Michael Joel Held
Alone, hungry, tired, and frightened. His thin arms and legs roughly bound with horsehair ropes, White Deer sat painfully on the hard, packed, earthen floor of his captor’s tepee. The young boy defiantly glared into the many war painted faces of those who surrounded him, poked at his body, and tormented him.
In the dancing firelight, White Deer --- the Sioux --- likened the Arikara and Pawnee warriors to the monsters and demons described in the stories his grandfather told at winter camp when he sat mesmerized by each word the old man spoke.
The Sioux seers had warned that the signs for war were unfavorable. Their visions foretold of a grim disaster that would befall those who dared to venture on such a perilous raid against their Arikara and Pawnee enemies. But it was the council who argued that their action was borne out of necessity, and that the Arikara and Pawnee were growing bolder and more powerful everyday, “Soon,” they argued, “there may not be enough of us left to fight!”
When the raiding party departed the village, White Deer, the only son of chief Black Eagle, hid himself from view. Traveling deep within the tree line, riding quietly through the gullies and washes, he waited patiently to show himself. When he felt the time was right --- when the war party was well on its way and could not safely send him home --- he broke cover and rode brazenly to the war chief and announced his intention to join them. Bear Paw, the leader of the war party, smiled inwardly at the foolishness of the young boy. But, he thought, hadn’t he done the very same when he was White Deer’s age? How could he scold the boy for what he had done in his own youth? So, White Deer was invited to join them and became a member of the war party.
The battle had gone badly. The Sioux warriors had been surprised, surrounded, and massacred. One had escaped and only by running like a coward had he survived. Most had died instantly at the hands of the superior forces they met on the field of battle. Of the fifty men who had departed the Sioux village, only seven remained alive. Six were now tied to stakes pounded deeply into the earth. Only White Deer had been separated from the rest. The boy could not understand why, but he feared for the worst.
It was the Arikara and Pawnee who had taken White Deer prisoner, when all had gone awry, as the seers had predicted the battle would go. They had seen it clearly in their visions and tried to warn their brothers as to what would became their fates. But their arguments had fallen on deaf ears and were not heeded.
The Arikara and Pawnee had a right to do with prisoners as they saw fit, as the Sioux would have done if they had been the victors in the conflict.
Through the thick buffalo skins of the enemy’s tepee, White Deer felt the heavy vibrations of the loud drumming coursing through his chest. Just outside, beyond his sight, the dancer’s feet pounded the earth. White Deer felt the chilling war cries, the dim shadows caused by the firelight reflecting on the skin walls of the tepee, the Arikara and Pawnee warriors affixing Sioux scalps to long spears --- the crazed enemy warriors circling the pyre where his Sioux brothers were roasting at the stakes.
Those tied to the stakes remained resolute and stoic with their horrific torture, their death songs barely audible above the din of the camp. In a mournful fashion, they sang --- their voices one --- as they died slowly, painfully, but bravely.
On the morrow, White Deer would pass from the world of the living to the "other world", but he would do so without uttering a sound. He would die as a warrior was supposed to die ---with dignity and bravery --- and without protest or complaint.
Although the boy could not understand the language that the Arikara and Pawnee spoke he did comprehend that it was his death that was being planned.
A Pawnee shaman arose from his cross-legged position and walked directly to White Deer. He thrust his ugly war painted face close to the boy’s and violently shook his rattles. With the back of his gnarled hand, the holy man struck White Deer viciously across his face.
White Deer’s head snapped backwards from the blow, but he just glared hatefully into the hideous face that stood above him, and refused to acknowledge the assault.
The heavyset shaman turned to his friends and guffawed proudly at what he had done, pointed with his shaking finger at the red stain that was smeared over the boy’s face.
The taste of salty blood filled White Deer’s mouth. With his tongue, he pushed out a loose tooth and spat it at the holy man’s feet. To show fear would only make his situation worse, incite his enemy to inflict more pain and injury upon his frail person. White Deer would give no reason for them to do worse. He would await his death without any emotion.
He raised his voice and began to lament his death song:
“you who breathed the wind of life into my body when I was born,”
and tomorrow, when you take the wind of life back,
hear a relative, one of your kind,
The shrieking of his Sioux brothers grew louder in his ears. Gruesome sounds echoed frightfully about the camp --- the flames finally, mercifully, putting an end to the suffering warriors.
The sweet aromas’ of burning brush, knickknack, sage, and the stench of roasting flesh all blended together and were carried on a soft wind that drifted throughout the camp.
The boy closed his eyes, drifted upon a warm breeze, and saw a place beyond his own.