Eagle Flies woke to the sight of his grandfather’s face, dark and lined with age, hovering over him.
“This is the day,” he said, his voice as cracked as the skin around his eyes. “Go before the sun touches the mountains, Eagle Flies. Find the Golden Arrow, and you return to your people a man and a hero.”
How often Eagle Flies had heard his grandfather speak those words, and how often he had dreamed of beginning his quest. How often he had fashioned arrows and gutted fish and tended horses and run through the thick pine forests half distracted, his mind spinning with visions of his triumphant return. The sun would shine on him, and his people would raise a cheer, and he, Eagle Flies, would claim the title of Chief when the time came.
Yet here he was, waking on the morning his adventures would begin, and he was cold and anxious, his stomach shrunken to a hard knot.
He scooped up his pack and slung it over his shoulder. He took his quiver and bow as well, wishing that he were bigger, that he’d come into his full size and strength. He looked to his grandfather, whose face was set, his eyes bright. The old man gave a nod, and Eagle Flies stepped through the leather flap door of his tepee and struck out towards the mountains.
The wind was cold on his face. It whipped his straight black hair into tangles and burned his cheeks. The melting snow ran in channels and rivulets down into the valley, and Eagle Flies jumped the streams that crossed his path. When night came on, he built a fire and unrolled his pack and huddled beneath a heavy buffalo skin. He fell asleep with his grandfather’s words ringing in his head. “Find the Golden Arrow, and you return to your people a man and a hero.”
The sun rose in the morning, an arc of dazzling yellow appearing over the far edge of the mountains, and Eagle Flies smiled to himself, already envisioning his sunlit return, and continued on his way.
Late on the second day, Eagle Flies heard battle cries and the screaming of horses and the whizzing of arrows in the distance. He crept up to the sounds, peering through a tight cluster of pines to a field of battle. The warriors clashed and parted and came together again, some mounted on painted horses and others moving noiselessly in soft moccasins over the mossy ground. Eagle Flies shut his eyes against the sight. He wanted to be a man and a hero. He wanted to be brave. But this was not his fight, and the sight of bloodshed was not at all what he and his friends had imagined in their mock battles.
A low moan forced him to open his eyes. Eagle Flies saw a fallen warrior, just beyond the trees where he hid, lying on the edge of the field. He slipped from the cluster of trunks and took a closer look at the warrior. The man’s eyes met his. Eagle Flies could not move. His gaze fell to the warrior’s leg, where a deep cut crossed his thigh. The boy looked at the man again and made a choice. He hurried to the fallen warrior, took out his dagger, cut a strip from the man’s tunic, and tied it tightly around his leg. Then, he stood behind the man and put his hands under his shoulders and dragged him under the cover of the trees.
The warrior groaned and took one last grieving glance at the battlefield before allowing his head to fall back against the ground. “Shooting Star,” he said. “I am Shooting Star, and I thank you, young warrior.”
“Eagle Flies,” the boy replied, “but I am no warrior. I am on a quest.”
“What do you seek?” Shooting Star asked.
“The Golden Arrow,” Eagle Flies replied, his eyes shining.
Shooting Star gave him a weak smile. “When night comes, Eagle Flies, the battlefield will be emptied. If you will build a fire and share your food and water, I will help you on your quest.”
Eagle Flies smiled in return, and the two made a small camp in the thick of the forest while the sounds of battle died away in the distant field. Eagle Flies shot a rabbit and cleaned and roasted it. He shared his meal with Shooting Star and brought water to quench his thirst and shared his buffalo skin to keep off the chill of the night. And in the morning, Shooting Star cleaned and tightened the bandage on his leg and stood, and the two continued the journey over the mountains.
They traveled many days, and Shooting Star grew stronger. He told Eagle Flies of his people and his village and of the quest he completed when he was a boy of almost Eagle Flies’ age. He’d found a blue serpent in a cave in the heart of the mountains and brought it home alive. The story filled Eagle Flies with still more visions of his victorious return, and his steps and his heart were light, even as the snows fell heavy.
One night, as the snow and the gathering dark blanketed the two travelers, Shooting Star stopped suddenly and made a motion to Eagle Flies to be silent and listen. Behind them, faintly, came the sound of panting and the muffled crunch of paws in wet snow. A wolf.
Eagle Flies stared wide-eyed at Shooting Star for just an instant. Then the two bolted ahead, running for their lives. Their feet were swift, their steps sure, but the night was dark, and the wolf closed in. The sounds of their enemy’s pursuit grew nearer and nearer, and their strength began to fail. All at once, Shooting Star stood still and turned to face the beast, his dagger raised in his hand. Eagle Flies skidded to a halt some ways past him and turned in horror to watch the contest.
But the wolf came into view and slowed and waited, sitting on its back paws just a few paces from Shooting Star. The beast whined, pointing its nose toward an arrow lodged in its hind leg. Eagle Flies watched as Shooting Star lowered his dagger first to his chest, then his waist. Shooting Star dropped the dagger to his side.
“No,” Eagle Flies breathed. But Shooting Star took no heed of his warning. He took a firm step in the direction of the wolf, then another and another. He stooped, clutched the shaft of the arrow, placed a steadying hand against the wolf’s back, and jerked.
The animal convulsed, whimpered, was still. Shooting Star stood and tossed the arrow into the shadows of the wood and turned to go.
“You took a great risk in helping me.” The voice was thick, muffled. Eagle Flies could not at first believe that it had come from the terrible unknown darkness behind the wolf’s jaws.
“There is little I can offer in return,” the wolf continued, “except wisdom to guide you on your journey.”
Eagle Flies and Shooting Star looked at one another and back at the beast.
“Ahead lies a river that is broad and swift. Its current is bitterly cold, and ice runs with it. You will not survive the crossing without the help of the man who lives on the shore, some ways west.” Here the wolf motioned with his nose. “He has a raft that will bear you safely over.”
Shooting Star bowed to the wolf, his head inclining slowly. He turned to Eagle Flies, who did likewise.
“Many thanks to you,” Shooting Star said.
The wolf slipped silently into the dark without another word.
Eagle Flies stole awed glances at Shooting Star as they made their way toward the hut by the river. What courage he had shown! This warrior was skilled enough to defeat his enemy, yet wise enough to wait and listen and learn. Were it not for Shooting Star, the two of them would likely have perished in the driving current of the wide river ahead. Still, Shooting Star’s heroism pricked at Eagle Flies’ pride. His friend had faced the enemy, while he had run. How could he return to his people, how could he prove himself a man and a hero if he turned from danger and fled like a child?
They found the hut, perched on the riverbank, with the raft moored to a tall wooden post. Shooting Star raised his hand to knock, and the door swung open. A man stood before them. His face had the drawn, silent look of one who has spent many a lonely hour by the fireside. His hair must have absorbed some of the spark from the flames, for it glinted in the firelight, gold against the gloom of the hut’s dim interior.
He motioned for the travelers to enter, set a pitcher of water on a small table, and placed a little cornmeal cake in each of their hands.
“Crossing the river?” he asked.
“Yes,” Eagle Flies replied. He spoke before Shooting Star, wanting the stranger to see his boldness. This was his quest, after all. “I go to find the Golden Arrow.”
The man studied him for a moment, glancing from his blue-black hair down to his moccassined feet. Eagle Flies waited for praise, or warning, for acknowledgement of some kind. He received nothing. Instead, the man turned sorrowful eyes toward the fire and stumbled over to stir the logs.
Eagle Flies was stung. His was a grand adventure, a noble quest. The Golden Arrow! This prize haunted the legends of all the mountain tribes. And he would claim it. He would prove his courage, like Shooting Star had done. Who was this old man to dismiss him, to walk away as though Eagle Flies would not one day lead a mighty tribe?
“Surely you know of the Golden Arrow,” Eagle Flies began. “You could not have lived so many years in these mountains without knowing of the arrow that pierced the breast of the Great Eagle!”
The man spoke without looking up. “I know of the Golden Arrow.”
Eagle Flies’ anger grew. “What ails you, old man, that you speak so of the Arrow? Do you think me nothing?”
The man’s eyes met his now, and they bored into Eagle Flies with a sorrow that stole his breath.
“I do not doubt the greatness of your quest, young warrior. You must forgive me. I suffer from an old wound that cannot be mended. It gives me much pain.”
Eagle Flies caught the reproving look in Shooting Star’s eyes. The billowing sails of his pride fell slack. He was ashamed.
Shooting Star asked, “Is there no one to care for you, then, no one to comfort you?”
The man moved away from the fire, leading the travelers out the door. “There is none to care for me. My wound has cut me off from my people. They cannot come to me, nor can I go to them.” He loosed the knot that held the raft in place, lifted a long pole from the underbrush, and beckoned Eagle Flies and Shooting Star onto the raft. He gave the pole to Shooting Star, who summoned all his strength to rive the raging current and bring the raft safe to the far shore.
When their crossing was complete, the travelers stepped off the raft, but Shooting Star was slow to relinquish the pole. “You’ll be alright on the return?”
The man nodded and made to go, but Eagle Flies blurted out the question that had plagued him through all their chilly crossing. “Is there nothing that will heal you? Nothing that would reunite you with your people?”
The snow-laden clouds parted, and moonlight and starlight dappled the valley. The old man’s face lit. “Only a feather from the breast of a golden eagle would end my sorrows.” He spoke lightly, wistfully, as though the possibility were as remote as the moon. Then he pushed off from the shore, gliding across the river and shrinking into the distance. Eagle Flies watched him until Shooting Star nudged him, and the two set out again.
They traveled clear to the other side of the mountains, through the ragged edge of winter and into the bright dawn of spring. They hunted and were hunted. They ate and drank and slept, or kept long watches through bitter nights while the wolves howled and bears pounded the ground with their great paws. They told tales and laughed together or sat silent in thought. And on a day when the sky was bright and clear as running water, when the birds sang and flowing grasses parted for the whimsy of the winds, they came into a broad meadow. In the heart of the meadow was a stand of willow trees, and in the midst of the trees was a low hill.
Eagle Flies stopped, noting how the sun bounced off of something long and thin, something very bright that rested on the crest of the little hill. It was there, just as his grandfather had told him in more stories than he could count, around their campfires or huddled beneath buffalo skins in their tepee. The Golden Arrow. When once he took it into his hands, he would become a man, and the men of his tribe would know him to be a man, and his fears and his questions would be put to rest forever. He looked to Shooting Star, who stood transfixed by the same glinting promise. They exchanged glances, smiled at one another, and stepped into the meadow, hurrying toward the Arrow and the end of their quest.
An eagle’s cry split the air, and Eagle Flies and Shooting Star hunched down, rushing to find cover in the willows, retreating from the talons of the mighty eagle that swooped into their path. Shooting Star huddled at one side of the mound, his back pressed against the trunk of a willow. Eagle Flies crouched at the opposite side, preparing for the next assault. But the eagle, instead of advancing, landed softly on the ground between them, shook its glistening golden feathers, tossed its head, and was still.
Eagle Flies waited. The sun was high overhead, the air warm and stuffy. Eagle Flies watched the immense bird, hardly daring to breathe. But the eagle only cocked its head to one side and shot him a piercing golden glance.
The minutes passed, and Eagle Flies grew thirsty. Gnats buzzed in his eyes and sought refuge in his nose, and at last he swatted them away, watching for the eagle’s reaction. When the bird did nothing, Eagle Flies looked to Shooting Star for encouragement. What he received was a complex reply, one in which Shooting Star’s courage and patience were bound up, a look that said, too, “This is your quest, Eagle Flies. What will you do?”
Eagle Flies remembered his grandfather’s face on the frigid morning he set out. More than anything, he wanted to prove to his grandfather, to everyone, that he was a man. He gathered all his courage and rose from his hiding place. He took one step toward the mound, then shot a frightened glance toward the eagle.
The eagle opened its yellow beak.
“You need not fear me, Eagle Flies. The Golden Arrow is yours to take. You have completed your quest.”
A rush of relief, of delight swept over Eagle Flies, loosening the rigid knot of his shoulders, and rushing out in a laughing sigh. He saw Shooting Star’s bright face, saw him nod his approval and his pride. How much Eagle Flies had to thank him for! He could never have come so far were it not for the mighty warrior who had walked at his side through every imaginable peril.
Eagle Flies approached the mound, saw the Golden Arrow resting in its place of honor. His heart swelled within him. He lifted his hand to touch the arrow, to take it, to make it his forever, an enduring proof of his skill and bravery. Unheeded, an old man’s face flashed before his eyes. He remembered the moonlight falling on the face of the one who had carried them safe over the wild river, the one he had treated with contempt and foolish pride. Without the help of the wounded man, he could not have stood in this bright meadow, with the Golden Arrow just beyond his grasp.
Eagle Flies let his hand fall to his side. His heart doubled its racing as he faced the eagle with a question. “May I have one of your golden feathers?”
The bird was very still.
“What use have you for one of my golden feathers, young warrior?”
“It is not for myself I ask it.”
The bird waited again before replying. “You may take a feather or you may take the Arrow, but you may not take both. Make your choice.”
Eagle Flies saw his triumphant return to his village. The vision had been crafted in intricate detail over many years of boyhood fantasies. But in those images, the sun had shone on him alone. The lights of the heavens existed only to illuminate his face and his glory. But his quest had taught him how the light moved over the faces of warriors and strangers and wolves and eagles, how even the flame that burned within his heart had been kindled by the light of his grandfather’s eyes.
He let his childish fantasies rise like steam and drift away on the wind.
“I choose the feather,” he said, with just a heartbeat’s hesitation.
The Eagle inclined its head, moving its beak over the brown-gold feathers of its breast. It chose one, plucked it out, placed it on the ground, and rose silently into the sky.
The homeward journey was quiet. Eagle Flies had much to think on, and Shooting Star did not trouble his solitude. The air was warm, the hunting good, and it seemed that all the dangers of their winter travels had melted with the last of the snow.
When at last they came within sight of the broad, swift river that had cut a path through Eagle Flies’ destiny, the boy quickened his pace. Shooting Star followed, and the two ran to the water’s edge and shouted a greeting across the rushing current. After a moment, the old man appeared, as grim and weary as ever, and raised a hand in welcome. He poled across to meet them, brought them again into his hut, and offered them food.
When he extended his hand toward Eagle Flies, presenting a humble corn cake to his guest, Eagle Flies could wait no longer. He took the hand, removed the cake, and dropped the golden feather lightly into the old man’s palm. All at once, light flooded the dim, shadowed hut. The old man’s eyes lit like burning coals as he drew the feather in close to his breast. His hair, his skin scattered light as he turned and fled the little hovel. Eagle Flies and Shooting Star rushed after him, watching in wonder as he took the shape of a mighty eagle, casting his worn clothes aside, and making one powerful leap from the ground at the river’s edge. His wings beat the air, and the setting sun glanced off his shining feathers as he rode the winds of evening.
The beauty of the old man’s flight, the knowledge that he was healed and whole and that he could return to his own, the delight of offering such a marvelous gift…all these filled Eagle Flies with joy. He stood at Shooting Star’s side and watched the sky, watched as the eagle faded from sight. But the wonder of the moment passed, and Eagle Flies dropped his gaze. He had still to return to his village empty-handed. He had still to face his grandfather with his failed quest.
“Look!” Shooting Star called his attention back to the sky, hand extended toward a single shaft of light that cut through the spreading dark like a moonbeam. It sped towards them, gathering the scraps of light still scattered over the horizon. It grew brighter and lovelier, more terrible and more fierce, until it whizzed into the ground at Eagle Flies’ feet and stood still.
It was the Golden Arrow.
Eagle Flies stared, his mind reeling.
“It seems you completed your quest after all,” Shooting Star said.
Eagle Flies never found any other or better words to express his astonishment. He returned to his village with Shooting Star at his side and offered the Golden Arrow as a gift to his grandfather. And more brilliant by far than any of Eagle Flies’ wild imaginings about his heroic homecoming was the light that shone from that cracked old face, from those wise, beloved eyes.