Flute Player

by Alice Woodrome

Four jackrabbits dangled from Gray Wolf's hand as he walked toward the camp in the crisp autumn air. The brave had taken his cousin's son hunting before dawn in the narrow band of woods along the river that flowed a short distance from the Lakota camp. He and Little Crow, a bright-eyed boy of thirteen winters, had followed the stream all morning that snaked through rolling grassy hills with hazy mountains in the distance. A barking dog announced their return and followed them when they entered the village of tepees.

Gray Wolf was uneasy about seeing his mother, Raven. Something disturbing had been in her manner yesterday. His father, Sleeping Bear, too. They'd seemed reluctant to meet his eyes. The knowing looks they gave each other. Something was in the air—and it wasn't good.

Smoke borne from cooking fires all over the camp, awakened his hunger. A gust of wind swept a few dry leaves across their path into a fire pit, where they flared and perished in an instant. 

While they walked through the camp, he nodded at Aurora, an old woman with white braids. She sat at the calf-skin door of her dwelling, sewing elk teeth onto the fringe of a deerskin shirt. 

Gray Wolf handed two of the rabbits to Little Crow when they neared the circle of their relatives' tepees. 

"Can I say they were my kills?" Little Crow said smiling. 

"You know the answer," Gray Wolf winked at the boy. 

"I'm glad the buffalo will be bigger targets," the boy said.

Gray Wolf laughed and they parted with a smile and a wave.

Gray Wolf's youngest cousin, Silent Turtle, sat close to a cooking fire, stringing a new bow with sinew and talking with a small group of friends. The young men laughed while they worked. White Moon was braiding fine rawhide strips into a bridle for his pony while Talking Eagle and the others were crafting arrows. They waved at Gray Wolf as he walked by. Silent Turtle called, "Did you see any deer, my cousin?"

Gray Wolf stopped and looked back for a moment, shook his head and sighed. "Not today—not for days."

At a neighbor's tepee, an elder kinswoman, Wise Pigeon, sat on a mat working at a loom. Three children were gathered around her, one rocking a mink-skin doll. They followed Gray Wolf with their eyes when he approached his mother's tepee, his long braids swinging. 

Raven, dressed in a grease-stained tunic and a blue quillwork necklace, stood a few steps from her dwelling, rendering elk fat in a large copper kettle above glowing coals. She lifted her gaze and smiled at her son.

Gray Wolf had seen his mother make pemmican many times. After she rendered the fat, she mixed it with the meat that had been drying, adding dried chokecherries before forming the mixture into cakes for their journey to a new hunting camp. 

"Just rabbits again," he said with a bitter smile and laid the animals on the ground. The warmth of the embers felt good on his chilled arms. "We followed elk tracks but saw only rabbits and a porcupine." 

Looking down at the gutted rabbits, Raven wiped her brow with her sleeve. "It will be plenty for our meal tonight, and the skins will make warm moccasins for your father." She nodded toward a small earthen bowl containing a piece of roasted duck. "There is a little meat left for you, and a few plums Laughing Bird gathered yesterday. Your aunt has been generous with us." Raven cut small pieces from a slab of elk fat into the sizzling pot while she spoke. "I prayed to the Great Spirit, Wakon Tanka, for another elk or deer. The only meat we have left is drying for our move; the corn we traded for is nearly gone. Even fruit and nuts are getting hard to find." 

A red-tailed hawk screeched as it soared over the trees at the camps' edge. Gray Wolf looked up at the bird. "Brother hawk is getting hungry, too. We'll have to hunt buffalo again soon to see us through the winter." He frowned, "I fear even the deer and elk have left early for their winter range."

With the back of her hand, Raven brushed a silver-streaked braid over her shoulder. "Sleeping Bear thinks the buffalo are no more than three days off. We will move very soon, and I have so much to do before we go." She paused, blinked at her son, and added, "And no daughters to help."

The young warrior unsheathed his knife as he folded his long legs with one graceful motion and sat beside the matriarch of the family. He began skinning the rabbits, hoping no one would see him doing woman's work. "I will eat later."

Raven looked down at her only child, took a deep breath, then lifted her chin. She had many reasons to be proud. Gray Wolf was a strapping young man, robust and handsome in buckskins, with expressive eyes. Her son was not only well-respected for his hunting prowess and bravery, but for the beautiful music he made. No one in the village could play the siyotanka flute with such feeling and skill. Gray Wolf was a son to make a mother's heart sing. 

She glanced to a distant part of the village when children's laughter rang through the air. Several young boys were playing shinny with a buckskin ball and sticks under the wide blue sky. A young kinswoman, wearing a cradleboard on her back with a sleeping baby, was just returning to a neighboring tepee with a basket of timpsula roots she had dug for her family. 

Raven sighed and a wistful expression came over her face. Gray Wolf had seen that look many times. He knew what was coming. 

"Why do you not choose a maiden and give your father and me grandchildren?" Raven said, stirring the pot.

She had scolded her son many times for prolonging her wait. Most of her kinswomen had little ones who played in front of their tepees. Her closest sister already had three growing grandchildren, and even her youngest sister awaited her first grandchild's birth. Yet her accomplished son seemed too shy to ever make a match and begin a family.

"In time, my mother." He threw a rabbit's foot to the waiting dog.

"It has been five winters since your vision quest. You have been a man for many moons now." The grease in the cooking pot crackled when Raven dropped in more fat. "What about Running Doe? Is she not attractive?" She waited for an answer.

"Yes, but I do not want to marry Running Doe." 

"Then her sister perhaps? Scarlet Bird is a fine girl. She will be a dutiful wife."

"No,  I will not marry her either."

"You want a family, do you not?" 

He nodded. Raven was right—as she always was. 

She cut the last of the fat into the blackened pot and looked down at her son, who had skillfully pulled the skin from the first rabbit in one piece and started on the other. He threw another morsel to the dog, who devoured it in a gulp, and waited for the next.

Wiping her hands on a squirrel pelt, Raven frowned at her son. "It is time. Your father is beginning to make plans for you." She pointed to an elk skin stretched out in the sun between pine branches near their dwelling. "We have the last skin drying now. It will be a fine tepee."

Gray Wolf's face dropped. "You cannot mean—" 

"The lodge poles have been prepared, as well as the sinew to join the pieces. We will smoke the hides early tomorrow, and then my sisters and I will begin the stitching." Raven raised her brows. "Your father has set a day." 

A cold gust of wind blew through the camp, fanning the cooking coals into flames that sent sparks into the air.

"No, Mother!" Gray Wolf said with panic in his voice. He rose to his feet. "Please, talk to him. I will choose my own wife."

"Then do it—soon, my son." Raven said in a sharp tone. "He wants the tepee for your bride ready to take with us when the buffalo scouts return. It will be erected at the new camp when we arrive. If you have not chosen a maiden by then, he will offer five ponies to White Moose for one of his daughters."

"I do not want to marry either of White Moose's daughters. Mother, tell him. He will listen to you." 

"Yes, Sleeping Bear does listen to me." She resumed stirring. "He wanted to offer only three ponies, but they are a good family, and both maidens are virtuous and diligent in their work." Without looking at her son, she added, "It is time for you to marry. Your cousins all have wives and children. Even Laughing Coyote's wife is swelling with new life. It is time you brought children into our family."

"But I already have a maiden in mind: The niece of Black Badger." 

Raven's eyes darted toward her son. "Yellow Leaf?" 

 "Yes, but I wanted to wait to tell you until the time was right."

The dog barked and moved closer, then sat with its head resting between its paws, eying the rabbits.

Raven shook her head. "Your father will not approach Black Badger. Sleeping Bear is a proud man. I would not wish for him to be humbled on the whim of that willful maiden. Black Badger is weak, and will not be firm with Yellow Leaf."

"I'm not asking for my father to speak to Black Badger—I just need him to wait—to give me time to court Yellow Leaf properly. She is the maiden my heart wants—no one else—and she is just as virtuous and diligent as the daughters of White Moose."

"Has she given you reason to think she might agree to be your wife?"

"No, my mother. But she will." Gray Wolf inhaled deeply. "When I am worthy of her, we will marry."

Raven let out a loud breath, put her left hand on her hip, and pointed the spoon at her son. "You are already worthy of any maiden in the village. Have you not proven yourself in battle with the Chippewa and the Pawnee?" 

"Yes, but—"

"But what?" She closed her eyes momentarily and shook her head. "Any man would be honored to bless a union between you and a maiden in his family, including Black Badger." She looked away for a moment, then added. "Yellow Leaf is a fine girl with many virtues, but she is stubborn. I think she intends to remain unmarried, my son."

It was a fair assumption. She had refused two suitors already since coming to the village the previous winter to help with her aunt's children. Both warriors had been worthy candidates with plenty of ponies to offer her family and splendid tepees for the bride. Some in the small community whispered that Yellow Leaf had really come because she'd rejected the chief's son in her own village. Her aunt and uncle had been long-suffering, but many people frowned on them for indulging their headstrong niece.

"Please, Mother," Gray Wolf pleaded. "I need time. Please ask my father to wait. Then he can speak to Black Badger instead."

"You've had enough time. When we arrive at our new camp, you will marry—it has been decided." Raven pressed her lips into a resolute line. "The daughters of White Moose are ready for marriage—and you have put it off long enough."

He knew his mother would have her way. Sleeping Bear would not wait, neither would he deliver ponies and a marriage proposal to a family who had rebuffed two admirable warriors—without some assurance that it would be accepted. Gray Wolf saw all too clearly that his mother was behind it all. She wanted grandchildren, and Sleeping Bear would do what Raven wanted.

Gray Wolf hung his head. "I cannot be happy with another maiden. I would wait as long as it takes for Yellow Leaf."

Raven lowered her brows and studied her son for a few moments. Her expression softened, as did her words. "Listen to me, my son." She put both her hands on his cheeks and looked deep into his eyes—then whispered. "If your heart must have this maiden, you will speak to her yourself before your father talks with White Moose." 

"Speak to her?" Gray Wolf drew his brows together. "But that would be against our fathers' traditions. I could not—"

Raven interrupted. "There is a time for tradition, and there is a time for boldness, my son. If Yellow Leaf is willing, then I will talk to Sleeping Bear about it—but not before."

Gray Wolf had been pining for Yellow Leaf since the moon of ripe chokecherries. He had been hunting alone in the forest when he heard singing. Discreetly following the melody, he discovered Yellow Leaf gathering chokecherries in a birch basket. He watched her through a thicket for a while, captivated by the lovely maiden, and her lilting voice. Then he witnessed the most glorious thing he had ever seen. She put her arms out, still holding the basket of fruit, closed her eyes and began to dance. Surrounded by hickory and aspen trees, Yellow Leaf whirled around and around on the forest floor, her doeskin dress billowing and long braids flying. Gray Wolf came from behind the thicket, mesmerized. She opened her eyes and saw him. He froze. She stopped her dance and looked at him with wide eyes, smiling. The moment stretched into several, but Gray Wolf could only stand and stare. Then she put her hand to her mouth, chuckled, turned and walked slowly back to camp with the chokecherries. 

Ever since that day, he felt an exquisite pain in his heart any time he saw the stunning maiden with her ready smile—or heard the musical laugh that came so easily.

He'd had few interactions with her, and their eyes had met on only a few occasions, but every time he saw Yellow Leaf, he fell deeper under her spell. Once when he had sat to take off one of his moccasins to remove a stone, a half-grown dog that had been playfully following him, grabbed the moccasin and ran off around the tepee. He chased after the little dog with one bare foot and caught up with it in the arms of Yellow Leaf, who had been sitting in front of her family's tepee, peeling roots to boil. She laughed as she pried the moccasin from the dog's mouth. 

"Thank you, little one," she said to the dog. "What a lovely present you've brought me." She pretended not to see Gray Wolf standing over them. "But I'll need the other one, too." She laughed and petted the puppy. Then looking at Gray Wolf's bare foot, before meeting his eyes, she said, "Yours, I suppose?" She laughed again when she held it up to him. 

Gray Wolf nodded, blushed, and held out his hand to receive it. 

"She's quite a little thief." Yellow Leaf said smiling. "Yesterday she brought me a wooden spoon. I haven't found out yet who it belongs to."

Gray Wolf could only smile and nod. He couldn't even get a thank you out. It was the only time she had spoken to him. The conversation would have been frowned upon if they had been overheard, but how he treasured those few words. 

He found himself thinking about her all the time, and sensed a fluttering in his stomach when he imagined them together. 

Despite her reluctance to wed, Yellow Leaf was admired by all who knew her. She stood straight and tall, fair of face and graceful as a willow. In the short time the maiden had lived in the village, she had earned respect for her generosity and kindness, and for the elegant quillwork she created. Her occasional lapse in adhering to tradition was attributed to the fact that she was new to their village. She was nearing her sixteenth winter, far older than many maidens being chosen by the warriors who had earned the right to take a wife. 

Gray Wolf did not feel deserving, but nevertheless, dreamed of walking hand in hand with Yellow Leaf, of lying with her at night on a buffalo robe alone in their own tepee. He ached to touch her shimmering hair and share the love that burned in his breast. He wanted to promise her that if she would consent to be his wife, he would spend the rest of his life cherishing her and working to make her happy.

The only way he could express what he felt in his heart was by playing his siyotanka, the handsome flute given to him by his favorite uncle—to summon the spirits. It had been constructed from one piece of elderberry wood by Shadow Eagle, the medicine man, and presented to him on the occasion of his first successful hunt. At night, with his day's work done, Gray Wolf poured out his emotions in a melancholy tune over and over. The clear soft notes arose from deep inside him—sighing in a whispered declaration of love. The whole village came to know the haunting melody as Gray Wolf's song. 

If only he could tell Yellow Leaf it was for her. 

For all his courage in battle, Gray Wolf shook with fear at the thought of speaking to Yellow Leaf. Though he had distinguished himself as a formidable warrior and garnered the respect of the tribal elders hunting buffalo and elk, so had the suitors she had rejected. Grey Wolf held one hope, the way she smiled at him when their eyes met—but it was hardly a promise of marriage. 

Since the last full moon, on three separate mornings, he had gathered the courage to watch for her at daybreak when she went down with the other girls to fill her water skin at the bubbling river. It was the custom for braves desiring a maiden to wife to step out from behind a tree at such a time. If the maiden stopped and gave some indication that she was interested, it was taken as a promise to wed. Their fathers would seal the pledge with ponies and gifts. But each time when Gray Wolf stepped out so Yellow Leaf would see him, she gave him only a sideways glance and kept walking. 

A mist hung over the river the next morning, obscuring the far bank while the eastern sky glowed with bands of crimson. Gray Wolf, wrapped in a buffalo robe against the frosty dawn, waited again behind a tree next to the river path. He determined to put his fear behind him and speak with Yellow Leaf when she came with her young cousins to get water for their families. 

He heard the hoo-h'hoo of a horned owl in the dark hickory limbs above him, and shivered. One never knew if the messenger of change came to herald good or ill, but it was always unsettling. He struggled to think the owl's appearance was a good omen. Gray Wolf was desperate for things to be different this morning when he saw Yellow Leaf. There wasn't much time. The buffalo scouts could return at any moment. If he hadn't spoken to her before they moved to the new camp, his deep emotions would have to be buried in his responsibilities to the wife chosen for him by his father. 

Early light filtered through the trees and the rising sun sent amber beams across the path; a junco's trill echoed from the woods while Gray Wolf waited. 

Just when the faint voices of girls reached his ears, he heard a buck snort behind him in the forest, and leaves rustling. He turned. The largest buck he'd ever seen was foraging nearby among the dry leaves for something green to eat, twigs crackling with every step. He hadn't seen an elk or a deer for days. The last one taken was an elk his father had killed a week ago. It had come just in time; the village had used up their store of dried meat. The women had relied on small game, and what roots and berries they could still find in the woods to feed their families. Sleeping Bear had shared the elk with the entire village and almost all of it was being made into pemmican for the journey to follow the buffalo herd. Perhaps this very buck had been sent by Wakon Tanka to see the camp through until the scouts came back. 

He reluctantly pursued the white-tail deer when it meandered farther into the woods. The buck hadn't noticed him for all the noise it made. Gray Wolf followed as silently as he could, staying well behind. He dared not take the chance of frightening the buck into running. Several times he was within distance to take a clean shot if he'd had his bow and arrow. He would have to be a lot closer to take the animal with the slingshot and knife he carried.

While he followed the big buck deeper into the forest, Gray Wolf thought of Yellow Leaf—the image of her dancing in the woods, the music of her laugh, and that smile. She was probably at the river now with the other girls, filling their water skins, or maybe already returning home. He had missed his chance. 

The tall hickory trees reminded him of the forest of his vision quest the spring after his thirteenth winter. He had fasted and prayed alone for four days and nights before falling into a trance. His spirit guide, a great glowing wolf, gave him his new name and warned him of the difficult path before him—one of balancing desires and duty. He was directed to three sacred Tunkan stones, and instructed to also gather a bear tooth, an eagle talon, and other items to keep in his medicine pouch for protection and guidance. After five more winters, he was just beginning to understand how agonizing it could be to balance desires and duty. 

Gray Wolf reached in to his pouch, and withdrew one of the smooth, clear stones. Perhaps his spirit guide had meant it for this very occasion. 

The chatter of squirrels caught his attention. Taking advantage of the noise to cover his approach, he crept within a stone's throw of the great buck while it rooted in the leaves. There would be only one chance. He carefully slid his rawhide slingshot from his belt. Keeping his eyes on the deer, he placed the stone in the center of the sling, and with a powerful lightning swing over his head, sent it flying toward the animal. The stone found its mark between the deer's eyes. Stunned, it took three steps and stumbled to the ground. Gray Wolf unsheathed his freshly-knapped knife and hurried to the deer that was attempting to stand again. With a forceful slash to its throat, he quickly and skillfully ended its life. 

Gray Wolf sat before the dead animal, struck again by its size. He had never transported a carcass so heavy back to the camp himself. He lay his hand on the neck of the beautiful animal. The antlers were tremendous, and the hide, flawless. The buck's body would be overrun by scavengers if he left it in the woods long enough to bring back help. His people needed meat—his mother and father, Yellow Leaf and her family—the whole camp. Wakon Tanka had sent the deer, had given him the stone, and had guided it from his sling. Surely the Great Spirit would see him through. Gray Wolf retrieved the clear stone glinting in the sunlight nearby, feeling its sacredness more keenly than ever. He raised his arms and chanted his gratitude to the Creator and the spirit of the buck.

Gray Wolf set to work immediately to bleed and gut the deer, eating some of its liver raw. He found two long stout branches and several shorter pieces for cross supports to construct a crude drag sled, tying them securely with vines. Leaning into the task with all his strength, he rolled the enormous carcass onto it, and lashed the buck in place.  He dragged it through the brush with great difficulty toward the edge of the woods. The load snagged repeatedly on the brambles and he had to stop to rest several times along the way, his leg muscles burning. Thoughts of Yellow Leaf kept him going.  

Gray Wolf's legs were shaking when he finally reached the footpath to the camp, but the pulling became easier. He left the heavy buck on the sled at the butchering area just outside the camp, leaned against a tree to catch his breath, then walked on unsteady legs into the village toward his mother's tepee. 

He passed the dwelling of Yellow Leaf's family, and she was sitting on a mat in front, ebony braids falling over each shoulder. A lapboard spread with white doeskin lay on her skirt, on which she worked with dyed porcupine quills of various sizes and colors. Her youngest cousin, still a small child, sat imitating her movements with a buckskin scrap in one hand and a twig in the other. 

Gray Wolf stopped to watch with wonder at Yellow Leaf's slender fingers working while she created a swirling design of running antelope. With an awl and fine sinew, she took a stitch, then flattened a softened quill by drawing it between her teeth, inserted it beneath the stitch, drew it snugly into place, then flipped the quill and took another stitch. 

Yellow Leaf seemed unaware she was being watched as she talked with the child. "It won't be long before you will be sewing your own design. Just look how graceful your movements are." She smiled at the child and looked up from her project at Gray Wolf for a moment. 

A warm feeling spread from his head to his feet, and he smiled back, but by then she was looking at the child again.  Then he reminded himself: she was smiling before she looked up. 

Raven and her sisters were sitting in a circle when he arrived at his mother's dwelling. The women were stitching elk skins together with sinew for the bride's tepee. Raven laid her work aside and rose to her feet. 

She smiled at Gray Wolf. "You left before you had time to eat anything this morning, my son," she said. "No meat, but I boiled some sweetflag roots that Clever Raccoon shared with us." She tilted her head, squinted at her son, and said, "I know that look. What has happened?"

"Wakon Tanka gave us a great buck this morning." Gray Wolf said with a grin. "It's waiting to be butchered."

Laughter rang in Raven's voice. "My prayers were heard." She and her sisters gathered the knives and tools they would need and followed Gray Wolf back to the buck. When they arrived, two vultures swooped down and landed in a hickory tree nearby. Several crows moved in, cawing impatiently. Raven began to loosen the vines holding the buck in place and said, "I wondered where you were all morning. This is a happy day for our people." 

A cold wind swept through the plains from the north while Raven and her kinswomen butchered the animal, as the crows hopped in and out, shouting protests. They divided the meat among the village women, reserving the enormous antlers and hide for Gray Wolf.

An atmosphere of optimism filled the air that afternoon while the smell of roasting venison rose from cooking fires all over the camp. The large buck shared by Gray Wolf had yielded enough meat for a good meal for everyone in the community and meaty bones for wohanpi soup with timpsula root the next day. 

After the evening meal, the camp celebrated the gift from the Creator around a communal fire. The people sat in a large circle and lingered well into the night to listen to stories from the toothless warriors and grandmothers. Yellow Leaf attended with her Uncle's family. She wore a vest trimmed in quillwork over an elegant doeskin dress, her long hair loosed from the customary braids. Her casual compliance to tradition intrigued Gray Wolf, and he imagined combing his fingers through her hair. Her youngest cousin climbed into her lap and Yellow Leaf put her arms around her, and smiled while she listened to the tales being told. A wolf pack howled in the distance while an old warrior added dry sticks to the open fire and stared into the flaring blaze with liquid eyes. Little ones slept with their heads in their mother's laps while others listened with wide eyes as the elders told their legends and tales.

Gray Wolf looked around at the happy faces illuminated by the dancing flames while an elder retold the legend of the White Buffalo, a favorite of the camp. Long ago, when the people had lost the ability to communicate with the Creator, White Buffalo Woman appeared to the people and taught them the seven sacred ways to pray. It was said she returned now and then as a sign that the Creator heard their prayers and honored the sacred pipe. After the elder finished the story, he recounted a time during his childhood when the village was starving. They had smoked the sacred pipe and prayed for days to Wakon Tanka, but the scouts could not find the buffalo. The people became weak from hunger—his own mother, near death. One night a White Buffalo appeared to a medicine woman at camp's edge. Tears welled in the old man's eyes when he told how they woke the next morning to hundreds of buffalo grazing in the prairie. 

When Black Badger's family retired to their tepee, Gray Wolf slipped away from the circle and sat at the edge of the community, wrapped in his heavy robe, alone under the countless stars.

The wind had eased at nightfall, and the voices around the fire seemed a day's ride away. He sat cross-legged on a rock and played his flute—a song, sad but beautiful, full of love and yearning. He rested the flute against his leg for a moment to blink back the tears, and heard an echo of his song from the wolves howling far away. A horned owl silently swooped down from the dark trees, touched his flute with the tip of its wing and disappeared into the night again. Gray Wolf looked into the darkness where the bird vanished. What mystery had come to him on the wings of the owl?

Gray Wolf rose again before dawn, determined to make his intentions known to Yellow Leaf, and learn if an offer of ponies by his father would be received. A heavy frost covered the ground, and Gray Wolf shivered while he watched from behind the same giant hickory for her to appear. The sun's yellow rim lifted above the hills, beyond the broad river bottom into a scarlet streaked sky. He slipped a hand into the medicine pouch and fingered the sacred rocks for courage and guidance. Nothing would stop him today. 

When she came with her young cousins again, Yellow Leaf glanced into the forest where Gray Wolf stood, half hidden. Their eyes met briefly, and he thought he saw a smile come to her lips when she continued down the path. 

It might mean nothing. Yellow Leaf smiled all the time. He hoped that she would not be repelled by his impudence in speaking directly to her. He comforted himself with the thought that she had not always conformed to the demands of tradition herself.

Gray Wolf watched the girls fill their water skins, and rehearsed in his mind what he might say when Yellow Leaf came back up the hill. 

She lingered while she filled hers until the other girls had started up the hill, then walked a few steps behind them when they passed Gray Wolf. He stepped out from behind the tree, his heart pounding, and opened his mouth.

"Yellow Leaf." His voice shook, barely audible. He could hardly believe he was so close to her. "I—I mean—Do you?"  The rest of the words would not come. 

The other girls walked on ahead, then looked back when Yellow Leaf leaned her head toward him and whispered, "Did you wish to tell me something?"

"Yes—I mean, no—I, I mean." He remained silent for a few moments as she tilted her head. Finally, he uttered, "Is your aunt well?" 

Yellow Leaf laughed and shifted the heavy water skin to her other shoulder, "Yes, she is quite well." Then she added, "Was there something else?"

He opened his mouth again, "And your uncle? Is he well?" 

"Come along, Yellow Leaf," her cousins called back to her. 

"My uncle is well, too," she said with a smile, then turned and hurried to join the other girls. 

Gray Wolf heard a burst of giggling as the girls carried the water up the footpath to the camp. He was in torment. What a foolish thing to say! He finally had the courage to speak to her, and all he could do was inquire after her family's health. Crazy! No wonder she laughed at him. Humiliated, he walked back toward the camp.

Excited voices met him when he reached the outskirts. He saw his friends, White Moon and Talking Eagle, and asked them what was happening. 

"The buffalo scouts have returned," Talking Eagle said. "I guess we'll hear soon when Chief Red Hawk wants to begin the move."

"I hope we don't have to wait until morning," White Moon said.  

Women were busy packing belongings. There wouldn't be much time when the word came. The chief would expect them to dismantle the tepees, and be ready to depart before the sun moved the width of a hand in the sky. 

"Did you hear the news?" his mother called when Gray Wolf approached his mother's tepee. 

"Yes, the scouts are back," he said, still reeling from the embarrassing exchange with the maiden he loved. "Has the chief said when we will leave yet?"

"He is meeting with the scouts now, but I expect immediately. There is still most of the day left and he will not wait another sleep." She studied her son's face and added, "Are you unwell, my son? You look pale."

Before he could answer, Gray Wolf's father returned with word from Chief Red Hawk. Raven was right. She'd been through these moves countless times and knew they would move as soon as the camp could be ready. 

While Gray Wolf and Sleeping Bear removed the hobbles and readied the ponies for the journey, Raven and her sisters helped each other dismantle their tepees. They quickly fashioned travois by using the long tepee poles with hides strung between them. They lashed all their belongings to the makeshift sleds, ready to be dragged by ponies to the new hunting camp. By midmorning, the band was on the move—a long line of ponies, drag sleds, people, and several dogs tagging along through the dust. 

They stopped only when the ponies needed to rest, and then pressed on. Their meals were eaten as they rode—the pemmican cakes the women had made for the trip. Children sat atop their belongings most of the way. 

Not all the ponies were ridden or needed to pull travois. Gray Wolf rode his dappled mount and led a string of fifteen ponies, as did many other braves. His cousin's son rode his pinto alongside Gray Wolf much of the way. Little Crow was excited because the upcoming buffalo hunt would be his first. Gray Wolf had coached him since he was big enough to sit on a pony, practicing all the skills required of a Lakota man. And they had worked together to train his mount. 

Little Crow was nervous and asked countless questions about the approaching hunt while they rode. "Were you afraid before your first buffalo hunt?" he asked.

"I still am—every time. It's not a thing to take lightly, my cousin. When the time comes, you will do fine. You are ready."

"Do you think my pony is ready, too?" 

"You've trained your pinto well. He is bright and fast. He will do fine. You both will get better with experience. Pray for protection and then trust Wakon Tanka to go with you."

The boy's persistence kept Gray Wolf from dwelling on Yellow Leaf.

It took three days and nights to reach the plain where the buffalo now grazed. When they stopped to sleep each evening, the men secured the ponies while the women raised their tepees in family circles with the opening flaps facing the direction of the rising sun. A mood of expectation charged the air, tempered only with the solemn knowledge that the hazardous hunt was near. The camp was eerily quiet. Weary from traveling all day, most built a fire in their tepee's center pit as soon as they were erected, ate a meal of pemmican, and surrendered to their buffalo robes to sleep with their families. 

Slumber had not come easily to Gray Wolf on the journey. When thoughts of Yellow Leaf would not let him rest, he withdrew to the edge of the temporary camp and leaned against a tree to play the sweet soft notes that spoke of his yearning. He looked at the circle of glowing tepees with smoke drifting from the tops. Was Yellow Leaf listening to his song while she rested in her family's dwelling? Did she know he played it for her? Did she think of him at all?

Gray Wolf saw Yellow Leaf only twice during the move, and then only a fleeting glimpse. She rode with her family far ahead in the long line of drag sleds and ponies. He would have been too ashamed to speak to her after the disaster on the morning they left. It grieved him to contemplate a life without Yellow Leaf.

On the last night of their journey, while Sleeping Bear attended the ponies and Raven arranged the bedding in the tepee, Gray Wolf implored her once again to talk to his father. 

"Please, my mother," he said squatting beside her. "I have tried to speak with Yellow Leaf, but the words did not come. Please tell my father I need time. I cannot marry one of the daughters of White Moose."

"You will marry. It is time." She unrolled another buffalo robe and started to smooth it out on the trampled grass floor. "We will not discuss it again."

Gray Wolf gritted his teeth as he prepared for sleep. He wanted to weep, but bitterness consumed his tears before they reached his eyes. He lay that night, stony and awake, in his mother's tepee.

A cold rain fell before daybreak. Clouds shrouded the rising sun while Raven packed up the damp tepee. Gray Wolf went with his father to take the hobbles off their ponies. 

He walked beside Sleeping Bear with his hands held behind him, scuffing his moccasins on the wet prairie grass. "I have been a good son, have I not, my father?" he said, holding his breath without looking up. He had never discussed the subject directly with his father. Sleeping Bear, a man of few words, deferred to Raven in family matters, but this was Gray Wolf's last hope.

"Of course you have. Why do you ask such a thing?" Sleeping Bear frowned and gave him a sideways glance.

"Because I must ask you something hard."

His father groaned, slowed to a stop and looked at his son. "About Yellow Leaf? 

Gray Wolf raised his eyebrows. 

"Yes, I know about Yellow Leaf. Do you think your mother and I do not talk?" He started walking again, faster. "I will not go begging to Black Badger for you."

"That is not what I am asking, my father. I just need time to court Yellow Leaf," Gray Wolf said, matching his father's quickened pace. 

"You have had time my son. It has been three moons since she came to the village. Raven has waited too long for grandchildren." 

Gray Wolf grabbed Sleeping Bear's arm. "Father, please."

His father stopped, faced him and spoke, his voice taut. "Listen to me, my son. The Great Spirit has given Raven only one child. Would you deny your mother grandchildren because of some futile dream? It is your duty as a Lakota man to take a wife and have a family. Since you have not chosen a maiden, I will do it for you, as my own father did for me."

"But it is Yellow Leaf I want to have a family with." He looked down and closed his eyes. 

 "You have waited too long. Choose one of White Moose's daughters. I will have your answer before I take ponies to settle with her father the day after we hunt the buffalo."

Gray Wolf's mind never left Yellow Leaf while he resumed the dismal journey with his people and their ponies, dragging all they owned through the cold morning mist. The sky cleared as they crossed hills that rose and fell in gentle undulations, ever lower into a valley. By midmorning, scouts rode back yelling the buffalo herd was near. The Lakota band would set up camp in a meadow along a creek just over the next hill. 

When they mounted the crest, a rolling prairie lay before them, dressed in the subtle colors of autumn—boundless and beautiful. The dry grass of their new meadow home rippled in the breeze. They would set up their tepees beside the bend of a rocky stream bordered with cottonwood and oak trees. 

The women and children wasted no time, and began setting up the tepee camp with all the necessities of daily living. Gray Wolf saw to his ponies and gathered with the other men to discuss the hunt that would begin at dawn. 

The chief chose Gray Wolf's uncle, River Hawk, to be the leader of the hunt. He sought the medicine man's counsel, and the men of the camp discussed every detail of the venture. That evening Gray Wolf joined them and performed the Buffalo Dance in a circle around a feather-bedecked buffalo skull. The dancers imitated the movements of the buffalo to the rhythm of beating drums and turtle-shell rattles to honor brother buffalo, stamping down the grass of their new home. They smoked the sacred pipe, and chanted around the communal fire, praying that the Great Spirit would go with them to the hunt. Gray Wolf retired late to his family's tepee, exhausted. A dangerous day lay before him, and the last before duty demanded a betrothal he loathed to think about.  

Everyone rose before first light to a cold wind that threw leaves into the air. The men gathered their weapons and mounted their fastest ponies. Among them, Little Crow sat tall on his pinto, wearing a colorful vest his mother had made for the occasion. He rode beside his father, beaming. Some women and older children rode with the men, leading pack ponies. The women would kill injured buffalo and butcher the animals. Those left behind to prepare the drying racks and hearths, prayed aloud that their loved ones would return unharmed. 

Gray Wolf rode his favorite mount with the men toward a bluff overlooking the prairie where the buffalo grazed. He turned to speak to Sleeping Bear and stopped dumb at the sight of Yellow Leaf riding a spotted pony among the women accompanying the hunting party. The rising sun briefly came from behind a cloud, outlining her figure in shimmering light. Everything else faded away, and he saw only Yellow Leaf. 

He'd never seen her on a hunt before. Did she know how dangerous and unpredictable buffalo were? They could outrun and out maneuver the fleetest pony. It was not unusual for a man to be killed on a hunt when an enraged buffalo suddenly turned and charged its pursuer. On their last hunt, two mounts were lost, and his friend, Lone Horn, had been badly injured. No one was safe around the great beasts, even the women who came to help after the chase. Frightened for Yellow Leaf, he added her name to his prayers for protection, chanting under his breath in rhythm with the ponies footsteps. 

They arrived at the bluff overlooking the vast golden plain, cut through with a winding stream. Under the shifting cloud shadows, the land was dotted with herds of buffalo and antelope. River Hawk raised his spear to the sky and lifted his voice in a sacred song the wind carried into the valley. Gray Wolf joined him along with the others, appealing to the Great Spirit for courage and for many buffalo to sustain their families. 

Sleeping Bear and a small party of seasoned hunters hid themselves under buffalo hides to cover their scent and rode on their well-trained ponies down the hill into the herd while the rest remained and watched nervously. They would separate out a hundred or so buffalo from the others to avoid stampeding thousands of the beasts when the chase began. 

The wind grew colder while they waited. Gray Wolf took the hallowed objects from his medicine pouch: the eagle talon, a smooth piece of elk bone, the sacred Tunkan stones and the rest. He rubbed the cherished objects between his fingers and closed his eyes. The faces of the men who had been lost to buffalo hunts in the past appeared before him, more men than were lost in battle with the Chippewa. The vision of Yellow Leaf on her spotted pony came to him. What value did his life hold without her? As he appealed to the Creator for guidance, he prayed that if a Lakota must die today to secure the survival of the village, let it be him. 

Gray Wolf urged his pony to the bluff's edge, joining White Moon and Talking Eagle, who were looking down at the sea of grazing buffalo and antelope. A lone white animal stood among them. 

"Is that White Buffalo? He said, pointing.

They both strained to see what Gray Wolf saw, but neither were able to locate it among the multitude. 

Talking Eagle reached out to pat Gray Wolf's pony, smiled and said, "I'll take it as a good omen, my friend, whether I can see it or not."

River Hawk led them from the bluff into the valley to a position downwind of the small herd that had been separated out. There they silently waited while Sleeping Bear and his band, still covered with buffalo hides, slowly rode to a location upwind of the beasts and began to ease them toward the waiting hunters.

Gray Wolf's dappled pony snorted and stamped her foot as he let the reins drop to her neck and readied his first arrow. He silently patted her neck. "Steady girl," he whispered. Gray Wolf's stomach knotted and his heart raced while he watched for a sign from the leader to begin the chase. 

When the buffalo were close enough for the hunters to hear their grunts, River Hawk raised his spear in the wind and yelled a signal. Gray Wolf nudged his pony and they raced toward the animals alongside the other braves, shouting as one in a piercing swell of wild whooping—all fear left behind. In the moment it took for the buffalo to react, they were nearly on them. 

Gray Wolf rode close to the rear of the herd, his pony responsive to the slightest pressure of his knees. He spotted a huge bull he wanted, and ran his pony between it and the others to separate it from the herd, his mount running side by side with the shaggy giant. When his arrow found its target, the buffalo stumbled and fell, almost tripping his pony. Gray Wolf fixed his eyes on another animal and cut it out of the herd, again racing beside it while he aimed another arrow. 

The blur of thundering buffalo and galloping ponies continued, as warriors whooped, and spears and arrows whistled through the air. Ahead, a pony stumbled and went down with its rider. Several buffalo ran between Gray Wolf and the fallen brave, obscuring his view. 

When the chase ended, and the rest of the buffalo had raced on to rejoin the main herd in the distance, the pinto that had stumbled stood over the brave, nudging its owner with its nose. Gray Wolf's heart sank. In the prairie grass lay Little Crow. He dashed back toward the boy, along with the others. The warriors who had been close were by the boy's side in an instant. Then shouts of joy rang out when the young brave sat up. Gray Wolf held his breath while his friend, White Moon, helped the boy to his feet. Little Crow made a few tentative steps; he appeared uninjured. 

The hunt had been fruitful. River Hawk counted forty-two buffalo lying dead on the prairie, seven killed with arrows bearing Gray Wolf's mark, and one of Little Crow's. It would be enough to feed the village for some time, and plenty to trade for corn and beans. 

Gray Wolf paused to scan the group of women preparing to butcher the animals, and spotted Yellow Leaf talking with an aging kinswoman. Good, she is safe. 

He sank to his knees before a dead buffalo and raised his hands to the skies, thanking the Creator and the buffalos' spirit for their gifts. He stood up, raised his head to the wind, and took a deep breath, savoring the smells of the hunt, the animal scents: ponies, buffalo, even their blood, all mixed with the earthy smells of the plains. It felt exhilarating, satisfying. He had done his part to help his people, garnering more kills than any of the others. Gray Wolf mounted his pony and prepared to ride back to camp with the other hunters. The women moved in to skin the buffalo, and cut the carcasses into large chunks that could be taken back to camp. 

Before he turned to leave, he looked again at Yellow Leaf among the women. She began to kneel in front of a shaggy beast when it suddenly thrashed its massive head toward her, and tried to stand. Gray Wolf gasped in horror as it nearly gored Yellow Leaf before she sprang to her feet and out of its way. He jumped from his pony as the injured bull bellowed and struggled to its feet. It stumbled toward Yellow Leaf while Gray Wolf unsheathed his knife and ran to the animal. He stabbed it once; it turned to face its attacker. The next thrust killed it and the bull collapsed to the prairie. Standing with bloody weapon in hand, he looked at Yellow Leaf, who stared at the dead beast. She raised a trembling hand to cover her open mouth, and looked at Gray Wolf, her brows drawn together, and her face, pallid. 

He looked into her eyes, heaving as he breathed. "Are you all right?"

Yellow leaf nodded slowly. "Yes, I think so," she said with a tremor in her voice. "Just scared." Studying his eyes, she added, "Thank you." 

Her kinswoman came from behind Yellow Leaf and put her arm around the girl's shoulders. The old woman patted her, and turned her away, gently chastising her. "Always make sure the buffalo is dead before you get off your feet."   

One of the braves shouted to Gray Wolf from where they waited with his pony, "Leave the women to their work. Let's go." 

He hurried to join the other men. Gray Wolf mounted his pony and glanced back at Yellow Leaf. His heart nearly stopped. She was looking at him. 

The wind had shifted directions, and the sky was turning gray when they began the ride back to camp. Gray Wolf looked at the low gray clouds. He urged his pony forward beside River Hawk. "It will be the middle of the night by the time the women get the buffalo in," he said. Then pointing to the clouds, he added. "With snow coming in, it's going to be miserable. It will be almost morning before we can hobble the ponies and sleep."

His uncle looked at the clouds, then back at the women. He grinned at Gray Wolf. "I suppose we could do a little woman's work this one time."

River Hawk gave the order, and the hunters returned to help the women as a light snow began to fall. The old grandmother who directed the women suggested that Gray Wolf and some other braves do the heavy work of loading the pack ponies while the women cut the buffalo into pieces. The rest would lead them back and forth to the camp to distribute the meat among the village women to finish the butchering. The hide of each buffalo would be reserved for the brave whose arrow felled the animal. 

The afternoon grew colder and the snow continued while they labored. Gray Wolf found his eyes on Yellow Leaf throughout the day. At one point he loaded meat onto a pack pony close to where she skinned a buffalo, under the watchful eye of her critical kinswoman. Their eyes met only once. Yellow Leaf smiled briefly at him before returning to the bloody job of separating the hide from the meat of the massive animal. Gray Wolf was fascinated to see the fingers that nimbly crafted such intricate quillwork doing the arduous work at hand so skillfully. His admiration for her grew. 

The light was fading when Gray Wolf mounted his pony to head back to the camp. He sighed, grateful that the hunt had been successful, but now, with the work over, he anguished over the prospect of setting aside his love for Yellow Leaf to fulfill his duty to his family. 

The snow had stopped, and the sky cleared, but it was cold and nearly dark when the last of the meat and hides, borne on tired ponies, arrived at the camp. Weary but happy warriors led them, followed by the women and children who labored with them to bring in the buffalo. 

Joyful shouts rang out while Gray Wolf led the last pack pony through the tepees. He passed row after row of poles bearing countless strips of drying buffalo meat. They had been strung between forked sticks by the women who'd stayed in the camp. The smell of roasting buffalo meat filled the air as smoke rose from a large communal fire pit. The first butchered buffalo had been roasting over coals since noon for the village to celebrate the successful hunt. 

Raven stood in front of her tepee, talking with Sleeping Bear when Gray Wolf approached and dismounted. She smiled a greeting. "Everyone has returned unharmed. My prayers are answered again." She lowered her voice and whispered to her son, "You are the talk of the village, my son. People are saying Wakon Tanka has smiled on you." 

"It doesn't feel that way to me," he said. The sight of the bride's tepee his mother had erected next to hers filled Gray Wolf's heart with dread. His father would need to know first thing in the morning which daughter of White Moose he preferred. How could he make a decision like that? He couldn't bear to think about marrying anyone but Yellow Leaf. 

The whole village knew the tepee's meaning. A marriage proposal would soon be coming. They would be watching tomorrow to see at whose lodge the bride gifts would be left.

 If only it could be Yellow Leaf who came to live in the tepee with him. If only he wasn't so tongue-tied, he could tell her what burned in his heart, but he could not even breathe when he was near her. If only. If only!  

The men let the ponies drink their fill at the river, and quickly hobbled them for the night to forage under the snow for grass in the meadow outside the camp. Gray Wolf spent a few moments with his favorite mount. After checking her hooves for pebbles, he patted her neck. "Thank you, my friend, for doing your job so well today," he said. She whinnied and nudged his cheek with her soft nose. 

After the ponies were attended to, the men cleaned themselves, dressed in dance regalia, and gathered with the rest of the band for the festive occasion. 

Everyone rejoiced except Gray Wolf. The drums began to reverberate with a slow steady beat that grew faster and more emphatic until the joyous sounds of singing and dancing filled the cold night air. River Hawk asked him to play his flute for the people, but his heart wasn't in the festivities, and after a short melody, he excused himself. Prayers and chants of thanksgiving were offered to Wakon Tanka amid whoops and ecstatic trills. While everyone around him reveled in the camp's good fortune and feasted, Gray Wolf hardly ate anything. He looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Yellow Leaf, but he didn't see her. 

The celebration went on for a long time under the stars, but gradually the weary people went to their tepees for the night. Gray Wolf could not rest and did not retire to his mother's warm tepee. Tonight's sleep would be the last before he would be expected to marry, and it was getting late. Wrapping himself in a buffalo robe, he left the camp, flute in hand, as he had done so many times before. He walked toward the stream to sit beneath a cottonwood tree. The woods were full of mournful noises: the distant cries of night animals and the groaning of trees in the wind. Before he lifted the flute to his lips, he sat for a while and listened to the water ripple over rocks, and tried to come to peace with what was to be. He could not. The gurgling brook reminded him of Yellow Leaf's laugh, and a vision of her dancing alone in the forest swirled and twirled through his mind and would not be dismissed. 

Above him in the limbs of the great cottonwood, he again heard the hoo-h'hoo of a horned owl, reminding him of the changes that dawn would bring. The hoo-h'hoo came again,  and then again as if goading him to action. Could it be the same owl—following him from their last camp three-days ride away? He rose to his feet and paced under the interlacing tree limbs, black against the flickering stars above, then wandered along the edge of the camp, lost in thought.

He was drawn back to the present when he recognized in the moonlight the red pony design that Black Badger had painted on the tepee of Yellow Leaf's family. Again he heard the voice of the horned owl. It silently swooped down, as it had done once before, and touched the end of his flute and disappeared into the night. And he knew. It would be with his flute that he spoke to Yellow Leaf.

Gray Wolf chose the gnarled trunk of a massive oak near her tepee, so near, she would surely hear every note. A graceful column of silver smoke from the fire pit in the center of the tepee, drifted from the outlet at the top into the indigo sky. The moon shone bright and clear and bathed the trees around him with a soft warm light. He leaned against the ancient tree and began to play his flute. The music began softly, recreating the melancholy song inspired by his yearning for Yellow Leaf. Never had his melody of love been more passionate or more ethereal while he dreamed of the beautiful maiden inside the tepee. 

He played as the night grew colder, the chill cutting through his moccasins. His fingers became icy while the airy notes from his flute floated up and around the slender strand of smoke above her tepee, lingering there with nowhere to go. His heart grew heavy in his loneliness. Yellow Leaf must have awakened some time ago and knew who played the flute outside her tepee, but hadn't responded. Gray Wolf had expressed his love at last, and received his answer. 

The refrain became more mournful. Bitterness began to settle in his heart as his thoughts went to the path that duty would demand of him on the morrow. Gray Wolf paused from his song to rein in his emotions and heard a rustle in the brush. He sprang to his feet, thinking perhaps the Great Spirit had sent a bear to end his misery. A figure appeared from the darkness. Yellow Leaf stood shivering before him, dressed in doeskin and rabbit fur. Her face glowed in the moonlight. Gray Wolf was breathless.

"Your song is beautiful," she said, smiling with slightly lowered head, holding her arms close to her body against the cold. "I didn't want it to stop."

Gray Wolf could only look at her in wonder, transfixed by the miracle of her appearance. 

When he did not respond, Yellow Leaf looked down at her moccasins and back up. "It was for me, wasn't it." 

"Yes, it was for you, Yellow Leaf. It's always been for you." 

He watched in amazement, his heart pounding, while she walked slowly toward him, smiling. He opened his buffalo robe and enclosed her trembling body within. They stood silently as one under the enchanted stars. 

The whole village celebrated the next day when Sleeping Bear delivered five fine ponies to the dwelling of Black Badger, and Yellow Leaf moved her belongings to the bride's tepee with Gray Wolf. 

Raven couldn't stop smiling and began work on a cradleboard immediately. 

From that night forward, the siyotanka flute was known throughout the Lakotas as the love flute. Warriors who wished to court a maiden, would play the flute outside her tepee. If she came out to listen, it was a declaration of love and a promise of marriage. 

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