Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 9
IN THE MEDICINE LODGE
WHEN Lander came to his senses he was hanging across a pony, unable to move a limb, and the rapid motion of the animal caused him exquisite torment. His head felt as if it were about to burst and he tried to twist it up to relieve the blood-pressure.
There was the sound of many horses around him and it was night. There was a great roaring in his ears that was not made by nature or his unseen companions.
Finally he caught the guttural voices of Indians and vaguely comprehended his plight. Phinny had shot Porker; then the Indians came from ambush and knocked them in the head. Whether Phinny was a captive or dead he had no idea.
The Crows would rob white men but were loath to kill them. The fact he had been struck down by some blunt instrument and not permanently harmed suggested Crows as his captors. But he could not believe they were from Black Arrow's band. The chief expected him to winter with the tribe and would gain nothing by making him a prisoner.
Also there were Nez Percés, Flatheads and Snakes in and about the rendezvous; but these tribes were friendly with the whites and seldom bothered them even when engaged in tribal wars. This left the Blackfeet, who were known to be gathered near the Three Tetons in great numbers, and who doubtless were sending small bands down the Sweetwater and Green to pick off stray victims.
He decided he must be in the power of the Siksika, or Blackfeet. Even a store-man in St. Louis must know the history of this tribe's unrelenting hatred for Americans. The bulk of Kit Carson's Indian fights were with these people. The Sioux tribes and their treacherous tenants, the Aricaras, were bad enough, but with these tribes there were lulls—peaceful intervals when boats ascended the river without being attacked.
Not so with the Blackfeet. To meet an American band of trappers was the signal for battle. They carried their trade to the H. B. posts in Canada, or turned it over to outposts below the national boundary line. With the Americans they would have nothing but war.
Bridger and his associates usually spoke of their country as the "butcher-shop," and what beaver was taken above the Milk was usually accompanied by running fights—the white men retreating.
If the Blackfeet denied themselves trade privileges with the American traders they were never tempted, as were the Assiniboins, to exchange all their robes for diluted alcohol in weather when Indians ponies froze to death standing up. If they lost warriors by white men's bullets, they lost less than many other tribes did through disease. Lander knew if he was a captive of this terrible people he stood no chance of being adopted or ransomed, but must die beneath all the torture his captors' hideous ingenuity could provide.
He groaned dismally, and instantly a hand rested on his neck. Soon the ponies came to a halt and he was untied from his mount and dumped on the ground like a pack of skins. With the breath knocked from his body and in imminent danger of being trampled on in the darkness, still he felt immeasurably better as the blood cleared from his head.
No attention was given him except as some man ran his fingers over his person to make sure the thongs were secure. Next the ponies were led to one side and the warriors threw themselves on the ground, and the camp became quiet. Lander worked at his bonds only to find the slightest movement brought a hand fumbling at the knots.
As he persisted the edge of a knife was placed against his throat. After this threat he remained very quiet. Despite his fears and tortured position he dozed off at last, and when much commotion aroused him it was early morning and his captors were preparing to resume their journey.
The expedition was in command of the Blackfeet military organization, the Ikunuhkahtsi—All Comrades—and the strictest obedience was given the orders of the leader. This man was short and thick-set, and wore several necklaces of grizzly-bear teeth.
No attention was paid the prisoner until after the men had eaten. Then he was jerked to his feet and thrown astride a horse. Neither food nor water was offered him.
Once he had gazed about, his stomach revolted at the thought of food. Around the necks of several horses, and including his own mount, were tied the freshly severed hands and feet of Indians. The band had been in a fight with some of the plains tribes and were bringing home the trophies. The leader carried a tall lance, and tied to the top of this were several scalps. They rode due north toward the Gros Ventres Range, making for the heart of the mountains. Suffering horribly from thirst but not daring to ask for water, Lander clenched his teeth and stared straight ahead, trying to hold his head high that his gaze might escape the gruesome decorations around his pony's neck.
Although he did not know it this bearing favorably impressed his captors, who interpreted it as the index of a high and haughty spirit. Had they realized it was due to a weak heart and faint stomach they probably would have slain him on the spot.
At midday they halted at a waterhole and a warrior held up a leather bucket filled to the brim, and motioned for Lander to drink. As he eagerly accepted the invitation the bucket was placed upside down on his head. He fell from his horse and nearly choked to death. The joke was hailed with much laughter.
Desperate and only anxious to have it quickly over with, Lander forgot to be afraid, and bowing his head he butted his tormentor in the face, smashing his nose and lips and hurling him into the hole. The savage scrambled out and came at him with drawn knife. The leader yelled an order and several braves seized the infuriated man and held him back.
Then another warrior filled the bucket and allowed Lander to drink. In all his life he had never known such exquisite pleasure as when the ice-cold water filled his parched and feverish throat. Some jerked meat was next offered him, but he was unable to eat with his arms strapped to his sides.
The leader again spoke, and his cramped limbs were released. He had thought it impossible to eat fresh bull-meat in Bridger's camp; now he made short work of long strings of tough, bark-like substance. As he bolted the leathery ration he discovered he could look on the ghastly trophies without feeling squeamish.
He rode the whole afternoon without any great discomfort. Now that he had eaten and drunk he began to scheme to escape. They had deprived him of his rifle and belt, the latter containing a short skinning-knife. But they had not thought to remove his boots, and Papa Clair's long gift blade still reposed in its scabbard.
The day's journey terminated once the band had passed through a narrow cañon and had entered a circular pocket several miles in diameter. Here seemed to be a permanent camp, possibly the advance of the main body of the Three Tetons, seeking small bands of trappers before returning to the home country at the sources of the Missouri. That they had no fears of surprise attacks was shown by their relaxation once they came up to the skin tents, where the women rushed out to greet them.
The scalps were given to the squaws to dance and trample upon. The trophies were removed from the horses and elevated upon lances and poles and became centers of much derisive attention. The squaws attempted to get at Lander but were bundled aside by the men. He was unceremoniously thrown to the ground and pegged out in spread-eagle fashion.
After the kettles of meat had cooked, two warriors released his arms and allowed him to sit up to eat. He found the meat tender and savory despite the lack of salt. Suddenly become a fatalist, he decided he would die on a full stomach, and quickly devoured a large quantity. He was allowed to drink, then was thrown and pegged out.
While sitting up he had gained a glimpse of the camp and saw it was a large one. The leather tents were uniform in size and pattern. Directly behind him, and so near he could almost touch it with his outstretched hand, was an unusually large lodge, oblong in shape.
Night came abruptly to the pocket. Numerous small fires were lighted. Lander was watching the silhouettes pass between him and the fires when he was startled to hear a voice near his head sigh, "Alas, m'sieur!"
"Papa Clair!" he softly ejaculated.
"Baptiste Gardepied—talk French?"
Lander eagerly asked in French, "What will they do with me, M'sieu Gardepied?"
"To-morrow. It will be very sad and cruel. May the Old Man give you strength."
"But you are not an Indian. What do you do here? Where are you?"
"I am in the big medicine-lodge. My mother was an Arapaho, my father a French trader. The Arapahoes are friends to the Blackfeet. I married a Blackfoot woman. I have worked at Fort Union, but came here when Deschamps and his rascal sons said they would kill me.
"The Blackfeet say it was Deschamps who brought them down on you. He met one of their scouts and said he would make a smoke signal to show your camp."
"Deschamps? He betrayed me to the Indians? He was guiding Malcom Phinny——"
"Ah, M'sieu Phinny! He is one bad one. He is now at Fort Union, but he brought much news of Bridger. The A. F. C. do not like M'sieu Bridger's way of getting the beaver. If I were M'sieu Bridger I would never walk ahead of a Deschamps or a Rem."
"But if Deschamps betrayed me, then Phinny betrayed me," gasped Lander.
"But why not? Does M'sieu Phinny love you? When he came to Fort Union he was quick to get thick with Deschamps. It is said he will marry one of the old man's wildcat daughters when he returns to the fort."
"You must get me out of this," gritted Lander.
"It is my life if they know I cut your cords. It may be death if they knew I was in the medicine-tent. Not even the warriors dare come in here where they keep the sacred bundles. And if I cut you free you will be taken again."
"I have a knife in my boot. I know how to use it. I can die fighting and not at the hands of a squaw."
"Psst! Be quiet—some one comes."
Lander saw the figure approaching from one of the fires. The man dropped at his side and examined his bonds and made sure the pegs were holding. Then he rose and with a guttural exclamation struck the prisoner in the face. He hesitated after the blow, muttered fiercely, then turned back to the fire.
"Curse him!" panted Lander through his bloody lips.
"He says you broke his nose," whispered Gardepied. "And—well, we shall see what we shall see. It will be better to die fighting, of course. Oh, much better!"
"What else did he say?" demanded Lander.
"He spoke of the green rawhide torture. As it dries it shrinks and holds like iron. They fasten the stone heads on their war-clubs with it. It is all too cruel to talk about. I am part Arapaho—I marry a Blackfoot woman. But I remember I am half white.
"Yes, it is much better for you to die fighting, m'sieu. The white blood in me says I must give you that chance."
"Then in God's mercy cut these cords," panted Lander, beginning a useless struggle.
"What would you have? Death now? Wait a bit. I must leave the medicine-tent and go to the fire and show myself and then go to my lodge. They will think I have turned in for the night.
"Then I will come back and reach from under the flap of the tent and cut your arms free. I can not reach your legs, but you say you have a knife. Use it, and make for the hole through the hills. I fear you will not get far, but knowing what I know, you will have much to thank Baptiste Gardepied for when you go down fighting."
"Do not fail me," mumbled Lander.
The breed no longer talked and Lander knew the medicine-lodge was empty. He closed his eyes and fell to thinking of Susette. Then came thoughts of Papa Clair, his friend; of Jim Bridger, generous and kind.
It was all clear to him now. Phinny had played him false, and had planned to do so from the start. Porker was in the scheme, and Phinny had killed him to prevent his tattling the truth.
Deschamps had joined the three white men and it was his hand that had reached from the bushes and struck Lander senseless. They had left him tied in the trail for the Blackfeet to find and kill by inches.
The groups about the fires sang and danced, or listened to some warrior reciting his coups. None of the squaws ventured near the prisoner; he was being saved for the morrow's sport. At regular intervals a brave would examine his bonds.
He waited more than an hour for Gardepied to return; then exhaustion overcame him and he dozed. He was always conscious of the thongs tugging at his arms and legs, and yet he slept and woke up and slept again. After one troubled nap he opened his eyes and realized he had slumbered for some time.
Gray mists were rising from the pocket, and the tops of the western peaks were reflecting the first lights of dawn. With terrible dismay he realized the night had passed and that Gardepied had not given him his chance to die fighting.
He rolled his head in hope of glimpsing the form of the breed stealthily making a belated approach. With the exception of a dozen guards, who sat muffled in their blankets, the camp still slept.
As Lander rolled his head from side to side he was obsessed by the absurd fancy that a bush moved a few feet. He knew this was his imagination, yet he marked the position of the bush well before glancing to the opposite side.
Once more he saw a bush glide ahead. The miracle had happened on his right and left. He darted his gaze back to the first bush, and most surely it was advancing, or else he was out of his head. Not only that but bushes throughout the level floor of the pocket were shifting their positions.
One of the guards let his blanket fall to his loins and stared earnestly over the eastern side of the pocket. It was as if he had sensed danger. As the chill of early morning struck home he gathered the blanket about him and by degrees his head sank on his chest again.
Lander thrilled in anticipation of something about to happen. The floor of the pocket was dotted with isolated clumps of bushes and those growing singly. On both the west and east the miracle was being repeated and bushes advanced closer about the camp circle.
It came as soft as the murmuring of the morning breeze.
Lander shook his head to show he was awake.
"Do not move when I cut the thong," came the warning.
Then the horrible drag on his right arm ceased, and he no longer felt as if it were being pulled from the socket. And, oh, the luxury of feeling it relax—of feeling the blood prickling through the veins to revive the benumbed hand! It required all his will power to refrain from flexing the muscles and hugging the outraged limb to his side.
But the guard was out of his blanket again and staring curiously over the plain. It seemed ages before he slipped back into his blanket. Then the heavenly relaxation of his left arm marked the completion of Gardepied's charity, or response to the call of his white blood.Working his fingers until he had ousted the prickly sensation, Lander darted his right hand to his boot and pulled his knife. Rising and bending half double, he slashed twice and lay back, his legs free.
"Napi, the Old Man, help us! The bushes move!" gasped the voice of the breed.
A guard rose up, threw aside his blanket and stared sharply over the plain. Something caught his attention and he bent forward to scrutinize it more closely.
He straightened and threw back his head, but the streak through the air, beginning at the nearest bush and ending in his throat, permitted only a gasping, gurgling cry to escape his lips. However, another guard saw him fall with the arrow through his neck and yelled an alarm.
Instantly the bushes rose in the air, revealing human forms beneath them—warriors with bushes tied to their heads. A cloud of arrows hissed into camp and stung the sleepers, biting several to death; and the hoarse war-cry of the Crows completed the camp's dismay. On the west side of the pocket commenced the same mode of attack, while down at the mouth of the narrow cañon sounded the loud battle yell of white men.
With a backward squirm Lander gained the side of the medicine-lodge and raising a flap rolled inside. He heard a noise on the opposite side of the lodge, but could see nothing as the interior of the place was piled high with packs. Passing round the barrier he saw a flap fall in place, and peering out beheld the breed running north and away from the fighting.
Returning to the south side of the lodge, Lander cut a slit in the wall and beheld the camp in an uproar. The surprise attack had for a few minutes thrown the Blackfeet into a panic. Now they were recovering their morale. Some rushed to gather in the horses, but were beaten back by many arrows. On both sides the Crows began to increase the pressure.
The Blackfeet in two long lines faced in two directions. Their chief rode up and down between the lines, exhorting his men to die like warriors. The squaws, very demons, rushed back and forth, bringing fresh quivers, or darting out and dragging their wounded tribesmen inside the lines.
The Crows were now on the ground, still masked by the bushes. The Blackfeet ceased to fall back. One line suddenly rushed ahead, and Lander's heart jumped violently as he beheld the front of the bushes drawing back. But before the Blackfeet could score any advantage a flying mass of trappers struck the tips of the double lines, their rifles and pistols reechoing viciously.
Some of the squaws managed to bring up a few horses at the risk of their lives, and warriors mounted these and rode down to slow up the advance of the whites. One old hag with her gray hair streaming in the morning breeze remembered the prisoner, and with eldritch shrieks darted around the medicine-lodge with a knife in her skinny hand and dropped on her knees and raised the blade. She stared at the empty ground stupidly, then cried out with such malignant intensity as to make Lander's blood curdle.
Other women rushed up. Lander passed to the other side of the tent, thinking to escape, but found the Blackfeet in retreating had cut him off. The big lodge occupied the middle of the battle-ground and was now entirely surrounded. Turning to the packs and working with desperate vigor, Lander rearranged them in a high breastwork around him. As he finished the barricade the lodge coverings began to vanish as mounted horsemen paused long enough to salvage the sacred hides.
An Indian with a swollen nose glimpsed Lander's head disappearing behind the packs, and with a howl of fury climbed up the barrier, a war-ax in his hand. For a few seconds the brave endured the white man's masterly knife-play, chopping ineffectively, then went down at the foot of the barricade and dreamed no more of battle.
Others of the Blackfeet had witnessed the brief duel, but there was none who had time to attack the prisoner. Now that his hiding-place was discovered Lander recklessly showed himself and waved his arms and yelled:
"Papa Clair! Jim Bridger! Jim Baker!"
"God is good!" cried Papa Clair, swerving his horse between two bucks and making for the stack of packs. He rode with the reins in his teeth, almost with his knees in the saddle, a knife in each hand. And as he pressed forward he leaned far to right and left, his terrible knives etching a red trail. Emboldened by the coming of the whites, the Crows threw aside their head-coverings of bushes and advanced more boldly.
The Blackfeet were now awake to their danger and fought a vicious rear-guard action. Their chief was among the last to fall back. He kept taunting his enemies, and as his words were heard the Crows slightly lessened the impetuosity of their advance.
Papa Clair leaped from his horse, joined Lander behind the packs and interpreted: "The chief is telling us that there are eight hundred Blackfeet a short distance north of here, that they will soon come and give us all the fight we want."
"This crowd is licked!" joyously; cried Lander, hardly able to realize the sudden change in his fortunes.
"They're falling back in good order," corrected Papa Clair. "They even took the hide coverings of this, their medicine-lodge. By this time they've seen we have only thirty white men and that our Crows are losing stomach. We can't drive them far. Ah, hear the Crows! They've found the feet and hands of their people. The Blackfeet surprised a small party of Black Arrow's scouts and cut off their limbs. The Crows were on the trail when we overtook them.
"M'sieu Phinny and Deschamps brought us word of being attacked; of you and Porker being killed. M'sieu Baker had just come from the Snake camp. We came with what force we had."
"Where's Phinny and Deschamps?" asked Lander.
"Eh? Who knows? I gave them no thought once we got word you were killed."