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Western Short Story
Speedwing, Legend in the Making 
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

A few Blackfoot tribal members said, joking or not but in all awareness of numbers, that Speedwing was half Indian, half white and half bird. The elders of the tribe laughed at this description, but held off on their decision on accepting his name as his final name, “to carry into history.”

“Speedwing” had called out the name as a child, pronouncing the word so that many tribesmen nearby heard the name as plain as could be spoken, with the falcon streaking across the sky so often in discussions of the name that such testimony was added to the legend in the making, the falcon coming with the speed of lightning to make note of the name, the event, and the on-going relationship between bird and man.

Many of the tribe thought there could be no higher sign.

Speedwing’s mother was a white girl, found on the prairie as a baby by a Blackfoot war party and brought back as a living trophy. A council sat to decide where the white baby was to be lodged and many supplicants spoke at the council. Some of them were childless women, some were rising from their own sadness or loss because a son or husband had been lost in battle or a child of their own taken by river or bear. And some squaws among them needed additional motivation in raising young members of the tribe. The supplicants all pleaded their cases and the length of the pleas caused doubt to swim in the council until an older squaw, childless herself but without self-pity, made a strong case for her selection.

Her name was Blue Feather and she came into the council as a “lost” person in the tribe because she was alone in her tipi and had survived on her wiles and capabilities learned over a long and hard life. Her husband long past, Hawk’s Talon, had been a grand warrior but fell ill and died of an unknown cause in the dead of night, leaving Blue Feather alone in her tipi. But this day her voice carried an aura in it, a sense of creation. There was not a single note of sadness or self-pity or a plea to fill out her empty life. More, there was an awareness rising in the council when she began to speak, as if some other power, a power from a different place, had been inserted into the council lodge.

Blue Feather, speaking with a solemn but not conciliatory voice, said, “I do not ask. I do not beg. I only tell you that this moment brings the beginning of a legend that will make the Blackfoot tribe more honored than ever among all the nations for the change that will come upon the land, from here to the far waters, from here to the heavy snows that lie long on the land, from here to the warm waters rushing upon the land. It has been told to me that this child, this lost baby yet mourned by some mother, when raised among us as a Blackfoot shall give our people a hero for all time to come, that his name will go with the wind from the mountains and the wind of the prairies as if his name had become part of the wind itself. This has been told to me from the holiest of caves in the holiest of mountains where Blackfoot legends have their beginnings.”

She stopped talking and looked down upon the baby girl, in the center of the council, sleeping on a soft deerskin. Across Blue Feather’s face came such a look of wonder and a further revelation within the council that she could not be denied. The council presented her the child to keep in her tipi, to raise as a Blackfoot, to fulfill the legend already in ascension about them. The wisest among them saw all this as the beginning of a truth.

Blue Feather, before she died, saw the child reared as a Blackfoot maiden and choose her final name as Bird-Mother after she gave birth to a son fathered by a Blackfoot warrior, Sun Eagle.

The legend, advanced beyond promise, had come to its real beginning.

Bird-Mother, watching her son grow, saw him become a swift runner as a boy and develop into a splendid athlete adept in many endeavors. But becoming an extraordinary runner was his fated promise. Many descriptions and testaments of his running ability entered directly into campfire discussions, and that is how a legend shares itself with truth and reality, how it becomes fact before the fiction wears itself out.

Now and then, in these campfire talks, a speaker would offer a new token of belief; “Even the dust he leaves behind him when he runs doesn’t know it’s been disturbed until he is long out of sight.”

Wise heads would nod at that comment.

Another at a camp fire or a council meeting might add, “”Nothing that moves on the land, not man or horse, can catch Speedwing unless he allows it. Even the turtle, though laughed at in any race he’d contemplate, has a special view on speed, and his voice is heard in the land, slow and steady in its way, for what the turtle is and not how the turtle moves.”

Wise heads nodded at that statement also.

Word of Speedwing’s prowess moved swiftly into all the tribes of the nations, including Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Crow, Sioux, Shoshoni, Kalispel, Cheyenne, Nez Perce, and Couer d’Alene among others. Young braves ran with extra passion and they in turn carried the word about Speedwing. Now and then, on the open grass, young Indian boys would sprint out on their earnest contests and the word moved with them.

“In what manner will you carry out the settling of your name?” the chief elder of the Blackfoot tribe said, looking down from his enormous height into the eyes of Speedwing sitting at the final ceremony. The chief elder was an impressive looking man with his great height, muscular body, and his deep-set eyes that sat like dark moons above copper cheeks very pronounced in their setting. He was aware of Speedwing’s deeds to date and found a distinct appreciation of where the young brave sat in the eyes of all the tribes, even as young as he was, and not yet severely tested in battle.

“I have thought of what to do to keep my name,” Speedwing said. “I will one day run from the sunrise to the sunset without stopping to rest. This will be my legacy, that my name runs with me, that we will run

from horizon to horizon faster than any Indian will ever run no matter what tribe or what nation sends him out to challenge us.

From then on, even as the stories grew, the tales became ponderous beside village campfires, and they called him Speedwing evermore, a Blackfoot brave with an honored name, honored in the tribe and honored by all the nations.

He grew taller than the average Blackfoot; in fact, almost as tall as the chief elder who was taller than all the Blackfoot braves; and he had hair the color of a midnight cave and wore much of it in braids that trailed out behind him when he ran from horizon to horizon. Just above his forehead his hair was shaped in a pompadour fashion touched with bear grease or a wet compound of clay and mud and allowed to dry in a selected shape. To Speedwing, as well as all the other braves in the tribe, hair was looked upon as spiritual and special and worn the same way. Only with shame or sadness upon them, like the death of a family member or a loss in a battle, would they cut their hair to show their feelings at the time.

At the same time, another story started rising to the west, in the land of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, where another young brave, having heard stories about Speedwing, trained with great determination to one day race against Speedwing. His name was Deer Floater or Deer-in-Wind, and he outran all the braves in his tribe, the “Schitsu ‘ umsh,” which means “the people living here “ or “the discovered people,” so identified by French fur traders a few hundred years earlier.

Speedwing, when he heard about the Coeur d’Alene rival, stood on the top of the mountain and called out his challenge: “Come run with me, Deer Floater, and we will burn the grass behind us, set the wild prairie on fire. The gods of the winds will be with us and we will run from dawn to dusk, from one horizon to the next. We are inheritors of the land, and the nations will speak of us forever as those who ran with the wind.”

His words, relayed by messengers crossing the land, crossing the wide prairies and through the passes in the mountains, came to Deer Floater, and his reply set into further motion the great race that was to come: “I will race you anytime, Speedwing, so come here and we will have a great race and I will beat you in that race.”

Of course, Speedwing was not to be put off by that message, and replied, “You are in no position to ask me to come to your land, and I will not presume to call you to this place where I have earned and learned my speed, but will meet you in a middle place, like the Valley of the Lonely Sun where we can run from horizon to horizon without interruption from a wild river or an unscalable mountain, or be deterred by the great buffalo herds. For the Valley of the Lost Sun is a place where the great buffalo herds have run away from, and with our race may we show to the great buffalo that it would again be a great and natural place to run with the wind, find the good grass at the end of a day’s run, and sleep with a happy stomach.

“The return of the great buffalo herds to the Valley of the Lost Sun would be the finest thing that could happen to my people; it would be better than their having the best runner in all the nations. The young and the old cannot eat stories or tales of runners or races, cannot hold a memorial feast without a great meal of roast buffalo meat, and will never get fat on legends old or new. When the buffalo once roamed there they kept the people happy and comfortable. And also quizzical from the beginning, ever since the high gods sent them down to the first Blackfoot to set up a tipi on the wide grass of the world. Because tipis are covered with buffalo hides, the children often ask the elders what came first, the tipis or the buffalo, and are told they will learn the answer with long age.”

Deer Floater was elated with the response and sent his agreement that the Valley of the Lonely Sun should be the place of the race. “Your wisdom runs with you, Speedwing,” he said, “and the joy will be mine to contend with your speed, for I too hope to have wind at my back and in my lungs.”

The two runners trained harder than ever in the two months before the great race, each one of them watched by many of their tribe, which included all their relatives. And new runners seemed to come from the training activity, as younger versions of the runners began to lick their chops at the great attention being delivered to the runners. The talk of the race and the contestants ranged far and wide, spreading to all nations on the land and, according to some, as far as word could go on the land before the great waters held it for their own out of jealousy.

So it was, according to Blackfoot history, the day of the great race came, and the Valley of the Lost Sun was a sudden host to a large audience of watchers scattered along the course, and in the foothills and on the higher parts of mountains. So many different headdresses were seen and so many different outfits of clothing worn that it appeared to be a meeting of all nations of the earth. There was plaited hair and mud-slicked hair and pompadour sweeps and tight high knots in hair and many of the gathering wore feathers situated in a vast variety of colors and sizes upon their heads, and they wore a great variety of clothing, as some wore breeches or loin clothes or saris or wraps of a hundred kind that it made some on-lookers believe the rainbow had landed in the Valley of the Lost Sun.

And the commotion caused a lot of talk between people interested in other hair customs and manners of dress and a good feeling prevailed among them.

And so the race began, at one point of the eastern horizon, where the sun rose from its sleep, at the meeting of two mountains broken by one trail, and it would end on the western horizon, where the sun went to bed, at the place where two rivers joined in a flood of waters rushing from wild mountains with white peaks.

The whole day would fall between the start and the finish of the race, and went as far as one could see from the highest point at start and finish.

Speedwing and Deer Floater showed hands in an old style, each hand upraised so that one hand was poised to present a gift and the other to accept a gift. This sent warmth throughout the gathering as they watched the runners standing perfectly upright in their starting places. The sun was yet a whisper, the wind a slight breath finding a target, and suddenly they heard a wolf call out from a high place, at which signal the race started.

They raced ahead of the wind, with the wind, for the wind, as the deer might float in a following wind, or a feather on the current. Along the route of the race the two runners were never far apart. And Speedwing knew he had a worthy opponent and Deer Floater realized the same. And song and chorus and huzzahs and cheers of every sort boomed out from the crowd and from the mountains and from the canyons that idled along the edge of the Valley of the Lost Sun, and from every critter who ought to have a part in the celebration of speed as fast as the wind. And with all that commotion there came a subtle and slow measure in the earth, a soft measure, as the earth began to tremble, so slightly at first it was barely noticeable, until, as if Mother Earth was preparing a new lesson for her students, knowledge began to slip into the mind of each Indian in the valley.

And there was a great rush come upon the land and reverberations and echoes and a thunder not heard in a long time and a violent shaking in the earth and over the crown of a low hill of grass, the long line of a slow rise across the whole of the Valley of the Lost Sun, came the suddenly remembered thunder in the ground under them, and one boy, never having heard the sound but remembering what his father had said it sounded like, cried out in a voice they say was heard at each end of the race, at the start of the race and at the finish of the race, “The buffalo are coming! The buffalo are coming!”

That huge herd seemingly without end, poured into the Valley of the Lost Sun completely unaware of all the gathering, as though they were not there.

And there was a feast of great proportions and new hides for old tipis and the words of Blue Feather were remembered in all the lodges and all the tipis: “I only tell you that this moment brings the beginning of a legend that will make the Blackfoot tribe more honored than ever among all the nations for the change that will come upon the land.”