“It is today, Sahale, that we celebrate your passage into manhood,” the old man said standing over the three boys. Eddie sat cross-legged by the fire while his best friends Danny and Zeke—known formally as Keokuk and Kele—circled him with smoldering sage bundles. The savory scented smoke washed over him in fragrant waves. The old man stood quiet and still while Eddie’s friends completed their tasks in the ritual. His dark eyes behind the deep and wise lines of age were fixed on Eddie’s face, making him shift uncomfortably. “Today, the Great Spirit will decide your destiny.”
His father called him Eddie when he was a baby. He usually went by that, but he liked his tribal name, too. Sahale meant higher place in Apache, but he only ever heard it when one of two things happened: First was from his mother when he was in trouble, and Eddie had caused a lot of that in his fourteen years. The second is when he was a part of official tribal business during the investigation of his father’s death. Today was the third time he’d been addressed with his native name formally by a tribal elder, his grandfather, who sat across from him now. After his grandfather said the rites, he waved his hand dismissively at Eddie. It was time.
“Away with you, Sahale. San Jacinto awaits,” the old man said with a dismissive wave. “Kele, Keokuk, tell Hania to prepare the way.”
The two boys led Eddie out of the Wikiup, where Hania, their medicine man, awaited his arrival. He was a terrifying sight in his black and gray wolf’s head cloak and red-painted body. In his hand was a long spear and a small coil of rope. Danny was afraid of Hania anyway even without the formal dress, but he had to be brave for his younger friend. Today was the day Eddie would either join their ranks as a brave of the Apache, or join with the Great Spirit and watch over them from the pastures of the sky. He looked over to Zeke, who gave a reassuring nod. They both handed their sage bundles to Eddie and sank back into the crowd gathered to watch the spectacle.
“You are found worthy of trial. Come, Sahale,” was all Hania said, turning his back and walking toward the mountain trail. The others around them, adorned in tribal finery no outsider had ever seen, erupted in whoops of encouragement. With ceremonial spears and bows raised in triumph, they willed Eddie forward. Bile climbed high in his throat. He looked up at the path before him as far as he could see to the peak of the great mountain, San Jacinto. It disappeared into the cold mist swirling above. Hania handed Eddie the coil of rope, but held on to the spear. “Now, we go up.”
Eddie heard stories of the bravery ceremony from as far back as he could remember. His grandfather loved to tell of his own trial with the Great Yellow Eagle. He remembered the old man’s words. One day Sahale, you will meet the Great Yellow Eagle, too, he would say. Remember to hold the line. Never let go. Always hold the line. Now that he held the rope in his hand, he wondered if he was ready. It was just a rope after all, and nothing special. Hania turned, the black tail of his wolf cloak swaying, and started up the cliff trail. The old Apache medicine man and the young brave began their ascent. Eddie looked back to see Zeke and Danny hold their hands high for him. He would be so proud to return to them no longer as a boy, but their equal as a man.
The minutes became hours as the dusty, stone-covered trail continued upward. Eddie’s legs burned with the fire of inactivity. Grandfather warned him the trek would be difficult and that he should get out from the front of the white man’s electronic box. No good can come from white men preaching our destiny from miles away inside a box of wires, he would say. Only the Yellow Eagle knows what is best for we Apache, and a smarter coyote would have made many meals of roadrunner by this time. Eddie dismissed the old man’s warning with a scoff. He liked watching television, especially Saturday morning cartoons. Now the pain of understanding washed over him as they went higher and higher up the incline. Hania showed no fatigue at all. Eddie had to jog at times to keep up with the scary old medicine man.
Not a word was said between them until they reached what appeared to be the end of the trail into a sheer rock wall. “From here, you travel alone Sahale. I will greet you again where the Great Yellow Eagle perches on our world.” Hania gestured up where the rock face stopped, about a hundred feet above them. “Now climb.”
Eddie put the coiled rope over his shoulder, found a precarious hand and foot hold, and took his first step up. The wind at this height blew hard from his left. Small bursts of dust clouded off the tiny rock shelves, stinging his eyes. He glanced back and Hania was gone. Where did he go? Eddie thought. Was there another trail upward? Why couldn’t I just walk up that way? However, he knew if he was to pass the trial, he must do what Hania said and climb. Eddie closed his eyes. “Your name means higher place,” he said to himself. “Guess we’ll put that to the test.” Hand over hand, Eddie climbed skyward.
After the first few movements, his ascent became easier. The rock face had a gentle slope he couldn’t see looking up from the bottom. Another trial from the Yellow Eagle, he thought. This isn’t so bad. I’ll pass your test. I will be a brave today! More than once his handholds crumbled away, causing him to grasp onto whatever he could reach and rake his knuckles on the sharp rocks. Still, his grip held. Gusts of wind continued to sting his eyes and cheeks with sand as he went upward hand over hand. With grim determination, he finally crested the cliff.
The rock ledge he climbed to was about the size of his bedroom back home. Eddie sat down to rest from the arduous climb and looked around. It was cold up here. The brisk breeze bit into his skin with a sharp chill. Peering down into the canyon where his journey began, he could barely make out the shape of the Wikiup where his family and tribe gathered and awaited his triumphant return. Which ones are Zeke and Danny? he thought. Was Grandfather still waiting in the Wikiup? He wondered if they could see him from there. He looked out toward the horizon and saw in the distance a large city of the white man in the haze; a jagged scar piercing the skyline with its disdain for the natural shapes made by the Great Spirit. Above him, the white sun beat down from the clear blue ocean of the sky. He basked in what little warmth it offered for several minutes before getting to his feet, ready to take on the next part of his challenge.
Before him loomed a cave opening. Above the entrance, carved deep into the orange-tinted rock, was the unmistakable shape of the Great Yellow Eagle entangled with a serpent. Eddie did not know what it meant, but that was a sign that here is where his journey went next. His first darkened steps were met with the cool and moist air from inside the earth where his ancient ancestors would escape the heat of the day. In the dim light, he could see more carvings and pictograms on the walls. Depictions of warriors hunting great buffalo, of owls and eagles, of wolves and strange creatures of the night that adorned every surface. At the end of the shaft, just before all light diminished, was a large pictogram that gave him pause.
The unmistakable diamond-shaped head of a great serpent, a diamondback rattlesnake, gazed back at him through its narrow eye slits. He stepped closer to inspect the glyph. It was so life-like, Eddie felt like the eyes were watching him.
“Sahale!” came Hania’s voice from the dark. Eddie let out a shrill chirp in fright at hearing his voice. “Come. Your next trial awaits.” Where did he come from? Eddie thought. I knew there must be another way up! Hania sparked a flint onto a torch and the cavern glowed a dull orange. The acrid smoke of the old torch burned his nostrils. Hania turned to go deeper into the cave. Eddie followed with a cautious reluctance.
The cave became dark, even with the torch. It was so dark that Eddie had to place a hand on the wall as he walked the narrow path to keep from falling or running into the exposed rock. Before long, the cave ended into a room with a small crackling fire set in a ring of rocks. The damp stones hissed from the moisture drawn from them by the heat. Hania sat on the far side of the fire, then motioned for Eddie to sit opposite from him.
“Sahale, child of the Apache people and hopeful warrior,” Hania said in a deep tone that echoed through the room. “Does your spirit tire, or are you prepared for your trial?”
“I am prepared,” came the response his grandfather told him to say. “I am ready to face the trial of the Great Yellow Eagle. I will become a warrior among my people.”
“This is good, young brave,” Hania began. “Many moons have passed since the Great Spirit brought you to this world. Among his greatest creations is the Yellow Eagle, which our people revere.” The heat from the fire intensified. Eddie could feel the sweat forming on his brow, even though the temperature in the room was cool. Hania continued.
“Even Its’a, The Great Yellow Eagle was not without trials, and his greatest foe was T’iish, the serpent. Will you face T’iish as Yellow Eagle has, and become one with Yellow Eagle’s spirit?”
“I will,” again was the prompted response. “I will become one with Yellow Eagle and face my trial with his blessing.”
“This is good,” Hania said, and lowered his head down. He began a low mumbling chant as Eddie stared into the fire, watching each glowing ember shift and squirm from the heat. The coals shimmered from red to orange to white and back as the fire intensified with Hania’s words. The chanting went on for several minutes. Eddie was mesmerized by the stillness of the room, the tone of Hania’s chant, and the tiny flickers in the dancing flames.
Time slowed. His legs grew numb. He didn’t know how long they had sat there in the dark. As he awoke from the fire’s trance, Eddie noticed a swaying movement above Hania’s head. He strained to see into the shadows, trying to determine what it was. It was small. Barely noticeable at first among the thick wolf pelt draped over the medicine man. Then, it broke through the shadows, growing in size and made its way over Hania’s shoulder, down next to the fire. Eddie froze with fear, eyes widening as a monstrous Western Diamondback moved effortlessly across the space between them. Its eyes were fixed on Eddie, just as the eerie glyph outside on the wall was. It was the same eyes. T’iish, Yellow Eagle’s nemesis, had come for Eddie.
“Ssssahale,” it said as Hania continued his guttural chant in the background. “One named for the higher placessss. You come before me assss Yellow Eagle oncccce did. You think yoursssself brave assss he did?” Eddie was paralyzed as fear locked his muscles in place, rendering him stiff and still. “You wish to be known assss a brave among your peoplessss, the mighty Apache?” The snake continued his stealthy approach, now only inches from Eddie. It rose up it’s great body in front of his face, tongue flicking in search for prey. “I will decssside your worth, young warrior. Let ussss ssssee if you can withsssstand my bite.”
Eddie sat frozen and helpless as the giant rattler rose up into a coiled nightmare of fangs and scales. It lunged faster than eyes could see and buried its dripping fangs into his chest. The serpent’s venom poured into Eddie’s veins like lightning from an angry storm cloud. Every fiber in his body screamed in burning agony until the beast released its crushing bite. The serpent remained poised for another strike, weaving its head before Eddie’s face. Tears rolled down his swollen cheek while the venom’s liquid fire did its worst to his body, wracking him with pain.
“Now, young brave,” the snake hissed to him again. “We will ssssee what it issss that you fear. My venom sssspeakssss to your mind and revealssss your thoughtssss. Relive your nightmaressss and prove your worth to me.” Eddie still could not move. He strained to cry out and awaken Hania, but could not. His voice was drowned. The cry stayed locked in his burning chest. “You sssshall reccccieve the blessssing of the warrior if you can return to your peoplessss below. Yellow Eagle possessed great wingssss to return to the earth, yet you only carry a coil of rope, sssshaped much like me. Ironic, don’t you think? You musssst hold the line and prove your worth. If you cannot, you become one with the Great Sssspirit, and I sssshall be victorioussss yet again.”
Each scale began to glow with a white-hot fire all it’s own. All of the sudden, the snake burst into flame before Eddie’s eyes and Hania awoke with a start. Eddie fell onto his back in violent convulsions. The cave spun in wild circles as the venom took hold of his muscles and reflexes. Hania reached into his sack and pulled out a small buffalo hide, placing it over Eddie. The weight of the thick fur and dense skin was comforting to him, as if the pressure of the heavy hide would suppress his body’s revolt. His shaking mercifully stopped but he was no longer in control of his faculties. His head rolled to the side and spittle pooled below his mouth on the dusty floor.
Hania then took out a large ceremonial rattle, painted red and adorned with two eagle feathers and a bundle of sage. He passed the sage through the fire to catch the embers. Though he could not move, Eddie could discern the unmistakable scent of the burning herb just as it was in the wikiup with his grandfather. Hania waved the bundle and the totem over Eddie and shook it at different times in the highs and lows of an ancient chant only the medicine men would know. Ashes of the burnt sage nestled in the hide, also giving off a distinct scent of burning hair.
“Sahale,” Hania said after what felt like an eternity of this. “You have faced the first trial and now will continue on your own journey. I leave with you this eagle feather.” Hania held up the rattle and plucked a feather out of the adornment. He nestled it into Eddie’s constricted fist. “Never release this feather. It is your link to the world of the living; your life line. You will soon have a vision. The demons will come and they will torment you. Show no fear and return to us as a brave. Hold the line, Sahale. May the Great Spirit watch over you until we meet again. Hold the line.” With that, Hania took up his satchel and left the cave.
Eddie’s mind screamed out to Hania not to leave, but his paralyzed body and mouth betrayed his thoughts. He was left alone to face whatever came next. And what did Hania say it would be? Demons? As if the serpent wasn’t bad enough, now something else was coming?
The tiny flame in the rock circle threw dancing shadows around the room. The reflection of the crackling fire danced in his eyes as the scorching venom ran its course. Every nerve shrieked in agony yet he could not move. Eddie could barely feel the coarseness of the feather shaft. One flicker of his finger was all he could muster to clutch it tighter.
Stay anchored to the feather, he thought. Hania said to never let it go. No matter what comes for me, hold tight. Hold the line!
Eddie lay prostrate beneath the buffalo hide staring into the fire for what seemed an eternity. He had no concept of time. All he felt was the rage of the snake’s toxin wreaking havoc on his senses. His ears rang. His pulse pounded as the venom raged through him. He could taste it in his mouth. He could feel it in his heart.
Am I dying? It feels like dying…
Slowly, letting go of life…
That’s when he heard faint footsteps in the gravel coming down the cavern.
Who’s there? Has someone come to save me?
Eddie was still unable to move, his spindly limbs locked in state by some unnatural bond he could only feel, not see. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot came closer. His eyes strained in the sockets to see who had come to save him but the range of his vision was limited and he could not see who it was. Was it his grandfather? Did Zeke or Danny follow them up here? Please, he thought. I’m here! Please let it be someone who has come to help.
“I cannot help you in that way, Sahale,” came a deep voice with a strong Apache accent. “I am no medicine man.” The footsteps came closer and suddenly a foot wrapped in an adorned leather moccasin stepped into view. The unknown man strode past the fire and sat cross-legged in the same place Hania was when the snake first appeared. “As much as I would like to help you, I am forbidden to interfere in that manner by the Great Spirit. However, I can guide you on your journey, Sahale. Your thoughts are open to me. I can share in your nightmares.”
Eddie stared at the man through the dancing flames. He was young, but carried the mantle of an elder. His face held the deep lines of age and wisdom, yet appeared youthful, like someone who has seen many seasons but still clung to their child-like appearance. His long raven-dark hair hung in two braids over either shoulder and was held back by a golden beaded band. Two eagle feathers hung with the braids. He wore a simple pair of leather leggings with a bright red breechcloth. Across his chest was a bead and bone breastplate encrusted with silver and turquoise finery. He stared at Eddie through the dark pools of his eyes for a long while before speaking again.
“Before long, young brave Sahale, the venom that paralyzes you will dissipate and you will rise again.” Not once did his piercing gaze waver. “When it does, you will be given a choice, much as I was when I faced the same trial.”
Who are you?
“Ah, there you have it.” The man smiled for the first time, revealing his brilliant white teeth. “As your mind makes questions, I will be able to answer them. Try again.”
I said, who are you?
“In time, brave Sahale, in time. But who either of us are is not important right now.” He continued to stare at Eddie, never so much as blinking. “Tell me, child of the Apache, why do you deserve to become a brave among your people?”
Because I am fourteen. It is my time to become a warrior.
The man chuckled. “You believe it is age that makes you worthy? That the number of seasons you have lived makes you a brave? Perhaps I should ask a different question, Sahale. What do you fear?”
That was a question Eddie hoped he would not have to answer. Images started flowing through Eddie’s mind; memories of his childhood. His thoughts finally settled on a particular cool desert night. He recognized the landscape instantly.
“No, please no. Not this night…”
When Eddie turned eight, his father gave him a rifle—a Winchester bolt-action .243—for his birthday. Mother was against it. She argued he was too young, but his father soothed her fears and assured her he would teach him how to use it safely. Every day, they would go to the field behind their house and shoot tin cans. He loved that time with his father more than anything. Later that summer, coyotes killed several goats at his grandfather’s house on the reservation and the men decided they must find the pack and drive them off. So, on a bright moonlit night, Eddie, his father, and his grandfather set out into the hills following the coyote tracks. They assured Eddie’s mother he would not have live ammunition. It’s just for show, his father said. The boy should come with the men and learn how to hunt.
Eddie never felt more alive than he did that night, walking the game trail through the brush and tracking those yipping bandits. As they walked quietly along, Eddie’s father held out his closed fist and dropped a single bullet into Eddie’s little hands.
“Coyotes in large numbers can be dangerous,” his father said as he dropped the shiny brass shell. “You must be able to protect yourself. Load up like I taught you, and if we see one, wait until I tell you to shoot.” Eddie slid back the bolt in eager agreement. The bullet slipped in with ease, and the smooth clicking sound of the oiled bolt locking it into place gave Eddie power. Confidence surged through him. Now, he was ready for anything.
This part of the reservation was isolated and dark. The moon was brilliant white, mostly eliminating the need for flashlights. The three of them hiked quietly in single file through the soft sand. His father in the front, him in the middle, and grandfather at the back. They walked for hours without finding a thing. It was just after midnight when his grandfather decided to call off the hunt for the night. Eddie yawned in agreement despite his earlier enthusiasm. His rifle became too heavy a hour ago so his dad shouldered it for him. He was past ready to go back to the truck.
Suddenly, howls and yips erupted off to their right. The coyote pack finally revealed themselves… and they were close! Eddie’s dad handed him back his rifle. The burst of adrenaline brought him back into the moment and the excitement from the earlier night came flooding back.
“Let’s circle around them,” his father whispered to his grandfather. “You and Eddie go below them. I will go above. Make noise when you’re close to scare them towards me. We’ll drive them to the far rocks and corner them there.”
His grandfather nodded in agreement. “Great Spirit watch over you.”
“Great Spirit watch over us all,” he said back. Eddie’s father stalked off through the brush. Then his grandfather knelt down to Eddie’s level. “You stay right behind me, Sahale,” he said. “Always right behind me.” He nodded in agreement and they walked slowly down the trail to flank the pack.
The eerie cries continued as the pack carried on their demonic racket. Eddie’s heart was pounding. His first hunt! Even though he only had one bullet, he was determined to make it count to keep his grandfather’s livestock safe from these canine fiends. The pack whooped and howled in a frenzy. “They must have cornered something,” grandfather said. “They only carry on like that when they have found prey. Let’s drive them away and save whatever they have caught. Make noise!”
Eddie’s grandfather started wailing like nothing Eddie had ever heard before. Eddie gleefully joined in and followed him deeper into the brush towards the pack. In the distance, Eddie could hear his father doing the same thing. The coyote cries went silent as the three of them raised all the hell they could muster. The yips came fewer and more distant. The pack was moving away from Eddie and his grandfather’s position and towards his father at the rocks, just like he said. It was working!
Suddenly, the night was split by the report of his father’s AR-15. Eddie and his grandfather stopped running for a moment and listened. Chaos erupted from where Eddie’s father was. Cracks from the rifle mixed in with the yelps and cries of injured coyotes. Then they heard an unexpected sound. Eddie’s father was crying for help.
His grandfather took off in a sprint that did not seem possible for a man his age. Eddie moved as fast as he could to keep up but still fell behind. One misstep on a loose rock sent Eddie face first into a patch of chicory. His rifle and flashlight flew further into the brush and out of sight. He got up and checked for chollas, just in case there was a cactus in there. Fortunately for him there wasn’t so he started feeling the ground for his gun. Abruptly, everything went silent. The shooting stopped and the coyotes quit sounding their cry. He strained to listen for his father and grandfather but couldn’t hear either of them. The night became quiet as a tomb. He scurried around more and found his flashlight at the base of a bush, but where was his rifle? Eddie dropped to his knees and crawled around frantically, to find it. With heart pounding, he crawled about in a panic until his hand finally touched the cold steel barrel of his Winchester. That’s when he heard the first growl.
Eddie froze. A second growl came from behind him. Then a third. With wide-eyed fear, he clicked on his light. Dotting the landscape in the beam before him were what seemed to be a thousand dark orange eyes reflecting back.
…Coyotes in large numbers can be dangerous…
“Eddie!?” his father called out in the distance. “Eddie, where are you?” but he sounded too far away to help.
…You must be able to protect yourself…
The closest set of orange eyes gave a piercing howl and snarled. With teeth bared, it took a quick step toward him. Eddie scurried to his feet and dropped the light but raised the rifle. The light landed badly and broke, shrouding him in darkness. His eyes strained to adjust.
… if we see one, wait until I tell you to shoot…
“Eddie? Answer me, son! I’m coming!”
More yips and snarls erupted from the dark around him. Sounds of movement came from all directions. They were circling. The pack was closing in on him! A loud crashing suddenly came through the brush in front of him.
…You must be able to protect yourself…
“Eddie? Where are you!?”
The big coyote had sprung toward Eddie in the dark! It was now or never.
Eddie squeezed the trigger and his rifle split the night, silencing everything around him. Echoes of the report bounced from boulder to boulder. He fell back from the kick of the round, knocking him on his backside. The barks and howling wailed as the pack bolted into the night from the loud rifle shot. Eddie lay in a daze, panting in heavy breaths and ears ringing from the sound, hoping his aim was true. Otherwise the next thing he would feel was teeth pulling his throat out, but the bite never came. Out of the darkness, rough hands grabbed him up by his collar, pulling him up into a forced embrace. It was his grandfather. Eddie burst into sobbing tears.
“My boy. You’re safe now,” his grandfather said soothingly. “Don’t look, it’s okay. It was an accident. You’re safe now.”
“I’m sorry, grandpa,” Eddie blubbered out. “You said right behind you, but I fell. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay, boy. You’re safe now. It was just an accident.”
“No,” Eddie cried. “No, it wasn’t an accident, grandpa! I meant to shoot that coyote.”
“I know you did, Sahale, I know you did, but it was an accident. You couldn’t see him.”
“What?” he asked and tried to look, but his grandfather held him tighter.
“No, boy. Don’t look. It was an accident.”
Eddie forced himself away and looked back to see his father sprawled out on the desert floor. Across the chest of his light grey sweatshirt was a slick, dark pool that was flowing down onto the ground beneath him. The last thing Eddie remembered was his own high-pitched scream as his grandfather squeezed him closer. That was the last memory Eddie had of his father, and it was a nightmare.
The dancing rock fire cast a large shadow behind the man as he stood up and put another oak log on it. “The venom of the serpent shows us a great many things,” the man said. “Your medicine man, Hania, told you demons would visit you and not to fear. What many do not recognize is that the only demons and fear they meet are the ones they bring up the mountain with them. They are already inside. Here,” the man pointed to his forehead, “and here.” His fingers rested over his heart. Reaching up into his golden headband, he pulled out one of his eagle feathers and twirled it in his fingers. He moved over and knelt down at Eddie’s side.
“You have faced your demon with bravery. You are worthy, and now you must decide.”
He rolled Eddie’s head upright and placed the feather across his forehead. “You must decide if you can exist with your demon, or if you cannot. Your demon will always be with you on the earth. If you decide, you may stay here with it and become a brave of the Apache.” The man clapped his hands hard and rubbed them together. He placed one hand over the feather on Eddie’s forehead and one hand over the serpent bite. “If you decide that the burden of this demon is too much to bear, you may leave this earth and the Great Spirit will embrace you above.” His touch was hot, burning like a glowing iron over the bite, but the hand on his forehead over the feather was cool and calming. Eddie, still immobile, inhaled a sharp breath and screamed out.
“I met your father here many seasons ago,” the man said, “He carried great fear within him. In his vision, he foresaw his own death, but that his sacrifice would save a life. That sacrifice would come out of great fear. Not your fear, but his. I shared in his vision just as I have shared in yours. Even then, the coyote terrified your father. That was his demon. When the time came for him to choose, he stayed to live with his demon, comforted that he would face his fear to save a life—your life—even though he was destined lose his own. He resides with the Great Spirit now, and has great pride in you, young Sahale. Now rise.”
The man removed his hands from the bite and Eddie’s forehead. All of the emotion and pain from reliving his nightmare came rushing through Eddie’s body like a raging river. Though groggy and painfully difficult, he could move again, but only just. The man helped Eddie to his feet and steadied him. The room was still spinning faster than his head could keep up with.
“I have slowed the venom enough for you to decide. Should you choose to stay, take your rope and begin your descent. If you choose to leave, I will carry you to meet the Great Spirit. I await you outside, Sahale of the Apache peoples. Think on this and make your choice.”
The man leaned Eddie against the wall and walked out, leaving him to think about his decision. This was nothing like he thought it would be. Neither his grandfather nor Hania prepared him for anything that he just experienced. The weight of emotion at remembering the death of his father crushed him like an avalanche. Eddie fell to his knees and sobbed. He tried to bury his feelings of guilt and remorse over his father’s death. Grandfather told everyone it was an accident, but that wasn’t true at all. It wasn’t an accident that killed his father. Eddie never believed it, and he didn’t think anyone else did either. But was it? Was it truly an accident?
It was Eddie’s cowardice.
His own fear killed his father.
The realization of this truth hit him hard. All this time, Eddie carried the guilt in his heart. It weighed him down like a stone tethered to his soul. He ached every time he saw his mother cry over the only photo they had of him. Grandfather would say his time with the Great Spirit was needed, and that is why he was gone. They both told Eddie it wasn’t his fault. He never believed them. But in facing his guilt, there was doubt. He accepted that maybe it was all an accident. Some terrible, awful accident. Now he must decide is he can live with his fear and guilt, or succumb to it.
Eddie couldn’t remember how long he sat there before finally gathering the strength to get up again. The venom, though diminished, continued coursing through him. It slowed his movements and clouded his vision. He wondered how long he would feel this way. When he emerged from the cave, the man with the golden head band stood at the edge of the overhang waiting for him. A cold white wind dusted up a light snow around them. The biting icy air made Eddie pull the buffalo hide tighter to his shoulders, but the shirtless man seemed unaffected by it. He staggered up face to face with the man. They stood there for several minutes before he spoke.
“Have you made your decision, Sahale?”
“I… I have.”
“And what have you chosen?”
Eddie held open the buffalo hide and extended out his arms. In one hand, he held the coil of rope, and clutched tightly in the other was the eagle feather. The man looked down at his hands and spoke again. “You cannot hold both. Whichever you release decides your fate. Choose.”
Eddie looked down at his hands, first at the feather. “I hold the line; the line of strength that pulls me through the fear. My fear is that I am the reason for my father’s death.” He then looked at the rope. “I hold the line; the line of life that anchors me to the world I know and the people I love. Tell me, Yellow Eagle, if you were me, what would you choose?”
“I, like you, faced the same trials. My demons were many. I, like you, also came before the Great Spirit with a rope and feather in hand, asking the same question.” The wind and snow flurries danced around them. Flecks of white clung to Yellow Eagle’s dark hair. He reached up and placed his hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “I could not live with my demons and chose to go with the Great Spirit. Unlike you, I was not brave enough to make peace with them.”
Eddie smiled. “You speak as if you know already know what I have decided.”
Yellow Eagle smiled back. “I have always known what you would decide.” He extended his hand out. Eddie looked down at it and handed him back his feather. Yellow Eagle smiled wide. “Live well, Sahale, of the higher places, brave warrior of the Apache. May the Great Spirit watch over you until we meet again.” He affixed the feather back in his headband and walked to the cliff’s edge, extending his hand in a farewell wave. Then, he turned and gracefully dove off the edge into the flurry of white. Eddie ran to the edge when suddenly a great Golden Eagle soared up past him, crying out to the wind and declaring that Sahale, brave of the Apache, was soon returning home.