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Tahan
Chapter XI The Marriage of Zepkhoeete and Tselta


THE trees had leafed sixteen times since Tsiltairst opened her eyes in her mother’s tepee. In her full rounded form was the sprightliness of a young antelope that dances in the sunshine when the grass is green and tender. In her face was the freshness of a morning when the prairie flowers bloom and breathe their sweetest perfume. Her eyes were those of the fawn, her hair the veil of midnight. When she opened her full red lips and spoke, there was music of the rill which laughs its way among the flowers on the hillside.

Red Scar was gaunt and wrinkled and ugly, and had two wives. He was a warrior unafraid, and in other days was good to look upon until his face became a target in a fight with soldiers, when a bullet struck the end of his nose, plowed a furrow across his cheek, and left a trail easy to read. Under the stress of excitement the scar would turn a deep crimson colour, hence his name.

Red Scar’s visits to the lodge of Tsilta’s father were frequent and prolonged and he always lost in the gambling, for he saw nothing but Tsilta. He made many raids on the herds of the Cheyennes and therefore was rich.

One day the maiden saw him of the red scar point her father to a herd of fifty ponies. Her father wagged his forefingers across each other, and her heart sank. She knew she was given to ugly Red Scar in exchange for the ponies.

Zepkhoeete was young and handsome and brave. Tsilta had danced many times with him. The hug of his arms was strength and his touch made glad her heart. In him was enough.

When Tsilta passed his lodge, with hair veiling her face, Zepkhoeete understood she was no longer his for the winning. But the young warrior told her in strong words what he would do. That very night there would be two swift horses under the big tree at the crossing of the river. And then away—and away!

With lightness of step and brightness of eye, Tsilta returned to her father’s lodge.

When she looked into the face of Red Scar she shrank back as from an old lean coyote and would have fled. But he caught her by the wrist and in a voice like a bear’s growl, said:

“My wife.”

She turned an appealing face to her father, but he nodded and said simply:

“His wife.”

Obediently she followed Red Scar to his new tepee, passing his old, weather-stained lodge before the door of which sat his two hag-like wives. They turned their faces from the passers..

Inside the new lodge he had erected for her Tsilta crouched down at the farthest side, like a wounded deer shrinking from the hateful fanged wolf.

At night Red Scar made a peyote feast for his friends. He ate so many of the spirit buttons that he slept a long time, and his lodge was empty for the whole night.

He awoke to find Tsilta sitting meekly by the fire.

Zepkhoeete had not been seen in the camp since the going down of the sun.

When Red Scar sat down to gamble, one of the men looked at him slyly and said,

“Red Scar has a wife.”

The bullet’s trail became a flame, but the wrinkled lips made no reply.

A company of young bullies passed by. One of them in a voice filled with ridicule, cried,

“Red Scar has a wife.”

In answer there was a glittering of the eyes, a flare of the scar, and that was all.

After dark, when all was still in the camp, there came the call of a whippoorwill in the brush.

Red Scar saw his new wife raise her head with a quick start

Again and again there was the call.

The tall, gaunt man rose, seized a rawhide lariat, clutched her arms and bound them behind her back.

“Red Scar has a wife,” he snarled in her ear, his face like the western stormcloud when the sun is letting.

When he had bound her feet together, he made the lariat fast to a lodge-pole overhead. Then, buckling his knife to his side, he lay down to sleep.

The night walked on. There was silence save for a sound like the breeze in the bushes near where Tsilta lay against the wall. Outside there came again and again the call of the whippoorwill, plaintively insistent.

Roused by a slight noise at the doorway of the lodge, Red Scar crept like a shadow across the floor. A moment he listened, then hurled back the flap and leaped outside.

There was the sound of scuffling feet, a blow, a low gurgling, then quiet.

The jealous husband returned to the fireside, threw on a handful of bark and sat down.

The wife lay with her face to the wall. As the light grew stronger she saw a tiny stream of red creeping under the edge of the lodge, and slowly making its way toward her face. A foot from her eyes it formed a little pool.

The sun had walked up above the treetops when the husband and wife stepped outside the tepee, she following, as do all obedient wives. The blanket about the man’s tall form hid his marred visage and reached to his moccasined feet. The face of his wife was veiled by her long black hair.

The whole camp was astir, for a big thing was to be done that day.

Red Scar strode on up the rise with long, purposeful steps. Behind, in a straggling procession, came men, women and children. On the summit of the hill the man halted and faced the slight girlish figure. About them gathered the expectant people in a circle.

Red Scar let fall his blanket. A knife glittered in his hand. He took one step toward the shrinking girl. The women shot glances of approval at one another, then drew their blankets more tightly around their faces. The man stood straight as the arrow in its quiver, his great chest drinking in big gulps of the morning air, the scar on his face a prairie fire on a distant slope when the ground is wet with rain. Tsilta stood as does the bruised flower wilting under the fierce glance of the summer sun.

“Tsilta!"

The voice of Red Scar was harsh, guttural, vulturelike. It grated upon the perfumed breeze of the morning.

“Tsilta, is it forgotten—the law of the Kiowas? The wife whose feet walk in the crooked trail, what she shall suffer? One of two things shall she suffer. She shall die by the hand of her husband. He may cut her nose from her face. Choose!”

The girl stood like an image of stone. The man seized her dishevelled hair and raised it from her face. Her soft eyes looked unflinchingly into his own. From the proud lips there came no sound. The knife glinted close to her face.

“No, not that! Let Tsilta die!”

The quavering, plaintive voice had in it the shudder of autumn winds when the leaves are falling. She could not, she would not live to bear always the badge of dishonoured wifehood, undeserved as it was. The gibes and sneers of the women would be worse than death.

Red Scar thrust his knife into its scabbard and drew his bow from its panther-skin cover. Placing one end upon the ground, his knee in the middle, by a dexterous movement he slipped the noose of the string into the notch; then, with well-accustomed hand, fixed a barbed arrow to the string.

The sun was flooding hill and valley with rare radiance; but darkness was upon the faces of the women who looked upon the maiden. A flock of crows wheeled down among the trees near the river, and their cawing was the funeral chant of Tsilta. The mockingbird’s song from the thicket was the taunting voice of dying hopes. A butterfly, like a piece of a rainbow that had slid off the edge of a cloud, floated gently between the fierce-faced, relentless man and the defenceless girl

Red Scar thrust his left foot forward, the muscles of his right arm swelling into ridges as he drew the arrow to the head.

Came a clatter of hoofs and the flash of a horseman.

Red Scar was hurled backward to the earth.

There was a shout of triumph from the rider as Tsilta was swept from the ground by his circling arm —and they were gone.

“Zepkhoeete!” shouted a hundred voices as the daring horseman whirled away. On and on, across flower-decked prairie and grassgrown rise and through wooded streams they sped.

On a high hill the young warrior halted and faced the back trail. In the distance were two oncoming horsemen. He dropped his precious burden to her feet.

“Tsilta will wait here,” he said, the battlelight gleaming in his handsome face as he strung up his bow.

In the lead of the rapidly approaching horsemen rode a tall gaunt figure with a blood-coloured scar on his face.

Straight toward him rode Zepkhoeete.

As they met the young warrior's horse swerved to the right. As they passed there was the twang of a bowstring.

Red Scar’s horse reared and plunged headlong to the trail-edge where he lay with an arrow sticking in his side.

Zepkhoeete rode back to the waiting one. Placing one foot upon his she sprang lightly up behind him, and again they sped onward, the remaining pursuer nearer than before.

In a brushlined ravine Zepkhoeete whirled out of the trail and waited.

Through the bushes the fast-riding warrior came. As he drew abreast, there was the well-timed music of a bowstring. From the horse’s side came a spurt of blood and he floundered among the bushes.

With a merry whoop that echoed among the canyons, the young warrior with the maiden at his back rushed on.

Night came, and they were alone in a wooded dell where a bubbling spring refreshed them. The tired horse cropped the tender grass. The stars kept watch.

“One sleep, and then Zepkhoeete will go back and fight,” he whispered, as they sat with his one robe around both their bodies.

“But Red Scar is strong—cunning- He has had much fighting- If—if—he should kill Zepkhoeete-”

The young brave laughed scornfully at her fears.

“Zepkhoeete is a man. How won he his name! What did he when the scarfaced one would have driven his arrow through the body of Tsilta? Back must Zepkhoeete go. To all the men must he prove his right to call Tsilta wife.”

The day was yet young when a man and woman on a single horse halted before the lodge of Setayte, chief of the Kiowas.

“By the law of the Kiowas, Zepkhoeete asks fairness in fight with Red Scar,” said the man.

“It shall not be broken—the law of the Kiowas,” answered the great chief.

There was the beating of the council drum. The warriors quickly assembled. The aged Medicine Man rose and made known the law of the Kiowas touching the case of Red Scar and Zepkhoeete:

Should a warrior steal another’s wife and remain away one sleep—a White Night sleep—and then return, he would not have lost his warrior’s place nor right—the right of a fight to the death with the offended husband. But—should he not return, or should he kill one who pursued him, or should he be caught, he should be looked upon as an outlaw and therefore worthy of death, which he must suffer as a criminal.

“Zepkhoeete stands ready to meet in mortal combat Him, the aggrieved Red Scar,” the speaker went on. “Red Scar must fight if he would stay a member of the tribe. To stay without a fight Red Scar must cease to be a warrior. He must fight to the death!.

“Now,” commanded Setayte, when the Medicine Man had finished, “let the warriors meet in fight.

A prolonged “ho-oo-o-oo-oh!” from every throat announced the universal approval.

It was Red Scar’s right to choose the weapons. He well knew the skill that had given the younger man  the name Big Bow, so he chose the knife.

That fight lingers yet in the memory of the Kiowas, and the prowess of one of the combatants is still sung by the campfires and at the feasts.

The men faced each other, stripped to the skin save for a bit of buckskin about their loins.

Red Scar seemed to have the advantage in brawn and weight. His muscles gathered in hard bunches and stood out in ridges with every movement of his seasoned body.

Zepkhoeete was the superior in strength and agility. He stood still as a sapling.

The people gathered in a big circle about them.

Tsilta was seated upon a robe beside the aged Medicine Man. Her alert eyes, quick-heaving bosom and expectant attitude told the tale of her deep concern.

The scar flamed out the deadly hatred in his heart as its owner fastened his piercing eyes upon the face of his youthful antagonist, who stood in easy attitude waiting for the word.

A knife was handed to each one.

Red Scar took his with a savage grab, and the fight was on.

Zepkhoeete went with a rush, but halted just out of reach of the other’s knife, as it swept in a circle towards him.

Again the young warrior approached, this time carefully, inch by inch, body crouching, every nerve and sense alert. Almost within reach of his tall foe he halted and gave a backward spring—none too soon. The other stood in his tracks.

Zepkhoeete must go to him. He did go, this time erect, feinting, sidestepping and dancing away, elusive as a shadow. The gleaming knife of Red Scar played in circles and thrusts above and around face and body but it never touched the agile youth, who twisted, ducked and glided in and out, now leaping high into the air, now backward and again forward, almost within the embrace of his enemy, always his taunting face not far from the glistening weapon.

Red Scar, with great self-restraint, waited for the favourable opportunity for one good thrust. Not for a moment did he take his gleaming gaze from the face of the youth.

“A stiff-legged buffalo is Red Scar,” laughed the young warrior tauntingly, as he straightened up out of reach. “He stands in the place his blood shall make red.”

There was no reply.

“He fights not well in the daytime. He stuck a knife into his best friend’s back. He crept out into the darkness to do it. He is a coyote.”

Still no reply from the grim warrior.

The supple youth lurched back just in time to avoid a vicious stab as Red Scar took one quick advancing step.

Then Zepkhoeete thrust out his face while a sneering smile played over it, and hurled the deadliest insult known to a Kiowa warrior:

“Red Scar is a woman, he-”

He did not finish the sentence.

He of the marred visage bounded forward. There was a swish of his knife which the other narrowly escaped. But before he could recover, the fingers of Zepkhoeete closed upon his throat, the leg of Zepkhoeete met his in a grapevine twist, and with a thud on the ground Red Scar lay upon his back with eyes starting from their sockets as he gasped for breath. The knife of Zepkhoeete was poised for the home thrust. It hung for a moment as an eagle hangs before it swoops upon its prey.

“If Red Scar say he is a woman, Red Scar may live"' hissed the voice of the victor.

Came no reply from the fallen man.

“Let Red Scar say he has the heart of a woman, Red Scar shall live,” repeated the triumphant youth as he planted his foot upon the heaving breast of the vanquished warrior.

The reply came guttural and firm:

“Red Scar is a man. He can die.”

Zepkhoeete lifted away his foot. Admiration mingled with his smile of triumph. He threw away his knife and beckoned to Tsilta, who went directly to him. He took her by the hand and drew her to the centre of the circle. Then he turned defiantly to the assembled warriors.

“Men of the Kiowas,” he said, “this woman has not violated her wifehood. She is true. For three winters I have planned she should kindle the fire in my lodge. Red Scar had ponies. He gave them to her father. Her father gave her to Red Scar. I have kept the law of the Kiowas. I have spoken no word to her to shame a Kiowa warrior. I love her. Dare any one of you say she shall not be my wife? Let him who dares, step out I meet him here and now with the knife.”

He paused for the answer. A shout of applause burst from the men. He strode toward his lodge.

Tsilta with light step followed, her black hair floating like a soft cloud behind her. At the door she turned in time to see Red Scar leap upon a horse and dash madly across the prairie.

Red Scar never returned.


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