“You cry like a whimpering dog -- not a warrior!"
The Converging Path
A young soldier hung from a dead tree nestled in the shallow gully of two hills. His hands were tightly bound above his head to an over-hanging branch, and his legs were tied to the trunk. He was stripped to his long-johns, a dark-red stain marring the white fabric at his side where a broken arrow jutted from its center. Groaning softly from the pain of the wound, the captive dropped his head to his chest and the movement caused his bright, yellow hair to flutter in the warm, midday breeze.
Beside him, a tall Indian dressed in light buckskins pulled the Army saddle from the soldier's chestnut pony and dropped it onto the yellowed summer grass. Another Indian sat upon the ground struggling with a pair of shiny, new boots. His long jet-black hair spilled down his back, and a lone, single braid, tied with a small piece of buckskin, held an eagle feather at its end. He wore a tight-fitting U.S. Cavalry jacket with sleeves too short for his arms and a bloodstain on one side. The Indian’s skin was dark and browned, but his eyes were darker, as black as a wild animal’s. His name was Night Bear, a renegade Comanche.
Finally tiring of wrestling with the army boots, Night Bear threw them away from him in disgust. Slipping his moccasins back on, he rejoined his new companion. As he drew near, the tall Indian signed, These are good horses. Strong and well-fed. Not like our skinny paints. They can travel long, and far.
Night Bear did not answer. He was not interested in horses. With loathing, he eyed the prisoner tied to the tree. A metal canteen hung from the discarded saddle, grabbing it, he approached the wounded man.
“Water . . . please,” the soldier begged. “Gimme some water.”
Night Bear opened the canteen and emptied it over the top of the soldier’s head. The captive, in an overwhelming desire for water, tried to catch some in his mouth, but Night Bear threw the canteen at his feet. Lashing out like a snake, Night Bear slapped the bound man across the face, rivulets of water shot-out in all directions.
“Please...don’t...don't hurt me. I’m bleeding bad . . . ” He was no more than a boy, perhaps seventeen. He wavered on the brink of unconsciousness.
Night Bear spit, and then roughly grabbed the soldier by the hair, pulling his head back. With his other hand, he unsheathed his knife, and looking the boy straight in the eyes, slowly took his scalp.
The young man screamed as blood ran down his face and neck, dripping into his eyes. “Ahh...! No! Don’t! Please!”
The tall Indian came up from behind Night Bear and grabbed his arm. He hurriedly signed, Have you lost your mind? What crazy Path is this that you follow?
Night Bear pulled away. He moved into a defensive posture, knife in one hand, and the young soldier's bloody scalp in the other.
The tall Indian did not back down. Signed, I am Thunder Bow of the Sioux Nation, Teacher of the Way. I am a man of peace who is sworn to the Path of the Medicine Wheel. This killing of innocent children is the Path away from the heart, my brother. Release this young pony soldier. He can do us no harm.
Night Bear tied the bleeding scalp to a leather tong that hung at his waist. Then he signed, You’re a Medicine Man? He looked up into the sky and yelled loudly in Comanche, “Great Spirit! You help me escape the white man’s fort with a Medicine Man?” He laughed loudly as if he had just been told a funny story.
In a surprise move, he threatened Thunder Bow with a feint from his knife. Gritting his teeth, he signed, The Sioux are a tribe of women! You do not fight the white man as we do. Your Chiefs sit and smoke their pipes of peace trying to decide which is the right Path. He pounded his chest with an open hand, held his head high, I am Night Bear, Comanche, brave warrior and hater of all white men. The whites follow their god of War and Destruction. They hunt and kill innocent women and children like savage animals. They are all cowards! This is their Path, Medicine Man, not mine! But I am learning fast.
He turned and approached the soldier again. Without warning, he quickly thrust his knife deep into the prisoner’s shoulder just beneath the collar bone.
The young man screamed. “Aiiee! Stop! Please! I beg you . . .” He began to weep like a child.
Night Bear looked back over his shoulder with hatred in his eyes, then spoke again, “This is for what these mad dogs did to my wife and daughter. Learn well, Thunder Bow. It is the New Path!”
Laying his blade flat, he deeply sliced the hostage to the bone, from shoulder to shoulder. The young man shrieked with pain.
Thunder Bow spoke in Comanche for the first time. “It is the Mad Dog that howls at his own shadow in the night.”
Night Bear stopped, looking at the tall Indian with a new admiration. “How is it you know my language?”
Thunder Bow did not answer, but solemnly spoke a warning, “The death of your Spirit will be more painful than any revenge you may seek here, my brother.”
Night Bear ignored him, approached the soldier and spit into his face. He lifted the captive’s chin, “You cry like a whimpering dog. Not a warrior! You have no soul! Where is your God of War now?”
“I’m innocent. I’ve killed no one . . .” the young man whispered, seeing his death at hand.
Night Bear spoke to the Great Spirit. “I take an innocent to sacrifice for all the innocents the white man has murdered. The Innocent will go with all the other innocents into the spirit place. Thus will sky and earth balance.”
Sheathing his bloodied knife, Night Bear reached both hands into the boy’s gaping wound, and with all his strength and weight pulled the flesh down, stripping and tearing it away from the bone.
Thunder Bow turned away, walking back to where the horses were tied. The young man’s death-screams followed him, then slowly fell silent.
Pup sat outside Major West’s cabin. He leant back against the rough and knotted wall just under the window where a small patch of shade still lingered. His small, fourteen-year-old hands, meticulously polished the bugle the major had given him the day they first brought Pup to the fort. They had found him at the bottom of a pickle barrel, the lone survivor of a small wagon train following the path westward. His real name was Antonio Papalopagas, but the major just called him Pup.
Pup had an uneasy feeling, and looking up saw an old Indian man staring intently at him from the holding area. The Indian’s face was weathered and creased, but his dark eyes sparkled brightly. Pup was amazed at how the old man could just sit there in the blazing hot sun all day without moving.
A three rail fence was all that really separated Pup from the Indians. The holding area was nothing more than a corral that the soldiers used to break wild horses. A small lean-to had been set up in the center, but it offered very little shade, and a water trough, set against the back fence, was filled every other day with fresh water for them to drink.
Pup figured there were over fifty Indians inside, mostly old men and women from many different tribes. It was the major’s job to round up any he could find and hold them there until the platoon came through to escort them all back to the reservation.
The old man kept staring.
Pup didn’t like Indians -- none of them. Not after what they had done to his family. He was deathly afraid of them -- sometimes he dreamt of one stabbing him over and over again. He shivered at the thought. Pup believed that Indians were all no better than wild animals, killing innocent people wherever they could find them -- like savages.
Pup noticed the old Indian was motioning to him. He would hold his hands to his mouth then point at Pup and smile -- he kept repeating this. “Maybe he wants me to get him a drink of water,” thought Pup, but then it hit him. “He wants me to blow my horn!”
Pup pointed to his bugle and the old man shook his head enthusiastically. Placing the horn to his lips, Pup blew the only note he knew. The old Indian laughed and slapped his leg as he rocked back and forth grinning from ear to ear. He blew again and the man stood and motioned for Pup to come closer. Not thinking, he rose and strolled halfway to the corral before he simply froze, growing sick with fear. The Indian stopped smiling, seeing the doubt in the boy's eyes.
He held something in his hand, and blowing on it, made a soft humming sound. He offered it to Pup, signaling for him to come closer and take it. Pup crept cautiously forward, reaching his hand through the fence. Abruptly, the old man, with unsuspected speed, grabbed him by the wrist. Pup became frantic, trying to pull free of the old man’s iron grip.
The Indian held him there, staring at Pup with a surprised expression that turned slowly into a look of overwhelming sadness. Pup, curiously, stopped struggling. The old man closed his eyes and let out a deep pitiful sigh. A tear rolled down his cracked and weathered face that followed a converging path. Then he softly patted the boy’s hand and said something unintelligible, motioning to the sky.
“Hey! Let him go!” It was Major West.
The old Indian quickly shoved something into Pup’s hand, then released him. He kept muttering something and making hand gestures toward the sky as if he were praying.
“Are you all right?” the major asked as he rushed to where Pup stood.
“Yeah . . . sure, major, I’m fine. He just wanted to give me this.” Pup revealed a smooth piece of wood with a hole cut in the center. A thin piece of dried gut had been stretched across the hole. Pup held it to his lips and gently blew, and a low humming vibration could be heard.
“That’s a deer call,” the major said. “When you get tired of eating buffalo meat we’ll have to go hunting and give it a try.”
“Really? Boy, that’d be great! Can we try it today?”
“No. There are more important matters to attend to first. As you know, we lost two men last night. I’ve got to bring ‘em back. Are you sure you want to come along, Pup?” the Major asked with a concerned look on his face.
“Yes, sir, major. Don’t you worry about me. I can keep up. Just you watch and see.”
“I want you to realize that these two bucks we’re going after are very dangerous. They killed one man and took another captive. This ain’t gonna be no picnic, Pup. You’re gonna have to pull your own weight -- do you understand?”
“Yes, major. I understand. Just don’t leave me here, sir, please. I haven’t been out of this fort in over six months.”
Major West rolled his eyes, slumped his shoulders in defeat. “All right then, boy. Get your gear together. We leave immediately.”
Thunder Bow and Night Bear sat beneath a large cottonwood tree huddled around a small struggling fire. They had picked their way through the rolling plains following the trail of a large herd of buffalo, but could find no signs of old camps. They decided to double back, follow the river for half a day, then turn south.
The two men hadn’t spoken since the senseless killing of the pony soldier. Thunder Bow thought that now, here by the fire, would be a good time to speak to Night Bear.
He signed: It has been long since I left the camp of The Little Black Eagle, leading my two pack horses filled with furs to trade for salt. I follow my Spirit Dream, my Vision Quest toward the Teaching Path. I am welcome in any camp among The People and speak several different languages. I carry no weapons as I travel the Cleansing Path. The Great Spirit guided me to the pony soldiers and they surrounded me. I did not resist. They took my furs and horses throwing me in a pen like an animal. For two passings of the moon I was held captive at the fort of the white man. But the Medicine Wheel is strong, and the Spirit led me to Night Bear, who helped me break free like the Mighty Buffalo to once again live out among the plains of The People. I continue my rightful Path, nothing has changed.
Night Bear did not speak for a time, building up the fire. When the flames danced higher, he finally signed, Night Bear has changed. I no longer follow the Way of the Shield.
Thunder Bow answered, Why do you seek a new Way? It is not possible for the Medicine to be a Power of war. We must not let the white man defeat our Spirits even as they defeat The People. The Medicine Way has been our path from the very beginning. Do not stray, my brother.
Night Bear then spoke in Comanche, “My path leads me to Crazy Horse. To fight every white man that destroys the buffalo, kills The People, and takes our lands.”
“You will die upon this path,” said Thunder Bow, solemnly, “and I will lose another brother. Already so many have died from the loud roar of the white man’s thunder irons. The Spirit has joined us. I am to follow you for a time. Turn away from this Path of War, and we will go home to the camp of The Little Black Eagle and live in peace.”
“Peace? How long will we live in peace? The white man hunts us out day by day. There will be no peace for us, my brother, only war -- only death.”
Major West called his squad to a halt, the neck of his Appaloosa wet and lathered from where the reins had rubbed. They had ridden hard throughout the day, stopping only briefly to water their horses along the river they had been following.
“Sir, yes, sir,” answered the sergeant, reining in his horse alongside the major.
“We’ll set up camp here, sergeant. Post two sentries along this side of the river and two others on the far side.”
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant rode back down the line of men, barking orders.
The major dismounted and handed his reins to Pup. The boy grinned, and gave a steadfast salute, then quickly led the horse toward the river to drink. The major pulled off his hat and wiped the dirt and sweat from his forehead. Why’d I come out here with these green-horn cadets? Not a one of them has any experience in fighting Indians. Even now he could hear them groaning and complaining as they dismounted. “Buck-up, soldier!” he yelled at them. “Water your horses, then get some rest! No campfires tonight! We’ll be moving on before daybreak!”
The major, stiff and sore from the saddle, stoically walked down to the river. Stooping at its edge, he washed some of the dirt and grime from his middle-aged face and graying temples. He refilled his canteen, then removed the white bandanna that hung about his neck and wiped himself dry, while staring at the surrounding trees on the opposite side of the river.
Sergeant McKeeny sauntered up and stood by his side. “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, major?”
West let out an exhausted sigh and slapped the dirt from his shoulders with his hat. “What’s on your mind, sergeant?”
The major studied the man. McKeeny was a grizzled, old soldier that had been in the Army all his life. It was the only home he had ever known. His taste for whiskey and brawling had kept him at the unfortunate rank of sergeant. But he was a seasoned Indian-fighter, and West was glad to have him along. The young recruits looked up to him as a fatherly image. And McKeeny, when drunk, loved to tell his old war stories to anyone that would listen.
“Beggin’ the major’s pardon, sir, but I think we oughta high-tail-it outta here before we run into a heap of trouble.”
Major West ignored him, scanning the horizon, then said, “I think they’ll double-back -- head south and try to meet-up with Crazy Horse and his bunch.” West put his hat back on and retied his scarf.
“And what’ll happen if we meet up with Crazy Horse first, sir?” the sergeant asked.
The major fished a cigar butt out of his shirt pocket, stuck it in the corner of his mouth, clenched it in his teeth. “Damn-it, sergeant, I know! Most these boys are still wet behind the ears, and we’re nothing but the Army’s nurse-maids. But by God, they rode far and hard today - - as good as any soldier I ever seen.” He turned and watched them as they readied for the night, making sleeping pallets from their bedrolls and saddles. Then he softened and said, “I’d hate to lose a one of them, sergeant. But these two bucks took a hostage, and God knows what they may have done to him by now.”
“God knows, I know, and you know, major -- that boy’s dead. And chasing after ‘im out here like this ain’t gonna do nuthin’ but get some more of them young-un’s killed.”
“It’s my job to bring ‘em all back, sergeant -- dead or alive.”
The black of the night sky began to fade and turn blue with the approach of the rising sun. The small squad of soldiers busied themselves with preparing their mounts and eating what little jerked-meat they had brought along with them. Sergeant McKeeny had relieved the sentries sometime in the middle of the night, and Pup, who couldn’t sleep because of all the excitement, had volunteered to stand watch.
Major West went around to each young man rousing them from sleep and offering words of encouragement. “Stay alert, men. Keep your eyes open and horses quiet. I got a feeling we’re gonna cross paths with our runaways this morning, then we can all go home and get some hot food and a soft bed.”
Night Bear quietly led the way toward the river, Thunder Bow trailing close behind deep in thought over the words that had been spoken the night before. It was decided that they would split-up once the river had been reached. Night Bear would go south following the trail of Crazy Horse, while Thunder Bow, not being able to persuade his brother against war, would turn east, toward home.
The morning black birds sang throughout the trees that lined the banks of the river, reminding Thunder Bow of home and the Cheyenne woman that he hoped still waited for him. A large black crow flew across his path and Thunder Bow suddenly recognized this place from his Dream. A dark premonition chilled his spine and he knew, as in the Dream, that this was his final Place of Power. His ultimate test was about to unfold.
Years earlier, Thunder Bow had begun the Path of Teaching. A Vision Quest was required of him and he was sent out to be tested by the Creator of all things -- The Giver and The Taker. In order to pass the test, he had to rely on only the old Ways of the Teaching. If he failed, he would lose his Spirit upon the Wind.
The Giver appeared to him as a low vibrating hum that resonated a perfect tone throughout his body -- One with all Living Things. The Taker came as a dead child, Soul Catcher, with a glistening horn that showed the Way of Destruction, and Loss of Spirit.
Thunder Bow knew he had been guided here by the Great Spirit. Taking a deep breath, he pressed his pony onward.
Night Bear threw up his hand, signaling to Thunder Bow that something was just ahead. A low humming sound could be heard coming from the river.
Night Bear slipped off his stolen pony, readied his weapon, and silently slipped through the trees. He saw a single soldier dangling his bare-feet in the water from a steep cut in the bank, a rifle cradled in his lap. The soldier blew on an Indian deer-call making the low humming sound they had heard. Night Bear crept forward.
He positioned himself directly behind the soldier, spotted movement of horses on the far side, and decided to deal-out a quiet death. Crouching low, he quickly rushed forward, smashing the small soldier to the ground and digging his knife into the great vein that is behind the ear -- stabbing again and again.
The other sentry was just thirty yards up the river and was alerted when he heard the splash of Pup’s rifle as it fell into the water. Standing, he saw Night Bear reaching into the river trying to fish-out the dropped weapon. His hands shaking, the young soldier took careful aim, and instinctively fired off a round. It caught Night Bear in the side of the head, dropping him into the water.
Thunder Bow heard the single shot of the thunder iron, instinctively urged his horse into a run. He heard shouts of alarm arise from the far side of the river, saw the pony soldiers moving amongst the trees.
Thunder Bow felt his life converging upon the Dream Path. He heard a shot ring out and saw a soldier standing directly in front of him -- eyes wide open with fear. The Old Way of battle for a Sioux was to humiliate your opponent by knocking him to the ground. Thunder Bow tried to run the man over with his horse, kicking him to the ground as he passed.
Spinning his pony back around, he prepared to make another run. With a heavy heart, he loudly began to sing his Death Song -- kicked his horse in the flanks and came charging back.
The soldier climbed to his feet, not believing he was still alive. He looked at the Indian with a questioning expression -- quickly searched the ground for his rifle as Thunder Bow came barreling down on him.
The pony suddenly reared, refusing to trample a small boy laying dead beside the path. The same boy Thunder Bow had seen in his Vision -- blood pooled beneath his head, the bright sun gleaming from a shining bugle. “Soul Catcher! I am in the center of the universe,” he said.
Then the air suddenly exploded with the roar of thunder irons and the Sioux Medicine Man clutched at a fire that seared deep inside his stomach. He looked down at the wound spurting out his life’s blood. Dimly he saw Night Bear floating face-down along the river bank just before another bullet hit him in his head spilling him from his horse. The Great Circle moved to completion and Thunder Bow’s spirit hurried toward the sun.