The Trial Path
It was an autumn night on the plain. The smoke-lapels of the cone-shaped
tepee flapped gently in the breeze. From the low night sky, with its
myriad fire points, a large bright star peeped in at the smoke-hole of
the wigwam between its fluttering lapels, down upon two Dakotas talking
in the dark. The mellow stream from the star above, a maid of twenty
summers, on a bed of sweetgrass, drank in with her wakeful eyes. On the
opposite side of the tepee, beyond the centre fireplace, the grandmother
spread her rug. Though once she had lain down, the telling of a story
has aroused her to a sitting posture.
Her eyes are tight closed. With a thin palm she strokes her wind-shorn
"Yes, my grandchild, the legend says the large bright stars are wise old
warriors, and the small dim ones are handsome young braves," she
reiterates, in a high, tremulous voice.
"Then this one peeping in at the smoke-hole yonder is my dear old
grandfather," muses the young woman, in long-drawn-out words.
Her soft rich voice floats through the darkness within the tepee, over
the cold ashes heaped on the centre fire, and passes into the ear of the
toothless old woman, who sits dumb in silent reverie. Thence it flies on
swifter wing over many winter snows, till at last it cleaves the warm
light atmosphere of her grandfather's youth. From there her grandmother
"Listen! I am young again. It is the day of your grandfather's death.
The elder one, I mean, for there were two of them. They were like twins,
though they were not brothers. They were friends, inseparable! All
things, good and bad, they shared together, save one, which made them
mad. In that heated frenzy the younger man slew his most intimate
friend. He killed his elder brother, for long had their affection made
The voice of the old woman broke. Swaying her stooped shoulders to and
fro as she sat upon her feet, she muttered vain exclamations beneath her
breath. Her eyes, closed tight against the night, beheld behind them the
light of bygone days. They saw again a rolling black cloud spread itself
over the land. Her ear heard the deep rumbling of a tempest in the
west. She bent low a cowering head, while angry thunder-birds shrieked
across the sky. "Heyã! heyã!" (No! no!) groaned the toothless
grandmother at the fury she had awakened. But the glorious peace
afterward, when yellow sunshine made the people glad, now lured her
memory onward through the storm.
"How fast, how loud my heart beats as I listen to the messenger's
horrible tale!" she ejaculates. "From the fresh grave of the murdered
man he hurried to our wigwam. Deliberately crossing his bare shins, he
sat down unbidden beside my father, smoking a long-stemmed pipe. He had
scarce caught his breath when, panting, he began:
"'He was an only son, and a much-adored brother.'
"With wild, suspecting eyes he glanced at me as if I were in league with
the man-killer, my lover. My father, exhaling sweet-scented smoke,
assented—'How,' Then interrupting the 'Eya' on the lips of the
round-eyed talebearer, he asked, 'My friend, will you smoke?' He took
the pipe by its red-stone bowl, and pointed the long slender stem
toward the man. 'Yes, yes, my friend,' replied he, and reached out a
long brown arm.
"For many heart-throbs he puffed out the blue smoke, which hung like a
cloud between us. But even through the smoke-mist I saw his sharp black
eyes glittering toward me. I longed to ask what doom awaited the young
murderer, but dared not open my lips, lest I burst forth into screams
instead. My father plied the question. Returning the pipe, the man
replied: 'Oh, the chieftain and his chosen men have had counsel
together. They have agreed it is not safe to allow a man-killer loose in
our midst. He who kills one of our tribe is an enemy, and must suffer
the fate of a foe.'
"My temples throbbed like a pair of hearts!
"While I listened, a crier passed by my father's tepee. Mounted, and
swaying with his pony's steps, he proclaimed in a loud voice these words
(hark! I hear them now!): "Ho-po! Give ear, all you people. A terrible
deed is done. Two friends—ay, brothers in heart—have quarreled
together. Now one lies buried on the hill, while the other sits, a
dreaded man-killer, within his dwelling." Says our chieftain: "He who
kills one of our tribe commits the offense of an enemy. As such he must
be tried. Let the father of the dead man choose the mode of torture or
taking of life. He has suffered livid pain, and he alone can judge how
great the punishment must be to avenge his wrong." It is done.
"'Come, every one, to witness the judgment of a father upon him who was
once his son's best friend. A wild pony is now lassoed. The man-killer
must mount and ride the ranting beast. Stand you all in two parallel
lines from the centre tepee of the bereaved family to the wigwam
opposite in the great outer ring. Between you, in the wide space, is the
given trial-way. From the outer circle the rider must mount and guide
his pony toward the centre tepee. If, having gone the entire distance,
the man-killer gains the centre tepee still sitting on the pony's back,
his life is spared and pardon given. But should he fall, then he himself
has chosen death.'
"The crier's words now cease. A lull holds the village breathless. Then
hurrying feet tear along, swish, swish, through the tall grass. Sobbing
women hasten toward the trialway. The muffled groan of the round
camp-ground is unbearable. With my face hid in the folds of my blanket,
I run with the crowd toward the open place in the outer circle of our
village. In a moment the two long files of solemn-faced people mark the
path of the public trial. Ah! I see strong men trying to lead the
lassoed pony, pitching and rearing, with white foam flying from his
mouth. I choke with pain as I recognize my handsome lover desolately
alone, striding with set face toward the lassoed pony. 'Do not fall!
Choose life and me!' I cry in my breast, but over my lips I hold my
"In an instant he has leaped astride the frightened beast, and the men
have let go their hold. Like an arrow sprung from a strong bow, the
pony, with extended nostrils, plunges halfway to the centre tepee. With
all his might the rider draws the strong reins in. The pony halts with
wooden legs. The rider is thrown forward by force, but does not fall.
Now the maddened creature pitches, with flying heels. The line of men
and women sways outward. Now it is back in place, safe from the kicking,
"The pony is fierce, with its large black eyes bulging out of their
sockets. With humped back and nose to the ground, it leaps into the air.
I shut my eyes. I can not see him fall.
"A loud shout goes up from the hoarse throats of men and women. I look.
So! The wild horse is conquered. My lover dismounts at the doorway of
the centre wigwam. The pony, wet with sweat and shaking with exhaustion,
stands like a guilty dog at his master's side. Here at the entranceway
of the tepee sit the bereaved father, mother, and sister. The old
warrior father rises. Stepping forward two long strides, he grasps the
hand of the murderer of his only son. Holding it so the people can see,
he cries, with compassionate voice, 'My son!' A murmur of surprise
sweeps like a puff of sudden wind along the lines.
"The mother, with swollen eyes, with her hair cut square with her
shoulders, now rises. Hurrying to the young man, she takes his right
hand. 'My son!' she greets him. But on the second word her voice shook,
and she turned away in sobs.
"The young people rivet their eyes upon the young woman. She does not
stir. With bowed head, she sits motionless. The old warrior speaks to
her. 'Shake hands with the young brave, my little daughter. He was your
brother's friend for many years. Now he must be both friend and brother
"Hereupon the girl rises. Slowly reaching out her slender hand, she
cries, with twitching lips, 'My brother!' The trial ends."
"Grandmother!" exploded the girl on the bed of sweet-grass. "Is this
"Tosh!" answered the grandmother, with a warmth in her voice. "It is all
true. During the fifteen winters of our wedded life many ponies passed
from our hands, but this little winner, Ohiyesa, was a constant member
of our family. At length, on that sad day your grandfather died, Ohiyesa
was killed at the grave."
Though the various groups of stars which move across the sky, marking
the passing of time, told how the night was in its zenith, the old
Dakota woman ventured an explanation of the burial ceremony.
"My grandchild, I have scarce ever breathed the sacred knowledge in my
heart. Tonight I must tell you one of them. Surely you are old enough
"Our wise medicine-man said I did well to hasten Ohiyesa after his
master. Perchance on the journey along the ghostpath your grandfather
will weary, and in his heart wish for his pony. The creature, already
bound on the spirit-trail, will be drawn by that subtle wish. Together
master and beast will enter the next camp-ground."
The woman ceased her talking. But only the deep breathing of the girl
broke the quiet, for now the night wind had lulled itself to sleep.
"Hinnu! hinnu! Asleep! I have been talking in the dark, unheard. I did
wish the girl would plant in her heart this sacred tale," muttered she,
in a querulous voice.
Nestling into her bed of sweet-scented grass, she dozed away into
another dream. Still the guardian star in the night sky beamed
compassionately down upon the little tepee on the plain.