Open main menu

CHAPTER XIX.


Anecdote of Capt. Bristol.—Surprise and Admiration of the Indians.—They Vote Him a Great Medicine.—Wonders of the Microscope.—Their Modes of Hunting.—Departure of Ojo Blanco.—Apache Dread of Disease.—The Influenza.—Apache Prophet.—His Dream and Interpretation—My Counter Dream and Interpretation.—Useful Services of Dr. Gwyther.—Faithfulness of Gian-nah-tah.—Necessity of Using Artifice.


Among the many unique incidents which occurred at Fort Sumner may be mentioned one, which had a great effect among the Indians gathered at that place. The Navajoes, who had become captives to the "pioneers" of the Column from California, numbered over nine thousand, including well known chiefs and distinguished warriors, women and children. The Apaches proper, who were in like condition, amounted to nearly fifteen hundred. This disparity is sufficient to prove the superior warlike character of the latter tribe; their invincible determination to "fight it out on that line," and their utter intractability. Capt. H. B. Bristol, Fifth United States Infantry, was one of those genial, kind-hearted and educated gentlemen who have the happy faculty of attaching all within the sphere of their acquaintance. A strict disciplinarian, and imbued with a deep-seated love for his profession, he possessed the tact of gaining the affections and confidence of his men, as well as their implicit obedience to order. The suaviter in modo et fortiter in re, for which he became distinguished in the command, gradually spread its influence among the Indians, who are ever ready to appreciate and recognize those characteristics which influence other men. In a short time his cabin became a popular resort among the nomads, who were delighted with his generosity, while he experienced a pleasure in studying their various attributes. Capt. Bristol frequently amused his friends by sticking pins and needles in various parts of his person, driving them in full length without appearing to suffer a particle of inconvenience. One afternoon, while his cabin was full of savages, he proceeded to peg his pantaloons fast to his thighs with pins, until an hundred or more were imbedded in his flesh, without drawing blood, or provoking any evidence of distress. The Apaches and Navajoes were filled with surprise and admiration, while the officers present pretended to be afflicted with anxiety. Having succeeded so far, Bristol deliberately opened his penknife, and thrust the blade alongside of the pins. He then invited the Indians to plunge their knives into his body, assuring them that it could do him no harm. This last coup de jonglerie completely upset all their doubts, and with one accord, they voted him to be a "great medicine." From that date his influence was very considerable, as they believed that he could not be slain by ordinary means. All this was done without ostentation, and in a purely natural manner. No attempt was made to impress the savage visitors with an idea of superiority, and they accorded their full homage and respect to the act. Had they been led to understand that some extraordinary ability of the white man was to be exhibited; had they been told that something was to be done in the "medicine" line excelling what they could do, they would have regarded the affair with distrust, suspicion and aversion; but it was so impromptu and unaffected that their confidence was won, and their belief fixed.

Quite a number of other innocent devices were resorted to for the purpose of quietly infiltrating the Apache mind with a sense of our superiority, but always most carefully guarding against any appearance of seeking to contrast American attainment with savage ignorance. Their bigotry and self-conceit could not be rudely assailed without exciting their natural distrust and alarm. They were ready to perceive a "nigger in every fence," and were ever on the alert to detect the slightest approximation to deceit, or effort to mislead by the assumption of higher intelligence. A person once discovered in the attempt to make them believe that in which he himself had no faith, is immediately and for ever tabooed. No subsequent acts or promises of his could restore their confidence. It was after I had acquired a very fair knowledge of their language that these traits became fully apparent, and I made it my study to conduct myself in such a manner as to allay all doubts.

I possessed a very good microscope, which I had purchased from a French priest, and also an excellent sun-dial, with several other instruments, such as burning-glass, field-glass, compass, several maps of New Mexico, etc. The anxiety to show the wonders of these instruments to my untutored visitors was very great, but I felt the imprudence of so doing until occasion could serve, when it would appear the result of their application, and not of my ostentation.

One day, while receiving instruction from Juan Cojo, my preceptor in the Apache language, I suddenly pretended that it was necessary for me to examine a minute object whose conformation was somewhat indistinguishable to the naked eye. Juan watched me with intense interest as I uncased the microscope and placed beneath its focus the body of a common flea. I was careful not to ask him to view the object, feeling convinced that his own curiosity would induce him to make the request. After I had gazed attentively for a few seconds, Juan asked what I was looking at, and I told him that I had an instrument which made a flea look as large as a mule and showed me his whole conformation. He immediately expressed a desire to see this monster, and after being accorded a good, long look, he exclaimed: "'Madre de Dios, que cosa tan hororosa!"—which means, mother of God, what a horrible thing. In this manner we went through half a dozen objects, each of which elicited expressions of unbounded surprise from Juan, who commenced to regard me as a magician of power and influence. In this way the train was laid for further confidence on the part of the savages, to whom Juan related the whole affair, because I had never employed such means to assert claims to their respect, and had apparently striven to keep my possession of them from their knowledge. They seemed to have got their information by accident, and I allowed them to press me frequently before I yielded to their request for a look through the wonderful instrument of which they had heard from Juan. Their admiration was also excited by the burning-glass, field-glass, etc.; and when I took out the maps and explained to them all about portions of the country which they knew well, but I had never visited, they began to think that nothing was hidden from our knowledge if we only took the pains to consult our magical instruments.

During all the time of our intimate relations, I was as great an inquirer into their funds of information as they were into that which I possessed. I was regularly inducted into their modes of hunting, and taught where and when the desired game might be expected. The art of tracking was also sedulously shown me, but this requires very long and constant practice. Their code of signals by smokes, stones, broken branches, etc., was explained with apparent delight, in the conviction that the white man could learn something from them.

The force at Fort Sumner was so ludicrously small, in comparison with the number of Indians to be controlled and guarded, that I am convinced the savages would never have remained so long as they did had it not been for the extreme vigilance employed, and the peculiar policy adopted. In fact, within six months after my departure, Ojo Blanco, a famous Apache, took French leave of Fort Sumner, after having induced a goodly number of others to keep him company, and it was not long before nearly all the rest of his tribe followed the example.

Nothing can induce the Apaches to remain an hour in the place where one of them has died from disease, and they give a wide berth to all localities where Apaches have been known to give up the ghost from any cause.

The nearest town was Anton Chico, nearly ninety miles distant, and there were quite a number of well-known villages ranging from one hundred to one hundred and thirty miles northwest, west and southwest from the fort. The influenza was raging in the settlements, and had become epidemic. A great many children and quite a number of adults in the Mexican towns fell victims to the disease, which had assumed a malignant type. It soon made its appearance among the Apaches, but Dr. Gwyther, assisted by myself as interpreter, was unremitting in his attention, and by timely and judicious efforts, prevented the disease from being fatal in a single case, although nearly all were more or less affected. A wily and rascally old Apache, who had wielded great influence among them as a medicine man, seized upon the occasion to sow disaffection and discontent. He upbraided them for their servile obedience to the whites, covered them with reproach for having yielded their absolute independence, and taunted them in every conceivable way. These things were told me by Gian-nah-tah, Nah-tanh, Natch-in-ilk-kisn, and Nah-kah-yen, but the fact of their telling me was sufficient to prove that the prophet was not to be feared, and I counseled them to keep quiet and let me know all that passed, but on no account to acquaint their comrades with the secret of their having told me anything about such proceedings.

One day Gian-nah-tah stated that the prophet had held a great gathering the evening before, at which he had explained a vision. The time selected was about midnight. The Apaches sat in a dense circle, in the center of which stood the prophet dressed in the savage decorations of his sacred office. His eager auditors were informed that he had been blessed with a vision in which he saw a black cloud about the size of his blanket. The cloud rose gradually from the west and increased as it rose in darkness and magnitude, until it covered a large space. Its course was directed toward the Apache camp, over which it hovered and then descended until the camp was completely enveloped within its Cimmerian folds. The interpretation of this vision was that the black cloud represented the anger of the Great Spirit, and that he had sent it among the Apaches to slay them with disease for having remained captive to the Americans. He threatened that if they did not all leave at the earliest possible opportunity, not one would be saved from the anger of the Great Spirit. It may well be supposed that such an announcement from their most noted medicine man at a time when a terrific epidemic was raging, would have an immense influence among those savage and extremely superstitious people.

My determination what to do was immediately taken, and without intimating to Gian-nah-tah what my intention was, I bade him convoke the whole camp on the following night, as near midnight as possible. The moon was very brilliant, and the air clear and perfectly still. I placed a couple of six-shooters and my knife in my belt, and cutting a hole for my head in the center of a sheet, invested myself with that article as if it were a toga. When the Apaches were all assembled, and wondering why they were got together, I suddenly made my appearance among them, and taking position in the center, addressed them to the following effect. I told them that I had been favored with a vision, full of importance to them, and as they had appointed me their "Tata," or Governor, it had been imparted to me for their benefit. I said that two nights previous their prophet had seen a black cloud, which grew larger and blacker as it approached the Apache camp, over which it settled until it was concealed from sight; but that a lying spirit had been put into his mouth, and the true meaning of the vision had been withheld from his knowledge. In my capacity as their Tata, it had been revealed to me, with directions to impart it to the tribe.

They knew, I added, that the Angel of Death had been very busy among the Mexican towns and villages, cutting off the men, women and children, and sparing neither age nor condition. But who among you, said I, have died? Where is the wife that mourns for her husband, or the mother for the child, or the warrior for those that are dear to him? Not one of your number is missing, and all of you are now well or nearly well from the attacks of this infirmity which has killed so many. Now, the true rendering of the vision is this: The Great Spirit has seen with satisfaction that you have kept your promise, that you no longer exist by robbery, that you do not murder the incautious traveler, that you live here happily and well supplied with every comfort, and are cared for by skillful medicine men when you are sick; and in reward for your excellent conduct, the Good Spirit said—I have sent the Angel of Death abroad in the land and he knows nothing but to destroy, for that is his mission. My Apache people have done well and must be preserved, and to shield them from the vision of the Destroying Angel, I will wrap them in a dark cloud which his eyes cannot penetrate; then will he pass them by, and they shall live because they have kept their promise to the Americans. This, I added, is the true rendering of the vision seen by your prophet, and I am come here to tell you, in order that his evil counsel may not prevail and lead you to destruction.

The reader can conjecture the rage of the prophet and the profound astonishment of the whole tribe, except Gian-nah-tah. No one but he knew that I possessed any information on the subject, and, of course, not a soul, the prophet included, doubted the reality of what I had said. The contemplated hegira came to a sudden end; the Apaches returned to their allegiance with more willingness than before, and our intercourse became more harmonious than ever. For my part, I was far better satisfied with the result than if we had been compelled to use force and slay a hundred or two of the savages before again impressing them with the necessity for obedience. The prophet lost his influence, while we gained in proportion.

The foregoing incident conveys its own moral, and shows the virtue of using artifice instead of force, when artifice has to be met.