by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
Sitting around the fireplace with Leila one night after dinner another thought came to me, that maybe the valley was lucky because it was just too small to bother with. Ten miles long, angling from the northwest pass down to the southeast pass, and roughly three miles wide, it had room for only a dozen homesteads the way they originally dealt out the land, for raising cattle. The federal land office had started by offering 160 acre quarter-sections but got few takers across the territory, then the state, so had to finesse the rules and let larger families put pieces together to make a workable ranch. At 1280 acres or 2 square miles each, the valley had room for 15 ranches, that were still on the small side. The homestead rules specified that the land had to be improved, which meant different things in different places depending on need. Houses and barns would have to be built, wells dug, fences strung, land cleared and plowed if there was decent soil and water. A few spots got credit for clearing dense forests like they did back east, but then some places not far away got credit for planting trees for lumber, firewood and orchards.
Homesteaders drawn to new land were often soon down to guesswork, and learning the hard way. In the early years there had been crop failures and experiments tried that never worked for a minute. The growing season here was short, and the grass wasn’t lush enough even at best for more than a cow to every twenty-five acres. Too many cows on the land might mean the new owner could sell fat cows after a good summer that first year, but then they might starve the next year, on land that had been eaten down to the roots and couldn’t bounce back. Orchards got planted that froze out or were eaten to nothing by deer and elk before they ever bore fruit, by animals that gobbled that tender fruitwood bark like candy.
After a couple more weeks of short rides we finally took that long ride out to the Arrowhead place. Leila had chosen Ketchum and got along with him fine, and Buckly was behaving, so I called Roger Finley, and we saddled up and headed south to the Arrowhead place early on a Sunday morning, with some picnic fixings to make a day of it. The turn-off to the ranch was just over five miles from my place, and we got to the barnyard about ten. Roger had a horse saddled and tied out on his hitching rail, and met us at the door in his trail gear, boots and big hat and a denim jacket with a blanket lining, that looked like he meant business, though that day I noticed Roger was limping a little, and lifting and lowering himself gingerly from the saddle.
We were riding along up toward the southernmost point of the ranch when I asked him where the name of the place had come from. Roger said You’re gettin’ out ahead of me already. But this ranch used to be where the tribes for miles got their flint and obsidian to make arrowheads. You just hang on–by and by we’ll see it all.
And we soon did. Roger opened a corner gate into stunted pines that seemed to tumble down the mountain right up against his fence. He seemed to be guiding us straight into a dense thicket, till we saw that a faint trail slipped through and doubled back, offering a screen that hid the trail itself. Once we passed through, he closed the gate and mounted up. We rode north single file a mile or two till we came upon a clear little stream. Roger stopped to let us catch up, and said this was the best water in the valley, the source of all that was good, that he’d always called Medicine Creek, said this was the only spring he drank from, said no one on the place ever got sick from bad water, that wandered down through the place and became Medicine River, that flowed north out of the valley. We followed along till we came to a low spot where we could all step down and let the horses drink. Uphill from the horses I scooped a double handful to taste for myself, and it sure enough ran bright and sweet. Then we stepped up and rode on, climbing uphill alongside the creek till we came to a steep ravine and a little waterfall that was the source of the stream. In this clearing Roger showed us a shallow pit with thousands of flakes of flint and obsidian scattered underfoot, and pointed up at the barren rocks of the cliff above and said this here was the quarry and workshop, where the natives came to make arrowheads, spear points, knives and scrapers before the trade in iron ever got this far west. Leila told Roger what we’d heard from the professor about the valley being shared by two tribes, and wondered if he had any idea of how one tribe could tell the other was around. He pointed to the lowest raw rock face, and said he’d been back here as a boy, scouting for some fancy rock to finish up the fireplace in the big house, while his folks were still building it, and he’d thought the big regular flat rocks lying here might do. But then when his dad and the boys came to get the rocks, the first one they tipped up and turned over had drawings on its down side– what they called petroglyphs. Mostly stick figures of hunters and the animals they were hunting. Deer and elk, moose and bison, wolves, cougars and bears. It seemed like every one of those big flat rocks had drawings on it, and they had all been turned face-down by someone. So we turned ‘em back over and left ‘em just like we found ‘em. And here they still are, just like they been for the past hundred years.
Leila and I exchanged a look. We’d sure like a look at those drawings, but Roger clearly had other things on his mind, so we kept quiet. He was already mounting up, getting set to move on. He’d been keeping an eye on where the sun was, off in the distance. Here we were set back in the shady side of the mountain where it was pretty cool. He turned and seemed to be heading back toward the corner of his ranch, though we soon forked off that path and started working our way through switchbacks up above the valley floor. The trail here didn’t show much by way of horse tracks. It mostly looked to be a barefoot human or small animal track, so narrow in spots the horses were brushing trees on both sides as we passed. The woods was dense, and didn’t offer much of a view back the way we’d come. But Roger plunged ahead, and wasn’t dallying. The horses didn’t seem to mind the climb, especially since Roger seemed to know what he was doing, and took the lead, though here and there he got a bit shaky. But so far we hadn’t seen any long views or steep cliffs.
As Roger led the way up this faint trail of switchbacks, we stayed close so as not to lose him, and without much urging so did the horses, following nose to tail. Pushing through the dense stunted trees coming round the mountain we could see splashes of afternoon sun up ahead. And there in a narrow shaded clearing Roger eased down out of the saddle and tied up his horse to a line strung between a couple of stunted trees, so we did likewise. Roger said I want to show you the Lookout, but there’s no room up ahead to turn around. And the horses like it better here out of the sun anyhow. We soon saw what he meant, plus another surprise. As we came around the bend there was a narrow kind of porch dug into the mountainside, roofed over with rusty tin, and screened by trees all along the south. I hadn’t realized how high up we were. It was only a couple hundred yards to the stunted timberline, beyond which there were only lichens and moss on naked rock. A pair of golden eagles were circling in the blue far above. And the land spread out below was wild and empty, with no roads or fences or wires, no sign of humans anywhere we could see.
This curved shaded porch turned out to have views on either end, out to the southeast and southwest, with two little round windows of glass back under the porch. I had gotten my saddlebags off of Buckly, in case this might be a good spot for a picnic. But before I knew it Roger Finley had stepped up onto the porch and knocked at the door, that was strong and thick, made of overlapping handmade planks. And in a moment it seemed like everything changed.
The door opened and an old native man with long silvery braids down to his waist stepped into the sunlight. Roger turned to introduce us, said Nighthawkin- Morning, I want you to meet Ryan Dureen and Leila May Carpenter, two new friends of mine. The man was wiry but still, with dark eyes intensely alive. He wore a red felt vest, fringed leggings and moccasins and a woven headband of pale blue. He seemed to look through me a moment, then slowly appeared to find something to regard in a favorable light. He said You the Mailman on horseback? I nodded. He said I watched you ride in the snow. You got a fine horse there. He waved his hand and led us inside to what was mostly a dugout in rock, with a puncheon floor, dry stone walls, a plank ceiling and a couple of dark back rooms we couldn’t see into. In one corner was an assortment of digging tools, picks and pry bars and shovels. In the opposite corner there were half a dozen bows, with three leather quivers of arrows. We seated ourselves by the big woodfed range, since it was cool inside out of the sun. Nighthawk stirred up and fed the fire, then sat and put his feet up on a round of firewood. I couldn’t help noticing his moccasins were black on both tops and bottoms. He followed my gaze, and said An old notion I stole from the Blackfeet brothers. They made moccasins that would last forever, from buffalo hide, at first from the smoke flaps of their tipis in the days long gone. Nothing would eat or bother their moccasins–not field mice, not ticks or deer flies. I smoke ‘em over the fire on a stick one at a time. Like cooking. They are easy on the feet, and they wear like iron.
I asked him where he found the buffalo hide for his moccasins, and he said Your neighbors, the Ameses, that serve those buffalo burgers at the North 40 on weekends. The first two they needed slaughtered I killed and skinned for them, and they gave me one hide, from a bull with a thicker skin that I’ve still got most of. Then he said Used to be moccasins were a sign of the tribe, a signature like an arrow or headdress. Everyone knew whose it was. Hundreds of tribes, hundreds of different moccasins. Shaped and sewn, beaded, painted, stained. We all nodded and sat quiet. Roger seemed peaceful, at ease, like this was something he had dreamt of or planned a long time. I asked him How long have you known each other? Roger looked at Nighthawk, smiled and said We kinda grew up together, since we been boys. With that he made a deft expression with both hands. Nighthawk laughed and repeated the gesture, a mirroring that must have meant something like brothers. Roger said Nighthawk’s dad worked for my dad, and was top hand on the place in his day. Nobody knew more about horses and cattle than Painted Bull. By the end of his speech Roger was signing every word with his hands as Nighthawk watched. Then Nighthawk answered with two small swift motions, without making a sound.
I turned to Nighthawk, asked What did you say? He repeated the gestures, shaking his head slowly as he spoke: All long gone, in the smoke of former days.
With that I raised my saddlebags and said How about a little something to eat? Both Nighthawk and Roger sat up, and I spread out what we’d brought: three large roast beef sandwiches, three cups of potato salad, bags of cut-up apples and carrots and several handfuls of grapes. We hadn’t planned on an extra mouth, but the two older men saw right away that I’d brought plenty, plus raw stuff for the horses. Nighthawk said he would make coffee, lifted the lid from a barrel, filled a pot with water and set it on the stove, then scooped in the grounds, and directed us to move our chairs to the table. I warmed the sandwiches in a skillet on the stove, then cut them up and arranged them onto four warm plates. Nighthawk only had a couple spoons and a couple forks, but we made do, and Nighthawk lit four candles for what was looking to be a cheery feast.
Later, as we were sipping our coffee, out of the blue Roger said Nobody knows this little range of mountains like Nighthawk does. Whenever a cow or horse gets loose, he tracks ‘em, then ropes ‘em and leads ‘em home. He knows all the brands on the animals too, and where they belong. Nighthawk said It was only what any boy in the tribe could do in former times.
Then I said I want to ask about your name, but only if it’s no bother. Nighthawk said No bother. It is what everyone did with their children before reservations, growing up. Now they call it a vision quest, and do it a little differently, but this is what we did back then. I was fifteen, and was getting known as kind of a hard case, a troublemaker who’d been kicked out of the Christian school. Five elders of the tribe came to my family’s cabin on the ranch, called me out onto the porch, sat me down and talked with me. Said it was my time. My parents were there, but my dad Painted Bull said not a word. They told me to fast, and go into these mountains that reach up north and east. They gave me a blanket but no matches, said fire would frighten away the spirits. Then they said We want you to pray for a vision, something that speaks to you, that says who you are and who you might become. That speaks to you of where to stand in the world. Come back on the third day, and tell us what you’ve seen and heard and done.
Well, I’d been all over this range, hunting and exploring, but had never climbed any peaks, ‘cause to tell the truth I had a fear of heights and falling. This mountain we’re on, that the People called Thunder Mountain since the dawn of time, was the tallest so was where the worst storms hit, so I thought that’s the one I should climb. So I went to the spring to get a good drink of water, took off my shoes and left them there in the clearing by the old pit, because they were shiny white man’s shoes, no good for climbing anyhow, and I rolled the blanket up, tied it over one shoulder and under the other. Then just as I set out, I heard a single bird call from somewhere overhead. Pee-ik! I had no idea what it was, or what it meant, so I let it go, and set out to climb the mountain.
It took me all that first day to get up to the tree line, and when I got there the sun was already going down, so I settled in for the night. I gathered a great heap of pine needles under some stunted trees, wrapped myself in the blanket and burrowed down into the needles. And fell fast asleep. But then in the dark something woke me. A bird called out pee-ik, kind of a shriek that was loud and right overhead, calling from a little tree. I couldn’t see it, and didn’t know what it was, but somehow knew it meant me no harm. I remembered that I’d heard that same bird call that morning by the spring, just once. Then I fell asleep again, and after a while it called pee-ik again and woke me. It was still sitting in the same place, and staring at me with huge shining eyes I could see now, since the moon had risen. It was cold on the mountain, and the earlier wind had died down. I fell asleep again.
The fourth time the bird called pee-ik, it was morning. I got up and shook myself, wrapped the blanket around me as best I could, but when I turned back to look for the bird, it was gone, disappeared without a sound. So I turned to the mountain and again started to climb. Up above the trees it was bitter cold now, with a wind blowing, and much steeper, so I had to take it slow. I took off my belt and wrapped it around my blanket so my hands would be free to help me hold on. I had picked up a stout dead limb from where I’d slept, that had a hook on one end and a point on the other that helped me work past the steep parts. I climbed slowly all day, as if in a dream. I watched where I put every step, knew I needed to be careful not to fall, because no one knew where to look for me. Then as the light started to go, a dark cloud came over and I couldn’t see the mountain top any more. I stopped, unsure what to do. Should I lie down and wait for morning, or should I push on to the top in the failing light, and come back down and sleep at a lower spot on the mountain? I knew I couldn’t get back down to the tree line by dark, in fact I needed to decide and do something now, before I lost the light and the chance to do anything. So I pushed on up, feeling around for each step. As it got darker with the cloud overhead there was no light from the moon or stars, and as I spiraled up I lost all sense of direction. But then coming around below that barren point of rock I saw a faint glow of light in the distance far below. It was something I knew, the ranch house. It cheered me somehow, though it was miles away, and the only thing I could see. I knew this side was where the storms came from, so I edged around to the opposite side and found a crevice where I could bundle myself in my blanket, wedge myself in and stretch my legs mostly out of the wind.
That night I probably wouldn’t sleep, but didn’t expect to, so it didn’t matter. I was hungry and cold, and tired from the climbing, but was safe, and knew right where I was. I went over what the elders had told me. The one thing I hadn’t done so far was pray for a vision. In the dark I wondered what a prayer might even be. I tried to put my mind at ease, and get set to accept whatever might come. It didn’t really matter what it was, it would be my vision, that I hoped to be able to recognize, somehow take in and accept.
Then all at once something called out, louder and closer than the night before. Pee-ik! I’d drifted off, been sound asleep. The bird must be right over me, on the mountain peak just above. I didn’t know much about night birds. I later learned this one had black swept-back wings with white bars, could dive and dart and turn quickly, and I had seen the bird’s big eyes when the moon came up. They hunted at night, which is why I’d never seen one before. I didn’t know where they liked to build their nests, or even what they ate.
The bird was the only living thing I’d seen in two days, the only life other than these stunted pines, the moon and stars last night, the invisible wind working and worrying everything. So far the bird was the only thing that might be my vision. But then what could he mean?
Shivering, again I drifted off. Again the bird screamed me awake. Pee-ik! Why was he sitting so close by? What was he calling for? Had he lost a mate?
I stayed hunkered down in my crevice, didn’t move. Morning would come, then it would be clear what the bird meant, what it was doing on top of this mountain. The last thing I thought was that maybe the bird was here because I was, that he wanted to know what I was doing here. Maybe this skinny native boy was his vision, his puzzling dream.
Then it was morning. I was held tight in the crevice as a papoose in my blanket, and numb with cold I had to lift and strain and wiggle every muscle to get free. When I stood, I wrapped the blanket around me and buckled my belt over it to keep me warm. The wind that had been buffeting and moaning all night was now gentle and easy, practically calm. I picked up my walking stick and climbed the last spiral to the top. It wasn’t a rocky finger, it was a cone with a dent in the top like a tooth, and there in the dent was the bird. At first I thought it was dead, with its eyes shut tight. But then I saw the motion of its breathing, and against the daylight its eyes opened to slits. When it opened its wide beak I could see blood.
I took it up in my blanket-covered hands, held its long narrow wings folded against its body so it couldn’t panic and injure itself. The bird kept its mouth open, as if it had caught something that damaged it. I wrapped the bird in the blanket against my chest, stood up and took a quick look around. I was standing on the roof of heaven. I could see nearly the whole valley far below, alive with the greening of spring. I held the bird against me with one hand, got my stick and started down the mountain.
One thing I hadn’t reckoned on was how it was easier to climb up than down. I wondered should I face the mountain and dig my toes in, or face away and slide down on my butt? I stopped to think about it, and soon realized that the steepness would answer me, and that I’d always be safer facing into the mountain than turning away from it. Coming down with only one hand, the other holding the bird bundled in the blanket against me, I soon let go the walking stick and watched it bounce down end over end. I would need to watch out for cliff faces and other spots with tricky footing, and anticipate these problems before I got trapped above an obstacle with no way around it. I knew I was no climber. But thinking of the bird clutched against my heart made me somehow more fearless than I’d ever been. And as I walked my bare feet warmed and thawed, and gave me better footing on the mountain’s face than I’d ever had with shoes.
The descent took half the day, but I was focused and kept moving. I slipped and fell once, but was careful not to crush the bird, and slid along on my back until my feet met with a rock outcropping that stopped me. I slowly became aware of what amounted to a simple plan. I would take the bird to the quarry by the spring, where I had first heard it call, where maybe it had a nest and others of its kind. There I would find what had injured it, and see what could be done. It was a fair-sized bird, a little larger than a robin, and I thought it was mature. Though I hadn’t seen it fly, I had heard its call, that seemed to be calling me. And since I’d picked it up and held it, the bird had not really struggled to get free, or called any more.
Then hours later we were back at the spring. I laid the bird down, covered it with a flap of the blanket, and spoke to it with my hand on it till it quit fluttering and lay still. I found several pine branches, one with a small Y on one end, peeled away the bark, and used some chips of flint to sharpen the ends. Then I folded the blanket back from the bird’s head, and took my two tools to open his mouth. Inside were several large moths wadded together, that I dug loose and removed. Under them was a small scorpion, as long as my little finger but wound tight, yet still alive. I gently dug it out and found where its stinger was lodged back in the bird’s throat, and used the forked stick to pry it free. That looked to be the trouble. I dipped my shoe into the stream and slowly trickled a little water into the bird’s open mouth. Then I lifted him and shook the water out. I sat the bird on the ground, and crouched there, studying him. In the shade around the spring the bird’s eyes opened wide. He sat quiet a moment, then shook his head vigorously, rose and flew up into the canopy.
As I sat to pull on my socks and shoes, I could hear the bird call again, Pee-ik, that for the first time came over and over. Maybe thirty times the bird sang his phrase in a slow cadence, then he lifted up and flew away. I looked down and noticed my shoes, wondered what I’d been thinking of. I pulled them back off, stuffed the socks in them, and tied the laces together to hang around my neck.
Back at my father’s cabin the elders were gathered along the porch, drinking tea. They hardly looked at me as I approached, though it was clear they had been waiting. My mother put her finger to the side of my neck, as if to feel for my pulse, then pulled it away. My father looked me over slowly, down to my scuffed bare feet and the shoes around my neck. Then I came inside and sat at the table. My mother hushed the little ones, and the elders all waited for me to speak. So I cleared my throat, and told them what I felt and prayed, and thought and did, and what I thought I dreamt. I told about the bird and the two nights on the mountain, and bringing the bird back with me to the spring, where I found what was wrong and did what I could to help it live.
When I was done there was a long silence. The tallest of the elders packed and lit the pipe he carried in a sack in the crook of his arm, with a kinnikinnick made of red willow bark and other herbs. They scooped and fanned the smoke over themselves, then drew it in and passed the pipe around. When it was my turn, I tried not to cough, though it was the first time I had been offered to share a pipe with any grownups. After we’d smoked, the elders asked me to wait outside. It was only a short while, then they invited me back in, and told me my name was to be Nighthawk-in-Morning, since that was when my spirit had first called to me. The oldest of the elders, who had not spoken before, said Why did the bird call to you, then follow you? And each time why did he call only once? Because he was trying to wake you without alarming you. Because he knew only you could help him live. He had not the tools or skills to help himself. He did not want to scare you away, he wanted you to see him for what he was, a creature in need, who had to be taken up. The elder who had brought the pipe then said You showed the true power of the healer. If you had tried and failed, your name might now be Slow-to-Hear-Nighthawk. At that they all laughed, and my family laughed too. Then, still laughing, they got up and touched me on the face and arms and hands, then left. Since then I’ve never heard a Nighthawk call in daylight, always hear it sing over and over in twilight and moonlight, many many times.
With that Nighthawk lapsed into silence and rose to pour out the rest of the coffee. I scooped up my saddlebags with the few apples and carrots we hadn’t eaten, and said I needed to check on the horses. I slipped out the door and went down the trail to the west, looked the horses over, and fed them what we had. They seemed fine, but it was getting late in the day, so I checked the girths on their saddles. When I got back to the Lookout, the folks were all up on their feet. Roger and Nighthawk were smiling in the doorway, and Leila was out in the sunshine, beaming. Nighthawk told us to come back and visit any time, and he followed us down to see the horses. As I watched Nighthawk follow Roger down the trail, I could see the care they took, how they truly must be the same age, and in no hurry, with the same deliberateness, the same feeling there was no time but this, to be savored and taken with care.
With that we mounted up and were off, following Roger back down the mountain, the horses stepping in Nighthawk’s moccasin tracks. We didn’t say a word at the gate, and even at the Arrowhead ranch house we only stepped down a minute to shake hands again. I thought I could see what this was about, what Roger had needed and wanted, to make new connections for his old friend while there was time. All we needed to do in turn was thank him, and say we’d see him soon, and save us some of that good Medicine water.
Back on the Crawford place after we unsaddled and fed the horses, I invited Leila to spend the night for the first time. We had too much to talk about. On this day of surprises Roger had indeed gotten out ahead of us. My head was about to burst with questions and ideas, but it was all too much. We were exhausted. And I had mail to deliver next morning.