A slender, tawny form slipped quietly through the tall prairie grass. It came closer and closer to the small herd of Indian ponies grazing nearby. Then with a ferocious cry, the figure pounced toward its intended prey, only to land in a still-warm hollow in the grass.
“I heard you coming several minutes ago,” laughed Running Buck from the spot where he had rolled. He watched in amusement as his doeskin clad stalker pouted slightly. “You do well though, for a girl,” he offered. He was rewarded with a glare.
“Just because I am a girl and younger than you, does not make you so wonderful,” Little Fox declared. “I can still out run you.”
“Only when I let you,” Buck teased. Still he liked the younger girl. She was one of the only children in the village who played with him or even talked to him. His brother, Red Bear, was too busy and too old to play anymore and the other boys shunned him because he was half white. Except for the company of the horses that he tended, Little Fox was Running Buck’s only true friend.
Little Fox was a lively little girl who at eleven summers thought she could do everything Running Buck could do. After all, she reasoned, he was only twelve summers. In truth, she was able to do many of the same things; she could run as fast and ride as well as the boy.
“Does Wind Song know where you are?” Buck asked Little Fox.
“My mother knows Red Bear sent me to find you,” the girl assured him. Little Fox was forever being scolded for leaving her girl duties to be with the boys, especially Running Buck.
“Why did my brother send you?” questioned Buck.
“He wants you to bring all the horses back to the village. I think he worries about Cloud,” Little Fox answered. Both children looked at the obviously pregnant gray mare. This would be her first foal and she was one of the war chief’s favorite horses.
“Want to help?” Buck offered as he stood up.
“Why do you think I came?” Little Fox grinned as she jumped up to help Buck herd the horses back to the camp.
“Bet I can pick more than you.” The teasing lilt of Little Fox’s voice drifted to where Running Buck was practicing with his bow and arrows. It had been three days since Buck and Little Fox brought the horses back to the village, and now the girls were heading off to pick blackberries. As always, Little Fox darted ahead, swinging her basket. She smiled and waved at Buck as she skipped by. The boy smiled back, thinking for the hundredth time that Wind Song and Gray Wolf should have named their daughter Chattering Chipmunk or Scampering Squirrel since the girl was rarely still or quiet. Except when she was trying to sneak up on him, Buck reflected with a chuckle.
“Calm down, little cousin,” Dancing Fawn chided Little Fox gently as they left the village. She was sixteen, tall and willowy, and one of the older girls in charge of the expedition.
“If we all walked as slow as you, we would be as old as Crane Woman when we reached the berry patch,” Little Fox taunted her older cousin. “Let’s race!” she suggested.
Within moments all the girls were running as fast as they could toward the part of the woods were the berries grew. Little Fox reached the first bush only steps ahead of her friend, Song Bird, who was twelve.
“Your legs may be longer, but not faster,” Little Fox panted.
“Your legs may be faster, but you would do well to be less boastful, little one,” said a deep voice.
Little Fox flushed with shame as Red Bear strolled from the forest with two younger warriors.
The younger girls giggled as Little Fox whispered, “I am sorry, my chief.”
Red Bear reached out to tug one of the child’s long, black braids. “Think before you speak, fleet one,” he said affectionately. The man cared for the little girl who was so close to his younger brother, but as leader he couldn’t afford to play favorites.
“Yes, Red Bear.” Little Fox smiled slightly; she had not missed the caring tone in his voice.
The three warriors returned to camp while the girls begin the task of picking berries. The older girls laughed and chatted as they picked.
“Who will you choose at the next dance, Morning Dove?” Dancing Fawn questioned her friend with a smile. It was a custom during a dance for a brave to approach a maiden and offer his hand. The girl could either accept his hand or brush it away and chose another to dance with.
“It depends on who offers his hand,” the slender maiden replied.
“I imagine Two Spears would not be rejected,” her friend teased.
“Just as you would not reject Hawk’s Eyes,” Morning Dove responded playfully.
“Is that all you ever talk about?” Little Fox put in from a nearby bush. She wrinkled her nose. Boys were alright, but she was more interested in riding horses than flirting with boys. “Hawk’s Eyes is nice, but some of his horses are better looking than he is,” the younger girl commented.
Dancing Fawn laughed merrily. “Trust you to notice the horses rather than the braves.”
“Maybe it is the one who tends the horses that Little Fox notices,” Song Bird hinted slyly.
Little Fox glared daggers at her friend. “Running Buck and I are only friends,” she informed them.
“That is good, little cousin,” Dancing Fawn stated with a nod. “In a few years you will have many fine braves to choose from. Your father will make a good match for you from among the proper suitors.”
Little Fox stiffened. Her cousin did not mean to be cruel, but it was another reminder to Little Fox that the tribe would never fully accept Running Buck.
“I think I saw some more bushes a little further on,” Little Fox said as she took up her basket and turned away from the main group.
“Do not wander too far,” Dancing Fawn warned.
“I won’t,” the younger girl replied. She just wanted to be alone for awhile.
Song Bird watched her friend go and knew what Little Fox was thinking. The two girls were very close and although Song Bird did not think much of Running Buck, she knew her friend cared deeply for him.
As the girls were finishing up with their gathering, Song Bird slipped off to find Little Fox. She found her sitting with her back to a tree and her full basket of berries besides her.
“They are right you know,” Song Bird began with no preamble. “There will be many braves better than Running Buck.”
“There are none better than Running Buck,” Little Fox declared vehemently. Then standing, she seized her basket. “We should go now; I hear the others calling for us.” And without looking at her friend, Little Fox strolled away.
When the girls returned that afternoon, the village was abuzz with excitement.
“What’s going on?” Little Fox asked her older brother, White Elk.
“Spotted Pony is going to try to climb the Eagle’s cliff,” he told her.
Little Fox’s eyes widened. The Eagle’s Cliff was a sheer wall of rock that rose over sixty feet in the air. It was so named for the eagle’s nests near the top. Many young braves attempted to climb it as a show of strength and courage. Most of the boys that tired were those who were not quite ready to go on a vision quest. Spotted Pony was no exception. At thirteen summers, he was not yet a man, but no longer a small boy. To climb the cliff would elevate his standing among the young men.
“Do you think he can make it?” Little Fox whispered to White Elk.
The young man shook his head. “He may surprise me, but I do not believe he will reach the top.”
Little Fox knew that many of the boys who tried, failed. Even her own brother, who she thought could do almost anything, had only made it a little over halfway up Eagle’s Cliff. She also knew that everyone who could would be there to watch Spotted Pony’s attempt. And she intended to be among them.
“You had better tend to your work if you plan on going.” White Elk gave his little sister a knowing look. Even though he was eight years her senior, the bond between the two was strong and the young man often knew what Little Fox was thinking or feeling.
Little Fox nodded at his words and hurried to help the girls and women with spreading the berries to dry and other chores.
The next morning, Little Fox was up before the sun. She had been to the stream to fetch water and had returned as her father emerged from their teepee.
“You are up early today, daughter,” Gray Wolf smiled.
“I wanted to surprise Mother,” Little Fox offered.
Gray Wolf laughed. “And you wanted to go to the cliff today.” Little Fox grinned and nodded. “You may go,” her father gave his permission.
“Thank you, Father,” the girl responded happily.
It was mid-morning when the young people and a few adults set out to watch Spotted Pony attempt his climb.
Little Fox saw Running Buck in the crowd and made her way to his side.
“I knew you would be here.” He smiled at his friend.
“I had forgotten how tall it was,” the girl replied, her eyes on the rocky tower. “I don not see how anyone could climb that!” The rock wall was an imposing spectacle to be sure, and the young brave standing at the base looked small.
Everyone cheered as Spotted Pony began his climb. Buck knew the first part would be easy because the ground sloped a little and there were plenty of hand and foot holds. The tricky part came about halfway up when the hand and foot holds were more widely scattered and the face of the cliff was sheer and almost straight up.
As the teenager climbed higher, so did the sun. It was almost noon when Spotted Pony reached the midway point. Buck could tell that the boy was getting tired and also careless. His foot slipped and with a cry, Spotted Pony fell. He managed to stop himself after a few feet, but it was plain to Buck that his leg was hurt and he was too scared to try again. Sure enough, Spotted Pony eased his way back to the ground and hobbled away leaning on the shoulder of one of his friends. The spectators wandered back toward the camp.
Buck lingered a moment. “Someday I am going to climb it,” he stated quietly.
Swift Arrow overheard him. “You?” he scoffed. “You are nothing more than a skinny baby. You would never make it.”
“You have not the strength to make it to the top, half-breed. Best leave that to real warriors.” Brown Beaver joined in. “OW!” he howled the next moment as a foot connected with his knee.
“Running Buck is twice the warrior you will ever be,” Little Fox announced, ready to defend her friend.
Buck rolled his eyes at the spitfire beside him. Just what he needed, a girl fighting his battles. “Only time will tell who will be a real warrior. Right now, shouldn’t you be going back to camp, Little Fox?”
The girl turned to glare at his dismissal and then saw the pleading look in Buck’s eyes. Realizing that she had acted and spoken in haste yet again, Little Fox nodded. “Yes, I do have work to do. We will talk later.” And turning, she left the boys.
“So the little she-cat protects the half-breed,” Brown Beaver jeered as he stepped closer to Buck.
“I do not need her protection,” Buck declared.
“We will see,” Swift Arrow smirked as the fight began.
“I could have helped you,” Little Fox admonished as she washed Buck’s cuts and bruises. It was late afternoon and the two of them were in their secret spot. It was an overhang of rock and dirt washed out by the creek and almost like a small cave.
“I did not need your help,” Buck asserted as Little Fox rinsed out the rag and laid it against his cut cheek again.
The disdainful look she gave him spoke volumes, but for once Little Fox held her tongue. A man’s pride was a fragile thing the Wise One had once told her, but pride could also be dangerous. Like when it led to fights, the girl thought.
They sat quietly for a little while before Little Fox changed the subject. “Spotted Pony’s leg was twisted, not broken.”
“That is good.” Buck nodded. “He was too impatient and careless. That is why he fell.”
“That is what some of the older braves said, too,” Little Fox acknowledged.
“One day I will climb Eagle’s Cliff,” Running Buck vowed. “I will stand at the very top and spread my arms to the winds just as the eagles do with their wings. I will be high above the trees where only the eagles soar. I will prove to everyone that I am more than a worthless half-breed.”
“Some people already know you are more,” Little Fox spoke softly.
“I know.” Buck looked at the girl who was such a friend to him. “But this way the entire village would know.”
“You could fall and get hurt or even killed,” Little Fox pointed out.
Buck shook his head. “I will not fall. I will make it to the top,” he declared firmly.
Little Fox looked into his dark eyes. “I believe you can do it,” she stated solemnly.
Buck smiled at the girl. It was nice to know that he had a friend who cared for him and believed in him.
Before long everyone in the village knew that Running Buck was going to attempt to climb Eagle’s Cliff. Most of the tribe scoffed at the thought of the young boy succeeding. The other boys, especially, harassed Buck, saying that a half-breed could never make it to the top.
Red Bear encouraged his younger brother, but he also warned him that it was a dangerous and strenuous task he had chosen to attempt. But Buck would not be swayed.
Most of the children and young people walked to the cliff to watch. A few braves and a few women went along as well.
As Running Buck stood before the cliff, Red Bear clapped him on the shoulder. “It matters not the outcome,” he stated. “Only do your best and it will be enough.”
Buck nodded solemnly. His eyes found Little Fox standing nearby with a group of girls. She smiled reassuringly at him and Buck smiled back.
Buck was nervous as he faced the cliff. This was his chance to prove himself before most of the tribe. He could feel their eyes on him as he took a deep breath and began to climb.
The way was easy at first and Running Buck moved quickly, but surely, upwards. Then it happened. The boy’s hand reached toward a crevice only to discover to his horror that the hole was already occupied by a rattlesnake. Buck hastily released his hold and tumbled down the side of the cliff.
Little Fox bit her hand to keep from screaming as she watched her friend land with a sickening thud.
A strong hand descended on the girl’s shoulder and White Elk spoke. “Stay calm, little one. Red Bear and Smoke Rises will care for Running Buck.”
As they watched, Red Bear scooped up his younger brother and carried him back to the village, followed by the Medicine Man, Smoke Rises.
The crowd of onlookers began to disperse, but not before Little Fox heard several of the boys laughing about Running Buck’s failure. She longed to protest, even to fight, to defend her friend’s honor. Then seeing the stern gaze her brother gave her, Little Fox bit her tongue and dutifully followed White Elk back to camp.
“I am not a baby,” Running Buck protested. “Put me down!” He struggled in Red Bear’s arms.
“Be still,” Red Bear told the younger boy sternly. The boy had been limp and dazed from the fall at first, but as they approached the village, Buck had recovered enough to fight the position he found himself in.
“I am alright,” Buck tried again. “Please, Red Bear, let me walk.”
“Not until Smoke Rises looks at your legs,” his brother replied. “One of them was twisted under you as you fell and it may be broken.”
Buck grimaced. His legs did hurt and his right arm did too, but at this moment he was more ashamed than anything. To have failed in climbing the cliff was bad enough, but to be carried back like a small child was too much to bear. Buck closed his eyes and pressed his face against his brother's chest as they entered the camp. The women and others who had remained at the village looked up.
Buck’s face was burning with shame and the barely suppressed giggles and chuckles he heard only added to his mortification.
Red Bear took him to his teepee and laid the boy down gently.
After a thorough examination, the old Medicine Man proclaimed Running Buck was alright. He was bruised very badly, but nothing was broken. His right shoulder had been dislocated, but Smoke Rises had snapped it back into place.
Now Buck lay on his sleeping pallet, angry and frustrated. He had been told to remain inside the remainder of the day to rest. He hated being inside.
Buck sat up slowly and opened the door flap. Maybe I could sneak out, he thought. He stuck his head out and peered around. Just as he was about to venture out, a voice stopped him.
“Do not even think about it.” Red Bear knew his younger brother well and had kept an eye on the teepee all afternoon.
Buck frowned at his older brother and withdrew back inside, slapping the door flap back in place. He curled up on the pallet once more.
The flap opened and Red Bear chuckled. “I will bring you some stew if you want.”
“What I want is to get out of this teepee,” Buck snapped.
“No,” the war chief stated firmly. “You will be allowed out tomorrow. Do you want food now?”
Buck shrugged and Red Bear smiled at the sullen boy. “I will return soon,” he said and left to get the stew.
Moments after Red Bear left, Buck heard a rustling sound from the back of the teepee. Curious he sat up to investigate. Little Fox wiggled under the teepee.
“What are you doing?” Running Buck questioned with amusement.
The girl brushed some of the dirt from her dress and answered. “Is it not obvious? I came to visit you.”
“Why not come through the door?” Buck laughed.
“I could not. Red Bear said you were not to have visitors today,” Little Fox told him. Buck regarded her and waited for her explanation. “I had to see for myself that you were alright,” she said. “I was worried.”
“I am fine.” Buck assured her. “Just sore.”
At that moment Red Bear returned. Seeing Little Fox, he shook his head. “What are you doing here? Did I not tell you no visitors?” Little Fox nodded and hung her head. “Then why are you here?” the man asked, trying to sound stern.
“I had to check on Running Buck.” Little Fox looked up and met Red Bear’s eyes. “I am sorry to disobey your order, my chief, but I care for my friend.”
The war chief smiled and Little Fox knew she was forgiven. “Could it not have waited until tomorrow, little one?” he asked teasingly. The young girl shook her head. “No, with you I suppose not,” Red Bear laughed.
“You may talk more tomorrow,” the man continued. “Right now you both need to eat and Running Buck must get some rest.”
“Yes, Red Bear,” Little Fox answered obediently. “Good-bye, Running Buck.” And she slipped out the door.
“Are you really going to try to climb it again tomorrow?” Little Fox asked Running Buck one evening about two weeks after Buck's attempt to climb the Eagle's Cliff.
Buck nodded. “Do not tell anyone,” he warned her. “I have to do this alone.”
“But why?” the girl protested.
“I have to prove to myself that I can do this,” Buck tried to explain.
“What if you fall or get hurt?”
“I will be fine,” he assured her. “I do not want anyone to witness it again if I fail.”
Little Fox regarded Running Buck seriously. “You will not fail,” she insisted.
Buck smiled. “Perhaps not, but even if I succeed I do not want anyone there. This is not for show. It is something I must do for me.”
“What about me?” the girl questioned softly, although she guessed the answer.
The boy shook his head. “Not even you, Little Fox.” Then, not wanting to hurt her, he added, “I know that you will be with me in spirit.”
Little Fox smiled gently. “I will always be with you in spirit, Running Buck.” Then she softly kissed his cheek and scurried into her family’s teepee.
Buck stood in shock for a moment before a slow smile spread across his face. He walked to Red Bear’s lodge and went inside to try to sleep.
Running Buck rose early to complete his chores and then left for Eagle’s Cliff. The morning was still cool as the boy stood at the base of the tower and gazed upwards. High above were the deserted eagle’s nests and a few feet beyond them, the top of the cliff. Taking a deep breath, Buck began his climb.
He paced himself, knowing it was stamina, not brute strength that he needed. By mid-morning he had reached almost halfway. Secure in his spot, Buck rested for a few moments before continuing on.
Now comes the tricky part, he thought. The rock became smoother and straighter. Buck took his time, testing each hand hold or foot hold carefully before putting all his weight onto it.
He eased his right foot onto a slender outcropping of rock and pressed down. The little ledge gave way, sending a shower of pebbles down the side of the cliff and causing a figure below to gasp in fright. Hidden in the trees, Little Fox clamped a hand to her mouth to avoid crying out.
Buck managed to cling to the rock and edge over to a firmer foothold. This one held and the boy began his ascent once more.
He was now over two-thirds of the way there. The sun beat down and the day which had started off cool, was now quite warm. Sweat trickled down Buck’s back and his hair was damp with perspiration. He prayed to the Great Spirit that his hands would remain sweat free so that he could grip the rock securely.
It seemed he had been climbing for days. His muscles ached, but he would not give up. Off to the side and slightly above him, Buck glimpsed the sticks of an eagle’s nest. Almost there, he encouraged himself. Soon the cliff would begin to slope a little.
Sure enough, Buck noticed the cliff face change. It was rockier again and a little less vertical. He worked his way up inch by careful inch. To make a mistake now would mean certain death.
His legs cried out from the toil of climbing. His hands were cut and bleeding from the sharp rocks. His hair was matted with dirt and sweat. But he steadily climbed.
Suddenly his hand touched a tiny clump of grass. Then Buck glanced up. The rim of the cliff was just above him.
Panting, and straining his exhausted body, the young boy grasped the upper edge. He dug in with his fingers and scrambled over. Then he was there; lying on the top of the Eagle’s Cliff.
Trembling with excitement, Running Buck stood up. The wind blew, cooling his hot body. The clouds sailed past, seeming almost close enough to touch. Buck looked out over what seemed to be the whole world. Overhead an eagle flew, majestically gliding along. The large bird gave a shrill cry and with a loud war whoop, Buck threw open his arms and answered the animal. The young brave proclaimed his victory for all to hear.
Far below, still hidden from view by the trees, a young girl watched. Her smile was wide and her eyes shone with love and pride. “I knew you could do it, my Running Buck,” Little Fox whispered. “I knew you could.”