ON FOUR FEET INSTEAD OF TWO

Gerri Leen has been selling her short stories to magazines and anthologies for more than a decade now. This is her first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

****

Gray Cloud heard the muffled thunder of the buffalo as he sat seeking a vision from his spirit guide. The other boys had all had their visions and returned triumphant to camp, their bodies painted ocher and silt-gray and black. They told stories of being one with the wolf or the bear or the great eagle. Gray Cloud had been out five times and five times he’d come back with nothing.

He opened his eyes and saw a coyote sitting across from him, its tail lashing as it watched him, its head cocked. “I have a gift for you,” it said.

So this was to be his animal? Great Coyote was going to claim him? He tried not to show his excitement. Only the most fortunate were favored by Coyote or Spider or Raven. The great tricksters—those who changed the world.

“I have always respected you,” he finally said, as Coyote stared at him in what looked like impatience. Clearly words—thoughtful, wise words—were called for. “I am honored to be one with you.”

Coyote laughed, and his laugh turned into the yip-howls that surrounded the camp at night. “You think you’re mine? Oh, youngster, I have something different for you. Something new.”

He stood and turned, setting off at a fast pace that Gray Cloud had trouble keeping up with. Coyote laughed at him again, then murmured something about two legs being worth nothing except for looking over the tall grass.

Finally Coyote stopped, and Gray Cloud dropped down next to him, winded and sweating. He was one of the fittest of the young men, but Coyote had run him into the ground.

“You are limited, young one.”

He didn’t feel contrite—he’d done his best to keep up as much as he could with Coyote, but since he didn’t want Coyote to abandon him before his vision quest was done, he murmured words of apology.

“You people of the great sky father were limited before, and you were cold and you could not cook your meat, for the gods held fire in the sky.”

Gray Cloud had heard this story: every one of the people knew this story.

“My brother Raven stole fire, brought it to you, and changed your lives.” Coyote peeked over the tall grass, standing briefly on his two hind legs to do it. He looked pleased, his sharp nose twitching, his mouth stretched into a coyote grin. “Raven challenged me to bring you something that would change your life as much as his fire did. And so I have. Come. No walking—we creep now. They are anxious.”

They? Gray Cloud wanted to look over the grass as Coyote had done, but he knew if Coyote wanted him to stand, he wouldn’t have told him to creep, so he did as the god said and crept, occasionally being lashed by Coyote’s tail as they moved, once having to hold back a sneeze.

“Such a production with you.” Coyote grinned at him again. “If I weren’t giving you these beasts, I don’t think any animal would claim you.”

Gray Cloud knew he reddened. Was he not worthy? He looked down as they crawled and ran into Coyote’s rump, not paying attention to the fact the god had stopped.

“You’re lucky I tired them out for you. My children and I have chased them for many days. I wanted them to be easy for you to catch.”

“What are they?”

“Look for yourself.” As Gray Cloud peeked his head over the tall grass, Coyote whispered, “They are called horse. They were here once—your people hunted them for food—and then they disappeared. But now they are back, and I have stolen these from the ones who stole them from the ones who brought them.” Coyote seemed to realize his words were a riddle. “Stealing horses will bring good medicine. The finer the horse, the greater the medicine. Tell your people that.” His expression changed to a smirk. “Let’s see Raven or Spider top that for good old-fashioned fun.”

Gray Cloud eased himself up and saw before him a creature of four legs, barely taller at the head than a buffalo, but much more graceful, and Gray Cloud remembered stories the old medicine man had told once, of creatures that could run like the wind.

Gray Cloud felt a sense of sadness. To be claimed by an animal hunted as food was not the dream of a boy of the people. “I will tell my people we have a new animal to hunt.”

“You will tell them nothing of the sort.” Coyote yipped once, and all around them answering yips and howls sounded back. “You will make friends with them. You will gentle them. You will ride on their backs.”

“On their backs?” Coyote was known for his crazy antics, but Gray Cloud had never thought the god was himself insane. But who would climb onto the back of one of these animals? Better to ride a bear or a buffalo or one of the camp dogs.

Coyote grabbed his face, his teeth pressing in on his cheek, blood seeping out—Gray Cloud could smell it. And then he wondered at that, at all the things he could suddenly scent on the wind.

“We share,” Coyote said, without actually speaking. “You smell what I do. You will see what I have seen.”

And with that, Gray Cloud was streaming backward as if he was flying, over the fields of tall grass, toward the southlands, where the terrain grew hard and dry, where the grass was in small clumps and then not there at all. Still he flew over the land, the air growing dryer and hotter until the terrain grew so brown it was hard to tell one place from another.

Finally they stopped. The air was dry, as it was in winter where the people lived, only here the sun shone brightly, the temperature mild. Gray Cloud saw the horses; they were held in a round, tall circle of wood similar to the lodge poles the people cut for teepees. A man was getting on a horse, and when he turned to where Gray Cloud floated, he had the face of Coyote.

“This is how it feels to ride. The others, the ones who brought the horse to this land, ride with help, but you will ride skin to skin.” And then Coyote turned the horse—with each move Gray Cloud felt as if he, too, were riding—and urged the horse toward the far side of the wooden ring.

The horse jumped, clearing the fence only barely, and then Coyote kicked him into a faster gait, and Gray Cloud rode along, at first marveling only at the feeling, the sheer power of the speed and ease of travel—how would this change a day’s travel? Could they hunt buffalo this way instead of herding them off cliffs? At one point he shouted nonsense words that sounded like a coyote’s howl.

Then, as time passed, he began to pay attention to what Coyote was doing, how he turned the horse, how he balanced on him, the different speeds and ways of moving the horse had and how Coyote got him to change from one to the other.

He saw Coyote ride back to the wooden ring and jump off the horse, kicking down the wooden poles and scattering the rest of the horses kept inside, and from every direction, smaller coyotes came running, chasing the horses, weeding some out and letting them go back to where the ring had been. Ten horses were kept and chased. Two looked heavy, the way buffalo did when they carried young. Three seemed smaller than the others—young ones, perhaps? And then there was the horse Coyote had been riding. He was a male and, like the grandfather buffalos who protected their herds, he turned and tried to take on Coyote and his pack, kicking and rearing and biting.

To no avail. He finally gave up and ran, sometimes leading, sometimes following, but always moving northward.

Coyote gave them time to eat, to drink, and to sleep just enough so they were not so tired they would become clumsy and fall, but not enough sleep to truly refresh them.

Gray Cloud’s vision ended as the horses arrived where the people were. He was back in the tall grass, and he realized he was looking at exhausted horses.

“You will ride them. They require no gentling. They are used to being ridden.”

Gray Cloud had no fear. He had ridden with Coyote. He could do this. He suddenly felt long deerskin straps in his hand.

“A gift from me.”

“Are you sure you’re not my spirit guide? Why did you choose me?”

“Because you have a good nature. You’re patient—you waited five days for a vision. Some of those other boys gave up and made up stories that sounded good. They would rather have lies than wait. Not you. Horse requires patience. You are his and he is yours—and you will help me in my game with Raven. It’s all as it should be.”

Gray Cloud studied the straps. He remembered how Coyote had ridden. A tight loop in the horse’s mouth and then a larger loop around its neck.

“In their mouth, between their teeth, is a gap. The strap of the small loop will fit perfectly. With such a thing you can control the whole creature.” Coyote seemed to grow taller, was as big as a wolf, then a bear, then he grew to encompass the sky, blotting out the sun for a moment. His coyotes howled as he disappeared, but they didn’t attack the horses, so Gray Cloud walked between the two nearest, toward the herd.

The male came out to greet him, still proud even though his head was drooping and his tail swished slowly.

“I am Gray Cloud.” It was customary to tell your spirit animal your name.

It was also customary for the animal to talk and not be something you took back to the village with you. The horse did not talk, and seemed to be happy just to stand near Gray Cloud, his head resting against his chest.

“Are you sure I’m not yours?” he muttered to Coyote, and heard a yip-howl-laugh rise up from the waiting coyotes.

He reached for the horse, who shivered as Gray Cloud’s hand touched his quivering neck. The horse was the color of sand, but the long hair on his neck and forehead and tail was black and so was the sleek hair of his legs. “Do you have a name?”

The horse did not seem interested in telling him it if he did.

“I will call you Burnt Sand.” He reached gently into the horse’s mouth and felt the gap Coyote had told him of, so he fashioned the strap the way he’d seen in his vision and put it on Burnt Sand.

Then he leapt up, barely making it onto the horse’s back, lying on his stomach over the horse as his legs hung down, and Burnt Sand moved nervously, but not in a way that made Gray Cloud think he would run off. He had been ridden by Coyote—and by whoever Coyote had stolen him from and whoever they had stolen him from. Truly it would require a song to keep track of the journey of these horses—Gray Cloud wasn’t good at songs but for this he would try.

He swung his right leg over and sat, holding the larger loop, experimenting with what the horse would do if he pulled back gently, if he pulled left or right, if he moved it across the neck rather than pulling.

Then he squeezed his legs and Burnt Sand set off, walking gently. Gray Cloud got used to the motion and found the best way to sit, learned to grab some hair along with the strap. The horse went faster and he bounced, afraid he was going to fall off, but then the horse moved even faster and the gate changed to one far easier to sit. Wind whipped and coyotes moved back to enlarge the circle and let him fly.

Finally, he slowed Burnt Sand, patting his neck. “I will name the others later. For now, they are horse and that is good.” He nudged with his feet, and Burnt Sand walked toward the camp, and the other horses followed with the coyotes bringing up the rear, nearly to the camp, but then they veered off before the dogs could bark, before the others could see him returning to the people with a long-forgotten horse and an escort of coyotes.

He heard the murmur of the people as he came into sight. Then the cries of coyotes rose up around him, followed by the harsh caws of ravens from the trees by the stream near camp.

Coyote and Raven must be debating the quality of his gift to the people. Gray Cloud smiled as he rode into the middle of camp.

Rode. The first to do this.

“My name is Gray Cloud, and I have had a vision. Horse is my spirit guide and has spoken to me.” Not precisely true but close enough—especially if some of the other boys had lied altogether. “He comes back to us. He will change our lives.”

The people approached cautiously, and the other horses saw the stream and moved off to drink and then graze while the people touched them gently and made sounds of surprise and pleasure.

Gray Cloud stayed on Burnt Sand, enjoying his moment before sliding his leg over and slipping off the horse. He led Burnt Sand to the others, let him eat and drink, all the while keeping his hand on the horse’s neck and back.

The camp dogs moved close, and he expected the horses to react to them as they had to the coyotes, but they seemed to know the difference. Although Burnt Sand kept an eye on the dogs as they sniffed and roamed, he didn’t seem afraid of them.

The dogs grew bored and went back to the campfires, probably hoping for some scraps. Too bad they couldn’t eat as the horses did, tearing up grass as they moved away from the camp.

“You better picket them or they’ll run away,” Gray Cloud heard inside his head—Coyote’s voice, rich with annoyance. And a picture of what a picket looked like was also in Gray Cloud’s mind. He took the straps and some stakes and tied the horses up with room enough to graze but not run off.

As he worked, he murmured, “You take such an interest in one who is not yours, Coyote.”

Coyote had no answer for that, but in the trees it sounded like the ravens were laughing.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Gerri Leen

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *