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The Lame Warrior

An Arapaho Legend

In the days before horses, a party of young Arapaho set off on foot one autumn morning in search of wild game in the western mountains. They carried heavy packs of food and spare moccasins, and one day as they were crossing the rocky bed of a shallow stream a young warrior felt a sudden sharp pain in his ankle. The ankle swelled and the pain grew worse until they pitched camp that night.
Next morning the warrior's ankle was swollen so badly that it was impossible for him to continue the journey with the others. His companions decided it was best to leave him. They cut young willows and tall grass to make a thatched shelter for him, and after the shelter was finished they collected a pile of dry wood so that he could keep a fire burning.

"When your ankle gets well," they told him, "don't try to follow us. Go back to our village, and await our return."

After several lonely days, the lame warrior tested his ankle, but it was still too painful to walk upon. And then one night a heavy snowstorm fell, virtually imprisoning him in the shelter. Because he had been unable to kill any wild game, his food supply was almost gone.

Late one afternoon he looked out and saw a large herd of buffalo rooting in the snow for grass quite close to his shelter. Reaching for his bow and arrow, he shot the fattest one and killed it. He then crawled out of the shelter to the buffalo, skinned it, and brought in the meat. After preparing a bed of coals, he placed a section of ribs in the fire for roasting.

Night had fallen by the time the ribs were cooked, and just as the lame warrior was reaching for a piece to eat, he heard footsteps crunching on the frozen snow. The steps came nearer and nearer to the closed flap of the shelter. "Who can that be?" he said to himself. "I am here alone and unable to run, but I shall defend myself if need be." He reached for his bow and arrow.

A moment later the flap opened and a skeleton clothed in a tanned robe stood there looking down at the lame warrior.

The robe was pinned tight at the neck so that only the skull was visible above and skeleton feet below. Frightened by this ghost, the warrior turned his eyes away from it.

"You must not be frightened of me," the skeleton said in a hoarse voice. "I have taken pity on you. Now you must take pity on me. Give me a piece of those roast ribs to eat, for I am very hungry."

Still very much alarmed by the presence of this unexpected visitor, the warrior offered a large piece of meat to an extended bony hand. He was astonished to see the skeleton chew the food with its bared teeth and swallow it.

"It was I who gave you the pain in your ankle," said the skeleton. "It was I who caused your ankle to swell so that you could not continue on the hunt. If you had gone on with your companions you would have been killed. The day they left you here, an enemy war party made a charge upon them, and they were all killed. I am the one who saved your life."

Again the skeleton's bony hand reached out, this time to rub the warrior's ankle. The pain and swelling vanished at once. "Now you can walk again," the ghost said. "Your enemies are all around, but if you will follow me I can lead you safely back to your village."

At dawn they left the shelter and started off across the snow, the skeleton leading the way. They walked through deep woods, along icy streams, and over high hills. Late in the afternoon the skeleton led the warrior up a steep ridge. When the warrior reached the summit, the ghost had vanished, but down in the valley below he could see the smokes of tepees in his Arapaho village.

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