Mahto refused to let the pain show on his face as the army doctor poked at his ribs. What did the white man know about medicine anyway? As an army scout, Mahto had to feign respect. The army doctor was too young. He boasted of a school he attended back east, but it was clear he had no respect for the elders - especially not for the elders of the Crow - the shaman, or medicine man. Captain Henry had much to learn, but he was new to the army post.
"Cough." Henry commanded as he jammed a cold piece of steel against Mahto's ribs.
Mahto produced a healthy cough, and then went into an uncontrolled spasm of choking. The end result was a glob of red colored spittle.
Henry muttered some long word. Noting Mahto's blank stare, he attempted to clarify with a couple of letters.
"TB. Not much we can do. I'll give you some medicine, but you're through as a scout. You'll have to leave the post before you infect the other men."
White men, he most likely meant. The white man was always worrying about being infected by the Indian, but he didn't worry much about passing his diseases to the Indian. Hadn't most of Mahto's people been killed by the white man's disease, smallpox? That was how the Mandan came to live as the Crows.
"Do you understand?" the gruff voice demanded.
Mahto nodded, painstakingly forcing each of the white man's words over a reluctant tongue. "I understand. You not know how make me well. Mah ho peneta make me well."
Henry looked doubtful. "I don't know who this Mah ho penta is, but if he can help you, I know some people back east who'd like to meet him."
"Mah ho peneta," Mahto corrected, and paused for a moment. What did the white man call the Great Spirit? "God," he finally remembered.
Henry nodded as he packed his equipment back into a black bag. "Well, I hope you've been a good boy." His smile was sour, as if to indicate that an Indian couldn't expect favors from the white man's god.
Mahto chose to ignore his inference. No good could come of arguing with a white man - especially a doctor and captain in the army. He shrugged. "I see Hopeneche...Crow medicine man."
Henry shrugged. "It’s your funeral." He hefted his bag and left the room.
Mahto buttoned his shirt and followed Henry from the room. He didn't care about leaving the post. He'd been thinking about it for a long time, but the Sergeant had strange ideas about loyalty. Those loyalties all lay across the shoulders of the Crow scouts, though.
Mahto turned in his equipment and left the post without a backward glance. The Shaman would drive the evil from his body and he would be a strong warrior again. He didn't need to lead the white man against the Cheyenne. Their old enemy knew the time had come to make peace with the white man. Sometimes Mahto felt sorry for the Cheyenne, but they would only be insulted by such feelings. Enemy they might be, but he also admired their skill as warriors and their unrelenting spirit.
Ahead of him lay the peaks of the Absaroka Mountains. At the foot of them lay the winter camp of his adopted people, the Crow. Only there could he find true contentment. They would be preparing to move up into the mountains for the season of plenty.
He nudged his horse in the ribs and let his body fall into the rhythm of the smooth lope. The gray had led him through many battles. He was the only thing Mahto had owned when he joined the white man's army. Had it only been two years ago? He had been a hot headed boy of 16 summers then. Now he was a man.
As he entered the village, an old man lifted a hand in salute. "Cop caze Mahto, how is it with you? It has been a long time."
It felt good to hear his full name again. Snow Bear, it meant, but the Sergeant had simply called him Mahto - bear. A name meant nothing to the white man. He kept the name he was given at birth and didn't feel the need to earn a new one.
Mahto slid off his horse and stood before the elder. "It is not well Mah sish. And with you?" He glanced around the village, noting the teepees in the process of being disassembled. "It is time to move the camp." He was looking for the teepee of Woka da -- White Buffalo, the village shaman. At that moment a fit of coughing seized his chest and when it ended, Mah sish simply pointed to a prominent teepee.
"Woka da is in his lodge."
Woka da was an old man, withered and stooped, but he knew the ways of the elders. One look at Mahto and the shaman reached for his medicine pouch.
"Come sit beside the fire, Mahto." He began stirring something in a stone bowl, chanting as he warmed it over the fire. Woka da knew all the plants. Some he even traded with the Comanche. "You find peace with the white man?" Woka da asked on the end of a chant.
Mahto snorted. "The white man wants peace with us, but he wants it on his terms. Do we ask the white man to live like us?"
The old eyes surveyed him thoughtfully. "Why did you join the white man?"
Mahto grimaced. "I wanted to fight our enemy, the Cheyenne."
The hard gaze continued to bore into him. "You could have fought with the Crow."
Mahto laughed shortly. "With what? The white man had better weapons. The Cheyenne took our hunting ground away, and our people were starving. I had to do something."
"And you could not join the Cheyenne"
Mahto stared at the old man. "Live like the Cheyenne?" Had Woka da's mind grown old as well?
Woka da slowly stirred the mixture. "Then you did not fight for honor. You fought because the enemy does not live like you. You fought because the Cheyenne take land you want for yourself. You fight because you believe you are better than the Cheyenne. Is this why you joined the white man? Is he so different?"
Mahto felt a sickness in the pit of his stomach. Had he become like the white man? And yet....
"Are you saying that I should surrender to the Cheyenne? That I should not take pride in my heritage?"
Woka da shook his head slowly. "I am asking you to find the source of your anger. To defend your people is honorable. It brings peace to your belly. To hate your enemy builds a poison inside." He handed the bowl of medicine to Mahto. "It will take more than this medicine to make you well."
Woka da stood. The conversation was over, so he simply left the teepee. He had left his patient two kinds of medicine. They were both bitter.
Was it the poison of anger that had made him sick? He had never known Woka da's medicine to fail. He gulped the bitter paste down and absently placed the bowl beside the fire. Weren't you supposed to hate the enemy? After all, it would be futile to go into battle feeling compassion for the enemy. And yet, he had. It wasn't until recently that he had harbored this feeling of hatred, though - and it wasn't aimed at the Cheyenne. It had steadily grown against the soldiers, and their arrogant attitudes toward all Indians. Lately some of that anger had been directed inward. He had been a part of their ruthless ways, only he had excused himself because the Cheyenne were enemies of the Crow.
The poison lay in his belly like a cold heavy stone. He couldn't live with the Crow until this poison was gone. Somehow he had to make things right. That was the only way to get rid of the poison. What he needed was a vision.
By the light of the next morning, he made his way into the mountains and found a high bluff. There he made a cold camp while he waited for the voice of Mah ho peneta. He drank no water and ate no food., Two days passed without a vision. Was he so full of poison that even the great spirit would not speak to him?
On the third day he was sleeping when the vision finally came. He was standing on the edge of the cliff and the ground gave way below him. He wasn't afraid, though. He could fly. In fact, he was an eagle, swooping down over a Cheyenne village. As he passed over the village, he dropped something. He couldn't see what it was, but it must have been valuable, because the village swarmed around it. He swerved away, flapping his wings as he rose to the cliff again. Then he woke.
In spite of the cool morning air, he was sweating. What did the vision mean, and what was the package that he delivered to the Cheyenne village?
Even Woka da seemed to be at loss for a meaning. "One day the vision will be clear to you," he had consoled.
Three weeks later he was hunting for elk when he saw someone hiding in the shadows of the trees. He circled around and approached the figure from behind. When he was still a few minutes away, he realized that the figure was a girl - Cheyenne at that. What was she doing out here alone - or was she alone? He glanced around nervously, but there was no indication that anyone else was around.
His horse stomped a foot and the girl swung around to face him. Her eyes were large with fear, but she didn't try to run. No doubt she knew it would be hopeless.
"Why are you on the hunting grounds of the Crow," he asked in Cheyenne.
She lifted her chin and faced him bravely. "I was taken from my people by an Arapaho warrior. I have escaped."
She watched him warily, probably thinking she had escaped from the jaws of the wolf only to be devoured by a bear. Yet she watched him bravely, resigned to her fate. She was slender and lovely. Such a woman would be treasured by the Cheyenne.
That was when it occurred to him - the dream. Was she the valuable package he must deliver to the Cheyenne? He frowned.
"But the Arapaho are allies of the Cheyenne. Why would they take you away?"
"Not this one. He would steal me to avenge his anger with my father. But my father didn't intend to kill his son. It was a hunting accident."
More hatred. Would man ever be rid of that wicked poison? He nudged his horse closer to the girl and held his hand down to her.
For a moment she hesitated, gazing up into his face. What she saw there he couldn't say, but she boldly reached up and took his hand.
"My village is far from here, but you would be rewarded for returning me. My father is the chief. He would not let anyone harm you."
He swung her up behind him. As her warm arms encircled his waist, the poison vanished. In the place of the cold heavy stone, warmth filled his belly.
"I will take you back to your father - and I want no reward. It is the honorable thing to do."
He nudged the gray into a lope and it was as if they were in flight. He was the eagle, delivering the package to the Cheyenne. He was free of the poison at last.
This story can be found in the collection of short western stories "HORSE OPERA."