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When they mastered the ways of the Elk Dog, the horse, the band prospered. Yet they knew the old traditional ways must not die. Owl's father had changed the lives of The People bringing the horse from his native Spain. Now the younger son of the legendary chief must make his own reputation by learning the way of the buffalo from an ancient medicine man. He pursues his own vision quest, a perilous journey taking him through savage lands where he is captured by his enemies and enslaved. Working in the Spanish mines he wins the heart of a brave and beautiful woman, and his freedom. Awaiting Owl is honor among The People--and a deadly rival who claims that honor as his own.
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Don Coldsmith is the Spur Award-winning author of more than thirty-five books. After serving as a combat medic in the Pacific during World War II, Coldsmith served as a physician in Emporia, Kansas, until 1988 when he closed his office to devote himself to writing. Coldsmith and his wife, Edna, maintain a small ranching operation, and have raised cattle, Apaloosa horses, and five daughters, not necessarily in that order.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1Owl sat on a limestone outcropping near the crest of a hill overlooking the village. The rolling prairie spread before him, green in the Moon of Grass-growing. Darker green slashes marked the course of wandering streams. Clumps of willow contrasted in lighter tones with the deeper hues of the hardwoods.Beneath the boy's position were scattered the lodges of the Elk-dog band of the People. There was the usual noise, barking of countless dogs, and the buzzing activity of large numbers of people living in close proximity. In all, it was a peaceful scene, but Owl was not in a mood to appreciate it. He was troubled.Through all his twelve summers, Owl had realized that he was different from other children. His mother, the Tall One, had told him this from the time he could remember. He wasn't certain what the difference was. Certainly, he was the son of a chief, but it was more than that. Owl andhis older brother, Eagle, were regarded somehow as special by the People. Most of the other children seemed to regard them with awe and respect.There were a few exceptions, and one of these was the cause of his current depression. Two Dogs, slightly older, taller, and stronger, had increasingly made Owl's life miserable. The boy rubbed his bruised shoulder, and gently touched a skinned spot on his knee. It was beyond his understanding that Two Dogs had initiated the fight. It had not been one of the good-natured contests constantly carried out by the youths of the Rabbit Society. The other's attitude had been one of resentment and hostility.Then there was Two Dogs' remark, which had finally caused Owl to attack in a blind rage. "You think you are special because your father has fur upon his face."It was true. Heads Off, the chief, was the only man Owl had ever seen with facial hair. But again, it was apparently regarded with awe and respect by most of the People. Tall One eagerly examined the face of Eagle from time to time, proudly pointing out the new growth of fuzz along his upper lip and jaw. Yet there was the undercurrent of resentment by the occasional malcontent like Two Dogs.Owl had attempted to discuss this situation with Eagle. His brother was inclined to shrug the matter aside."It is nothing, Owl. Our father is a chief, and a good one. Two Dogs would rather be a chief's son than a nobody."The father of Two Dogs was certainly a nobody. The family was constantly living on the brink of poverty because of his addiction to gambling. Perhaps this was part of the cause of Two Dogs' bitterness, thought Owl.None of this seemed to bother Eagle in the least. He was a happy, well-liked youth, tall and strong, and able to glory in his skills. He was an able horseman, capable with the bow and the lance. In wrestling, he could best any of theRabbit Society, and many of the adults. It was acknowledged that his leadership abilities would make him an excellent chief to eventually succeed his father.Eagle was, in short, not the sort to be the object of a bully's attentions. Consequently, Two Dogs had turned his attention to the chief's younger son.Owl did not lack in physical ability. His skill in hunting rabbits with the throwing sticks was well known. He had displayed himself well in the fight just past. But still, he preferred to think rather than fight, if it came to a choice. And why, he desperately wondered, did Two Dogs hate him? What was it that was different, that Owl did not understand?Still depressed, he rose with a sigh and started down the hill, hitching up the thong that held his breech-clout in place. He would go and talk to his grandfather, who would surely understand. Coyote could always be relied on to bring comfort, a smile, and perhaps some valuable advice. And, he was much more approachable than Owl's father, the chief.The boy threaded his way among the conical lodges. He paused only to kick irritably at a barking dog and to send a well-aimed rock after the retreating animal.Coyote was seated in front of the lodge, propped comfortably against his willow back rest. Pungent smoke drifted from his pipe as he complacently observed the village. His bright eyes flickered everywhere, overlooking nothing, though his demeanor was one of complete relaxation."Uncle," began Owl, using the term of address for any adult male of the People, "I would speak with you."Coyote motioned to the grass beside him and nodded. Owl sank to the squatting position of rest and waited. It was a thing of good manners to wait now until invited to speak. His grandfather did not force him to wait long."Yes, my son," he inquired, "you are troubled?"Owl blurted out his story, nearly in tears. "Tell me, Grandfather, what is it?" he finished.Coyote took three long puffs on his stone pipe before he spoke. Finally he knocked the dottle into his palm and tossed the ashes to the ground. He rose to his feet, placing the pipe on his willow rest."Owl, my son, come with me. I think it is time for you to have a visit with White Buffalo."Apprehension gripped the boy. White Buffalo, the medicine man, was universally respected by the People, but also feared by the youngsters. He was very old, probably more than fifty winters, Owl thought. His wrinkled face had a perpetual look of stern disapproval, almost a scowl. True, Owl could not remember any one who had actually been harmed by the medicine man. His medicine, however, was assumed to be very powerful. In any major tribal decision, the chiefs, even Owl's father, were dependent on White Buffalo's visions. The children at play would frighten each other with threats of the wrath of White Buffalo, and speak in hushed whispers of his spells and incantations.Thus, Owl's heart beat faster and he found it difficult to swallow as they approached the lodge of the medicine man. Coyote paused outside the brightly decorated structure and called out to announce their presence. An old woman, wife of the medicine man, Owl knew, drew aside the hanging skin of the doorway, and beckoned the visitors inside."Ah-koh, Uncle," began Coyote. Owl knew that the two men were close friends, though White Buffalo was much the older. "I have brought Owl to speak with you."The old man nodded, and wonder of wonders, almost smiled. His eyes narrowed to wrinkled slits as he peered at the boy. He motioned them to seats on the robes beside him."Yes, boy," he growled, "what do you want?"Owl, nearly shaking in his moccasins, could not answer. In this moment of stress, if he had been asked his own name he probably would have missed the correct answer. He gulped a time or two and attempted to phrase his problem, unsuccessfully. At last he was rescued by his grandfather."This young man, Uncle, is troubled. Owl feels that somehow he is different from other youths of the People. This makes Owl very unhappy. I have thought perhaps you might speak of these things to this young man."White Buffalo stared piercingly at his young visitor for a long moment before he answered. Then he nodded."So it will be."The old man turned and reached into the storage space under the lodge lining behind him. He brought forth several tightly rolled skins, examined them briefly, and selected one. The others were returned to their place.Owl was immediately impressed with the reverence the medicine man exhibited for the object in his hands. The gnarled old fingers untied the thongs that held the roll in place. His hands started very carefully to unroll the soft-tanned buckskin. Suddenly Owl realized what the roll contained. It could be only one thing. He was to be allowed to view one of the precious Story Skins, on which were recorded the history of the People."You know, my son, what this is?" White Buffalo was asking as he ceremoniously unrolled the skin.Owl only nodded, wide-eyed and unable to speak. The old man spread the skin before them. Dozens of small pictographic figures showed plainly in the dim light of the lodge."The story starts in the center," White Buffalo continued, "and circles outward. One picture is added each summer, showing the most important thing that has come to be for the People. Ah, here it is!"He seemed to have been looking for something, and now pointed to one of the story pictures. It was upside down to Owl, being at the far side of the skin. He could see, however, that it was a picture of a man on a horse."Many summers ago, before you were born, my son, the People had no elk-dogs. All the hunting was done on foot. Sometimes the hunt was poor, and the People were hungry. Sometimes we starved." He pointed to an earlier picture, with emaciated figures and burial scaffolds for the dead."Then your father, Heads Off, came among us, with his elk-dog."Owl had, of course, heard this story before, from the time of his birth. He had become tired and bored with it. Yet, with the story pictures in front of him, a new dimension was added. He eagerly looked more closely at the skin. Yes, on the face of the mounted figure there was hair. It was his father. Eagerly, the boy looked ahead. Some of the scenes resembled those of the lodge lining in his father's lodge. There were scenes depicting a successful buffalo hunt, and combat with the dreaded Head Splitters. The Great Battle, with both groups mounted on horses for the first time, was one of the biggest events in the recent history of the People. A resounding victory had resulted, though the chief of the Southern band had been killed. Yes, there was the dead chief, and Owl's father taking over the position. That had been the year before Owl's birth. Eagle had been only a baby.There were other events, too, which Owl had never seen depicted before, though he had heard them mentioned. The Big Winter, when Sun Boy's torch had almost gone out. And the death of four young men of the People, who had ventured out ill-advised and encountered a band of Head Splitters. Owl began to regard, with a special kind of awe, the medicine man, custodian of all this fascinatinginformation. That individual was still talking, retelling the stories in a singsong sort of chant."--and so, since the coming of the elk-dog, it has been easier to kill buffalo. The People have full bellies, and many robes for warmth. It was good when Heads Off, the mighty hunter, came to us with his elk-dog medicine."Although he had heard this story before, Owl suddenly began to grasp a part of the situation he had always ignored. "Heads Off brought us the elk-dogs" was the familiar phrasing of the tale. But now, for Owl, there was something missing."Uncle," he began eagerly, almost interrupting the old man. "You must know--where did my father come from to the People?"Coyote, quietly lounging in the shadows, was pleased. His grandson had hit upon the crux of the situation. Coyote nodded to himself. This boy would be a worthy one to bear the blood of the family."My son," the medicine man was speaking, "Heads Off came from a place far beyond the Big Water. None of the People has ever been there. Your father was never able to return to his own tribe."This, thought Owl, is why I feel different. I am different. His head was swimming with the sudden realization that he had never stopped to consider before."Then," he muttered, half to himself, "my father is not even of the People.""No," agreed the old man, reading correctly the boy's downcast expression. It would be quite a blow to discover that one was an outsider, especially at twelve summers. "No, but Heads Off is well honored by the People. They have made him chief. He is now one of us."Owl still looked dubious. In the back of his mind was forming an ambition. Some day he would go and find his father's tribe."Of course," continued White Buffalo, "there are always a few who resent the success of others. But your father has earned his honors. His medicine is very powerful. As strong as my own, in a different way."This was a favorite topic of the old medicine man. He warmed to his subject."Mine is the medicine of the buffalo. My visions tell the People where to hunt, and how to find the herds. Your father's medicine is that of the elk-dog. With this medicine, he controls the elk-dogs, so that men ride upon them to hunt or to fight."He pointed to one of the later pictures. The chief, in ceremonial dress, wore on his chest the symbol of his medicine. The iron bit for the horse's mouth, brought from across the Big Water. Owl had seen it many times, hanging in its place of honor over his father's bed. It was no longer used in a horse's mouth. It had become symbolic of control over the elk-dogs. An object not to be used, but worn only ceremonially, and honored.But, in the mind of a youth of twelve, that which is familiar is never so exciting as that which is unknown."Tell me, Uncle, how do you learn where to find the buffalo?"It was a more complicated question than it appeared. Implied in the query was a genuine interest in all the medicine involved. It could not be answered simply. The old man waited a long time before answering. How could he sum up in a few words the years of experience required? How could the boy grasp the intricate knowledge of the prairie, the interdependence of the teeming life on the plains? One had to know exactly when to fire the prairie in the Moon of Grass-growing, to bring the buffalo back. All this in addition to judgment. The chiefs relied heavily on the visions of the medicine man. White Buffalo shrugged."The visions, of course."He was feeling a little depressed as he talked with this boy. The old man had been concerned about who would take over his responsibilities. He increasingly felt the encroachment of age and infirmity, and he had no apprentice. The usual candidate would have been his son, but he and his wife had never had a child. Aiee, what a disappointment.For years now, he had looked for a young man to be his understudy. Several had seemed good possibilities. Coyote, for one, but each had selected other pursuits. In recent years, there had been almost no interest on the part of any of the young men. They were all too busy with learning the use of the elk-dogs and the real-spear.If White Buffalo had known the thoughts of his young guest, he would have felt considerably more cheerful. Owl's head was full of thrilling thoughts of the Story Skins, of buffalo medicine, and of all the knowledge in the mind of the medicine man. He struggled with these thoughts a long time. If he were to grow up not quite fitting the pattern of the other boys, maybe he could fit into this type of activity. Hesitantly, he spoke."Uncle, how does one become a medicine man?"White Buffalo was overwhelmed, but managed to conceal his elation. His grim countenance became even more grim."Come back tomorrow," he growled. "We will talk."Neither Owl nor his grandfather spoke as they wound their way back toward the lodge of the boy's parents. Coyote, however, smiled quietly to himself. He had seen the increasing moodiness of young Owl, who appeared to be a thinker.Sometimes, Coyote mused, it needs only to bring the right ones together at the right time. He was very pleased with his afternoon's accomplishment.Copyright © 1981 by Don Coldsmith
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