7 The Magic Feather
THE MAGIC FEATHER.
N the depths of the forest in the land of the Dacotahs stood a wigwam many leagues distant from any other. The old man who had been known to live in it was supposed to have died; but he kept himself in hiding for the sake of his little grandson, whose mother had brought him there to escape the giants.
The Dacotahs had once been a brave and mighty people. They were swift runners and proud of their fleetness. It had been told among the nations for many generations that a great chief should spring from this tribe, and that he should conquer all his enemies, even the giants who had made themselves strong by eating the flesh of those they took in battle and drinking their blood. This great chief should wear a white feather and should be known by its name.
The giants believed the story and sought to prevent it coming true. So they said to the Dacotahs: “Let us run a race. If you win you shall have our sons and our daughters to do with them as you please, and if we win we will take yours.”
Some of the wise Indians shook their heads and said: “Suppose the giants win; they will kill our children and will serve them as dainty food upon their tables.” But the young men answered: “Kaw: who can outrun the Dacotahs? We shall return from the race with the young giants bound hand and foot, to fetch and carry for us all our days.” So they agreed to the wager and ran with the giants.
Now, it was not to be supposed that the giants would act fairly. They dug pitfalls on the prairie, covering them with leaves and grass, which caused the runners to stumble, and lose the race.
The Dacotahs, therefore, had to bring out their children and give them to the giants. When they were counted one child was missing. The giants roared with anger and made the whole tribe search for him, but he could not be found. Then the giants killed the father instead and ate his flesh, grumbling and muttering vengeance with every mouthful.
This was the child whose home was in the forest. When he was still a very little fellow his grandfather made him a tiny bow and some smooth, light arrows, and taught him how to use them.
The first time he ventured from the lodge he brought home a rabbit, the second time a squirrel, and he shot a fine, large deer long before he was strong enough to drag it home.
One day when he was about fourteen years old, he heard a voice calling to him as he went through the thick woods:
Come hither, you wearer of the white feather. You do not yet wear it, but you are worthy of it.”
He looked about, but at first saw no one. At last he caught sight of the head of a little old man among the trees. On going up to it he discovered that the body from the heart downwards was wood and fast in the earth. He thought some hunter must have leaped upon a rotten stump and, it giving way, had caught and held him fast; but he soon recognized the roots of an old oak that he well knew. Its top had been blighted by a stroke of lightning, and the lower branches were so dark that no birds built their nests on them, and few even lighted upon them.
The boy knew nothing of the world except what his grandfather had taught him. He had once found some lodge poles on the edge of the forest and a heap of ashes like those about their own wigwam, by which he guessed that there were other people living. He had never been told why he was living with an old man so far away from others, or of his father, but the time had come for him to know these things.
The head which had called him, said as he came near: “Go home, White Feather, and lie down to sleep. You will dream, and on waking will find a pipe, a pouch of smoking mixture, and a long white feather beside you. Put the feather on your head, and as you smoke you will see the cloud which rises from your pipe pass out of the doorway as a flock of pigeons.” The voice then told him who he was, and also that the giants had never given up looking for him. He was to wait for them no longer, but to go boldly to their lodge and offer to race with them. “Here,” said the voice, “is an enchanted vine which you are to throw over the head of every one who runs with you.”
White Feather, as he was thenceforth called, picked up the vine, went quickly home and did as he had been told. He heard the voice, awoke and found the pouch of tobacco, the pipe, and the white feather. Placing the feather on his head, he filled the pipe and sat down to smoke.
His grandfather, who was at work not far from the wigwam, was astonished to see flocks of pigeons flying over his head, and still more surprised to find that they came from his own doorway. When he went in and saw the boy wearing the white feather, he knew what it all meant and became very sad, for he loved the boy so much that he could not bear the thought of losing him.
The next morning White Feather went in search of the giants. He passed through the forest, out upon the prairie and through other woods across another prairie, until at last he saw a tall lodge pole in the middle of the forest. He went boldly up to it, thinking to surprise the giants, but his coming was not unexpected, for the little spirits which carry the news had heard the voice speaking to him and had hastened to tell those whom it most concerned.
The giants were six brothers who lived in a lodge that was ill-kept and dirty. When they saw the boy coming they made fun of him among themselves; but when he entered the lodge they pretended that they were glad to see him and flattered him, telling him that his fame as a brave had already reached them.
White Feather knew well what they wanted. He proposed the race; and though this was just what they had intended doing, they laughed at his offer. At last they said that if he would have it so, he should try first with the smallest and weakest of their number.
They were to run towards the east until they came to a certain tree which had been stripped of its bark, and then back to the starting point, where a war-club made of iron was driven into the ground. Whoever reached this first was to beat the other’s brains out with it.
White Feather and the youngest giant ran nimbly on, and the giants, who were watching, were rejoiced to see their brother gain slowly but surely, and at last shoot ahead of White Feather. When his enemy was almost at the goal, the boy, who was only a few feet behind, threw the enchanted vine over the giant’s head, which caused him to fall back helpless. No one suspected anything more than an accident, for the vine could not be seen except by him who carried it.
After White Feather had cut off the giant’s head, the brothers thought to get the better of him, and begged him to leave the head with them, for they thought that by magic they might bring it back to life, but he claimed his right to take it home to his grandfather.
The next morning he returned to run with the second giant, whom he defeated in the same manner; the third morning the third, and so on until all but one were killed.
As he went towards the giant’s lodge on the sixth morning he heard the voice of the old man of the oak tree who had first appeared to him. It came to warn him. It told him that the sixth giant was afraid to race with him, and would therefore try to deceive him and work enchantment on him. As he went through the wood he would meet a beautiful woman, the most beautiful in the world. To avoid danger he must wish himself an elk and he would be changed into that animal. Even then he must keep out of her way, for she meant to do him harm.
White Feather had not gone far from the tree when he met her. He had never seen a woman before, and this one was so beautiful that he wished himself an elk at once for he was sure she would bewitch him. He could not tear himself away from the spot, however, but kept browsing near her, raising his eyes now and then to look at her.
She went to him, laid her hand upon his neck and stroked his sides. Looking from him she sighed, and as he turned his head towards her, she reproached him for changing himself from a tall and handsome man to such an ugly creature. “For,” said she, “I heard of you in a distant land, and, though many sought me, I came hither to be your wife.”
As White Feather looked at her he saw tears shining in her eyes, and almost before he knew it he wished himself a man again. In a moment he was restored to his natural shape, and the woman flung her arms about his neck and kissed him.
By and by she coaxed him to lie down on the ground and put his head on her lap. Now, this beautiful woman was really the giant in disguise; and as White Feather lay with his head on her knee, she stroked his hair and forehead, and by her magic put him to sleep. Then she took an ax and broke his back. This done, she changed herself into the giant, turned White Feather into a dog, and bade him follow to the lodge.
The giant took the white feather and placed it on his own head, for he knew there was magic in it; and he wished to make the tribes honor him as the great warrior they had long expected.
In a little village but a woman’s journey from the home of the giants lived a chief named Red Wing. He had two daughters, White Weasel and Crystal Stone, each noted for her beauty and haughtiness, though Crystal Stone was kind to every one but her lovers, who came from far and near, and were a constant source of jealousy to White Weasel, the elder. The eldest of the giants was White Weasel’s suitor, but she was afraid of him, so both the sisters remained unmarried.
When the news of White Feather’s race with the giants came to the village, each of the maidens determined that she would win the young brave for a husband. White Weasel wanted some one who would be a great chief and make all the tribes afraid of him. Crystal Stone loved him beforehand, for she knew he must be good as well as brave, else the white feather would not have been given to him. Each kept the wish to herself and went into the woods to fast, that it might come true.
When they heard that White Feather was on his way through the forest, White Weasel set her lodge in order and dressed herself gaily, hoping thereby to attract his attention. Her sister made no such preparation, for she thought so brave and wise a chief would have too good sense to take notice of a woman’s finery.
When the giant passed through the forest, White Weasel went out and invited him into her lodge. He entered and she did not guess that it was the giant of whom she had been in such fear.
Crystal Stone invited the dog into her lodge—her sister had shut him out—and was kind to it, as she had always been to dumb creatures. Now, although the dog was enchanted and could not change his condition, he still had more than human sense and knew all the thoughts of his mistress. He grew to love her more and more every day and looked about for some way to show it.
One day when the giant was hunting on the prairie, the dog went out to hunt also; but he ran down to the bank of the river. He stepped cautiously into the water and drew out a large stone, which was turned into a beaver as soon as it touched the ground. He took it home to his mistress, who showed it to her sister and offered to share it with her. White Weasel refused it, but told her husband he had better follow the dog and discover where such fine beavers could be had.
The giant went, and hiding behind a tree, saw the dog draw out a stone, which turned into a beaver. After the animal had gone home he went down to the water and drew out a stone, which likewise turned into a beaver. He tied it to his belt and took it home, throwing it down at the door of the lodge.
When he had been at home a little while, he told his wife to go and bring in his belt. She did so, but there was no beaver tied to it, only a large, smooth stone such as he had drawn out of the water.
The dog, knowing that he had been watched, would not go for more beavers; but the next day went through the woods until he came to a charred tree. He broke off a small branch, which turned into a bear as soon as he took hold of it to carry it home. The giant, who had been watching him, also broke off a branch, and he, too, secured a bear; but when he took it home and told his wife to fetch it in, she found only a black stick.
Then White Weasel became very angry and scoffed at her husband, asking him if this was the way he had done the wonderful things that had made his fame. “Ugh!” she said, “you are a coward, though you are so big and great.”
The next day, after the giant had gone out, she went to the village to tell her father, Red Wing, how badly her husband treated her in not bringing home food. She also told him that her sister, who had taken the dog into her wigwam, always had plenty to eat, and that Crystal Stone pitied the wife of the wearer of the white feather, who often had to go hungry.
Red Wing listened to her story and knew at once that there must be magic at work somewhere. He sent a company of young men and women to the lodge of Crystal Stone to see if White Weasel’s story were true, and if so to bring his younger daughter and the dog to his wigwam.
Meanwhile the dog had asked his mistress to give him a bath such as the Indians take. They went down to the river, where he pointed out a spot on which she was to build him a lodge. She made it of grass and sticks, and after heating some large stones laid them on the floor, leaving only just enough room for the dog to crawl in and lie down. Then she poured water on the stones, which caused a thick steam that almost choked him. He lay in it for a long time, after which, raising himself, he rushed out and jumped into a pool of water formed by the river. He came out a tall, handsome man, but without the power of speech.
The messengers from Red Wing were greatly astonished at finding a man instead of the dog that they had expected to see, but had no trouble in persuading him and Crystal Stone to go with them.
Red Wing was as much astonished as his messengers had been, and called all the wise men of the tribe to witness what should take place, and to give counsel concerning his daughters.
The whole tribe and many strangers soon assembled. The giant came also and brought with him the magic pipe that had been given to White Feather in his dream. He smoked it and passed it to the Indians to smoke, but nothing came of it. Then White Feather motioned to them that he wished to take it. He also asked for the white feather, which he placed on his head; when, at
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“Lo! Clouds of blue and white pigeons rushed from the smoke.”
the first whiff from the pipe, lo! clouds of blue and white pigeons rushed from the smoke.
The men sprang to their feet, astonished to see such magic. White Feather’s speech returned, and in answer to the questions put to him, he told his story to the chief.
Red Wing and the council listened and smoked for a time in silence. Then the oldest and wisest brave ordered the giant to appear before White Feather, who should transform him into a dog. White Feather accomplished this by knocking upon him the ashes from the magic pipe. It was next decreed that the boys of the tribe should take the war-clubs of their fathers and, driving the animal into the forest, beat him to death.
White Feather wished to reward his friends, so he invited them to a buffalo hunt, to take place in four days’ time, and he bade them prepare many arrows. To make ready for them, he cut a buffalo robe into strips, which he sowed upon the prairie.
On the day appointed the warriors found that these shreds of skin had grown into a large herd of buffaloes. They killed as many as they pleased, for White Feather tipped each arrow with magic, so that none missed their aim.
A grand feast followed in honor of White Feather’s triumph over the giants and of his marriage with Crystal Stone.