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The dry river people knew the smallness of their own horse herds and the numbers of the Buffalo Horn people's. At night when two of their scouts lay belly-down on the bluff above the Buffalo Horn Midsummer Camp, they could see the white and spotted hides like mild in the moonlight, the flicker of a moon-shot eye where a darker horse lifted its head. They could hear the drums of the Horse Dance.
"We could steal them now," Mud Turtle said hopefully.
Spotted Colt shook his head. "The best ones will be in the dance." Spotted Colt lay with his chin on his hands, watching the dance and thinking what it would be like to be four-legged. The tribal Old Man, old Rabbit Dancer, had named him when he became a man, but Spotted Colt had always known his father had put him up to it. His father thought it would make horses come to the Dry River herd if his son was one.
It might be interesting, Spotted Colt thought (he had been taught to think about things). You would only have to worry about eating grass and running, about horse business, not people business, which involved getting things. Ordinarily the Dry River people didn't concern themselves with getting things; there was enough on the Grass to provide anything a reasonable person would want. There was the sun to hunt under and make the grass grow, and the moon to lie in the grass under with pretty girls. There were berries and onions, and turtles and fish in the streams, and enough buffalo for meat and tents and clothes. Only since the horses had come had it become clear that there was a way of getting more of those things.
Anyone could see that a horse could carry a woman and hergathering baskets farther than she could walk, and carry back even more than a dog travois. A horse could take his hunter to the buffalo when the buffalo changed their graze. And then a horse could run down the herd and Us rider could send arrow after arrow into the humped backs and kill enough to last all season. And then there would be more time for thinking about things, and studying the skies and the sun's slow dance and thinking about why the world was made, which was the proper business of the Dry River people. That was what his father said.
Spotted Colt wriggled farther out on the edge of the bluff, counting the men in the Buffalo Horn camp. A dog that had been rooting in the midden turned its head toward him, silhouetted by firelight, and he froze. The dog seemed to be tasting the air, but unless the wind shifted, Spotted Colt didn't dunk it could smell him. He eyed the Horse Dancers circling around the horse-headed man at their center. The white head bobbed up and down. Old Rabbit Dancer wanted them to bring the head back, too, because it was old and holy and it would give the Dry River people horse magic.
The dog turned away, and Spotted Colt let his breath out slowly. Like the Dry River people, the Buffalo Horn fought for their own amusement when there was no other reason for it, so the young men could get a reputation. They liked fighting, and it might be well for the Dry River men to steal their horses when they were bred.
"There are a lot of them" Mud Turtle said gloomily.
"There are a lot of us." Spotted Colt felt excitement ripple, along his arms. "We will get big reputations." He grinned, and Mud Turtle rolled his eyes.
Spotted Colt was always ready to do unwise things. His hair hung in two long braids, and for decoration he had added to his eagle feathers four red feathers that a trader had brought up from the south last autumn. No one knew what kind of magic they had, but Spotted Colt said it was bound to be useful if it was new, and stuck them in his hair.
Now he wriggled backward, sliding away from the cliff on his belly until he was far enough away to stand up. Their horses were tethered behind the bluff, two of the Dry River band's precious few, already painted red and black with battle paint. Spotted Colt swung up onto his and waited for Mud Turtle. Despite Mud Turtle's cautious nature and the fact that he bumped along on his stallion's back, he was a fine trainer. Mud Turtle talked to horses. Stolen horses followed him.
The gray. coyotes who lived in dens at the foot of the bluff saw the rest of the Dry River men waiting up the valley, while the Buffalo Horn horses shimmered in their rope paddock. They pricked up their ears with interest. When the two-leggeds got their weapons out, there was usually something to eat left over afterward.
Down below, the hide tents of the Buffalo Horn people dotted the grass of Midsummer Camp, glowing like cones of light with the fires inside.
Anything might come out of a night like this, Dances thought, while the little Horse Dance fires winked like eyes all along the riverbank, and in their center the great Horse Fire threw undulating shadows along the dance ground. The coyotes sat in the tall grass outside the camp, watching, but the dogs ignored them so long as they stayed out of the midden, which was the dogs' property. There was not a lot of difference between the coyotes and the people's dogs anyway, except that the dogs were tame.
In the center of the Grass there was a thin line between the wild lands and the tame, like the line between being a child and being not a child. The cloak of wildness hung in the air, shot through with stars. You could wear it if you knew how, Dances thought. She shifted her feet in the grass on the edge of the sacred ground, even though this wasn't a woman dance. It was hard to remember the things she was supposed to do and not to do on a night like this. Her eldest brother danced by, capering solemnly at the center of the pattern, and she clamped her hands resentfully to her backside and glowered at him to let him know she was too old to be smacked like a baby. You should be sorry, she thought at him.