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Chapter V First Lessons

AS soon as I was able to walk, an old man taught me the rabbit dance, for, like every other boy, I was called a Pho-ly-yoh-yeh—“rabbit,” though not born a Kiowa. The girls as well as the boys took part in the dance. They formed a circle, imitated the peculiar motions of the rabbit, and with the first two fingers of each hand kept time to the beat of the tom-tom.

I was hardly able to walk when they put me on horseback alone—a common sport with the child. The men picked out some sleepy, trusty old nag for the mount, and the onlookers thought it great fun to see the small rider clutch frantically at the mane as the horse was whipped up. If the child fell off, the hurt never amounted to much. But he rarely fell off. His tiny hands clutched the mane so tightly, they helped him keep his seat.

When I had learned to manage a horse, Father took me with him. It was always a great delight to me to be awakened by Father’s calling me to hurry. That meant that I was to go with him. Out from under the robes I would scramble, mount my horse and follow along after him, my heart proud of the privilege.

Shortly after we had made camp in a new country, we were out together. Father asked me suddenly in what direction camp lay. I did not know. He told me where, explaining how he knew. He told me how to find my way when the sun is hidden.

“When you leave camp, know from what direction blows the wind. Know by the grass, by the leaves, by the clouds, if it changes. If they do not tell you, still the wind breathes. Wet your finger. Hold it up. Where it begins to dry, the breath of the wind has dried it.”

Then he pinched my ear. I thought his nails would go clear through the lobe. I did not cry out. I did not make a sound. I did not dare. I was learning to be a man. I set my teeth and listened to Father saying:

“This is not to punish you. It is to make you remember. Always make your eyes big. Not only look at things, but see them. Make your ears wide. Not only hear things, but listen to them.”

In the sand near a stream he noticed a moccasin track. He told me to dismount and examine it carefully—to note its shape, to look for its every peculiarity.

That night, when we were resting in the tepee, besides the blazing sticks, I was called upon to relate everything that I could remember having seen and heard; I had to tell the different directions in which we had travelled and the quarter the wind was in; to describe the prairie, the hills, the streams and their banks, just where wooded, just where bare; and, after many other details, I finally had to attempt to draw the shape of the moccasin-track that we had seen in the sand. On the floor of the tepee I drew it with my finger. When I got it wrong Father corrected me, explaining that it was a Comanche track and that no two prairie tribes had the same shaped moccasin.

Sometimes in our wanderings, we would dismount at the edge of a stream where animals had been to drink. Singling out a deer’s track, Father would ask me to tell him the length of time which had elapsed since it had been made. Or, pointing to the pebbles, would ask me why their upper surface was of a lighter colour than their under sides.

Indeed, from everything beneath, around and above, were drawn the lessons that were taught me.

Early I learned how to cure myself of nervousness— “buck ague.” Came my first chance to shoot a deer. A fine buck appeared in an opening in the forest. In the act of firing under Father’s gaze, I trembled like an aspen leaf.

“Bite your finger on the nail—hard,” he whispered. Quickly I obeyed. The immediate pain centred my mind, and the buck went down under my steady aim. To this day, if I find myself nervous in hunting, I use this means to bring steadiness.

Once on a hunting trip in the mountains, we heard a voice which greatly puzzled us. It was a low murmuring sound something like um-um-um-m-m-m!

We would travel in the direction from which it seemed to come, when presently it would seem to be in another direction. It apparently changed locality so often, I began to think it must be an evil spirit seeking to do us harm. It would stop for a little while and then begin again, um-um-um-m-m-m!

Frightened, I kept close to Father, glad to remember that he was a great hunter and warrior.

Finally, Father sat down under a tree and thought for a long time. Then he said,

“Boy, this is a strange sound to me. At first I thought it the voice of the wind speaking through the splinters of a storm-torn treetop. It is not Never have I heard anything like it”

I asked him if he thought it was an evil spirit.

“It must be,” he replied. “We have walked into weariness.”

And weariness lies in the trail not of kindly but of evil spirits. Surely the sound was one of them, for with good eyes and good ears we had not been able to locate its body.

Presently we heard it again. Father put his ear close to the ground, where he could hear it more distinctly. Then he rose and together we began to walk in a circle among the trees. At last Father stopped close to a big tree, and with his ear against the trunk, declared that the sound was somewhere in its top. It was a tree of immense girth and height and with dense foliage. From every side I looked up into it to discover eventually what made my heart jump almost out of my mouth.

Close to the top and but partially hidden among the leaves, was a great black something. I pointed it out to Father. When he had taken one glance at it, he sat down at the root of the tree and shook with silent laughter.

The thing that had uttered the strange, weird sound was a big black bear. He was busy robbing a bees’ nest, and the bees, resenting the intrusion into their storehouse, were busy assailing him. Whenever they attacked his nose, the robber dashed his paw against it, and the strange, nasal murmur was the result

Father shouted up. We looked for the bear to come crashing down—the usual habit when shouted at—but he was too busy with his sweetmeat So he only tipped his head a bit to peer down at us.

“You thief!” cried Father. “You thief! Worse even than an Apache! The poor little bees work so hard for their honey. You coward! to steal their' sweetmeat! You enemy! Come down! Not a blood-drop shall stay in your sneaking body. Come down!

I want your skin to sleep on; I want your tongue to feast on!”

The robber seemed to listen to all Father had to v say, but apparently he had no notion of accepting the invitation. Then Father raised his rifle and fired.

The thief came tumbling down through the branches, \ and the thud with which he landed gave ground for 1 believing that the fall had broken every bone in his body.

Father rushed forward with his knife. The bear struck him in the breast and sent him sprawling. Instantly he was on his feet and running for his gun. He had leaned it, unloaded, against a tree.

The bear was on his feet, too, and not many paces behind Father, who kept the tree between them as he tried vainly to pour a charge of powder into the gun.

Round and round the tree they went, and I dug out through the woods. Then Father took after me, calling,

“Come back! Bring your gun!”

He was getting out of breath and the bear was closing up on him.

“Quick!” he shouted, “your gun, breech first!”

I obeyed as rapidly as my frightened feet could carry me.

When he snatched my gun and fired, the bear was so close the powder burned his neck. The creature dropped dead in his tracks. We found the first shot had grazed his skull. It had stunned him just enough to bring him down. We also found we had as trophy one of the biggest beasts of his kind.

I shouted with joy. But father did not speak a joy like that I spoke.

“Boy,” said he, “they call me mighty hunter. With my bow I drive an arrow into a buffalo till the point sticks out on the other side. Yet I let our brother-bear outwit me. I let him knock me down. Me— Zepkhoeete! I felt myself too sure I hit the spot I aimed at. I let myself forget to load my gun.

Even Zepkhoeete—tried and mighty hunter—can be taught!”

“And you, boy, you ran,” he went on sternly. “Never do that again. Never feel fear.”

Then he spoke more kindly.

“Unarmed I have met the wild things of the forest.

With unflinching eye upon them, I have walked around and away. They do not follow him who feels no fear.

The instant you feel that, the wild thing knows it.

That instant you are his.

“Remember my mistakes. Remember, too, my care to study out the brother-bear’s queer voice. Make your ears true in the forest. There are creatures that cry in the voices of those they seek to kill and devour.

The panther cries like a child, like a woman in distress, like a man who halloos.”

Of such sort was the training and education my father gave me.

Like any child I gleaned many lessons unconsciously.

I cannot remember when I first knew that the paints we used had a colour meaning. Yellow was the sacred colour. For certain religious ceremonies it was put  not only on the face but over the whole body. Red and ,, other bright tints told that the wearer’s heart was glad and that he was in trim to attend a feast or !' friendly dance. Streaks of black in addition meant, 1 readiness for the war trail. Black alone was the sign \ of mourning. '

To this day I dislike to recall some of the memories associated with that all-black paint. Like any other child I was interested in the burial ceremonies—particularly those of a warrior. I liked to watch the men put up the scaffolding poles out on the prairie; I liked to watch them wrap the dead warrior in his robes, and lay beside him his trappings of war and the food he would need on the Long Dark Trail. I liked to see the men relatives appear with their hair cut. On one side of the head it was always cut even with the lower part of the ear. This was a mark of mourning.

I did not like to see the burning of the dead man’s things or the killing of his horses, especially his war pony which was always shot beside the scaffolding, to be ready for the first call of his master.

I did not like the chanting of the funeral dirge, and to-day I fight off the vision of the women seated on the ground and gashing themselves across the breast and arms; of a mother cutting off a finger-joint in token of the loss of a son or brother, and coaxing the spirit to stay near and comfort her. And to-day I fight off the sound of the wailing.

Never in all my varied experiences among white men have I ever seen or heard anything to exceed the expressions of our Indian women’s grief. Their heartrending wails would smite the heart of any listener and lay upon it a weight never to be forgotten. I have known a bereft mother to break out into wails of grief many years after the death of a child and to cry and mourn for hours together.

From the stories told in the fireshine of the long winter evenings I learned what the warriors had learned on the hunt and the warpath. Their return meant the narration of every incident that took place from the time they left home. But principally I learned how friend or foe was painted, how he was dressed, how his hair was arranged; what was the shape of his moccasin tracks; whether he camped in the timber or on the prairie—all of which set forth the tribe to which he belonged, as well as the purpose of his mission. So, every boy had a pretty good idea of the game he was to hunt and the foes he would face, long before the years fitted him for hunter and warrior.

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