pat Red Star’s neck. To her delight, the mare curved her head around Jesse’s arm. Jesse beamed with pleasure, and Rides the Wind said, “She is a wise horse. She tells you not to be afraid. She says, ‘Let us be friends.’”

Rides the Wind demonstrated how to mount bareback. Red Star stood quietly while Jesse tried to spring up onto her back. Jesse succeeded after several tries.

Riding lessons began. Mounting Wind, Rides the Wind took Jesse’s reins in his own hands, explaining, “I will lead her. You must learn to feel her move. Feel her turn.” Jesse concentrated on Red Star’s movement as Rides the Wind led them in a wide circle.

“See how she moves in this way,” he said, and they made a second wide circle in the opposite direction. For nearly an hour, Rides the Wind led Red Star about, instructing Jesse to grip her pony with her knees, explaining how to apply pressure against the mare’s sides to signal her to turn.

Finally, Rides the Wind dismounted, handed Jesse the reins to her own mount, and ordered her to ride away from him, guiding the mare only with leg pressure. To Jesse’s dismay, Red Star did not seem to understand anything. Try as she would, Jesse could not get the mare to go where she wanted. Signaling a turn in one direction, she would be dismayed to see the head turn the opposite way.

Ordering a halt, Jesse began again. Again, the mare turned in exactly the opposite direction. Jesse’s frustration mounted as Red Star continued to display what seemed to be a very stubborn temperament. Signaling the mare to stop, she succeeded only in having her back up. Trying to get the mare to turn left, she was helpless as they began a wide circle to the right. Finally, anger won out. “Turn
right,
you stupid horse,
right!”
Jesse shouted, kicking the mare’s flanks.

Red Star obeyed the kick and jumped ahead to a canter. Jesse was dumped into the tall grass. The moment she felt Jesse leave her back, Red Star stopped, dropped her head, and began to graze.

Rides the Wind ran to Jesse. She sat, her forehead on her knees. “You are hurt?” he asked, concern in his voice.

She lifted her head, and he saw tears on her cheeks. “No!” she exclaimed.

“Then you must try again.”

Jesse’s shoulders stiffened, and she stood up slowly. Anger blazed in her eyes. “I
hate
horses!” she shouted. “I hate horses, and I
can’t
learn to ride!” She turned to stride away. He laid a hand upon her shoulder and insisted.

“You must try again.” Then, more kindly, he added, “You can learn. Try again.”

Jesse began to cry. Rides the Wind folded his arms and waited for her to stop. At last she lifted her head. Staring at the distant horizon, she vented the frustration of the last few weeks.

“I am so helpless,” she moaned. “I cannot cook without help from Old One. I cannot find food without Prairie Flower. I cannot raise the tepee. Everything is hard. Everything is new. I am treated like a child, and they are right. I am a child. I know nothing of your ways. I cannot even talk, because I do not know your language. Old One must teach me how to cook. And you must teach me to ride a horse so that I do not shame you. I am
tired
of being
stupid!” Her voice trembled as tears threatened to come again.

Rides the Wind gripped her shoulders hard and spoke slowly. “It is true, you have much to learn. But if you wish it, you will learn. You will learn to ride and to cook and to speak my language. I will learn about God as you read the book to me.” He added, “Two Mothers will call you
Ina
—‘mother’ in your tongue. If you want to be part of my people, get back on Red Star and learn to ride.”

Jesse looked into the stern, dark eyes. The feathers that hung from his braids moved in the breeze. He dropped his hands from her arms without dropping his eyes from hers.

Jesse got back on Red Star. At last, a few turns were successfully executed. When her legs ached until she thought she could stand no more, Rides the Wind came alongside. “It is enough.” He ordered her to dismount and to return to the village on foot. “We need no watching eyes while you learn.”

Jesse nodded obediently and headed back to the village. She picked a few flowers along the way, hoping that the bouquet would explain the reason for her early morning walk. A few women made comments as she walked by, and for once Jesse was glad that she didn’t understand.

When she entered the tepee, Old One chuckled and invited Jesse to rest her tired legs by sitting near her.

Jesse wondered,
How is it, Old One, that you always know my secrets?
She gestured until Old One understood. Old One grinned broadly, revealing the spaces left by two missing teeth. Wrinkling her nose, she made Jesse understand that she smelled of horses. The two women laughed together and shared the first of many secrets.

During the days that followed, Jesse and Rides the Wind left camp early every morning. Jesse learned to ride and found that her young muscles adapted quickly and the soreness soon disappeared. She did not notice when the change occurred, but one morning she suddenly realized that the approach of the great animals no longer inspired uneasiness on her part. Rather, she eagerly anticipated the morning lessons. Whether it was the male or the animal companionship that she enjoyed, she did not think through.

One special morning, Red Star raised her head and nickered a welcome. It was a soft, low rumble, and it barely reached her across the prairie for the morning was unusually windy. But at the sound, Rides the Wind said, “Now you are friends. Red Star welcomes you.” At the sound of his voice, Wind jerked his head up from grazing, tossed his head, and trumpeted a spirited welcome.

That day as Jesse cantered Red Star smoothly in a wide circle about him, Rides the Wind said, “You have gained the friendship of your horse. Watch her ears. She will tell you what she sees or hears or smells. You must ride every day until you know what she is telling you. Always watch for the things that might frighten her. She has one way to protect herself—that is to run away. Do not fear. Understand.”

Rides the Wind was standing on the prairie as he talked. Suddenly, he gave a piercing whistle. Wind came running to him, mane and tail flying. Jesse watched in admiration as Rides the Wind took a few running steps, grasped Wind’s mane, and sprung into the air. Lifted by the motion of his running horse, Rides the Wind was carried onto his pony’s back. The pony shot away from Jesse and Red Star, his body stretching out as his hooves pounded along the ground.

Rider and pony worked together smoothly, until Wind made a quick turn, and Rides the Wind disappeared from view. Wind turned quickly again, revealing his rider clinging to his side, one hand twisted in the flowing mane, the tip of one foot hooked over the pony’s back.

As the two raced past Jesse, Rides the Wind righted himself again, only to slip to the other side. Wind wheeled about abruptly and ran toward Jesse, halting only a few feet away from where she sat astride Red Star.

Rides the Wind caught his breath and held Wind in with a tight rein as he cautioned Jesse, “Know what you can do. Know what you cannot. Then you will do what is best for you and your pony.”

They rode back to camp that morning, Jesse trotting Red Star alongside Wind. As they paraded through the middle of camp, she thoroughly enjoyed the stares of disbelief from the women. She glanced at Rides the Wind. He caught her eye. She thought she saw a faint glimmer of a smile.

Is he proud of me?
she
wondered. She dismissed the thought, reminding herself that she was, after all, only a convenience brought into camp to feed his baby and read the book he was curious about.

They stopped outside the tepee of Rides the Wind. As they dismounted, Prairie Flower ran up and patted her arm, chattering and smiling encouragement. She demanded that Rides the Wind translate.

With no expression he said, “The woman says that you have been given my favorite mare.”

Jesse looked up at him. “Is this true?”

Rides the Wind shrugged, “Red Star is a good mare. Whether she is my favorite, I cannot say.” Before Jesse could thank him, he took Red Star’s reins from her and walked away, turning his broad back to the group of women who giggled and pointed at them both.

Ten

… our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace.

Daniel 3:17

As the weeks passed,
Jesse grew to understand more of the people’s ways. She learned to think of them as Lakota rather than Indians. Their language took on a familiar cadence, and she found herself mimicking the sounds when she was alone. She obediently repeated whatever words Old One taught, and remembered many, but her innate shyness precluded her trying to say much on her own. She learned to understand a great deal more than she could say.

If they knew how much of what they say I understand,
she thought,
they would not be so cruel.
She wanted to believe it, and yet she wondered. Open taunts had decreased since Rides the Wind had given her Red Star. However, at Jesse’s first attempts to speak with them they began to laugh. Only Prairie Flower and Old One were truly kind. Jesse grew to love them, and consoled herself with their growing friendship.

Two Mothers began to coo and grin at sight of her. She continued to read the Bible to Rides the Wind. He was kind and patient. On days when he did not hunt, he willingly took care of Two Mothers, proudly carrying the growing boy through the camp. Jesse saw that Rides the Wind was respected by his people. She also noticed the hungry eyes of a few single young women when he turned his broad back and limped away. Had it not been for the crooked leg, Rides the Wind would have been much desired by the young women of his tribe.

The summer had grown hot and dry, and camp moved again, seeking fresh water and grazing for the considerable herd of ponies owned by the band. Jesse was glad for the shade of the tepee. Her fair skin burned and peeled and burned again until she despaired of its roughness. Old One gathered a plant that she instructed Jesse to chew, forming a paste to spread over the rough, inflamed skin. It helped, but Jesse continued to seek the shelter of the tepee whenever possible. Anxious not to appear lazy, she worked hard to soften the hides of the buffalo Rides the Wind had killed. She worked at it by the hour until even Old One ordered her to stop before she wore the skin out.

“But Old One, I know
nothing.
I do nothing. People call me
wagluhe.”
Jesse flinched at the thought of how broken the language was, how infantile she must sound.

Old One understood and, handing Jesse a sewing awl, demonstrated how to stitch skins together.

BOOK: Walks the Fire
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