At her first sight of the enemy, Elk Girl drew back in surprise. She reined in her pony, turning him around in a whirl of gray dust. She dropped low over his back and pressed her knees into his belly.
"Go, little pinto."
The pony, sensing Elk Girl's fear, raced back into the tall pines.
Elk Girl chided herself for being off guard. She had been riding across the high mountain, weaving through sun-dappled trees, and racing across blue lupine meadows far from camp, unaware of the enemy lurking in the shadows.
It had happened so quickly. She had burst from the trees into the sunlit clearing. And she had seen them across the meadow.
Two men on horseback. Their dark faces, streaked with yellow and white, leered from the shadows. Long black braids fell to their shoulders, wood bows and quivers hung at their sides, and long rifles lay across their saddles.
Arapahos. The ones with many tattoos. Dog Eaters.
When they saw Elk Girl, they raised their rifles into the air. Their sharp cries slashed through the silence of the meadow. "Ayee, ayee-ee!"
Now Elk Girl again urged her pony through the dense pines. The enemy was close. They had trespassed deep into the Shining Mountains.
At the beginning of time the Great Spirit had placed the high wall of the mountains between the Utes and the Arapahos. And for good reason: The Arapahos were to stay on the Plains and the Utes in the mountains.
Now this enemy had penetrated as far as the Uncompahgre Plateau, the mountain with the long, flat crest and craggy slopes. This enemy was bold indeed.
Looking for shelter, Elk Girl broke from the trees and raced her pony down the familiar trail toward camp. She knew the mountain. She had been born here. She had spent fifteen summers here. She knew the long trail that ran the crest, a three-day ride from one end to the other. She knew the red-rock canyons and deep crevices, jagged as forked lightning, that sliced down both sides of the mountain.
Elk Girl turned her pony from the trail and toward a red-rock gorge cut into the mountain. She nudged him forward, then gave him his lead. He dropped effortlessly down the ledges and stepped back onto a shelf in the sandstone wall.
Elk Girl slid from the pony's back and cupped her hand over his nose. "Quiet, little pinto," she whispered.
She heard the horsemen ride past the gorge and then return. She could hear them pacing back and forth along the rim, their horses snorting and blowing. They would not believe she had dropped from a cliff.
Elk Girl smiled. They could try to find an easy descent into the gorge, but they would not find one. Arapaho horses would not climb down a rock wall. Only mountain-bred horses could do that. Only small, tough, sure-footed ponies.
Elk Girl's pony nuzzled her and she wrapped her arms around his silky neck. She stroked his face, quieting him.
Elk Girl heard no further sounds from the rim. She wondered if the men were waiting still, holding the noses oftheirhorses.
Perhaps they thought they were as clever as the Ute raider who had sneaked up on a sleeping Arapaho who was still holding the rope of his grazing horse. The Ute had cut the rope and disappeared with the horse back into the mountains, all before the Arapaho had awakened.
That Ute had been Guera Murah, her father. Chief Nevava had praised him for his bravery until his head swelled big as a thunderhead. Her mother had not liked such a big head in her tepee. One night she had leaned over and whispered into his ear, "Anyone who gets that close to an enemy should be clever enough to kill him."
Or perhaps the Arapaho warriors on the cliff were thinking that, in addition to a pinto pony, they would also catch a Ute slave girl.
A shower of pebbles rattled down the wall, bouncing off the ledge at Elk Girl's feet. The pony's ears shot up and he took a step forward. Elk Girl again cupped a hand over his nose.
She waited, then moved back against the wall. She touched the knife at her belt. She had alwaysthoughtshe was brave, as her father had been. But she had never faced the enemy -- until today -- and she did not know.
She heard no more sounds. She knew that, cunning as the Arapaho warriors might be, no enemy would wait long on top of a sunlit rock.
"We must go now," she whispered to her pony, "to the bottom."
As the pony worked his way down the gorge, Elk Girl wondered if a swift arrow might find her back. But she kept her eyes on the dark strip of pines below and did not look behind her.
At the bottom she turned. No one watched from the rim. Only a lone red-tailed hawk circled above in the cloudless blue sky.
"Now go, little pinto," Elk Girl said. She kicked her feet against his soft belly. "Go like the wind."
The sun was sliding down the sky when Elk Girl and her pony raced into camp. Dogs and children scattered out of her way, and women looked up from their meat-drying racks, startled.
Her mother ran up to her. "What is it, child?"
Elk Girl rode past her to the tepee of her brother. "Ouray, Ouray," she called. "Be quick."
The door flap flew open and Ouray stepped out.
"Arapahos," Elk Girl cried.
Before nightfall Ouray and his warriors were back in camp. Ouray hung two Arapaho scalps from a pole in front of his tepee. Then he squatted with his warriors to eat deer ribs around a small fire. Nearby, an old warrior began beating a drum:tap, tap, tap, tap.
The women moved from their tepees, stepping to the sound of the drum. Little taunting steps back and forth toward the scalp pole.
Elk Girl joined the women. But when she approached the scalp pole, she drew back in fear. Unlike these sneering women, she had faced the enemy. And she could not approach them even in death.
Her mother, Bird Track, danced up to the pole, shaking her fists. "Stay where you belong, Hateful Ones," she cried. "Stay where the Great Spirit put you."
Her daring friend Chipeta pulled at the long braids. "Are you sorry now that you came to steal our horses -- "
Old Red Ant, fat and toothless, toppled down to her knees, laughing. "And our women?"
The women jeered and laughed. They hopped forward and back, forward and back. Cryinglululululu.
Again Elk Girl stepped closer, moving her feet to the drumbeat. She stepped up to the scalp pole and reached out to touch the long braids twisting in the night breeze. But she could not. She spit on them.
"Maybe next time, Dog Eaters," she scoffed. "Maybe next time you will think before you come."
Copyright © 2005 by Thelma Hatch Wyss
"Wake up, child. Your brother waits." Bird Track pulled back the rabbit-skin blanket covering Elk Girl.
It was still dark inside the tepee -- and chilly, but Elk Girl jumped up quickly and dressed. Other Ute men did not take their sisters hunting with them, and she did not want to keep Ouray waiting.
Ouray was different. He had lived away from the mountains, down south in the village of Abiquie, in New Mexico. He knew White Men and Spanish Men. He had much to tell his people, but they did not want to hear. What did it matter? they said. They were safe in the Shining Mountains.
But Elk Girl listened.
"Be quick, Elk Girl. Your brother is impatient."
Elk Girl reached for her bow and quiver of arrows and ran out into the gray light. She looked up at Ouray waiting on his horse. Round-faced Ouray, broad of shoulders, strong, sober, and cool-headed. He was not impatient at all.
They rode for a distance on the main trail, then turned into a grove of pines and quaking aspens. They tied their horses and crept through the trees to the edge of a small clearing. Behind the trees, downwind of a creek, they waited.
The deer came softly, stepping gingerly through the dew-damp grass -- two antlered bucks and three does with their young. They drank at the stream, looked up, and drank again.
Elk Girl set an arrow to her bow. Ouray put a folded aspen leaf to his mouth and blew gently.
The deer lifted their heads and turned their large ears. Again Ouray blew the faint cry of a fawn. A doe, searching with large eyes, stepped toward the sound.
"When it turns its head," Ouray whispered.
The doe hesitated, then turned. And Elk Girl let her arrow fly. The doe dropped in the tall grass. A second doe fell to Ouray's arrow.
Instantly the herd leaped into the air and bounded back into the woods, their black-tipped tails flashing.
Elk Girl knelt beside the deer and watched its warm blood spill out onto the grass. She wondered about this gentle creature sent to her by the Great Spirit. With her knife she cut around the large, glassy eyes, the only part of the animal not to be used. Looking away, she tossed them into the trees.
On the return trip Ouray said, "You outsmarted the two Arapahos, Elk Tooth Dress." Ouray always called her by this name.
Elk Girl smiled.
"Always be wary of the Arapahos and the Cheyenne," Ouray said. "But, Elk Tooth Dress, remember always the real enemy, the one we can never defeat."
"The White Men?"
Ouray nodded. "There is no end to this enemy," he said. "No end to his warriors, no end to his guns."
"Utes will fight."
"And be destroyed," Ouray said sadly. "We must fight this enemy not with arrows but with words. I know, Elk Tooth Dress. I have seen."
Ouray had told her before about the power of the White Men against the Mexicans down in Santa Fe, and against the Pueblo Indians in Taos. He had seen, and he knew that there was no end to the White Enemy.
Today he told her about living at the Spanish hacienda with his brother, Quenche. When their mother had died, their father, Guera Murah, had taken them to the hacienda in Taos. He had whispered into their ears, "When you are older, my sons, return to your people."
Ouray and Quenche lived at the hacienda for many years, herding sheep, gathering firewood, and tending the horses. They spoke and dressed as the Spanish and worshipped as the Spanish. They were baptized Catholics in a little adobe church at the Red River crossing.
Everyone thought they were Spanish. Even Quenche thought he was. But Ouray remembered the whispering, and when he was seventeen, he mounted a horse and rode north toward the Shining Mountains. Quenche did not remember and he would not leave.
Elk Girl smiled as she listened. She, too, was the child of Guera Murah, the "big thunderhead." Her mother was his second wife, the sharp-tongued Bird Track.
Elk Girl remembered the day Ouray returned to the Tabeguache Utes. "A little sister," Ouray had exclaimed when he first saw her. "A little sister in the mountains."
He had ridden through the towering San Juan Mountains to their winter camp on the north fork of the Gunnison River. He did not know that Ute scouts had watched him all the way. When he rode in during the second day of the Bear Dance, the camp was expecting him.
"I am Ouray," he announced. "The Arrow."
He made the Ute sign. With the fingers of his right hand he rubbed the back of his left hand twice, touched his black eyebrow, then made a circle on his right cheek.
"You are lucky you did not arrive with an arrow in your back," Chief Nevava said.
Elk Girl remembered how the young men had laughed. Because he had lived at the hacienda, Ouray could not ride, could not hunt, could not fight like a Ute. And because of that, no Ute girl would tug shyly at his sleeve.
Elk Girl looked at her brother now, confident and proud, a subchief of the Tabeguache. A great horseman, hunter, and warrior. But he seldom smiled. And he never spoke the name of the girl who had gone to the Great Spirit during the last cold moon, leaving him with a squalling infant son.
"Do you believe what I say about the White Enemy, Elk Tooth Dress?" Ouray asked, riding close by Elk Girl's side.
"I believe you, but" -- she hesitated -- "most of the men do not. They say the sun of Taos was too hot on your head."
Ouray looked toward the horizon. "I know what they say. But if I do not tell them the things I have seen, will they trust me after?"
After the fences, is what Ouray meant. Even she wondered about this sober-faced brother who thought the White Men could make a fence around the entire Ute nation. Surely he knew the Great Spirit had already given them the Shining Mountains forever.
In the shade of a tall fir tree near her tepee, Elk Girl began butchering the deer carcasses, and Ouray rode out again to hunt with the warriors. Her mother joined her, and so did Chipeta, who cared for Ouray's young son.
"Do you have your words ready for the White Enemy when he comes over the mountains?" Elk Girl looked across a deer carcass at Chipeta. "The fighting words?"
Chipeta set aside her knife. "I will pull his long pale braids," she said. Her voice quavered. "And I will call him Pale Face."
Bird Track scoffed, "Foolish girl." She, too, had lived in Taos, and she knew. "The White Soldiers will line you up and point many guns at you. What will you say then, Chipeta?"
Chipeta smiled sweetly. "I will stand there bravely, Bird Track, just as you would, and call, 'Ouray, Ouray.'"
She reached over to Ouray's son in his cradle board, which was hanging from a low tree branch. "Little Paron," she crooned, gently swinging the cradle board. "Every- day you look more like your father."
The men returned from hunting just before dark. They pulled the deer carcasses from their horses and swung them to the ground, then sat around the cooking fire, eating and arguing. And reporting to Chief Nevava. Elk Girl took food to Ouray and sat near him, listening.
They had seen the White Enemy -- five men at the bottom of the mountain digging rocks in a creek. They had lifted their bows to shoot, but Ouray had stopped them. He had talked to the White Men in their own language.
Chief Nevava glared at Ouray.
"I told them to take the gold rocks on their horses and leave," Ouray said. "I told them to go to the other side of the mountains to the place they call Denver."
A young warrior scoffed, "They mounted their horses and rode into the trees. But as we rode away, they crept back to gather more rocks. I saw them."
"If we had killed them, they would not have crept back," another shouted. "When do Utes not kill intruders?"
Chief Nevava frowned.
Elk Girl trembled. Her heart ached for this brother of hers who knew so many things that no one else wanted to know. This brother who spoke four languages had told no one the fighting words.
Perhaps, Elk Girl thought, he did not know the words himself.
Copyright © 2005 by Thelma Hatch Wyss
Excerpted from Bear Dancer: The Story of a Ute Girl by Thelma Hatch Wyss
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.