Winter-man's Fury

Long ago, when big winters stayed on the southern plains most of the year, Air was always restless. Wind, Rain, Sun, and Snow were supposed to take turns visiting the Cheyennes. But Snow bullied everyone and took up more than his share of time.

Wind, when it got over the top of the great Rocky Mountains, was so pleased to be free that it whirled across the prairie and made the stout little grasses blow dizzily back and forth. Sometimes Wind blew hard and cold.

Other times it blew soft and warm. Gentle or fierce, Wind stayed around as long as it could. Rain, on the other hand, came only in summer. It stayed until the tightly bundled roots of prairie grasses came alive. Then it headed eastward. And Sun appeared.

Sun stood high in the sky warming the prairie grasses and making them grow thick and green. It stayed until the animals who came to graze grew round and plump. Then it made way for Ho-e-ma-ha, the Winter-Man, who nipped at its heels and often refused to wait his turn.

By September, Winter-Man was already hiding under the shade of a tree during the day, but he came out only at night. In October, he walked boldly across the hilltops and onto the grassland, coming closer and closer to the Cheyenne people.

Winter-Man could not be trusted, so the Cheyennes always prepared themselves for a terrible winter. When Winter-Man was in a good mood, meat supplies lasted until he went away. But if he was in a bad mood, the people grew hungry long before he left.

Running Fast, a young Cheyenne boy, kept watch for signs of Ho-e-ma-ha. “Look,” said Running Fast to his grandfather one day, “Winter-Man’s moccasins have touched the earth. The grasses have turned brown.”

“I see,” said Grandfather. “And he is breathing on the trees. The leaves have turned yellow and are falling.”

The birds tucked in their wings, flattened their feathers, and flew south; bears curled up in rotten logs and hibernated; wolves, foxes, and other small animals took refuge in rock caves; and deer, elk, and antelope nestled into deep ravines trying to stay warm. The buffalo just turned their backs and began a slow amble southward.

While everyone was scurrying around, Ho-e-ma-ha picked up his magic flute and began to play a high-pitched dissonant tune. Soon sleet and icy winds blew down on the grassy plains.

The Cheyennes took refuge in their large warm tipis. “I think Winter-Man is very angry,” said Running Fast. “He has returned without warning.”

Winter-Man had only begun to show his power. He stood up, shook out his powerful great long robe, and snow followed. For two long moons the Cheyennes stayed in their tipis while Winter-Man deluged them with snow and sleet. “It is good that we have stored much buffalo meat,” said Running Fast’s grandfather. “Or else we would die of starvation.”

Winter-Man waited on the ridge above the Cheyennes’ camp expecting an elder to come out and beg for mercy. When no one appeared, he became furious and made the storm even worse.

He sought out holes in the tipi covers and blew fiercely into every opening he could find. He even hovered above the very top of each tipi where the smoke escapes and blew straight down so billows of smoke filled the inside.

“Winter-Man has never been so angry,” said Running Fast’s grandfather. “Our buffalo meat is almost gone. Someone must go out and hunt.”

Three young braves volunteered. They wrapped themselves in heavy buffalo-skin robes, took up their strong bows, and slung round oblong-shaped quivers that held extra arrows over their shoulders.

Winter-Man watched with a twinkle in his eye. He had gleefully coated the snow with a thin layer of hard ice to cover the animal tracks and to make walking difficult for the hunters.

In these freezing conditions, the three young braves soon had to admit defeat, and they returned home empty-handed. In the meantime, Grandfather’s youngest son, Bow-in-Hand, returned home from a trip he had taken with a neighboring tribe.

“Things are very bad, Bow-in-Hand,” said his father.

“Winter-Man is very angry. His furious storm is almost two moons old, and we are running out of food. Our people are starving, and we can do nothing.”

“I will go and see him,” said Bow-in-Hand. “Where does he make his camp?”

“He is over the ridge to the north,” said his father. “But it will do no good. We cannot make him go away.”

For many years the Cheyennes had feared Ho-e-ma-ha because he held the whole land in his power. They did not believe that the magic eagle-feather fan, which Bow-in-Hand kept for his people, was powerful enough to stop Winter-Man. But Bow-in-Hand believed it held the power of Eagle-spirit.

Eagle-spirit had often helped to bring the buffalo to Cheyenne country and had guided the people in battle. Bow-in-Hand was willing to test the fan made from the eagle’s feathers against Winter-Man’s noisy flute and great long robe.

“Look what he has done to our young braves,” said Bow-in-Hand as he helped to carry the half-frozen young hunters into his father’s tipi. “I must try to stop him, or we will all die.”

“Then you must dress warmly. Here, take these,” said his father, handing Bow-in-Hand a stack of warm buffalo hides. But Bow-in-Hand merely waved the magic eagle-feather fan back and forth in the air to remind the old man of its power.

“Perhaps,” said his father. “Perhaps.”

Then Bow-in-Hand headed off to confront Winter-Man without taking any of the buffalo-skin robes offered to him by his father.

When Winter-Man saw Bow-in-Hand coming toward the ridge, he blew heavy drifts of snow into his path. Bow-in-Hand stepped lightly through the drifts and kept on walking. Then Winter-Man pelted him with sharp arrows of sleet.

Still Bow-in-Hand walked on. When he reached Winter-Man’s large tipi, he did not announce himself but, instead, opened the door and went inside. Bow-in-Hand’s boldness infuriated Winter-Man.

“How dare you come in here uninvited,” he snarled, although he himself had never waited for an invitation to visit Cheyenne country. Then to frighten the bold intruder, Winter-Man shook his robe until the tipi was filled with snow. When Bow-in-Hand refused to respond to this gesture, Winter-Man shot arrows of sleet at close range.

Again, Bow-in-Hand did not flinch. Instead, he waved his eagle-feather fan in Winter-Man’s face. As the fan moved back and forth, the snow began to melt. And the sleet turned to gentle drops of water.

“You cannot do this,” said Winter-Man. “My magic flute and robe have much more power than that feeble eagle-feather fan you carry.”

Then Winter-Man shuffled his great body around the tipi and looked at the walls as they melted away. He shot an icy stare at Bow-in-Hand, lifted his magic flute to his mouth, and blew loud angry noises instead of notes.

The snow continued to fall, but as it fell it melted. And the sleet turned to rain.

Winter-Man’s great frosty eyes narrowed as he stared at the weightless eagle-feather fan Bow-in-Hand waved in front of him. Then Winter-Man took off his great robe and shook it with all of his might. More snow filled the tipi. But it, too, quickly melted.

At last it grew so warm inside the tipi that Winter-Man’s children ran outside and hid in the cracks and fissures of the rocks. Defeated, Winter-Man stormed out the door and headed north.

When Bow-in-Hand returned home, he told his people that Winter-Man was gone forever. But he warned them that Winter-Man’s children had not gone away with him and remained behind, hiding out in the crevices of rocks. “We must find them and send them away, too,” Bow-in-Hand warned his people.

So the people filled large buffalo-skin bags with hot water and poured it into the cracks and crannies of rocks all over Cheyenne country. Nevertheless, many of Winter-Man’s children squirmed deep down between the cracks where the water could not flow.

Winter-Man never again returned to Cheyenne country. But his children still take their turns each year to bring kinder, gentler winters to the southern plains.