Thunder Cloud stood outside his father’s tipi and watched as the village came alive around him. It was a cold crisp morning and the snow that covered the land like a blanket lay deep underfoot. Many of the women of the Hunkpapa village were reluctant to leave the warmth and comfort of their lodges to go and collect firewood from the stockpile at the edge of their winter camp.
Wrapped in his buffalo robe young Thunder Cloud waited outside in the cold for he knew she would appear soon. He moved from one foot to the other trying to keep warm. White clouds escaped his mouth as his breath froze upon the morning air, yet despite the coldness creeping beneath his buffalo robe and into his body he waited. A sudden movement caught his eye. The flap of the tipi he was watching was pushed back and out she stepped. The mere sight of her sent a warm glow spreading throughout his body.
Sunrise pulled her buffalo robe tightly around her slender shoulders and began the short walk to the woodpile. Her long black hair was still tousled, evidence that she had not been awake long. She tried hard not to look across at the tipi of Many Feathers, the band’s medicine man, for she knew his son would be there waiting for her, as he had been for the past seven mornings. Then she heard the sound of snow being flattened under foot behind her as he approached. She tried hard to suppress the smile that spread across her mouth. He coughed, but she didn’t turn around.
“It is a cold morning,” Thunder Cloud said by way of greeting.
“It is winter.” Her words were not meant to be harsh, but they sounded harsh, and she regretted them immediately.
“I am going on a journey with my father,” he announced.
Sunrise could not help herself. She stopped and turned to face the handsome young man smiling back at her. She studied his face, and her heart longed for him.
“Will you be gone long?” she asked.
“I am not sure,” he answered as he moved closer to her. “My father only told me yesterday, I do not even know where we are going.”
“We have plenty of firewood, so maybe the village needs fresh meat,” Sunrise said. “But why should you journey away from the camp when the weather is so bad?”
Thunder Cloud smiled, the weather was not bad, just cold. It had not snowed in three moons. But her words showed him that she cared. “I don’t think we shall be gone long,” he reassured her.
“When do you leave?” she asked.
“When my father wakes, and we have eaten.”
“Then we had better collect wood so that your mother can begin cooking,” Sunrise said. She then turned and headed towards the wood pile. She was fearful that he might see the tears that threatened to spill from her large brown eyes.
Others out collecting wood, seeing them together, smiled and exchanged whispered words. Everyone in the village, it seemed, knew that Thunder Cloud had chosen his future wife. And the village elders were happy. It would be a good union, bringing much happiness, and strengthening the band even more.
Once he had carried the bundle of wood to her father’s lodge, and dropped it near the entrance, there was an awkward silence before Sunrise bent and selected several thick pieces and began carrying them inside.
“Journey well, I shall miss you,” she said over her shoulder, and then she was gone from sight.
Thunder Cloud made his way back to the wood pile and collected more for his mother. When he approached his father’s lodge he found his mother standing outside.
“I thought you had become lost,” Black Bird Swooping smiled. “Did something keep you?”
“I had to say goodbye to someone,” Thunder Cloud answered.
“Your father is only going on a short journey,” his mother said taking some of the wood from him, “I am sure Sunrise can collect her own fire wood while you are gone.”
Smiling, Thunder Cloud followed his mother into the lodge. Many Feathers was already preparing himself for the journey. After they had eaten they prepared their ponies. Both men kissed Black Bird Swooping goodbye. She stood outside the lodge and watched them go. As she turned to enter she caught sight of Sunrise standing watching the two men leave. Both acknowledged the other with a wave before disappearing inside their lodges.
Many Feathers had not spoken since they had left the village. He seemed preoccupied. Thunder Cloud knew that his father would speak only when the time was right. Until then they would journey on in silence.
“I am looking for a sacred tree,” his father suddenly announced.
“A sacred tree, father?”
“Yes, I need a new drum, for my old one has lost its tongue.” After this declaration he fell silent again.
Twice they stopped that first day, the first to rest the ponies and the second time to relieve themselves and to eat. When it grew too dark for them to continue safely they made camp. They both slept within a shelter of a hastily made wickiup, a small structure made up of thick branches, over which extra buffalo robes were thrown. They continued on journeying far away from their winter camp.
On the fifth morning, after having eaten they set off once more. Again the journey was made in silence. Only when a movement ahead caught his attention did Many Feathers speak.
“Look there,” he pointed ahead. Cautiously they rode on, all the while ready to react in case of a surprise attack.
“Three ponies,” Thunder Cloud said quietly looking around him. He was sure their riders would be close by. Ponies were too prized to leave alone. But they could see no-one.
“Go ahead and take them,” Many Feathers said.
Without further encouragement the young Hunkpapa rode forth. His heart beating excitedly for he knew that the ponies would bring him much joy. Not in the ownership of them, for they were now destined to be given away, but in what they would bring him for their exchange.
Carefully he approached so as not to scare them away. Looking at the snow covered ground he was puzzled when he spotted three sets of footprints leading away from the ponies. Climbing from his mount he studied the ground. Looking at the markings upon the hind quarters showed them to belong to the Crow. After securing them Thunder Cloud mounted his pony again.
“Look.” His father pointed to a distant butte, upon which now walked three Crow. They were struggling to drag a travois through a deep snow drift upon which was stacked pieces of meat from a fresh buffalo kill. Many Feathers could now see why they had left their ponies behind. The snow was too deep for both man and horse. “We will leave them to carry their meat back to their people. But we shall take their ponies to teach them how foolish they have been.”
“Let us fight them my father,” Thunder Cloud said. “I want to own their scalps as well as their ponies.”
“Today is not a good day to fight.”
“Why not father, are we to run away from them like women?” There was anger in Thunder Cloud’s voice.
“Listen to me my son. Don’t be too ready to fight for there are times when it is better to turn away. Today is such a day,” Many Feathers explained.
“Tell me why today is not a good day to take the scalps of these lowly dogs?”
“Do you see how deep the snow is between us and them? That is why they left their ponies here. We would not get far before the snow swallowed us. It is bad to fight in such conditions,” Many Feathers explained. “Besides, they have not come looking to fight, but to feed the hunger that brings them out here. Look how they struggle to carry the meat. We will take their ponies, but I shall not fight them, their fight will be getting the meat back to the hungry mouths that cry out for it.”
For once the medicine man had some sympathy for his despised enemy. Many Feathers knew what it was like for a people to go hungry in winter. To have to listen to the tears of their children, crying because their bellies were empty, to watch the sickness that hunger brings when it carries off the old and the weak. It was enough that they were taking the Crow’s ponies. If the Great Spirit wanted the Crow to have the strength to carry the meat back to their village on foot, then he would show them the right path to take.
Thunder Cloud knew it was pointless to argue with his father. The two Hunkpapas turned away and never looked back. With three ponies in his possession Thunder Cloud rode with a permanent smile fixed upon his lips, the thought of owning the scalps replaced by the thoughts of taking Sunrise as his wife. The following morning Many Feathers found the sacred tree that he had been looking for.
Before chopping it down, the medicine man began his preparations. He purified himself by washing his body in the snow, painted his face and then dressed in his sacred garments. He stood before the tree and began performing a sacred dance and offered up prayers to the Great Spirit in which he praised the life of the tree. Taking an axe he stood before the tree and sang a death song. Only then with great sadness in his heart did Many Feathers begin to swing the axe. Throughout it all Thunder Cloud watched silently.
Once it had been chopped down Many Feathers selected the thickest part of the trunk and carefully removed it. He then loaded it onto one of the spare ponies. All the work, the chopping and loading could be done only by the medicine man. Thunder Cloud knew it would be pointless to offer any help to his father, it would be rejected; this was how it had to be, nobody but his father could touch such a sacred object.
“This will make a fine drum,” Many Feathers said as he climbed upon his own pony. “The people will hear its voice when you take Sunrise as your wife.”
Thunder Cloud now knew the reason why they had made the journey. His father knew of his longings. The love within his heart for his father soared high into the clear crisp sky. He wondered whether the Great Spirit too had placed the three Crow and their ponies in their path, so that he, Thunder Cloud, could take them and thereby gain himself a wife. The young warrior was only just beginning to understand the strength and wisdom of their combined medicine. It was awesome to behol
When the snow began to thaw the new drum beat out a rhythm that called all before it. This was the first time the people of the village had heard it. Thunder Cloud, watched over proudly by his mother, waited for Sunrise, led by her father who had accepted the three fine ponies, to come to him for the Joining Together ceremony. It was a good day to be a Hunkpapa Lakota.
Since taking the journey with his father, Thunder Cloud had concluded that life itself was a journey, and a man would be judged by what he did, and sometimes didn’t do, upon the path of life. It was a lesson he had taken to his heart.