Legends of Spirit Cave: An Excerpt (Part 5)

As sunrise broke out on the plain over Ger-lak, columns of steam arose from the series of hotspring pools and drifted out to wet the tall clumps of grass with a cold white frosting. The wakening travelers began to stumble along the trail to the place where Bruneau had a huge bonfire burning and a breakfast of waterbird eggs he had hard-boiled in the hottest of the mineral water pools. The people eagerly accepted the warm eggs and a sweet sauce of wild berries and honey the hermit had prepared for them. The entire clan gathered around to accept this last hospitality from Bruneau and to trade with him generous portions of mammoth meat for trinkets he had made from stones, twigs and feathers.

Turtle saw Rama eating breakfast with her young daughter, but neither he nor Rama acknowledged the presence of the other. Two boys about two years younger than Turtle came running by where Turtle was standing and Turtle heard one shout back, “Hey, Turtle, did you get your lizard skinned last night?”

Turtle was enraged at the remark, so he ran after them in an attempt to take revenge for their crudeness. He was unable to catch up with them, or even recognize who they were in the excitement.

Some of the group began preparing to load up their possessions and burden baskets full of provisions to resume the remainder of their journey to Pyramid Lake. Turtle’s cousin, Yori, had a fine young pup he was training to carry a small burden basket. He threw some sticks for the dog to fetch while waiting for the other people to prepare their loads. Without thinking, Yori threw the stick into the hottest pool where Bruneau had just boiled the eggs. The dog yapped frantically for a few seconds, but was scalded to death almost instantly. Yori ran toward the bank of the pond to help the poor dog, but Bruneau grabbed the young man just in time to keep him from jumping into the boiling water after the pup.

Everyone gathered around to console Yori about the horrible loss of his dog. Bruneau felt especially bad, and immediately gave Yori one of his own puppies his bitch had borne just a few weeks ago. Bruneau apologized profusely for the accident and told the people there had been instances where people were badly burned entering this pond, not knowing it was where the scalding water first comes up from the Great Fire Spirit under the earth. From this pond, it flows off into the other pools where it cools enough for people to bathe and swim. Yori thanked the old hermit for the puppy, and cradled it under his arm as he shouldered his burden basket for the journey ahead. As the travelers formed a long, single file procession toward the south, Yori whispered to the tiny pup, “Be brave, little one, I will call you ‘Drifter,’ since we spend our entire lives drifting from place to place. Though you are tiny, I predict that one day you will have a brave and courageous spirit.”
For two more days the troop marched on across a desert trail that had now departed from the shores of the vast system of lakes and marshes. Their burdens were heavy, but the trail was smooth and not too steep, although it did pass through some low mountains and high meadows. The people were becoming anxious to reach Pyramid Lake and visit with the old friends they knew would greet them there. The group made camp in a small canyon with a grassy meadow just short of the ridge that overlooked the lake.

Supper was prepared quite quickly and the people gathered close together to set up their bedrolls for the night. Everyone knew that the next day would bring them to the camp of the Pyramid Lake people by mid afternoon. Turtle was unusually tired, so he retired early for the evening. Sometime in the early morning, Turtle at last had a dream he thought had some kind of spiritual significance. It was a strange sort of dream where people he did not know were asking him to walk with them out into the darkness of the desert. He had often heard that in order to become a shaman, one must have dreams that give spiritual guidance. At last he was having a dream, but he was not sure how to act upon it.

Knowing he would always wonder what would have happened if he did not act, Turtle decided to follow his dream and walk out into the desert as the dream had suggested. The desert is a spooky, mystical place at night, especially for a people whose entire life is guided by spirits, magic and superstition. It had to take a strong spirit and courage for the young man to venture out that night, alone in the darkness. There was an eerie wind blowing through the greasewood and sagebrush, making an uncanny, ghostly sound. The cool weather had brought an end to the song of the evening crickets, but the mournful sounds of coyotes yapping in the distance and the occasional “hoo-hoo” of an owl kept Turtle company as he ventured out toward the ridge overlooking the great lake. After a short stop to urinate, he walked on to a place where he could just see the glistening water of Pyramid Lake in the distance. A huge owl swooped down toward Turtle, just missing his head as it flew by and screeched at him.

Staring off into the distance at the beautiful sight of the Lake, Turtle nearly tripped on some clumps of sagebrush, then came around a large boulder and fell back, gasping in amazement at a ghastly sight. There lying before him, half buried in the sand, was the skeleton of some ancient animal, the likes of which Turtle had never seen before. The bones had become bleached white by the desert sun and the minerals in the bones emitted a phosphorescence in the dim moonlight that made the creature glow as if it were coming to life. Turtle was terrified by the sight of the large, strange-looking animal seeming to smile at him with bright, glowing teeth and huge, black eye sockets.

Turtle bolted from the skeleton site and ran back to the encampment, where he awakened Mauwee from a sound sleep. “Quickly, Grandfather, I need you!” cried the frightened young man. “I have found some evil spirit out in the desert, or perhaps a ghost. I need you to come along with me to help me to understand what I have found.”

Reluctantly, old Mauwee pulled himself from his bedroll and agreed to follow Turtle to the mysterious vision he had seen. On the way, Turtle told Mauwee about the dream he had and the compelling need he had to follow the urgings of the dream. When they arrived at the location, even Mauwee gasped at the ghostly sight of the white skeleton grinning at them in the moonlight. Phosphorus in the bones had absorbed the rays of the sun, causing a luminescence, or a glow-in-the-dark effect.

“Turtle, you have indeed uncovered a very strong spirit. Your dream took you to something very special, and I will try to tell you about this creature.” The pair sat down on a flat rock near the glowing skeleton and Mauwee began to tell his tale of the mysterious creature.

“Many years ago, there were vast numbers of creatures of great size roaming this land. You and I know of the mammoth we killed. There were many more of his kind, and even others of different sizes that lived here. There were giant buffalo, twice the height of those we see here today. There were long legged animals with humped backs that wandered the grassy slopes, and they were known as camels. The animal you see here is all that remains of a very special animal we called a horse. When my own grandfather was a boy, there were still a few horses running wild on the slopes and in the dry valleys where I was born. They are all gone now, but the spirits of some horses still live on, to glow in the night, just to let you know they still exist. It is a funny thing about spirits; they sometimes reveal themselves in strange ways in order to get you to understand them, and learn from them. The spirit of this horse is mighty strong. Without his strong spirit revealing him to you, we would never have learned of his existence. He was put here for us to find one day, and to learn about him. Much can be learned from the bones of an ancient creature, or even a man, especially if those creatures do not even exist anymore. Sometimes a wise, old spirit will do things like that, I mean, leave things lying about, waiting for people in the future to discover them.

“Let me tell you the story my own grandfather told me when I was a small boy. He told me that when he was a child, his family came upon a herd of horses when they still existed on the north edge of the Black Island Marsh. The hunters of the family killed one of the horses for food, but they also captured a young foal alive and took it home with them to eat later. My grandfather, named Jakfrink, began to tame the animal and taught it to be led with a woven sagebrush halter and rope. The family was in their winter camp, so the boy had time to build a small corral and work to tame the spirited, wild animal.

“One day, as Jakfrink led the horse out of the corral for a walk, the animal suddenly grabbed a big mouthful of Jakfrink’s hair and began to actually lift the boy off the ground by his scalp. Up and down, to and fro, up and down, the boy was tossed by the horse, screaming, arms and legs flailing. Suddenly, the entire hair and scalp was pulled from the top of the boy’s head. The scalped boy was tossed into the sagebrush, while the tall, big-boned horse bolted and ran to the nearby hills. He was last seen trailing the long stream of Jakfrink’s black trusses over his shoulder as he ran.

“The boy eventually recovered and grew to old age, but the bald scar atop his head was a constant reminder that his spirit was not quite strong enough to tame the wild horse. The spirit of the ancient horses was too strong for any man to tame. Most old shamans believe that perhaps one day, the horses may return to our land. Perhaps other men with stronger spirits may succeed in conquering the invincible spirit of horses. What a wonderful thing it would be for men to be able to ride like the wind, upon the back of a horse. For now, it is not to be. For now, all we have to tell us about these ancient wild horses are the bones his wise spirit has left here for us to discover.”

The two men bid farewell to the Spirit of the Ancient Horse and returned to camp, where they went to bed for the remainder of the early morning hours. Turtle snuggled in his rabbit skin blanket and dreamed of the glowing horse and the things Mauwee had told him until awakened by the sunrise.

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