|Chapter I.||Virginia City.|
|Chapter II.||White Weasel|
|Chapter III.||The Coming of the Great Spirit|
|Chapter V.||The White Medicine|
|Chapter VI.||John Ermine|
|Chapter VIII.||Playing a Man's Part|
|Chapter IX.||In Camp|
|Chapter X.||A Brush With the Sioux|
|Part 2||Chapters XI - XX Continued in Part 2|
|Chapter XI.||The Truth of the Eyes|
|Chapter XIII.||Playing With Fire|
|Chapter XIV.||In Love|
|Chapter XV.||Bringing in the Wolf|
|Chapter XVI.||A Hunt|
|Chapter XVII.||A Proposal|
|Chapter XVIII.||Man to Man|
|Chapter XX.||The End of All Things|
Notwithstanding the hundreds who toiled in the gulches, Virginia City itself held hurrying crowds, Mormon freighters, pack trains, ponies, dirty men off the trails, wan pilgrims, Indians, Chinese, and almost everything else not angelic.
Into this bustle rode Rocky Dan, who, after dealing faro all night at the "Happy Days" shebang, had gone for a horseback ride through the hills to brighten his eyes and loosen his nerves. Reining up before this place, he tied his pony where a horse-boy from the livery corral could find it. Striding into that unhallowed hall of Sheol, he sang out, "Say, fellers, I've just seen a thing out in the hills which near knocked me off'en my horse. You couldn't guess what it was nohow. I don't believe half what I see and nothin' what I read, but it's out thar in the hills, and you can go throw your eyes over it yourselves."
"What? a new thing, Dan? No! No! Dan, you wouldn't come here with anything good and blurt it out," said the rude patrons of the "Happy Days" mahogany, vulturing about Rocky Dan, keen for any thing new in the way of gravel.
"I gamble it wa'n't a murder -- that wouldn't knock you off'en your horse, jus' to see one -- hey, Dan?" ventured another.
"No, no," vouched Dan, laboring under an excitement ill becoming a faro-dealer. Recovering himself, he told the bartender to 'perform his function.' The "valley tan" having been disposed of, Dan added: --
"It was a boy!"
"Boy -- boy -- a boy?" sighed the crowd, setting back their 'empties.' "A boy ain't exactly new, Dan," added one.
" No, that's so," he continued, in his unprofessional perplexity, "but this was a white boy."
"Well, that don't make him any newer," vociferated the crowd.
"No, d--- it, but this was a white boy out in that Crow Injun camp, with yeller hair braided down the sides of his head, all the same Injun, and he had a bow and arrer, all the same Injun; and I said, 'Hello, little feller,' and he pulled his little bow on me, all the same Injun. D--- the little cuss, he was about to let go on me. I was too near them Injuns, anyhow, but I was on the best quarter horse in the country, as you know, and willin' to take my chance. Boys, he was white as Sandy McCalmont there, only he didn't have so many freckles." The company regarded the designated one, who promptly blushed, and they gathered the idea that the boy was a decided blonde.
"Well, what do you make of it, anyhow, Dan?"
"What do I make of it? Why, I make of it that them Injuns has lifted that kid from some outfit, and that we ought to go out and bring him in. He don't belong there, nohow, and that's sure."
"That's so," sang the crowd as it surged into the street; "let's saddle up and go and get him. Saddle up! saddle up!"
The story blew down the gulch on the seven winds. It appealed to the sympathies of all white men, and with double force to their hatred of the Indians. There was no man at Alder Gulch, -- even the owners of squaws, -- and they were many, who had not been given cause for this resentment. Business was suspended. Wagoners cut out and mounted team-horses; desperadoes, hardened roughs, trooped in with honest merchants and hardy miners as the strung-out cavalcade poured up the road to the plateau, where the band of Crows had pitched their tepees.
"Klat-a-way! Klat-a-way!" shouted the men as they whipped and spurred up the steeps. The road narrowed near the top, and here the surging horsemen were stopped by a few men who stood in the middle waving and howling "Halt!" The crowd had no definite scheme of procedure at any time, it was simply impelled forward by the ancient war-shout of A rescue! A rescue! The blood of the mob had mounted high, but it drew restive rein before a big man who had forced his pony up on the steep hillside and was speaking in a loud, measured, and authoritative voice.
The riders felt the desire for council; the ancient spirit of the witenagemote came over them. The American town meeting, bred in their bones and burned into their brains, made them listen to the big temporary chairman with the yellow lion's mane blowing about his head in the breeze. His horse did not want to stand still on the perilous hillside, but he held him there and opened.
"Gentlemen, if this yar outfit goes a-chargin' into that bunch of Injuns, them Injuns aforesaid is sure goin' to shoot at us, and we are naturally goin' to shoot back at them. Then, gentlemen, there will be a fight, they will get a bunch of us, and we will wipe them out. Now, our esteemed friend yer, Mr. Chick-chick, savvies Injuns, as you know, he bein' somewhat their way hisself -- allows that they will chill that poor little boy with a knife the first rattle out of the box. So, gentlemen, what good does it all do? Now, gentlemen, I allows if you all will keep down yer under the hill and back our play, Chick-chick and me will go into that camp and get the boy alive. If these Injuns rub us out, it's your move. All what agrees' to this motion will signify it by gettin' down off'en their horses."
Slowly man after man swung to the ground. Some did not so readily agree, but they were finally argued off their horses. Whereat the big chairman sang out: "The ayes have it. Come on, Mr. Chick-chick."
These two rode up the hill and over the mesa, trotting along as they talked. "Now, Chick-chick, I don't know a heap about Injuns. The most that I have seen of them was over the sights of a rifle. How are we goin' at this? Do you habla Crow lingo, Señor?"
"No," replied that much mixed-blooded man, "I no cumtux Crow, but I make the hand talk, and I can clean up a ten-ass Chinook; all you do is to do nothing, you no shake hands, you say nothing, until we smoke the pipe, then you say 'How?' and shake hands all same white man. You hang on to your gun -- suppose they try take it away -- well, den, icta-nica-ticki, you shoot! Then we are dead." Having laid his plan of campaign before his brother in arms, no more was said. History does not relate what was thought about it.
They arrived in due course among the tepees of a small band of Crows. There were not probably a hundred warriors present, but they were all armed, horsed, and under considerable excitement. These Crows were at war with all the other tribes of the northern plains, but maintained a truce with the white man. They had very naturally been warned of the unusual storm of horsemen bearing in their direction, and were apprehensive concerning it. They scowled at the chairman and Mr. Chick-chick, who was an Oregon product, as they drew up. The latter began his hand-language, which was answered at great length. He did not at once calm the situation, but was finally invited to smoke in the council lodge. The squaws were pulling down the tepees; roping, bundling, screaming, hustling ponies, children, and dogs about, unsettling the statesmen's nerves mightily as they passed the pipe. The big chairman began to fancy the Indians he had seen through the sights more than these he was regarding over the pipe of peace. Chick-chick gesticulated the proposition that the white papoose be brought into the tent, where he could be seen.
The Indians demurred, saying there was no white boy -- that all in the camp were Crows. A young warrior from outside broke into their presence, talking in a loud tone. An old chief looked out through the entrance-flap, across the yellow plains. Turning, he inquired what the white horsemen were doing outside.
He was told that they wanted the white boy; that the two white chiefs among them would take the boy and go in peace, or that the others would come and take him in war. Also, Chick-chick intimated that he must klat-a-way. The Indians made it plain that he was not going to klat-a-way; but looking abroad, they became more alarmed and excited by the cordon of whites about them.
"When the sun is so high," spoke Chick-chick, pointing, and using the sign language, "if we do not go forth with the boy, the white men will charge and kill all the Crows. One white boy is not worth that much."
After more excitement and talk, a youngish woman came, bearing a child in her arms, which was bawling and tear-stained, -- she vociferating wildly the time. Taking the unmusical youngster by the arm, the old chief stood him before Chick-chick. The boy was near nine years of age, the men judged, white beyond question, with long, golden hair braided, Indian fashion, down the sides of his head. He was neatly clothed in dressed buckskins, fringed and beaded, and not naked or half naked, as most Indian boys are in warm weather. It was not possible to tell what his face looked like in repose, for it was kneaded into grotesque lumps by his cries and wailing.
"He is a Crow; his skin is white, but his heart is Absaroke. It makes us bleed to see him go; our women will mourn all this snow for him, but to save my band I give him to you. Take him. He is yours."
Chick-chick lifted the child in his arms, where the small cause of all the turmoil struggled and pulled hair until he was forced to hold him out at arm's length. Mounting, they withdrew toward their friends. The council tepee fell in the dirt a dozen squaws tugging at its voluminous folds. The small hostage was not many yards on his way toward his own kind before the Indian camp moved off toward the mountains, urging their horses with whip and lance. This movement was accelerated by a great discharging of white men's guns, who were supposed to be sacrificing the little white Crow to some unknown passions; whereas, they were merely celebrating the advent of the white child unharmed. He was indeed unharmed as to body, but his feelings had been torn to shreds. He added his small, shrill protesting yells to the general rejoicing.
Chick-chick, or Chickens, as the miners often called him, had not entered the expedition because of his love for children, or the color of this one in particular; so, at the suggestion of the chairman, it was turned over to a benevolent saloon-keeper, who had nine notches in his gun, and a woman with whom he abided. "Gold Nugget," as he was promptly named by the diggers and freighters, was supposed to need a woman, as it was adjudged that only such a one could induce him to turn off the hot water and cease his yells.
The cavalcade reached town, to find multitudes of dirt-begrimed men thronging the streets waiting for what sensation there was left in the affair. The infant had been overcome by his exertions and was silent. They sat him on the bar of his godfather's saloon, while the men shouldered their brawny way through the crowd to have a look at him the lost white child in the Indian dress. Many drinks and pistol shots were offered up in his honor, and he having recovered somewhat, resumed his vocal protests. These plaints having silenced the crowd, it was suggested by one man who was able to restrain his enthusiasm, that the kid ought to be turned over to some woman before he roared his head off.
Acting on this suggestion, the saloon-keeper's female friend was given charge. Taking him to her little house back of the saloon, the child found milk and bread and feminine caresses to calm him until he slept. It was publicly proclaimed by the nine-notch saloon-keeper that the first man who passed the door of the kid's domicile would be number ten to his gun. This pronunciamiento insured much needed repose to Gold Nugget during the night.
In the morning he was partially recovered from fears and tears. The women patted his face, fed him to bursting, fingered the beautiful plaits of his yellow hair, and otherwise showed that they had not surrendered all their feminine sensibilities to their tumultuous lives. They spoke to him in pleading voices, and he gurgled up his words of reply in the unknown tongue. The saloon-keeper's theory that it would be a good thing to set him up on the bar some more in order to keep trade, was voted both inhuman and impracticable by the women. Later in the day a young man managed to get on the youngster's blind side, when by blandishments he beguiled him on to his pony in front of him. Thus he rode slowly through the streets, to the delight of the people, who responded to Gold Nugget's progress by volley and yell. This again frightened him, and he clung desperately to his new friend, who by waving his arm stilled the tempest of Virginia City's welcome, whereat the young man shouted, "Say -- do you think this kid is runnin' for sheriff?"
The Gulch voted the newcomer the greatest thing that ever happened; took him into partnership, speculated on his previous career, and drank his health. Above all they drank his health. Unitedly they drank to his weird past, his interesting present, and to his future life and happiness, far into the night. It was good for business, said the saloon-keepers one to another.
On one of the same mountain winds which had heralded his coming was borne down the Gulch next morning the tragic words, "The kid has gone!"
"Gone?" said the miners; "gone whar?"
Alder promptly dropped its pick, buckled on its artillery, and assembled before the nine-notch man.
"Where has the kid gone?" it demanded.
His woman stood beside the bar, wild-eyed and dishevelled. "I don't know, gentlemen -- I don't have an idea. He was playing by the door of my shack last evening. I went in the house for a minute, and when I came out he was gone. I yelled, and men came, but we could not find him hide or hair."
"If any man has got that kid away from me, mind you this now, -- he will see me through the smoke," spoke nine-notch, as he rolled his eye malevolently for a possible reply.
Long search and inquiry failed to clear matters. The tracks around the house shed no new light. The men wound their way to their cabins up and down the Gulch, only answering inquiries by, "The kid is gone."
The braves burned for vengeance on the white fools who dug in the Gulch they were leaving behind, but the yellow-eyed people were all brothers. To strike the slaves of the gravel-pits would be to make trouble with the river-men, who brought up the powder and guns in boats every green-grass. The tribal policy was against such a rupture. The Crows, or Sparrowhawks as they called themselves, were already encompassed by their enemies, and only able by the most desperate endeavors to hold their own hunting-grounds against the Blackfeet, Sioux, and Cheyennes. Theirs was the pick and choosing of the northern plains. Neither too hot nor too cold, well watered and thickly grassed on the plains, swarming with buffalo, while in the winter they could retire to the upper valleys of the Big Horn River, where they were shut in by the impassable snow-clad mountains from foreign horse thieves, and where the nutritious salt-weed kept their ponies in condition. Like all good lands, they could only be held by a strong and brave people, who were made to fight constantly for what they held. The powder and guns could only be had from the white traders, so they made a virtue of necessity and held their hand.
Before many days the squaw Ba-cher-hish-a rode among the lodges with little White Weasel sitting behind her, dry-eyed and content.
Alder had lost Gold Nugget, but the Indians had White Weasel -- so things were mended.
His foster-mother -- the one from whom the chief had taken him had stayed behind the retreating camp, stealing about unseen. She wore the wolf-skin over her back, and in those days no one paid any attention to a wolf. In the dusk of evening she had lain near the shack where her boy was housed, and at the first opportunity she had seized him and fled. He did not cry out when her warning hiss struck native tones on his ear. Mounting her pony, she had gained the scouts, which lay back on the Indian trail. The hat-weavers (white men) should know White Weasel no more.
The old men Nah-kee and Umbas-a-hoos sat smoking over their talk in the purple shade of a tepee. Idly noting the affairs of camp, their eyes fell on groups of small urchins, which were scampering about engaging each other in mimic war. They shot blunt-headed arrows, while other tots returned the fire from the vantage of lariated ponies or friendly tepees. They further observed that little White Weasel, by his activity, fierce impulse, and mental excellence, was admittedly leading one of these diminutive war-parties. He had stripped off his small buckskin shirt, and the milk-white skin glared in the sunlight; one little braid had become undone and flowed in golden curls about his shoulders. In childish screams he urged his group to charge the other, and running forth he scattered all before his insistent assault.
"See, brother," spoke Nah-kee, "the little white Crow has been struck in the face by an arrow, but he does not stop."
"Umph he will make a warrior," replied the other, his features relaxing into something approaching kindliness. The two old men understood what they saw even if they had never heard of the "Gothic self-abandonment" which was the inheritance of White Weasel. "He may be a war-chief -- he leads the boys even now, before he is big enough to climb up the fore leg of a pony to get on its back. The arrow in his face did not stop him. These white men cannot endure pain as we do; they bleat like a deer under the knife. Do you remember the one we built the fire on three grasses ago over by the Big Muddy when Eashdies split his head with a battle-axe to stop his noise? Brother, little White Weasel is a Crow."
"It is so," pursued the other veteran; "these yellow-eyes are only fit to play badger in a gravel-pit or harness themselves to loaded boats, which pull powder and lead up the long river. They walk all one green-grass beside their long-horned buffalo, hauling their tepee wagons over the plains. If it were not for their medicine goods, we would drive them far away."
"Yes, brother, they are good for us. If we did not have their powder and guns, the Cut-Throats [Sioux] and the Cut-Arms [Cheyennes] would soon put the Absaroke fires out. We must step carefully and keep our eyes open lest the whites again see White Weasel; and if these half-Indian men about camp talk to the traders about him, we will have the camp soldiers beat them with sticks. The white traders would take our powder away from us unless we gave him to them."
"We could steal him again, brother."
"Yes, if they did not send him down the long river in a boat. Then he would go so far toward the morning that we should never pass our eyes over him again on this side of the Spiritland. We need him to fill the place of some warrior who will be struck by the enemy."
Seeing the squaw Ba-cher-hish-a passing, they called to her and said: "When there are any white men around the camps, paint the face of your little son White Weasel, and fill his hair with wood ashes. If you are careful to do this, the white men will not notice him; you will not have to part with him again."
"What you say is true," spoke the squaw, "but I cannot put black ashes in his eyes." She departed, nevertheless, glorious with the new thought.
Having fought each other with arrows until it no longer amused them, the foes of an idle hour ran away together down by the creek, where they disrobed by a process neatly described by the white men's drill regulations, which say a thing shall be done in "one time and two motions."
White Weasel was more complicated than his fellows by reason of one shirt, which he promptly skinned off. "See the white Crow," gurgled a small savage, as every eye turned to our hero. "He always has the war-paint on his body. He is always painted like the big men when they go to strike the enemy -- he is red all over. The war-paint is in his skin."
"Now, let us be buffalo," spoke one, answered by others, "Yes, let us be buffalo." Accordingly, in true imitation of what to them was a familiar sight, they formed in line, White Weasel at the head as usual. Bending their bodies forward and swinging their heads, they followed down to the water, throwing themselves flat in the shallows. Now they were no longer buffalo, but merely small boys splashing about in the cool water, screaming incoherently and as nearly perfectly happy as nature ever intended human beings to be. After a few minutes of this, the humorist among them, the ultra-imaginative one, stood up pointing dramatically, and, simulating fear, yelled, "Here comes the bad water monster," whereat with shrill screams and much splashing the score of little imps ran ashore and sat down, grinning at their half-felt fear. The water monster was quite real to them. Who could say one might not appear and grab a laggard?
After this they ran skipping along the river bank, quite naked, as purposeless as birds, until they met two old squaws dipping water from the creek to carry home. With hue and cry they gathered about them, darting like quick-motioned wolves around worn-out buffalo. "They are buffalo, and we are wolves," chorussed the infant band; "bite them! blind them! We are wolves! we will eat them!" They plucked at their garments and threw dirt over them in childish glee. The old women snarled at their persecutors and caught up sticks to defend themselves. It was beginning to look rather serious for the supposed buffalo, when a young warrior came riding down, his pony going silently in the soft dirt. Comprehending the situation, and being fairly among them, he dealt out a few well-considered cuts with his pony-whip, which changed the tune of those who had felt its contact. They all ran off, some holding on to their smarts -- scattering away much as the wolves themselves might have done under such conditions.
Indian boys are very much like white boys in every respect, except that they are subject to no restraint, and carry their mischievousness to all bounds. Their ideas of play being founded on the ways of things about them, they are warriors, wild animals, horses, and the hunters, and the hunted by turns. Bands of these little Crows scarcely past toddling ranged the camp, keeping dogs, ponies, and women in a constant state of unrest. Occasional justice was meted out to them with a pony-whip, but in proportions much less than their deserts.
Being hungry, White Weasel plodded home to his mother's lodge, and finding a buffalo rib roasting near the fire he appropriated it. It was nearly as large as himself, and when he had satisfied his appetite, his face and hands were most appallingly greased. Seeing this, his mother wiped him off, but not as thoroughly as his condition called for, it must be admitted. Falling back on a buffalo robe, little Weasel soon fell into a deep slumber, during which a big dog belonging to the tent made play to complete the squaw's washing, by licking all the grease from his face and hands.
In due course he arose refreshed and ready for more mischief. The first opportunity which presented itself was the big dog, which was sleeping outside. "He is a young pony; I will break him to bear a man," said Weasel to himself. Straight way he threw himself on the pup, grasping firmly with heel and hand. The dog rose suddenly with a yell, and nipped one of Weasel's legs quite hard enough to bring his horse-breaking to a finish with an answering yell. The dog made off, followed by hissing imprecations from Ba-cher-hish-a, who rubbed the little round leg and crooned away his tears. He was not long depressed by the incident.
Now all small Indian boys have a regard for prairie-dog or marmot's flesh, which is akin to the white boy's taste for candy balls and cream paste. In order to satisfy it the small Indian must lie out on the prairie for an hour under the broiling sun, and make a sure shot in the bargain. The white boy has only to acquire five cents, yet in the majority of cases that too is attended by almost overwhelming difficulties.
With three other boys White Weasel repaired to the adjoining dog-town, and having located from cover a fat old marmot whose hole was near the outskirts of the village, they each cut a tuft of grease-weed. Waiting until he had gone inside, they ran forward swiftly and threw themselves on the ground behind other dog mounds, putting up the grease-weed in front of themselves. With shrill chirping, all the marmots of this colony dived into their holes and gave the desert over to silence. After a long time marmots far away from them came out to protest against the intrusion. An old Indian warrior sitting on a near-by bluff, nursing morose thoughts, was almost charmed into good nature by the play of the infant hunters below him. He could remember when he had done this same thing -- many, many grasses ago. More grasses than he could well remember.
The sun had drawn a long shadow before the fat marmot showed his head above the level of his intrenchments his fearful little black eyes set and his ears straining. Three other pairs of black eyes and one pair of blue ones snapped at him from behind the grease-weed. There followed a long wait, after which the marmot jumped up on the dirt rim which surrounded his hole, and there waited until his patience gave out. With a sharp bark and a wiggling of his tail he rolled out along the plain, a small ball of dusty fur. To the intent gaze of the nine-year-olds he was much more important than can be explained from this view-point.
Having judged him sufficiently far from his base, the small hunters sprang to their knees, and drove their arrows with all the energy of soft young arms at the quarry. The marmot made a gallant race, but an unfortunate blunt-head caught him somewhere and bowled him over. Before he could recover, the boys were upon him, and his stage had passed.
Carrying the game and followed by his companions, Weasel took it home to his foster-mother, who set to skinning it, crooning as she did in the repeated sing-song of her race:
"My son is a little hunter,
My son is a little hunter,
Some day the buffalo will fear him,
Some day the buffalo will fear him,
Some day the buffalo will fear him,"
and so on throughout the Indian list until the marmot was ready for cooking.
So ran the young life of the white Crow. While the sun shone, he chased over the country with his small fellows, shooting blunt arrows at anything living of which they were not afraid. No one corrected him; no one made him go to bed early; no one washed him but the near-by brook; no one bothered him with stories about good little boys; in fact, whether he was good or bad had never been indicated to him. He was as all Crow boys are no better and no worse. He shared the affections of his foster-parents with several natural offspring, and shared in common, though the camp took a keen interest in so unusual a Crow. Being by nature bright and engaging, he foraged on every camp kettle, and made the men laugh as they lounged in the afternoon shade, by his absurd imitations of the war and scalp dances, which he served up seriously in his infant way.
Any white man could see at a glance that White Weasel was evolved from a race which, however remote from him, got its yellow hair, fair skin, and blue eyes amid the fjords, forests, rocks, and ice-floes of the north of Europe. The fierce sun of lower latitudes had burned no ancestor of Weasel's; their skins had been protected against cold blasts by the hides of animals. Their yellow hair was the same as the Arctic bear's, and their eyes the color of new ice. Little Weasel's fortunes had taken him far afield. He was born white, but he had a Crow heart, so the tribesmen persuaded themselves. They did not understand the laws of heredity. They had never hunted those.
Having observed this, one night his foster-father said to him: "You are old enough, my son, to be trusted with my ponies out in the hills. You must begin to study the ponies, or you will never be able to take or hold any of your own. Not to have horses is not to hunt buffalo or go to the enemy, and not to have a wife. Go, then, when the morning comes, with your brother, and watch my herd. See that they feed safely; see that by evening they come to the lodges. You are old enough now to wear the loin-cloth; you must begin to be a man. You will never find your shadow-self here among the noisy lodges; it will only come to you out in the quiet of the hills. The Bad Spirits always have their arms out to clutch you when you are asleep in the night; as you ride in the shadows; when you ford the waters, -- they come in the wind, the rain, the snow; they point the bullet and the battle-axe to your breast, and they will warn the Sioux when you are coming after their ponies. But out in the hills the Sak-a-war-te (1): will send some bird or some little wolf to you as his friend; in some way he will talk to you and give a sign that will protect you from the Bad Gods. Do not eat food or drink water; pray to him, and he will come to you; if he does not, you will be lost. You will never see the Spiritland when your body lies flat on the ground and your shadow has gone."
After saying this, his father's pipe died out, the mother put no more dry sticks on the fire, the shapes along the lodge walls died away in the gloom, and left the youth awake with a new existence playing through his brain. He was to begin to be a man. Already he had done in play, about the camp, the things which the warriors did among the thundering buffalo herds; he had imitated the fierce nervous effort to take the enemy's life in battle and the wolfish quest after ponies. He had begun to take notice of the great difference between himself and the girls about the camp; he had a meaning which they did not; his lot was in the field.
Before the sun rose he was one of the many noisy boys who ran about among the horses, trailing his lariat to throw over some pony which he knew. By a fortunate jerk he curled it about one's neck, the shy creature crouching under its embracing fold, knowing full well the awful strangle which followed opposition. With ears forward, the animal watched the naked youth, as he slowly approached him along the taut rope, saying softly; "Eh-ah-h-h -- um-m-m-um-m-m -- eh-h-h-h-h." Tying the rope on the horse's jaw, with a soft spring he fixed himself on its back, tucking his loin-cloth under him. Now he moved to the outskirts of the thronging horses, crying softly to them as he and his brother separated their father's stock from that of the neighbor herds. He had done this before, but he had never been responsible for the outcome.
The faint rose of the morning cut the trotting herd into dull shadowy forms against the gray grass, and said as plain as any words could to White Weasel: "I, the sun, will make the grass yellow as a new brass kettle from the traders. I will make the hot air dance along the plains, and I will chase every cloud out of the sky. See me come," said the sun to White Weasel.
"Come," thought the boy in reply, "I am a man." For all Indians talk intimately with all things in nature; everything has life; everything has to do with their own lives personally; and all nature can speak as well as any Crow.
Zigzagging behind the herd, they left the smell of smoke, carrion, and other nameless evils of men behind them, until the bark of wolf-dogs dulled, and was lost to their ears.
Daylight found the two boys sitting quietly, as they sped along beside the herd of many-colored ponies. To look at the white boy, with his vermilioned skin, and long, braided hair, one would expect to hear the craunch and grind of a procession of the war-cars of ancient Gaul coming over the nearest hill. He would have been the true part of any such sight.
"Brother," spoke his companion, "we must never shut our eyes. The Cut-Arms are everywhere; they come out of the sky, they come out of the ground to take our horses. You must watch the birds floating in the air; they will speak to you about the bad Indians, when you learn their talk; you must watch the wolves and the buffalo, and, above all, the antelope. These any one can understand. We must not let the ponies go near the broken land or the trees. The ponies themselves are fools, yet, if you will watch them, you will see them turn slowly away from an enemy, and often looking back, pointing with their ears. It may be only a bear which they go away from; for the ponies are fools they are afraid of everything. The grass has been eaten off here by these buffalo, and the ponies wander. I will ride to the high hill, while you, brother, bring the herd slowly. Watch me, brother; I may give the sign of danger." Saying which, the older boy loped gracefully on ahead.
All day the herd grazed, or stood drooping, as the sun made its slow arc over the sky, while the boys sat on the ground in the shadows cast by their mounts, their eyes ceaselessly wandering. Many were the mysteries of horse-herding expounded by the one to the other. That the white Absaroke was hungry, it was explained, made no difference. Absarokes were often hungry out in the hills. The Dakotah were worse than the hunger, and to lose the ponies meant hunger in their father's lodge. This shadow-day herding was like good dreams; wait until the hail beat on the ponies' backs, and made them run before it; wait until the warriors fought about the camp, defending it; then it was hard work to hold them quietly. Even when the snow blew all ways at the same time, the Cut-Throats might come. White Weasel found a world of half-suspected things all coming to him at once, and gradually a realizing sense stole over him that the ponies and the eating and the land were very serious things, all put here for use and trouble to the Absaroke.
As the days wore on, the birds and the wild animals talked to the boy, and he understood. When they plainly hovered, or ran wildly, he helped to gather up the ponies and start them toward the lodges. If the mounted scouts came scurrying along the land, with the white dust in a long trail behind them, he headed for the cottonwoods with the herd, galloping. At times the number of the ponies in his charge changed, as his father won or lost at the game of "hand"; but after the dried-meat moon his father had brought home many new ponies from the camps of the Cut-Arms toward the Morning.
His father had often spoken praise of him beside the lodge-fire, and it made him feel good. He was beginning to be a man, and he was proud of it; he would be a warrior some day, and he would see that nothing hurtful happened to his father's horses.
It was now the month of the cold moon. (2) The skies were leaden at times; the snow-laden winds swept down from the mountains, and in the morning Weasel's skin was blue and bloodless under his buffalo-robe when he started out for the hills, where the wind had swept the snow off from the weeds and grass. Never mind, the sun of the yellow grass had not cooked the ambition out of him, and he would fight off the arrows of the cold.
His brother, being older, had at last succumbed to his thirst for glory. He had gone with some other boys to try his fortune on other people's horses. Weasel was left alone with the herd. His father often helped him to take the ponies out to good grazing, and then left him. The Absaroke had been sore pressed by the Indians out on the plains, and had retired to the Chew-cara-ash-Nitishic (3) country, where the salt-weed grew. Here they could be pushed no farther. Aided by the circling wall of mountain, their own courage, and their fat horses, they could maintain themselves. Their scouts lay far out, and the camp felt as much security as a wild people can ever feel.
One day, as usual, Weasel had taken his ponies far away to fresh feed, that near the camps having been eaten off. The day was bright, but heavy, dense clouds drifted around the surrounding mountain-tops, and later they crawled slowly down their sides. Weasel noticed this as he sat shivering in his buffalo-robe ; also he noticed far away other horse herds moving slowly toward the Arsha-Nitishic, along whose waters lay the camp of his people. He began to gather his ponies and rode circling about. They acted wildly -- strung out and began to run. Glancing about, Weasel saw many big gray wolves loping along in unison with his charges.
It was not strange that wolves were in the vicinity of Indians. The wolves, the ravens, and the Indians were brothers in blood, and all followed the buffalo herds together. A lame or loose pony or a crippled Indian often went the way of the wolves, and many wolves' hides passed over the trader's counter. Thus they always got along together, with the raven last at the feast.
As Weasel turned his nervous eye about him, he knew that he had never seen so many wolves before. He had seen dozens and dozens, but not so many as these. They were coming in nearer to the horses -- they were losing their fear. The horses were running -- heads up, and blowing with loud snorts. Weasel's pony needed no whip; his dorsal action was swift and terrific.
The wolves did not seem to pay particular attention to him they rather minded the herd. They gathered in great numbers at the head of the drove. Weasel could have veered off and out of the chase. He thought of this, but his blue eyes opened bravely and he rode along. A young colt, having lost its mother, ran out of the line of horses, uttering whinnies. Instantly a dozen gray forms covered its body, which sank with a shriek, as Weasel flashed by.
The leading ponies stopped suddenly and ran circling, turning their tails to the wolves, kicking and squealing viciously. The following ones closed up into the compact mass of horses, and Weasel rode, last of all, into the midst of them. What had been a line of rushing horses two arrow-flights long before, was now a closely packed mass of animals which could have been covered by a lariat. In the middle of the bunch sat Weasel, with his legs drawn up to avoid the crushing horses. It was all very strange; it had happened so quickly that he could not comprehend. He had never been told about this. Were they really wolves, or spirits sent by the Bad Gods to destroy the boy and his horses?
In the middle of the bunch sat Weasel
All his waking hours had been spent with the ponies ; he knew no other world; he had scarcely had any other thoughts. He was with them now, but instead of his protecting them they were protecting him. With their tails turned toward the circling mass of devil-animals, they struck and lashed when attacked. Nothing was heard but the snap of teeth, the stamp of hooves, the shrill squealing of horses, with an occasional thud followed by a yelp. The departing sun stole for a moment through a friendly rift in the clouds, encrimsoning the cold snow, and then departed, leaving the gray tragedy to the spirits of the night.
The smoke eddied from the top of the lodges; a bright spark showed from time to time as some one lifted an entrance flap; the ponies huddled in the dense bush ; the dogs came out and barked at the wilderness of never ending plain. All was warmth and light, friendship, and safety, -- even the baying wolf-dogs were only defying the shades and distances out beyond for their own amusement; it was perfunctory.
"Why does not my son come in with the ponies? " asked the foster-father of his squaw, but she could only answer, "Why?"
Wrapping his robe about him, he walked to the edge of the camp and stood long squinting across the dusky land. He saw nothing to encourage him. Possibly the ponies had come in, but why not the boy?
Oh! that was possible! That had happened! A long walk failed to locate the horses. Then he spoke to a chief, and soon all was excitement.
"The little white Crow and his horses have not come in," was repeated in every lodge.
"The Sioux! The Sioux!" spoke the echo.
It was too dark for a search. "The Sioux" was the answer to every question, and no one hunted the Sioux by night. They might even now be on the outskirts. Swiftly the scouts made their way to the outposts. The warriors loaded their guns, and the women put out the fires. Every dog howled with all the energy of his emotional nature. There was no sleep for the Absaroke camp. It was seldom that an enemy got by the far-riding watchers of the Crow camps, but there was always a fear. It had happened.
Ba-chua-hish-a sobbed and wailed all night in her lodge, while the foster-father walked outside, speculating endlessly with his friends. Long before day he was mounted, and with a small party far on the way to the herd-grounds which he had chosen the day before.
As the plain began to unfold itself to their straining eyes, their quick ears ran ahead of them. A snarling, a horse-squealing, a curious medley of sounds, bore on them. Being old men, they knew. "It is the wolves," said they, almost in a chorus. Forward with a rush, a shrill yelling, and firing, swept the little party. The sun strove mightily to get over the mountains to help them. They now saw the solid mass of horses, with the wolves scurrying away on all sides. A faint answering human whoop came from the body of the beleaguered horse band. As the rescuers rode up, the ponies spread out from each other. Relieved from the pressure of the slimy fangs, the poor animals knew that men were better than wolves. Some of them were torn and bloody about the flanks; a few lay still on the snow with their tendons cut; but best of all which the Indians saw was little White Weasel sitting in the midst of the group. He allowed his robe to fall from his tight clutch. The men pushed their horses in among the disintegrating bunch. They saw that the boy's lips were without color, that his arms hung nerveless, but that his brave, deep eyes were open, and that they showed no emotion. He had passed the time of fear, and he had passed the time for hope, long hours ago.
They lifted him from his horse, and laid him on the ground, covered with many robes, while willing hands kneaded his marbled flesh. A fire was built beside him, and the old men marvelled and talked. It was the time when the gray wolves changed their hunting-grounds. Many had seen it before. When they sought the lower country, many grasses ago, to get away from the snow, one had known them to eat a Crow who happened in their way; this when he was a boy.
The wolves did not always act like this -- not every snow. Sudden bad storms in the mountains had driven them out. The horse herds must be well looked after for a time, until the flood of wolves had passed down the valley.
The tired ponies stood about on the plain with their heads down. They, too, had become exhausted by the all-night fight. The sun came back, warm and clear, to see a more cheerful scene than it had left. Little Weasel spoke weakly to his father: "The Great Spirit came to me in the night, father, -- the cold wind whispered to me that White Weasel must always carry a hoof of the white stallion in his medicine-bag. 'It is the thing that will protect you,' said the wind. The white stallion lies over there cut down behind. Kill him, and give me one of his rear hooves, father."
Accordingly, the noble beast, the leader of the horses in battle, was relieved of what was, at best, useless suffering, -- sacrificed to the gods of men, whom he dreaded less than the wolves, -- and his wolf-smashing hoof did useful things for many years afterward.
The boy's spiritual nature had been exalted by the knowledge that the Good God had not only held him in His saving arms during the long, cold, snarling night, but He had guaranteed his continual protection and ultimate salvation. That is no small thing to any person, but to the wild man, ever in close communion with the passing of the flesh, to be on intimate terms with the something more than human is a solace that dwellers in the quiescent towns are deadened to. The boy was not taught physical fear, but he was taught to stand in abject awe of things his people did not understand, and, in consequence, he felt afraid in strange places and at inopportune times.
One evening, as the family to which White Weasel belonged sat about the blaze of the split sticks in their lodge, Fire-Bear, the medicine-man, entered, and sat down to smoke his talk with the foster-father. Between the long puffs he said: "Crooked-Bear wants us to bring the white Absaroke to him. The hot winds have come down the valley, and the snow has gone, so we can go to the mountains the next sun. Will you go with me and take the boy? The Absaroke must do as the Crooked-Bear says, brother, or who knows what may happen to us? The old man of the mountain is strong."
After blinking and smoking for a time the foster-father said: "The boy's and Crooked-Bear's skins are of the same color; they are both Sparrowhawks in their hearts. His heart may be heavy out there alone in the mountains -- he may want us to leave the boy by his fire. Ba-cher-hish-a would mourn if this were done. I fear to go, brother, but must if he ask it. We will be ready when the morning comes."
When the dark teeth of the eastern mountains bit into the gray of approaching day, the two old Indians and the boy were trotting along, one behind the other. The ponies slithered in the pools and little rivulets left by the melted snow, but again taking the slow, steady, mountainous, stiff-legged, swinging lope across the dry plain, they ate the flat miles up, as only those born on the desert know how to do.
The boy had often heard of the great Crow medicine-man up in the mountains near where the tribe hovered. He seldom came to their lodges, but the Indians frequently visited him. Weasel had never seen him, for the boys of the camp were not permitted to go near the sacred places where the old man was found. He had requested this of the chiefs, and the Absaroke children drank the mystery and fear of him with their mothers' milk. He was one of the tribal institutions, a matter of course; and while his body was denied them, his advice controlled in the council-lodges. His were the words from God.
Weasel was in the most tremendous frame of mind about this venture. He was divided between apprehension and acute curiosity. He had left his mother sobbing, and the drawn face of his father served only to tighten his nerves. Why should the great man want to see White Weasel, who was only a herd-boy? Was it because his hair and his eyes were not the color of other boys'? He was conscious of this difference. He knew the traders were often red and yellow like him, and not brown and black as the other people were. He did not understand the thing, however. No one had ever said he was any thing else than an Absaroke; he did not feel otherwise.
Approaching the mountains, the travellers found the snow again, and climbed more slowly along the game-trails. They had blinded their path by following up a brook which made its way down a coulee. No one left the road to Crooked-Bear's den open to the prowling enemy. That was always understood. Hours of slow winding took them high up on the mountains, the snow growing deeper and less trodden by wild animals, until they were among the pines. Making their way over fallen logs, around jagged boulders, and through dense thickets, they suddenly dropped into a small wooded valley, then up to the foot of the towering terraces of bare rock, checkered with snow, where nothing came in winter, not even the bighorns.
Soon Weasel could smell fire, then dogs barked in the woods up in front. Fire-Bear called loudly in deep, harsh Indian tones, and was answered by a man. Going forward, they came first to the dogs, -- huge, bold creatures, -- bigger and different than any Weasel had ever seen. Then he made out the figure of a man, low in tone and softly massed against the snow, and beside him a cabin made of logs set against the rock wall.
This was Crooked-Bear. Weasel's mind had ceased to act; only his blue eyes opened in perfect circles, seemed awake in him, and they were fixed on the man. The big dogs approached him without barking, -- a bad sign with dogs. Weasel's mind did not concern itself with dogs. In response to strange words from the white medicine-man they drew away. Weasel sat on his pony while the older men dismounted and greeted Crooked-Bear. They did not shake hands -- only "hat- wearers" did that. Why should an Indian warrior lose the use of his right hand for even an instant? His hand was only for his wife and children and his knife.
In response to the motion of his father's hand, the boy slid off his pony. Taking him by the shoulder, the father drew him slowly toward Crooked-Bear until they were directly in each other's presence. Weasel's eyes could open no farther. His whole training was that of an Indian. He would not have betrayed his feelings under any circumstances; he was also a boy, and the occasion was to him so momentous that he was receiving impressions, not giving them. A great and abiding picture was fast etching itself on his brain; his spongelike child-mind drank up every drop of the weird situation.
He had seen a few white men in his life. He had not forgotten Virginia City, though terror had robbed him of his powers of observation during that ordeal. He had seen the traders at the post; he had seen the few white or half-white men who lived with his people, but they were not like this one.
The old man of the mountain (4) as crooked as his name implied. He also suggested a bear. He looked rude even to the Indians. It seemed that Nature had laid her hands on his shoulder and telescoped him together. He was humpbacked. His arms and legs were as other men's are, though his shortened body made his hands fall to his knees.
He was dressed in Indian buckskin, greased to a shine and bronzed by smoke. He leaned on a long breech-loading rifle, and carried a huge knife and revolver in his belt. His hat was made of wolfskin after the Indian fashion, from underneath which fell long brown hair, carefully combed, in profuse masses. Seen closely he was not old -- merely past middle life. His strong features were weather-stained and care-hardened. They were sculptured with many an insistent dig by Nature, the great artist; she had gouged deep under the brows; she had been lavish in the treatment of the nose; she had cut the tiger lines fearlessly, but she had covered the mouth and lost the lower face in a bush of beard. More closely, the whole face was open, the eyes mild, and all about it was reposeful -- sad resolution dominated by a dome of brain. Weasel warmed under the gaze of the kind face -- the eyes said nothing but good; they did more than that: they compelled him to step forward toward the strange figure, who put his hand on Weasel's shoulder and led him tenderly in the direction of the cabin door. Weasel had lost his fear and regained the use of his mind.
As the men stooped almost on hands and knees to enter the den of Crooked-Bear, they were greeted by the acrid smell of smouldering ashes, and probably by other odors native to their noses. Crooked-Bear stirred the ashes and laid split wood on them. It was pine which spat and broke out in a bright flame, painting the wild figures against the smoked logs and rock wall. It illumined a buffalo-covered bunk, piles of parflèche full of dried meat, a saddle and pack panniers, cooking pots and pans on the hearth, all deeply sooted, a table and chair made with an axe, and in one corner some shelves, equally rude, piled with brown and dirty books. Many small knick-knacks intruded their useful presence as one looked with more care, but the whole was the den of a man of some remote century. The sabre-toothed tiger might snarl at the door but for the Sharp's rifle standing in the corner; that alone made time and distance.
"Your ponies must starve to-night, brother," spoke Crooked-Bear. "Go put them in my house where the horses live in summer-time. It is cold up here in the mountains -- we have even no cottonwoods for them to eat. The bear and the wolves will not spring on them, though the big cats are about." All this said the white man in the language of the Absaroke, though it may be said it sounded strange in Weasel's ear. When he spoke to the dogs, the boy could not understand at all.
While the Indians looked after their ponies, the white man roasted meat and boiled coffee. On their return, seeing him cooking, Fire-Bear said: "Brother, you should have a squaw to do that. Why do you not take Be-Sha's daughter? She has the blood of the yellow-eyes in her. She would make your fire burn."
"Tut, tut," he replied, "no woman would make my fire burn. My fire has gone out." With a low laugh, Crooked-Bear added, "No woman would stay long up here, brothers; she would soon run away." Fire-Bear said nothing, for he did not understand. He himself would follow and beat the woman and make her come back, but he did not say so.
Having eaten, and passed the pipe, Fire-Bear asked the hermit how the winter was passing -- how the dry meat was lasting -- what fortune had he in hunting, and had any enemies beset him? He was assured his good friends, the Absaroke, had brought him enough dry meat, after the last fall hunt, to last him until he should no longer need it. The elk were below him, but plentiful, and his big dogs were able to haul enough up the hills on his sleds. He only feared for his tobacco, coffee, and ammunition; that had always to be husbanded, being difficult to get and far to carry. Further, he asked his friend, the Indian, to take some rawhides back to the women, to be dressed and made into clothes for his use.
"Has my brother any more talking papers from the yellow-eyes? Do the white men mean to take the Sioux lands away from them? The Sioux asked the Absaroke last fall to help drive the white men out of the country, saying, 'If they take our lands to dig their badger-holes in, they will soon want yours.' The Absaroke would not help the Cut-Throats (5); for they are dogs they wag their tails before they bite," spoke Fire-Bear.
"Yes, brother," replied Crooked-Bear; "if you should, by aiding the Sioux, get rid of the white men, and even this you would not be able to do, you would still have the Sioux, who are dogs, always ready to bite you. No, brother, have nothing to do with them, as I have counselled you. The Sak-a-war-te said this to me: 'Before the grass on the plains shoots, send a strong, fat-horse war-party to the enemy and strike hard. Sweep their ponies away -- they will be full of sticks and bark, not able to carry their warriors that moon; tear their lodges down and put their fires out; make their warriors sit shivering in the plum bushes. That is the way for the Crows to have peace.' The Great Spirit has said to me: 'Tell the Absaroke that they can never run the buffalo on the plains in peace, until the Chis-chis-chash, the Dakotahs, and the Piegan dare not look them in the face. That, and that only, is the path.'"
Far into the night the men talked of the tribal policy -- it was diminutive statesmanship, commercial politics with buffalo meat for money. As Crooked-Bear sat on his hewn chair, he called the boy to him, put his arm around him, and stood him against his knee. The youth's head rose above the rugged face of the master of Indian mystery; he was in his first youth, his slender bones had lengthened suddenly in the last few years, and the muscles had tried hard to catch up with them. They had no time to do more than that, consequently Weasel was more beautiful than he would ever be again. The long lines of grace showed under the tight buckskins, and his face surveyed the old man with boyish wonder. Who can know what the elder thought of him in return? Doubtless he dreamed of the infinite possibilities of so fine a youth. He whose fire had gone out mused pleasantly as he long regarded the form in whom they were newly lighted.
He called the boy to him and put his arm around him.
Slowly he began to speak, using the Indian forms of speech, and supplementing them with the gestures which only Indians can command. "Brother, we have lived a long time. We have made the medicine strong for the Absaroke. We have taken the words of the Good Gods to the council-lodge when the tribe ran wildly and knew not which way to turn. We will follow soon the others who have gone to the Shadowland. The Absaroke will be left behind, and they must have wise men to guide them when we are gone. This young man will be one of those -- I have seen that in my dreams. He must stay here with me in the lonely mountains, and I will teach him the great mystery of the white men, together with that of the people of his own tribe. He will visit his father's lodge whenever his heart is hungry. He owes it to himself and to his people to grow strong in the mystery, and then some day the tribe will lean on him. Shall he stay, brothers?"
White Weasel, with arms dropped to his side, made no move. The flame from the hearth lighted one of his starlike eyes as it stood open, regardful of the strange old man. The Indians passed the pipe, and for a long time there was no sound save the snapping of the fire and the pines outside popping with the cold.
At last Fire-Bear spoke: "We have had our ears open, brother. Your talk is good. The Sak-a-war-te demands this. The boy shall stay."
Weasel's foster-father held his peace. His was the sacrifice, but the Great Spirit could not ask too much of him. In reply to another inquiry, he said that the boy should stay; then wrapping himself in his robe, he lay down before the fire to hide his weakness.
"Will you stay with me?" asked the Wonder- Worker of the boy, stroking his yellow hair and pouring the benevolence of his fire-lighted face in a steady stream on the youth.
"You have no ponies to herd, father. What shall I do?" he asked.
"I have no ponies for you to herd, but I have many mysteries here," tapping the boy's forehead with his finger, "for you to gather up and feed on, and they are greater than ponies."
" I will stay, father."
Out by the stable Crooked-Bear said: "Take your ponies and that of the boy and ride away. They will starve here, and you must go before they weaken and are unable to carry you. A boy changes his mind very quickly, and he may not think in the sunlight what he did in the firelight. I will be kind to him. Tell Ba-cher-hish-a that her son will be a great chief in a few grasses."
Silently, as only the cats and the wolves and the Indians conduct themselves, the men with the led horses lost themselves among the trees, leaving Crooked-Bear standing by his abode with the two great cross-bred mastiffs, on their hind legs, leaning on him and trying to lick his face. As they stood together, the dogs were taller than he, and all three of them about the same color. It was a fantastic scene; a few goblins, hoarse mystery birds, Indian devils, and what not beside, might have been added to the group and without adding to its strangeness. Weasel had foukd a most unearthly home; but as he awoke and lay looking about the cabin, it did not seem so awfully strange. Down through the ages borne through hundreds of wombs in some mysterious alcove of the boy's brain had survived something which did not make the long haired white man working about the fire, the massive dogs, the skins of wild animals, the sooty interior, look so strange.
As Weasel rose to a sitting posture on the bunk, the dogs got up also. "Down with you! Down with you, Eric! and you, Hope! You must not bother the boy," came the hermit's words of command. The dogs understood, and lay heavily down, but their eyes shone through heavy red settings as they regarded the boy with unarrested attention.
"I am afraid of your dogs, father; they are as big as ponies. Will they eat me?"
"No; do not be afraid. Before the sun goes over the mountains they will eat anyone who would raise his hand against you. Come, put your hand on their heads. The Indians do not do this; but these are white dogs, and they will not bite any one who can put his hand on their heads," spoke Crooked-Bear in his labored way with the Indian tongue. He had never mastered all the clicks and clucks of it.
The meat being done, it was put on the table, and White Weasel was persuaded to undertake his first development. The hermit knew that the mind never waits on a starved belly, so he explained to the boy that only dogs ate on the ground. That was not obvious to the youngster; but he sat in the chair and mauled his piece of meat, which was in a tin plate. He drank his coffee out of a tin cup, which he could see was full better than a hollow buffalo horn, besides having the extra blandishment of sugar in it. As the hermit, occupying an up-turned pack-saddle opposite, regarded the boy, he could see that Weasel had a full forehead that it was not pinched -- like an Indian's; he understood the deep, wide-open eyes which were the color of new ice, and the straight, solemn nose appealed to him also. The face was formal even to the statuesque, which is an easy way of saying he was good-looking. The bearer of these messages from his ancestors to Crooked-Bear quite satisfied him. He knew that the baby Weasel had been forcibly made to enter a life from which he himself had in mature years voluntarily fled, and for which neither was intended. They had entered from opposite doors only, and he did not wish to go out again, but the boy might. He determined to show him the way to undo the latching.
After breakfast began the slow second lesson of the white man's mystery. It was in the shape of some squaw's work, and again the boy thought unutterable protests. Crooked-Bear had killed an elk the day before, some considerable distance down the mountain, and taking his dogs with the sledges, they sallied down to get it. What with helping to push the heavy loads in aid of the dogs and his disgust of being on foot, at their noon home-coming White Weasel's interest began to flag.
Crooked-Bear noticed this, and put even more sugar into the boy's coffee. He had a way of voicing half-uttered thoughts to himself, using his native tongue, also repeating these thoughts as though to reenforce them. " I must go slow -- I must go slow, or the boy will balk. I must lead him with a silken thread; the rawhide will not do -- it will not do." Meanwhile the growing youth passed naturally into oblivion on the bunk.
"These Indians are an indolent people," the prophet continued. "They work only by fits and starts, but so am I indolent too. It befits our savage way of life," saying which, he put some coffee-berries into a sack and began pounding them with an axe. "I do not know -- I do not remember to have been lazy; it does not matter now if I am. No one cares, and certainly I do not. I have tramped these mountains in all weathers; I have undergone all manner of hardships, yet they said I could not be a soldier in the armies down south. Of course not -- of course not; a humpback could not be a soldier. He is fit only to swear at. Men would laugh at a crooked- back soldier. She could see nothing but my back. Ah -- ah -- it is past now. Men and women are not here to see my back; the trees and the clouds, the mountains and my dogs, do not look at my spine. The Indians say my back was bent by my heavy thoughts. The boy there has a straight back, and I hope he may walk among men. I will see that he does; I will give him the happiness which was denied me, and it pleases me to think that I can do this. I will create a happiness which the vicissitudes of this strange life seem to have denied him, saying, 'Weasel, you are to be a starved and naked nomad of the plains.' No! no! boy; you are not to be a starved and naked nomad of the plains. I have in my life done no intentional evil, and also I have done no intentional good; now this problem of the boy has come to me how it reaches out its roots for the nourishing things and how its branches spread for the storms!"
Having accompanied these thoughts by the beating of the axe, the hermit arose, and stood gazing on the sleeping lad. "Oh, if I had only had your back! -- oh! oh! oh! But if only you had had my opportunities and education --well, I am not a god; I am only a man; I will do what a man can."
When the boy awoke, the hermit said, " My son, did you ever make a gun speak?"
"No; my father's gun hangs with his mystery-bag on his reclining-mat, and a woman or child dare not lay their fingers on it."
"Would you like to make a gun talk?" came gently, but Weasel could only murmur. The new and great things of life were coming fast to him. He would almost have given his life to shoot a gun; to own one was like the creation, and the few similar thoughts of men; it was beyond the stars.
" Weasel," said the man, taking up a carbine, and calling him by name, which is un-Indian, "here is a gun; it loads in the middle; I give it to you; it is yours." With which he handed the weapon to the boy.
After some hesitation Weasel took the gun, holding it stiffly in front of him, as an altar-boy might a sacred thing. He could say nothing, and soon sat down, still holding the firearm, regarding it for a long time. When he could finally believe he was not dreaming, when he comprehended that he really did own a gun, he passed into an unutterable peace, akin to nothing but a mother and her new-born child. His white father stepped majestically from the earth that Weasel knew into the rolling clouds of the unthought places.
"To-morrow I will take my gun, and you will take your gun, and we will walk the hills together. Whatever we see, be it man or beast, your gun may speak first," proposed the prophet.
"Yes, father, we will go out with the coming of the sun. My heart is as big as the mountains; only yesterday I was a herd-boy, now I own a gun. This brought it all to me," the boy said almost to himself, as he fumbled a small bag hanging at his neck. The bag contained the dried horse's hoof.
Throwing back his long hair, the prophet fixed his face on his new intellectual garden. He saw the weeds, and he hardly dared to pull them, fearing to disturb the tender seeds which he had so lately planted. Carefully he plucked at them. "No, my son, that was not your medicine which brought the gun, but my medicine; the medicine of the white man brought it to you. The medicine of the white man brought the gun to you because the Great Spirit knew you were a white boy. The medicine of the white man is not carried in a buckskin bag; it is carried here." And the prophet laid his finger on his own rather imposing brow; he swept his hair away from it with a graceful gesture, and smiling on the youth, he waited to see whether the seed had come up with the bad weed.
Weasel's hand left the bag, and followed down to the gun while he looked at his master. It might be so; no Indian boy whom he knew had ever had a gun. This firearm absorbed him, and the man felt it would continue to do so for some time to come; therefore he said no more.
Bright and early was the start of the hunters in the morning. They left the dogs in the cabin, and with snow-shoes slung to their backs, followed down the sledge-trail toward the bare foothills, where the game was. In and out among the shadows of the pine trees passed the figures, vigorous with the mountain ozone, and both happy in their respective ways. On reaching a proper place, they adjusted the broad, oval rackets, and skirted along the timber-line, watching the hills below them, from which the wind had blown the snow. It was not difficult to find game in those days, before the coming of the white men bearing their long-range rifles. Far out on the plain their trained eyes saw the bands of antelope, and, nearer, herds of mule-deer working about in the ravines. "But," said the boy, "my first shot must be at an elk or a bighorn, father."
" Come then, my son, we will go round this point of the hill, and on the sunny southern slope we will find the elk -- great bands of them. You shall shoot one, and when you have done that, the herd-boy will be a hunter."
As had been predicted, in due course of their walk they beheld bands of elk lying about or walking slowly, their yellow backs gleaming in the morning sun. The warm winds from the valleys were coming up toward the arctic mountain-tops and away from the elk. "Take off your snow-shoes, my son; they creak on the snow -- the elk will hear them; we must go down this ravine, and when we are near enough, you will shoot."
Under cover of the rocks and sparse pines they slowly made their well-considered
way noiselessly, the boy's eyes blazing with the hunter's lust, and the
old man watching him eagerly. From time to time the Weasel lifted his head
above the rim-rock of the ravine to note the position of their approach,
but the hermit's heedful eye bore only on his pupil. They had worked their
way, after the hunter manner, a long distance downward, and hoped soon
to be in a position for a safe shot. The canon-like ravine which they were
following narrowed suddenly; the snow lay in deep drifts against its sides,
making it necessary for them to go slowly along the ledges of the rim-rock,
the boy always first. As they were about to round the point where the coulee
tightened, a big yellow form drifted like a wind-blown feather on to them
; it suddenly appeared not twenty feet from their faces, and it was a mountain-lion.
Both the men and the animal stopped, the men straightening up while the
cougar crouched down. The cat bared its fangs, the boy raised his carbine;
both were in search of game, but neither for what he had found. The gun
reached its place; the coulee echoed with the heavy report, and through
the enveloping smoke flew the great cat as though also impelled by gunpowder.
The boy had not missed his mark, and the lion his only by a small margin.
The steep snowdrift yielded under his frantic claws, carrying him many
yards down the sides.
"Load your gun and shoot him, Weasel; I shall not shoot," came the hermit's voice. The position of his long rifle belied his words, but the youth did not look behind. He fumbled for a cartridge, was slow in working the strange mechanism of the arm, but he was ready by the time the cat, much frustrated by the unresisting snow, had nearly reached him. Again the cañon chorussed to the rifle, and as the heavy black powder-smoke drifted off on the friendly wind, the boy saw that he had killed. All had happened too quickly for his brain if not for his arm.
"Load your gun," came the voice of command in English. The tense situation made the new language strike Weasel's brain through his ear as his bullet had struck the monster. The sound of it was what conveyed the meaning, and the harsh bang of the words went home. An Indian would have had to gluck and cluck and glut for half a minute to make these three words plain. It would have sounded more like grace before meat than a command.
Weasel again broke his rifle and shoved the brass shell home, never looking elsewhere than at the yellow spot of fur on the white snow below him, as its fierce electric nerves slowly softened its expiring motions into quiet. He had never had even a dream of victory such as had taken form before him. He had known old Indian hunters who rode on a lion's skin in the ceremonial days, and he knew what warriors in the tribe wore the grizzly bear-claw necklaces -- every one knew those men. Could it be that he would ride on a lion's skin? Could it be that he would carry a gun which loaded in the middle? Yes, it could be if he only had a horse, but ponies were easier than guns or lions' skins in the Indian world. What a vista of power and glory opened in the boy's mind! What vanity of his could not yet be satisfied?
The hermit glanced over the rim-rock and saw the elk in long lines trotting away; he could hear the joints cracking, but his cabin was full of meat. "Boy, this was a white man's medicine-hunt. Could any Indian do that for you?" But the boy heeded not; with a series of wolfish yells he slid down the snowy incline toward his fallen foe. The hermit followed, and drawing their knives, they raised the hide while the body was yet warm, taking head and tail and claws. Weasel was delirious with joy; he laughed and jabbered and ki-yied, while the pleased old man calculated that he had reduced the boy to a state of mind when it was safe to burden his wild young charge with something quite as serious for him as tigers' skins. He would make him begin his English.
They made their way back to the snow-shoes back to the sledge-road up to the cabin received a welcome from the dogs; but the coffee had less sugar than before. Economy was a watchword with him who trailed his necessities over the long journey from the traders on pack-ponies, and so the lion skin tacked on the wall was enough for the boy.
Gradually the man brought English words into the play of conversation, and Weasel sought the key to the white medicine which had so exalted him. The nouns came first, and he soon began to piece them out with other parts of speech; his ear accustomed itself, and with it all came new and larger thoughts carefully strewn in his way by the prophet.
They hunted together; did the little healthy work found in their simple manner of life which no longer seemed fitted for women only; and the grave old man at last saw the spark which he had lighted burst into flame. It was the warmth of human kindness which is the base of everything ennobling to man.
One day when the buds of the leaves were beginning to show themselves, in response to nature's inviting smiles, the dogs barked furiously. The two dwellers of the cabin seized their rifles, ran out to places which had been selected by them for their strategic advantages in calm moments, and waited. Before long they heard challenges in the well-known Absaroke, which they answered.
"Do not talk English to your people, my son; they will not understand," said the hermit; but what he feared was their suspicion of the transformation of the lad. The Absaroke, no more than the Dakotahs, understood or loved the white man; they merely tolerated him for tribal reasons. The prophet had ingratiated himself by fortunate circumstances and an abounding tact.
The newcomers were a dozen chiefs of the tribe, the boy's Indian father among them. They drove a few led ponies belonging to Crooked-Bear, which they were returning after their wintering with the Absaroke herds. The quickly shooting mountain grasses would support them at this season.
Long and seemingly interminable talks followed the pipe about the prophet's blazing hearth. He filled their minds with strong, sensible advice, reenforcing it by supposed inspired sources, until the tobacco which he had appropriated for such occasions gave out. It was a cheap and in fact the only way by which he could purchase immunity from violence -- a safe wintering for his ponies and his fall supply of dried buffalo meat.
His influence was boundless, and while he hoped quite as much as the Indians that the white men would never come to these parts during his lifetime, he also knew that they would. He heard reports that the miners were invading the Sioux territory from the south; he knew gold, and he knew white men, and he realized what the combination always produced. In this strait he saw that the efforts of the Sioux would be so taxed to oppose the progress that the Absaroke would profit by their preoccupation. His revelations always favored the alliance between the Absaroke and the yellow-eyes. No one can ever know how much this forgotten hermit of the Chew-cara-ash-Nitishic did for his race in the days when the Indians of the northern plains made their last stand before the white men. The Indians from King Philip's time never understood the powers, resources, and numbers of the white people. Even the Crows in those days wavered before the boastful envoys of the neighbor tribes. The Indians had hunted out of the country the Metis, the Pea-Soups, or the French half-breeds, together with the white trappers, who had often contracted Indian marriages, and who had followed the fortunes of the early fur trade.
At that time old frontiersmen like Norris, who had for years followed up and down the plains, and across the range, admitted that a strong party of seasoned trappers was not safe east of the Big Horn Mountains.
The long palaver terminated with the Indians' promise to send out war-parties against the other tribes. The Weasel was not able to resist a very natural desire to go again to the camps, to visit his foster-mother, the boys of his childhood, and deeper yet to bear the gun and the lion's skin. The important men of the visiting party had come to regard White Weasel with some sort of veneration; he had that about him which was not quite understandable; he was supposed to be near the unknown Power.
But shortly the time arrived when he was compelled to make his semiannual trip with his pack-horses to the traders for his supplies of ammunition, of pots and pans, of tobacco, blankets, and food stuffs, without which he could not exist. This journey was always tedious, hard, and dangerous; but he tried always to do it while the horses of the enemy out on the plains were thin and as yet unserviceable. With all the circumspection he was able to use, he had on several occasions nearly lost his life ; but needs must, he could renounce everything on earth except his belly. However, this time he accomplished his journey, and aside from straying ponies, turning packs, with the other in evitables of desert life, he, safe and well provided, found his cabin again. The Indians had told him that White Weasel had gone with a war-party. That was nothing; all men in the wild country were more or less at war all the time. "I hope the boy keeps that corn-silk on his head," soliloquized the hermit; quot;also I think it would be a good thing for the young savage if he is forced to leave other people's alone. A fresh scalp in that boy's hand will make an extra year's work for me. It cannot be helped it cannot be helped; it is the law of nature, only that law operates badly out here. What does it matter, however? The women can correct the loss of a man more or less in the world."
With the return of spring came the elk and big horn. They walked into his park and blew their whistles as they smelled the odors from his hearth. The big gray bears came out of their winter caves and rumbled past his door. These were his greatest foes, constantly stampeding his ponies, even clawing at his heavy log horse-barn, where he always kept one horse to hunt the others with, and trying to circumvent his meat-arbor, a device hung on a pole high up between two slender trees, which was operated up and down by a rawhide rope. Small black bears often put this out of action, but the dogs were usually able to chase these away. Not so with the silver-tips; for at times one of the playful brutes would come round to indulge himself in the sport of chasing Eric and Hope about the dooryard over their own preserves. They both had been slashed and hugged at intervals in their youth, and so took the big bears at their own estimate. The long, fifty-caliber rifle was called upon on such occasions, and thus far with success.
One day, at the beginning of summer, the boy returned to the hermit's nest, -- was barked at, challenged, and finally greeted.
"Have you blinded your ponies' trail carefully, coming up from the valley? The enemy is abroad in the land these days," was asked and answered satisfactorily. The boy's features, which were rather grave in response to the seriousness of his life, were relaxed and beaming. There was an eagle feather in his hair, hanging down behind. He led the pony loaned by the prophet, which bore a bunch of buckskins, and was mounted on a fine animal, quite in the warrior class, with a new elkhorn saddle. His panther skin was rolled behind him. Dismounting, he carefully undid this, and from its folds drew forth a scalp -- a braid of long hair, the skin stretched on a wooden ring and half covered down the plat with silver disks made of pounded silver dollars.
"It was a Dakotah, father, and I put his fire out with the medicine gun you gave me. I have danced it with the warriors; I am a warrior now."
The old man's worst fears had been realized, but after eating he had the story from White Weasel.
"When I reached the village, my father's and mother's hearts grew big at the sight of my gun and lion's skin. My mother had made the buckskins you sent down by my father into clothes both for yourself and for myself." Here he presented the hermit with his new dress, made beautiful with yellow ochre and with long fringes at back and sleeves, and open at the front, as was the white man's custom.
"Long-Horse," the boy continued, "was making up a party to go to the Dakotahs. I asked to be one of them, but he thought I was young. I said my medicine was strong and that my horse was fat. He said I was young to learn the war-path secret, but after smoking my talk he consented. I had only eight cartridges and one horse, all the other Indians having two apiece. Your old pack-pony is a war-horse now, father; he has carried a warrior," and the turquoise eyes gleamed brilliantly. "Long-Horse had a big band; we made the war-path medicine and travelled many sleeps with our backs to the sun. One morning our scouts found two men, an Absaroke and a white man, and brought them in. They belonged to the white warriors' camp, which was fighting the Dakotahs, who were all around them, and these men were going for help. Long-Horse moved toward this place guided by the men we had met. Before the sun was up, the Absaroke rode into the camp of the white soldiers, and they were glad to see us. They had the white cloth lodges and many wagons, but their horses had been taken by the Dakotahs and they had lost some soldiers. The white men had put their dead men in the ground. I saw where they had dug in the earth and left mounds such as the prairie-dog builds. The camp was on the low ground, and back of this were bluffs. When the sun gave light, we could see the Cut-Throats swarm on their hill as the ants do when you lift a stone. There were five Cut-Throats to one white soldier, and the white men could not go out to them. While the white men had no women, they had more wagons than I could count, loaded with sugar and coffee until the wheels cut the ground. I never knew there was so much coffee and sugar; where does it come from, father? The white men are rich, and there are so few of them that each has more than he wants. In a place of that kind the Absaroke would have run away, but the white men cannot run, and they think more of the coffee and sugar than they do of their own lives. It made my head weak when I saw the enemy; they rode swiftly; they were all warriors, for they all had the war-feathers in their hair. They had guns, and as they rode they made the gestures of women and snakes and dogs at us. They rode away from a spot which they pointed at, and then they pointed at us, saying we were buffalo that always ran away like this. Long-Horse and the white chief, a big man with short hair, made a long talk. The Absaroke gave their old travelling-ponies to the white warriors, who put their own saddles on them. These white soldiers mounted the ponies on the wrong side, and tired as the horses were, they jumped like rabbits under them. Though I was afraid of the enemy, I had to laugh, father.
"When we were ready, we charged the enemy, and they fled before us; we followed them until they gained the rough hills. We fired at the Dakotahs, and they fired at us, they always working backward in the rough canons, where we were afraid to follow on horseback because Long-Horse said they were trying to lead us into an ambuscade. All day we fought, although very few were killed. At night the white soldiers and many Absaroke rode swiftly back to the camp. Long-Horse with half of the Absaroke stopped in the strong woods high up on one side of a ravine, and I stayed with them. I had only four cartridges left. All night we lay there and allowed their scouts to go down the cañon without firing on them. In the early morning we heard the Dakotahs coming; they rode down the cut before our faces, not knowing we were there. When Long-Horse gave his war-whoop, we all fired, and jumping on our ponies charged into them. The ground was covered with dying horses and men. My heart grew big, father; everything before my eyes swam red, and I do not remember much except that I rode behind a big Dakotah and shot him in the back. He fell from his horse to the ground and tried to gain his feet, but I rode the pack-pony over him, knocking him down so that he lay still. I turned round and shot him again before he died, and then I took his hair. He had a beautiful head-dress of feathers, which I took, but I left his gun, for it was heavy and a poor one. I chased his pony, the fine war-horse which is out in the stable. The Dakotahs who were not killed had all run away, so I ran the dead man's pony back to camp, where with the help of other Indians I caught him. Long-Horse was killed, and a few Absaroke wounded, but we got many scalps, one of which is mine.
"The white soldiers took me to their lodge and gave me coffee which was heavy with sugar. They spoke your language to me, but I could not understand much of it. A half-Indian man talked the Absaroke for me in their tongue, and when I said I was a Crow, -- for that is what the white men call us, -- they laughed until my heart grew bad. They asked me if there were any more Crows whose hair was the color of the dry grass, and then they continued to laugh. They said I must have been born on a frosty morning. I did not know what to say, but I saw their hearts warmed to me, and I did nothing. They gave me cartridges, blankets, sugar, and coffee, until the old pack-pony could carry no more. The big chief of the white men wanted me to stay with him, and promised to give me anything I wanted from the wagons. He talked long with the warriors, asking them to leave me with him, and the Absaroke said he could have me, but I did not want to stay. At one time I thought the white soldiers were going to make me stay, for they took me on their shoulders and carried me about the camp, laughing and yelling. I was afraid. Those men were bigger than Indians, and, father, their arms were as hard and strong as the gray bear's. They were always laughing; they roared like the buffalo bulls.
" My color is the same as theirs, father; many of them had hair like mine, though they cut it short. I am a Crow, but I do not understand these things." Whereat the boy fell into a deep meditation.
Cautiously the hermit approached. "Your heart warms to the white man, does it not, my son?"
"Yes, all white men are good to me; they give me everything I want;
they are rich, and their hearts are big. They do not know how to keep their
horses; they are fools about them, and they mount from the wrong side.
I never heard a white man speak to a horse in that camp. When they walk
up to a pony, the pony does not know whether they come as a friend or an
enemy. Some day I am going to Ashar-Ra (6),
where the white soldiers live. They told me that when I came they would
load my pony down with gifts. But I must first learn to talk as you do,
Here, at last, was light to brighten the hopes of the hermit. The boy's ambition had been aroused. What if he had gone to war, and what if he did have the much-treasured scalp in his possession? He had only followed the hermit's advice to his tribe concerning war. Then, too, the old man had picked up newspapers at the traders' which told of the invasion of the Black Hills by the white miners. He knew this would provoke war with the Sioux, and it occurred to him that the best possible way to introduce White Weasel to his own people would be through contact with the army. He could go with them, and they might reclaim him. He could not possibly go through the industrial institutions, but he must speak English. There was plenty of time for that, since he could kill elk within a mile of his door with which to maintain himself. He would begin.
"Yes, you must work hard with me now to speak as the white men do. You will soon be a man; you are no longer a boy. You are a white man, but you were brought up by the Absaroke, and you will go back to your own people some day. The more you see them, the better you will like them."
"Why must I go to the white people, father? You do not go to them, and you are a white man."
The hunchback hermit leaned with his head on his hands for a long time; he had not foreseen this. Finally, "You will go because they are your own people; you will join them when they fight the Sioux. You think there are not many of them. Weasel, I am not a liar, and I say there are more white men on the earth than there are buffalo. You are young, you are brave, and you are straight in the back; their hearts will warm toward you. You will grow to be a white chief and own many wagons of coffee and sugar. Some day, Weasel, you will want a white woman for a wife. You have never seen a white woman; they are not like these red squaws; they are as beautiful as the morning, and some day one of them will build a fire in your heart which nothing but death can put out.
"From now on I shall no longer call you White Weasel, but will give you a white name which you must answer to. There shall be no Indian mystery about it, and you shall bear it all your life. I will call you," -- and here the hermit again relapsed into thought.
"I will call you John Ermine; that is a good strong white name, and when you are asked what it is, do not say White Weasel, -- say, 'My name is John Ermine.' Now say it ! " And the young man ran the thing over his tongue like a treble drag on a snare-drum.
"Now again, after me: 'My -- name -- is -- John Ermine'" And the prophet cut the words apart with his forefinger.
John Ermine tried his name again and again, together with other simple expressions. The hermit ceased almost to address him in the Indian tongue. The broad forehead responded promptly to the strain put upon it. Before the snow came, the two had rarely to use the harsh language of the tribesmen. Gradually the pressure was increased, and besides words the hermit imposed ideas. These took root and grew in an alarming way after battling strenuously with those he had imbibed during his youth.
"And why is your name Crooked-Bear, which is Indian, while you are white?"
"My name is not Crooked-Bear except to the Indians; my name is Richard Livingston Merril, though I have not heard the sound of it in many snows and do not care to hear it in many more. You can call me 'Comrade'; that is my name when you speak."
Sitting by their cabin door in the flecked sun light which the pine trees distributed, the two waded carefully across the lines of some well-thumbed book, taking many perilous flying leaps over the difficult words, but going swiftly along where it was unseasoned Saxon. The prophet longed for a paper and pencil to accelerate the speed, but was forced to content himself with a sharp stick and the smoothed-out dirt before him. At times he sprinkled his sensitive plant with some simple arithmetic ; again he lectured on the earth, the moon, and the stars. John Ermine did not leave a flat earth for a round one without a struggle, but the tutor ended up by carving a wooden ball which he balanced in his hand as he separated the sea from the land; he averred that he had known many men who had been entirely around it -- which statement could not be disputed.
White Weasel had heard the men speak about the talking-wire and fire-wagon, but he did not believe the tales. John Ermine had more faith, although it puzzled him sorely. Raptly he listened to the long accounts of the many marvels back in the States, and his little Sioux scalp took a new significance as he tried hard to comprehend ten thousand men dying in a single battle of the Great White Man's war. Ten thousand dead men was a severe strain on his credulity when Crooked-Bear imposed it upon him. The ships which fought on the water he did not attempt at all; they were not vivid enough for his contemplation.
When were the white men coming to the Indian lands?
"Before you have a mustache, John Ermine, they will come in numbers as great as the grasshoppers, but you will not care; you are a white man."
Last but not least the prophet removed himself from his Indian pedestal in full sight of his ward. He was no prophet; he was only a man, and a poor specimen at that. Simply, and divested of much perplexity, he taught the Christian religion; told the story of Jesus, and had John Ermine repeat the Ten Commandments, which last the teacher could only marshal after many days of painful reflection, so vagrant are most men's memories as age creeps on.
The relationship of the two lonely men grew closer, and under the necessity of the case the hermit took Ermine to a mountain ravine some little distance from his camp. Here he operated a sluice, in connection with a placer, in a desultory way, by which he was able to have up enough gold dust to fill his wants from the traders. He exacted a promise from the lad that come what would he must never, by word or action, reveal the existence of this place. The hermit wanted only enough to cover his wants during his lifetime, and if no one located the place, Ermine could use it as he saw fit in after years. It would always supply his needs, and when the white men came, as they surely would, the boy might develop the property, but all would be lost without absolute secrecy. Even the Indians did not know of the placer; they always explained to the traders, when questioned concerning the hermit's gold dust, that he made it himself; his medicine was strong, etc. This they believed, and no trader could get farther. Beyond the understanding that gold dust represented the few things necessary to their simple lives, John Ermine cared no more for it than did the blue jays or the Arctic hares. The thing did not interest him beyond a rather intense dislike of the work entailed.
The hermit had often told him the story of himself and his gold. Years ago he had left the States, following the then gentle tide of adventurers who sought fortunes or found death in the unknown hills. He wanted forgetfulness, but his fellows craved gold. On one occasion he formed an alliance with a prospecting miner and an old trapper, relict of the fur-trading days, to go to a place in the Indian country, where the latter had in his wanderings discovered a placer. They outfitted in Lewiston, Idaho, and guided surely by the hunter, had reached the present scene of the hermit's domicile without accident. Finding their hopes realized, they built the log cabin against the rock wall.
As he told it: "We found the quartz-float, and the miner followed it with a gold-pan. We were surprised to find we obtained colors almost from the first. We built the cabin, and put in our spare time in turning the water from the creek to one side of the gulch, so that we could get the sluice-boxes in place, and a proper flow for them, and, at the same time, work the gravel in the bottom of the creek without being inconvenienced by too great a flow of water. All this time we followed the trail to and from the cabin along the rock ledge, where no one but a goat would be apt to find it; and in every way we were careful not to attract wandering Indian hunters to ourselves.
"The miner worked slowly up the creek to where the gold became richer, until it finally petered out. He was then at a loss to account for the disappearance of the metal. This set him to thinking that he must have been working below a ledge where the gold originated. He then began to prospect for the lode itself, which, after due disappointment and effort, we found. It is the ledge which I have shown you, Ermine. The thing was buried in debris, and a discoloration of iron stains had confused the miner. He told me that the quartz would go a hundred dollars to the ton, and would make us all rich some day. Of course we did nothing with that, being content, for the present, with the gravel.
"We were high up on the range, away from any divides, and felt safe from wandering Indians. They could discover us only by chance, but by chance they did. One morning, when we had nearly completed the cabin, and were putting on the finishing touches, I was cooking at the fire when I heard a number of gunshots on the outside. I sprang to the half-opened door, and saw my two friends on the ground; one was dead, and the other was rolling about in agony on the pine-needles. A half-dozen Indians rushed out of the timber and soon finished their bloody work. I was so overcome, so unnerved, by the sudden and awful sight, that I could not move my hands or feet. Strangely enough, the Indians did not immediately advance on the cabin, fearing hostile shots. Since then I have found out that they knew by our tracks there were three of us. Taking positions behind trees, they waited. In the still air I could hear them talk to each other. I considered my situation hopeless, but very gradually regained my nerve. Knowing I could not defend the cabin, my mind acted quickly, as often a man's will when he is in such desperate straits. Often I had heard the trapper, who had lived among Indians a great deal during his career, tell of their superstition, their reverence for the unusual, and their tolerance toward such things. At this time I cannot analyze the thought that came to me, but being only half-dressed, I tore off my clothes, and getting on all fours, which the unusual length of my arms made possible, I ran out of the cabin, making wild noises and grotesque gestures. My faculties were so shattered at that time that I cannot quite recall all that happened. The Indians did not fire at me, nor did they appear from behind the trees. Growing weary of these antics, and feeling it was best not to prolong the situation, I worked my way toward them. If before this I had been frightened, when I came near two or three of these savages, and could look at them, it was easily seen that they were out of their minds. They were prepared for a man, but not for me. Straightening up, I walked directly to one of them and glared into his eyes. If I looked as wild as I felt, I do not wonder at his amazement. He dropped his gun, and bawled out in his native tongue, which, of course, at that time I did not understand. I answered in a soft voice, which chimed in well with his harsh howling. Presently the others came and gathered round me. I spoke in a declamatory manner for a long time, and one of them addressed some broken English to me. That man was Half-Moon, whom you know; there is French blood in him, and he had been with the traders, where he had picked up barely enough English to make himself understood.
" He asked me if I was a man, and I said, 'No, I was sent here by the Great Spirit.' I pointed to the sky, and then patted the earth, saying I lived in both places, and that when I had seen them kill white men I had come out of the ground to tell them that the Great Spirit was angry, and that they must not do it again. Oh, when I saw the weather clearing before me, I piled in my trumps; I remembered an actor named Forrest, whom you do not know, of course, but he had a way with him which I copied most accurately.
"The upshot of it all was that I gained their confidence, and felt they would not molest me so long as I could retain it. It was impossible for me to get out of their country, for there was no place in the world that suited me better. All of my worldly possessions were here, and once over the shock of the encounter, I did not especially value my life. You know the rest; no Crow comes near me, or even into this particular locality, except for reasons of Church and State. They have been good to me, and I mean to return it in so far as I can by my superior understanding of the difficulties which beset the tribe. My crooked back served me its only good turn then."
The Sioux and Cheyennes were pressed by the white tide from the south. It came curling in, roller after roller, despite the treaties with their government and in spite of the Indians who rode the country, hunting, shooting, burning, and harassing the invaders. The gold under their feet drew the huge, senseless, irresistible mass of white humanity upon them. It surged over the white soldiers who came to their aid; it flooded around the ends and crept between the crevices. Finally the reprisals of the Indians fused the white soldiers with the gold-hunters: it was war. Long columns of "pony soldiers" and "walk-a-heaps" and still longer lines of canvas-topped wagons trailed snakelike over the buffalo range. The redmen hovered and swooped and burned the dry grass ahead of them, but the fire-spitting ranks crawled hither and yon, pressing the Sioux into the country of the Crows, where great camps were formed to resist the soldiers. The poor Crows fled before them, going into the mountain valleys and inaccessible places to escape the war-ardor of the now thoroughly enraged enemy. These were lean years in the Absaroke lodges. Crooked-Bear and John Ermine dared cook their food only in the midday, fearing their smoke might be more readily seen in the quiet light of morning and evening. They trembled after every shot at game, not knowing to whose ears the sound might carry.
Crows came sneaking into their camp, keen, scared, ghostlike creatures who brought news of the conflict. Bands of Crows had gone with the white men to ride the country in front of them. The white men could not make their own ponies run; they were as dull as buffalo; they travelled in herds, but when they moved forward, no Indians could stop them.
One day, through the shimmering heat, came Wolf-Voice, one of the messengers, with the tale how the Sioux had made a "surround" of pony soldiers on the Ease-ka-poy-tot-chee-archa-cheer (7) and covered a hill with their bodies. But said this one: "Still the soldiers come crawling into the country from all sides. The Sioux and the buffalo run between them. I am going down the Yellowstone to help the white men. The soldiers make a scout rich."
Crooked-Bear spoke: "John Ermine, now it is time for you to play a man's part; you must go with Wolf-Voice to the soldiers. I would go myself but for my crooked back and the fact that I care nothing for either belligerents; their contentions mean nothing to me. My life is behind me, but yours is in front of you. Begin; go down the valley of the Yellowstone with Wolf-Voice; if the Sioux do not cut you off, you will find the soldiers. Enlist as a scout. I am sure they will take you."
The young man had felt that this hour would arrive, and now that it had come he experienced a particular elation. Early evening found him at the door of the cabin, mounted on one horse and leading his war-pony beside him. The good-by word was all; no demonstration on the part of either man to indicate feelings, although they both were conscious of the seriousness of the parting. The horses disappeared among the trees, and the hermit sat down before his hut, intent at the blank space left by the riders. The revolt of his strong, sensitive nature against his fellows had been so complete that he had almost found happiness in the lonely mountains. While always conscious of an overwhelming loss, he held it at bay by a misanthropic philosophy. This hour brought an acute emptiness to his heart, and the falling shadows of the night brooded with him. Had he completed his work, had he fulfilled his life, was he only to sit here with his pale, dead thoughts, while each day saw the fresh bones of free and splendid animals bleach on the hillsides that he might continue? He was not unusually morbid for a man of his tastes, but his thoughts on this evening were sour. " Bah! the boy may come back; he has the habits of an Indian; he knows how to glide through the country like a coyote. The Sioux will not catch him, and I must wait and hope to see my good work consummated. Nature served that boy almost as scurvy a trick as she did me, but I thwarted her, d--- her!"
Wolf-Voice and John Ermine emerged from the woods, dog-trotting along on their ponies after the fashion of Indian kind. Well they knew the deceptions of the pale light; while it illumined the way a few steps ahead, it melted into a protecting gloom within an arrow's-flight. An unfortunate meeting with the enemy would develop a horse-race where numbers counted for no more than the swiftest horse and the rider who quirted most freely over the coulee or dog-town. The winner of such races was generally the one who had the greatest interest at stake in the outcome, -- the hunted, not the hunter.
As the two riders expected, they traversed the plains without incident, forded the rivers, and two hours before sunrise were safely perched on the opposite range, high enough to look down on the eagles. These vast stretches of landscape rarely showed signs of human life. One unaccustomed to them would as soon expect to find man or horses walking the ocean's bed; their loneliness was akin to the antarctic seas. That was how it seemed, not how it was. The fierce savages who skulked through the cuts and seams made by erosion did not show themselves, but they were there and might appear at any moment; the desert brotherhood knew this, and well considered their foot steps. Seated on a rock pinnacle, amid brushwood, one man slept while the other watched. Long before nightfall they were again in motion. Around the camp, Indians are indolent, but on the war-path their exertions are ceaseless to the point of exhaustion. It was not possible to thread their way through the volcanic gashes of the mountains by night, but while light lasted they skirted along their slopes day after day, killing game with arrows which Wolf-Voice carried because of their silence and economy.
These two figures, crawling, sliding, turning, and twisting through the sunlight on the rugged mountains, were grotesque but harmonious. America will never produce their like again. Her wheels will turn and her chimneys smoke, and the things she makes will be carried round the world in ships, but she never can make two figures which will bear even a remote resemblance to Wolf-Voice and John Ermine. The wheels and chimneys and the white men have crowded them off the earth.
Buckskin and feathers may swirl in the tan-bark rings to the tune of Money Musk, but the meat-eaters who stole through the vast silences, hourly snatching their challenging war-locks from the hands of death, had a sensation about them which was independent of accessories. Their gaunt, hammer-headed, grass-bellied, cat-hammed, roach-backed ponies went with them when they took their departure; the ravens fly high above their intruding successors, and the wolves which sneaked at their friendly heels only lift their suspicious eyes above a rock on a far-off hill to follow the white man's movements. Neither of the two mentioned people realized that the purpose of the present errand was to aid in bringing about the change which meant their passing.
Wolf-Voice had no family tree. It was enough that he arrived among the traders speaking Gros Ventre; but a man on a galloping horse could see that his father was no Gros Ventre; he blew into the Crow camp on some friendly wind, prepared to make his thoughts known in his mother tongue or to embellish it with Breed-French or Chinook; he had sought the camp of the white soldiers and added to his Absaroke sundry "God-damns" and other useful expressions needed in his business. He was a slim fellow with a massive head and a restless soul; a seeker after violence, with wicked little black eyes which glittered through two narrow slits and danced like drops of mercury. His dress was buckskin, cut in the red fashion; his black hat had succumbed to time and moisture, while a huge skinning-knife strapped across his stomach, together with a brass-mounted Henry rifle, indicated the danger zone one would pass before reaching his hair.
At a distance John Ermine was not so different; but, closer, his yellow braids, strongly vermilioned skin, and open blue eyes stared hard and fast at your own, as emotionless as if furnished by a taxidermist. His coat was open at the front as the white men made them; he wore blanket breeches encased at the bottom in hard elkskin leggings bound at the knee. He also carried a fire-bag, the Spencer repeating carbine given him by his comrade, together with an elk-horn whip. In times past Ermine had owned a hat, but long having outlived the natural life of any hat, it had finally refused to abide with him. In lieu of this he had bound his head with a yellow handkerchief, beside which polished brass would have been a dead and lonely brown. His fine boyish figure swayed like a tule in the wind, to the motions of his pony. His mind was reposeful though he was going to war going to see the white men of whom he had heard so much from his tutor; going to associate with the people who lost "ten thousand men" in a single battle and who did not regard it as wonderful. He had seen a few of these after the Long-Horse fight, but he was younger and did not understand. He understood now, however, and intended to drink his eyes and feast his mind to satiety on the people of whom he was one.
As the sun westered, the two adventurers blinded their trail in the manner most convenient at the time; a thing not so difficult to do in the well-watered northwest as in the dry deserts of the south; besides which the buffalo-hunting, horse-using Indians were not the equals of the mountain foot brethren in following trails. After doing this they doubled and twisted back on their track. While the sun was yet bright they broiled their evening meat on a tiny fire of dry sticks. Blowing the tobacco smoke to the four corners of the earth, Wolf-Voice said: "We will be rich, brother, if the Sioux do not get a chance to dry our hair; the soldiers always make their scouts rich; there is plenty to eat in their wagons, and cartridges cost nothing. The soldiers always fight; they are like the gray bears, they do not know any better, and then is the time when we must watch close to get away before the Sioux have an advantage of them. They are fools and cannot run. They are tied to the ground. If you get a chance to carry the talking papers from one white chief to another, they pour the money into your blanket. I have never had a paper to carry, but I think they will give you one. If they do, brother, we will take the silver and get one of the white soldiers to buy us a bottle of whiskey from the settler." And Wolf- Voice's malignant features relaxed into a peaceful state which made Ermine laugh outright.
A bottle of whiskey and ten thousand dead men quite a difference, thought Ermine. "That is it -- that is it," continued the musing white man to himself; "he goes to war for a bottle of whiskey, and I go for ten thousand men." His unframed thoughts wrestled and twisted, lined and rounded, the idea of ten thousand men; yet the idea never took a form which satisfied him. Ten thousand buffalo -- yes, he had calculated their mass; he had seen them. Ten thousand trees -- that, too, he could arrange; he had blocked them out on the mountain-side. But there were many times ten thousand men who had not been killed; that he gave up altogether. Nothing had saved him but blind faith in his old comrade.
Leaving the mountains again, they stalked over the moon-lit land more like ghosts than men, and by day they lay so low that the crawling ants were their companions. By the Elk (8) River Wolf-Voice pointed to a long, light streak which passed through the sage brush: "Brother, that is the sign of the white men. The buffalo, when they pass once, do not make a deeper path than that, and, brother, what is that in the road which shows so bright?"
Appropriating the gleaming thing, the Indian reached from his pony and picked it up, holding it close to his eyes for a moment before passing it to his companion. "What is that, brother?"
Ermine examined it closely, turning it in the moon light. "I do not know; it is a paper; I will keep it until daylight."
A few steps ahead was found another glistening article, dropped by the passing soldiers. They knew what that was; it was the canteen, lost on the march, by a pony soldier. Wolf-Voice appropriated it.
"We must not stay here; the trail is old, but the Sioux will be near the soldiers. They are between us and the white men; you may be sure of that, brother," said one; and the four ponies stumbled off through the sage-brush, melting into the night.
They stopped for the day at the head of a rocky coulee, eating dried meat for fear of making a smoke. Ermine drew the paper from his pocket, laid it on the ground before him, and regarded it for a few moments; then he turned it round, seeing it was upside down by the writing on the bottom. "Bogardus," he read on the left-hand corner. The image on the card spread, opened, and flowered in Ermine's mind; it was a picture that was plain now; it was a photograph such as he had heard Crooked-Bear tell about an image from the sun. He had never seen one before. Wolf-Voice bent his beady eyes on the black and white thing, but it suggested nothing to him. Nature had not been black and white to his scarlet vision. The rude conventionalized lines painted on the buffalo-robes differentiated buffalo, ponies, and men, but this thing -- "Humph!" -- he lighted his pipe.
Before the persistent gaze of Ermine the face of a young woman unravelled itself from a wonderful head-gear and an unknown frock. The eyes looked into his with a long, steady, and hypnotic gaze. The gentle face of the image fascinated the lad; it stirred his imagination and added "a beautiful white woman" to his "ten-thousand-dead-men" quest. Wolf-Voice had to call him twice to take his watch, saying as he lay down, "Put the paper away, brother; it takes your eyes from the Sioux."
The travellers could not make long journeys in the short summer nights through the open country, and exercise a proper vigilance at the same time. The moon rose later every night, thus cutting their time. Neither did they see any signs of human beings or know where to find the white men; but recourse to the trail along the river, from time to time, assured them that the wagons had continued down the stream. The trail was very old, and was full of Indian pony-tracks which had followed it.
One day as they lay in a washout, Wolf-Voice pointed to columns of dust far to the south. Was it buffalo, Indians, or soldiers? The dust stayed all day in one place; it might be a buffalo-surround or big herds about camps, but this they were not able to determine.
"We will go to the dust this sleep and we will ride the war-horses; the others which we have been riding are stiff and sore; we will leave them here and come after them if we can," spoke Ermine as he braided the tail of his favorite pony. When Wolf-Voice's attention was directed elsewhere, he took his medicine, the dried hoof of the white stallion, and rubbed it gently on his pony's heels. The prophet would not approve of this, he felt, but it could do no harm, since he also prayed God to make his pony run fast and not stumble, to blind the Sioux, stop their ears, and otherwise to cherish appropriately the poor life of John Ermine who believed in Him and now wanted His help.
Slowly they made their way south through the gloom, trusting their range-bred ponies to pick out the footing. Hour after hour they stepped along, stopping at intervals to listen.
Late at night as they made their way down a long ridge, they heard a horse whinny somewhere far down in one of the breaks of the land. Without a word they turned away from the noise. Later Wolf-Voice whispered: "Indians; the white men never let their horses loose in the night. That pony was alone, or we should have heard more sounds. He was calling his brothers. Now we must blind our trial; their scouts will find it in the morning."
Accordingly they allowed their horses to feed slowly along, not attempting to guide them, and after a mile felt that any one who should follow those tracks would think that they were loose horses grazing. By the light of the late moon they made their way more quickly, but always stopping to separate the sounds of the night -- the good sounds from the bad. They could see that they were coming to the river, and as they rose on a wave of the land, they saw a few faint sparks glitter far down the valley.
"It is the white soldiers -- the big fires of the white men, brother. We will go in when the sun comes up. If we should go near them now, they would fire at us. The white men shoot at anything which moves in the dark; a wolf is not safe near their camps when the sun has gone."
Before the gray of morning they were safely ensconced under a bluff, waiting for the daylight and within a mile of the long line of Sibley tents. They heard the hungry mule chorus, the clank of chains, the monotonous calls of the sentries; and the camp slowly developed before their eyes like a photographic negative in a bath of chemicals; then John Ermine began to understand ten thousand men.
Softly the metallic reveille drifted to their ears; it spread from one group of tents to another until the whole air danced with the delightful sound. The watchers on the sage-brush hillside were preoccupied with the movements of the soldiers. They listened to the trumpets and saw the men answer them by forming long lines. In a moment the lines broke into hurrying individuals, the fires began to send up the quiet morning smoke, while the mule chorus ceased.
As though shot out of the ground by some hidden force, Wolf-Voice bounded up. " G-- d---! Mit-wit! (9) Coo-ley!" (10) he yelled, and as responsive as a swallow which follows the swift flight of another in play, Ermine bounded on to his horse. One look behind told the story. The Sioux were coming. He saw the lightning play of the ponies' legs, heard the whips crack on their quarters, and was away like a flash, bearing hard on the soldier camp. Before many bounds he recovered from his surprise; it was not far, and his horse was answering the medicine. He had never run like this before. The Sioux had found and followed their trail and had nearly caught them napping. After their long journey they had almost been cut off during the last mile of it. Seeing that their prey had escaped, the Sioux swerved like hawks, pulling up on the hill.
Turning, Wolf-Voice and Ermine shouted back taunts at them, fired their guns at the group, and then leisurely loped toward the camps. While yet quite a way out, three white soldiers rose suddenly from a dry wash with their rifles: "Halt! Who goes there?"
"Halt! Who goes there?"
The riders drew down to a walk, Wolf-Voice raising his hand in the peace sign, and saying, "We are your frens, we aire two Crow Enjun; don' shoot!" and continued to advance.
The soldiers stood with their guns in readiness, while one answered: "Get off them ponies; lay your guns on the ground. I guess you are all right." And then, looking at Ermine with a laugh: "Is that blonde there a Crow? Guess them Sioux scared him white. I've often heard tell of a man's hair turning white in a single night."
"Ach sure, Bill, and it don't tourn a mon's face red to be schared sthiff," observed another picket.
The faintest suggestion of a smile stole over John Ermine as he comprehended.
"No, soldiers, we are not afraid. Why can't you let two men go into the big camp ; are all those soldiers afraid of two men? " And the pickets laughed at the quaint conjecture. Shortly an officer rode up on a horse and questioned Ermine.
"Who are you?"
"We are friends of the white people. Did you see that we are not friends of the Sioux?"
" Yes; I saw those Indians chase you. Were they Sioux?"
"We took that for granted." And again the corner of John Ermine's mouth relaxed.
"Yes, of course, I admire your judgment; come with me," replied the officer, as he turned to ride back. The three ambled along together. "Who are you?"
" I am a white man, and my comrade is an Indian."
"What is your name?"
"My name is John Ermine, and I want to be a scout. Will you take me?"
"That is not my business; but I have no doubt the proper authority will be glad to put you on the pay-roll. You don't seem any more popular with the Sioux than we are."
The three horsemen jogged into camp, and it can hardly be stated who was the more impressed by the sight John Ermine as he passed through the crowds of soldiers, or the soldiers as they looked at the bare-backed rider with the yellow braids and the glaring handkerchief. They had left their impedimenta with the worn-out ponies back in the hills with little hope of recovering them. The gathering men who had seen the chase gave tokens of their approval by yelling Ki-yis in imitation of the Indians. "Say, Yellow, you're no brevet" -- "You wa'n't crazy to wait for them Sioux" -- "The general will feed you on mince-pie" -- "You'll be a sergeant in the rag-bag troop," and other expressions numerous and 'uncooked' fell on their ears. Ermine felt embarrassed with the attention of so many people centred on him, but his face was cut to stand such shocks. His swift glances about the thronging camp began to illumine the "ten-thousand-men" proposition; he saw lines of tents, wagons without end, but no women; he would have to postpone that feast.
The officer leading stopped in front of a tent around which many officers and men were standing or coming and going. He spoke to one who wore a big hat and a split blond beard, a man less pretentious in his garb than any about him, but whose eye arrested Ermine by the commanding keenness. Dismounting, the officer, saluting, said: " General Crook, these two men were just chased into camp by Indians. They say they are Crows, or at least from the Crows, and they want to be made scouts."
"What Indians chased you?" asked the general.
"We do not know; we were waiting on the hill to come in here by daylight; they surprised us, and we did not stop to talk with them," replied John Ermine.
"Where did you come from, my boy?" he continued.
"I came from the Stinking Water country to help you fight the Sioux -- myself and Wolf-Voice there," replied Ermine.
Turning to that waif, the general said, "Who are you?"
Patting his chest impressively, Wolf-Voice spoke: "Me? My mother she was Gro Ventre; I am a warrior; I spak de English; I was scout with Yellow Hair. (11) I am brav mans."
"Umph no doubt," softly hazarded the Gray Fox. "You were not with him when he died? I suppose you attended to that matter with proper thoroughness. Have you seen any Sioux signs?"
"Yaas -- day follar de wagon, dey aire leave dar pony-track all roun you."
Once fastening his quizzical eyes on the white lad, the general asked, "Do you talk Crow?"
"Can you make the hand talk?"
Ermine gave the sign for "Yes."
"Have you ever been to school?"
"Who taught you to speak English?"
"My old comrade, Crooked-Bear," said Ermine.
"Crooked-Bear -- Crooked-Bear," mused the general. "Oh, I give it up," as he turned away. "You are not one of the Pike County breed, it seems -- Crooked-Bear -- Crooked-Bear. Take them to the scout camp, Ferguson." And the general retired to his tent, somewhat perplexed by the young man's make-up.
The trio went on toward the scout camp, and as they passed a man on foot he inquired of Ferguson, "Where did you get that pair of aces?"
"The Sioux dealt them to me this morning; will they fill your hand?"
"Yes, sir -- think they will." Then to John Ermine, "Do you savvy this country, pardner?"
"Yes, sir; I have always lived in this country," spoke he, with a wave of his arm around the horizon which had the true Indian swing to it, an accomplishment only acquired by white men after long years of association with the tribes. All the signs and gestures made by Indians are distinctive with them and are very suggestive from their constant use of the sign language. The old chief of scouts recognized the significance of the motion on the instant, and knew that one who could make it very probably possessed the other qualifications for his corps.
"What is your name?"
"John Ermine, sir," came the answer. The "sir" had been an acquisition of the last few interviews. He had heard it from the mouth of Crooked-Bear on infrequent occasions, but his quick perceptions told him that it was useful in these canvas towns.
"All right. Will you turn these men over to me for duty, Lieutenant Ferguson?" spoke the chief of scouts, who was a short infantry officer with a huge yellow mustache.
"I will," replied Ferguson, as he turned his horse. "Go with Captain Lewis there; and good luck to you, Mr. Ermine."
After answering certain questions by the chief of scouts, which were intended to prove their fitness for the job, the two late fugitives had the pleasure of knowing that Uncle Sam would open his wagons to them in return for their hair and blood when his representative should order the sacrifice. Wolf-Voice never allowed his mind to dwell on market values, and John Ermine felt that he could do what "ten thousand men" were willing to do in an emergency.
Having done with these formalities, under the trained guidance of Wolf-Voice the two men speedily found their way to the scouts' mess, where they took a hearty toll of the government. About the cook fire squatted or sprawled the allies of the white troops. There were Crows and Indians from other tribes together with half-breeds whose heraldic emblazonment ought to be a pretty squaw. A few white men came about from time to time, but they did not abide with the regular crew. New faces appeared as they came in from the hills to "cool coffee."
John Ermine walked aimlessly around camp, all eyes and ears. No backwoods boy at a country fair ever had his faculties so over-fed and clogged as he. In turn the soldiers attempted to engage him in conversation as he passed about among them, but the hills had put a seal of silence on his lips; he had not yet found himself amid the bustle.
Remarks which grated harshly came to his ears; the unkindness of them undermined the admiration for the white soldiers which the gentle treatment of the officers had instilled.
"Ain't that yellow handkerchief great?" -- "Sure he'd do well with a hand-organ on the Bowery." -- "Is he a square shake or a make-up?" and other loose usage of idle minds.
"Say, Bill, come look at the sorrel Injun," sang one trooper to another who stood leaning on a wagon- wheel whittling a stick, to which that one replied; "You take my advice and let the sorrel Injun alone; that butcher knife on his belly is no ornament."
By noon Ermine's mind had been so sloshed and hail-stoned with new ideas that his head was tired. They were coming so fast that he could not stow them, so he found his way back to the scout camp and lay down on a stray robe. The whole thing had not impressed him quite as he had anticipated; it had a raw quality, and he found he did not sift down into the white mass; he had a longing for the quiet of Crooked-Bear's cabin in short, John Ermine was homesick. However, after a few hours' sleep, he became hungry, which shifted his preoccupation to a less morbid channel.
The scouts talked excitedly of the enemy with whom they had skirmished out on the hills; they discussed the location of the Sioux camp, and speculated on the intention of the Gray Fox. Sunlight or fire-light never in the ages played on a wilder group than this; not on the tribes of Asiatics who swarmed in front of Alexander; not in the deserts of Northern Africa: nor on the steppes of Asia, at any period, did sun or fire cut and color cruder men than these who were taking the long, long step between what we know men are and what we think they were.
A soldier stepped briskly into the group, and touching Ermine on the shoulder, said, "The Captain wants to see you; come on." He followed to the tent designated, and was told to come in and sit down. The officer sat opposite, on a camp stool, and after regarding him kindly for a moment, said: "Your name is John Ermine and you are a white man. Where were you born?"
"I do not know, Captain, where I was born, but I have lived all my life with the Crows."
"Yes ; but they did not teach you to speak English."
"No ; I have lived some years with my old comrade up in the mountains, and he taught me to speak English and to write it."
"Who was your old comrade, as you call him? He must have been an educated man," queried the Captain, looking insistently into Ermine's eyes.
"Captain, I cannot tell, any more than to say that he is an educated white man, who said he is dead, that his fires have burnt out, and he asked me not to speak about him; but you will understand."
Captain Lewis did not understand, nor did he avert his perplexed gaze from Ermine. He was wondering about the boy's mind; had it become deranged? Clearly he saw that Ermine had been a captive; but this mystery of mind cultivation by one who was dead had he struck a new scheme in psychical research? The Captain rolled a cigarette and scratched a match on the leg of his breeches.
"My old companion told me I ought to come here and help fight the Sioux."
"Have you ever been to war?"
"Yes; I took a scalp from a Sioux warrior when I was a boy, and I wear the eagle feather upright," spoke Ermine in his usual low and measured voice.
"Ho, ho! that is good. I see that you carry a Spencer carbine. I have not seen one lately; we do not use them now."
"It is the best I have, Captain." The Captain took his cigarette from his mouth and bawled: "Jones! Oh Jones, Jones!" Almost instantly a soldier stepped into the tent, touching his forehead in salute. "Go down and draw a carbine, fifty rounds, a saddle, blanket, and bridle." Jones disappeared. "Oh, Jones, Jones, and a shirt and hat." Then turning to Ermine, "Do you ever wear shoes?"
"Only this kind I have on, sir."
"Do you want some shoes?"
"No ; I think I am better off with these. I have tried on the heavy leather shoes, but they feel as though my feet were caught in a trap."
"Ha, ha! a trap, hey a good deal so; well, any time you want anything come to me. And now, my boy, may I give you a little advice?"
"You may, sir; I shall be glad of it. I know I have much to learn," assented John Ermine.
"Well, then, you are an odd-looking person even in this camp, and that is saying much, I can assure you. I will have a hat here in a moment which will displace that high-art headgear of yours, and may I ask if you will not take your hair out of those braids? It will be more becoming to you, will not be quite so Injuny, and I think it will not interfere with your usefulness."
"Yes, sir, I will," quietly said the young man, who forthwith undid the plats with a celerity which comes to the owners of long hair. Having finished, he gave his head a toss; the golden tresses, released from their bindings, draped his face, falling down in heavy masses over his shoulders, and the Captain said slowly, "Well, I will be good God-d----d!"
After having soothed his surprise by a repetition of this observation several times, the Captain added, " Say, you are a village beauty, Ermine, by Gad -- I'd like a photograph of you." And that worthy continued to feast his eyes on the bewildering sight. It seemed almost as though he had created it.
The orderly entered at this point, loaded down with quartermaster and ordnance stuff. His hat had found its way on to the back of his head during these exertions, and he came up all standing, but the discipline told. All he did as he gazed helplessly at Ermine was to whistle like a bull elk. Quickly recovering himself, "I have the stuff, sir, -- but -- but I'm afraid, sir, the hat won't fit."
" All right, all right, Jones; it will do." And Jones took himself out into the darkness. To a passing comrade he 'unloaded': "Say, Steve, you savvy that blond Injun what was run in here this morning? Well, he's in the Captain's tent, and the Captain has got him to take his hair down, undo them braids, you see; and say, Steve, I am a son-of-a-gun if it ain't like a bushel of hay; say, it's a honey-cooler. You will fall dead when you see it."
Meanwhile Ermine was put in possession of the much-coveted saddle and a new gun, one with a blue barrel without a rust-spot on it anywhere, inside or out. His feelings were only held in leash by a violent repression. The officer enjoyed the proceedings hugely as the young man slipped into the new shirt and tied the yellow handkerchief round his neck. The campaign hat was a failure, as Jones had feared. It floated idly on the fluffy golden tide, and was clearly going to spoil the Captain's art work; it was nothing short of comical. Frantically the officer snatched his own hat from his camp-chest, one of the broad rolling sombreros common on the plains in those days, but now seen no more; this he clapped on Ermine's head, gave it a downward tug together with a pronounced list to the nigh side. Then, standing back from his work, he ran his eyes critically for a moment: "Good! now you'll do!"
Ermine's serious face found itself able to relax; the ripples broadened over it, his eyes closed, and his mouth opened ever so little, only escaping looking foolish by the fact that he had a reserve; he did not close or broaden too much.
"Well, my boy," said the officer, as he began to put up his papers on the chest, "go down to camp now; the outfit moves to-morrow; you'll do in a free-for-all, by Gad."
When this greeted the easy ears of our hero, he found the loud bustle, so characteristic of the white soldier, more noisy than ever. Slowly the dancing refrain passed from regiment to regiment. The thing itself is dear to the tired soldier who dreads its meaning. It is always a merry beginning, it accords with the freshness of the morning; when associated with youth it never fails to cheer the weary dragging years of him who looks behind.
The tents fluttered down; men ran about their work, munching crackers and hot bacon; they bundled and boxed and heaved things into the escort wagons. Teamsters bawled loudly it is a concomitant with mule association; yet they were placid about their work of hooking up; their yells never interfered with their preoccupied professionalism. The soft prairie winds sighing through the dreaming teamster's horse-blankets fills his subconscious self with cracks, whistles, howls. "You blaze!" -- "Oh, Brown!" -- "D--- you, Brigham!" --, --- , ----, and other phrases which cannot be printed. That mules and teamsters have never received a proper public appreciation of their importance in war is one of the disheartening injustices of the world. Orderlies and mounted officers tore about; picturesque men who had been saved from the scrap-heap of departing races ranged aimlessly or smoked placidly; they had no packing to do, their baggage was carried in their belts. One of these was John Ermine, who stood by his pony, watching Captain Lewis; this busy man with his multitudinous duties had ben picked out for a guiding star. Having presently completed all the details, the Captain mounted and rode away, followed by his motley company. The camp being cleared, the officer turned, and with a wave of his hand which covered the horizon in its sweep, yelled, "Go on now; get to the hell out of here!"
In quick response the wolfish throng broke apart, sloping away over the yellow landscape flaming out toward all points; the trained skirmishers trusted their instincts and their horses' heels. John Ermine rode slowly over a hill, and looking backward, saw the long, snakelike columns of horse and foot and wagons come crawling. It was the most impressive sight he had ever beheld, but he could not arrange any plan in his own mind whereby the command was going to fight the Sioux. All the Indians in his world could not and would not try to stem that advance: as well try to stop the falling of the snow or the swarms of grasshoppers. Again, there was no necessity, since the command could no more catch the Sioux than it could reach the sailing hawks or flapping ravens.
Keeping his sharp eyes circling, Ermine mused along. Yes, he remembered what Crooked-Bear had said: "The white men never go back; they do not have to hunt buffalo in order to live; they are paid by the year, and one, two, even a lifetime of years make no difference to them. They would build log towns and scare away the buffalo. The Indians could not make a cartridge or gun," and other things which he had heard came into his mind. It was the awful stolidity of never ending time which appalled Ermine as he calculated his strategy no single desperate endeavor would avail; to kill all those men behind him would do the Sioux no good whatever. In single battles the white men were accustomed to leave more men than that, dead, on the field. Still, think as he would, the matter was not clear to him. A mile away on his right he saw a friendly scout rise over a bluff; the horse and man made a dot on the dry yellow grass; that was the difference between the solid masses of dust-blown white men behind him and the Indian people; that sight gave him a proportion. If all these white men were dead, it would make no difference; if that Indian on the far-off hill was dead, he could never be replaced.
John Ermine felt one thing above all this abstraction: it was a deep-seated respect for the Sioux personally. Except when a fellow-scout occasionally showed himself on a distant rise, or he looked behind at the dust-pall over the soldiers, there was nothing to be seen of the Sioux; that was another difference, and one which was in no wise reassuring to Ermine. The dry, deserted landscape was, however, an old comrade, and acted as a sedative after the flutter of the camps. The camp held dozy, full-bellied security, but these silences made his ears nervous for a rattle of shots and a pat-a, pat-a, pat-a, of rushing ponies. That is how the desert speaks.
The days saw the big serpents of men crawl on and on hither and yon over the rolling land, saw them splash through the rivers, wind round the hills, and lie comfortably down at night. About them fluttered the Indian scouts like flies around a lamp, hostiles and allies, marking down each other's sign, dashing in and out, exchanging shots, but always keeping away from the coils of the serpents.
Many men besides Captain Lewis held out their hands to Ermine, attracted as they were, first by his picturesque appearance, fine pony, and seat, and Lewis's enthusiasm; but later by his low-voiced simplicity and acute knowledge concerning the matters about them. They in turn unravelled many tangled skeins for Ermine; regiments began to unwind into companies, details, squads; the wagons assorted themselves, and it was not long before the young scout could tell a colonel from a cook's police at a glance. Numbers of these men had seen the ten thousand men die, had been with them when they died, had even, some of them, lain down with them sapped by their own wounds, though of course they had not died. One big man slapped Ermine on the back hard enough to make him cough, and said, "I'd rather take my chance at Cold Harbor than go poking round the hills alone as you do, my boy." And Ermine had to move away quickly to avoid another exclamation point, but such little appreciation warmed him. Also the solidarity of these fellowships took the more definite form of a Colt's revolver, a copy of Upton's tactics, a pocket Bible, a comb from a bald-headed man who respected the unities, together with trifles enough to litter up his saddle-bags.
Old Major Ben Searles in particular used to centre his benevolent eyes on Ermine. He had a boy back in the States, and if he had gone to some other school than West Point might have been a superintendent of an orphan asylum as easily as the soldier which he was. Ermine's quaint questions gave him delicious little mental jolts.
"Why is it, Uncle Ben," asked Ermine, "that all these men come out here to march, get killed, freeze, and starve? They don't have any wives, and I can't see what they have to protect except their eatables."
"You see, Kid, they enlist to do what the government wants them to do, and the government wants them to make the Sioux stop killing white folks just now."
"Yes, but they won't do it. Why don't the government mount them on buffalo ponies, make them eat dried meat, and run after the Sioux instead of taking the villages to war?"
"Well, Ermine, I don't know why. I suppose that is what the Indians would like them to do, and I reckon that is the reason the soldiers don't do it. Soldiers calculate not to do what the enemy wants them to do. Don't you get discouraged; wait a year or two or three, my boy. Oh, we'll get there; we don't know how, but we always stand pat!"
"Pat? pat? What do you mean by 'standing pat'?Never heard that word. What does it mean?" questioned the young man.
Old Searles laughed.
"'Pat' is a word we use in a game of cards, and it means that when you think you are licked you guess you are not. It's a great word, Ermine."
The huge column having crawled over the country as far as it was ordered, broke into divisions, some going down the river in steamboats and other parts through the hills to their far-off posts and cantonments.
The Sioux scouts regarded this as a convenient solution of the awkward situation. Neither they nor the white men could do anything with that unwieldy gathering. Two infantry regiments stayed behind as a reminder to the Sioux that the game was not played out. To one of these Captain Lewis was attached, which good fortune gave Ermine continued employment.
The soldiers began to build winter cantonments at the mouth of the Buffalo Tongue River, or, as the white men called it, "The Tongue," and to gather great quantities of stores which were hauled from Fort Benton. Here was something that the Sioux could attack; they jumped the trains savagely, burned the grass, cut in on the animals to stampede, and peppered up the men as they slept. Stores the troops must have; and though they met repulse at times, they "pounded" the trains through to the Tongue.
It was the custom for wagon trains to go into camp early in the afternoon, which gave the stock a chance to graze while it was yet daylight; it also made it possible to guard them from sudden forays by Indians. On one of these occasions Ermine was with a train which made one of the halts as usual. The Indians had not interfered, and to kill time a few officers, among whom was Searles, started a game of poker. Ermine looked on over their shoulders, trying to comprehend. He had often played the Indian game of "hand," so that poker was merely a new slide between wealth and poverty. Seeing him, Captain Lewis sent him on some trivial errand. While he was gone, an agreement was made to have him come in, and then they were to "Skin him alive" just to see how he would stand it. It worked out beautifully. First they separated what little money he had from his clothes, the officers meanwhile sitting like owls and keeping their faces sober by dint of lip-biting; then the sombrero, which was stacked up as five dollars, found its way to Captain Lewis's head in place of a very bad campaign hat Next came off the buckskin coat, which was followed by the revolver, and slowly, so that his suspicions might not be aroused, all his personal property, including the saddle and gun, which properly did not belong to him, was laid on the grass beside the victors.
"This is going to be a cold winter, John," laughed one, "or else we'd let you in on that shirt."
"Want to put that pony up for a hundred, Ermine?" asked another.
"No; I'll keep the pony; he's medicine. I've often lost all I had with the plum stones. I guess I don't understand poker." And the young scout arose smiling. The officers laughed themselves into tears, jumped up, and brought comrades to see how they had trimmed John Ermine. Every one greatly enjoyed what they called Ermine's preparations for the winter. He had his government shirt, his blanket breeches, and moccasins left; he had not been so poor since he was a herd-boy, but he had known forms of poverty all his life, so it was not new. What he did not enjoy was his belittlement. The hard-working men in those dangerous, monotonous days were keen for any weakness; and when he heard their laughter he wanted a horse-bucket full of human blood to drown his thoughts. He was greatly disturbed, not so much on account of his losses, although they were everything, as he viewed them, as the ridicule in store for him at Tongue River. There is no greater stimulant to a hardy mind than poverty, and John Ermine's worked like a government-six in a mud-hole, far into the night.
The trio of gamblers, who wore their spoils on their own persons, to the huge edification of the camp, arranged to prolong the torture until they should see the young hatless, coatless, unarmed scout on his barebacked pony during the next march. At the following camp they were to play again, lose to him, and end the joke. Confidences were exchanged, and every one was as tickled as a cur with a new collar.
One of the officers of the poker engagement rode a well-bred American horse of which he was very proud. He had raced it successfully and never declined an opportunity, of which fact Ermine was aware.
It had slowly come to his mind that he had been foully dealt with, so about midnight he jumped up he had a plan. By dint of daring, fortunate machination, and the cooperation of a quartermaster sergeant whom he took into his confidence, he watered the American horse, fed him with a heavy feed of very salt corn, and later watered him again. The horse had been on short rations and was a glutton. It was with the greatest difficulty that the noble animal managed his breakfast at all; but he was always willing at each opportunity to weaken the saline solution in his stomach.
When the train pulled out, there was Ermine, bare backed and ridiculous. He rode through the volley of jeers and approached the horse-racing officer, saying, "If you are a good gambler, come on; I will run my horse against yours, three arrow-flights and a pitch, horse against horse."
The laughing stopped; here was a new idea -- the quarter-bred blood horse, with his sleek bay quarters, against the scout's pony a good enough animal, but thin and overworked.
The officer halted and stroked his chin with his thumb and forefinger.
"Hum -- hum -- yes; by Gad, if my horse can't take that runt into camp, he isn't good enough for me. I'll go you."
A cheer went up from those assembled, and some hidden force carried the thrill down the train, which halted. Uncle Sam's business could wait.
The distance was paced off on the level plain; the judges were set; the scouts and officers lined up. The American's horse's eyes fairly bulged with excitement; he broke into a dripping perspiration, but seemingly no one noticed this but Ermine. He knew that the load of water would choke him in twenty yards.
The old war-pony was thin from overwork, but responsive as a dog to his bareback rider, and dangerous-looking to one used to see ponies which show worse in condition than out, by reason of the ungraceful architectural lines.
The pistol spoke; the pony gained three jumps from the mark. The American made the best of a bad job, but Ermine was able to turn at the finish and back him over the judges' line.
The officer nearly had apoplexy, as he pulled up. He threw himself off the horse and handed the reins to Ermine.
The action of both challenge and race had been so rapid and so badly calculated on the officer's part that he lacked time to assimilate the idea that he was a fool. He tried to maintain a composure which was lacking, as every one could see.
"If you will get all my clothes, saddle, and gun back from your comrades, I will give you your horse," said the scout.
The spectators who knew about the poker game now sat howling hopelessly on their horses' backs. Searles and the others now came to their beaten friend's aid; they shed their plunder in front of Ermine's horse, produced the saddle and gun from a near-by escort wagon, laid them carefully down with the rest, and the victor granted peace.
"Here is your horse," said Ermine, and he laughed.
The occurrence had a serious side; the three officers were quick to appreciate that. Searles stood in front of the scout and made utterance: " I want to say before all these men that the poker game was not on the square that we robbed you purposely for a joke, and that we intended to give your property back to you to-night; and I call on all these men to witness my remarks."
"Yes, yes," came the chorus; "it was all a joke. Searles said he would give it back. Don't hold it out against him, Ermine," and other reassuring remarks. They recognized the young scout's magnanimity as a conqueror.
The laughing ceased; the thing evidently had been carried too far. It would not sound well when told at Tongue River. The unfortunate horse-race had made proper restitution impossible.
By this time John Ermine had his clothing and saddle arranged and was mounted. He spoke: --
"Well, if that is so, if it only was a joke, I suppose I ought to say that I sat up half of last night salting your horse. Look at him! He is blowing yet; he is as full of water as a drowned buffalo. I am glad it did not kill him; let us bury the axe."
Major Searles and his fellows were unlike many jokers; they slowly readjusted after the shock and laughed with the others.
The march was resumed, but the customary monotony of this slow pacing of interminable landscape was often abruptly broken by individuals ha-haing loudly, as the sequence of events took a new hold of their risibles ; and Mr. John Ermine tightened in an ever increasing hold on their fancies.
Major Searles, riding beside his horse-racing confrère, tried to cheer him. "Brace up, compadre; that boy has you buffaloed. We are all right; we are nothing but a bunch of monkeys. The only thing we forgot was that a fellow who has lived all his life with Injuns is likely to know how to gamble and race horses. He'll be wanting to juggle the bone (12) for us yet, and we are bound to go him."
"You bet," came the reply; "he has got us staked out, and he can come along and do jig steps on our chest any time he feels like it. That is where we have to moisten our lips and look pleasant, too."
An old wagon boss sauntered by on his mule with its mouth à la crocodile.
"Ha, ha! reckon you fellers has had all the fun that's a-comin' to you. That boy had that last deck marked, bottomed, sanded, and pricked, with more up his sleeve and some in the back of his neck."
John Ermine and Wolf -Voice, meanwhile, had gone well out in front of the train, loping this way and that about the course of advance, with eyes for everything.
Presently they were seen to stop, turn, and come back, flying as fast and straight as the antelope runs.
"How now, by Gad! here's smoke for us!" said Searles. No one laughed any more.
Swift and noiseless as the birds came the scouts; nearer and nearer, until their flying horses' hair could be seen; then sounded the hoof-beats until they drew rein. Wolf-Voice's hair fairly stood up, and his fierce little eyes danced attendance; he talked all the languages he knew, and worked his free hand in most alarming sign signals to help his expression.
"What's up, Ermine?" said the Major.
"Well, Major, the ground out there is alive with fresh pony-tracks. I think you had better bunch up,"
The train was strung out, having passed a bad "draw." Turning, the Major shouted: "Close up in columns of fours! Deploy that escort out!"
The order flew down the train; the whips cracked, and the straining mules trotted into position; the infantry guard ran out from the sides, shoving shells into the breech-blocks. Even while this was in motion, a torrent of Sioux poured over the bluffs, back of the flat, and came on.
The soldiers dropped on to their knees in the sage brush. The Major spurred to the particular point for which they were headed, followed by scouts and several mounted men.
" Steady, men! hold your fire!"
The men were aiming, and each had five cartridges in his teeth. In a sonorous roll came, "Steady -- steady -- steady!" And the gay stream of savagery bore on.
"Fire!" Like a double drag on a drum which gradually dies, the rifles rattled down the extended line, all concentrated on the head of the flying column. The smoke played along the gray sage; there was a sharp clatter of breech-blocks, and an interval.
"Ready! Fire!" and this repeated.
The Major jogged to a wind-blown place and saw that the column had veered to its right but was not checked. Followed by his few mounted men, he rode along behind their line parallel with the head of the charge, but before the slow and steady fire the Indian line drew out. The train was caught in the circle, but the enemy had not the heart to ride over the deadly skirmish line. The close columns of wagons now turned off down toward the river, and, keeping their distances, the infantry followed it. Indian ponies lay kicking out on the dry plain, and here and there could be seen warriors who retired slowly from the racing Indians; they had been plugged.
Bullets kicked up the dust, and one or two soldiers had to be helped along by their comrades.
Bullets kicked up the dust
The heated air shimmered over the land; but for the rattle and thud of gun and pony, the clank, snort, and whip-cracks among the wagons, the great, gray plains lay silent.
No eye save that of a self-considering golden eagle looked on, and he sailed placidly far above. Ponies and mules strained and lathered, men sweated and grunted and banged to kill; nature lay naked and insensate. The Indians made a stand under the cut banks of the river, but were flanked out. The train drove slowly into a corral form, when the mules were unhooked. The guard began to rifle-pit among the wagons, and the Indians drew off to breathe their ponies. They had stopped the train, but the "walk-a-heap" soldiers were behind the wagons, which were full of "chuck," and water was at hand. Indians always dreaded the foot-soldiers, who could not run away, and who would not surrender, but worked their long rifles to the dying gasp; they were "heap bad medicine" ; they were like wounded gray bears in a den of rocks there was no reasonable method for their capture.
Major Searles jumped from his horse, took off his hat, and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. "So far, so good! so far, so good! but not so very d--- far either," he mused.
Towing his pony behind him, Wolf-Voice came up, legs bowed and wobbly, horseback fashion when afoot. Calling loudly, he said: --
"By Jeskris, Maje Searl, bout two-tree minit you bettar look out; dose Kul-tus-til-akum she mak de grass burn yu up, by Gar. Win' she waas come deese way."
"Yes -- yes, that's right. Here you, Ermine, and you, Lieutenant Smith, take what men you want and kill a wounded mule -- drag his hide over the grass to windward; it is short and won't burn high. And, Lieutenant, give me all the men you can over here; they will try to come through the smoke." Saying which, the Major made his way to the ammunition wagons and had the mules hooked to them, intending to run these into the river in case the fire came through.
In fighting Indians, the Major, who was an old hand, knew that one must act quickly, for they are rapid tacticians and their blows come fast.
These preparations had no sooner been made than, true to Wolf-Voice's admonitions, the Indians came down, and, just out of rifle-range, started the fire down wind. Amost no air was stirring; the flames ran slowly through the short buffalo-grass, but weeds and sage made considerable smoke, which came toward the train.
The dripping carcass of the mule was dragged in a ring round the windward side of the train; the smoke eddied over the wagons; the Indians could not be seen; every man's eyes and ears were strained and fingers twitched as they lay at an "aim" or "ready," among the wagon-wheels.
The mules grew restive and sat back on their fastenings; but there, matters had been well attended to, for the side-lines and hobbles were leathered and laced.
To the silent soldiers this was one of the times when a man lives four years in twenty minutes; nothing can be compared to it but the prolonged agony between your " Will you have me?" and her "yes" or "NO."
As the fire came nearer, they heard its gentle crackle, crackle; their nerves all crackled in unison. It reached the bloody ring left by the poor mule -- "would the d---- Injuns never come?" At the guard line the flames died and crackled no more. The smoke grew thinner, and at last they saw out through it; the Indians held themselves safely out of rifle-shot.
"Hum," said Searles, as he stepped down from a wagon-wheel, "they didn't want any of this chicken pie." And then he did what he was never known to do under ordinary circumstances; and when he was through, the men cheered, and every mule-skinner who had heard him envied a man who could talk it off just like that.
"Ah, Maje Searl," chimed in Wolf-Voice, quot;don' you been scare; dose Injuns no say goo'by yet, mabeso."
And they did not say good-by. They dismounted and went behind the washes in the shallow river. They peppered and banged the men as they watered the stock, the perilous trip only being made behind a strong skirmish line with three men hit and a half-dozen mules. The soldiers ate a quiet supper and put out the fires before the sun went down. The Indians, with the declining light, crawled in on the train and pecked at the monster.
"Pe-e-e-eing" went a bullet on a wagon-tire; "slap" went another on a wagon-box; "thud," as one buried in a grain-bag; "phud," and the ball made a mule grunt; but the echoing Springfields spit their 45's at the flashes.
Searles sent for Ermine and Wolf-Voice, and sitting on the grass behind a barricade of grain-sacks, he began: "We are corralled, and I haven't escort enough to move. I can hold out till snow, but can't graze my stock. Some one has to go back for reinforcements. Will you go? It can be made on a good horse by moving."
"Well, Major, I'll try it. I can go if I can get through with a fair start. The moon will come up later, and I must go now while there is a chance," said Ermine.
"Will you go also, Mr. Wolf-Voice?"
"Well, hit be good chance for geet keel. Yaes, I go, mebeso, feefty doaller," vouchsafed that worthy, after nicely balancing the chances.
"What do you want for going, John Ermine?" asked the Major.
"I don't want anything. I came to fight the Sioux. I do not go to war for fifty dollars." But it was too dark for the half-breed to see the contempt in Ermine's face, so he only shrugged his shoulders and contented himself with, "Oh, weel, mabeso dose soldier-man go for not so much. I do not."
"All right, all right! I'll give you an order for fifty dollars. Here are the papers." And the Major handed one to each. "Now, don't lose them, what ever else you do."
"Ma pony, she steef, no good. I was go on de foot." And Wolf-Voice proceeded to skin off his motley garments. In these desperate situations he believed in the exemplar of his name; its methods were less heroic but more sure.
Ermine half stripped himself, and his horse wholly ; bound up the tail, and in the gloom rubbed the old dried horse's hoof on his heels. It had, at least, never done any harm, and at times favored him. Sak-a-war-te and the God of the white men he did not know whether they were one or two. Trusting his valuables to the care of the Major, he was let out of the corral after a good rattle of firing, into the darkness, away from the river.
Only a few rifles ripped the night air in response to this, which he took to indicate that the better part of the Indians were along the river. He glided away, leading his pony, and the last the soldiers saw was the flash of a gun turned in an opposite direction from the wagon train. Neither Wolf-Voice or Ermine again appeared.
The slow fight continued during the night and all the next day, but by evening the Indians disappeared. They had observed the approach of reinforcements, which came in during the following morning, led by Ermine. Wolf-Voice, who had been on foot, did not make the rapid time of his mounted partner, but had gone through and acquired the fifty dollars, which was the main object.
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