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On the day of his birth, a horse ran through his village. It made a sacred circle around the lodge at the edge of camp where his mother labored to give him life. This was not just any horse, but the very first ever seen by the Burnt Meat People of the True Humans. Among other nations, the True Humans were known as Grass Lodge People or Snake People. In seasons to come, they would be called Shoshone.
It happened near the end of the Moon of Hunger, during the Time When Babies Cry for Food, in the year called 1687 by the Metal Men whom, at the time, the True Humans did not yet know to exist. Wounded Bear had just walked up to the birthing lodge at the edge of camp. He had come to inquire about the child, as was the custom for grandfathers. This was the first child for his daughter, River Woman, and she gasped with pain inside the lodge, though her pride would not allow her to cry out.
"When will it be over?" Wounded Bear asked, raising his voice loud enough to be heard inside the birthing lodge.
"Pookai!" his wife growled from within. "Hush, old man! Our daughter will finish it when the spirits get ready!" She was an old midwife who possessed strong medicine, for though no child had been born alive to the Burnt Meat People through three winters, neither had any mother died in childbirth. This woman, Wounded Bear's wife, was named Broken Bones.
Wounded Bear shivered, clasping the edges of the woolly buffalo robe tight at his chest. He looked again at the sky, praying to the spirit who came to him in dreams and visionsthe humpbacked bear who survived all wounds.
As he chanted his prayers in a low song, he noticed how the white clouds hanging still in the sky seemed to match the patches of snow on the ground, as if the patches of snow were merely clouds reflected in a still summer pool. Wounded Bear was old, and his eyes no longer saw with the keen flint edges of a young warrior, yet he could make out the red dirt between the patches of white snow. Some of the red dirt had blown onto the snow, and to Wounded Bear it looked as though the snow had been sprayed with blood bursting from the nostrils of an elk wounded in the lungs with an arrow. The elk was a beast very hard to kill with arrows, and that was why elk medicine was good. Almost as good as bear medicine, he thought.
Two or three small children took turns sobbing in the camp below, where the lodges were strung out along the steaming springs. As babies, lashed tight in their cradle boards, they had been trained by their mothers not to cry, as their mothers would place a palm over their mouths when they wept. But now they were starving and had only their tears to swallow, and not even their mothers could make them stop crying. All the meat in the camp was gone, and the mothers had no milk to give. No buffalo had strayed into these harsh hills of home for two winters, and few deer, elk, or antelope had been killed. The pemmican and dried meat had been used up. Only a few small caches of pine nuts and roots remained.
The Burnt Meat People had been eating what rabbits they could club or catch in snares. They had been eating rats and gophers that ventured early from their winter burrows, roasting them whole over coals. No one was speaking anymore of the taboos against eating the flesh of birds, and even dogs were being killed, though the families pretended not to know their neighbors were eating dog meat, for this too was forbidden. It was going to be hard to move the camp in the spring with fewer dogs to harness to the pole drags.
Wounded Bear pushed his own hunger out of his thoughts and thanked the spirit of the humpbacked bear for guiding him through his life of danger, trouble, and starvation. As always, he repeated the prayer that he might die in battle, though he was too old and his sight too poor now to follow the war trail. He did not pray for a grandson. He did not even pray that River Woman's child would live. He only asked that his daughter would survive her long ordeal of childbirth, for he loved his daughter very much. If the baby lived, how would she feed it, anyway?
It was at this moment that sunlight burst between two clouds, illuminating the village of tattered hide lodges. And it was at this same moment that the sound camelike the language of sunlightthe sound of hooves pounding the red dirt and clattering across the rock-strewn ground. They made noises like no other hooves the old man had ever heard, grinding like an avalanche of scree and thumping against the frozen red soil like the horns of rams in battle.
Wounded Bear's prayer-song caught in his throat as he squinted at the camp, his heart suddenly driving the cold from his limbs. A shape emergedlarge and dark, weaving among the lodges.
Buffalo! No, the neck was too longlike an elk'sbut the color was near that of a buffalo. Buffalo-elk! The animals sometimes mated that way, so he had always heard. Thus the True Humans had been created through the mating of Coyote with a puhakut, a medicine woman like Broken Bones.
The beast came on. Yes, buffalo-elk!
No! The tail was too long and shaggy, and the neck was shaggy, too…like no buffalo…like no elk…like nothing Wounded Bear had ever seen!
He longed for his bow as the beast came on toward him, and he thought he saw the feathered end of an arrow shaft already sticking out behind the ribs. Now his daughter, River Woman, screamed with pain inside the birthing lodge.
"Yes!" Broken Bones shouted. "Now it is time! Old man! What is that running out there?"
"I cannot say!" Wounded Bear admitted.
The creature dodged so near the birthing lodge that Wounded Bear felt red sand sprinkle his face, but he held his ground at the entrance.
"What is it? I must know."
"I do not know what it is!"
"Have your eyes gone completely blind, old fool?"
The creature ran headlong toward the high red bluffs that shielded the camp from winter winds and contained it as if in the palm of a great cupped hand. River Woman screamed again, in an agony of pain and fatigue, and the strange animal searched helplessly for escape along the curve of bluffs, passing behind the birthing lodge.
"What is that beast?" the midwife demanded. "The baby is coming out now! I must know!"
Wounded Bear watched the animal try a bluff and fail. "It is…" he said, squinting. "It is…"
A pack of dogs streamed from the camp, nosing the trail of the strange creature.
"Is it a buffalo? It does not sound like a buffalo. Old man? Are you out there?"
River Woman screamed again, but this time with a deliberate tone of determination. The beast was turning away from the bluffs, completing its circle around the birthing lodge, rumbling back down toward the village. It bit one of the dogs in its path on the back of the neck and tossed the yelping animal aside.
"I must know what animal that is! The baby is almost out!"
"It is a big dog!" Wounded Bear blurted. "It is the biggest dog I have ever seen! I believe it is a shadow-dog!"
Another camp mongrel attacked the flank of the strange creature, which kicked and screamed, and the screaming turned into the shrill cry of a baby inside the birthing lodge.
Wounded Bear realized that he was out of breath, though he had only been standing there, watching. The strange beast was running back down through the camp, followed by the dogs, fading from his dim view. He could just make out the images of warriors drawing bows and heaving lances.
Broken Bones stuck her head out between the buffalo hide of the lodge and the bear skin covering the entrance hole. Eyes glared from her wrinkled and toothless face, and cropped gray hair sprouted like dried grass from her scalp. "Where is it?"
"It ran back among the lodges," Wounded Bear answered. He smelled a faint whiff of snowberry tea from the lodge. The baby was still crying, and the old man heard his daughter, River Woman, cooing at it like a dove.
"Are you sure it was a dog? I never heard a dog scream like that. I never heard a dog run on hooves."
"It was a very strange dog. A big one. As big as an elk!"
The puhakut scowled. "When the moment came, you told me it was a big dog. I hope River Woman's baby does not suffer from some spirit you have offended!"
"It was a big dog, old woman! Do not speak like a witch! The spirits sent it from the Land of Shadows. It was a shadow-dog! Now, tell me about my grandchild!"
The midwife ducked inside. Her voice sounded kinder from within: "You have a close friend, old man."
Wounded Bear smiled. He began to pace along on stiff legs, weaving his way among the patches of snow, holding to the red dirt where footing was surer for an old warrior. He stalked through the camp, quiet now, after the passage of the strange beast he had named the shadow-dog.
Suddenly his old eyes caught the shape of a track in the snow, and he stooped over it to look at it closer and to feel its edges. Wounded Bear began to worry. What if Broken Bones was right? What if he had made a mistake and offended some spirit? This was like no dog track, no hoofprint, nothing he had ever seen. There was a track of a real dog beside it, which made him wonder why he had ever called the creature a big dog, or a shadow-dog, or any kind of dog. He straightened over the track and strode anxiously down through the village.
Below camp he heard the gushing of the spring called Never Freezes and saw a gathering of warriors and women. Pushing his way among them, he made out the large shape of the strange beast on the ground, still struggling against death, its legs groping helplessly for ground over which to run, its head lunging skyward in a vain attempt to rise. The arrows of several warriors stuck out of the body of the dying animal, and lance wounds ran with blood.
Wounded Bear's son-in-law, Shaggy Hump, was standing over the animal, the long buckskin fringe of his sleeves still swinging from having drawn his bow. The strange, hairy neck fell against the ground for an instant, and Shaggy Hump shot his arrow into the spine just behind the head, stilling the animal with a final flinch.
"Where did that thing come from?" asked a younger warrior.
"It came from below." Shaggy Hump touched the bloody nose of the beast with the sole of the buffalo wood boots he wore over his moccasins. "I was waiting where Broken Bones told me to go as my wife gave birth to our child. This animal came to the spring to drink, and I stalked below it to shoot it and to drive it through the camp."
"What is it?" the young warrior asked.
"This is the animal the Raccoon-Eyed People told me about when I went to trade with them on the plains. They said it was as big as seven big dogs, but I did not believe them, for they have many strange ways."
Old Wounded Bear came closer to look at the strangely hoofed feet of the animal. "It is a big dog," he insisted.
The people laughed at the old man stooping over the dead animal.
"The biggest dog I have ever seen!" His eyes looked up to his son-in-law's face. "It is a shadow-dog."
"Why are you here, Ahpoo?" Shaggy Hump said, using the term of respect for his wife's father. "What has happened at the birthing lodge that Broken Bones has raised for my wife?"
"My daughter gave birth to your child at the moment this animal made a sacred circle around the lodge. Broken Bones wanted to know what kind of animal it was, and I told her it was a shadow-dog."
"Why did you tell her that, Ahpoo?"
"She said she must know, because the baby was coming out, and it was time to fashion the medicine. I could not see what this thing was, and so I had to tell her something. I told her it was a shadow-dog because I saw it bite like a dog."
Shaggy Hump seemed to search his heart as he walked around the dead animal. The people of his band waited for him to speak, for he was respected among them. Shaggy Hump had brought meat to camp when all others had failed, and he had shared with his neighbors, trusting that his medicine would stay strong, enabling him to kill more food. He had traveled far and brought home scalps of enemies who had attacked the Burnt Meat People. He was strong and wise, and his words made even his rivals listen.
He squatted beside the dead animal, and put his hand on it as if to enjoy its warmth. His long braids fell over his shoulders and dangled near the blood on the carcass. His smile was broad when he looked up at the people gathered around. His eyes were black and darting as they shot toward his brother, Black Horn.
"Brother, tell my wife's father again what we saw the time we traveled far to the south to find our enemies, the Yutas."
Black Horn stepped forward to tell the story as he had recited it in council: "We found the trail of our enemy that showed they had moved their camp. On this trail we saw the tracks of an animal with feet like this one, and the mark of poles on the ground where this animal dragged them…" He looked at old Wounded Bear. "…like a dog. Like a very big dog, for the poles were loaded heavily and cut deeply into the earth."
"What does this mean?" Wounded Bear asked.
Shaggy Hump stood, coming straight up on short, powerful legs. "It means you are a wise old warrior, Ahpoo. You were wise to see that this strange animal is a big dog of the Shadow Land, for our enemies have used it to pull their pole-drags as we use our dogs. The spirits have sent a shadow-dog to us on this, the same day my wife gives birth to our first child. This is a great day. Now, Ahpoo, will you tell me about my child?"
The dread lifted from Wounded Bear's heart, and he remembered the happy cooing of his daughter with her crying baby. "The child was born as the shadow-dog circled the lodge, and then old Broken Bones spoke to me from inside the lodge, saying, Wounded Bearold great warrioryou have a close friend."
Shaggy Hump lifted his bow over his head, his black eyes gleaming. "I have a son!" he shouted.
Some of the men came around the dead beast on the ground to touch Shaggy Hump as if counting strokes in battle.
"My people," old Wounded Bear said, raising his hands. "Hear me! This is a good day. This is the Day of the Shadow-dog! Now, shadow-dog is a good name for this animal. It is like a dog, that is true. But it is also differentlike the coyote is different from the wolflike the lesser bear is different from the great humpbacked bear. This is a shadow-dog. It is different from a dog. It has feet with claws that have all grown together to make one solid hoof. It is the size of seven dogs in one. It has wandered over a pass from the Shadow Land and has come to serve us. It is different from a dog in many ways, and so it is not a dog at all, but a shadow-dog."
Wounded Bear circled the carcass and smelled the blood, which made his stomach growl. "Now, listen. Our father's fathers have told us that the dog and the wolf and the coyote are ancestors of the True Humans, from the ancient times when animals spoke and walked around like two-leggeds, and so it is not a good thing to eat a dog because it is our ancestor. But this beast is so strange that I do not think it is my ancestor. It does not come from the earth, but from the Shadow Land. I hear the spirits say that it is a very good thing to eat a shadow-dog."
The people laughed with relief, for they were hungry, and the beast was made of meat, whether it came from the Land of Shadows or not.
"Wounded Bear shows his wisdom again," Shaggy Hump said. "I am forbidden to eat meat until the cord dries and falls from my new son's belly, but I will find some roots or pine nuts to eat, and sing the song my spirit-protector taught me as the Burnt Meat People of the True Humans make a feast of the shadow-dog in honor of my new son!"
He began to pace very excitedly, as if he did not know what to do next. "I must wash my testicles in the cold water now, for Broken Bones is bathing the baby. I must not look upon my wife and child for thirty suns, or the spirits will cause me to bleed to death from my nose. Listen well, all you young boys, for these are things you need to know. Black Horn, my brother, go where I am forbidden and speak to Broken Bones. Tell me what she says about my son!"
And so the flint knives peeled the hide of the shadow-dog and carved warm meat from bone. The fire drills conjured smoke and flame from wood. The burnt Meat People feasted on the animal that in times to come would be called First Horse. They declared it the best meal ever consumed by any True Humans anywhere. All night the elders told tales and sang songs and offered up blessings of tobacco smoke to the newborn son of River Woman and Shaggy Hump. In seasons ahead of this day, The Burnt Meat People would know the child as Born-on-the-Day-of-the-Shadow-Dog, and they would smile as they spoke his name, for the day of his birth held a story that would bring much joy in the telling.
Copyright © 1998 by Mike Blakely