The Heart of the Brave


By William Jones


The Harvard Monthly, 30 May 1900


AMENO Kisheswa, the moon that summons together the white-tail deer in droves, had been born but a night and a day; and as she hung at twilight in the western sky, she reddened like an up-turned buffalo horn on fire.  The flowers, our grandparents, had hushed their glee; and drooping their foreheads, they waited without so much as a whisper of complaint the coming of Takwaki, the cruel frost.  But the leaves and the grasses were happy, gay in the varied colours of their garments.  Nutenwi, the big hollow-mouthed wind, was abroad; and above him, far up, flew quacking geese that strung themselves in lines, bow-like, one after the other, across the heavens, as they journeyed merrily toward the Shawaneki, the regions of warmth and sunlight.

            It was on a morning of one of these days that Wakamo and a hundred Osakies set out for the Comanche country, the land of plains and home of the buffalo and prairie wolf.  Old and young thronged the banks of the Mississippi and watched them paddle across.  Women waved and children hallooed as the men in twos, in threes, and in single file passed over the sand bars and disappeared in the shadow of the tall wood beyond.  Many of the men were young, only braves.  They wore their hair long, letting it fall in two braids each over a shoulder in front.  The rest, who had been on a raid before, wore the hair shaved, leaving only a tuft, like that of the blue jay, upon which nodded the feather that marked them off as the warriors.  Few were the burdens they took.  All were in leggins and moccasins; and over their naked backs were slung the quivers of arrows.  In the hand they carried their bows; and at the belt, on the side away from the knife, hung a small bag of dried jerked venison and pounded corn of the season before.  At the head of them all, and by the side of the old councillor, Kewanat, went the youthful Wakamo.

            The name, Wakamo, only the moon before, had been that of a young man who thought more on the hang of the blanket from his shoulder than on the dangle of a Comanche scalp-lock at his belt.  Ever since the day that Sanowa lay down to sleep--that was early in the spring soon after the bluebirds came--our fathers, the bent old gray-heads, kept debating before the Council fire in words like these:

            "Yes, look at the son, that thin-nosed, woman-eyed youth with always a smile or a happy look for those he meets.  No, the shoulders are not those of a strong man.  They never will grow so broad as the father's.  And he is not a runner,--no, not even a wrestler.  Besides, he stands no taller in his moccasins than a woman.  The hands, and even the fingers, are but those of a woman.   And yet, shall the youth become a chief of the Osakies?"

            "True," others of them gave answer.  "True, he is not big, not tall, and not so strong as was the father.  True, he is not this, and he is not that; but hush, mark what the people think and say.  One day we see that his mother and sister have beaded an oak-leaf upon his moccasins.  In the next few days we behold the oak-leaf on the moccasins of other young men.  They even plait their hair of a braid same as his.  They watch his gesture, they catch the sound of his words; and all that he does, they do, and wherever he goes, they go.  Look also at the women, the younger women.  Why do they lift their eyes from the sewing when they see him pass?  And why do they slacken step in the path from the spring with their vessels of water, and glance from the corner of their eyes at him stepping by?"

            Thus back and forth over the Council fire, our fathers talked of the son of Sanowa.  But there came an end of it all at last.

            One day in the Nepeni Kisheswa, the moon that ripens the corn, most of the men and women and even children were in the fields, down in the valley, gathering corn.  Suddenly at midday, when the sunshine came down whitest, runners burst through the lodges yelling, "Comanches over the river coming this way! Comanches over the river coming this way!"

            Now the story would be long to tell of the alarm spreading among the harvesters; how the braves and the warriors flew to arms, and how as they met the Comanche in the valley, on the banks, and in the water of the river itself, our fathers back yonder among the lodges gathered about the sacred drum, and beat upon it a measure to which the women kept time as they sang the war songs of the nation; how in the evening by the firelight, our fathers put up the scalp-pole, at the top of which they had hung the Comanche scalp-locks newly won that day in the battle; and how as they seated themselves by it, they watched warrior after warrior step slowly out of the dark and stand before them to receive an eagle feather from his gens; and how finally, by the aid of their canes, they pulled themselves to their feet on hearing Sanowa's old warrior, Kewanat, say, as he stuck an eagle feather into the hair of a youth who came up last of all the warriors, "Wakamo, you gens gives you this because you were first at the river and the last to leave off fighting the Comanches."

            While the embers of the scalp-dance fire were flickering low, while the people were silently filing off to their lodges, and the warriors on guard were signalling to one another the calls of animals and birds of the night, Wakamo busied himself with persuading the elders to let him go at the head of his father's warriors into the country of the Comanches.  There, in the stillness of night, they gave him his father's war bundle, telling him solemnly, as they gave it, to keep it as became an Osakie and a son of Sanowa.

            Our men had been in the Comanche country ever since the morning, and as the scouts went spying ahead, they scattered themselves far enough apart to catch a signal one waved to the other.  The sun was half way down the western sky when a scout near the top of a prairie hill far in advance gestured with arm and hand that buffaloes were feeding beyond in the plain below.  From scout to scout behind him flew the message to Wakamo, who was coming up with the main body of our men.  Bank in the same manner flew the gestures of Wakamo, signaling for the scouts to hide on the hill where the farthest scout was, till he and the rest had caught up.  Then up the hill went our men, silently and stealthily picking their way.  But hardly had half of them reached the place where the scouts lay, when suddenly a rumble, like the grumbling of the Thunderers, rolled over the plain where the buffaloes were browsing.  Instantly all who had come crawled to the ridge and peered over.  Behold! the buffaloes were making away from the hill on a wild stampede; and as the men straightened their backs and rose from their knees, they caught sight of wolves emerging from hollows and out of patches of reeds.  Wakamo yelped.  Instantly they sprang to their hind feet, and lo! Comanches stood before them.  For as fast as they stood erect, they flung back from their heads and shoulders the wolf skins with which they had covered themselves to decoy the buffaloes.

            At the sight of them slapping their breasts, waving their bows and their arrows in the air, and defiantly whooping a challenge to battle, Kewanat touched Wakamo upon the shoulder, and both stepped out in front of and apart from the rest.  Each then took from a buckskin knot at the wrist a pinch of natawinona, the powdered dust of a sacred herb that grew in the shades and unfrequented retreats of the forests and valleys on the Mississippi.  Facing the north-east sky, towards the land of their lodges, they sprinkled the natawinona to the wind, and muttered a prayer to Gisha Munetoa and to the spirit of Sanowa.  Then Wakamo faced about, and whooped the Wawakahamowina, the battle yell of his father's warriors.  They at once yelled it back, and all pushed down hill on the run; and as they went they strung their bows and whipped out their arrows from the quivers they had fixed under the arm at the side.

            On reaching the foot of the hill, they found that they were three or four to one of the Comanches.  But so fast and thick and sure whizzed the Comanche arrows that our men were brought to a standing fight at arrow range.  The Comanches fought like buffalo bulls, and it looked as if they would drive the Osakies back up the hill.

            By and by a lull fell over the fight.  The Comanches were falling short of arrows, and so began to run to one of their number who was calling aloud to them; and as fast as they put into his quiver and hand what arrows they had, they whirled into the buffalo trail and ran at the top of their speed.

            The Osakies at once pushed forward in pursuit; but no sooner had they started than they stopped, amazed at the sight of the armed Comanche who, standing in their way, pulled his bow back as far as the point of the arrow, and drew a sweeping aim at their whole front as if to fight them along.  And as they stopped, he let fly the arrow, bringing down an Osakie.  Instantly he turned and was off as fast as he could go after the other Comanches.  Again our men pursued; and, once more, when they pressed the Comanche close, he faced about and pierced another Osakie, bringing, as he shot, all of our men to a stop.  The next instant he was off, and another time our men pushed after him.  On and on over the plain our men chased after the Comanche, stopping when he faced about and leaping after him when he turned his back.  And as they ran, the stuck arrows in the ground at his heels, sent them shirring and hissing past every part of his body, but never did they once graze his skin.  And all the while his friends were getting farther away out of the reach of our men.

            Why is was the Comanche shot so well and our bowmen were unable to hit him, is not for us to say.  Who knows but that a munetoa, a divinity, gave him courage to fight so many alone, turned aside our arrows, and guided the course of his?  It was a strange fight, wonderfully strange.  Feeling somehow that they could not hit him, our men coaxed and cajoled and yelled to one another to fling themselves with all their might into the pursuit with the hope of capturing the Comanche.  And, at that, they shoved on all the harder, puffing as they went.

            The Comanche’s knees got to wabbling and his body to swaying from side to side as he ran.  Then he got to drawing and aiming his bow without letting go the arrow.  He did this once, twice, three times, and then Wakamo caught sight of the feathered tip of only a single arrow sticking out of the Comanche’s quiver.

            “Only one arrow he has, my men!” Wakamo yelled aloud as the Comanche shot away the one in the bow.  “Don’t stop when he shoots, but rush upon him and take him captive alive!”

            As the Osakies rushed and closed in upon him, he faced them like a warrior.  He drew back the bow with all the strength that he had.  But when he aimed, it was up at the sky.  An lo! When he let go the arrow, and it flew over the heads of our men, his legs gave way beneath him; and at the very instant that Wakamo was about to lay hands upon him, the Comanche sank to the grass dead.

            Panting and all in a sweat, our men crowded in a circle about the Comanche lying there young and tall and sinewy, without even a speck of a wound upon his body.  Their eyes rolled with wonder as they looked him over from head to foot.  For a while at first the wail of the wind only might have been heard.  Presently Wakamo whispered, “A fighter!” “Yes, and like a hawk!” mumbled Kewanat.  Instantly, “A man!” “A warrior!” and a multitude of other such words fell to buzzing from the lips of the men leaning upon their bows.  Suddenly a hush dropped over them all, bringing again the silence.  Kewanat knelt at the side of the Comanche, and as he wiped the blade of his knife on the palm of his hand, said:

            “My young chief, and my kinsmen, here is a man who was truly a warrior.  For you see what he has done.  He has kept  us from capturing him; he has kept us from slaying him with our own hands.  More than that, he has enabled his own to escape and flee out of our reach.  I shall not tell you that you are good warriors, nor that you are not.  But here lies a warrior.  I shall take out his heart, and show you the heart of a brave man.  And after you have seen it, eat of it.  You will then be brave, too.”

            Kewanat then cut open the flesh over the left of the breast along the hollow between the ribs.  Spreading apart the ribs, he reached in his hand, and when he withdrew it, the eyes of the men were filled all the more with wonder; for between finger and thumb hung a heart no bigger perhaps than a sandhill plum.  It was small, to small it seemed, for the heart of a man.  It was like gristle and as tough as gristle.

            “No,” muttered Kewanat, shaking his head as he held the heart out at arm’s length.  “No, we will not eat of it.  It is too small to go all round.  But that is not all.  The Comanche fought us like a warrior when he was alive.  Let him then in death keep his heart.  It tells us, besides, that the heart of a brave man is small, small like this.”

            After Kewanat had replaced the heart within the breast, he bent over, and fingered the Comanche’s scalp-lock.

            “Oh, my young chief,” he said looking up at Wakamo who stood thoughtfully beside him, “that hanging in your lodge would be worthier by far than any your father ever took from Sioux, Osage, or Cheyenne.  But your father never would have scalped a warrior like this.  We are leaving him his heart, shall we also leave him the scalp?”

            Wakamo nodded and slowly replied, “Yes.  Let him keep it.  There will be wailing enough in a lodge of the Comanches, and it may gladden the hearts of those in that lodge to know how bravely he fell.”

            Our men then dropped in behind Wakamo and Kewanat, glancing over their shoulders as they filed away for a last look at the Comanche.  The bodies of their dead they took to the top of the hill from which they had first seen the Comanches.  There they buried them, piling over them a mound of earth and stones.

            While our men were resting and spying for a stream where they might camp, the sun was nearing the banks of the Great River in the west, the river that plunges and roars and foams between this world and the next.  And as they were beholding the glow that lit up the western sky, their eyes fell upon three men leaving the spot where the Comanche had died.  Their course was westward.  One of them went ahead; the other two followed behind, carrying a burden upon their shoulders.

            Our men came home before the first fall of snow.  They said little about Comanche scalp-locks at the dance and the feast that welcomed them home.  But by the fire of the lodge, the kin seated closely about and listening with open ear and expectant look, each told of a heart that makes a brave man, a little heart like that of the young Comanche.  As our fathers one after the other heard the story, they rose and told it to others.  When they had all heard it, they went to the Council lodge.  And there they joyfully smoked their long red-stone pipe; joyfully, because the young Wakamo had seen with his own eyes what made a brave man, and because they felt that the son would now surely grow to be the chief that his father was.