The first rays of the late spring sun shone through the dust rising from the warriors’ feet as they pounded in rhythm with the drums. Four nights they had danced. The new day signaled the end.
Shaking her gourd rattle, Quiet Thunder’s heart chilled. In an orange-red haze of dust, the dancers looked like no more than shadows moving through blood-tinged air. The Ghost Dance took on the appearance of a vision of death. Icy tendrils of panic climbed up her throat, her pulse beating faster than the drums as she scanned the haze for Black Bear. Seeing no sign of him, her heart swam in misery. She sang alongside her mother and the other women. With all she could give, she called upon the spirits of the dead to help her tribe. Long had they been calling, but she heard no answer of hope. Their ancestors drove ahead no thundering hooves across the plains of buffalo and horses, as promised.
The Ghost Dance should bring triumph, not defeat. It should bring back the buffalo herds and plentiful deer so her tribe would no longer suffer hunger. The dance should send the wasichu back to taribo–east, where the whites belonged. So far away, she’d never have to worry of their intrusions on her people’s lives or her dreams.
That was why warriors from Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes traveled many days to her Sioux camp. They feasted together. Black Coyote, the medicine man, smeared each warrior’s face with powerful red paint. Sacred paint to bless them all with long life and health. To bring victory, bring back the old ways. Bring peace to their daily existence.
Amid the swirling haze of the dance, Black Bear emerged, solitary in his fullness of being. The only dancer who did not look like a shadow. Quiet Thunder’s breath stilled as she watched him move with slow strength, his arms spread like soaring eagle wings, his feet like prancing horse hooves. Like her, he chanted with yearning. The pain in his face spoke of all their tribe had lost, even over the past few winters.
His dance slowed, and his face smoothed, though he appeared in a different kind of trance. She felt the power in his lean muscles as he reached his arms skyward. When he let them drop, outstretched toward her, his gaze met hers. He must have felt her spirit reaching for his, while his reached for hers, carried in song. In that moment, their spirits joined in their separate dance. Her heart leaped and fluttered against her ribs like a trapped bird. Their connection was so powerful, she could almost feel his embrace enfolding around her, his heart beating in time with hers.
The dust turned golden in the light of day. Before he continued along the circle, Black Bear gave a nod and disappeared into it.
Unsure what to make of the vision, Quiet Thunder’s breath caught in her throat, and her voice failed her. She glanced at her mother, Pretty Eagle, whose eyes held sadness even though she smiled. Pretty Eagle raised her chin and sang, but her gaze, too, followed Black Bear into the amber haze. The warriors’ chant of hu! hu! hu! stopped sharply, its echoes filling the silence.
Quiet Thunder’s heart swelled with a nameless ache as Black Bear stood tall among the others, a hard gleam in his dark eyes, mouth set in a grim line. Not the trickster boy she’d known all her life, but a proud, fearsome warrior. The dust settled, and the dancers left the circle. Black Bear’s shoulders relaxed as his gaze found her again. The steady thump came not from the drums, but the beating of her heart. Her mother spoke as if from a distance, her words lost in the buzz filling Quiet Thunder’s ears—a buzz that filled the space between her and Black Bear.
Only when someone clasped his shoulder and diverted his attention could Quiet Thunder breathe again, and hear her mother’s urgings to help prepare the meal. With a nod, Quiet Thunder followed. Her glances tracked Black Bear, just as his gaze tracked her. Throughout the rest of the day, the morning’s haze lingered in Quiet Thunder’s head, clouding all other thoughts but those of Black Bear.
Sitting beside the fire after the evening meal, her mother turned and asked, “Are you ill?”
Quiet Thunder’s cheeks burned, but from a different sort of flame. “I’m fine.”
Pretty Eagle’s stare held worry. “You’d better stay close tonight. I have a bad feeling, like something terrible’s approaching.” Her mother often warned of danger in the shadows. Sometimes, events proved her mysterious sensations correct.
Quiet Thunder suspected perhaps Pretty Eagle sensed the shift in her feelings for Black Bear, from exasperation to yearning. “But I—”
“Enough,” her mother snapped. “You and your brother will come to the tipi when your father says it’s time. Until then, you’ll stay where I can see you.”
Quiet Thunder swallowed back her argument. Despite wanting to follow Black Bear when he inclined his head toward the darkness surrounding camp, her stomach churned as hesitation fought with deeper urges. His impish grin made him appear as boyish as ever, but today she’d witnessed a new Black Bear emerging from the dust of Mother Earth, breaking free of his youthful, carefree self. She, too, sensed a new Quiet Thunder rising up, filling her spirit with desires she’d never before experienced as she saw Black Bear with new eyes—no longer the eyes of a girl.
At her mother’s command, hesitation would win over yearning. For tonight.
The firelight spread its glow across the faces of the men sitting around it. Black Bear linked his hands around his bended knees and watched the sparks drift up as the wood succumbed to flame. The same way he’d succumbed to his feelings for Quiet Thunder. He understood now how the wood sacrificed itself for the burn. Each night, thoughts of her burned into his head and coursed through his veins, keeping him awake. He lived for the moments he could be with her, speak with her, touch her.
Someone bumped his shoulder, disrupting his thoughts.
Grinning, his friend Yellow Bird sat down. “The ceremony went well. My father was pleased.”
“And mine.” Except for his misstep, the pause that threw off the others who followed. All overlooked it, knowing Black Bear could not help but be entranced by Quiet Thunder. A weakness he had to overcome if he wished to become worthy enough to win her. Only great warriors controlled their minds, focused on their task at hand. In battle, such foolishness would cost lives, including his. How then would he grow old with her?
“You’re quiet tonight.”
Black Bear grunted in response. Yellow Bird had been his friend since memory began, but he had no inclination to open himself to ridicule. Not tonight. He could think of nothing else besides going back to the stream to wait for Quiet Thunder.
Unable to contain himself, he scrambled up and strode behind a tipi close to hers. With the stealth of a wolf, he watched as she followed her family inside, glancing back several times before the flap swallowed her. Something about the way she moved, the way her gaze searched the camp, spoke of regret and longing. His fingers clamped hard to the pole beneath the buffalo skin. She wouldn’t come out again, he knew it.
Behind him, Yellow Bird whispered, “Maybe you could sneak in behind her. But then you risk the sting of Pretty Eagle’s knife.”
Black Bear held his tongue. Each night in his dreams, he held Quiet Thunder. Someday, they would share a tipi. Until then, he must do things properly. No, he wouldn’t risk her parents’ anger.
“I must go.” He had something to do. Something he hoped would please Quiet Thunder.
Voices outside awoke Quiet Thunder. On the other side of the tipi, Running Wolf’s chest rose and fell with soft breaths. The sun had begun its climb across the sky. She lay still and listened.
Outside, the voice of her father, Flying Horse, resounded strong and full with confidence. “My grandfather came to me in a dream. He will return soon, as Black Coyote said.”
Pretty Eagle’s hushed tone sounded no less strong. “We cannot last through another winter with so little food.”
“We must be patient and continue the Ghost Dance. Our hunters will bring us many deer.”
Her mother’s whisper grew harsh. “Not even the berries have been plentiful. The rains have been scarce.”
Her father grunted. “Soon we will move to a new camp. We will find a better place.”
Quiet Thunder drew a ragged breath that wound through her like a venomous snake. Her parents almost never argued. The tribe must face great peril. More whites moved into their territories, scattering the buffalo and deer herds, disrupting hunting.
Quiet Thunder shared her mother’s worries. The snows had brought death to the old and weak last winter, and they’d lost four Sioux: two elderly warriors, a grandmother and a baby. Many nights, she’d fallen asleep cold and hungry. She looked forward to the Moon of Strawberries, when the plump red fruit would spring from the earth. Maybe in the new camp, she could eat her fill.
After the tribe moved again, she hoped her father would make their tipi on the outskirts of camp. Many nights, she grew restless when the moon rose round and plump as a berry, showering its light onto the fields in a way that made her want to run through them, laughing. She dreamed of running with Black Bear, but not to race as when they were young. Though he displayed his prowess to others in his straight back and the set of his jaw, his shoulders rounded when he spoke to Quiet Thunder in soft tones, his words tripping his tongue. A giggle bubbled up as she remembered how he could not lift his gaze to hers a few months ago when he stumbled across her alone in the field, searching for chokeberries and turnips.
The tipi flap snapped up, startling the happy memory away.
Pretty Eagle glared from the opening. “Quiet Thunder. Why do you lie there? Get up and fetch water. Our guests leave this morning.” She glanced at Quiet Thunder’s younger brother as he leaned up on an elbow. “Running Wolf, help your father.” After grunting her disapproval at their laziness, she returned to the fire.
Her brother opened wide his dark eyes. “What’s wrong?”
Quiet Thunder couldn’t bear to speak of her parents’ worries. “We’ll talk later.” She slipped on her moccasins, though she wasn’t sure what she would tell him. To agree with her mother would anger her father. She didn’t want to worry Running Wolf. In his eleven winters, he had known enough hardship already.
She grabbed the two skin buckets and circled around the tipi before her mother could chastise her again. Two would make a heavy load, but the effort would please Pretty Eagle.
The dewy grass dampened her moccasins as she hastened across the field and through the stand of trees by the stream. The rush of water over stones calmed her troubled thoughts. She splashed her face and let the cool water run through her fingers. A movement upstream caught her eye and sent a rush over her like a waterfall.
Black Bear stood in the middle of the stream, his strong legs planted wide as the water swirled up to his knees. As still and silent as a painted figure of a warrior, he pointed the tip of a sharpened branch down, poised to strike. His shoulders had widened these past few winters, and the twist of his body made the muscles of his narrow waist and stomach stand out in relief against his bronzed skin. Since they were young, he’d talked of someday being a Lakota fierce enough to overpower an enemy with fear. He had become that warrior, Quiet Thunder realized, but she wouldn’t tell him. His pride made him boastful. Someday it could hurt him, if he didn’t learn to be more humble.
In awe, she watched him, this man-boy.
Quick as a hawk’s dive, he plunged the branch into the water. When he lifted it again, a large fish flopped uselessly at its point. With a whoop, he pumped his fist in the air. He quieted when he saw her. The muscles rippled in his lean, long legs as he stepped onto the bank to add the catch to his full pouch. His black braids had grown halfway down his back and one swung across his chiseled chest as he shouldered the bag strap.
Quiet Thunder tried to hide her smile as she busied herself with the buckets. All her life, Black Bear went out of his way to tease her—pull her hair to make her angry, then laugh. Two winters ago, he grew taller than his father. Since then, he strived to run faster, ride his horse better, aim his arrow straighter than any other boy, always glancing her way to be certain she’d seen. Lately, his teasing had a different way of agitating her. Instead of wanting to berate him, she wished to tease him also. She suspected he intended it so. She hoped so, but also worried. Though his body had grown, his spirit sometimes resembled a little boy’s. In these uncertain times, she needed someone she could depend on.
When she glanced up, her thoughts silenced except for those of Black Bear. Her skin warmed as if the sun shone with full force.
With the stealth and grace of a wolf, he walked toward her, his gaze steady on hers. His stomach muscles rippled as he bent to set down his load, a faint smile crossing his lips.
With unsteady legs, she rose beside him. “Our guests will have another feast before they leave, thanks to your catch.” Her voice quivered, making her cheeks burn.
The fish wriggled in the overcrowded pouch, but Black Bear kept his gaze on her. His smile faded. “We must make them comfortable. The Wicasa Yatapickas plan today for the Sun Dance.”
“Yes.” She didn’t look forward to it. The Wicasa Yatapickas, the Four Great Leaders, would decide what the entire Sioux Nation would do for the next year. Unrest had befallen the tribes within the Seven Council Fires. Forced to stay within the confines of the reservations, the Lakota tried to stay strong, but more whites traveled into their territory each year, bringing sickness and bad luck. Many wasichu—even those at the Rosebud Agency—cheated tribes of food or made false promises, sly as the Iktomi trickster.
For days after each Ghost Dance, tensions mounted within the village. Hopes for relief had worn thin, and her people grew tired of waiting, always waiting.
She kneeled and set a skin bucket in the stream.
He knelt beside her. “Two winters have passed since the Sun Dance in which I became a man.” He held the other bucket in the water. “Soon I may consider taking a wife.” His gaze flicked up.
His words stole her breath. Surprise loosened her grip and the skin bucket slipped beneath the water.
With one deft movement, he grabbed the skin and held it up. Her fingers grazed his when she took it. His bronze skin glistened in the morning light, shadows making hills of the curves of his chest. Hills she found herself wanting to roam. For a moment, she forgot herself and nearly ran her hand across those hills. When he stiffened and eased closer, her heart pounded like a thousand drums.
A twig snapped beyond the trees. Black Bear froze, and then moved away. His keen hunter’s gaze slid left, fingers poised at the ground, muscles tensed and ready to spring.
Quiet Thunder gasped and turned to see her brother. “Running Wolf. What are you doing?” She jerked to a stand, and water sloshed against her doeskin dress. She groaned her embarrassment.
Her brother glanced from her to Black Bear. “Mother sent me to help you carry the water. She told me to see what’s keeping you.” His brow arched in silent accusation.
As he stood, Black Bear lifted his bag. “Here, bring these for our guests.”
Running Wolf’s eyes widened at the sight of the fish. “You caught all those?” He slid down the bank.
With a grin, Black Bear nodded and handed him the pouch. “Go. I’ll help your sister carry the water.”
Grunting, Running Wolf took the bag, struggled up the bank and out of sight.
Quiet Thunder reached for the bucket Black Bear held. “I need no help.”
“I know.” He moved it beyond her grasp. “I want to.”
The sparkle in his black eyes made her skin prickle. She grabbed for the skin bucket, spilling half from the other.
He gulped back a laugh. “Maybe you should let me carry both.”
Her ears burned. She’d made a fool of herself. Maybe the Great Thunderbird meant to humble her for thinking Black Bear too full of himself. She bent to refill the skin bucket. “My mother will think me useless.”
“Impossible.” His soft voice soothed her, yet excited her—like cool and warm water rushing over her at once. He knelt to refresh his bucket, his presence as warm as the sun beside her.
“She’s already upset, and now will punish me.” She’d lingered too long, but time alone with Black Bear always seemed too short.
“Upset about what?” His gaze searched hers.
Her heart swelled, aching to unburden its troubles. “Never mind.” If she told him about her parents’ argument, he would agree with her father. He had already made plain his feelings about whites—he wanted to fight their rules, drive them away.
With an exasperated sigh, she held out her hand. “Just give me my bucket.” Her mother’s anger would double if she knew Black Bear caused the delay.
He glided it to his side, out of her reach. “At least let me carry it up the bank.”
“Why are you so stubborn?” She huffed up the bank. Now was not the time for such dalliances, not with guests waiting.
“Me?” He laughed. “Your father named you wrong. Instead of Quiet Thunder, he should call you Loud Thunder. Or Lightning Tongue.” Like a deer, he bounded ahead and stood in front of her, shoulders slanted, poised to leap in any direction.
She halted. “And you should be called Coyote Child.” She stepped around him, but he jumped in her path.
“I am no child. And no trickster.” His voice softened. “Unless you want me to be.” His gaze fell to her mouth as his lips curled into a smile.
A shiver came over her as she struggled to remember her errand. She wanted no trickster, but a strong man who would treat her as an equal. “It takes more than a ceremony to turn a boy into a man.” Her insult, she knew, held no weight. He already wore an eagle feather in his braid, a symbol of his bravery for riding his pony into a herd of wild horses to pull his friend Yellow Bird to safety. His chest bore the scars of the bones that pierced him, tore his flesh when his legs could no longer hold him after three days of dancing. Of the four boys performing that Sun Dance to become men, he fell last, the fourth—a number sacred to her people.
He stepped toward her slowly, like a snake readying to curl around her, his length overshadowing her. “I shed the skin of boyhood more than two winters ago. But you’re right—I need more than a dance to make me a man.” Grabbing the bucket from her hand, he set it beside the one he carried.
“What are you…” She forgot the rest when he ran his finger along her hair and bent his head toward hers, his mouth parted.
The strange sensation that came over her during the ceremony returned—as if their spirits danced together, lifted into the clouds and flew to the stars. She inclined her head to meet his kiss. The brush of his mouth against hers wiped her thoughts clean as a cloudless summer sky, and her spirit soared over the plains. Even when he lifted his lips, her heart glided like a hawk. Shuddering, she dared not move for fear of falling over. The earth beneath her seemed unstable, though he felt steady in her arms so she held tight.
A dog’s bark snapped her attention to the village. “I must go back now or risk punishment.” As much as she wanted to taste his mouth again, she did not want to feel her mother’s anger. Forcing herself away, she bent for the bucket.
He reached for the other. “Meet me tonight. When the moon rises.”
His urgent whisper made her pause to meet his gaze. Black Bear teased too often, but he searched her face with yearning.
Her heart melted. “If I can.”
Three little words. Barely a promise, but those three words swelled Black Bear’s chest with hope. If he could have, he’d have whooped for joy, run through the fields like a colt in spring. To do so would risk calling attention to them, so he set off for Quiet Thunder’s tipi. Releasing his pent-up energy in his long strides, he crossed the field carrying the skin buckets in a short time.
When he set the skin buckets by the fire, Pretty Eagle’s eyes flashed as she looked up from pounding chokecherries for wojapi, berry soup.
Her face softened when she met Black Bear’s gaze. “Thank you for helping my daughter.”
To disguise his joy, he gave a solemn nod. “I’m sorry for delaying her. We had much to discuss.”
“Oh?” Her mother brightened, her glance bouncing between them.
Quiet Thunder’s cheeks reddened and she glared at him. “The Sun Dance. We discussed the ceremony.”
To keep from grinning, Black Bear furrowed his brow and agreed.
“Oh.” Disappointment weighted Pretty Eagle’s tone. “You should not have made our guests wait.”
“I’m sorry.” Quiet Thunder settled beside her. “Here, I will do that.” She took the smooth stone from her mother and crushed the chokeberries.
Pretty Eagle gave a frustrated sigh. She carried a skin bucket to a group of men and offered to fill their pouches for their journey.
Black Bear stood watching Quiet Thunder. Even in small tasks such as this, she moved with the same grace as during ceremonies. Each stroke of her hand caused her to lean forward, the muscles in her thin arms flexing, her hair falling across her shoulders. Seeing her prepare a meal made him nearly burst with anticipation for the day she would do the same for him.
When she glanced up, her eyes widened and her lips parted, then spread in a smile. “Go, before you get me in more trouble.” She glanced in her mother’s direction, then back.
Her gaze struck him like lightning, the white-hot flash travelling through every inch, getting under his skin like the bone at the Sun Dance, always pulling him in her direction. If his friend hadn’t called his name, he’d have gone to her now.
“Tonight,” he whispered, backing away slowly, and then turned and strode toward Yellow Bird.
The sun slid behind the hills, and stars blanketed the wide sky. Quiet Thunder sat by the fire, thankful the day had ended and the other tribes set out for their homes. Maybe now her parents would forget about the Ghost Dance. They sat quietly, side by side, their eyes heavy with weariness, their knees touching.
Hopefully, her mother wouldn’t question her further about this morning. Quiet Thunder did not want to encourage her hopes. By Quiet Thunder’s eighteen winters, Pretty Eagle had married and bore her. Quiet Thunder would marry only when she felt certain she could depend on Black Bear.
Today, she’d felt them growing closer, especially when he gazed at her with the spark of fire in his eyes. She’d seen that look before, on her father’s face as he watched her mother. Seeing it on Black Bear’s face warmed her.
For now, she contented herself with listening to her grandfather’s stories. Standing Horse recounted the tale of White Buffalo Woman, the holy ancient who taught the Sioux how to use the sacred buffalo calf pipe to speak to the Great Spirit—Wakan Tanka—in ceremonies. Through the pipe, he said the tribe became a living prayer, connecting the earth to the sky.
Like the other Sun Dances, they chose a grandmother from one of the tribes to represent White Buffalo Woman. Chief Red Horse announced Two Moons from their village would have the honor at the next dance. Tribal elders praised the Four Great Leaders for the honor, and children clamored to hear the old story again. They sat, wide-eyed and quiet, as her grandfather spoke, his soft voice full of passion.
Quiet Thunder loved these stories—the stories of her people. How the maiden swallowed a stone to ease her hunger and gave birth to a boy with magical powers. How the mysterious power of Takuskanskan lived in everything set into motion: a creature, the leaves, or the wind. How the Great Spirit created animals as their brothers and sisters, and why each prayer ended with the words mitakuye oyasin—all my relations—as a reminder to honor their relation.
When Standing Horse ended his tale, he uncrossed his legs and groaned as he stood. The children asked for more stories, and he looked into each face. “Not tonight. I am tired.” He shuffled to his tipi, which sat near her parents’.
Her father followed. Pretty Eagle nodded to Quiet Thunder and Running Wolf.
Quiet Thunder followed them to the tipi, her head lowered so no one would see her looking for Black Bear. No sign anywhere. He and Yellow Bird rode with the departing guests to see them off, and she hadn’t seen him since.
Her parents lay on their buffalo skin opposite the tipi entrance, and her brother to the left. Soon all their breaths deepened, and her father snored. The excitement of the last four days left her tired, but she thought of Black Bear, waiting for her. Remembering the touch of his lips left her restless. Sleep would not come until she’d seen him again. She would wait a little while to be sure her family slept, and then slip outside.
A mournful sound echoed through the night. She crept to the tipi flap and peered out. All the village slept beneath the wide blanket of bright stars, too many to count. A half-moon peeked over the treetops, almost as bright as a full moon. Enough light to walk by, so she slid on her moccasins and crept through the flap like a shadow.
Running Wolf’s bow and arrows sat next to the tipi entrance. She shouldered the bag of arrows and carried the bow. Days ago, a hunter found a rabbit’s head beyond the stream—either a wolf or coyote’s work. She had no wish to meet either, but would be prepared.
The lilting cry sounded from the stream. Her heart pounded as she followed it across the field and through the trees, creeping as quietly as she could. Elks made such a noise when calling their mates, if Grandfather’s tales were correct.
Her moccasin brushed against a twig and before she could stop herself from putting too much weight on it, the bark cracked. The strange cry stopped, and only the burble of the stream lent music to the darkness. She crept behind a tree and peered out. The bright moonlight had lit her way to the edge of the tree stand, but dappled shadows made the familiar scene appear strange.
A brief note came from upstream, near where Black Bear had stood this morning. The moonlight through the trees showed the figure of a man. He lifted a short branch to his lips and the sad noise echoed through the hollow.
The figure, too, appeared familiar and yet not. Changed from the boyish Lakota she’d known all her life. Black Bear sat cross-legged, back straight as a tree. He held something to his lips, making the strange song. He truly was a man now, handsome and strong. She yearned to be near him, but something held her back. Fear had gnawed at her for many moons. Fear of what would come to be, what the future held. Part of her wanted to run back to her tipi, fall into a deep sleep to stop herself from thinking. Stop the Great Circle from rolling forward, if only for a little while.
“Black Bear,” she said softly and moved closer. The sound he made was sad, yet hopeful too—the sound of a lover’s lonely cry.
Though mixed with the night’s music of the cicadas, the song echoed clear. Practice had paid off, and Black Bear now knew how to press and lift his fingers over each opening to get the right notes. Such a lot of work for a small instrument, but hopefully his labors would prove worthwhile.
A movement in the trees caught his eye, the slightest shift in the shadows. He lowered the stick and sat still as a tree atop his buffalo skin. An animal would have revealed itself, so he suspected a person hid there. His heart tightened with hope. After waiting a moment, he called, “Hello?”
He scrambled to his feet. “Quiet Thunder. You’re here.” His thick voice caught in his throat and his self-confidence abandoned him. Long he’d waited for this moment, but now felt unsure what to do.
Her words rushed out in a strangled breath. “Yes. I heard the cry.”
He held the twig with both hands and twisted it. “I played all afternoon trying to get it right.”
Her eyes widened as she recognized the siyotanka. He’d made the flute hoping to enchant her with its magic. His song must be working—she walked to him as if drawn by it.
“I thought it was an elk’s cry.”
The high praise made his breath tangle in his ribs. Grandfather told tales of Lakota who cut cedarwood branches to craft a flute shaped like the long neck and head of a bird with an open beak. The instrument’s sound resembled the call of an elk, powerful medicine supposed to make a man irresistible to the woman he loved.
He lowered his head. “I hoped it would bring you here.” Shyness overcame him, and he could not meet her gaze, only stare at the siyotanka.
“You brought me here.”
Her words were bold with truth. Tonight, he wanted to speak only truth, to hear only truth.
His gaze leaped to hers. Glancing at the bow she carried, he grinned. “You came to shoot me?”
Ducking her head, she said softly, “No.”
When he reached for the bow, his hand grazed hers, and he struggled against the urge to pull her close. “I’ll set them down. Nearby, in case you need them.” Gently, he slid the strap from her shoulder and put both next to the buffalo skin, then extended his hand for her to sit. Nervousness twisted through him, made every action stiff and formal as if performing a ritual. Since childhood, he’d run with Quiet Thunder, shot arrows with her, rode horses with her. Two summers ago when a sticker branch cut her leg, he’d carried her to a stream. Holding her in his arms had awakened new feelings, and since then, his fingers itched to feel her skin every night.
She knelt, and then sat atop her legs. “Are you all right?”
He crossed his legs and sat. “I am now that you’re here.” Biting his lip, he cast his gaze away. Happiness surged through his spirit, filled his skin so full it threatened to burst open.
“Play me your song.” Like the stars twinkling above them, her eyes sparkled, like laughing spirits clustered in crowds along the white carpet of the Milky Way.
He lifted the flute to his lips and gently blew. His song enchanted everything around them. Fireflies glittered like falling embers. The music of the stream mixed with the flute. His heart skipped and danced with the lilting tune, the tune he made for her alone.
When she closed her eyes, he painted her beauty in his memory.
She opened her eyes. “Why did you stop?”
Black Bear stared at her, the fullness in her gaze made his breath flutter like the fireflies. “The moonlight lit your face. You’re more beautiful than ever.” Warmth coursed through his face. He must have enchanted himself with the song. Though he’d thought it many times, he’d never before called her beautiful.
Unable to hold back any longer, he knelt in front of her, and she lifted up to kneel before him. Entwining his fingers through hers, he held them against the scar on his chest where the bone tore through two summers ago. With a voice soft as a trickling stream, he spoke. “I welcomed the pain of becoming a man. Do you know why?”
“Because you wanted to be a great warrior?”
His thumbs caressed the back of her hands. “No. The time of great Sioux warriors is ending. I must learn to be a better hunter. To provide for my family.” A family he wished with all his heart to have with her. His insides lurched when she glanced down.
She tried to slide her hand away, but he held it fast.
“Please let me speak.”
His seriousness silenced her. With a nod, she lifted her gaze to his scar, the mark of his love for her. It spoke of his hopes for their future. From now on, he wanted it to be a reminder of this night.
Soft urgency gave fire to his words, and the fire sparked in his blood. “I know now why you are called Quiet Thunder. I didn’t know I could feel such thunder inside. It overtakes me every night while I try to sleep. In everything I do, I feel your spirit with me. I need to know if you feel the same.” He pressed her hand against his scar so she might feel his heart thudding through his skin. It pulsed with his life’s blood as if to mingle with hers.
When she raised her chin, moonlight illuminated her face, her dark eyes ablaze. “Yes.”
He exhaled a ragged breath and leaned in to touch his lips to hers. When she slid her arms around his neck and pressed close to him, he felt in danger of floating into the laughing stars. With slow purpose, he slid his mouth against hers, fueling desires he’d never before experienced. The effort of holding himself back caused him to tremble. Slowly he lifted his lips and whispered her name fervent as a prayer, his breath stirring her hair.
She clung to him, her arms wrapped tight around his waist like a vine clinging to a tree.
The crack of a branch made him stiffen, and he held her waist. Furrowing his brow, he shook his head slightly in warning and shifted his gaze from side to side to mark where the bow lay.
Footfalls padded across the earth. In the moonlight, a low shadow slid through the trees, and Black Bear’s determined gaze gauged its distance. He reached for the bow, slid an arrow from the bag and fit it against the bow. Without a sound, he glided back and aimed toward the figure. Moonlight glinted off its fur. The creature watched as Black Bear moved smooth as water to pull back the bow.
In an instant, the animal sprang with a growl. The arrow soared to its heart. It yelped, and then fell to the ground.
Black Bear leaped to his feet and found Quiet Thunder beside him as he twisted to look at her. “Coyote.”
Her raspy breath left her. “How did you…”
Like any Lakota, he felt a kinship with all living things, sensed their presence whether benign or savage. The pounding of his heart overtook him like a summer storm, made him lose all connection to this world except where she touched him. But somehow he’d felt the coyote’s approach.
“I will always protect you.” He laid his palm against her cheek. “Always.”
When she encircled her arms around his waist and rested her head against his chest, his heartbeat steadied. It affirmed the strength of their love would overcome all else.
Quiet Thunder’s hands trembled as she pounded chokeberries and kidney fat into dried venison to make wasna. Chief Red Horse would soon decide to break camp. Within minutes, the tribe would take down their tipis and move to where the Sioux nation would convene for the Sun Dance. Pretty Eagle always prepared well for the tribe’s moves, which sometimes came with little notice, whether over several suns or moons.
This move would bring bigger changes than Quiet Thunder could anticipate. As she crushed the berries, she pretended not to watch Black Bear stride to their fire and nod to her parents.
Her father extended his hand. “Sit.”
Black Bear crossed his legs and sat across from her. “I ask to speak with you, Flying Horse.”
Resting his hands on his knees, her father straightened. “Speak.”
Black Bear’s gaze flicked to Quiet Thunder.
Flying Horse pressed his lips together. “Ahh.” His face mixed with sadness and love as he glanced at Quiet Thunder. He stood and strolled toward the horses grazing nearby.
His eyes like stones, Black Bear stared at the fire.
Quiet Thunder froze. Had he changed his mind? Her father waited, and would grow irritable soon. She arched her brows in question and tilted her head toward her father.
As if he’d suddenly sobered, he snapped to attention, scrambled to his feet and strode to him.
Pretty Eagle ground the berries. “Black Bear has grown tall.”
Quiet Thunder said nothing. Her mother had more to say, she knew.
“But has he grown wiser?” Pretty Eagle leveled her gaze at her with a mix of concern and worry.
“He has.” Quiet Thunder could say this with confidence. Black Bear had proved himself, but she didn’t know how to explain it in words to her mother.
The two men stood out of hearing range. Flying Horse appeared to talk as Black Bear nodded.
Flying Horse returned to the fire, Black Bear following. “Quiet Thunder.”
She stilled. “Yes, Father?”
“Is it also your wish to be united with Black Bear?” He stood rigid, as if bracing himself against some pain.
The memory of his embrace rushed at her, enveloped her like a summer day. “Yes, Father. With all my heart, I wish it.”
Satisfied, Flying Horse grunted, turned to face Black Bear. “It is agreed. After the Sun Dance, when the tribe moves to a new camp, you will bring me three good horses.”
His muscles flexed as if poised to run after them right now, Black Bear nodded.
“And kill two buffalo for your wedding feast.”
“Two!” Rising to her knees, the word burst from her mouth before she could halt it. One would be difficult enough. Was her father trying to test him with impossible requests?
Silencing her with a glance, Black Bear again gave a nod.
Flying Horse laid a hand on Black Bear’s shoulder and smiled. “I will welcome you to our family.”
Smiling, Black Bear’s shoulders relaxed.
Letting out a breath, Quiet Thunder sat back on her legs. His nervousness proved he’d grown wiser and made her confidence in him sure as a boulder.