This is a tale the old men tell around the fire, when the stars are blown clean on a windy night, and the coyotes are howling on the Cree Jump. And when, sometimes, over the wind, comes clearly the sound of running horses, their hearers move a little closer to one another and pile more wood on the fire.
This is a story from a long time ago, say the Old Ones. What the man’s name was, no one knows now, and so they call him “The Traveler”.
Long ago, The Traveler was a wealthy chief. A warrior in his young days, he had taken many scalps, many horses, and many another trophy of value. And he had increased his possessions by hard dealings with that less fortunate, and by gambling with younger men who were no match for his cunning.
His fellow tribesmen did not love him although they admired his bravery, for in times of hardship, when other chiefs shared freely whatever they had, he drove hard bargains and generally prospered from the ills of others. His wives he had abused till their parents took them away; his children hated him, and he had no love for them.
There was only one thing he cared for: his horses. They were fine horses, beautiful horses, for he kept only the best; and when a young warrior returned from a raid with a particularly good horse, The Traveler never rested until (whether by fair means or not) he had it in his possession. At night, when the dance drum was brought out, and the other Indians gathered round it, The Traveler went alone to the place where his horses were picketed, to gloat over his treasures. He loved them. But he loved only the ones that were young, and handsome, and healthy a horse that was old, or sick, or injured, received only abuse.
One morning, when he went to the little valley in which his horses were kept, he found in the herd an ugly white stallion. He was old, with crooked legs, and a matted coat, thin, and tired looking.
The Traveler flew into a rage. He took his rawhide rope, and caught the poor old horse. Then, with a club, he beat him unmercifully. When the animal fell to the ground, stunned, The Traveler broke his legs with the club, and left him to die. He returned to his lodge, feeling not the slightest remorse for his cruelty.
Later, deciding he might as well have the hide of the old horse, he returned to the place where he had left him. But, to his surprise, the white stallion was gone. That night, as The Traveler slept, he had a dream. The white stallion appeared to him, and slowly turned into a beautiful horse, shining white, with long mane and tail – a horse more lovely than any The Traveler had ever seen.
Then the Stallion spoke: “If you had treated me kindly,” the stallion said, “I would have brought you more horses. You were cruel to me, so I shall take away the horses you have!”
When The Traveler awoke, he found his horses were gone. All that day, he walked and searched, but when at nightfall he fell asleep exhausted, he had found no trace of them. In his dreams, the White Stallion came again, and said, “Do you wish to find your horses? They are north, by a lake. You will sleep twice, before you come to it.”
As soon as he awakened in the morning, The Traveler hastened northward. Two days’ journey, and when he came to the lake there were no horses. That night, the Ghost Stallion came again. “Do you wish to find your horses?” he said. “They are east, in some hills. There will be two sleeps before you came to the place.’
When the sun had gone down on the third day, The Traveler had searched the hills, but had found no horses. And so it went night after night the Stallion came to The Traveler, directing him to some distant spot, but he never found his horses. He grew thin, and foots sore. Sometimes he got a horse from some friendly camp; sometimes he stole one, in the night. But always, before morning, would come a loud drumming of hoofs, the Ghost Stallion and his band would gallop by, and the horse of The Traveler would break its picket, and go with them.
And never again did he have a horse; never again did he see his own lodge. And he wanders, even to this day, the old men say, still searching for his lost horses.
Sometimes, they say, on a windy autumn night when the stars shine very clearly, and over on the Cree Jump the coyote’s howl, above the wind you may hear a rush of running horses, and the stumbling footsteps of an old man. And, if you are very unlucky, you may see the Stallion and his band, and The Traveler, still pursuing them, still trying to get back his beautiful horses.