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The Bridge of the Gods - A Romance of Indian Oregon. 19th Edition.
by Frederic Homer Balch
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A pale and ghastly chief rose to reply. It was evident that he was in the last extremity of disease.

"Shall we choose another war-chief to sit in Multnomah's place? We may; but will he be Multnomah? The glory of the Willamettes is dead! Talk no more of war, when our war-strength is gone from us. The Bridge is fallen, the Great Spirit is against us. Let those who are to live talk of war. It is time for us to learn how to die."

He sunk flushed and exhausted upon the ground. Then rose an aged chief, so old that it seemed as if a century of time had passed over him. His hair was a dirty gray, his eyes dull and sunken, his face withered. He supported himself with tremulous bony hands upon his staff. His voice was feeble, and seemed like an echo from the long-perished past.

"I am old, the oldest of all the Willamettes. I have seen so many winters that no man can count them. I knew Multnomah's father. I went forth to battle with his father's father; and even before that I knew others, warriors of a forgotten time. Or do I dream? I know not. The weight of the time that I have lived is very heavy, and my mind sinks under it. My form is bowed with the burden of winters. Warriors, I have seen many councils, many troubles, but never a trouble like this. Of what use is your council? Can the words of wise men stay disease? Can the edge of the tomahawk turn back sickness? Can you fight against the Great Spirit? He sent the white man to tell us of our sins and warn us to be better, and you closed your ears and would not listen. Nay, you would have slain him had not the Great Spirit taken him away. These things would not have come upon us had you listened to the white shaman. You have offended the Great Spirit, and he has broken the Bridge and sent disease upon us; and all that your wisdom may devise can avail naught to stay his wrath. You can but cover your faces in silence, and die."

For a moment the council was very still. The memory of the white wanderer, his strong and tender eloquence, his fearless denunciation, his loving and passionate appeal, was on them all. Was the Great Spirit angry with them because they had rejected him?

"Who talks of dying?" said a fierce warrior, starting to his feet. "Leave that to women and sick men! Shall we stay here to perish while life is yet strong within us? The valley is shadowed with death; the air is disease; an awful sickness wastes the people; our enemies rush in upon us. Shall we then lie down like dogs and wait for death? No. Let us leave this land; let us take our women and children, and fly. Let us seek a new home beyond the Klamath and the Shasta, in the South Land, where the sun is always warm, and the grass is always green, and the cold never comes. The spirits are against us here, and to stay is to perish. Let us seek a new home, where the spirits are not angry; even as our fathers in the time that is far back left their old home in the ice country of the Nootkas and came hither. I have spoken."

His daring words kindled a moment's animation in the despondent audience; then the ceaseless wailing of the women and the panting of the sick chiefs in the council filled the silence, and their hearts sank within them again.

"My brother is brave," said the grave chief who had opened the council, "but are his words wise? Many of our warriors are dead, many are sick, and Multnomah is gone. The Willamettes are weak; it is bitter to the lips to say it, but it is true. Our enemies are strong. All the tribes who were once with us are against us. The passes are kept by many warriors; and could we fight our way through them to another land, the sickness would go with us. Why fly from the disease here, to die with it in some far-off land?"

"We cannot leave our own land," said a dreamer, or medicine-man. "The Great Spirit gave it to us, the bones of our fathers are in it. It is our land," he repeated with touching emphasis. "The Willamette cannot leave his old home, though the world is breaking up all around him. The bones of our people are here. Our brothers lie in the death-huts on mimaluse island;—how can we leave them? Here is the place where we must live; here, if death comes, must we die!"

A murmur of assent came from the listeners. It voiced the decision of the council. With stubborn Indian fatalism, they would await the end; fighting the rebels if attacked, and sullenly facing the disease if unmolested. Now a voice was heard that never had been heard in accents of despair,—a voice that was still fierce and warlike in its resentment of the course the council was taking. It was the voice of Mishlah the Cougar, chief of the Mollalies. He, too, had the plague, and had just reached the grove, walking with slow and tottering steps, unlike the Mishlah of other days. But his eyes glittered with all the old ferocity that had given him the name of Cougar. Alas, he was but a dying cougar now.

"Shall we stay here to die?" thundered the wild chief, as he stood leaning on his stick, his sunken eyes sweeping the assembly with a glance of fire. "Shall we stand and tremble till the pestilence slays us all with its arrows, even as a herd of deer, driven into a deep gulch and surrounded, stand till they are shot down by the hunters? Shall we stay in our lodges, and die without lifting a hand? Shall disease burn out the life of our warriors, when they might fall in battle? No! Let us slay the women and children, cross the mountains, and die fighting the rebels! Is it not better to fall in battle like warriors than to perish of disease like dogs?"

The chief looked from face to face, but saw no responsive flash in the eyes that met his own. The settled apathy of despair was on every countenance. Then the medicine-man answered,—

"You could never cross the mountains, even if we did this thing. Your breath is hot with disease; the mark of death is on your face; the snake of the pestilence has bitten you. If we went out to battle, you would fall by the wayside to die. Your time is short. To-day you die."

The grim Mollalie met the speaker's glance, and for a moment wavered. He felt within himself that the words were true, that the plague had sapped his life, that his hour was near at hand. Then his hesitation passed, and he lifted his head with scornful defiance.

"So be it! Mishlah accepts his doom. Come, you that were once the warriors of Multnomah, but whose hearts are become the hearts of women; come and learn from a Mollalie how to die!"

Again his glance swept the circle of chiefs as if summoning them to follow him,—then, with weak and staggering footsteps, he left the grove; and it was as if the last hope of the Willamettes went with him. The dense atmosphere of smoke soon shut his form from view. Silence fell on the council. The hearts of the Indians were dead within them. Amid their portentous surroundings,—the appalling signs of the wrath of the Great Spirit,—the fatal apathy which is the curse of their race crept over them.

Then rose the medicine-man, wild priest of a wild and debasing superstition, reverenced as one through whom the dead spoke to the living.

"Break up your council!" he said with fearful look and gesture. "Councils are for those who expect to live! and you!—the dead call you to them. Choose no chief, for who will be left for him to rule? You talk of plans for the future. Would you know what that future will be? I will show you; listen!" He flung up his hand as if imposing silence; and, taken by surprise, they listened eagerly, expecting to hear some supernatural voice or message prophetic of the future. On their strained hearing fell only the labored breathing of the sick chiefs in the council, the ominous muttering of the far-off volcano, and loud and shrill above all the desolate cry of the women wailing their dead.

"You hear it? That death-wail tells all the future holds for you. Before yonder red shadow of a sun"—pointing to the sun, which shone dimly through the smoke—"shall set, the bravest of the Mollalies will be dead. Before the moon wanes to its close, the Willamette race will have passed away. Think you Multnomah's seat is empty? The Pestilence sits in Multnomah's place, and you will all wither in his hot and poisonous breath. Break up your council. Go to your lodges. The sun of the Willamettes is set, and the night is upon us. Our wars are done; our glory is ended. We are but a tale that old men tell around the camp-fire, a handful of red dust gathered from mimaluse island,—dust that once was man. Go, you that are as the dead leaves of autumn; go, whirled into everlasting darkness before the wind of the wrath of the Great Spirit!"

He flung out his arms with a wild gesture, as if he held all their lives and threw them forth like dead leaves to be scattered upon the winds. Then he turned away and left the grove. The crowd of warriors who had been looking on broke up and went away, and the chiefs began to leave the council, each muffled in his blanket. The grave and stately sachem who had opened the council tried for a little while to stay the fatal breaking up, but in vain. And when he saw that he could do nothing, he too left the grove, wrapped in stoical pride, sullenly resigned to whatever was to come.

And so the last council ended, in hopeless apathy, in stubborn indecision,—indecision in everything save the recognition that a doom was on them against which it was useless to struggle.

And Mishlah? He returned to his lodge, painted his face as if he were going to battle, and then went out to a grove near the place where the war-dances of the tribe were held. His braves followed him; others joined them; all watched eagerly, knowing that the end was close at hand, and wondering how he would die.

He laid aside his blanket, exposing his stripped body; and with his eagle plume, in his hair and his stone tomahawk in his hand, began to dance the war-dance of his tribe and to chant the song of the battles he had fought.

At first his utterance was broken and indistinct, his step feeble. But as he went on his voice rang clearer and stronger; his step grew quicker and firmer. Half reciting, half chanting, he continued the wild tale of blood, dancing faster and faster, haranguing louder and louder, until he became a flame of barbaric excitement, until he leaped and whirled in the very madness of raging passion,—the Indian war-frenzy.

But it could not last long. His breath came quick and short; his words grew inarticulate; his eyes gleamed like coals of fire; his feet faltered in the dance. With a final effort he brandished and flung his tomahawk, uttering as he did so a last war-cry, which thrilled all who heard it as of old when he led them in battle. The tomahawk sunk to the head in a neighboring tree, the handle breaking off short with the violence of the shock; and the chief fell back—dead.

Thus passed the soul of the fierce Mollalie. For years afterward, the tomahawk remained where it had sunk in the tree, sole monument of Mishlah. His bones lay unburied beneath, wasted by wind and rain, till there was left only a narrow strip of red earth, with the grass springing rankly around it, to show where the body had been. And the few survivors of the tribe who lingered in the valley were wont to point to the tomahawk imbedded in the tree, and tell the tale of the warrior and how he died.

Why dwell longer on scenes so terrible? Besides, there is but little more to tell. The faithless allies made a raid on the valley; but the shrouding atmosphere of smoke and the frightful rumors they heard of the great plague appalled them, and they retreated. The pestilence protected the Willamettes. The Black Death that the medicine-men saw sitting in Multnomah's place turned back the tide of invasion better than the war-chief himself could have done.

Through the hot months of summer the mortality continued. The valley was swept as with the besom of destruction, and the drama of a people's death was enacted with a thousand variations of horror. When spring came, the invaders entered the valley once more. They found it deserted, with the exception of a few wretched bands, sole survivors of a mighty race. They rode through villages where the decaying mats hung in tatters from the half-bare skeleton-like wigwam poles, where the ashes had been cold for months at the camp-fires; they rode by fisheries where spear and net were rotting beside the canoe upon the beach. And the dead—the dead lay everywhere: in the lodges, beside the fisheries, along the trail where they had been stricken down while trying to escape,—everywhere were the ghastly and repulsive forms.

The spirit of the few survivors was broken, and they made little resistance to the invaders. Mongrel bands from the interior and the coast settled in the valley after the lapse of years; and, mixing with the surviving Willamettes, produced the degenerate race our own pioneers found there at their coming. These hybrids were, within the memory of the white man, overrun and conquered by the Yakimas, who subjugated all the Indians upon Wappatto Island and around the mouth of the Willamette in the early part of the present century. Later on, the Yakimas were driven back by the whites; so that there have been three conquests of the lower Willamette Valley since the fall of the ancient race,—two Indian conquests before the white.

The once musical language of the Willamettes has degenerated into the uncouth Chinook, and the blood of the ancient race flows mixed and debased in the veins of abject and squalid descendants; but the story of the mighty bridge that once spanned the Columbia at the Cascades is still told by the Oregon Indians. Mingled with much of fable, overlaid with myth and superstition, it is nevertheless one of the historic legends of the Columbia, and as such will never be forgotten.

* * * * *

One word more of Cecil Gray, and our tale is done.

The Shoshone renegade, who resolved at Cecil's death to become a Christian, found his way with a few followers to the Flat-Heads, and settled among that tribe. He told them of what he had learned from Cecil,—of the Way of Peace; and the wise men of the tribe pondered his sayings in their hearts. The Shoshone lived and died among them; but from generation to generation the tradition of the white man's God was handed down, till in 1832 four Flat-Heads were sent by the tribe to St. Louis, to ask that teachers be given them to tell them about God.

Every student of history knows how that appeal stirred the heart of the East, and caused the sending out of the first missionaries to Oregon; and from the movement then inaugurated have since sprung all the missions to the Indians of the West.

Thus he who gave his life for the Indians, and died seemingly in vain, sowed seed that sprung up and bore a harvest long after his death. And to-day, two centuries since his body was laid in the lonely grave on Wappatto Island, thousands of Indians are the better for his having lived. No true, noble life can be said to have been lived in vain. Defeated and beaten though it may seem to have been, there has gone out from it an influence for the better that has helped in some degree to lighten the great heartache and bitterness of the world. Truth, goodness, and self-sacrifice are never beaten,—no, not by death itself. The example and the influence of such things is deathless, and lives after the individual is gone, flowing on forever in the broad life of humanity.

* * * * *

I write these last lines on Sauvie's Island—the Wappatto of the Indians,—sitting upon the bank of the river, beneath the gnarled and ancient cottonwood that still marks the spot where the old Columbia trail led up from the water to the interior of the island. Stately and beautiful are the far snow-peaks and the sweeping forests. The woods are rich in the colors of an Oregon autumn. The white wappatto blooms along the marshes, its roots ungathered, the dusky hands that once reaped the harvest long crumbled into dust. Blue and majestic in the sunlight flows the Columbia, river of many names,—the Wauna and Wemath of the Indians, the St. Roque of the Spaniards, the Oregon of poetry,—always vast and grand, always flowing placidly to the sea. Steamboats of the present; batteaux of the fur traders; ships, Grey's and Vancouver's, of discovery; Indian canoes of the old unknown time,—the stately river has seen them all come and go, and yet holds its way past forest and promontory, still beautiful and unchanging. Generation after generation, daring hunter, ardent discoverer, silent Indian,—all the shadowy peoples of the past have sailed its waters as we sail them, have lived perplexed and haunted by mystery as we live, have gone out into the Great Darkness with hearts full of wistful doubt and questioning, as we go; and still the river holds its course, bright, beautiful, inscrutable. It stays; we go. Is there anything beyond the darkness into which generation follows generation and race follows race? Surely there is an after-life, where light and peace shall come to all who, however defeated, have tried to be true and loyal; where the burden shall be lifted and the heartache shall cease; where all the love and hope that slipped away from us here shall be given back to us again, and given back forever.

Via crucis, via lucis.



* * * * *



Transcriber's note:

Variations in the spelling of the Molalla Indian tribe have been retained.

Missing or extra quotation marks and minor inconsistencies of punctuationwere silently corrected. However, punctuation has not been changed to comply with modern standards. Inconsistency in hyphenation also has been retained.

Footnotes have been renumbered consecutively and placed at the end of each chapter.

Illustrations have been moved where necessary so that they are not in the middle of a paragraph.

All missing page numbers were intentionally omitted in the original publication.

Archaic and variable spelling has been preserved as printed in the original book except for the following changes:

List of Illustrations: Multomah's changed to Multnomah's (Multnomah's Death-canoe)

Page 137: that changed to than (No one knows this better than Multnomah.)

Page 261: or changed to on (To the funeral pyre on mimaluse island.)

Illustration facing page 264: Multomah's changed to Multnomah's (Multnomah's Death-canoe)

THE END

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