This is a substantially rewritten version of “The Dun Horse.” This tale was collected on the Pawnee reservation by George Bird Grinnel and published in 1889 in his book titled “Pawnee Hero stories and Folk Tales.”
An Indian named Eagle Chief (warrior name White Eagle) on learning of Grinnel’s mission said:
“It is good and it is time. Already the old things are being lost, and those who knew the secrets are many of them dead. If we had known how to write we would have put these things down and they would not have been forgotten. But we could not write and these stories were handed down from one to another. The old men told their grandchildren and so the secrets and the stories and the doings of long ago have been handed down. It may be that they have changed as they passed from father to son, and it is well that they should be put down so that our children, when they are like the white people, can know what were their fathers’ ways.
This is my homage to “The Dun Horse.” I hope you like it too. ~EWA
The Dun Horse
by Edward Ahern
Long ago in the Pawnee tribe there lived an old woman and her grandson, a boy of sixteen. These two had no living relatives in the tribe and were very poor. The rest of the tribe despised them for having nothing, not even family.
The old woman and the boy always stayed behind when the tribe moved to new hunting grounds so they could search through the trash of the abandoned camp for things the other Pawnees had thrown away- shreds of buffalo robes, worn-out moccasins with holes in them and chunks of old bone and gristle.
One day as the old woman and her grandson followed behind on the trail of their tribe, they walked up to an old, bony dun horse which had been left to die by another band of Indians.
The dun horse swayed, worn out, thin, blind in one eye, with a sore back and swollen foreleg. The horse was in such poor condition that none of the Indians had been willing to drive it along with them on the trail.
But the old woman and the boy were not so fussy. They were used to having almost nothing. “Grandmother,” said the boy, “let’s put a rope on this old horse and have him carry our pack.”
And the old woman tied their small pack on the sore backed horse. They started to drive the horse along with them, but he limped badly and could only stumble along slowly.
Their Pawnee tribe had moved along the North Platte river until they came to a place now called Court House Rock. A week after they had pitched their camp the old woman and the boy slowly walked in with the dun horse.
Two days later some young braves who had been sent out to scout for buffalo came riding quickly back into the camp. They had found a large herd of buffalo nearby, and among the buffalos was a spotted calf, a rare, rare thing.
A robe made from a spotted calf is ti-war’-uka-ti, big medicine. When the head chief of the Pawnee tribe heard of the calf he ordered his crier to go through the camp and call out that the man who killed the spotted calf should have the chief’s daughter for a wife.
The other chiefs agreed to a race to the buffalo herd from the village, so that the man with the fastest horse would be most likely to kill the calf and win the daughter.
The young braves picked out their fastest horses and got ready for the hunt, even the poor boy on his dun horse. The rich young braves sat on their quick horses and laughed at the poor boy on his sway backed dun horse. “See, this is the horse that will catch up to the spotted calf!”
The poor boy was ashamed and rode slowly away to one side of the crowd of horsemen so he would not hear the cruel things the braves said about him.
After they had ridden away the dun horse stopped suddenly, turned his head around and spoke to the boy. “Take me down to the creek and plaster me all over with mud. Cover my face and neck, and body and legs.”
The boy was startled when he heard the horse speak, but he did as he was asked. After the boy had slapped mud all over the horse’s body the dun said, “Mount me now, but do not ride back to the warriors who laugh at you. Stay here until they begin their charge to the feeding grounds.”
Soon all the fine horses were drawn up in a line, prancing. At last the old crier yelled “Loo-ah” – Go!
The Pawnee warriors leaned forward, yelled and galloped off. Suddenly, far to the right, the dun horse was seen. He did not seem to gallop, but to sail through the tall grasses. The dun horse soon passed the other horses and rode into the buffalo herd. The horse charged past many buffalo and rode up to the spotted calf. The poor boy shot his arrow, U-ra-rish! The arrow flew hard and straight and the spotted calf fell.
The boy drew another arrow, U-ra-rish! and killed a fat cow that was running by. Then he jumped off the dun horse and began to skin the spotted calf before any of the other warriors could ride up.
When the other warriors rode up and saw the old dun horse, how changed it was. It pranced all about the dead calf and would barely stand still. Its back was clean and shiny, its legs were strong and both eyes were clear and bright.
After skinning the spotted calf and the cow the boy loaded the meat and cow robe on the dun horse and lashed the spotted robe on top. Even under the heavy load of meat and hides the dun horse pranced and was skittish.
As the boy was leading the horse back to camp a rich young chief rode up to him and offered the boy twelve good horses for the spotted robe, for the young chief wanted to marry the head chief’s beautiful daughter. But the boy just laughed at the chief and would not sell the robe.
Other warriors had ridden back to camp first. One rode up to the old woman and said, “Your grandson has killed the spotted calf!”
The old woman got angry. “Why do you tell me this? You should be ashamed to make fun of my grandson because he is poor.”
“What I tell you is true,” said the warrior and rode off.
A little later another brave rode up to the old woman, “Your grandson has killed the spotted calf.” The old woman tried not to cry. She felt bad that everyone was making fun of her grandson.
Soon the boy walked into camp leading the dun horse up to his grandmother’s lodge. It was a little lodge, just enough for two people, made of old pieces of skin the grandmother had found, tied together with strings of rawhide and sinew. It was the worst lodge in the camp.
The boy stopped at the lodge and when the grandmother saw the dun horse loaded with meat and robes she could not speak for shock.
“Here,” the boy said, “I have brought you plenty of meat to eat, and here is a cow robe that you can have for yourself. Haul the meat from the horse.”
And the old woman laughed, for her heart was glad. But when she tried to pull the meat from the dun horse’s back the horse jumped and bucked as if wild. The woman could not believe it was the same horse. Finally the boy had to unload the horse himself, although it was not his work, for it would not allow the woman to come near.
That night when the boy walked out of the lodge to check on the dun horse, the horse spoke to him again. “Wat-ti-nes Chah-ra-rat wa-ta. Tomorrow Sioux come, a large war party. They will attack the camp, and there will be a great fight. When the Sioux are lined up for battle, jump on me and ride into the middle of them. Ride to the head chief, their greatest warrior, count coup on him, kill him, and ride back. Do this four times, count coup on three more of the bravest Sioux and kill them, but do not ride out a fifth time. If you return a fifth time you will either die or you will lose me.”
The boy promised. The next day, as the horse had said, the Sioux came to the camp and formed a line of battle. The boy jumped on the dun horse and charged into them.
When the Sioux saw that the boy was trying to strike their chief they shot arrows so thickly the sky was black, but none touched him. And the boy counted coup on the chief, killed him, and rode back. Four times the boy did this, as the horse had told him.
But the Sioux and the Pawnee kept fighting and the boy stood back next to the dun horse watching the battle. At last he felt ashamed that he was not in the battle and thought, “I have been in battle four times and have beaten four Sioux. I am not hurt anywhere; why can I not go in again?”
The boy jumped on the dun horse and rode back into the battle. As soon as he rode in a Sioux chief shot an arrow that struck the dun horse behind the forelegs, piercing him through. The dun horse fell down dead, but the boy got up and fought his way back through the Sioux to the Pawnees.
After the dun horse had dropped the Sioux said among themselves, “This horse was like a man. He was brave. He was not like a horse.” So they did as they would do to a brave man, and cut the horse into pieces with their knives and hatchets.
The Pawnee and the Sioux fought all day long, but toward nightfall the Sioux warriors broke and fled.
That night after the battle the boy left the village to mourn for his horse. He went to where his horse lay, gathered the pieces and put them together in a pile. Then the boy went to the top of a nearby hill, pulled his spotted calf robe over his head and began to mourn for his horse.
As he crouched there a great wind storm roared over him in rushing waves, and after the wind came rain. The boy looked down at what was left of his horse, but could barely see it through the rain. Then the rain passed.
Then came another roaring wind and , after it, again rain. The boy looked down at the pile and through the rain it looked like a horse lying down, but he could barely see through the driving water.
A third storm came, like the others, and when he looked down at the horse he thought he could see the tail move and the horse’s head lift from the ground. The boy was afraid, and thought about running away, but stayed to mourn his horse.
A fourth storm came and as the rain pounded down the dun horse raised up on its forelegs, looked around, and stood up.
Although filled with fear the boy left the hilltop and walked down to the horse. The dun horse said, “You have seen how it has been this day; and from this you may know how it will be after. Ti-ra-wa has been good and let me come back to you. After this, do what I tell you, not any more, not any less.”
And the horse said, “Now lead me away from the camp until we are behind that big hill. Leave me there tonight and in the morning come for me.”
The boy did as he was told, and when he came back in the morning he saw the dun horse with a fine white gelding, handsomer than any other horse in the tribe.
For ten nights the boy did this and each morning he found another horse, a black gelding, a bay, a roam, a blue spotted; all finer than any horses the Pawnees had ever before had in their tribe.
Now the boy was rich, and he married the beautiful daughter of the head chief. In time the boy was made head chief. He always took good care of his old grandmother, and kept her in his own lodge until she died. He had many children, and one day, when his oldest son died, he wrapped him in the spotted calf robe,
The dun horse was never ridden except at a feast or a dance, and was led around wherever the chief went. The horse lived in the Pawnee camps for many years and became very old. And at last he died.