Mawic suddenly makes a fist with her right hand and holds it to the sky―the sign to stop. We’re traveling to our winter camp, single file behind her. Her horse Kyra, a dark brown pony, flicks her normally long and flowing tail back and forth. Her ears stand up straight pointing forward. Snorting she paws at the ground and shakes her head so that I can see the splash of white on her nose.
A loud, drawn-out whinny resonates up from the valley from a far-away horse. It’s asking, where are you? Kyra makes a low nicker in her throat. Hooves are pounding the dirt trail coming from the basin where our group is headed.
“Who is it?” I ask Mawic, sitting atop my own pony.
Auntie, we call her Mawic, looks over at me, but stays silent.
The others in our group sidle up next to auntie and me, spreading out so the rider won’t be able to pass through. The ponies we ride are packed down with all our belongings. They drag dismantled teepees and poles behind them, so it would be difficult to move everyone off the trail to hide in the forest.
Our tribe’s men left early this morning and would be too far away to help. Though our winter camp has always been the same year after year, the men go ahead to make sure there is still a good food source, and the place is safe. My brother worries we won’t have food. But my brother has a habit of making up stories to suit his needs, so I don’t trust him.
“Cahvah,” says Mawic. It’s an Indian pony coming toward us. The short gait gives it away.
The problem is this: Mountain men who come to our land and trap beaver have become accustomed to riding our horses, so we can’t be sure if the rider is friendly or not.
Still urging his mount forward, the horse and rider come around the bend. When he looks up and realizes our presence, he stops short, leaning way back on the horse, pulling the reins tight.
“Aha,” I shout involuntarily when I see them. I’m not sure if it is from apprehension or serenity.
I breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a boy, one of ours.
He looks to be maybe thirteen years old and is riding bareback. Must have had to get onto the horse quickly. This won’t be good, I think. He can barely catch his breath and is shaking from excitement. “They sent me,” he says on an exhale.
The horse is lathered with white sweat on her chest and neck. The boy scrubs at his face. I recognize him. His name is Po, the young man who won so many of our pony races last summer.
Just as Mawic moves forward to talk with the boy, flakes of snow gently fall around us, but now that seems to be a secondary concern.
“What do you mean boy? Who sent you?” auntie asks.
The men, he tells us.
A look of fear flashes across Mawic’s face, but she quickly composes herself. She’s scared but won’t show it.
The boy takes one big inhale and seems to have found his breath. “Our winter camp…it’s gone,” he sputters. “Get off this trail now and go through the woods. Otherwise, the trespassers will find you.”
This has never happened to us―not being able to walk freely. The trail is a welcoming reminder of who we are, the Ute people. I’ve walked it and many others since I was a little girl and so has Mawic. Our footprints are mingled with those of our ancestors on dirt paths that zigzag from the mountains to the plains. Tree markers made long ago show us the way to camps or to fresh water.
The teenager continues telling us, “Trappers followed our trails into the valleys. Loads of them. They set up their winter camps where ours is usually.”
Took our winter camp? I think. I’m surprised the trappers would come that far into the mountains. Winter winds skim over the valleys where we camp, howling down from the mountains and onto the plains. They would have to leave the streams where the beaver are plentiful and trek into the mountains to find verdant valleys.
Mawic is quiet, but I ask, “Why didn’t our men fight them?”
“There are too many,” the boy responds. “They’re maybe two hundred merikac”—our word for Americans.
I can tell Auntie is trying to remain calm and figure this out, but she must be terrified.
I’m worried, biting at my bottom lip. The forest around us is dense with tall pines and lots of low brush. It’s a safe place to be in a time of trouble like this. But it may not be possible to get through it with the animals packed down with so much.
Mawic looks to the elders, who meet her eyes, but don’t have a satisfactory answer to this predicament. Then she turns to me.
A smile curls around her lips. “You’re thinking about how we get out of this mess aren’t you?” she asks.
I smile too though I’m not sure why. Maybe it will calm my children if I look outwardly confident.
“We’ll be all right,” she says in a calm voice. Her answer is more comforting than she will ever know.
What would Pia—my mother—have done at such a time?
While we’ve been contemplating our next move, the snow has picked up. It lands and sticks to me. Best to be in the woods at a time like this anyway.
We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation: The tree canopy will protect us from the snow.
“Let’s find a camp for the night in the woods,” she says decisively. “It’ll give us time to think and make a plan for tomorrow.”