The Bighorn Mountains
Having been led to this spot by a strange sort of whirlwind, eleven-year-old Carolyn White huddled under the ledge of an overhanging rock. It was her only protection against the rain. Her long, brown hair, greasy and unkempt, lay matted against her head, while huge, fear-stricken eyes looked out on the midnight scene before her. Nervously, she fingered the silver locket around her neck; this piece of jewelry, and the clothes she wore, her only worldly possessions.
She shivered, her thread-bare shawl no longer able to protect her from the elements. Luckily for her the center of the storm focused upon one mountain in particular, not her own. She watched the crashing of lightning in the distance, listened to the roar of the thunder, little aware that it was this, the heavenly spectacle, that was more than responsible for the atmosphere of terror and doom surrounding her.
And Carolyn was frightened. But if she were to be truthful, she would admit that fear was becoming her constant companion--ever since she had been left in the middle of this huge country, alone.
Alone, except for that curious whirlwind.
What was to happen to her now?
Although Carolyn felt instinctively that it was wrong to do so, she could not help wishing that she, too, had been taken by the illness that had stolen away her loved ones.
But such a thing was not to be. Disaster had come swiftly, in the form of a cholera epidemic, which had swept through her family's caravan. The disease had hit in force mere hours after their wagon train had departed Fort Phil Kearny, following a three nights' stay.
At first, Carolyn had thought nothing of the setback, not even when her parents had been too sick to continue on and her family's gig had been one of the few left behind the main caravan. After all, what had there been to fear? The wagon master had said he would keep to a slower pace so that when the sickened families had recovered, their part of the entourage might rejoin the rest.
But when her parents had become worse, the actuality of her situation had taken a firm grip over her. Their deaths marked the beginning of what was to become a daily reality.
In the end, only Carolyn had survived, for even the few remaining people, who had at first seemed immune to the disease, had perished. Even the oxen were gone.
Now, when Carolyn thought back to it, those days had been lost in a mental haze. It all seemed unreal. All those people she had known, dead.
It had been a very long time--several days in fact--before Carolyn had been able to move away from the protection of the wagons. For no matter how horrible her loss, it had been there, surrounded by the remains of her parents' possessions, where she had felt close to something familiar. In the end, it had been hunger which had caused her to leave.
Uttering a final farewell to those she loved most, Carolyn had moved off, a single, solitary figure, alone upon the Bozeman trail.
Now she had only herself to care for, since her mother and father were gone.
As she had trekked northward, the sun, heat and wind caused her to look with longing toward the mountains which sprang up in the west. But she knew she had to keep to the trail. Fort C.F. Smith lay ahead of her...if she could but get there.
Carolyn could no longer remember when the trail had become indistinct; forgotten, too, was the moment when she had realized she was lost.
But although Carolyn might be young, she was not incapable. Using the sun and mountains to get her bearings, Carolyn had followed a river which she thought might be the Tongue River.
And surely, if she were at the Tongue River, she knew Fort C.F. Smith could not be far away. And Carolyn, aware that trails often followed natural waterways, had kept to the river.
The fact that the path climbed higher and higher into the mountains hadn't concerned her, for Carolyn had realized that she would need to cross the mountains in order to get to the fort. However, perhaps she should have been more attentive; for too soon, she had realized that she was lost; totally, utterly.
As the trail markings evaded her, she had begun to roam through the mountains, using the sun as her only guide by day, the stars by night.
Not so gradually, hunger had become a daily way of life and Carolyn watched with resignation as her body grew thinner and thinner. Unable to hunt for food, she had found herself living on grasshoppers, and these, not even cooked.
Something growled, and Carolyn's eyes popped open. Had she not been so hungry, she might have laughed, for her fear was entirely misplaced. It had been her stomach making the sound, another reminder of her sorry fate.
She sighed. Had she been dreaming? Carolyn glanced around her, noting that grey streaks of light now dotted an otherwise midnight sky. She held out her hand to the air. When she pulled it back, and it came away dry, she knew she would have to move on.
Where was the whirlwind?
It was odd that Carolyn had begun to characterize the inanimate objects that she saw, giving them personality. Since becoming lost, she had even begun to talk to trees.
But the whirlwind was different; different because it had seemed to rescue her.
She had first come into contact with the thing a few days earlier. It had happened on a mountaintop, where such a view was spread that even an eleven-year-old could appreciate it. However, the place had also been a site of constant wind, and Carolyn, while trying to keep the gales from blowing her hair into her eyes, stumbled face forward over an unusual set of stones.
"Oooph!" The breath had been knocked out of her as she fell onto her hands.
Although not hurt, she had cried out, stunned momentarily by the sound of her own voice. And for an instant, she had wondered why she should even try; why bother going on?
Because she was no quitter, that's why, answered another sturdier, more rational thought.
Pulling a face, Carolyn had lifted herself up onto her elbows. It was then that she noticed them, the stones.
"I wonder who put these here?" Carolyn had asked herself, getting to her feet and gazing at the large and unusual circle. Why a circle, high atop a mountain plain? "Are there people here?" she asked herself. "And if there are people who live here, what kind of people are they?"
The word had barely escaped her lips when fear shot through her. She had heard about the Indians who attacked pioneers along this trail. Hadn't the campfire tales abounded with these stories? Stories, detailing the brutal tortures, the maimings and worse?
Well, if there were Indians here, she had better leave this place quickly.
No sooner had she formed the idea than she came face-to-face with the whirlwind. It had seemed to appear out of nowhere. Not only that, it had come right up to her, stopping directly in front of her, and spinning, always spinning, as though it watched her.
"Well, hello," she had said to it at last. But what else did you say to a whirlwind?
"Fancy seeing you here," she had gone on to say, trying to speak to it as though such things were an everyday occurrence. She went further. Reaching out toward it, as though she might shake hands with it, she had said, "Well, I must move along. It's been awfully nice meeting you, master wind. But if you will excuse me." And she made to skirt around the thing.
But no matter in which direction she stepped, the wind had changed position, too.
As though it were alive.
The idea scared her, but only a little. It was not that she held no fear of it, it was only that she could see no harm in a slight bit of whirling wind that stood barely taller than she. Alas, if the truth were to be known, it was somewhat reassuring to find something else that seemed alive.
And so she said to it, "You don't happen to know the way to Fort C.F. Smith, do you?"
There was no answer.
"Pity," she said. "My parents and all the others from my wagon trail are gone. Only I remain alive, but for how much longer, I do not know. My only chance is to find Fort C.F. Smith as quickly as I can. Do you know the way?"
But when no immediate answer came from the wind, she made a move to step around it, half afraid that the thing would again block her path. But this time, it did not. Truth to tell, the spinning wind moved away from her, where it practically ran down a trail of rocks.
Pity, she thought. It would have been nice to have some company.
"Good-bye, master wind," she had called out to it. She had even waved at it before she had turned her back to it, ready to move off in the opposite direction.
But the thing had returned to her, once more blocking her path. Then it had moved away from her, returning to repeat the entire process a second time. And Carolyn could think of nothing else except that this little tuft of wind wanted her to follow it.
Why not? Perhaps it did know the way to Fort C.F. Smith.
That had been a few days ago. Since then, the wind had led her to this spot, beneath this cliff. And then it had disappeared.
Sniffling and pulling her flimsy shawl around her shoulders, Carolyn stared out into the darkness. Would the wind return?
Or perhaps a more important question was, could she afford the time to wait for it?
Unfortunately, thought Carolyn, she could not, if for no other reason than the simple fact that she was hungry.
Exhaling, she stepped out from her cover, and no sooner had she done so, than the little clump of wind appeared before her. Thank goodness.
While Carolyn paused to say a quick prayer, it hesitated also. But only for a moment before it moved away from her, tripping its way, once more, downhill.
Carolyn followed it, trying to keep pace with it, yet she needed it to go slowly enough that she could get her footing. But regardless of how carefully she tried to negotiate the path, she could not help but run; the ground was simply too steep. She only wished it weren't so hard to see, as well.
Alas, she had gone no more than a few hundred yards when she fell over something which lay directly in her path.
And though a mat of grass cushioned her fall, the coldness of the ground and the wetness which clung to every blade there seeped through her clothes to her delicate skin, the chill of the icy droplets cutting straight to her bones. Carolyn trembled, and her teeth chattered.
Regaining her balance and sitting up, she came face to face with the one sight she had hoped she would never have to confront.
Involuntarily, she screamed, for as she glanced up, she looked into the darkest set of eyes she had ever witnessed. Indians!
Instantly a naked, masculine arm came around her, and a hand clapped over her mouth as foreign lips uttered, "Oo-chia!"
Looking into her captor's eyes, panic washed over her. She darted a look all around her. Her friend, the whirling wind, had disappeared.
Meanwhile, a strange scent, perhaps of pure sage and some other herb, assailed her. Had the Indian been burning herbs? The scent was so strong that the sweet-smelling odor clung to the man's skin.
Wide-eyed, Carolyn gazed around her. And though it was too dark to see well, Carolyn could make out no other figures. Was the Indian alone?
"Saape? Sapee?" came a deep voice.
Dear Lord, what was the Indian going to do to her?
"He-lin-sa-ap-de-lah." The strange words came at her in a baritone--although, oddly enough, a pleasant voice. "Bia!" This last word was spat at her, and there was no denying the frustration behind it.
Carolyn tried to move but could not do so. The man held her firmly.
Obviously this last had been a question, but Carolyn could not understand it. She shook her head, or at least she tried to. Under the man's grip, she could barely breathe, let alone move.
The man shifted, placing her body between his legs, and at the same time, while keeping his hand over her mouth, the man bent and reached for a stick, its tip having been lit by the tiny fire.
How come she hadn't smelled that fire?
Carolyn wiggled to get loose, but she could not do it. The Indian was too strong.
He brought the hot end of the stick toward her face, and Carolyn gasped, partly from fright, but mostly because, in the stick's dim light, she could see the Indian's face a little more clearly.
Why, this was no man; this was a boy, probably no more than five or six years older than she.
She struggled against him, but she did so in vain, earning herself a roughly spoken, "Oo-chia!" for her efforts.
The boy pressed the burning ember closer and closer to her until Carolyn panicked. She was certain he meant to burn her with it. After all, wasn't that what Indians did?
No! This would not be her fate. She had not survived all this way to be subjected to torture, or worse. By goodness, she would fight.
Mustering up every ounce of strength that she had, Carolyn bit the fingers clamped over her mouth, gaining a brief moment of freedom.
And in that instant, she screamed.
"Ho!" A-luu-te Itt-achkaat, or Lone Arrow uttered the expression mildly, as though he were in the habit of being bitten by strange females as a matter of course. But after his initial shock, he brought his palm back to cover his captive's mouth.
He would have to be more careful with the girl, at least until he could tell her in a language that she understood to be quiet.
What was she doing here, anyway, disturbing his dreams?
He gave her a more thorough glance, his curiosity at once caught. What was a white youngster doing in these mountains?
At first he had thought that she might be a part of his vision, but he had soon disabused himself of that notion. The figure that he held in his arms was real, not the product of a helper--an animal or a person who would be a warrior's protector all his life.
Plus, she was white.
"Oo-chia," he tried to tell her in his native tongue to stop her struggling, but she did not understand; she kept fighting him, and Lone Arrow sent a frustrated glance toward her.
For two long weeks, A-luu-te Itt-achkaat had prepared for his vision. He had cleansed himself in a sweat lodge; he had bathed himself in herb-scented smoke and had gone without food and water for four days. All this he had done so that he might communicate with his Maker--via his dreams.
During these four days of fasting, Lone Arrow had walked naked through these mountains, seeking a helper, asking the animals to speak to him, to assist him in having a vision. Several times he had seen bears, wolves, even buffalo, but none had spoken to him. None had been his special helper.
But this night was different; this night, he had at last realized the culmination of his hopes, for the spirit of the mountains had come to him. Taking the form of a whirlwind, it had been speaking to him of the future, had been imparting its own special wisdom and knowledge to A-luu-te Itt-achkaat...only to have the girl trip over him.
In the confusion, the little tuft of wind had fled. And Lone Arrow was no closer to discovering the fate of a planned raid than he had been before beginning his vision quest. Would the wind come again?
Frustration, which could rightfully be directed at this girl, filled Lone Arrow's soul, and had he been a lesser being, he might have vented his anger on her. But such was not his way, nor the custom of his people.
First he needed to determine what the girl was doing here, so far from the white man's posts.
"De sapee? Who are you?" he asked.
He gazed down at her, observing that her eye color held much in common with the hue of a beaver pelt; a brown color, but a lighter brown than that of his own people. He also noted that there was no look of comprehension reflected there in the depths of her eyes. In truth, all he could see, all he could sense about her, was fear; not only in her facial features, but also in the way her body trembled.
Would she know the language of sign? he wondered--if he ever dared to release her in order to use it?
"Hii-laa, young lady," he began, "xapiiwaak, are you lost?"
But it was useless. Even if she were capable of understanding, the girl would not be still.
Should he let her go?
He examined her more closely. Her clothing was torn, her cheeks hollow, her hair dirty, and her bones visible beneath her skin. Not only was this girl lost, he determined, she was starving.
But her plight was not his affair. After all, what was she to him? She had interrupted him during a most important time in his life. And if she wanted to leave, as she was struggling to do, why should he convince her to stay?
Staring into her eyes one more time, he released his hold over her.
He would let her decide. If she were dull-witted enough to flee from him, a possible provider of food, far be it for him to change the course of her life. He had enough problems of his own...thanks to her.