During the moon when the flowers blossom, Strikes The Bear's wife had been raped, abused and killed by the white men. Soon after, his sister had been taken to a white man's sleeping robes, supposedly in marriage, only to be discarded shortly thereafter.
It had to be these things, and these things alone, which accounted for Strikes The Bear's present behavior. No true warrior would treat a woman so badly. Not without direct provocation.
Night Thunder, hidden by many trees and bushes, sat considering, with the age-old logic which had been passed down to him since "time before mind," that Strikes The Bear had some cause for his anger. Still, this particular white woman had not caused the tragedy to Strikes The Bear's family. And Night Thunder had pledged to protect her; she was his responsibility. His to defend.
Night Thunder inspected the temporary warrior's camp, knowing with a sickening sensation what was to come.
The men stood in a circle around the fire, which burned ominously, its crackle and smoky, pine-scented odor offensive rather than pleasant. A drum beat steadily, slowly--a throbbing portent of what was to come. The woman had been placed in the center of the circle--fire to her back, Strikes The Bear in front. And in his hand, Strikes The Bear wielded a knife.
Voices were raised in song and in quiet murmurings, occasionally interrupted with a bellow from Strikes The Bear and a whimper from the woman.
Night Thunder observed that there were no guards posted to watch over the encampment. Either Strikes The Bear was overly certain of his safety, or the warriors, too aroused over the spectacle taking place before them, no longer cared.
Night Thunder suspected the latter and despaired.
How could he save her?
If these men had been of an enemy tribe, Night Thunder wouldn't have hesitated to act, despite the fact that they were fifteen and he was one. He would have already seized the opportunity for glory, rushing into the enemy camp and killing or being killed.
But such was not to be. These warriors were his own people, many of them his friends. True, they were Kainah, of the Blood tribe, while he was Pikuni--or as the white man called his people, the Piegan. Still, this made no difference. These warriors were Blackfeet, his relatives, his brothers. He could not fight them. Not and remain honorable to himself.
Yet he must save the woman.
Custom dictated that a captured woman belonged to the one who had stolen her; that man being Strikes The Bear. It was not a law Night Thunder was willing or prepared to break.
Still, he had to do something.
He glanced at the woman now, noting in a single glance that her golden-brown hair, usually as bright and shiny as a full autumn moon, lay lackluster and disheveled around her face. Her eyes, which he knew to be as amber as those of a panther, mirrored her fear, though pride and perhaps resignation kept her silent. Her hands shook where they were tied together in front of her; her knees trembled, making her flimsy dress flutter as though it waved in a breeze.
Yet she had jutted her chin forward, had thrown back her head and had a look upon her face which could only be called defiant. And if those were tears which fell over her cheeks, she at least pretended to have no knowledge of them.
She had courage, this one. She might be young, perhaps no more than twenty winters, but Night Thunder knew very few women who would remain so stouthearted in similar circumstances. He added one more quality to his long, growing list of her attributes: her courageous spirit. Someday, he thought, she would make a man a fine wife.
Night Thunder drew his brows together in silent realization.
Wife? Was this a possible solution? If Night Thunder claimed her as his bride...?
No, he couldn't.
But if he could make the others believe that he had married this woman, it would. give him first rights to her. He could then save her without raising his hand against his brothers.
Could he do it? To do so would be the height of dishonesty. Surely Sun and the winds would carry the tale of his treachery into the Sand Hills, reaching the ears of his ancestors, bringing those who had gone before him great shame.
Yet the consequences if he did not act...
Strikes The Bear suddenly let out a growl and, gripping his knife as though prepared to use it, approached the woman.
Her scream split the air with a terrifying intensity as the knife tore through her dress, and in that instant Night Thunder ceased to wonder if and when he should act.
He would rescue her.
The Indian growled at her, striking out at her with his knife, the action plummeting Rebecca instantly and horribly into the present. As though in a dream, she'd been lost in the past. She wished she could have remained there; the present held too much pain, too much fear.
She wasn't certain how she had lived through the first few hours after her capture by these Indians, so strong had been that fear. Still, live she had.
She stared into her enemy's black-painted face, trying to remember if she had ever seen a human being look more frightening. Nothing came to her. Nor did she register much else about the man, not even his nearly nude body. All she could focus on was his face and that knife he waved in front of her. Her stomach dropped and the scent of her own fear engulfed her. She needed no wise man to tell her what her future held.
Was this all she had left, then? Was she to join, at last, her dearly departed fiance? Would she never see the shores of her parents' beloved homeland, Ireland? Would she die here never to have realized her dream? Would she never dance? This last thought, strangely enough, was more depressing than all the rest, even the idea of dying.
Odd, she considered, that here, before her imminent demise, she found herself bemoaning a ball she would never have, a party she would never attend. How her parents would have moaned her loss, had they been living--that their American-born daughter would not come to know her Irish heritage.
Her heart sank.
Perhaps in the hereafter, please God.
Well, if this was all that there was, then let the Indian get on with it. Taking what she speculated might be her last breath, she threw back her head, raised her chin, and voiced, "Is that the best you can do to frighten me, now?"
She knew her words were hollow, however, her bravery for naught. She would break down soon enough, more's the pity. But perhaps the Lord would let her keep her dignity, as least for a little while longer.
Propelling himself forward, out of the shadows, Night Thunder leaped into the Kainah encampment, making as much noise as he could, in order that he draw attention to himself.
He heard the woman scream out his name in the white man's tongue. Odd, he thought fleetingly, that her voice would sound so pleasant, even under such duress.
"Go back," she shouted at him. "There's naught you can do for me here. There are too many of them."
Night Thunder paid her little attention. He took note of Strikes The Bear, saw the man turn his head slightly. Night Thunder drew his arms together over his chest, preparing to meet the other Indian in silent battle. But all the other Indian did by way of greeting was grunt before he turned back toward the woman. He shouted, "Omaopii! Be quiet!" and at the same time, reached out toward her as though he might strike her.
"The devil bless you," she spat out, defiance coloring her voice, her composure, her bearing. And Night Thunder realized that though the white woman might not have understood Strikes The Bear's words, she had clearly grasped his actions.
Strikes The Bear shrieked all at once and sprang forward, slashing out at her again with his knife. Another piece of her dress fell to the ground. But the white woman held onto her pride, this time not uttering even a sound.
Night Thunder congratulated her silently for her fortitude. He cautioned himself, however, to show nothing: not admiration, not pride, not even his anger. "Oki, nitakkaawa, hello, my friends," he said at last to the warriors at large. Then, with what he hoped was a tinge of humor, he added, "Do we intend to start treating the white women as that man does ours?"
"Miistapoot, go away, my cousin." It was Strikes The Bear who spoke. "We do not wish to hear your talk if it is to say bad things about what we do."
"You think that I would say bad things about this?"
Strikes The Bear groaned slightly before he continued, "We all know how you cater to the white man, spending so much time in his forts and lodges. Many are the times when we have likened you to a dog seeking the white man's scraps. But you are alone in your regard for this woman. Most of us hate the white man for what he has done to us, to those dear to us. Look around you. Do you not see that each warrior here has suffered from the white man's crimes? We do not wish to hear your honeyed words about him."
Night Thunder listened patiently, as was the way of his people, and he paused only slightly before responding, "I come here before you with no pleasant talk for the white man on my tongue. But this woman, she is different."
"Go away. I will do as duty requires me. Can you deny that I have the right and the obligation to do to this white woman those things which were done to my wife? Is it not true that only in this way can my spirit, and my woman's, at last find peace?"
Night Thunder again paused, long enough to show respect for what Strikes The Bear had said. But after a few moments, Night Thunder began, "Aa, yes, my cousin has cause to speak and to do as he does, I think, and all our people weep with him in his grief." Night Thunder shifted his weight, the action giving emphasis to his next words. "But even as he scolds the white man for his ways and scorns his path, I see that my cousin adopts his customs, too. For is it not the sweet scent of the trader's nectar that I smell here in your camp? Is it not the stench of whisky on your breath that I inhale as you speak to me? I cannot help but wonder how a man can curse one part of a society while holding another dear."
Strikes The Bear howled and turned away from the woman. He took a few menacing steps toward Night Thunder before, motioning with his arms, he snarled, "Miistapoot! Go away!"
Night Thunder didn't flinch, nor did he raise an arm against his cousin. "I think you have had too much of the whisky, my cousin," he said. "It would be best if you slept through the night before you decided what to do with this woman."
"Miistapoot! I will hear none of what you say. No man can tell another man what to do."
Night Thunder nodded. "So the old men of our tribe tell us. But if you value your life and your few possessions, you will take great heed of my words."
Strikes The Bear hesitated. "You speak in riddles. Say what you mean."
"I mean that you must leave this woman alone."
These words seemed to cause Strikes The Bear great humor, for he began to laugh, though there was little amusement in the sound of it. At last, though, Strikes The Bear said, "My cousin has taken leave of his senses, I think."
Night Thunder grinned. "Perhaps I have," he said, "or perhaps you should ensure that you learn all that you can about a woman before you decide to use her for your own purposes."
"A white woman? What value is a white woman to me? There seem to be so few of them that maybe if we kill them all, the white man will go away, since he will have no one in which to plant his seed."
This statement appeared to amuse the crowd, and Night Thunder smiled along with them. Shortly, however, he held up a hand, silencing all present as he said, "You speak with the foresight of a child, my cousin. Must I remind you of the teachings of the elders in the value of life?"
"Not a white man's life."
"Who said I speak of a white man's life?"
Strikes The Bear smirked. "Are your eyes so weak, my cousin, that you cannot see the color of this captive's skin?"
"Is your mind so cluttered," Night Thunder countered, "that you have failed to discover that she is not only white, she is Siksika? She is Blackfoot."
This statement stopped Strikes The Bear. And Night Thunder, quick to press his advantage said, "I hope that you are ready to give me many horses for the insult you bring to me."
With these words all sounds within the camp stopped. Everyone and everything suddenly stilled, and all attention swung to Night Thunder.
Strikes The Bear recovered before the rest. "Miistapoot, nitakkaawa, go away, my friend," he said, annoyed. "Your words make little sense. I have no quarrel with you. Leave here before I decide to begin one."
"You already have one."
"Otam, later we can talk of this."
"We talk of it now. This woman is Siksika, Blackfoot."
Strikes The Bear straightened up to his full height and glared at Night Thunder, a stare that would have sent lesser men scurrying away. Not only was Strikes The Bear a huge hulk of a man, resembling in size his namesake, he perpetually wore a scowl upon his face which gave him an evil cast. Most people, even the gallant men from the Pikuni, left him alone.
At last, the larger man spoke: "Why do you say this, my cousin?"
Night Thunder paused significantly. Then, slowly he uttered, "Because she is my wife."
Astonishment, utter and profound, filled the encampment, causing the silence to become ominous and oppressive.
"Ohkiimaan, wife?" Strikes The Bear spoke up, filling the void. He grinned, his smile becoming wider and wider until he laughed at length. "Omaniit," he said, "be truthful."
Night Thunder didn't even blink. "I am. This woman is my wife. You have brought me great insult. I expect you will have to give me many horses for what you are doing."
Strikes The Bear laughed. "Ikkahsanii, you joke. We all know that Blue Raven Woman waits for you in a Kainah village in our homeland. Do you mean to dishonor her by taking another--a white woman--as your first wife?"
"Saa, no," Night Thunder answered without delay, though in truth, he desired more time to think. In his haste to save the white woman, he had forgotten about Blue Raven Woman.
"She will not be happy to learn that you have married another as your 'sits-beside-him' wife."
"She will honor our parents' wishes, as will I," Night Thunder asserted. "But we leave the point. This woman upon whom you seek to claim revenge is my wife and I assert all rights to her."
"Saa, no, I stole her. She is mine now to use as the whites used my wife."
Night Thunder allowed a moment to lapse before he spoke again. Then, calmly striding forward, he began, "Aa, yes, my cousin, it is right that you seek revenge, but would it not be better to wreak vengeance upon the men who did this terrible thing to you and your wife, than upon an innocent who knows not of it? Is it not true that if you do this thing to her, you will be making yourself into as treacherous a being as the white man? Is it this that you wish?"
Strikes The Bear screeched, then glared at Night Thunder. It was several moments before the other Indian answered, "You insult me, I think. It was my intention to marry this woman." A smile, more evil than humorous, split Strikes The Bear's face before he glanced back at the woman to say, "To have her take the place of my wife."
Night Thunder didn't flinch. "We all know that you lie."
Strikes The Bear growled.
Night Thunder ignored it and pressed on. "We all know what your intentions were before I walked into this camp. I will give you only one more chance to keep your honor before I am forced to challenge you. I am the husband of this woman. She is mine and you may not use her. Give her to me."
"Saa, no!" Strikes The Bear, holding up his knife, leapt before Night Thunder, and bending down at the knees, motioned Night Thunder forward. "If you want her, you must take her from me. But I warn you that if you kill me, which you will have to do in order to have her, my relatives will not rest until you, too, have departed for the Sand Hills."
Night Thunder had already bent forward, had already anticipated this fight. He said, "You are foolish, my cousin. Do you forget that your relatives are mine, too?"
That statement seemed to settle upon Strikes The Bear as no blow could have. Momentarily, Strikes The Bear straightened. "She cannot be your wife."
"Wai'syamattse, prove it."
"I do not have to. My word is enough."
"Aa, yes, your word." Strikes The Bear's eyes gleamed with a peculiar glow. "You are quick to give your word to save this woman. A little too quick. If this be true, you should have no unwillingness to 'Swear by the Horn' that this woman is your wife."
Night Thunder stopped perfectly still, stunned. Though he had anticipated there would be punishment for any lie he told, he had not considered that Strikes The Bear might challenge him to this particular oath. Night Thunder hesitated.
To "Swear by the Horn" meant to pledge by the Honor of the Blackfoot Horn Society that what one said was truth. To lie meant certain death, and within very few moons.
Night Thunder quickly evaluated his choices. He could fight these men, but they were his brothers. It would mean killing his own kind; it might mean being killed. He could continue to lie; this, too, would incur his death and the destruction of his honor.
But wouldn't his lies also spare the woman's life...and that of his brothers?
Haiya, that was enough for him. Why did he hesitate?
With a spirit of loyalty and a sense of duty that would have put the most stouthearted patriot to shame, Night Thunder decided his future. "I will do it," he declared. "I will 'Swear by the Horn.'"
Strikes The Bear smirked. "Then let it be done."
Murmurings could be heard from the other Indians who had watched the entire proceedings. Preparations for the oath started, but an older, wiser man noted for his fairness and honesty broke away from the circle of warriors.
He stepped forward, pacing toward the two warriors who stood in the center of the circle. Slowly, and with what seemed great deliberation, he began, "Saa, no, the vow need not be done. Not here, not now." He strode up to Strikes The Bear. "We do not have all of the men from the Horn Society here that we might let our friend take this oath. All twenty-five members must be present before the oath can be clearly taken. I say our friend's willingness to do it is enough."
"Haiya," Strikes The Bear insisted. "I do not believe him."
The old man persisted, "It is enough."
Strikes The Bear hesitated, unwilling, as were most young Indian men, to challenge an elder's authority. He gave Night Thunder a malevolent glare, however, and continued, speaking to the crowd at large, "If she is truly his wife, surely he would not object to our demanding some proof."
"I have given you my word," Night Thunder protested. But the warriors seemed not to hear him, their murmurings supporting Strikes The Bear.
Night Thunder forced himself to appear aloof. Neither by face nor manner would he permit himself to betray his agitation. As strongly he was able, he said, "Did not all of you hear her call out to me as I entered your camp? Is that not proof enough?"
"That demonstrates nothing," spat out Strikes The Bear. "We all know that you have spent several moons within the white man's lodge. Because she knows who you are does not mean you are...special to her."
Though every muscle in his body tensed, Night Thunder forced himself to show no reaction.
Strikes The Bear continued, "Surely she would not object to showing you some affection, here before us all, that we might know the truth of your words."
It took great control and strength of will for Night Thunder to keep from betraying his consternation. But after a few moments he managed to effect a smirk at his opponent before he said, "You know that she would not agree to express a fondness for me in so public a place as this. What would you have her do? Go against tradition? Both hers and ours?"
"It seems little enough to ask."
Night Thunder allowed himself no quarter as he glanced around the circle of warriors. Sweeping his arms toward all assembled, Night Thunder said, "This thing that Strikes The Bear asks is a great insult to me and to my wife. It would embarrass any woman, and a man, if she were to show her husband...feeling in front of so many eyes."
"Haiya!" Strikes The Bear glowered, speaking to all. "So there is the proof that he lies. He will not do as I ask because he knows that the woman will not come to him. By his own actions, we know that Night Thunder lies."
"Saa, no! Have I not already said I will 'Swear by the Horn'? Perhaps it is you who is the liar. Perhaps your intentions are not as honorable as you claim. Will you, then, also 'Swear by the Horn,' as you ask of me?"
"I do not have to. My honor is not in question."
"I say that it is."
Strikes The Bear started forward.
"Ssikoo! Enough!" The old man stepped between them, holding out his arms against the two men to keep them apart. "You sound as two old wives arguing over a piece of meat. Do you forget, brother," he addressed Strikes The Bear, "that our friend from the Pikuni has much medicine that he could wield against you? It would not be wise to go against him. I do not believe he would lie without fear of reprisal from the spirits of his ancestors. And if this woman truly is his wife, then we have committed a grave lapse in manners and we should do all we can to salvage her honor...and ours."
"Humph!" said Night Thunder.
"But surely you can understand Strikes The Bear's anger." The old man looked toward Night Thunder. "Not more than four moons have passed since his wife was killed. The desire for revenge burns in his heart. It is his right to seek judgment upon a white woman. The wise men say good for good and evil for evil." He paused. "But not if she is the property of Night Thunder."
Both men glared at the old man.
"There is a way to solve this. While it is true that Strikes The Bear was using this woman to seek his revenge, I believe him when he says his heart was pure and his intentions were to marry her soon after."
Night Thunder cautioned himself against objecting to what he was certain was a lie. Such an interruption would have been the height of discourtesy.
"The woman should therefore choose the man she wishes, with the warmth of her embrace. It is not too much to ask, given the circumstances." And to Night Thunder's grunt of displeasure, the old man added, "But it will be necessary only this once."
Night Thunder looked toward the woman, knowing that he might have already lost this battle. What the old man asked was little enough to request, yet too much. He could think of little reason why the woman would deem to honor him with her embrace. Perhaps this was to be his punishment, for was it not said that he who deals in lies will soon meet with all he deserves?
Night Thunder stood up to his full height. If he were to face ridicule or death because of what he had been forced to do, then he would face it bravely, with honor.
Still, he needed to tell the woman all that had transpired here, to translate for her what she was being asked to do.
Bringing to mind the language of the Long Knives or the Americans, Night Thunder began to talk to her, using gestures and sign language as he spoke. And if she denounced both him and Strikes The Bear as liars, then so be it...