Thus died Mahto-Tatonka, but he left behind him a goodly army of descendants, to perpetuate his renown and avenge his fate. Besides daughters he had thirty sons, a number which need not stagger the credulity of those who are best acquainted with Indian usages and practices. We saw many of them, all marked by the same dark complexion and the same peculiar cast of features. Of these our visitor, young Mahto-Tatonka, was the eldest, and some reported him as likely to succeed to his father's honors. Though he appeared not more than twenty-one years old, he had oftener struck the enemy, and stolen more horses and more squaws than any young man in the village. We of the civilized world are not apt to attach much credit to the latter species of exploits; but horse-stealing is well known as an avenue to distinction on the prairies, and the other kind of depredation is esteemed equally meritorious. Not that the act can confer fame from its own intrinsic merits. Any one can steal a squaw, and if he chooses afterward to make an adequate present to her rightful proprietor, the easy husband for the most part rests content, his vengeance falls asleep, and all danger from that quarter is averted. Yet this is esteemed but a pitiful and mean-spirited transaction. The danger is averted, but the glory of the achievement also is lost. Mahto-Tatonka proceeded after a more gallant and dashing fashion. Out of several dozen squaws whom he had stolen, he could boast that he had never paid for one, but snapping his fingers in the face of the injured husband, had defied the extremity of his indignation, and no one yet had dared to lay the finger of violence upon him. He was following close in the footsteps of his father. The young men and the young squaws, each in their way, admired him. The one would always follow him to war, and he was esteemed to have unrivaled charm in the eyes of the other. Perhaps his impunity may excite some wonder. An arrow shot from a ravine, a stab given in the dark, require no great valor, and are especially suited to the Indian genius; but Mahto-Tatonka had a strong protection. It was not alone his courage and audacious will that enabled him to career so dashingly among his compeers. His enemies did not forget that he was one of thirty warlike brethren, all growing up to manhood. Should they wreak their anger upon him, many keen eyes would be ever upon them, many fierce hearts would thirst for their blood. The avenger would dog their footsteps everywhere. To kill Mahto-Tatonka would be no better than an act of suicide.
Though he found such favor in the eyes of the fair, he was no dandy. As among us those of highest worth and breeding are most simple in manner and attire, so our aspiring young friend was indifferent to the gaudy trappings and ornaments of his companions. He was content to rest his chances of success upon his own warlike merits. He never arrayed himself in gaudy blanket and glittering necklaces, but left his statue-like form, limbed like an Apollo of bronze, to win its way to favor. His voice was singularly deep and strong. It sounded from his chest like the deep notes of an organ. Yet after all, he was but an Indian. See him as he lies there in the sun before our tent, kicking his heels in the air and cracking jokes with his brother. Does he look like a hero? See him now in the hour of his glory, when at sunset the whole village empties itself to behold him, for to-morrow their favorite young partisan goes out against the enemy. His superb headdress is adorned with a crest of the war eagle's feathers, rising in a waving ridge above his brow, and sweeping far behind him. His round white shield hangs at his breast, with feathers radiating from the center like a star. His quiver is at his back; his tall lance in his hand, the iron point flashing against the declining sun, while the long scalp-locks of his enemies flutter from the shaft. Thus, gorgeous as a champion in his panoply, he rides round and round within the great circle of lodges, balancing with a graceful buoyancy to the free movements of his war horse, while with a sedate brow he sings his song to the Great Spirit. Young rival warriors look askance at him; vermilion-cheeked girls gaze in admiration, boys whoop and scream in a thrill of delight, and old women yell forth his name and proclaim his praises from lodge to lodge.
Mahto-Tatonka, to come back to him, was the best of all our Indian friends. Hour after hour and day after day, when swarms of savages of every age, sex, and degree beset our camp, he would lie in our tent, his lynx eye ever open to guard our property from pillage.
The Whirlwind invited us one day to his lodge. The feast was finished, and the pipe began to circulate. It was a remarkably large and fine one, and I expressed my admiration of its form and dimensions.
"If the Meneaska likes the pipe," asked The Whirlwind, "why does he not keep it?"
Such a pipe among the Ogallalla is valued at the price of a horse. A princely gift, thinks the reader, and worthy of a chieftain and a warrior. The Whirlwind's generosity rose to no such pitch. He gave me the pipe, confidently expecting that I in return should make him a present of equal or superior value. This is the implied condition of every gift among the Indians as among the Orientals, and should it not be complied with the present is usually reclaimed by the giver. So I arranged upon a gaudy calico handkerchief, an assortment of vermilion, tobacco, knives, and gunpowder, and summoning the chief to camp, assured him of my friendship and begged his acceptance of a slight token of it. Ejaculating HOW! HOW! he folded up the offerings and withdrew to his lodge.
Several days passed and we and the Indians remained encamped side by side. They could not decide whether or not to go to war. Toward evening, scores of them would surround our tent, a picturesque group. Late one afternoon a party of them mounted on horseback came suddenly in sight from behind some clumps of bushes that lined the bank of the stream, leading with them a mule, on whose back was a wretched negro, only sustained in his seat by the high pommel and cantle of the Indian saddle. His cheeks were withered and shrunken in the hollow of his jaws; his eyes were unnaturally dilated, and his lips seemed shriveled and drawn back from his teeth like those of a corpse. When they brought him up before our tent, and lifted him from the saddle, he could not walk or stand, but he crawled a short distance, and with a look of utter misery sat down on the grass. All the children and women came pouring out of the lodges round us, and with screams and cries made a close circle about him, while he sat supporting himself with his hands, and looking from side to side with a vacant stare. The wretch was starving to death! For thirty-three days he had wandered alone on the prairie, without weapon of any kind; without shoes, moccasins, or any other clothing than an old jacket and pantaloons; without intelligence and skill to guide his course, or any knowledge of the productions of the prairie. All this time he had subsisted on crickets and lizards, wild onions, and three eggs which he found in the nest of a prairie dove. He had not seen a human being. Utterly bewildered in the boundless, hopeless desert that stretched around him, offering to his inexperienced eye no mark by which to direct his course, he had walked on in despair till he could walk no longer, and then crawled on his knees until the bone was laid bare. He chose the night for his traveling, lying down by day to sleep in the glaring sun, always dreaming, as he said, of the broth and corn cake he used to eat under his old master's shed in Missouri. Every man in the camp, both white and red, was astonished at his wonderful escape not only from starvation but from the grizzly bears which abound in that neighborhood, and the wolves which howled around him every night.
Reynal recognized him the moment the Indians brought him in. He had run away from his master about a year before and joined the party of M. Richard, who was then leaving the frontier for the mountains. He had lived with Richard ever since, until in the end of May he with Reynal and several other men went out in search of some stray horses, when he got separated from the rest in a storm, and had never been heard of up to this time. Knowing his inexperience and helplessness, no one dreamed that he could still be living. The Indians had found him lying exhausted on the ground.
As he sat there with the Indians gazing silently on him, his haggard face and glazed eye were disgusting to look upon. Delorier made him a bowl of gruel, but he suffered it to remain untasted before him. At length he languidly raised the spoon to his lips; again he did so, and again; and then his appetite seemed suddenly inflamed into madness, for he seized the bowl, swallowed all its contents in a few seconds, and eagerly demanded meat. This we refused, telling him to wait until morning, but he begged so eagerly that we gave him a small piece, which he devoured, tearing it like a dog. He said he must have more. We told him that his life was in danger if he ate so immoderately at first. He assented, and said he knew he was a fool to do so, but he must have meat. This we absolutely refused, to the great indignation of the senseless squaws, who, when we were not watching him, would slyly bring dried meat and POMMES BLANCHES, and place them on the ground by his side. Still this was not enough for him. When it grew dark he contrived to creep away between the legs of the horses and crawl over to the Indian village, about a furlong down the stream. Here he fed to his heart's content, and was brought back again in the morning, when Jean Gras, the trapper, put him on horseback and carried him to the fort. He managed to survive the effects of his insane greediness, and though slightly deranged when we left this part of the country, he was otherwise in tolerable health, and expressed his firm conviction that nothing could ever kill him.
When the sun was yet an hour high, it was a gay scene in the village. The warriors stalked sedately among the lodges, or along the margin of the streams, or walked out to visit the bands of horses that were feeding over the prairie. Half the village population deserted the close and heated lodges and betook themselves to the water; and here you might see boys and girls and young squaws splashing, swimming, and diving beneath the afternoon sun, with merry laughter and screaming. But when the sun was just resting above the broken peaks, and the purple mountains threw their prolonged shadows for miles over the prairie; when our grim old tree, lighted by the horizontal rays, assumed an aspect of peaceful repose, such as one loves after scenes of tumult and excitement; and when the whole landscape of swelling plains and scattered groves was softened into a tranquil beauty, then our encampment presented a striking spectacle. Could Salvator Rosa have transferred it to his canvas, it would have added new renown to his pencil. Savage figures surrounded our tent, with quivers at their backs, and guns, lances, or tomahawks in their hands. Some sat on horseback, motionless as equestrian statues, their arms crossed on their breasts, their eyes fixed in a steady unwavering gaze upon us. Some stood erect, wrapped from head to foot in their long white robes of buffalo hide. Some sat together on the grass, holding their shaggy horses by a rope, with their broad dark busts exposed to view as they suffered their robes to fall from their shoulders. Others again stood carelessly among the throng, with nothing to conceal the matchless symmetry of their forms; and I do not exaggerate when I say that only on the prairie and in the Vatican have I seen such faultless models of the human figure. See that warrior standing by the tree, towering six feet and a half in stature. Your eyes may trace the whole of his graceful and majestic height, and discover no defect or blemish. With his free and noble attitude, with the bow in his hand, and the quiver at his back, he might seem, but for his face, the Pythian Apollo himself. Such a figure rose before the imagination of West, when on first seeing the Belvidere in the Vatican, he exclaimed, "By God, a Mohawk!"
When the sky darkened and the stars began to appear; when the prairie was involved in gloom and the horses were driven in and secured around the camp, the crowd began to melt away. Fires gleamed around, duskily revealing the rough trappers and the graceful Indians. One of the families near us would always be gathered about a bright blaze, that displayed the shadowy dimensions of their lodge, and sent its lights far up among the masses of foliage above, gilding the dead and ragged branches. Withered witchlike hags flitted around the blaze, and here for hour after hour sat a circle of children and young girls, laughing and talking, their round merry faces glowing in the ruddy light. We could hear the monotonous notes of the drum from the Indian village, with the chant of the war song, deadened in the distance, and the long chorus of quavering yells, where the war dance was going on in the largest lodge. For several nights, too, we could hear wild and mournful cries, rising and dying away like the melancholy voice of a wolf. They came from the sisters and female relatives of Mahto-Tatonka, who were gashing their limbs with knives, and bewailing the death of Henry Chatillon's squaw. The hour would grow late before all retired to rest in the camp. Then the embers of the fires would be glowing dimly, the men would be stretched in their blankets on the ground, and nothing could be heard but the restless motions of the crowded horses.
I recall these scenes with a mixed feeling of pleasure and pain. At this time I was so reduced by illness that I could seldom walk without reeling like a drunken man, and when I rose from my seat upon the ground the landscape suddenly grew dim before my eyes, the trees and lodges seemed to sway to and fro, and the prairie to rise and fall like the swells of the ocean. Such a state of things is by no means enviable anywhere. In a country where a man's life may at any moment depend on the strength of his arm, or it may be on the activity of his legs, it is more particularly inconvenient. Medical assistance of course there was none; neither had I the means of pursuing a system of diet; and sleeping on a damp ground, with an occasional drenching from a shower, would hardly be recommended as beneficial. I sometimes suffered the extremity of languor and exhaustion, and though at the time I felt no apprehensions of the final result, I have since learned that my situation was a critical one.
Besides other formidable inconveniences I owe it in a great measure to the remote effects of that unlucky disorder that from deficient eyesight I am compelled to employ the pen of another in taking down this narrative from my lips; and I have learned very effectually that a violent attack of dysentery on the prairie is a thing too serious for a joke. I tried repose and a very sparing diet. For a long time, with exemplary patience, I lounged about the camp, or at the utmost staggered over to the Indian village, and walked faint and dizzy among the lodges. It would not do, and I bethought me of starvation. During five days I sustained life on one small biscuit a day. At the end of that time I was weaker than before, but the disorder seemed shaken in its stronghold and very gradually I began to resume a less rigid diet. No sooner had I done so than the same detested symptoms revisited me; my old enemy resumed his pertinacious assaults, yet not with his former violence or constancy, and though before I regained any fair portion of my ordinary strength weeks had elapsed, and months passed before the disorder left me, yet thanks to old habits of activity, and a merciful Providence, I was able to sustain myself against it.
I used to lie languid and dreamy before our tent and muse on the past and the future, and when most overcome with lassitude, my eyes turned always toward the distant Black Hills. There is a spirit of energy and vigor in mountains, and they impart it to all who approach their presence. At that time I did not know how many dark superstitions and gloomy legends are associated with those mountains in the minds of the Indians, but I felt an eager desire to penetrate their hidden recesses, to explore the awful chasms and precipices, the black torrents, the silent forests, that I fancied were concealed there.
A Canadian came from Fort Laramie, and brought a curious piece of intelligence. A trapper, fresh from the mountains, had become enamored of a Missouri damsel belonging to a family who with other emigrants had been for some days encamped in the neighborhood of the fort. If bravery be the most potent charm to win the favor of the fair, then no wooer could be more irresistible than a Rocky Mountain trapper. In the present instance, the suit was not urged in vain. The lovers concerted a scheme, which they proceeded to carry into effect with all possible dispatch. The emigrant party left the fort, and on the next succeeding night but one encamped as usual, and placed a guard. A little after midnight the enamored trapper drew near, mounted on a strong horse and leading another by the bridle. Fastening both animals to a tree, he stealthily moved toward the wagons, as if he were approaching a band of buffalo. Eluding the vigilance of the guard, who was probably half asleep, he met his mistress by appointment at the outskirts of the camp, mounted her on his spare horse, and made off with her through the darkness. The sequel of the adventure did not reach our ears, and we never learned how the imprudent fair one liked an Indian lodge for a dwelling, and a reckless trapper for a bridegroom.
At length The Whirlwind and his warriors determined to move. They had resolved after all their preparations not to go to the rendezvous at La Bonte's Camp, but to pass through the Black Hills and spend a few weeks in hunting the buffalo on the other side, until they had killed enough to furnish them with a stock of provisions and with hides to make their lodges for the next season. This done, they were to send out a small independent war party against the enemy. Their final determination left us in some embarrassment. Should we go to La Bonte's Camp, it was not impossible that the other villages would prove as vacillating and indecisive as The Whirlwinds, and that no assembly whatever would take place. Our old companion Reynal had conceived a liking for us, or rather for our biscuit and coffee, and for the occasional small presents which we made him. He was very anxious that we should go with the village which he himself intended to accompany. He declared he was certain that no Indians would meet at the rendezvous, and said moreover that it would be easy to convey our cart and baggage through the Black Hills. In saying this, he told as usual an egregious falsehood. Neither he nor any white man with us had ever seen the difficult and obscure defiles through which the Indians intended to make their way. I passed them afterward, and had much ado to force my distressed horse along the narrow ravines, and through chasms where daylight could scarcely penetrate. Our cart might as easily have been conveyed over the summit of Pike's Peak. Anticipating the difficulties and uncertainties of an attempt to visit the rendezvous, we recalled the old proverb about "A bird in the hand," and decided to follow the village.
Both camps, the Indians' and our own, broke up on the morning of the 1st of July. I was so weak that the aid of a potent auxiliary, a spoonful of whisky swallowed at short intervals, alone enabled me to sit on my hardy little mare Pauline through the short journey of that day. For half a mile before us and half a mile behind, the prairie was covered far and wide with the moving throng of savages. The barren, broken plain stretched away to the right and left, and far in front rose the gloomy precipitous ridge of the Black Hills. We pushed forward to the head of the scattered column, passing the burdened travaux, the heavily laden pack horses, the gaunt old women on foot, the gay young squaws on horseback, the restless children running among the crowd, old men striding along in their white buffalo robes, and groups of young warriors mounted on their best horses. Henry Chatillon, looking backward over the distant prairie, exclaimed suddenly that a horseman was approaching, and in truth we could just discern a small black speck slowly moving over the face of a distant swell, like a fly creeping on a wall. It rapidly grew larger as it approached.
"White man, I b'lieve," said Henry; "look how he ride! Indian never ride that way. Yes; he got rifle on the saddle before him."
The horseman disappeared in a hollow of the prairie, but we soon saw him again, and as he came riding at a gallop toward us through the crowd of Indians, his long hair streaming in the wind behind him, we recognized the ruddy face and old buckskin frock of Jean Gras the trapper. He was just arrived from Fort Laramie, where he had been on a visit, and said he had a message for us. A trader named Bisonette, one of Henry's friends, was lately come from the settlements, and intended to go with a party of men to La Bonte's Camp, where, as Jean Gras assured us, ten or twelve villages of Indians would certainly assemble. Bisonette desired that we would cross over and meet him there, and promised that his men should protect our horses and baggage while we went among the Indians. Shaw and I stopped our horses and held a council, and in an evil hour resolved to go.
For the rest of that day's journey our course and that of the Indians was the same. In less than an hour we came to where the high barren prairie terminated, sinking down abruptly in steep descent; and standing on these heights, we saw below us a great level meadow. Laramie Creek bounded it on the left, sweeping along in the shadow of the declivities, and passing with its shallow and rapid current just below us. We sat on horseback, waiting and looking on, while the whole savage array went pouring past us, hurrying down the descent and spreading themselves over the meadow below. In a few moments the plain was swarming with the moving multitude, some just visible, like specks in the distance, others still passing on, pressing down, and fording the stream with bustle and confusion. On the edge of the heights sat half a dozen of the elder warriors, gravely smoking and looking down with unmoved faces on the wild and striking spectacle.
Up went the lodges in a circle on the margin of the stream. For the sake of quiet we pitched our tent among some trees at half a mile's distance. In the afternoon we were in the village. The day was a glorious one, and the whole camp seemed lively and animated in sympathy. Groups of children and young girls were laughing gayly on the outside of the lodges. The shields, the lances, and the bows were removed from the tall tripods on which they usually hung before the dwellings of their owners. The warriors were mounting their horses, and one by one riding away over the prairie toward the neighboring hills.
Shaw and I sat on the grass near the lodge of Reynal. An old woman, with true Indian hospitality, brought a bowl of boiled venison and placed it before us. We amused ourselves with watching half a dozen young squaws who were playing together and chasing each other in and out of one of the lodges. Suddenly the wild yell of the war-whoop came pealing from the hills. A crowd of horsemen appeared, rushing down their sides and riding at full speed toward the village, each warrior's long hair flying behind him in the wind like a ship's streamer. As they approached, the confused throng assumed a regular order, and entering two by two, they circled round the area at full gallop, each warrior singing his war song as he rode. Some of their dresses were splendid. They wore superb crests of feathers and close tunics of antelope skins, fringed with the scalp-locks of their enemies; their shields too were often fluttering with the war eagle's feathers. All had bows and arrows at their back; some carried long lances, and a few were armed with guns. The White Shield, their partisan, rode in gorgeous attire at their head, mounted on a black-and-white horse. Mahto-Tatonka and his brothers took no part in this parade, for they were in mourning for their sister, and were all sitting in their lodges, their bodies bedaubed from head to foot with white clay, and a lock of hair cut from each of their foreheads.
The warriors circled three times round the village; and as each distinguished champion passed, the old women would scream out his name in honor of his bravery, and to incite the emulation of the younger warriors. Little urchins, not two years old, followed the warlike pageant with glittering eyes, and looked with eager wonder and admiration at those whose honors were proclaimed by the public voice of the village. Thus early is the lesson of war instilled into the mind of an Indian, and such are the stimulants which incite his thirst for martial renown.
The procession rode out of the village as it had entered it, and in half an hour all the warriors had returned again, dropping quietly in, singly or in parties of two or three.
As the sun rose next morning we looked across the meadow, and could see the lodges leveled and the Indians gathering together in preparation to leave the camp. Their course lay to the westward. We turned toward the north with our men, the four trappers following us, with the Indian family of Moran. We traveled until night. I suffered not a little from pain and weakness. We encamped among some trees by the side of a little brook, and here during the whole of the next day we lay waiting for Bisonette, but no Bisonette appeared. Here also two of our trapper friends left us, and set out for the Rocky Mountains. On the second morning, despairing of Bisonette's arrival we resumed our journey, traversing a forlorn and dreary monotony of sun-scorched plains, where no living thing appeared save here and there an antelope flying before us like the wind. When noon came we saw an unwonted and most welcome sight; a rich and luxuriant growth of trees, marking the course of a little stream called Horseshoe Creek. We turned gladly toward it. There were lofty and spreading trees, standing widely asunder, and supporting a thick canopy of leaves, above a surface of rich, tall grass. The stream ran swiftly, as clear as crystal, through the bosom of the wood, sparkling over its bed of white sand and darkening again as it entered a deep cavern of leaves and boughs. I was thoroughly exhausted, and flung myself on the ground, scarcely able to move. All that afternoon I lay in the shade by the side of the stream, and those bright woods and sparkling waters are associated in my mind with recollections of lassitude and utter prostration. When night came I sat down by the fire, longing, with an intensity of which at this moment I can hardly conceive, for some powerful stimulant.
In the morning as glorious a sun rose upon us as ever animated that desolate wilderness. We advanced and soon were surrounded by tall bare hills, overspread from top to bottom with prickly-pears and other cacti, that seemed like clinging reptiles. A plain, flat and hard, and with scarcely the vestige of grass, lay before us, and a line of tall misshapen trees bounded the onward view. There was no sight or sound of man or beast, or any living thing, although behind those trees was the long-looked-for place of rendezvous, where we fondly hoped to have found the Indians congregated by thousands. We looked and listened anxiously. We pushed forward with our best speed, and forced our horses through the trees. There were copses of some extent beyond, with a scanty stream creeping through their midst; and as we pressed through the yielding branches, deer sprang up to the right and left. At length we caught a glimpse of the prairie beyond. Soon we emerged upon it, and saw, not a plain covered with encampments and swarming with life, but a vast unbroken desert stretching away before us league upon league, without a bush or a tree or anything that had life. We drew rein and gave to the winds our sentiments concerning the whole aboriginal race of America. Our journey was in vain and much worse than in vain. For myself, I was vexed and disappointed beyond measure; as I well knew that a slight aggravation of my disorder would render this false step irrevocable, and make it quite impossible to accomplish effectively the design which had led me an arduous journey of between three and four thousand miles. To fortify myself as well as I could against such a contingency, I resolved that I would not under any circumstances attempt to leave the country until my object was completely gained.
And where were the Indians? They were assembled in great numbers at a spot about twenty miles distant, and there at that very moment they were engaged in their warlike ceremonies. The scarcity of buffalo in the vicinity of La Bonte's Camp, which would render their supply of provisions scanty and precarious, had probably prevented them from assembling there; but of all this we knew nothing until some weeks after.
Shaw lashed his horse and galloped forward, I, though much more vexed than he, was not strong enough to adopt this convenient vent to my feelings; so I followed at a quiet pace, but in no quiet mood. We rode up to a solitary old tree, which seemed the only place fit for encampment. Half its branches were dead, and the rest were so scantily furnished with leaves that they cast but a meager and wretched shade, and the old twisted trunk alone furnished sufficient protection from the sun. We threw down our saddles in the strip of shadow that it cast, and sat down upon them. In silent indignation we remained smoking for an hour or more, shifting our saddles with the shifting shadow, for the sun was intolerably hot.
At last we had reached La Bonte's Camp, toward which our eyes had turned so long. Of all weary hours, those that passed between noon and sunset of the day when we arrived there may bear away the palm of exquisite discomfort. I lay under the tree reflecting on what course to pursue, watching the shadows which seemed never to move, and the sun which remained fixed in the sky, and hoping every moment to see the men and horses of Bisonette emerging from the woods. Shaw and Henry had ridden out on a scouting expedition, and did not return until the sun was setting. There was nothing very cheering in their faces nor in the news they brought.
"We have been ten miles from here," said Shaw. "We climbed the highest butte we could find, and could not see a buffalo or Indian; nothing but prairie for twenty miles around us."
Henry's horse was quite disabled by clambering up and down the sides of ravines, and Shaw's was severely fatigued.
After supper that evening, as we sat around the fire, I proposed to Shaw to wait one day longer in hopes of Bisonette's arrival, and if he should not come to send Delorier with the cart and baggage back to Fort Laramie, while we ourselves followed The Whirlwind's village and attempted to overtake it as it passed the mountains. Shaw, not having the same motive for hunting Indians that I had, was averse to the plan; I therefore resolved to go alone. This design I adopted very unwillingly, for I knew that in the present state of my health the attempt would be extremely unpleasant, and, as I considered, hazardous. I hoped that Bisonette would appear in the course of the following day, and bring us some information by which to direct our course, and enable me to accomplish my purpose by means less objectionable.
The rifle of Henry Chatillon was necessary for the subsistence of the party in my absence; so I called Raymond, and ordered him to prepare to set out with me. Raymond rolled his eyes vacantly about, but at length, having succeeded in grappling with the idea, he withdrew to his bed under the cart. He was a heavy-molded fellow, with a broad face exactly like an owl's, expressing the most impenetrable stupidity and entire self-confidence. As for his good qualities, he had a sort of stubborn fidelity, an insensibility to danger, and a kind of instinct or sagacity, which sometimes led him right, where better heads than his were at a loss. Besides this, he knew very well how to handle a rifle and picket a horse.
Through the following day the sun glared down upon us with a pitiless, penetrating heat. The distant blue prairie seemed quivering under it. The lodge of our Indian associates was baking in the rays, and our rifles, as they leaned against the tree, were too hot for the touch. There was a dead silence through our camp and all around it, unbroken except by the hum of gnats and mosquitoes. The men, resting their foreheads on their arms, were sleeping under the cart. The Indians kept close within their lodge except the newly married pair, who were seated together under an awning of buffalo robes, and the old conjurer, who, with his hard, emaciated face and gaunt ribs, was perched aloft like a turkey-buzzard among the dead branches of an old tree, constantly on the lookout for enemies. He would have made a capital shot. A rifle bullet, skillfully planted, would have brought him tumbling to the ground. Surely, I thought, there could be no more harm in shooting such a hideous old villain, to see how ugly he would look when he was dead, than in shooting the detestable vulture which he resembled. We dined, and then Shaw saddled his horse.
"I will ride back," said he, "to Horseshoe Creek, and see if Bisonette is there."
"I would go with you," I answered, "but I must reserve all the strength I have."
The afternoon dragged away at last. I occupied myself in cleaning my rifle and pistols, and making other preparations for the journey. After supper, Henry Chatillon and I lay by the fire, discussing the properties of that admirable weapon, the rifle, in the use of which he could fairly outrival Leatherstocking himself.
It was late before I wrapped myself in my blanket and lay down for the night, with my head on my saddle. Shaw had not returned, but this gave no uneasiness, for we presumed that he had fallen in with Bisonette, and was spending the night with him. For a day or two past I had gained in strength and health, but about midnight an attack of pain awoke me, and for some hours I felt no inclination to sleep. The moon was quivering on the broad breast of the Platte; nothing could be heard except those low inexplicable sounds, like whisperings and footsteps, which no one who has spent the night alone amid deserts and forests will be at a loss to understand. As I was falling asleep, a familiar voice, shouting from the distance, awoke me again. A rapid step approached the camp, and Shaw on foot, with his gun in his hand, hastily entered.
"Where's your horse?" said I, raising myself on my elbow.
"Lost!" said Shaw. "Where's Delorier?"
"There," I replied, pointing to a confused mass of blankets and buffalo robes.
Shaw touched them with the butt of his gun, and up sprang our faithful Canadian.
"Come, Delorier; stir up the fire, and get me something to eat."
"Where's Bisonette?" asked I.
"The Lord knows; there's nobody at Horseshoe Creek."
Shaw had gone back to the spot where we had encamped two days before, and finding nothing there but the ashes of our fires, he had tied his horse to the tree while he bathed in the stream. Something startled his horse, who broke loose, and for two hours Shaw tried in vain to catch him. Sunset approached, and it was twelve miles to camp. So he abandoned the attempt, and set out on foot to join us. The greater part of his perilous and solitary work was performed in darkness. His moccasins were worn to tatters and his feet severely lacerated. He sat down to eat, however, with the usual equanimity of his temper not at all disturbed by his misfortune, and my last recollection before falling asleep was of Shaw, seated cross-legged before the fire, smoking his pipe. The horse, I may as well mention here, was found the next morning by Henry Chatillon.
When I awoke again there was a fresh damp smell in the air, a gray twilight involved the prairie, and above its eastern verge was a streak of cold red sky. I called to the men, and in a moment a fire was blazing brightly in the dim morning light, and breakfast was getting ready. We sat down together on the grass, to the last civilized meal which Raymond and I were destined to enjoy for some time.
"Now, bring in the horses."
My little mare Pauline was soon standing by the fire. She was a fleet, hardy, and gentle animal, christened after Paul Dorion, from whom I had procured her in exchange for Pontiac. She did not look as if equipped for a morning pleasure ride. In front of the black, high-bowed mountain saddle, holsters, with heavy pistols, were fastened. A pair of saddle bags, a blanket tightly rolled, a small parcel of Indian presents tied up in a buffalo skin, a leather bag of flour, and a smaller one of tea were all secured behind, and a long trail-rope was wound round her neck. Raymond had a strong black mule, equipped in a similar manner. We crammed our powder-horns to the throat, and mounted.
"I will meet you at Fort Laramie on the 1st of August," said I to Shaw.
"That is," replied he, "if we don't meet before that. I think I shall follow after you in a day or two."
This in fact he attempted, and he would have succeeded if he had not encountered obstacles against which his resolute spirit was of no avail. Two days after I left him he sent Delorier to the fort with the cart and baggage, and set out for the mountains with Henry Chatillon; but a tremendous thunderstorm had deluged the prairie, and nearly obliterated not only our trail but that of the Indians themselves. They followed along the base of the mountains, at a loss in which direction to go. They encamped there, and in the morning Shaw found himself poisoned by ivy in such a manner that it was impossible for him to travel. So they turned back reluctantly toward Fort Laramie. Shaw's limbs were swollen to double their usual size, and he rode in great pain. They encamped again within twenty miles of the fort, and reached it early on the following morning. Shaw lay seriously ill for a week, and remained at the fort till I rejoined him some time after.
To return to my own story. We shook hands with our friends, rode out upon the prairie, and clambering the sandy hollows that were channeled in the sides of the hills gained the high plains above. If a curse had been pronounced upon the land it could not have worn an aspect of more dreary and forlorn barrenness. There were abrupt broken hills, deep hollows, and wide plains; but all alike glared with an insupportable whiteness under the burning sun. The country, as if parched by the heat, had cracked into innumerable fissures and ravines, that not a little impeded our progress. Their steep sides were white and raw, and along the bottom we several times discovered the broad tracks of the terrific grizzly bear, nowhere more abundant than in this region. The ridges of the hills were hard as rock, and strewn with pebbles of flint and coarse red jasper; looking from them, there was nothing to relieve the desert uniformity of the prospect, save here and there a pine-tree clinging at the edge of a ravine, and stretching out its rough, shaggy arms. Under the scorching heat these melancholy trees diffused their peculiar resinous odor through the sultry air. There was something in it, as I approached them, that recalled old associations; the pine-clad mountains of New England, traversed in days of health and buoyancy, rose like a reality before my fancy. In passing that arid waste I was goaded with a morbid thirst produced by my disorder, and I thought with a longing desire on the crystal treasure poured in such wasteful profusion from our thousand hills. Shutting my eyes, I more than half believed that I heard the deep plunging and gurgling of waters in the bowels of the shaded rocks. I could see their dark ice glittering far down amid the crevices, and the cold drops trickling from the long green mosses.
When noon came, we found a little stream, with a few trees and bushes; and here we rested for an hour. Then we traveled on, guided by the sun, until, just before sunset, we reached another stream, called Bitter Cotton-wood Creek. A thick growth of bushes and old storm-beaten trees grew at intervals along its bank. Near the foot of one of the trees we flung down our saddles, and hobbling our horses turned them loose to feed. The little stream was clear and swift, and ran musically on its white sands. Small water birds were splashing in the shallows, and filling the air with their cries and flutterings. The sun was just sinking among gold and crimson clouds behind Mount Laramie. I well remember how I lay upon a log by the margin of the water, and watched the restless motions of the little fish in a deep still nook below. Strange to say, I seemed to have gained strength since the morning, and almost felt a sense of returning health.
We built our fire. Night came, and the wolves began to howl. One deep voice commenced, and it was answered in awful responses from the hills, the plains, and the woods along the stream above and below us. Such sounds need not and do not disturb one's sleep upon the prairie. We picketed the mare and the mule close at our feet, and did not wake until daylight. Then we turned them loose, still hobbled, to feed for an hour before starting. We were getting ready our morning's meal, when Raymond saw an antelope at half a mile's distance, and said he would go and shoot it.
"Your business," said. I, "is to look after the animals. I am too weak to do much, if anything happens to them, and you must keep within sight of the camp."
Raymond promised, and set out with his rifle in his hand. The animals had passed across the stream, and were feeding among the long grass on the other side, much tormented by the attacks of the numerous large green-headed flies. As I watched them, I saw them go down into a hollow, and as several minutes elapsed without their reappearing, I waded through the stream to look after them. To my vexation and alarm I discovered them at a great distance, galloping away at full speed, Pauline in advance, with her hobbles broken, and the mule, still fettered, following with awkward leaps. I fired my rifle and shouted to recall Raymond. In a moment he came running through the stream, with a red handkerchief bound round his head. I pointed to the fugitives, and ordered him to pursue them. Muttering a "Sacre!" between his teeth, he set out at full speed, still swinging his rifle in his hand. I walked up to the top of a hill, and looking away over the prairie, could just distinguish the runaways, still at full gallop. Returning to the fire, I sat down at the foot of a tree. Wearily and anxiously hour after hour passed away. The old loose bark dangling from the trunk behind me flapped to and fro in the wind, and the mosquitoes kept up their incessant drowsy humming; but other than this, there was no sight nor sound of life throughout the burning landscape. The sun rose higher and higher, until the shadows fell almost perpendicularly, and I knew that it must be noon. It seemed scarcely possible that the animals could be recovered. If they were not, my situation was one of serious difficulty. Shaw, when I left him had decided to move that morning, but whither he had not determined. To look for him would be a vain attempt. Fort Laramie was forty miles distant, and I could not walk a mile without great effort. Not then having learned the sound philosophy of yielding to disproportionate obstacles, I resolved to continue in any event the pursuit of the Indians. Only one plan occurred to me; this was to send Raymond to the fort with an order for more horses, while I remained on the spot, awaiting his return, which might take place within three days. But the adoption of this resolution did not wholly allay my anxiety, for it involved both uncertainty and danger. To remain stationary and alone for three days, in a country full of dangerous Indians, was not the most flattering of prospects; and protracted as my Indian hunt must be by such delay, it was not easy to foretell its ultimate result. Revolving these matters, I grew hungry; and as our stock of provisions, except four or five pounds of flour, was by this time exhausted, I left the camp to see what game I could find. Nothing could be seen except four or five large curlew, which, with their loud screaming, were wheeling over my head, and now and then alighting upon the prairie. I shot two of them, and was about returning, when a startling sight caught my eye. A small, dark object, like a human head, suddenly appeared, and vanished among the thick hushes along the stream below. In that country every stranger is a suspected enemy. Instinctively I threw forward the muzzle of my rifle. In a moment the bushes were violently shaken, two heads, but not human heads, protruded, and to my great joy I recognized the downcast, disconsolate countenance of the black mule and the yellow visage of Pauline. Raymond came upon the mule, pale and haggard, complaining of a fiery pain in his chest. I took charge of the animals while he kneeled down by the side of the stream to drink. He had kept the runaways in sight as far as the Side Fork of Laramie Creek, a distance of more than ten miles; and here with great difficulty he had succeeded in catching them. I saw that he was unarmed, and asked him what he had done with his rifle. It had encumbered him in his pursuit, and he had dropped it on the prairie, thinking that he could find it on his return; but in this he had failed. The loss might prove a very formidable one. I was too much rejoiced however at the recovery of the animals to think much about it; and having made some tea for Raymond in a tin vessel which we had brought with us, I told him that I would give him two hours for resting before we set out again. He had eaten nothing that day; but having no appetite, he lay down immediately to sleep. I picketed the animals among the richest grass that I could find, and made fires of green wood to protect them from the flies; then sitting down again by the tree, I watched the slow movements of the sun, begrudging every moment that passed.
The time I had mentioned expired, and I awoke Raymond. We saddled and set out again, but first we went in search of the lost rifle, and in the course of an hour Raymond was fortunate enough to find it. Then we turned westward, and moved over the hills and hollows at a slow pace toward the Black Hills. The heat no longer tormented us, for a cloud was before the sun. Yet that day shall never be marked with white in my calendar. The air began to grow fresh and cool, the distant mountains frowned more gloomily, there was a low muttering of thunder, and dense black masses of cloud rose heavily behind the broken peaks. At first they were gayly fringed with silver by the afternoon sun, but soon the thick blackness overspread the whole sky, and the desert around us was wrapped in deep gloom. I scarcely heeded it at the time, but now I cannot but feel that there was an awful sublimity in the hoarse murmuring of the thunder, in the somber shadows that involved the mountains and the plain. The storm broke. It came upon us with a zigzag blinding flash, with a terrific crash of thunder, and with a hurricane that howled over the prairie, dashing floods of water against us. Raymond looked round, and cursed the merciless elements. There seemed no shelter near, but we discerned at length a deep ravine gashed in the level prairie, and saw half way down its side an old pine tree, whose rough horizontal boughs formed a sort of penthouse against the tempest. We found a practicable passage, and hastily descending, fastened our animals to some large loose stones at the bottom; then climbing up, we drew our blankets over our heads, and seated ourselves close beneath the old tree. Perhaps I was no competent judge of time, but it seemed to me that we were sitting there a full hour, while around us poured a deluge of rain, through which the rocks on the opposite side of the gulf were barely visible. The first burst of the tempest soon subsided, but the rain poured steadily. At length Raymond grew impatient, and scrambling out of the ravine, he gained the level prairie above.
"What does the weather look like?" asked I, from my seat under the tree.
"It looks bad," he answered; "dark all around," and again he descended and sat down by my side. Some ten minutes elapsed.
"Go up again," said I, "and take another look;" and he clambered up the precipice. "Well, how is it?"
"Just the same, only I see one little bright spot over the top of the mountain."
The rain by this time had begun to abate; and going down to the bottom of the ravine, we loosened the animals, who were standing up to their knees in water. Leading them up the rocky throat of the ravine, we reached the plain above. "Am I," I thought to myself, "the same man who a few months since, was seated, a quiet student of BELLES-LETTRES, in a cushioned arm-chair by a sea-coal fire?"
All around us was obscurity; but the bright spot above the mountaintops grew wider and ruddier, until at length the clouds drew apart, and a flood of sunbeams poured down from heaven, streaming along the precipices, and involving them in a thin blue haze, as soft and lovely as that which wraps the Apennines on an evening in spring. Rapidly the clouds were broken and scattered, like routed legions of evil spirits. The plain lay basking in sunbeams around us; a rainbow arched the desert from north to south, and far in front a line of woods seemed inviting us to refreshment and repose. When we reached them, they were glistening with prismatic dewdrops, and enlivened by the song and flutterings of a hundred birds. Strange winged insects, benumbed by the rain, were clinging to the leaves and the bark of the trees.
Raymond kindled a fire with great difficulty. The animals turned eagerly to feed on the soft rich grass, while I, wrapping myself in my blanket, lay down and gazed on the evening landscape. The mountains, whose stern features had lowered upon us with so gloomy and awful a frown, now seemed lighted up with a serene, benignant smile, and the green waving undulations of the plain were gladdened with the rich sunshine. Wet, ill, and wearied as I was, my spirit grew lighter at the view, and I drew from it an augury of good for my future prospects.
When morning came, Raymond awoke, coughing violently, though I had apparently received no injury. We mounted, crossed the little stream, pushed through the trees, and began our journey over the plain beyond. And now, as we rode slowly along, we looked anxiously on every hand for traces of the Indians, not doubting that the village had passed somewhere in that vicinity; but the scanty shriveled grass was not more than three or four inches high, and the ground was of such unyielding hardness that a host might have marched over it and left scarcely a trace of its passage. Up hill and down hill, and clambering through ravines, we continued our journey. As we were skirting the foot of a hill I saw Raymond, who was some rods in advance, suddenly jerking the reins of his mule. Sliding from his seat, and running in a crouching posture up a hollow, he disappeared; and then in an instant I heard the sharp quick crack of his rifle. A wounded antelope came running on three legs over the hill. I lashed Pauline and made after him. My fleet little mare soon brought me by his side, and after leaping and bounding for a few moments in vain, he stood still, as if despairing of escape. His glistening eyes turned up toward my face with so piteous a look that it was with feelings of infinite compunction that I shot him through the head with a pistol. Raymond skinned and cut him up, and we hung the forequarters to our saddles, much rejoiced that our exhausted stock of provisions was renewed in such good time.
Gaining the top of a hill, we could see along the cloudy verge of the prairie before us lines of trees and shadowy groves that marked the course of Laramie Creek. Some time before noon we reached its banks and began anxiously to search them for footprints of the Indians. We followed the stream for several miles, now on the shore and now wading in the water, scrutinizing every sand-bar and every muddy bank. So long was the search that we began to fear that we had left the trail undiscovered behind us. At length I heard Raymond shouting, and saw him jump from his mule to examine some object under the shelving bank. I rode up to his side. It was the clear and palpable impression of an Indian moccasin. Encouraged by this we continued our search, and at last some appearances on a soft surface of earth not far from the shore attracted my eye; and going to examine them I found half a dozen tracks, some made by men and some by children. Just then Raymond observed across the stream the mouth of a small branch entering it from the south. He forded the water, rode in at the opening, and in a moment I heard him shouting again, so I passed over and joined him. The little branch had a broad sandy bed, along which the water trickled in a scanty stream; and on either bank the bushes were so close that the view was completely intercepted. I found Raymond stooping over the footprints of three or four horses. Proceeding we found those of a man, then those of a child, then those of more horses; and at last the bushes on each bank were beaten down and broken, and the sand plowed up with a multitude of footsteps, and scored across with the furrows made by the lodge-poles that had been dragged through. It was now certain that we had found the trail. I pushed through the bushes, and at a little distance on the prairie beyond found the ashes of a hundred and fifty lodge fires, with bones and pieces of buffalo robes scattered around them, and in some instances the pickets to which horses had been secured still standing in the ground. Elated by our success we selected a convenient tree, and turning the animals loose, prepared to make a meal from the fat haunch of our victim.
Hardship and exposure had thriven with me wonderfully. I had gained both health and strength since leaving La Bonte's Camp. Raymond and I made a hearty meal together in high spirits, for we rashly presumed that having found one end of the trail we should have little difficulty in reaching the other. But when the animals were led in we found that our old ill luck had not ceased to follow us close. As I was saddling Pauline I saw that her eye was as dull as lead, and the hue of her yellow coat visibly darkened. I placed my foot in the stirrup to mount, when instantly she staggered and fell flat on her side. Gaining her feet with an effort she stood by the fire with a drooping head. Whether she had been bitten by a snake or poisoned by some noxious plant or attacked by a sudden disorder, it was hard to say; but at all events her sickness was sufficiently ill-timed and unfortunate. I succeeded in a second attempt to mount her, and with a slow pace we moved forward on the trail of the Indians. It led us up a hill and over a dreary plain; and here, to our great mortification, the traces almost disappeared, for the ground was hard as adamant; and if its flinty surface had ever retained the print of a hoof, the marks had been washed away by the deluge of yesterday. An Indian village, in its disorderly march, is scattered over the prairie, often to the width of full half a mile; so that its trail is nowhere clearly marked, and the task of following it is made doubly wearisome and difficult. By good fortune plenty of large ant-hills, a yard or more in diameter, were scattered over the plain, and these were frequently broken by the footprints of men and horses, and marked by traces of the lodge-poles. The succulent leaves of the prickly-pear, also bruised from the same causes, helped a little to guide us; so inch by inch we moved along. Often we lost the trail altogether, and then would recover it again, but late in the afternoon we found ourselves totally at fault. We stood alone without clew to guide us. The broken plain expanded for league after league around us, and in front the long dark ridge of mountains was stretching from north to south. Mount Laramie, a little on our right, towered high above the rest and from a dark valley just beyond one of its lower declivities, we discerned volumes of white smoke slowly rolling up into the clear air.
"I think," said Raymond, "some Indians must be there. Perhaps we had better go." But this plan was not rashly to be adopted, and we determined still to continue our search after the lost trail. Our good stars prompted us to this decision, for we afterward had reason to believe, from information given us by the Indians, that the smoke was raised as a decoy by a Crow war party.
Evening was coming on, and there was no wood or water nearer than the foot of the mountains. So thither we turned, directing our course toward the point where Laramie Creek issues forth upon the prairie. When we reached it the bare tops of the mountains were still brightened with sunshine. The little river was breaking with a vehement and angry current from its dark prison. There was something in the near vicinity of the mountains, in the loud surging of the rapids, wonderfully cheering and exhilarating; for although once as familiar as home itself, they had been for months strangers to my experience. There was a rich grass-plot by the river's bank, surrounded by low ridges, which would effectually screen ourselves and our fire from the sight of wandering Indians. Here among the grass I observed numerous circles of large stones, which, as Raymond said, were traces of a Dakota winter encampment. We lay down and did not awake till the sun was up. A large rock projected from the shore, and behind it the deep water was slowly eddying round and round. The temptation was irresistible. I threw off my clothes, leaped in, suffered myself to be borne once round with the current, and then, seizing the strong root of a water plant, drew myself to the shore. The effect was so invigorating and refreshing that I mistook it for returning health. "Pauline," thought I, as I led the little mare up to be saddled, "only thrive as I do, and you and I will have sport yet among the buffalo beyond these mountains." But scarcely were we mounted and on our way before the momentary glow passed. Again I hung as usual in my seat, scarcely able to hold myself erect.
"Look yonder," said Raymond; "you see that big hollow there; the Indians must have gone that way, if they went anywhere about here."
We reached the gap, which was like a deep notch cut into the mountain ridge, and here we soon discerned an ant-hill furrowed with the mark of a lodge-pole. This was quite enough; there could be no doubt now. As we rode on, the opening growing narrower, the Indians had been compelled to march in closer order, and the traces became numerous and distinct. The gap terminated in a rocky gateway, leading into a rough passage upward, between two precipitous mountains. Here grass and weeds were bruised to fragments by the throng that had passed through. We moved slowly over the rocks, up the passage; and in this toilsome manner we advanced for an hour or two, bare precipices, hundreds of feet high, shooting up on either hand. Raymond, with his hardy mule, was a few rods before me, when we came to the foot of an ascent steeper than the rest, and which I trusted might prove the highest point of the defile. Pauline strained upward for a few yards, moaning and stumbling, and then came to a dead stop, unable to proceed further. I dismounted, and attempted to lead her; but my own exhausted strength soon gave out; so I loosened the trail-rope from her neck, and tying it round my arm, crawled up on my hands and knees. I gained the top, totally exhausted, the sweat drops trickling from my forehead. Pauline stood like a statue by my side, her shadow falling upon the scorching rock; and in this shade, for there was no other, I lay for some time, scarcely able to move a limb. All around the black crags, sharp as needles at the top, stood glowing in the sun, without a tree, or a bush, or a blade of grass, to cover their precipitous sides. The whole scene seemed parched with a pitiless, insufferable heat.
After a while I could mount again, and we moved on, descending the rocky defile on its western side. Thinking of that morning's journey, it has sometimes seemed to me that there was something ridiculous in my position; a man, armed to the teeth, but wholly unable to fight, and equally so to run away, traversing a dangerous wilderness, on a sick horse. But these thoughts were retrospective, for at the time I was in too grave a mood to entertain a very lively sense of the ludicrous.
Raymond's saddle-girth slipped; and while I proceeded he was stopping behind to repair the mischief. I came to the top of a little declivity, where a most welcome sight greeted my eye; a nook of fresh green grass nestled among the cliffs, sunny clumps of bushes on one side, and shaggy old pine trees leaning forward from the rocks on the other. A shrill, familiar voice saluted me, and recalled me to days of boyhood; that of the insect called the "locust" by New England schoolboys, which was fast clinging among the heated boughs of the old pine trees. Then, too, as I passed the bushes, the low sound of falling water reached my ear. Pauline turned of her own accord, and pushing through the boughs we found a black rock, over-arched by the cool green canopy. An icy stream was pouring from its side into a wide basin of white sand, from whence it had no visible outlet, but filtered through into the soil below. While I filled a tin cup at the spring, Pauline was eagerly plunging her head deep in the pool. Other visitors had been there before us. All around in the soft soil were the footprints of elk, deer, and the Rocky Mountain sheep; and the grizzly bear too had left the recent prints of his broad foot, with its frightful array of claws. Among these mountains was his home.
Soon after leaving the spring we found a little grassy plain, encircled by the mountains, and marked, to our great joy, with all the traces of an Indian camp. Raymond's practiced eye detected certain signs by which he recognized the spot where Reynal's lodge had been pitched and his horses picketed. I approached, and stood looking at the place. Reynal and I had, I believe, hardly a feeling in common. I disliked the fellow, and it perplexed me a good deal to understand why I should look with so much interest on the ashes of his fire, when between him and me there seemed no other bond of sympathy than the slender and precarious one of a kindred race.
In half an hour from this we were clear of the mountains. There was a plain before us, totally barren and thickly peopled in many parts with the little prairie dogs, who sat at the mouths of their burrows and yelped at us as we passed. The plain, as we thought, was about six miles wide; but it cost us two hours to cross it. Then another mountain range rose before us, grander and more wild than the last had been. Far out of the dense shrubbery that clothed the steeps for a thousand feet shot up black crags, all leaning one way, and shattered by storms and thunder into grim and threatening shapes. As we entered a narrow passage on the trail of the Indians, they impended frightfully on one side, above our heads.
Our course was through dense woods, in the shade and twinkling sunlight of overhanging boughs. I would I could recall to mind all the startling combinations that presented themselves, as winding from side to side of the passage, to avoid its obstructions, we could see, glancing at intervals through the foliage, the awful forms of the gigantic cliffs, that seemed at times to hem us in on the right and on the left, before us and behind! Another scene in a few moments greeted us; a tract of gray and sunny woods, broken into knolls and hollows, enlivened by birds and interspersed with flowers. Among the rest I recognized the mellow whistle of the robin, an old familiar friend whom I had scarce expected to meet in such a place. Humble-bees too were buzzing heavily about the flowers; and of these a species of larkspur caught my eye, more appropriate, it should seem, to cultivated gardens than to a remote wilderness. Instantly it recalled a multitude of dormant and delightful recollections.
Leaving behind us this spot and its associations, a sight soon presented itself, characteristic of that warlike region. In an open space, fenced in by high rocks, stood two Indian forts, of a square form, rudely built of sticks and logs. They were somewhat ruinous, having probably been constructed the year before. Each might have contained about twenty men. Perhaps in this gloomy spot some party had been beset by their enemies, and those scowling rocks and blasted trees might not long since have looked down on a conflict unchronicled and unknown. Yet if any traces of bloodshed remained they were completely hidden by the bushes and tall rank weeds.
Gradually the mountains drew apart, and the passage expanded into a plain, where again we found traces of an Indian encampment. There were trees and bushes just before us, and we stopped here for an hour's rest and refreshment. When we had finished our meal Raymond struck fire, and lighting his pipe, sat down at the foot of a tree to smoke. For some time I observed him puffing away with a face of unusual solemnity. Then slowly taking the pipe from his lips, he looked up and remarked that we had better not go any farther.
"Why not?" asked I.
He said that the country was becoming very dangerous, that we were entering the range of the Snakes, Arapahoes and Grosventre Blackfeet, and that if any of their wandering parties should meet us, it would cost us our lives; but he added, with a blunt fidelity that nearly reconciled me to his stupidity, that he would go anywhere I wished. I told him to bring up the animals, and mounting them we proceeded again. I confess that, as we moved forward, the prospect seemed but a dreary and doubtful one. I would have given the world for my ordinary elasticity of body and mind, and for a horse of such strength and spirit as the journey required.
Closer and closer the rocks gathered round us, growing taller and steeper, and pressing more and more upon our path. We entered at length a defile which I never had seen rivaled. The mountain was cracked from top to bottom, and we were creeping along the bottom of the fissure, in dampness and gloom, with the clink of hoofs on the loose shingly rocks, and the hoarse murmuring of a petulant brook which kept us company. Sometimes the water, foaming among the stones, overspread the whole narrow passage; sometimes, withdrawing to one side, it gave us room to pass dry-shod. Looking up, we could see a narrow ribbon of bright blue sky between the dark edges of the opposing cliffs. This did not last long. The passage soon widened, and sunbeams found their way down, flashing upon the black waters. The defile would spread out to many rods in width; bushes, trees, and flowers would spring by the side of the brook; the cliffs would be feathered with shrubbery, that clung in every crevice, and fringed with trees, that grew along their sunny edges. Then we would be moving again in the darkness. The passage seemed about four miles long, and before we reached the end of it, the unshod hoofs of our animals were lamentably broken, and their legs cut by the sharp stones. Issuing from the mountain we found another plain. All around it stood a circle of lofty precipices, that seemed the impersonation of silence and solitude. Here again the Indians had encamped, as well they might, after passing with their women, children and horses through the gulf behind us. In one day we had made a journey which had cost them three to accomplish.
The only outlet to this amphitheater lay over a hill some two hundred feet high, up which we moved with difficulty. Looking from the top, we saw that at last we were free of the mountains. The prairie spread before us, but so wild and broken that the view was everywhere obstructed. Far on our left one tall hill swelled up against the sky, on the smooth, pale green surface of which four slowly moving black specks were discernible. They were evidently buffalo, and we hailed the sight as a good augury; for where the buffalo were, there too the Indians would probably be found. We hoped on that very night to reach the village. We were anxious to do so for a double reason, wishing to bring our wearisome journey to an end, and knowing, moreover, that though to enter the village in broad daylight would be a perfectly safe experiment, yet to encamp in its vicinity would be dangerous. But as we rode on, the sun was sinking, and soon was within half an hour of the horizon. We ascended a hill and looked round us for a spot for our encampment. The prairie was like a turbulent ocean, suddenly congealed when its waves were at the highest, and it lay half in light and half in shadow, as the rich sunshine, yellow as gold, was pouring over it. The rough bushes of the wild sage were growing everywhere, its dull pale green overspreading hill and hollow. Yet a little way before us, a bright verdant line of grass was winding along the plain, and here and there throughout its course water was glistening darkly. We went down to it, kindled a fire, and turned our horses loose to feed. It was a little trickling brook, that for some yards on either bank turned the barren prairie into fertility, and here and there it spread into deep pools, where the beaver had dammed it up.
We placed our last remaining piece of the antelope before a scanty fire, mournfully reflecting on our exhausted stock of provisions. Just then an enormous gray hare, peculiar to these prairies, came jumping along, and seated himself within fifty yards to look at us. I thoughtlessly raised my rifle to shoot him, but Raymond called out to me not to fire for fear the report should reach the ears of the Indians. That night for the first time we considered that the danger to which we were exposed was of a somewhat serious character; and to those who are unacquainted with Indians, it may seem strange that our chief apprehensions arose from the supposed proximity of the people whom we intended to visit. Had any straggling party of these faithful friends caught sight of us from the hill-top, they would probably have returned in the night to plunder us of our horses and perhaps of our scalps. But we were on the prairie, where the GENIUS LOCI is at war with all nervous apprehensions; and I presume that neither Raymond nor I thought twice of the matter that evening.
While he was looking after the animals, I sat by the fire engaged in the novel task of baking bread. The utensils were of the most simple and primitive kind, consisting of two sticks inclining over the bed of coals, one end thrust into the ground while the dough was twisted in a spiral form round the other. Under such circumstances all the epicurean in a man's nature is apt to awaken within him. I revisited in fancy the far distant abodes of good fare, not indeed Frascati's, or the Trois Freres Provencaux, for that were too extreme a flight; but no other than the homely table of my old friend and host, Tom Crawford, of the White Mountains. By a singular revulsion, Tom himself, whom I well remember to have looked upon as the impersonation of all that is wild and backwoodsman-like, now appeared before me as the ministering angel of comfort and good living. Being fatigued and drowsy I began to doze, and my thoughts, following the same train of association, assumed another form. Half-dreaming, I saw myself surrounded with the mountains of New England, alive with water-falls, their black crags tinctured with milk-white mists. For this reverie I paid a speedy penalty; for the bread was black on one side and soft on the other.
For eight hours Raymond and I, pillowed on our saddles, lay insensible as logs. Pauline's yellow head was stretched over me when I awoke. I got up and examined her. Her feet indeed were bruised and swollen by the accidents of yesterday, but her eye was brighter, her motions livelier, and her mysterious malady had visibly abated. We moved on, hoping within an hour to come in sight of the Indian village; but again disappointment awaited us. The trail disappeared, melting away upon a hard and stony plain. Raymond and I separating, rode from side to side, scrutinizing every yard of ground, until at length I discerned traces of the lodge-poles passing by the side of a ridge of rocks. We began again to follow them.
"What is that black spot out there on the prairie?"
"It looks like a dead buffalo," answered Raymond.
We rode out to it, and found it to be the huge carcass of a bull killed by the Indians as they had passed. Tangled hair and scraps of hide were scattered all around, for the wolves had been making merry over it, and had hollowed out the entire carcass. It was covered with myriads of large black crickets, and from its appearance must certainly have lain there for four or five days. The sight was a most disheartening one, and I observed to Raymond that the Indians might still be fifty or sixty miles before us. But he shook his head, and replied that they dared not go so far for fear of their enemies, the Snakes.
Soon after this we lost the trail again, and ascended a neighboring ridge, totally at a loss. Before us lay a plain perfectly flat, spreading on the right and left, without apparent limit, and bounded in front by a long broken line of hills, ten or twelve miles distant. All was open and exposed to view, yet not a buffalo nor an Indian was visible.
"Do you see that?" said Raymond; "Now we had better turn round."
But as Raymond's bourgeois thought otherwise, we descended the hill and began to cross the plain. We had come so far that I knew perfectly well neither Pauline's limbs nor my own could carry me back to Fort Laramie. I considered that the lines of expediency and inclination tallied exactly, and that the most prudent course was to keep forward. The ground immediately around us was thickly strewn with the skulls and bones of buffalo, for here a year or two before the Indians had made a "surround"; yet no living game presented itself. At length, however, an antelope sprang up and gazed at us. We fired together, and by a singular fatality we both missed, although the animal stood, a fair mark, within eighty yards. This ill success might perhaps be charged to our own eagerness, for by this time we had no provision left except a little flour. We could discern several small lakes, or rather extensive pools of water, glistening in the distance. As we approached them, wolves and antelopes bounded away through the tall grass that grew in their vicinity, and flocks of large white plover flew screaming over their surface. Having failed of the antelope, Raymond tried his hand at the birds with the same ill success. The water also disappointed us. Its muddy margin was so beaten up by the crowd of buffalo that our timorous animals were afraid to approach. So we turned away and moved toward the hills. The rank grass, where it was not trampled down by the buffalo, fairly swept our horses' necks.
Again we found the same execrable barren prairie offering no clew by which to guide our way. As we drew near the hills an opening appeared, through which the Indians must have gone if they had passed that way at all. Slowly we began to ascend it. I felt the most dreary forebodings of ill success, when on looking round I could discover neither dent of hoof, nor footprint, nor trace of lodge-pole, though the passage was encumbered by the ghastly skulls of buffalo. We heard thunder muttering; a storm was coming on.
As we gained the top of the gap, the prospect beyond began to disclose itself. First, we saw a long dark line of ragged clouds upon the horizon, while above them rose the peak of the Medicine-Bow, the vanguard of the Rocky Mountains; then little by little the plain came into view, a vast green uniformity, forlorn and tenantless, though Laramie Creek glistened in a waving line over its surface, without a bush or a tree upon its banks. As yet, the round projecting shoulder of a hill intercepted a part of the view. I rode in advance, when suddenly I could distinguish a few dark spots on the prairie, along the bank of the stream.
"Buffalo!" said I. Then a sudden hope flashed upon me, and eagerly and anxiously I looked again.
"Horses!" exclaimed Raymond, with a tremendous oath, lashing his mule forward as he spoke. More and more of the plain disclosed itself, and in rapid succession more and more horses appeared, scattered along the river bank, or feeding in bands over the prairie. Then, suddenly, standing in a circle by the stream, swarming with their savage inhabitants, we saw rising before us the tall lodges of the Ogallalla. Never did the heart of wanderer more gladden at the sight of home than did mine at the sight of those wild habitations!
THE OGALLALLA VILLAGE
Such a narrative as this is hardly the place for portraying the mental features of the Indians. The same picture, slightly changed in shade and coloring, would serve with very few exceptions for all the tribes that lie north of the Mexican territories. But with this striking similarity in their modes of thought, the tribes of the lake and ocean shores, of the forests and of the plains, differ greatly in their manner of life. Having been domesticated for several weeks among one of the wildest of the wild hordes that roam over the remote prairies, I had extraordinary opportunities of observing them, and I flatter myself that a faithful picture of the scenes that passed daily before my eyes may not be devoid of interest and value. These men were thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilization. They knew nothing of the power and real character of the white men, and their children would scream in terror at the sight of me. Their religion, their superstitions, and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with and wore the same rude garments of skins.
Great changes are at hand in that region. With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must be broken and scattered. The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky, and overawed by military posts; so that within a few years the traveler may pass in tolerable security through their country. Its danger and its charm will have disappeared together.
As soon as Raymond and I discovered the village from the gap in the hills, we were seen in our turn; keen eyes were constantly on the watch. As we rode down upon the plain the side of the village nearest us was darkened with a crowd of naked figures gathering around the lodges. Several men came forward to meet us. I could distinguish among them the green blanket of the Frenchman Reynal. When we came up the ceremony of shaking hands had to be gone through with in due form, and then all were eager to know what had become of the rest of my party. I satisfied them on this point, and we all moved forward together toward the village.
"You've missed it," said Reynal; "if you'd been here day before yesterday, you'd have found the whole prairie over yonder black with buffalo as far as you could see. There were no cows, though; nothing but bulls. We made a 'surround' every day till yesterday. See the village there; don't that look like good living?"
In fact I could see, even at that distance, that long cords were stretched from lodge to lodge, over which the meat, cut by the squaws into thin sheets, was hanging to dry in the sun. I noticed too that the village was somewhat smaller than when I had last seen it, and I asked Reynal the cause. He said that the old Le Borgne had felt too weak to pass over the mountains, and so had remained behind with all his relations, including Mahto-Tatonka and his brothers. The Whirlwind too had been unwilling to come so far, because, as Reynal said, he was afraid. Only half a dozen lodges had adhered to him, the main body of the village setting their chief's authority at naught, and taking the course most agreeable to their inclinations.
"What chiefs are there in the village now?" said I.
"Well," said Reynal, "there's old Red-Water, and the Eagle-Feather, and the Big Crow, and the Mad Wolf and the Panther, and the White Shield, and—what's his name?—the half-breed Cheyenne."
By this time we were close to the village, and I observed that while the greater part of the lodges were very large and neat in their appearance, there was at one side a cluster of squalid, miserable huts. I looked toward them, and made some remark about their wretched appearance. But I was touching upon delicate ground.
"My squaw's relations live in those lodges," said Reynal very warmly, "and there isn't a better set in the whole village."
"Are there any chiefs among them?" asked I.
"Chiefs?" said Reynal; "yes, plenty!"
"What are their names?" I inquired.
"Their names? Why, there's the Arrow-Head. If he isn't a chief he ought to be one. And there's the Hail-Storm. He's nothing but a boy, to be sure; but he's bound to be a chief one of these days!"
Just then we passed between two of the lodges, and entered the great area of the village. Superb naked figures stood silently gazing on us.
"Where's the Bad Wound's lodge?" said I to Reynal.
"There, you've missed it again! The Bad Wound is away with The Whirlwind. If you could have found him here, and gone to live in his lodge, he would have treated you better than any man in the village. But there's the Big Crow's lodge yonder, next to old Red-Water's. He's a good Indian for the whites, and I advise you to go and live with him."
"Are there many squaws and children in his lodge?" said I.
"No; only one squaw and two or three children. He keeps the rest in a separate lodge by themselves."
So, still followed by a crowd of Indians, Raymond and I rode up to the entrance of the Big Crow's lodge. A squaw came out immediately and took our horses. I put aside the leather nap that covered the low opening, and stooping, entered the Big Crow's dwelling. There I could see the chief in the dim light, seated at one side, on a pile of buffalo robes. He greeted me with a guttural "How, cola!" I requested Reynal to tell him that Raymond and I were come to live with him. The Big Crow gave another low exclamation. If the reader thinks that we were intruding somewhat cavalierly, I beg him to observe that every Indian in the village would have deemed himself honored that white men should give such preference to his hospitality.
The squaw spread a buffalo robe for us in the guest's place at the head of the lodge. Our saddles were brought in, and scarcely were we seated upon them before the place was thronged with Indians, who came crowding in to see us. The Big Crow produced his pipe and filled it with the mixture of tobacco and shongsasha, or red willow bark. Round and round it passed, and a lively conversation went forward. Meanwhile a squaw placed before the two guests a wooden bowl of boiled buffalo meat, but unhappily this was not the only banquet destined to be inflicted on us. Rapidly, one after another, boys and young squaws thrust their heads in at the opening, to invite us to various feasts in different parts of the village. For half an hour or more we were actively engaged in passing from lodge to lodge, tasting in each of the bowl of meat set before us, and inhaling a whiff or two from our entertainer's pipe. A thunderstorm that had been threatening for some time now began in good earnest. We crossed over to Reynal's lodge, though it hardly deserved this name, for it consisted only of a few old buffalo robes, supported on poles, and was quite open on one side. Here we sat down, and the Indians gathered round us.
"What is it," said I, "that makes the thunder?"
"It's my belief," said Reynal, "that it is a big stone rolling over the sky."
"Very likely," I replied; "but I want to know what the Indians think about it."
So he interpreted my question, which seemed to produce some doubt and debate. There was evidently a difference of opinion. At last old Mene-Seela, or Red-Water, who sat by himself at one side, looked up with his withered face, and said he had always known what the thunder was. It was a great black bird; and once he had seen it, in a dream, swooping down from the Black Hills, with its loud roaring wings; and when it flapped them over a lake, they struck lightning from the water.
"The thunder is bad," said another old man, who sat muffled in his buffalo robe; "he killed my brother last summer."
Reynal, at my request, asked for an explanation; but the old man remained doggedly silent, and would not look up. Some time after I learned how the accident occurred. The man who was killed belonged to an association which, among other mystic functions, claimed the exclusive power and privilege of fighting the thunder. Whenever a storm which they wished to avert was threatening, the thunder-fighters would take their bows and arrows, their guns, their magic drum, and a sort of whistle, made out of the wingbone of the war eagle. Thus equipped, they would run out and fire at the rising cloud, whooping, yelling, whistling, and beating their drum, to frighten it down again. One afternoon a heavy black cloud was coming up, and they repaired to the top of a hill, where they brought all their magic artillery into play against it. But the undaunted thunder, refusing to be terrified, kept moving straight onward, and darted out a bright flash which struck one of the party dead, as he was in the very act of shaking his long iron-pointed lance against it. The rest scattered and ran yelling in an ecstasy of superstitious terror back to their lodges.
The lodge of my host Kongra-Tonga, or the Big Crow, presented a picturesque spectacle that evening. A score or more of Indians were seated around in a circle, their dark naked forms just visible by the dull light of the smoldering fire in the center, the pipe glowing brightly in the gloom as it passed from hand to hand round the lodge. Then a squaw would drop a piece of buffalo-fat on the dull embers. Instantly a bright glancing flame would leap up, darting its clear light to the very apex of the tall conical structure, where the tops of the slender poles that supported its covering of leather were gathered together. It gilded the features of the Indians, as with animated gestures they sat around it, telling their endless stories of war and hunting. It displayed rude garments of skins that hung around the lodge; the bow, quiver, and lance suspended over the resting-place of the chief, and the rifles and powder-horns of the two white guests. For a moment all would be bright as day; then the flames would die away, and fitful flashes from the embers would illumine the lodge, and then leave it in darkness. Then all the light would wholly fade, and the lodge and all within it be involved again in obscurity.
As I left the lodge next morning, I was saluted by howling and yelling from all around the village, and half its canine population rushed forth to the attack. Being as cowardly as they were clamorous, they kept jumping around me at the distance of a few yards, only one little cur, about ten inches long, having spirit enough to make a direct assault. He dashed valiantly at the leather tassel which in the Dakota fashion was trailing behind the heel of my moccasin, and kept his hold, growling and snarling all the while, though every step I made almost jerked him over on his back. As I knew that the eyes of the whole village were on the watch to see if I showed any sign of apprehension, I walked forward without looking to the right or left, surrounded wherever I went by this magic circle of dogs. When I came to Reynal's lodge I sat down by it, on which the dogs dispersed growling to their respective quarters. Only one large white one remained, who kept running about before me and showing his teeth. I called him, but he only growled the more. I looked at him well. He was fat and sleek; just such a dog as I wanted. "My friend," thought I, "you shall pay for this! I will have you eaten this very morning!"
I intended that day to give the Indians a feast, by way of conveying a favorable impression of my character and dignity; and a white dog is the dish which the customs of the Dakota prescribe for all occasions of formality and importance. I consulted Reynal; he soon discovered that an old woman in the next lodge was owner of the white dog. I took a gaudy cotton handkerchief, and laying it on the ground, arranged some vermilion, beads, and other trinkets upon it. Then the old squaw was summoned. I pointed to the dog and to the handkerchief. She gave a scream of delight, snatched up the prize, and vanished with it into her lodge. For a few more trifles I engaged the services of two other squaws, each of whom took the white dog by one of his paws, and led him away behind the lodges, while he kept looking up at them with a face of innocent surprise. Having killed him they threw him into a fire to singe; then chopped him up and put him into two large kettles to boil. Meanwhile I told Raymond to fry in buffalo-fat what little flour we had left, and also to make a kettle of tea as an additional item of the repast.
The Big Crow's squaw was set briskly at work sweeping out the lodge for the approaching festivity. I confided to my host himself the task of inviting the guests, thinking that I might thereby shift from my own shoulders the odium of fancied neglect and oversight.
When feasting is in question, one hour of the day serves an Indian as well as another. My entertainment came off about eleven o'clock. At that hour, Reynal and Raymond walked across the area of the village, to the admiration of the inhabitants, carrying the two kettles of dog-meat slung on a pole between them. These they placed in the center of the lodge, and then went back for the bread and the tea. Meanwhile I had put on a pair of brilliant moccasins, and substituted for my old buckskin frock a coat which I had brought with me in view of such public occasions. I also made careful use of the razor, an operation which no man will neglect who desires to gain the good opinion of Indians. Thus attired, I seated myself between Reynal and Raymond at the head of the lodge. Only a few minutes elapsed before all the guests had come in and were seated on the ground, wedged together in a close circle around the lodge. Each brought with him a wooden bowl to hold his share of the repast. When all were assembled, two of the officials called "soldiers" by the white men, came forward with ladles made of the horn of the Rocky Mountain sheep, and began to distribute the feast, always assigning a double share to the old men and chiefs. The dog vanished with astonishing celerity, and each guest turned his dish bottom upward to show that all was gone. Then the bread was distributed in its turn, and finally the tea. As the soldiers poured it out into the same wooden bowls that had served for the substantial part of the meal, I thought it had a particularly curious and uninviting color.