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Authors: Stephanie Grace Whitson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction

Walks the Fire (7 page)

BOOK: Walks the Fire
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… cause me to know the way wherein I should walk; for I lift up my soul unto thee.

Psalm 143:8

For as long as he could remember,
life had been unkind to Howling Wolf. His father had been killed in a raid on the Brule tribe. The new husband who took in his mother had instantly disliked Howling Wolf, chasing him off until the young man quit coming back and scrounged for his own livelihood. He managed to survive, but his luck was always bad. Once he had acquired a fine mare, but she had gone lame the morning after he stole her from the Pawnee. Mounted on old, poorly kept ponies, Howling Wolf rarely succeeded in the buffalo hunt. His tepee was small and sparsely furnished. He had only two ponies. Still, he was a handsome brave. Recklessly fierce in battle, he won the respect and admiration of many of his peers.

Howling Wolf usually hid the bitterness in his heart. But the tribal elders saw his quick rages and shook their heads in disgust. Four Skies waxed eloquent over more than one campfire on Howling Wolfs behalf. “I am certain that time will calm his heart,” and here Four Skies paused and winked at those around him, “time and a good woman.” The other elders shrugged their shoulders and hoped that Four Skies was right.

As he grew older, Howling Wolf’s fortunes did not change much. He always seemed to have just enough to get through each winter, but there was never an abundance. He remained restless and fierce, yearning to grasp success from the wind and become a leader of his people. When Prairie Flower cast her first womanly glances in his direction, Howling Wolf was astounded. She was the daughter of a well-respected elder.

Prairie Flower’s father warned her against Howling Wolf’s uncertain temperament, but Prairie Flower became even more determined to woo him. She was captivated by both his beauty and his rebellious and fierce nature. Her own loveliness transformed Howling Wolf’s surliness long enough for him to wrap her in his buffalo robe outside her father’s tepee and claim her as his bride.

Their youthful exuberance soon wore itself out. Prairie Flower became the excuse for Howling Wolf’s continued bad luck. He ridiculed and blamed her, destroying her youthful affection before it could mature into a love that would endure his fits of temper. When he returned from hunting with only a meager catch, she took it without a word of complaint. He interpreted her silence as accusation and blamed his poor catch on a lame pony—or anything he could think of. The fact that he had risen late or been impatient and scared game away was never brought up, and Howling Wolf went through life blaming others for his own shortcomings.

Prairie Flower tried to be a dutiful wife long after her affection for Howling Wolf had died. Her mother was a great comfort, encouraging her that if she remained faithful in her duties, Howling Wolf would one day settle down and appreciate her. But day in and day out, Howling Wolf continued to fail. Failure turned to bitterness, and the very beauty of his wife became a reminder of his own failures. Howling Wolf was caught in a downward spiral that Prairie Flower refused to join, and he hated her for it.

It was late during their first year of marriage that Prairie Flower finally realized she had made a terrible mistake. Her father, Talks a Lot, sympathized, but he gave his daughter the same advice as her mother had—stay with Howling Wolf and give him time to grow up. Talks a Lot also added the Lakota version of an “I told you so” speech to his advice. Prairie Flower determined not to bring up her disappointments to her parents again.

In the fall of that first year, something happened that would forever change Prairie Flower’s life. Rides the Wind’s wife died, leaving him with an infant son to raise. A week later, Prairie Flower watched with her friends when he came riding into the village with a white woman on his pony. Howling Wolf brought his wife a strange white blanket that he said they had found in the broken pieces of a white man’s cart. Prairie Flower said nothing, but Howling Wolf saw her glance toward Rides the Wind’s tepee as she accepted the blanket. She thought,
Rides the Wind brings a woman

Howling Wolf brings a dirty piece of white cloth. And it will always be this way. Howling Wolf will always bring what no one wants.

Howling Wolf watched jealously as Rides the Wind ordered the white woman inside his tepee. When she scrambled inside, he smiled, enjoying the thought of what he imagined would ensue.

But Rides the Wind came outside and rode away almost immediately after following the woman inside his tepee. Howling Wolf watched in disbelief and then shoved his own wife inside his small tepee to demand payment for his gift.

The next morning, Prairie Flower laughed with the other women as they talked about the arrival of the new woman.

“What is she like?” they demanded, when Old One arrived to join their berry-hunting expedition.

Old One shrugged her shoulders. “You see. She is white.”

“Will she stay?”

“My son says this is a woman to feed his son.” Old One added, “She was found by one of the strange carts the whites bring. Rides the Wind says they found things for a papoose. The hunting party watched when this woman and her husband put their papoose in the ground.”

“They put him in the

The women were horrified.

“He was stepped on by the strange cart. They put their dead ones in the ground.”

The women muttered their disbelief. They had heard of such things, but never had one of them actually witnessed the whites doing such a thing until now.

Prairie Flower spoke, “So if her papoose has gone to the other land, she must have milk for the child of Rides the Wind.”

Old One nodded and cackled, “She has much milk. She did not want to give it, but I made her.” The old woman’s eyes softened, “I think she likes the child. Rides the Wind has named him Two Mothers. She will stay.” At that, Old One said, “Enough! You will see her for yourself. You decide what you think. I have talked too long, and my son will have no food if I do not get to work.”

It was early afternoon when the old woman finally succeeded in waking Jesse. Motioning for her to follow, she scooped up the baby and left the tepee. Jesse followed the old woman to the nearby creek where she watched as the woman unwrapped the infant and bathed him. After the bath, the firm little body was massaged with leaves. The old woman pointed to a nearby weed. Jesse pulled off a leaf. Instantly, it gave off a sweet, pungent fragrance.

When the woman had finished with the baby, she replenished the diaper lining with tufts of milkweed fluff, re-wrapped him in the fawnskin diaper, and gave him to Jesse. The fragrance of the wild plant hung on the air. Jesse snuggled the infant in her arms, longing for Jacob’s smiling blue eyes and happy greeting.

The old woman watched carefully. She saw Jesse’s wistful smile as the gray eyes blinked back tears. The old woman patted Jesse’s arm gently.

The infant nuzzled to be fed and Jesse complied, sitting at the water’s edge, oblivious to the old one’s comings and goings. When the child’s hunger abated, Jesse heard footsteps behind her. She looked up to see the old one spreading an elkskin shift on a serviceberry bush nearby. Moccasins were set below the dress.

Jesse leaned over to see her reflection in the water and was horrified by what met her gaze. Her face was filthy, her stringy hair caked with dust.

Old One took the baby, and Jesse knelt at the water’s edge, dipping her hands into the current and splashing her face with the cool water.

Stepping into the stream, she waded to a spot where overhanging bushes afforded some privacy and sighed as she fumbled to unfasten her wet buttons and stays. Cool water rushed over her skin. She scrubbed her hair vigorously and crept back near the bank to quickly don the clean shift.

Wading back to retrieve her own clothing, she rinsed it as best she could and spread the multitude of petticoats out to dry in the sun.

Well, Father,
she thought,
here I am, little Jesse King… Indian maiden.
She grinned at the ridiculous picture she would make dressed in the elkskin dress the old one had brought. Still, she was grateful for anything clean, and she welcomed the comfort of the garment. With no stays squeezing in her waist and no petticoats catching on the grasses as they walked back to the tepee, Jesse felt pounds lighter.

Back in the tepee, the old one produced a strange sort of comb made from quills. She watched Jesse struggle with it for a few moments and then took it from the inexperienced hands and patiently combed the long, thick hair until it hung straight and silken.

Old One said something again, and made motions for Jesse to braid her hair. The task completed, Jesse quickly exited the tepee and ran to the edge of the stream to look once again at herself. She chuckled at the strange woman who appeared in the water. Her skin was white, her eyes were still gray, but the red hair was braided neatly and hung down her shoulders. The soft tawny color of the dress she wore made her hair glow.

Well, now, Lord, you know the number of the hairs upon my head… so you must be able to recognize me, even in this unbelievable garb.
Jesse’s calico dress and petticoats still lay spread across the bushes. Women began to congregate and exclaim over the petticoats. Jesse was horrified to watch them help themselves to whatever struck their fancy. She had intended to keep her clothes but, unable to communicate, and afraid to defend her possessions, she watched the pieces disappear, one by one, into the tepees of the other women.

Supper—stew cooked over the tepee fire—was taken in silence by the two women. The baby’s father made no appearance.
“Be not afraid”
seemed to be whispered by the wind as Jesse settled onto her buffalo skin pallet that night. The baby who was not Jacob snuggled close, and Jesse slept soundly.

After breakfast the next morning, Old One strapped the infant’s cradle board to Jesse’s back. Jesse followed her obediently outside the tepee, her heart racing. They joined a group of women on a foraging expedition. Unaccustomed to the weight of a cradle board on her back, Jesse stumbled along, fascinated by the women’s knowledge of what grew on the prairie. They dug up roots and gathered berries until their skin bags bulged. Jesse began to see the prairie in a new light. On the trail, she had admired the flowers, but the wide expanse of scenery had soon taken on a sameness. Indeed, once or twice even Homer had fallen asleep while he drove, lulled by the monotony of the land. He had sworn about the worthless land.

“Just look at it, Jess. You see anything
lookin’ at? No woods for lumber—how’s a man to build a house out here? Nothin’ to build a decent fence, neither—not even enough rocks fer that! No rivers to float yer crops to market. No way to build up a trade. It’s a desert, Jess—a worthless desert. Let the Injuns have it, I say!”

Jesse thought. She wondered at the lack of emotion she felt at the thought of him. He had been her husband, but he was gone now, and she found herself in such an unbelievable situation that all her energies were used to cope with it. The Indian obviously meant for her to stay and feed his child.
Surely the others will look for us,
she thought.
But perhaps not. Except for George and Lavinia, we had no friends there… and the storm…
Her thoughts whirled round and round, until the child in the cradle board cried to be fed, and she stopped to nurse him.

The women stood about her in a circle, watching and giggling. One insolent girl poked Jesse’s arm, prodding at each freckle that dotted the wind-burned skin. Old One finally came hurrying up and scolded them all, shooing them away and sheltering Jesse from their curious eyes with the cradle board. Jesse looked up into the wrinkled face. “Thank you,” she said. Old One could not understand the language, but the appreciative tone meant much. Old One pointed to the child and said,
Jesse repeated the word. Old One pointed a finger at herself.
Jesse parroted the word.

Prairie Flower witnessed this scene, and something stirred in her. The white woman was trying. Was she lonely? She certainly looked bewildered. Yet, she had not flinched when they poked and prodded her strange white skin with the brown spots. She had looked back at them with her cool, gray eyes.

When the child finished eating, Old One helped Jesse rewrap the baby and take up the cradle board once more. Prairie Flower left the group of women who laughed and giggled at the white woman’s clumsy ways and approached Jesse to offer her digging tool to her. Jesse took it, but looked about in confusion. She had no idea what to dig. Prairie Flower walked along, indicating plants, showing Jesse where and how to dig. Jesse was soon finding her own plants and roots. Prairie Flower nodded her encouragement

she said, pointing to a root already in her own bag. Jesse tried to say the word, but the new sounds were difficult. Prairie Flower went on patiently. Digging up another root she said,

BOOK: Walks the Fire
13.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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