A Quest Into Legend
From the moment he laid eyes on it, young Beaver of the Elk-dog People felt drawn to the spirit of the pipestone. Now he’s setting out on a vision quest to the only place the red stone can be mined: the Pipestone Quarry. Traveling with a trader’s young family, Beaver learns the ways of barter as he follows the trade routes–and his inner guides–to an adventure that may cost his life. For Beaver must uncover the pipestone’s secret to break a curse that has suddenly befallen their traveling party. And he must stand between a merciless warrior people and a breakaway band of their former neighbors, among whom is the beautiful widow Pale Moon. Is Pale Moon the final curse that stands between Beaver and the pipestone–or the sign he needs to complete his quest?
Recently selected by True West magazine as the “best living western historical novelist,” and with nearly six million copies of his critically acclaimed novels in print, Don Coldsmith is one of today’s bestselling authors of the North American frontier.
About the Author
Don Coldsmith is the award-winning author of more than thirty books in the Spanish Bit Saga, including Medicine Hat, The Lost Band, and Raven Mocker.
Read an Excerpt
It was an unusually fine morning in the Moon of Growing, called "May" by the white man. The tallgrass prairie was lush and green, still damp from morning dew. Sun Boy had thrust his flaming torch above Earth's rim only a short while ago. The People were still straggling up from the river, where they had performed their daily ritual cleansing baths to start the day.
The camp, including the lodges of some forty or fifty families, the Southern Band of the People, spread across the prairie near the river. The horses, herded by some of the young men in a meadow downstream, numbered in hundreds.
The day was warming. A pair of hawks perched in a giant cottonwood near their lodge of sticks, preening and waiting for the rising air currents. They would ride these in circles high into the sky. From there, their keen vision would allow them to locate game with which to feed the four hungry nestlings in the old tree.
On a low hill to the south of the camp stood three young men, each holding the reins of a sleek, well-muscled horse. Beaver and his friend Wants a Horse were almost the same age, and had known each other since before they could remember. Wants a Horse was so called because of his fascination with his father's buffalo runners. He had been a capable horseman by the age of nine, very aggressive in his racing and in other competitions.
Beaver, however, was less aggressive, more quiet and sensitive. His name resulted from his two big permanent front teeth that came in during his seventh summer.
"You look like a beaver!" his friend Horse had giggled. And the name stuck.
Beaver admired his friend's ability to compete, but suffered a major handicap himself. When he had beaten someone at a race or wrestling or swimming, he found he felt sympathetic for the loser. Too much, maybe.
"He would not feel sad for you!" Horse often teased. "Enjoy your win!"
"I do!" insisted Beaver. "But still my heart is heavy for him . . . Not for you today, though. I'm going to beat you!"
"Not on your best day!" laughed his friend. "Now, to that tree and back?"
Horse pointed to a small lone tree, a few bowshots to the south.
"Around the tree and back," specified Beaver. "Will you start us and judge the winner, Turtle?"
The third young man, enjoying his friends' good-natured banter, agreed.
"Now," he instructed, "you both start behind this line."
He drew a mark on the ground, and continued.
"To the tree and around it, back here. The horse to cross the line first wins."
"The nose or the tail?" joked Wants a Horse. "My horse is much longer."
"The nose, then," instructed Turtle. "Now, I will walk out a few steps and drop this stone. That starts the race, but don't run over me. I'll stand still until you pass."
Turtle had selected a smooth stone the size of a goose egg, and now walked a few steps toward the distant tree, then stopped and turned.
The two horses, sensing the race, fidgeted and strained against their rawhide war bridles.
There was quite a difference between the two. Beaver's mount was his pride and joy, a roan filly sired by one of the best stallions owned by his father, Finds His Arrow. She was an attractive blue, slender in build but sleek, and wiry.
The animal on which Wants a Horse sat was a large, well-muscled stallion, a favorite buffalo runner of the young man's father.
"Wait!" called Beaver. "Which direction around the tree? I don't want to run into you coming around the other way!"
The horses were becoming unmanageable in their excitement.
"Right to left!" yelled Turtle. "Now go!" He dropped the rock, and as the two horses swept past him, he trotted back to his finish line and turned to watch the race.
Beaver's roan took a slight lead for the first few strides. Her small frame and quickness provided an advantage as the larger animal lumbered into motion. In only a short distance, however, the longer stride of the big spotted stallion allowed him to surge ahead.
Both horses were excited, the whites of their eyes showing, straining every muscle. Each animal wore only a girth around the rib cage, to be used by the rider to hold on if necessary. Neither rider sought to do so, at least, not yet.
Beaver felt the warmth of the animal under him, and the slippery sweat, already bursting forth from the excitement of the contest, as well as the exertion. He gently eased the pressure of the war bridle to the left as they approached the tree. He must be careful not to swing too wide.
The big stallion was easily three lengths ahead when he thundered past the tree and his rider tried to turn. Wants a Horse attempted to make the change in direction, but the animal was interested only in running.
Meanwhile, Beaver kneed the roan as close to the tree as he dared, to make the turn. His left knee and calf scraped the trunk as they brushed past. He caught a glimpse of his friend's stallion, fighting the rein as they executed a much wider turn, wasting the space of a few heartbeats.
Even as Beaver urged the mare back into the spring for the finish line, he heard the pounding hooves of the spotted stallion behind them. He loosened the rein and leaned forward over the blue roan's neck, flattening himself over the withers to lessen the wind of their passing.
The hoofbeats of the stallion were closer now. From the corner of his right eye, he could dimly recognize the shape of the big animal's head drawing abreast. He did not turn to look, knowing he could not afford the risk of any distraction. Ahead, above the roan's flattened ears, he could see their friend Turtle, standing astride the left end of the finish line, ready to call the winner as they swept past.
Beaver wasn't certain. He had been busy urging the last bit of speed possible from his mare, paying attention not to the other horse and rider, but to the finish line. He reined in, gently at first, as they slowed and circled back toward Turtle, who was jumping excitedly and yelling, pointing to Beaver and the blue roan.
Wants a Horse, riding a bigger loop to slow his mount, circled back to the starting point.
"You win," he admitted sheepishly. "But you couldn't on a straightaway run."
"That's right," panted Beaver, trying to catch his breath. "Of course not. I had to use the quickness of the turn."
"Clever!" admitted Wants a Horse, a bit disgruntled. "Another race?"
"Not today," Beaver answered. "But see, I do not feel sorrow!"
All three laughed, and Turtle spoke.
"The trader will be unpacking. I'll maybe see you there."
"Ah, yes, I forgot," said Wants a Horse. "Well, we can race later."
The three mounted and rode back toward the camp at a walk. The main activity of the day would be the visitor from elsewhere. That was always entertaining.
Beaver watched intently as the trader unrolled his packs and began to spread his wares on the blanket.
The coming of a trader to the camp of the People was sure to create a few days of fun and excitement. Traders fascinated Beaver. He could not imagine the places they had been and the sights they had seen. Of course he did not believe all the stories some of them told. The tales of places where boiling water spurted up out of the ground in spouts much higher than a man, and several times a day, were obviously exaggeration. Yet the trader who told that had also insisted that in the same area there were puddles of paint of all colors along the ground. It could be used, the trader said, though it was difficult, because it, too, was boiling hot. The man had lost all credibility when he claimed to have caught trout in a cold stream and cooked them in a boiling hot spring a few steps away. It was no matter about the fish, anyway. The People did not normally eat fish, preferring buffalo or other red meat. Even dog, in a hard season, was a delicacy compared to the white, watery flesh of a fish.
This trader today, however, was known to the People. He called on them nearly every season, when he could. He was Arapaho, known for their trading, sometimes even called the Trader People. This one, simply called "Trader," had a cheerful and friendly manner, necessary to his vocation.
A trader must get along with everyone to be successful. By the nature of his work, he deals with people who are enemies of each other. He himself must be honest and above suspicion, remaining neutral in all the disputes among his customers. This, in turn, gives him a certain amount of immunity. If an honest trader comes to harm, the word finds its way around. Soon, the reputation of those responsible will spread, and no trader will visit. And, the trader is needed. He supplies commodities available nowhere else. This was becoming more apparent all the time. White trappers and fur traders had been encountered frequently in the past few years.
That was good, in a way. It had given easier access to metal knives and tools, and to the thundersticks that were becoming popular among some of the prairie tribes. Not too much so among the Elk-dog People. The thunderstick was not much good in a buffalo hunt, because it carried only one shot. Reloading on a galloping horse was virtually impossible. Most hunters used a lance or a bow. For a lone hunter, of course, it was a different matter. One man could easily stalk his quarry on foot to within reach of the leaden ball that could strike it down. But some of the older men still preferred the bow . . . An arrow leaves a better blood trail than a bullet to follow a wounded animal, some claimed. But one thing was certain, powder and lead must be obtained from traders, either at the trading posts of the white man, or from a traveling Indian trader, such as this Arapaho.
It was a respected profession, dating back into antiquity. Traders were usually accomplished linguists, because of the necessity of communication in bartering. The old men said that the ancient hand-sign talk had been developed by traders to fill this need. There were even rumors that far to the East, a language had been developed just for trade . . . The "Eastern trade talk," a mix of many tongues, it was said.
But all of this was of no concern to young Beaver, now in his seventeenth summer. He and his friends were interested only in the fact that here was someone from outside their close-knit band, the Southern Band of the People. The trader would have new stories, maybe, and surely items for trade that would be interesting to see, and maybe to handle, with appropriate permission. He had arrived late on the previous day, and announced that there would be trading in the morning. He and his wife had set up their camp, after a polite social call at the lodge of Far Thunder, the band chief. That was only proper courtesy.
There had been, of course, the usual social gathering and story fire that attended the presence of an outsider. The trader would carry news; maybe, even, some new stories, gathered from far-away tribes and nations.
It had been so, and in fact this man, whose word could be trusted, had actually verified some of the wild tales they had heard from the trader who had stopped last season. It was true, he insisted, about the boiling springs and paint pots.
Now, the next morning, the trader was preparing for the day's activity. He had opened a couple of packs and artfully arranged his wares in attractive patterns on a couple of blankets.
Curious members of the Southern Band began to gather, mostly curious youngsters, so far. But, as the People returned, a few at a time, from their morning dip at the stream, they began to saunter over to see the trader's offerings.
Snakewater, the medicine woman, approached with a greeting.
"Osiyo," said the old woman.
She spoke in her own tongue.
"You are Cherokee?" asked the trader in surprise.
"Yes. The 'Real People.' But now, this is my home. Elk-dog, 'The People.' "
"Ah, I remember!" observed the trader's wife. "You had just joined them the last time we traded with the Elk-dog People. It was at the Sun Dance, no? And you are a holy woman?"
"The Sun Dance, yes," Snakewater agreed. "Holy woman? Not really. I do a little medicine, that's all."
"Of course," said the trader.
Among the Elk-dog People, one who does have the powers of the spirit must deny it, to avoid the false pride that would weaken the gift.
The conversation was in the tongue of the People, quite familiar to the trader and his wife.
"Good morning, Grandmother," said Beaver respectfully. "Snakewater is one of us now," he added, turning to the trader.
"Yes, I remember, now," the trader mused. "There was an accident at the Sun Dance, no? The buffalo at the medicine lodge fell?"
"That is true," said Snakewater curtly. "Let us not speak of it."
Beaver remembered it well. There had been much talk and speculation. A woman had been killed when the effigy collapsed. An outsider, someone from the medicine woman's past. It had been considered an event brought on by the evil of the woman who was killed. One of those things not to be questioned. It was meant to be, and the less talk of it, the better. Hence, Snakewater's dismissal of the subject.
The trader, accustomed to dealing with a broad range of customs, quickly saw the need to change the subject. It was an event which involved things of the spirit, and among any of the various peoples with whom he dwelt, such things should not be questioned.
"I have some good things for trade today," said the trader, deftly changing the subject. "Some new metal needles . . . Knives, mirrors . . . Ah! Glass beads, much easier than quill-work . . . Thread to sew them with."
The old woman nodded, not really interested.
"Do you need a pipe, Mother?" the man persisted.
Enticingly, he took out a well-tanned buckskin case and untied the drawstring at its mouth. Slowly, he drew forth the pipe. There was nothing really unusual about it. Its stem, as long as his forearm, was carved and painted and adorned with two small circlets of fur . . . White fur, probably that of the winter weasel. A single feather hung near its mouthpiece.