February, 2019

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Issue #113

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
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Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

The Overseer
by Delun Attwooll
Gavin McKinley's life became sad and tedious following the War Between the States. When he wasn't farming, he was drinking his past sorrows away—until the day a local Civil War legend arrived at his door searching for a fugitive. Gavin can help find the convict, but does he know the whole truth?

* * *

by Naomi Brett Rourke
What would you do to correct the mistakes in your life? One man has the chance to make everything right again, but it will take all his will and courage. Will he survive—or become a sacrifice to the god Thunderbird?

* * *

Apache Moon
by Robert Gilbert
Inside the wasteland of the Apache desert is Silver Ghost, the town where people cluster to watch the hanging of Brance Howard. A teenager claims his father was murdered by Howard. Howard swears the Marshal is coming to prove his innocence, but will he arrive in time?

* * *

Dead Man's Hand
by Michael Joe Morris
When a party of two-hundred Blackfoot warriors descend upon a small coalition of trappers, only a single man survives. Alone and on foot, he must cut cards with Fate himself for a chance to stay alive.

* * *

The Gambler from Norcross
by Tom Sheehan
A young man bound for the wester clime and interests, hears stories from his aged grandfather, a man with a grip on the language and its great writers, who has his own made-up tales to carry the literary values to his young grandson. Hark and hear the word.

* * *

Last Train to Florence
by Sydney Jarvis
The Butler twins are about to pull off their biggest job yet: stealing the payroll off the last train heading to Arizona's new territorial prison. But they're not the only ones after the payroll. When the Mosley gang finds the riches missing, will the Butlers be able to outwit the outlaws?

* * *

Want all of this month's Western stories at once? Click here –

All the Tales

by Naomi Brett Rourke

Heyoka arranged the sheathed knife on his hip and slowly bent to slip his feet into his soft, brown leather moccasins. He took his small medicine bag out of habit and placed it around his neck, lifting his greying hair at the back to slip the cord underneath. The great medicine bundle he would leave in his tipi. If he came back, he would need it. If not . . . 

It was still dark outside, early and quiet. He sat heavily and poured his tea into a cup before sipping it slowly. Although he was hungry, he would not eat. Atonement had its price and so did reckoning. He would not eat until he had finished his task, and if he did not finish it, it wouldn't matter. He sighed and poured water into his emptied cup, swirled it around, poured it out, and wiped the cup clean before putting it away. Once, his wife would have done this for him. Now he did it himself. He lifted the flap, taking up his coup stick, and walked silently out into the camp. His tipi was on the extreme end of the camp., No member of the tribe wanted to be near him. He was sica, bad.

As he waited for the sun, he watched the mountains for signs of the thunder-god and pondered where his life had gone wrong. He had been born to a chief and married to a beautiful girl from a good family. He had a son who filled him with joy.

"At`e, At`e!"

He swallowed and his eyes teared up for a minute. When had it gone wrong?

From the day I was born.

* * *

Otaktay, the chief of the White Bear tribe was sitting at the edge of the fire. The screaming had died down and an uneasy silence had fallen on the camp. His lovely wife, Wichahpi, the star of his life, was in childbirth with his first child, and the birth had been difficult.

For hours the screaming had come from his tent where his wife lay with the kun `si, the midwives, and the medicine man. For hours his teeth had been on edge with fear for his delicate wife. He was a large man, well over six feet with heavy shoulders and a thick neck. He was the biggest man in camp, feared in battle, but, when he saw Wichahpi for the first time, he felt the power drain from his body and wanted nothing but to lay his head in her lap and lie there forever.

He had fashioned a love flute and played it every day on the hill when Wichahpi was going to and fro in the camp. She smiled when she went by but, as was the custom with love flutes and courting, she did not look at him. Her father finally agreed that Otaktay could court his daughter. When he placed the first deer at the door of Wichahpi's tipi, he glanced up and saw her smiling shyly, and when he first lay with his wife, he trembled lest he hurt her.

He had not hurt her, and the pleasure she gave him filled his heart. When he heard she was with child, he rejoiced, but a little voice in his head nagged him of the difference between his hulking warrior's body and her delicate one.

Now a kun `si was coming out of his tipi, and he sprang up. The grandmother smiled sadly and said, "Your son."

Reaching for the boy, Otaktay said, "And Wichahpi?"

A tear fell out of the kun `si's wrinkled eye and stopped, glittering, on her cheek. "Wichahpi is no more. She has gone to join her ancestors. She was very brave, and she gave you a son."

Otaktay's arms stopped just short of his infant. "What?"

"She's dead, my chief. She gave her life so you could have your son." She held out the wriggling bundle to him. He stepped back. He thought about Wichahpi's shy smile and lithe walk and her gentle hands, and then he looked at the boy, so wrinkled and puny.

"No," he said and walked out of camp. He didn't come back for three days, and he never took his son into his tipi.

The boy, named Chaska, or eldest son, was raised by his auntie . When he was finally a man, foolish and unloved, the tribe changed his name to Heyoka, after the spirit of perversity and chaos. He went to live on the outskirts of the camp and, no matter where they moved to follow the game, he was an outsider in his own tribe.

* * *

Heyoka heard a whisper behind him. The sun was up, just peering over the horizon, tinting the fluffy clouds pink, warming the mountains. He turned and saw the entire tribe standing in two facing rows on either side of him. They were so quiet.

Through the rows came his father, Chief Otaktay. Heyoka felt a momentary disappointment. He didn't expect anyone from his family to stand by his side, but it would have been heartening.

"Heyoka," Otaktay's words dripped abhorrence, "you stand accused of murder. You have been a scourge to the tribe and an embarrassment to me. You are a foolish man and sica. I hand you over to the medicine man, Matoska, so he may do what he wants with you."

* * *

His wife. Chumani. His jewel. Although Heyoka thought she didn't want to marry a man with bad luck, she obeyed her parents and married the son of the chief. Maybe she thought it would be all right, and he would make everything better one day. But, the days went on and her displeasure in him was always in her eyes. Her fine brown eyes. He became lost in them whenever he was near her.

She was silent. She always did her duties as his wife, but always with an air of dissatisfaction which grew as the years went by. And after the event, the event which broke any feeling of love that had ever been, her dissatisfaction turned to hate. They lived that way for years, until Chumani took a lover, the beautiful son of the warrior, Akecheta. When Heyoka found them together, and saw the contempt in their eyes, saw their limbs draped over their naked and sweaty bodies, saw her eyes, her fine eyes, shining with laughter and scorn, what else could Heyoka do but thrust his knife into her lover's body again and again? While she was screaming at him, grasping at him, he cut her throat and gouged out her fine eyes.

When a member of the tribe opened the flap to the tipi and gasped, Heyoka was sitting with his wife's bloody head in his lap, crooning over her lifeless body, saying "thechihila, I love you," over and over again. He raised his head and, when Akecheta thrust his head into the tipi and roared in his anger and his grief, Heyoka gently placed Chumani on the ground, and buried his knife in the lover's head, smiling through his tears.

* * *

Matoska came forward. A wizened man with lean ropy muscles and a drooping jaw. His eyes sparkled without humor in his aesthete face, and his fingers played constantly with the fringes of his medicine bag.

"It is decided," he said in a smoky voice, "and this is the tribe's reckoning."

He slid a look to Otaktay. Although the chief was disgusted with his son, it would do well to remember Heyoka was the only son of the chief, and the chief might change his mind someday. Better make sure he, Matoska, could not be held accountable.

"Heyoka, you have a second chance to do well for your tribe. See those mountains?" His arm traced a circle to the north. "There Wakinyan, Thunderbird, lives with his brothers and sisters. He is a magical bird, bigger than three eagles, who brings the thunder and lightening and who has an untold thing he holds most dear in his nest. You are to climb up to the nest and steal this most precious object so your tribe can prosper and have the luck of the Thunderbird, the luck you stole from us at your birth."

Heyoka stared at Matoska without moving a muscle.

"I do not count coup?" he whispered.

Matoska was impassive. Heyoka looked to his father, who would not meet his eyes but instead stared at the mountainous home of Thunderbird, so far away. This was unexpected. To climb up the mountain and gently hit Thunderbird with his coup stick would show bravery and fortitude, two of the four virtues, with wisdom and generosity, that every good tribesman should have. Thunderbird would respect and forgive a man who accomplished coup. Theft of Thunderbird's own property was another thing altogether.

Slowly he bent his head. The crowd was silent as death. Heyoka again slid his eyes to his father, but he would get no support from him. He dropped his coup stick in the dust and gazed at it, then he turned on his heel and walked away, spine straight, head high. He heard a hiss and immediately after, a laugh. Reaching higher with his head, he strode away until he was far past the camp, and then sagged against a Ponderosa pine and sobbed.

In time, he trudged away from his tribe and hope.

Heyoka walked through hot, dusty days where the vulture circled in the sky and the eagle dove down to strike with a fierce cry. He walked through dark cold nights where the moon was his only friend and the shadows of the trees matched the shadows of his heart. He napped periodically but rose up to walk more. He stopped for drinks of water from the gourd tied onto his belt. but ignored the gnawing in his stomach. He had been through ceremonies where he couldn't eat for days—his vision quest, sweat lodges, and the Sun Dance—he knew what hunger felt like, and he had mastered it a long time ago. He was aware of the tightening of his gut, but didn't think about it. He was thinking of Thunderbird.

Everyone in the tribe knew the stories: Grandmother Spider, White Buffalo Woman, and, the hero, Rabbit Boy. But the belief that carried the most weight in the camp was Thunderbird. Thunderbird was the spirit of thunder and lightning. He could give the tribe rain when it was most needed or send a lighting bolt to decimate the camp. He could send a fog and make the ground soft so a brave could creep up on a deer and its flight would be hampered by the muddy ground pulling and sucking at their feet when it most needed to flee. He could send lightening to make a foe aware of your presence so they could kill you before you did the same to them. Thunderbird was a fickle spirit, and most people in Heyoka's village did their best to live their lives so as not to anger Thunderbird. Since he was a spirit, he knew your secret thoughts. He punished the liar, the cheat, and, unfortunately for Heyoka, the foolish.

This, Heyoka thought, was the best of punishments the medicine man could have chosen. If he was seen by Thunderbird while he was stealing from his nest, he would be killed. But, since Thunderbird knew his thoughts, he would be killed anyway for being both a thief and foolish. This was the tribe's reckoning. This was Matoska's safety. Heyoka's blood would be on Thunderbird's claws, not Matoska's hands, so the chief couldn't hold him accountable for Heyoka's death. Heyoka knew he was heading for his death and would never bring back the thing Thunderbird holds most dear.

How many of my people grasped that fact? How many of them knew this was a fool's errand and I would never be coming back?

He walked and walked, day and night, toward the great mountain where Thunderbird lived. Raising his hand to block the glare, he gazed through sun-squinted eyes at the circle of clouds surrounding the apex of the god's eyrie. Dropping his eyes to the ground, he saw rabbits and squirrels scurrying for safety. Snakes slithered desultorily out of his path and wolves trotted by showing the whites of their eyes, but none bothered him. Just like his tribe, none wanted him. He was one with the tumbleweeds. Insignificant. Invisible. Intangible.

Heyoka finally reached the mountain without having seen Thunderbird. He had hoped that the god had seen him and would put an end to his foolish task, but no. He was even too inconsequential for Thunderbird, who knows all men's thoughts, to come down and punish him. Heyoka would have to make the climb after all. Thoughts of running away never entered his mind. This was his reckoning and he deserved it. Yes, he did. He swallowed painfully, his water gourd having given up the last sips the day before.

At first, the going was easy. He trotted along the ascending trails and hardly even noticed that he was leaving the ponderosa and spruce behind as he ran higher and higher. Now, all about him were scrubby bushes and, when he looked up, he saw an occasional spruce. Soon the trails and large boulders gave way to a more difficult terrain, and he raised his arms to grasp the first of the many rocks which he would use to ascend higher and higher.

Up to Thunderbird and his own doom.

As he climbed higher and higher, and had to concentrate on his ascent, he could not keep his mind from why he was there in the first place. His heart was black and empty.

"At`e, At`e."

Heyoka shook his head at the memory. So many memories.

He sweated in the day when the sun beat down on his head and shoulders, and he froze in the night when the fog came in, but he never stopped. I have been foolish, he thought. I have lost everything precious to me. I have killed. There is no room on the Great Father's earth for such as me; there is no room in Wakan-Tanka's world for me. His thoughts were as black as the night sky on the Dark Moon. I should have been better. I should have walked in balance. But I did not. His thoughts swirled forebodingly as he climbed.

After two days of solid climbing, he reached a wide cliff and paused to rest. Looking up, he ruminated on the best way to climb to the pinnacle where the Wakinyan would be waiting. It was cooler here and he shivered. When he made his choice of ascension routes, he tied his hair back again, and began to climb once more. I have never done anything right but I can climb.

* * *

In the battle with the neighboring tribe, Heyoka, who was still called Chaska, was given the task of keeping the horses safe. It wasn't a real war. It was one of the constant shows of battle expertise where the women and animals were up for grabs and the warriors would count coup by touching their foes with their coup sticks. In this way, the braves could keep their war skills sharp but no deaths occurred. Warriors were needed in the tribes and unless this was a serious battle, it was best to let each tribe keep their men intact with only bruises to show for it.

Chaska was only twelve, but he was already under an unlucky cloud. His father thought to raise the boy's reputation with an easy task, and besides, there would be another warrior riding with Chaska. If he did something stupid, Kangee, who was named for the crafty raven, would make sure to fix it.

Chaska liked guarding the horses. He admired the warrior's proud mounts and liked the small ponies that nuzzled at his hands when he gave them grain. Bay, roan, dun, dappled, and buckskin, he loved then all, especially the ancient Palomino his mother had ridden when she was alive. It was near to death, blind and half deaf, but he felt closer to her when the Palomino nipped his arm for carrots and she stood still while he brushed and brushed her still-shining coat. He had never met his mother, but he could still brush and feed her horse, and thereby feel close to her.

When the neighboring tribe did attack, though, the trick was so simple, so elementary, it couldn't help but work. Obviously, the other tribe had a traitor in Chaska's camp, one who informed the others that the extra horses would be protected by a boy, a young, green, and foolish boy. A boy who was afraid of thunder.

While three braves were causing a distraction on the other side of the corral keeping Kangee busy, two men crept behind the boy, who was sitting nervously on his mount at the gate of the corral. One brave shook a thunder stick almost in the boy's ear. Chaska started, his horse reared, and he tumbled off into the dry, choking dust. The other warriors lifted the latch of the corral and the first rode in, spooking the horses and herding them out and in the direction of the other camp. When Kangee galloped up, the boy was motionless, head down, a trickle of urine tracking down his leg, and tears on his cheeks. Kangee, disgusted, rode to tell Otaktay of the calamity. From that day on, the boy Chaska was given another name—Heyoka—and his father never looked at him again, except in distain.

* * *

Heyoka climbed and climbed, his mood as black as Otaktay's black stallion. He rested a bit, gasping for air, sitting on a sharp rock. He was sweating, and he sucked some of the water off his arm. It did him no good, being salty and warm, but he was so thirsty. Maybe the end will come soon. He looked at the sun, slowly slipping down to the horizon.

When it was dark, Heyoka found a wide place and snuggled up with his back to the mountain. It was cold now, and he wrapped his tired arms around his torso and shivered into the night. He napped on and off and, when the sun made its appearance making the clouds pink and blue and orange, Heyoka stood up, shook himself like a dog, and continued his ascent.

* * *

When the old warrior Tahatan's hunting dog, Talutah had puppies, everyone in the camp wanted one. Talutah was the best hunter in the camp, and it was said—and Tahatan did not deny it—that she had mated with a wolf, so her puppies were highly anticipated. Chaska longed for one, but since it was well known the chief had turned his back on his son, Chaska didn't think to ask for one. His auntie, Kimimela, hugged him and left the tipi, going in the direction of Akecheta's tipi. She was gone for a long time but when she came back, she carried a bundle in her arms. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, she patted the ground next to her, and Chaska, his heart suddenly in his mouth, obediently sat. From out of the bundle came a questing nose, and a snout, and then the whole puppy was in Chaska's arms, jumping up and licking his face, arms, and grabbing his hair with his sharp and tiny teeth, and licking, licking. Chaska laughed and hugged the dog to him. He had never in his life felt so much love.

Kimimela smiled sadly, knowing this boy had little enough in his life to make him laugh. She was glad she had braved Otaktay's anger to demand the pup for his son. She had to pay a hefty sum to Akecheta for the puppy, but it was all worth it to see the boy rolling around on the floor of the tipi with his new brother and friend.

Chaska named the puppy Kohana, meaning swift, with the hopes that the puppy would turn into a brave and fast hunter. Maybe Otatkay would be happy with him, for once. Maybe he would be able to be his loved son once again if he raised the dog to be the best hunter in camp.

Day after day, Chaska trained the puppy, and when training was over, they ran into the forest and played. Once, Kohana found a skunk, and when Chaska and the dog came back to camp, the whole camp laughed and threw things at them to keep them, and the smell, out. Chaska laughed too and didn't mind it. It was the same thing they would have done to anyone in the camp, and he felt that he was finally accepted. He didn't mind staying outside the camp, plunging with Kohana into the stream and rubbing aromatic leaves on them both. When he was finally let back into the camp, he felt a couple of pats on his shoulder as he walked proudly back to his auntie's tipi. He had met the problem and successfully surmounted it. He was seven years old.

The puppy grew, as Chaska did, and in a year the puppy looked like a full-grown dog. He might have had wolf in him because the legs were gangly and the tail, bushy. The snout was brightened by two intelligent, deep brown eyes, and his fur was soft but with the coarseness of a wolf, brown and gray. He was a beautiful animal and the boy was as proud of him as he could be. The tribal members remarked on how beautiful a dog he was and how well trained he was. Chaska's chest swelled with pride. Kohana would be the best dog in the camp.

The only problem Kohana had was the command "stop." Maybe it was that he was still a puppy at heart, maybe it was that he became too excited. Maybe it was that he was willful. Chaska had trained him and trained him, but Kohana only followed the command half of the time. It was the only black mark in Kohana's training and Chaska racked his brains to find out what would work, but nothing did.

One day Otaktay called the tribe together. "There is a bear," he said," and it is a danger to our tribe. We must track it and kill it. I will take the strongest braves and the best dogs."

Chaska stood up proudly and announced, "You can have my Kohana. He'll find the bear."

Otaktay looked down at the boy. "Are you sure he said he is ready?"

"Yes," replied the boy. And so they accompanied the men and their dogs to tree the bear and to kill it.

For two days they tracked the bear and when at last it was cornered, it was massive. The head was like a boulder with sharp yellow teeth, and the claws were long and merciless. When it saw the men and dogs it raised its head and roared its challenge. The din from the barking dogs was deafening and the men loosed their dogs with a mix of whistles and clicks and the dogs leapt upon the bear, dancing around it, slipping through its legs, and snapping at its hindquarters. One dog caught a swipe of the paw and yelped as it flew through the air to crash on a tree trunk. After sliding down and shaking itself, it launched into the battle again.

Chaska watched Kohana with trepidation at first, but then with pride as the dog raced in to snatch a bite, then danced out to avoid the sharp claws and teeth. The bear was forced, inch, by inch into a tight clump of birches.

"Hold back," Otaktay called," it will be desperate. Call back the dogs."

Again a series of whistles, clicks from the masters and all the dogs came panting back to let the men finish off the bear. All, of course, but Kohana.

"Kohana, no!" the boy cried, but it was all for naught, as the dog, perhaps maddened by the fight as much as the bear, continued baiting the bear, coming closer and closer into danger. When the bear grabbed Kohana, it swept him up in its paws and Chaska heard Kohana's wail as claws gouged flesh and he the heard the crunch of dog's skull between massive jaws, but he had already fallen to his knees in horror and grief.

The bear was dead when Chaska could at last kneel at the dog's side, gazing at the rents in his soft grey fur and the ruined head Chaska had stroked time and time again. He vomited and fell alongside the remains and wailed like Kohana had wailed at the last of his life. When he was at last snuffling and gasping for breath, Chaska saw everyone had gone back to camp but his father, who stood watching him, leaning against a solitary birch tree. Chaska stood and ran to his father, hoping for a kind word, a hug, or anything else that would comfort an eight-year-old boy at the killing of his dog.

Otaktay stared at him for a moment, then said very softly, "waste." Then, he turned and loped back to the village, leaving Chaska to follow slowly back. When Chaska reached the camp, all was as it was before Kohana had been adopted. Chaska was sica, and even his auntie had trouble looking at him kindly, for the waste of a hunting dog in the tribe was considered one of the worst sins.

People said, "Of course it would happen, how would it have not with that boy?"

The next litter Talutah dropped, Chaska went to the far side of the camp and cried.

* * *

Heyoka put a hand up and felt nothing. Snapping his head up, he saw sky and realized he had come to the end of his journey. He felt around carefully and his fingers touched straw, down, and twigs. Thunderbird's nest.

Heyoka cautiously found a higher toehold and boosted himself up so he could peer above the precipice. The nest was empty of the spirit Thunderbird. Good. Heyoka sat on the edge of the rock, gazing at the nest. It was like any other nest, but so enormous. It could fit three of him comfortably, he thought. What a monstrous thing is a god. Beyond our comprehension. Heyoka was careful not to touch the nest. He trembled, thinking that Thunderbird could hunt him down and sweep him off the pinnacle at any time. He needed to get Wakinyan's thing he held most dear and get down off the mountain as soon as possible.

The thing he holds most dear! He had made it to Thunderbird's home, and he might actually make it back to the camp. He might be able to resolve his bad luck and be a hero to his tribe. In the three days travelling to his task, he had never once thought it was possible to survive, but here he was. It could be done.

Heyoka got to his feet and, crouching over so Thunderbird might not see him, crept his way along the perimeter of the nest, peering, questing. He stopped and stared. The thing he holds most dear. The only thing of value in the nest. An egg.

* * *

Hotah clutched at the air, attempting to reach the birds high above. "Look, At`e, birds." Heyoka smiled at his son but then the smile faded as he fought to keep the canoe heading forward into the rapids of the river. Most of the water was calm and clear, but in this one place, the only way to get to the tribe's land by canoe, was treacherous and required constant attention. Hotah loved watching birds and he had recently taken to running after them, his strong, pudgy legs trotting like Heyoka's favorite horse. Heyoka thought this was a good sign and someday he would be a great hunter. He dreamed of that day, not only for his son, but for himself, for having a great hunter as a son would do much to repair the father's damaged reputation and the bad luck that forever haunted him. Hotah meant strong, and he would be strong and brave and smart.

Heyoka drove his paddle into the roaring rapids and changed direction slightly to take advantage of the change in water speed. Many men had flipped their boats in these rapids and some had come out minus a boat, shaking their heads, grateful to be alive, but many had not.

"Look, At`e, tiny bird!" Heyoka's attention was drawn to his son who was now pointing above him. He looked up. A brilliant orange and black butterfly was dancing overhead, gliding on the gentle breeze.

"Oh, oh," called Hotah, straining up to reach the butterfly who, like most butterflies, was careful to stay out of reach.

"Heyoka!" The call came from the bank of the river. Heyoka peered over to see his wife, hand raised, yelling something at him. The rushing waters beneath him masked her voice and he shook his head to indicate he couldn't hear her. He felt a wave of annoyance. Why couldn't she tell him when he beached the canoe? What was so important now that it couldn't wait? Didn't she know that these waters were dangerous?

"At`e! At`e! Father!" He turned to see his son standing up in the boat, so close to catching the butterfly.

"Hotah! Sit down!" he yelled, but it was too late.

The canoe's nose dipped suddenly and shot back up to send the boy flying. Hotah, his face shocked and dismayed—Heyoka would see his face from that day forward in his dreams—bounced out of the boat and fell into the churning water below. Heyoka wrestled with the canoe, fighting to bring it around to grab the boy, who was helpless in the foaming water and was quickly moving toward the merciless rocks. Chumani screamed from the shore. Heyoka desperately fought the waves to position his canoe to the place where his son struggled to keep his head above water, but the canoe stubbornly resisted his efforts. As Heyoka fought with the canoe, Hotah, paddling wildly, bobbed into the center of the tumult and was flung with frightening speed, slammed into a submerged boulder headfirst. Red stained the water and the boy floated with all the leaves and twigs, but didn't move.

Heyoka cried out and dove into the water. His boat would later be found several miles downstream, intact. As Heyoka's head breached the water, he looked about wildly for his son. A white hand bobbed limply on the water. Heyoka swam furiously and caught it just as it was disappearing beneath the red-hued water. He swam one-handed while his son dangled and bounced lifelessly in the waves around them.

At last, Heyoka felt the ground beneath his feet and he charged out of the river, placing the child gently on the river bank. The gash in his head was red with blood, but it was not bleeding profusely anymore. Hotah's eyes were open but he did not see the butterflies—five or six of them—that landed in the shallow water still upon his chest. Heyoka placed his ear upon the child's chest and heard nothing. Chumani swooped down to gather up the boy's body to her breast, screaming incoherently at Heyoka.

"Wife, let me tend to him." Perhaps he could breath for the boy until he could breathe for himself. Perhaps he could push the water out of his lungs, rolling him over and over on a log.

"No! You've killed him. You've killed him." She rocked back and forth with the body of her only child grasped to her and her eyes flashed at Heyoka. "You ruin everything. You are a bad father and a bad husband." She lowered her head and nuzzled the cold, wet head of her child. "You are a monster! No. You are nothing."

That is how the tribe found them when they came to claim the body of the dead child. Heyoka never looked up as they helped the woman up and carried Hotah back to the camp.

Heyoka stayed kneeling at the bank of the river for a day and a half and when he could kneel no more, when grief, exposure, and hopelessness took him, he gave one shriek and fell to the earth unconscious.

* * *

Tears were streaming down Heyoka's cheeks. His strong boy, his brave boy. Lost forever. Because he, Heyoka, was not watching him for a minute. How quickly one second could change the world. And the only item in Thunderbird's nest, the thing he holds most dear, was an egg. Thunderbird's son. Heyoka's legs were numb and he fell on his knees, clutching the end of the nest, which crumbled into scratchy pieces surrounded by down.

Thunderbird's son.

Heyoka's arms and legs trembled. His hands scrabbled in the nest's branches and down. Heyoka gulped, then he set his jaw.

So be it. I lost my son; Thunderbird will lose his and I will become a god to my people because I, I bested Thunderbird and stole his son.

Excitement surged through Heyoka's body, energizing him. He hopped up and tiptoed on the narrow rock to where he could reach the egg. He looked around. There was Thunderbird, far off, hunting. He would never make it back to his nest in time to prevent the theft. It seemed like Heyoka caught Thunderbird's eye, and he froze. Then Thunderbird was soaring the other direction and Heyoka continued, but he was confused and suddenly dizzy. He sat down, clutching the rough nest to make sure he didn't topple off the cliff.

Why doesn't Thunderbird come over to stop me? He can read men's minds. He met my eye. I know it! Why doesn't he come to kill me?

The strength left Heyoka's body and he sagged against the cliff. Heyoka pondered, picking idly at a twig. His thirst had left him and he felt oddly hollow. He hadn't made water for three days and he hadn't really slept since he left the camp. He hadn't eaten either, such was the nature of his punishment and the retribution of the tribe.

I suppose I'm dying. I suppose I'm already partly a ghost and that's why Thunderbird doesn't see me. I'll join the winds when I die and howl my sorrow and the tribe will hear me and be glad.

His eyesight faded and sharpened. A quick movement far beyond nest caught his eye. He narrowed his lids to peer at Thunderbird so far away, floating with the air currents. Or was he? Where was he? A sudden thought passed through his mind.

Could it be he doesn't know my mind? Maybe he can't read my mind and my heart. Or maybe Thunderbird is welcoming me to show me my true nature.

Suddenly the air was filled with feathers. Tiny down feathers crammed in Heyoka's mouth and immense flight feathers of blue and brown and white beat his head. Sharp talons scratched his arms, drawing beads of blood, and a huge beak gashed his shoulder, but they hurt him less than Hotah's butterflies. Heyoka grinned and a small hoot of laughter emerged from his dry mouth.

Thunderbird cannot hurt me. I must be a god. My life up to this time was a test. I now know myself for what I am. Good, then. I will steal the egg and go down and be the chief my people. I will change my own name. I had two the tribe gave me but I will . . . I will rule as Thunderbird's Thief.

He reached for the egg and, just short of it, stopped.

A gust passed his ear quickly, but so gently, softly.

"A`te, A`te!"

What was that?

"A`te, A`te!"

No, it is impossible. It's hunger. It's exhaustion.

"A`te, A`te!"

"NO!" Heyoka grabbed the egg and put it in his pouch. He crawled to the other edge of the nest and eased his body over the side, finding toeholds and preparing for descent. Far away, a cry pierced the air. Thunderbird.

Heyoka looked over his shoulder. The bird was still hunting far away. He hadn't seen the theft, and he hadn't been here attacking the egg thief. Heyoka heaved a sigh of relief and turning his head, saw a tiny bit of down clinging resolutely to the nest. It was soft, so soft, and it blew in the breeze like Hotah's downy hair when he had been an infant. Hotah had looked up into Heyoka's face and Heyoka felt a squeezing at his heart, a catch in his throat. This little child. Mine. All mine. He would do anything for him.

Heyoka gazed at the piece of down, unable to move for a long, long time.

A`te, A`te!

My son. Thunderbird's son.

A`te, A`te! Tiny bird!

Heyoka swallowed. There seemed to be a lump as big as the egg in his throat. He guzzled air and there didn't seem to be enough for breath. His eyes suddenly were filmed with tears.

I lost my son, my most precious thing. I was unworthy. Thunderbird should have his. Who am I to steal the thing he holds most dear?

He clung there for a long time with legs that trembled and fingers that grew numb. Then, gasping with pain, Heyoka reached into his pouch, cradling the egg, and drew it out. Reaching up as high as he could, he released the egg onto the edge of the nest and watched it as it rolled gently to the middle and settled into the soft down in the center of the nest.

I am not Thunderbird's Thief. I am not a god. I am not sica. I am only a foolish man. I have been foolish my whole life. My foolishness lost me my father, my wife, and my brave boy. I am nothing. This is the tribe's retribution. This is who I am.

He sighed and looked out at Thunderbird, hunting so far away. He looked down and saw the ground so far below. Tears streamed down his cheeks and the whipping wind made frigid lines down his face.

But there is one thing I can do.

Heyoka gathered up the last of his ebbing strength and launched himself from the pinnacle.

I can fly.

The End

Naomi Brett Rourke is a writer, teacher, and theatre director living in Southern California with kids, grandkids, a whole passel of animals and her wonderful husband. She has stories published in magazines, journals, and anthologies, most recently in the best-selling anthology STRAIGHT OUTTA TOMBSTONE, edited by David Boop, and in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. She finished her first novel and continues to write short stories, screenplays, correct papers, and love life. Visit her at www.naomibrettrourke.com, on Facebook at Naomibrettrourke, on Instagram at Naomibrettrourke, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NaomiBRourke.

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