Fifteen springs before white men came out of the eastern forests, when grass was but ankle high in good pastures, Keah-tigh of the Kata Kiowa sat his horse in the circle of mounted warriors surrounding his father, Two Coups, who stood among a knot of horses. A Koitsenko Soldier and one of only ten guardians of the sacred Sun-boy medicine bundles, Two Coups ran a hand along a horse's ribs outlined by skin as tight as a rawhide drum.
"Blackfeet have stolen my wife Wun-oan-to-mee," said Apiatan, Keah-tigh's uncle, "yet you waste our time looking at these nags when the Blackfeet are already a half day's ride away."
"They left these," Two Coups said and pried open the mouth of another horse—its teeth were badly worn and its gums bled—"because they stole thirty good Kiowa horses."
"Only Kaan horses," Apiatan said and laughed. Half of the twenty-eight warriors were of the poorer Kaan class. Ten were of the next higher Ondegupa and followers of Apiatan. Only three older warriors were Onde like Two Coups, Apiatan and Keah-tigh.
Two Coups felt the spindly legs of a third horse and slid a finger into its split hoof. A wide band of silver fell like a waterfall among the uncut black hair on the left side of Two Coups' head. A braid on the right side showed streaks of silver, as did his scalp lock at the top of his skull. He wore buckskin leggings fringed with the hair of his enemies, both man and animal, and a buckskin shirt fringed with hair and dyed yellow with ocher. In his left hand was a coup stick of smooth ash, as long as his forearm and as slender as his index finger, with a crook at the top. A stick known throughout the Staked Plains and beyond—wherever the Kiowa had enemies. With it, he had earned his name when he was just sixteen by riding between two Ute warriors and striking them both with the harmless coup stick.
"Still, it will take a long ride to wear down fresh Kiowa horses, whether they belong to Kaan, Ondegupa or Onde," Two Coups said, straightened and pointed the coup stick at Keah-tigh. "You will go with us as horsetender. Gather two extra mounts for each warrior. If a warrior does not own three horses, provide him from my herd."
Keah-tigh nodded. His first war party. Although he was only twelve, he reminded himself that he was Onde. He hid his uncertainty in a spine he hoped was as straight as his father's.
"The Ondegupa boy, Anko, should go as horsetender also," Apiatan said. "It was he who found our war party this morning. Without him, we would have gone on with our raid into Mexico unaware that Blackfeet had so easily killed the three warriors you left to guard the camp."
Fifteen springs younger than Two Coups, Apiatan had bound lengths of enemy scalps to his own raven hair with otter skin so they hung to his knees. His leggings had feather tassels at-tached to the hair fringe, and his yellow shirt sported streaks of vermilion and green. Far more bits and pieces of tin jangled around his feet than were strung on the leather thongs of any other warrior's ankle-high moccasins. He was as tall as Two Coups, who stood taller than the hump on a bull buffalo. Except for Apiatan's extra finery and Two Coups' silver hair, they looked like twins. By tribal custom, Keah-tigh called both Father.
Two Coups nodded. Keah-tigh rode off to collect Anko and the extra horses. When the two boys led their strings of remounts back to the warriors, Anko's eyes shone as bright as a rutting stallion's. Climbing astride his blood-red sorrel, Two Coups pointed his coup stick north and kicked his horse into a fast trot.
In midafternoon, their tracker, a half Mexican and half Mescalero Apache named Wapeche, found a Kiowa woman's knee length moccasin boot. Apiatan let out an agonized howl and snatched his wife's boot. Galloping ten horse lengths in front of the band, Apiatan slid off his horse to his knees. He tore up clumps of grass and hurled them along the trail of the Blackfeet. Then he bowed over the moccasin on his lap. The rest of the band stopped two horse lengths away. Several Ondegupa sang grief songs to honor Apiatan. The Kaan stare wide-eyed at an Onde warrior kneeling over a woman's moccasin. Here was a powerful thing, strong medicine from Apiatan's heart. Uncertain how to honor his uncle, Keah-tigh glanced at his father. Two Coups sat his horse next to the three Onde warriors, who scarcely looked at Apiatan. Two Coups said something to one of the Onde, who nodded. Then Two Coups spoke to Wapeche, and the tracker started off toward the north.
One Ondegupa shouted a wordless protest. The other Ondegupa grunted to show agreement. Keah-tigh turned his head away from the anger in their eyes and looked at the Kaan who stared at Two Coups in confusion. Keah-tigh fought to hold his face expressionless, as the other Onde did. Two Coups set out at a fast trot after Wapeche. Remounting, Apiatan raced to the front of the band just behind Wapeche but a little apart from Two Coups.
Keah-tigh pulled on the rawhide tether to his string of remounts. His face was hot, and he squinted his eyes hard. Two Coups had earned Koitsenko honors younger than any warrior in tribal memory. He had performed all twelve deeds that made a man a Kietaisopan, a great warrior. Some of these Ondegupa had barely performed the four that made a man merely a Kataiki, a warrior. Who were they to question a Koitsenko's commands?
Keah-tigh thought of the shaman, Ato-t'ain. Whenever the tribe needed to change hunting grounds or pasture, he was consulted. He prepared his medicine and sang his ritual songs. Then the seer prophesied where to establish a new camp. Sometimes, the hunters killed fat buffalo, and sometimes, the horses grew strong and swift on the new grass. All praised Ato-t'ain's medicine. But other times, the hunters returned without meat, and the mares dropped stillborn foals. No one raised an angry voice; no one said age had robbed Ato-t'ain's medicine of strength. Instead, all respectfully asked what they had done to ruin his medicine. Women still brought the best slices of cooked buffalo tongue to his lodge. Warriors still presented him with horses, but he was Ondegupa, as high as a shaman could rise. Only the bravest warriors and their families were Onde, but if the greatest warrior in the Kiowa nation received less respect than an old Ondegupa priest who never exposed himself to danger, why should Keah-tigh become a warrior?
Wapeche tracked the Blackfeet across the flat plains of light green buffalo grass and blue-green sage. The trail led due north toward a river two and a half day's ride away. The Blackfeet's horse droppings were not scattered under the sage, and the hoof prints showed clear and deep with the gouge of fast moving horses in the light brown soil. Every so often, Keah-tigh heard the Ondegupa mutter about their woman's pace, but Two Coups rode with his head up and his back as stiff as the Mexicans' iron. He lightly tapped his coup stick on his left elbow.
When their shadows stretched nearly three horse lengths, Two Coups motioned for Keah-tigh to bring his third mount of the day. When his father leaped from the back of his tired mount onto a fresh chestnut gelding, Keah-tigh dared to ride beside him.
"Tell the others to change mounts more frequently," Two Coups said. "We must not throw away our advantage. Wapeche says thirteen Blackfeet and Wun-oan-to-mee ride just thirty horses."
"Who are these Blackfeet, Father? Are they kin to our enemies, the Pawnee or Sioux?"
"No, I have seen them only twice—once when I visited our friends the Crows in the Yellowstone country and once when I traded with Arikiras well up the Great Muddy Water, where it ran clear and pure. The Blackfeet live northwest of the Sioux and Crows. They are bitter enemies of both. They have no friends among other tribes and want none, believing themselves great warriors."
"Why have they raided so far south?" Keah-tigh asked.
"Why do we raid so far south into Mexico?" Two Coups replied.
"But it must still be winter in their country," Keah-tigh said. "They left the safety and warmth of the lodges before the grass was green enough to feed their horses. Their leader must not be very wise."
Keah-tigh tried hard to look his father squarely in the eyes, as a warrior should. Deep lines ran like dry river beds across Two Coups' face, springing from the corners of his eyes and funneling down his cheeks in many branches. His nose, broken by a buffalo horn, twisted like a dried gourd. War paint was the only fresh, moist thing on his father's face and reminded Keah-tigh of power symbols that shamen painted on cliff walls to draw new strength for the tribe from their mother Earth-woman.
"Winter was hard in our land this year," Two Coups said. "Their winter must have been worse. Horses would have starved when snow became too thick to paw through. Many would have frozen in drifts or been dragged down by wolves made bold by hunger. Perhaps, if pemmican ran out in the parfleches, the Blackfeet were forced to eat many of their horses. They are not a people rich in horses. Such a winter bows the necks of a people, making them forget their courage. A wise leader might have decided to set out early on a raid to rekindle his people's spirits. Crossing all the plains between their lands and ours would be a challenge to lift his warriors' hearts and make the women sing in the lodges of the greatness of their people. Such a leader would weigh both risks and needs, and he would know that under all the sky no people have finer horses and more of them than the Kiowa. Now go tell the others to switch mounts more frequently."
As twilight faded, Wapeche slowed his horse to a walk. After a few minutes, he dismounted and walked bent close to the ground. The plain became a dark blurred robe that wavered and rippled, as the wind tossed the grass back and forth. Wapeche came to a halt and looked over his shoulder at Two Coups.
"We camp here," Two Coups said.
"But our horses are still fresh!" Apiatan cried. "Are warriors afraid of the dark?"
"Wapeche cannot track in the dark," Two Coups said. "We will follow at first light tomorrow."
"What need have we of tracks?" Apiatan shouted. "Are we stinking Apaches who run with their noses in the buffalo chips? We are Kiowa warriors! We know which way the Blackfeet travel—north, straight north. We must push on and overtake them before they stop to sleep and, and . . . "
"And if they turn under cover of dark, as I would, how will you know?" Two Coups asked. His voice was calm. His face an expressionless mask.
"We will find them!" Apiatan cried. "We must find them. I'll not have my wife a plaything for others. I say you will go on."
Apiatan thrust his lance, held straight up and down, out from his chest. A gasp escaped one of the Kaan. Keah-tigh gripped the rawhide tether with all his strength and tried to swallow without noise. Several Ondegupa grumbled agreement with Apiatan. The three older Onde edged their horses alongside Two Coups who stared past the lance into his brother's face.
"Did not my brother give his first wife as a plaything to his Ondegupa two summers ago?" Two Coups asked. "Did not my brother say, 'Here is my wife. Take her. She has dishonored me with the Kiowa-Apache named Elk-Stalker. I throw her away.'?"
Apiatan's lance trembled ever so slightly. Starlight shimmered on the iron point. Suddenly, Apiatan jerked the lance over his shoulder so that the lance head pointed at Two Coups. Then he yanked his horse's head around and rode twenty horse lengths. Bringing his horse to a rearing halt, he sat staring toward the north.
"We camp here," Two Coups said.
When the boys finished staking out the horses, Keah-tigh told Anko to take last watch. Then Keah-tigh sat down beside his father, who offered him a string of jerky. Keah-tigh chewed the dried meat, working his teeth in a grinding motion and softening the jerky with as much spittle as he could work up. He glanced once toward Apiatan's silhouette. Two Coups smiled.
"Be sure you are awake to tend my brother's horse when he comes to sleep. It would shame him if the Ondegupa boy rubbed down his horse."
"Would it shame you," Keah-tigh asked, "if Anko had rubbed down your horses?"
"No, but I am not Apiatan."
"But you are Koitsenko," Keah-tigh said. "He is not."
"Since he became a warrior," Two Coups said, "he has had to rein wide to ride outside my shadow, but I remember the little brother who used to hang on my stirrup when I returned from battle or the hunt."
Keah-tigh chewed his jerky awhile, wondering whether he would have grown to resent his three older brothers had they lived. He barely remembered the eldest two, who died defending the camp from an Osage attack. But Keah-tigh had worshiped his third brother, Waitan. He remembered how proud he was when Waitan made his vow at the Sun Dance to count coup on two warriors at once, as his father had. Waitan had counted only one coup in a battle with Mescalero Apaches, but everyone said he had kept his vow.
"Apiatan's grief is a powerful thing, is it not?" Keah-tigh asked.
"It is powerful," Two Coups replied, "but Wun-oan-to-mee is not dead."
"It's not fitting that he worry about a woman's safety?"
"Apiatan is more concerned that his grief seems a powerful thing." Two Coups cocked his head at the hoot of an owl and when it hooted again, nodded.
"Are you concerned for Wun-oan-to-mee, my father?"
"Perhaps they will punish her when they find she lacks a moccasin. Perhaps, they will use her as Apiatan fears," Keah-tigh said and studied his father's face. He looked for anger to flare in the warrior's eyes at the thought of an Onde woman passed like a drinking gourd among the men of another tribe.
"They may do that," Two Coups said. His eyes remained calm and his voice even. "Or one warrior may already claim her for his own, but I trust the wisdom of the Blackfoot leader to avoid these things until a safer time."
"I do not understand," Keah-tigh said.
"Then you must think about it while you wait for Apiatan. If you are to be a warrior, you must learn to see these things for yourself. Now I wish to sleep."
In the morning, Apiatan scolded everyone who did not instantly leap from sleeping robes to horseback. He called the three older Onde "old sleepy eyes" when they carefully rolled up robes, inspected weapons and renewed paint on their faces. The Ondegupa laughed and one or two of the Kaan joined them.
Wapeche followed the Blackfeet north for a quarter of the morning. Then the tracks swung west, but Apiatan called Wapeche "a stupid, ground-licking Apache."
"They must go north!" Apiatan shouted. "This is just a trick to delay us. They have horses and a woman. The west has nothing they need. They will go north."
"The tracks run west." Wapeche looked at Two Coups. "They travel as one band. No one has slipped away."
"When did they turn?" Two Coups asked.
"Judging by the hardness of the horse droppings," Wapeche replied, "last night before the moon had risen very high."
"This is just a trick!" Apiatan said. "They must turn north again. We could gain a day's ride by heading northwest and cutting across their trail. We might even take them unawares."
Ondegupa clashed shields and lances to show agreement. Several let out war whoops.
"We cannot say where they will turn north again," Two Coups said. "They may ride west for a day, two days, perhaps a week. We would never cut across that wide a trail. We would lose the horses and the woman."
Apiatan swung his arms wide to all of the band.
"It is not just of my wife that I think," he said. "I think also of my brothers. Yesterday, we set out for Mexico to fill our arms with plunder and to steal horses. Now, we ride in the opposite direction, but not to gain new horses and captives. We ride to regain our own, no more. Honor, yes. The scalps of our enemies, yes, but only if we catch the Blackfeet. All of these we would surely obtain in Mexico. Did we not pledge to raid far into Mexico—to see the birds that talk like men and the little furry men that chatter like birds? As slowly as we chase these Blackfeet, the grass will turn brown before we even think of going south."
Again the Ondegupa clashed shields and lances. Many shouted agreement. Some of the Kaan grunted acceptance. Two Coups tapped his coup stick on his left forearm until the noise died away.
"If my brother is so concerned with the slowness of our feet, why does he delay us further with words?" Two Coups asked. He waved the coup stick at Wapeche to follow the trail west. "We must at least see the Blackfeet today or they us."
"Will Kiowa content themselves with just a glimpse of their enemies?" Apiatan asked. Two Coups rode after Wapeche. The three Onde fell in line behind the Koitsenko. Grinning at Apiatan, who returned the grins, the Ondegupa rode into line. Then came the Kaan. Last came Anko and Keah-tigh.
Keah-tigh stared at Two Coups' spine, still so straight and stiff. But of what use the coup stick in his father's right hand? Now, even Kaan dared openly disagree with his father. Apiatan drifted farther and farther back until he rode knee to knee with Keah-tigh, who tried to erase all emotion from his face, but Apiatan put a hand on Keah-tigh's left shoulder.
"My son is confused by his father, Two Coups."
Keah-tigh jerked bolt upright. Apiatan smiled and let his hand drop.
"You must not judge him too harshly, for he grows old. He was the greatest warrior the Kiowa have ever known. It is sad that the demons that dig into the spirits of the old ones swarm about his head. He tries to fight them, but each day, they rob a little more of his courage and wisdom. Ten more springs, perhaps as few as seven, you may be forced to throw him away, as he threw away my father whom demons made crazy and weak. You grow to be a man, a warrior. Soon you must face these decisions. I know you will choose wisely."
Apiatan kicked his horse's flanks and galloped up beside Two Coups. Keah-tigh studied the river of silver spilling down his father's back. He remembered when it was just a trickle, but he had been a boy then, still sleeping on his mother's side of the tepee. He had seen old ones left behind on the prairie. Sometimes, the old ones did not know what was happening, so strong were the demons inside them. These old ones laughed or sat talking to the long dead. But sometimes, the old ones knew. A few wept and clung to their grandchildren, but most lay still beneath the buffalo robes their children wrapped around them. Many in the families wept. Some cropped their hair or cut digits from their fingers to show their grief. They still threw the old ones away. The demons that possessed the elderly were a threat to the tribe's children.
Keah-tigh had never known his grandparents, and when he was six, his mother had starved herself to death out of grief for her third son, Waitan. Slashing her hair and blackening her face with soot, she had sat just a horse's length outside the entrance to Two Coups' tent, singing her song of grief and rocking from side to side. Each morning, Two Coups had set one bowl of fresh spring water before her. Then he had tended Keah-tigh, making sure he had food and sweeping out the tepee. As his mother's song had lessened and her rocking became just a swaying, Keah-tigh had tried to take her food one night, but Two Coups had cuffed him and sent him inside the tepee. Then seating himself at the entrance, Two Coups had spent the night smoking his favorite pipe. In the morning, when the women came to take away the body, Two Coups had placed the pipe across his wife's chest. Keah-tigh's earliest memory was of his father smoking that pipe with other tribal leaders about some weighty affair of hunt or war. He had taught Keah-tigh the uses of bow, lance and horse. He had painted symbols of power on Keah-tigh's shield. To picture his father gone was to see the plains without grass—dust blowing wherever the wind tossed it.
At midday, Wapeche pointed to two separate groups of tracks—one headed northeast and the other northwest. He said Wun-oan-to-mee went with the northeast group.
"He lies," Apiatan said. "She is on horseback. No man can say whether a horse carries man or woman by its hoof prints."
"I captured Wapeche when he was a boy among the Mescaleros," Two Coups said. "Like all Apaches, he was already a tracker. He served me well. I freed him and sponsored his membership into the Kata Kiowa. He has never lied to me."
"Then ask him how he knows which horse carries Wun-oan-to-me?" one of the Ondegupa shouted. Two Coups scowled. He shook his coup stick at the band.
"His word is enough! If he lies, then I lie. Who says Two Coups lies?"
The Kaan cast down their eyes. The three Onde glared at the Ondegupa, but these men returned the glares. Some even dared to meet Two Coups' eyes. One or two glanced at Apiatan, but he studied a horsefly on the neck of his mount. Two Coups motioned for Wapeche to proceed along the northeast trail.
"The tracks of this horse follow as shadow to the tracks of this other." Wapeche pointed. "Both horses have riders—the prints are deep. Two riders do not travel so close unless one leads the other."
"I should follow this group with half the warriors," Apiatan said and swatted the blood-gorged fly, "while you pursue the other group so we do not lose half the horses."
"We all follow the northeast trail," Two Coups said. A murmur arose among the Kaan. Ondegupa with herds of thirty or forty horses might not consider this loss of any great conse-quence, and the wealthy Onde with herds of a hundred or more horses would surely not notice the loss, but a Kaan was lucky to own three or four horses. Were not most of the stolen horses Kaan? Heat crept into Keah-tigh's cheeks and earlobes. He fidgeted, but a glance showed Two Coups sitting his horse with his customary calm expression, listening to the Kaan with his coup stick resting across the crook of his arm. When their grumbling ceased, Two Coups nodded at Wapeche.
As the band fell into line, Anko rode beside Keah-tigh. Anko said that thirty Kiowa chased six Blackfeet and one woman, when once there had been thirteen Blackfeet. Perhaps now, Two Coups might wish to do more than merely see the enemy. Keah-tigh turned his face away. Anko laughed and led his string of horses far off to the left among the Ondegupa.
Not long before dark, they came upon a lame horse. A Kaan jumped off his mount and examined the horse. He spat in disgust, while the Kiowa spoke of the shame of abandoning a lame horse to wolves without first slitting its throat.
"We know now they have seen us and push ahead, as fast as weary mounts will go," Two Coups said. "Perhaps, their leader hoped we would take in the horse and slow our pace, as he hoped to divide our numbers earlier."
"Now is the time to overtake them," Apiatan said. "They are near. Our horses are fresher. We should ride all night, if need be, to catch them."
Ondegupa shouted agreement. Kaan echoed the yells. Even one of the Onde grunted.
"And if they turn again in the dark," Two Coups asked, "how will we follow them? We will not wear out our horses chasing false trails in the night. They have seen us and will push their tired horses to exhaustion tonight. We will catch them tomorrow, but when light fails today, we camp. Now slit the horse's throat. We go."
When the sun sank to his lodge beyond the horizon, the Kiowa made camp. Keah-tigh tended his string of horses. Anko dared to claim first watch, but Keah-tigh said that Anko would take last watch, no matter what a lazy Ondegupa wanted. Anko replied that Onde slept lightly because they were old women afraid of the dark. Keah-tigh took a step toward Anko, but then a Kaan warrior told them if they continued to disturb his sleep he would show them how Kaan dealt with noisy children. Keah-tigh seized his sleeping robe and walked outside the circle of sleeping men.
He sat on his robe with his feet curled to one side. He watched the stars above the southern horizon. Two days to the south, Ato-t'ain slept undisturbed. No one taunted his courage. Even the men who slept as women with other men had an honored place within the tribe. Certain honors and privileges were denied them, but no one called them old women. Their dignity was respected.
"Does my son forget that a warrior must eat if he is to have strength?" Two Coups asked. His father stood silhouetted against the northern sky. Starlight glinted off the silver in his scalplock. It looked as if the stars had nested in his hair.
"I am not hungry," Keah-tigh said. Two Coups sat down beside Keah-tigh and shoved jerky and pemmican at him.
"A warrior must eat, even when he has no taste for his food," Two Coups said. "He must have strength. The life of the tribe depends upon the strength of its warriors."
Keah-tigh let the meat lie in his lap. He looked again at the southern sky. Then he glanced at his father but looked quickly away. Would he ever possess the serenity that wrapped his father like a warm winter blanket? The childish taunts of a stupid Ondegupa boy had driven Keah-tigh outside the war band and robbed his hunger. Yet his father had endured far worse today and seemed to dismiss it as something of no account.
"My father, I do not know if the warrior's path is mine," he said to the food in his lap. The shaming water crowded into his eyes. "Is my father angry?"
Keah-tigh felt those calm eyes upon him. He was his father's fourth son. Four was the sacred Kiowa number. Fourth daughters made the most virtuous wives. Fourth sons were the bravest warriors. He bit off a chunk of jerky, doggedly chewing to hide his tears, so his father would not be even more ashamed.
"Why should I feel anger that my fourth son asks the same question that I asked at his age?"
Keah-tigh looked at his father. Light flashed like shimmering stars in Two Coups' eyes. Keah-tigh blinked and wiped a hand across his face. He swallowed a mouthful of meat.
"I am not certain of myself," Keah-tigh said. "A warrior needs to be certain."
"You speak of certainties where there are none," Two Coups said. "A warrior chooses among uncertainties."
"I do not understand," Keah-tigh said. "If a warrior is never certain, how does he choose?"
"He uses the wisdom the Great Mystery granted him," Two Coups said, "but he is never certain. Last night, I said I was not concerned for Wun-oan-to-mee because I trusted in the wisdom of the Blackfoot leader. A wise leader would have seen that his men were too close to our camp to risk the noise of a rape. His men would have lost alertness quarreling over who went first. Perhaps, the man who captured her would have protested being forced to share. A wise leader would not risk this with enemies nearby, but what if their leader was not a wise man? What if he was young and overeager to glory in the triumph of his raid? I could not be certain, so I hoped their leader had wisdom.
"Again, when the trail split, I chose among uncertainties. Many times, I have split my war party when pursued. I send the youngest warriors and the fastest horses in one group, hoping the enemy will foolishly divide his force to chase men whom I have split again and again, scattering my enemies across the plains. Perhaps this is what the Blackfoot leader did, but maybe the Black-feet quarreled over the woman and the horses. Such quarrels have divided war parties before. I could not know, so I hoped their leader acted as I would and kept the woman with him to prevent trouble among his younger warriors. I asked my spirit helper for courage, and he told me a leader must decide."
"Can a warrior choose correctly and still fail?" Keah-tigh asked.
"Yes, that is when he has most need of his courage."
"Apiatan has great courage," Keah-tigh said, "and he is always certain."
"None has greater courage than my brother," Two Coups said, "when the enemy is within arm's reach. Thinking courage is enough, he rushes to display his courage at every opportunity. He puts aside wisdom. He sees that the Blackfeet's horses are weary and enemies are close at hand, so he would blunder after them among shadows and moonbeams. There is little chance he would find them, but great chance they would hear him—men who crouch with knives in hands, not daring even to breathe. At the first sound of pursuit, they will kill Wun-oan-to-mee to keep her silent. They may still do that."
"Why? We do not pursue them."
"But we pushed them hard today." With three fingers of his right hand, Two Coups stroked the coup stick lying across the crook of his left elbow. "We had to—else tonight, confident they had outrun pursuit, they might have passed the woman among them. I hope they will not kill her since we do not pursue them tonight, but other creatures travel these plains. I cannot be certain that weary, frightened men who remember the boot Wun-oan-to-mee left for us will know a coyote or a grizzly by its sound before they use the knife."
"Where does my father find wisdom to choose among uncertainties?"
"I seek the words for my life's question among uncertainties." Two Coups' fingers traced the bend of the crook at the top of the coup stick. "A warrior's life is a question for which he seeks words. His choices are his words. Always the voice of his spirit helper tells him that he could find better words—that every choice, no matter how great the rewards, is somehow a failure, but every failure is somehow right, if it is part of the question he hopes to ask the Great Mystery, not an answer the warrior shouts at that we do not understand."
"I do not know if I have this courage," Keah-tigh said. "I want answers. I fear the harm I might do without them."
"Then perhaps you should go to Ato-t'ain," Two Coups said. "He is old and wishes to teach one to follow him. The tribe will honor the shaman whom he trains. Ato-t'ain will teach you certainties."
"Have you ever sought these certainties, my father?"
"Once when I was about your age," Two Coups replied, "I sat and listened to Ato-t'ain speak with certainty about the will of that we call the Great Mystery, but even he did not know its true name. I did not see my words along Ato-t'ain's path, for I remembered that once the Kiowa lived underground as ants. Earth-woman kept us safe there. Food she gave us from her womb, but one day, the shape-changer Saynday walked above us on the surface. We called to him from beneath the sacred cottonwood. He asked what we wanted. Some of the ants were afraid and ran away to hide in the safety of Earth-mother. But others cried to help them find a way out of the earth, for they wished to be nearer the Great Mystery and walk in the light of its symbol, the sun. Saynday told them that walking on the surface meant finding their way among cold, hunger, thirst and disease. Enemies would threaten them at every step. There would be no safety for them ever. Still, some of the ants asked to walk nearer the Great Mystery, so Saynday helped these ants out of the earth and changed them into men and women. He gave them a name, Kiowa, the People Who Go Forth. It is on the warrior's path, the path of greatest uncertainty, that I feel truly a Kiowa."
Early in the morning, Wapeche found Wun-oan-to-mee's scalped corpse—hands bound, mouth gagged and throat cut. Blood had dried to a red crust on her neck and the front of her buckskin dress.
Apiatan stood over the body and tore off his painted shirt. He slashed his chest again and again with his knife. Blood poured down his stomach muscles and spread across his loin cloth. He sliced off the little finger of his left hand and chopped his hair into a jagged stubble, sparing only his warrior's scalplock. Ondegupa and Kaan crowded around him, echoing his cries with grief songs and songs of revenge. Many collected locks of his hair to add power to their medicine bundles.
Jumping off his horse, Two Coups studied the corpse. Then he walked with Wapeche for several horse lengths in all directions, pointing to sign—swiftly, decisively, as if the corpse had freed him. He conversed briefly with the other Onde. Then he strode to the center of his warriors, where Apiatan had wrapped Wun-oan-to-mee in a buffalo robe and draped her across his horse. Now Apiatan trudged toward Keah-tigh and held out his hands for the reins of another horse.
"Anko will take the body back to the tribe," Two Coups said.
Apiatan spun around, but then stood as if struck a blow to the head—his mouth open and slack. He swayed slightly. His left hand dropped the reins to Wun-oan-to-mee's horse.
"Your grief is great," Two Coups said and looked at the rest of his warriors, "but we have need of your courage. Find it! We ride after the Blackfeet."
The war band clashed shields and lances. War cries sprang from lips. Striding to his horse, Two Coups vaulted onto its back and sent it prancing along the Blackfeet's trail. Wapeche cantered alongside Two Coups. The rest of the warriors mounted and chased after their leader. Keah-tigh knotted Anko's string to the end of his tether but left the best horse for Apiatan. Then he followed his father. Soon Apiatan galloped past Keah-tigh.
Early in the afternoon, they caught sight of the Blackfeet, tiny specks fleeing north on the green plains. Soon the specks became men crouched over the necks of laboring, foam-drenched horses. The Kiowa shouted insults and war cries. Two Coups swung his coup stick in a wide fan from left to right. Instantly, the Kiowa swept into a long line that outstretched the width of the six Blackfeet and their stolen horses. By kicking his horse's flanks and yanking on the lead tether, Keah-tigh managed to stay within two horse lengths of his father at the center of the line.
The Blackfeet turned left, but the Kiowa easily turned and closed more ground. Two Coups spun his coup stick in a circle above his head. Kiowa at both ends of the line lashed their horses to greater speed. Soon, a moving circle of Kiowa enclosed the Blackfeet. A tall Blackfoot, wearing nothing but a breechclout and moccasins, shouted a command, cast aside the lead tether of three stolen horses and turned his mount to the right. Abandoning their extra horses, his five warriors followed their leader's charge. An Ondegupa leveled his lance at the leader, but the Blackfoot swung underneath his horse, avoided the lance and then pulled himself astride his horse with a mocking yell. An arrow from another Blackfoot sent the Ondegupa's horse to its knees. The rider jumped clear, and the Blackfeet raced past him.
Two Coups shouted to three warriors to gather the freed horses. Keah-tigh galloped past the unhorsed Ondegupa, who sprang onto the back of the last horse in the string and cut the tether with his knife.
While the Kiowa reformed a line, the Blackfeet opened a lead of thirty horse lengths. They headed for a small knot of cottonwoods that marked a spring. At the edge of the trees, the leader flung up his hand and leaped with bow and arrows from his horse. Copying his actions, his warriors took cover in the grove. Just out of bowshot, Two Coups shouted a command to halt, but two eager warriors charged the grove. Arrows knocked both men from their horses. The Blackfoot leader ran out of the grove, scalped both men and then jumped up and down waving the scalps at the Kiowa. Then he sprinted back into the cottonwoods to his cheering men.
Two Coups signed for his men to encircle the Blackfeet. Then the Kiowas moved forward, pouring a storm of arrows into the grove. Unable to hide from arrows coming from all directions, five Blackfeet died quickly. Only the leader, an arrow through his right calf, remained alive when Apiatan shouted for the Kiowa to hold their fire. Two Coups turned in the saddle, studied his brother and then nodded. Apiatan shouted a challenge. The Blackfoot bent, snapped off the protruding shaft and limped to the edge of the trees. Screaming a war cry, Apiatan charged. At four horse lengths, the Blackfoot sent an arrow into Apiatan's horse. Collapsing over its front legs, the beast threw Apiatan headfirst. He landed a body's length from the Blackfoot. Apiatan's right leg twisted three ways, as if he had a second knee. He lay groaning. Dropping his bow, the Blackfoot strode forward with his scalping knife. He stood above Apiatan and laughed.
Two Coups raised his coup stick and shouted to his warriors not to move. Then he held out the coup stick and yelled a single war cry. The Blackfoot watched him. Two Coups walked his horse to within a horse length of the Blackfoot, dismounted and stepped forward. Keah-tigh slid from his horse, knocked an arrow to his bow and pulled the bowstring to his ear. Two Coups extended the coup stick. The Blackfoot jerked his knife above his head. Two Coups extended the stick again. After a moment, the Blackfoot lowered his knife and accepted the coup stick. Two Coups spread wide his arms. Twice, the Blackfoot tapped with the stick above Two Coups' heart. Then Two Coups bent and hoisted Apiatan onto the back of his horse. Turning his back on his enemy, who stood with the coup stick resting across his left forearm, Two Coups led the horse back to Keah-tigh. Keah-tigh lowered his bow.
"Kill him," Two Coups said. Keah-tigh rocked back on his heels. "Would you steal the honor your father has given a brave warrior? Would you send him in shame to his people without the men he led? Kill him!"
Keah-tigh raised the bow, bent the string to his ear and sent his arrow straight into the heart of the unmoving warrior.
"Scalp all but the Blackfoot leader," Two Coups said to his men. "Leave him with the coup stick in his grasp. Pawnee or Sioux will find this battlefield and spread the tale. Eventually, the Blackfeet will sing of their warrior who died with the coup stick of the greatest warrior in the Kiowa nation in his hand."
One of the three Onde grunted and slipped his knife from its sheath. The other two lifted Apiatan down from his horse and set about fashioning a splint for his leg. The Ondegupa and Kaan followed the first Onde into the grove while Keah-tigh stood beside his father.
"I am the fourth son of a Koitsenko soldier," Keah-tigh said. "Surely, I will find the words for my life's question along the warrior's path."
Two Coups said, "That is my hope."