The Skidi Feed the Evening Star
LITTLE PAWNEE VILLAGE on the upper reaches of the Arkansas was preparing to pass the pipe from left to right, the order observed in a "medicine smoke," and Black Buffalo, as Murty the trader was called, a close companion of Chief White Hair, knew the tribal rules would not permit his attendance. So while White Hair and the priests and leading men filed into the medicine lodge the trader rode down the river trail to the sod-house he and Joe Clay had used for four years as a trading-post. Before leaving the village he promised White Hair he would return with whisky after the medicine had been made.
In truth, the Pawnees on the Arkansas in the Spring of 1832 were in need of strong medicine. In the preceding Fall they had exterminated a small band of Dakota hunting buffalo on the Republican and a fear of reprisal had held the village back from securing its own supply of meat. It was imperative that their maize and beans and pumpkins return bumper crops this year.
Claiming all the territory from the Niobra on the North to the Arkansas in the south it resulted they were almost constantly at war with the mighty Siouan tribes above the Platte, or with the Osage, Comanche, Arapaho or Kiowa on the south and west. One, or several of these tribes, was repeatedly assailing them. They returned blow for blow and held their own till the white man opened his long trail through their country to the southwest, when, although they did not yet realize it, their fate as a warring nation was sealed.
Murty and Clay were types of the fearless men who ventured far beyond the frontier. They risked their lives just as did the half-wild "mountain-men," as the trappers were styled. But while the same vital element of dauntless courage held trader and trapper to their hazardous callings, the latter was often sustained by his lust for adventure, his love for penetrating the unknown; the trader was a sullen rock, stubbornly holding his place and risking all for dross. The only bond between Murty and his partner was their mutual love of profits.
Murty was a huge, swart animal, as cruel and primitive as his boon companions, the savages. Clay was from New Hampshire and would always be an alien to the wild environment of the Arkansas. He dared all his partner dared without possessing the latter's brutal disregard for danger. Murty found Indian life and manners peculiarly satisfying to his crude tastes. He had no visions of returning East and sloughing off his wild ways. Clay, frail of physique, was upheld by a fixed desire to gain wealth for what it would purchase in the land of wooden houses. He dreamed much of his amiable native hills. When he fraternized with the savages it was from motives of policy. He did not like them. They tolerated him because of his partner.
The lack of harmony between the two had rapidly grown pronounced during the last half-year. Clay insisted that by identifying themselves so closely with White Hair's people they were incurring the hatred of the other tribes. More than once he complained because Murty took some part in a daring raid, bedecked and painted like a Pawnee, a gay handkerchief concealing the only attribute lacking in his appearance—the peculiar scalp-lock, standing erect like a horn. On such occasions of fault-finding Murty advised him to mind his own business, and continued spending his time at the village.
For two years Clay had planned to sever his connections with Murty and return East. A double motive restrained him; his greed for one more season's profits and his fear of attempting the long journey down the Arkansas alone. Murty, appreciating his uncanny genius for trade, continually painted the horrors sure to overtake him did he set out alone.
"If it wa'n't f'r me ye wouldn't last ten minutes without a knife through yer ribs," he was wont to sneer when Clay voiced his desire to quit the soul-blighting vocation.
Sometimes, when half -drunk, he dropped more ominous words and led Clay to infer he was not even safe from the Pawnees once he broke off with Black Buffalo. The day he returned from the village to await the end of the medicine smoke he drank heavily and brought up the old subject of Clay's withdrawal. He was in an unusually nasty mood. Clay suddenly declared he would not spend another Winter on the river. With a string of oaths Murty promptly retorted he would withdraw his protection if he "heard any more o' that."
In desperation Clay flared back:
"You keep piling, it on that if I want to live I've got to agree to everything you say. Be I your slave, or not?"
Heretofore Murty had taken care not to goad his partner too far, but the trade whisky had destroyed his sense of proportion, and he roughly replied:
"I reckon that's 'bout th' size of it. If ye're a free man, strike out f'r th' settlements."
Clay made no response to this challenge. With sickening force the truth came home to him. Throughout the day he silently sat in the doorway while Murty drank and slept. Next morning Murty was early astir and galloping up the trail. Clay cleared away the tin plates and sat down outside the door and smoked and thought. He had shied away from the ugly fact; now he faced it. He was Murty's slave.
Should he start alone down the river a host of redskins, probably led by his partner would soon overtake him. Should he by some rare chance win free to the settlements he must go empty-handed. All the furs piled up in the post and cached in a small cave across the river would remain an undivided spoil for his partner. A great misery settled over his soul. He was home-sick for the East.
His yearning to go back home had been uncommonly keen that Spring. He had visited the village when the first rumble of thunder initiated the series of sacred ceremonies which the Pawnees would keep up till Winter. He did not go again that season. For four years he had stuck to the post, wearing his soul threadbare. Now he was weary of it all, weary unto death. On first coming to the country he had been mildly interested in the practices and beliefs of the Indians.
White Hair—so called because of a streak of grayish-white hair through the middle of his scalp-lock—was more astute than the average savage, but Clay, abstemious by nature, quickly sickened of his drunken orgies with Murty. He inwardly derided as the priests proclaimed the supreme power of Tirawa. His mind, though tainted, retained its New England poise. It returned to the old order of thought more insistently as the years passed. Whereas he had laughed at the heathenish nonsense, now he hotly spurned it.
When he first discovered his partner's credulity concerning the Pawnee belief in supernatural animals he had felt amused. By degrees he came to resent it.
Murty thought like an Indian. Their pagan beliefs found a quick response in his crude mind. He combined the credulity of the child and the ferocity of the brute. His first serious quarrel with Clay resulted from the latter's contemptuous comments on a Nahurac lodge—a place where the Pawnee believed animals met to hold councils; Murty firmly believed White Hair's old father had been placed under the protection and tutelage of bears when a child, which accounted for certain alleged bear traits in his old age.
Clay ridiculed such notions and absorbed nothing from his savage environment except a trick of throwing a sprig of cedar on the fife when the tempest scoured the valley of the Arkansas. There was no doubt in his mind but that cedar would turn lightning aside.
He pocketed his pipe but continued scowling at the wooded loneliness of the river bank. How he hated it! Not only was he Murty's slave, but also the slave of every ash thicket and cotton-wood growth; of every Indian whim and superstition. He hated the somber wood, the emptiness of the river, the earth lodge behind him. He even hated the tiny patch of beans and pumpkins he had planted back of the post.
"—— him! I'm his nigger sure enough!" he finally exploded aloud. "I've lost four years of life just to live out here and work for him. If I make a break he'll cut my throat in a second. I've got to wait here till he dies."
He fell back from the sinister prompting this last thought engendered. Yet the idea persisted and fascinated, even while frightening him.
There was no doubt about it; he possessed the power to terminate Murty's evil influence. All he needed to do was to place a fresh percussion cap on the rifle inside the door. There was never a minute when they were together that Murty was on his guard. And it was such a simple expedient! For five minutes the potentials of the homicide braced him up and gave him an air of dignity as he pictured himself the master of his own fate. Murty stood between him and a return home, but Murty could be eliminated at any time.
An inner voice taunted—
"But how would you get away after killing him?"
His vision of freedom flew to pieces. To kill Murty would bring the whole Pawnee nation down on him. And Murty knew this, and knew his victim would not dare rebel.
"Wouldn't do at all!" Clay whispered.
"My hide wouldn't be safe a second after he's wiped out."
However, the notion of Murty's taking-off had found root in his mind and grew sturdily, even if, like a weed, it grew purposelessly.
Then there evolved from his fear and hate another conviction: some time Murty would decide to move on, and when he did he would take all the furs. To avoid any dispute with his partner he would kill him.
"Yes, siree! He opines I'm nothing but a slave. He'll use me; then he'll do for me."
An hour later his last obsession had so depressed him that he decided to break his rule and ride to the village and observe what Murty was up to.
₪ NEARLY three hundred years before, the Pawnee people lured Coronado from New Mexico across the plains to this same country. Could Clay have looked ahead fourteen years, as he rode along the wild trail, he would have seen General Kearney leading his troops along the river path on his way to Santa Fe. And Kearney was to find the region as unsettled and primitive as had the conquistador. The West stood unchanged for centuries, awaiting the white man's roads to shatter the savage fastnesses and pave the way for plow and homestead. Clay would have scorned such a suggestion. He believed the West must continue barbarous and repelling for further centuries; vast and untameable.
He passed well-known bluffs and woods, and grassy intervals thickly dotted with whitening buffalo skulls, only now he was sensing danger where before he had found only monotony and heart-sickness. So long as he had considered Murty a protection against the fickle savages he had splenetically condemned the country, but had not feared. His new angle of vision unraveled all his former assurances of personal safety.
Some cows and their calves, headed by an old bull, crossed his trail to make the river. Several white wolves slunk along behind them. It was a familiar sight, observed hundreds of times before; now it took on a new significance and seemed to picture his own position. He was as helpless as one of the calves did the wolves once get it alone. He jumped from conclusion to conclusion till he convinced himself Murty had planned his death from the beginning of their partnership.
He recalled the man's reticence to discuss former trading ventures; nor could he remember he ever had mentioned a partner. And yet, when in a genial mood, Murty frequently declared that the ideal combination was a man like himself to mix with the Indians and win their good-will, with another, like Joey Clay, to stick at the trading-post and keep the accounts.
"He'll do for me, sure's lightning," muttered Clay. "Yes, siree! And he's done for others before I met him. I was a fool not to find out something about him before coming out to this Gawd-forsaken spot. He's probably waiting till the mountain men fetch in their next batch of furs. He'll want me to handle the rush. Then something'll happen to J. Clay. But if something should happen to him first——! what's the use? He knows I'm a goner the minute he drops out of the game—that is, unless the Pawnees wipe him out and I have time and luck enough to git away."
But the idea of the Pawnees killing their good friend, Black Buffalo, was too fantastical to entertain. Still the notion bobbed up at times, if only to tantalize his ingenuity by challenging him to imagine some combination of circumstances wherein such a wholesome solution might be possible. The only thing he could think of was a fight between Murty and the chief while drunk. But they had been drunk together many times and had never quarreled.
White Hair's people were Skidi Pawnee, also known as the Wolf Pawnee, and by the French as the Pawnee Loup. They held the inside, of the circle against many hostile tribes only by great sacrifice of manpower and by their ability to keep themselves constantly supplied with fresh horses. Thus their means of defense — locomotive power—was also a continuing cause for new wars; and they stole horses from the Black Hills to the great range of the Comanche. Now the immigrants were passing through their country they became especially active in stampeding stocks from the trains.
Clay was shrewd enough to see the Pawnees were playing a losing game and that his partner had done better had he pitched his post among the powerful Dakota. This, also, had been a stock argument between them when Murty stripped to breech-cloth and moccasins, painted for war, joined his red friends in some raid. Murty's contention was very simple: the Pawnees were great fighters, therefore they would hold their own for many years.
"What happens to 'em arter I croak ain't worryin' me any," he would conclude the debate by saying.
Just as a more important personage once remarked he didn't care how heavily it rained after his day closed.
Now that Clay viewed the Pawnees as his potential murderers he took notice of details as he slowly rode into the village. Murty was lounging before White Hair's lodge, watching a procession of priests escorting a comely woman about the village. Clay remained on his horse as the little band approached the chief's lodge. The woman, prompted by the priests, asked for gifts. White Hair listened to her gravely and gave her a small bundle of painted sticks. The woman smiled and thanked him and was led away. Murty discovered his partner, and, without a trace of their morning quarrel, boisterously called out:
"Jest in time f'r th' fun, Joey. Hop down."
Clay dismounted, thrilled by a wild hope that he had misjudged Murty. The man was hopelessly coarse and brutal, but so long as his soul was leavened by an appreciation of the humorous he could not be wholly evil. Murty stared after the priests and the woman and exploded in a loud laugh.
"What's the idea, Murt?" genially asked Clay, his narrow face twisting into a propitiating grin.
"That fool squaw," chuckled Murty. "She's Comanche; caught in a raid 'bout a month ago. She don't know th' medicine smoke warned White Hair to sacrifice to th' Mornin' Star. Mornin' Star's a man, Joey, so they allers sacrifice a woman to him. They don't do it reg'lar. This is th' furst time since we opened th' post. But I've watched 'em do it at other villages afore I met ye. A sure medicine to make th' corn grow, ye know."
The last was said seriously as befitting the expression of a self-evident truth.
"But she laffed," exclaimed Clay incredulously.
"That's th' funny part of it. She don't know what's goin' to happen. She thinks it's all a game," replied Murty. "It has to be done that way, or th' medicine wouldn't be no good. They've treated her better'n her own people did. She likes here better'n she did to home. Today they dress her up an' tell her to ask f'r presents at each lodge. Every lodge gives her some dry wood. She won't guess what's up till they come to sacrifice her an' bury her in th' cornfields."
"Good heavens! They'll kill her!" gasped Clay.
"None o' that," ominously warned Murty from the corner of his mouth. "Want to make th' chief here thinkin' ye're ag'in his medicine? They've got to have corn, ain't they?"
"But burying a dead woman won't make corn grow," expostulated Clay, his soul sick and quivering.
"Th' devil it won't!" growled Murty, his brows growing black. "Think all th' real medicine is made east o' th' Mississippi? This village can't go north arter buf'ler till th' Dakotas git over that last raid on th' Republican. If they raise a big crop o' corn they can trade it with some o' th' other tribes f'r meat. This medicine is extry sure. I know what I'm talkin' 'bout."
"You can stay and watch the devil's work, but I'm going back to the post," muttered Clay, the sweat now trickling down his thin face. And he mounted his horse hurriedly, to be off before the terrible ceremony began. He paused only ,to say—"Tell White Hair I'll give him two kegs of whisky for the woman."
"An' git knifed f'r meddlin' with his medicine," snorted Murty. "Nothin' but a regiment o' soljers could stop it. I sha'n't be home f'r a few days. Keep a close watch f'r Dakota scouts."
Clay rode like a mad man till far beyond the village. He had heard stories of the Skidi sacrifice to the morning and evening stars but had accepted them as legends, just as he did the stories about the Nahurac lodges, and children brought up by bears. The village, never a prepossessing spot in his estimation, now became a foul murder trap. What would they not do with him should Murty give the word!
₪ FIVE days passed before Murty returned to the post. Clay greeted him warmly but studied him stealthily. Murty was unusually boisterous in his bearing, and yet he had not been drinking. He was effusively cordial. Clay quickly decided this exaggerated joviality was a mask. Every now and then he betrayed himself by quick, sidelong glances. Each man was stalking the other, only Murty was clumsy at it.
Clay shivered as his partner began following him about, always keeping behind him. Then, without knowing why he should reshape his suspicions, Clay concluded his partner was acting thus in order to cover up something. Murty talked garrulously about his absence and took pains to dwell on the fact he had been at the Pawnee village all the time.
Hoping to induce him to betray himself in some way Clay took the water pails and went toward the river. Once inside the narrow, leafy tunnel he halted and watched till Murty furtively appeared in the doorway and, after a searching scrutiny of the woods, hastened to the ash growth back of the post.
Dropping the pails Clay swiftly circled back and came upon his partner so unexpectedly that only the latter's abstraction prevented a discovery. Murty was kneeling at the foot of a big boulder and fumbling with moss and dry grass. Finally he rose, his fierce eyes ranging the surrounding cover suspiciously for a moment. Then he ran swiftly toward the post. Clay knew his life hung in the balance should Murty continue on to the river and find the abandoned pails, but there was no resisting the shivery curiosity alternately freezing and burning his blood. He crawled to the rock and thrust his arm and hand into a deep cleft.
He pulled forth a cross made of gold beads, several finger-rings of gold and a handful of gold coins. There were more coins in the hole, a small mound of them. Something like a galvanic shock jolted him; the treasure trove was crushing him with hideous suggestions.
Restoring the stuff and carefully replacing the moss and grass he scuttled like a frightened shadow back to the river path. Breathless with fear he came to the pails. Was Murty behind him at the post, unsuspicious of his spying, or had he entered the path and found the pails? As Clay sped on down to the river bank he had no idea whether he was hastening to his death, or was safe for the time being. He reached the bank and hurriedly filled the pails, expecting every moment to behold Murty's sardonic visage leering at him from the undergrowth. Nothing happened, and he threw himself on the bank and made sure the horse-pistol in his belt slipped easily. By degrees his heart quieted and his breathing became normal.
"Guess he's been trading with the Pawnee on the sly for that gold. He's holding out on me."
There was a ray of hope in this reasoning, for if Murty purposed killing him he would scarcely bother to conceal any assets. The thought was vastly comforting till he remembered that Murty had withdrawn no goods from the post. It was Clay who kept the accounts and who was in position to abstract goods and trade on his own account. Murty had no more finesse in such matters than a gorilla.
"If he got the stuff from the Injuns he ain't paid for it yet," he concluded.
"O-e-e! Jo-ey!" loudly called Murty, and Clay's legs twitched convulsively.
"All right! Here I be!" Clay bawled back, assuming a lazy attitude with his right hand resting on his right hip.
Murty clumped down the path, whistling imitations of bird calls.
"Ye ain't been alone 'nough yet but what ye want to sneak off an' leave yer old pard," he chided with what was intended for an amiable grin.
"Been watching something across in the bushes," grunted Clay, pointing his pistol toward the opposite shore. "Reckon it's a ant'lope."
"Ye'd never land him with that," said Murty. "I don't see no signs."
"Right straight across. Tops of the bushes moved. Mebbe it's gone now," and he rose, still toying with the pistol. Murty stooped and picked up the two pails, his head passing close to Clay's face. There was red paint back of his ears and at the roots of his long black hair. Clay's heart skipped several beats.
"What did you do after I quit the village?" he carelessly inquired.
Murty darted him a suspicious glance and carelessly replied:
"Jest took it lazy an' chinned with White Ha'r. He wants me to go on a buf 'ler hunt. Reckons I'd be big medicine ag'in th' Dakota."
Clay hesitated, then forced himself to ask—
"The Comanche woman?"
"Sure. They got to have corn."
Clay shuddered and shifted his thoughts to the gold cross under the boulder. Murty lied when he said he had been at the village. The paint and the unusual loot proved he had been on a raid. No Indian possessed such trinkets unless he had massacred whites. An awful loathing of the swart-visaged man filled the little New Englander's soul. Something horrible had been enacted, and the coins and the cross testified to Murty's complicity. How easy it would be to eliminate the man from all further consideration by the simple process of raising his pistol and pulling the trigger! A child could do it.
"Don't wave that gun so keerless-like, Joey. Ye make me nervous," remonstrated Murty.
Clay colored and thrust the pistol into his belt. Murty was dull of wit but he had absorbed enough from the savages to be abnormally intuitive.
To cover his confusion he faced the opposite bank and regretted—
"Wish I had my rifle and a ant'lope would pop into sight."
He had scarcely spoken when the bushes across the river swayed violently; but instead of an antelope the figure of a man staggered down the bank and raised both hands in supplication.
"——!" yelled Murty, dropping the pails and snatching the pistol from his belt.
"He's white!" yelled Clay, knocking up the weapon as it exploded. "Derned fool! Can't you see it's a white man, all tuckered out?"
For a moment Murty glared murder at his partner, then hoarsely conceded:
"Derned if it ain't! Thought it was a Dakota scout."
Clay passed over the clumsy excuse. The tattered figure would not deceive even a greenhorn into thinking it an Indian. At the sound of the shot the man fell to his knees. Clay waved his hand and yelled:
"Hi! come across. Water's shallow a few rods up-stream. Thought you was a hostile."
The man lurched to his feet and made for the ford. Murty watched him with wolfish eyes, his lips drawing back and disclosing long teeth, much as a beast of prey views the approach of a victim. And Clay watched Murty.
The newcomer was barely able to crawl up the bank He was dressed in tatters and tags of homespun and had lost his boots. A scrubby growth of sandy beard accentuated rather than concealed the frozen expression of terror on his long snuff-colored face.
"Save me!" he groaned, and Clay caught his arm and prevented him from falling back into the river.
"Save ye from what? Who be ye? Where ye from?" questioned Murty.
"Wagon train jumped. Dog Crick. All kilt," wailed the stranger. "My name's Bowls."
"Seems ye wa'n't kilt," growled Murty. "When was ye jumped? How'd ye git away?"
"Two nights ago. I was out arter a stray hoss. Injuns at work when I come back. I kept low in th' grass. Gawdfrey! Such doin's!"
"Well, well, you ain't hurt yet and you're safe now," soothed Clay, the horripilation of his scalp subsiding only when he remembered his pistol was loaded while Murty's was empty. If the wretched creature before him had displayed any fortitude he would have believed him sent by Providence to be a companion down the Arkansas. He had an insane desire to ask if any women in the train wore beads in the form of a cross.
"You ain't hurt and Murty, here, my partner, is worth a whole tribe of Injuns."
Murty worked his face into a less ferocious expression and declared:
"Bet ye was jumped by Dakota. No Southern Injuns up this way, an' th' Pawnees ain't stirred from their village f'r a long time. Yas, Joey, it's Dakota work, all right. That means I've got to hustle to White Ha'r's village an' warn him th' Dakotas have come. Sit tight at th' post an' keep yer eye peeled. I'll be back to-night, or tomorrer."
"I could hear 'em swearin' an' screamin', th' men'n' women," mumbled Bowls as Murty disappeared up the path.
"Many women folks in th' outfit?" whispered Clay.
"Th' wagon-boss' woman an' th' wives o' five Missouri men. I'm from Ohio. Thank th' Lawd there wa'n't no children."
"Did they take the women prisoners?" shivered Clay.
"Not so bad as that," returned Bowls, pumping up each word with great difficulty. A bit of a pause and he ran on. "Th' Injuns passed near me. Me flat in th' grass. Some of 'em had ripped burnin' cloth from th' wagons, an' they kept wavin' it as they rode. One o' th' Injuns talked in English."
Clay seized him by the shoulders and shook him till his head rocked.
"Never repeat that. If you want to keep on living never, while on the Arkansas, let on you was near enough to see the Injuns. You heard firing and ran for it. And that's all. Understand?"
"I reckon," muttered Bowls. "But one of 'em I'd know ag'in if I ever seen him. Passed within twelve feet o' me, wavin' a parcel o' burnin' cloth. Had a queer, twisted face, and his scalp-lock had a streak o' white paint through it."
Clay caught his arm and stole a frightened glance up the narrow path, and softly asked:
"The Injun who talked English? Would you know him again?"
"No; I couldn't tell him ag'in. Face jest plastered over with red paint and he wore a hanker 'round his head. He rode side o' th' Injun with th' streaked hair."
Clay drew a deep breath and warned:
"Listen; I'm your friend. Don't never speak of it to my partner. He gits excited easy. Remember."
With that he took the pails and refilled them and led the way to the post. Murty had gone. Without a word Clay took down a rifle and loaded it and put on a percussion cap and thrust it into Bowls' hands. Next he thrust a pistol and knife into the rope that served the immigrant for a belt. Then he looked after his own rifle and added a knife and second pistol to his own belt.
"Now we're ready to eat a snack. You look kind of peaked," he said.
₪ THE religious ceremonies of the Pawnees reflected their veneration of cosmic forces and their worship of the heavenly bodies. Tirawa, "father," held all power and executed his will through the phenomena of lightning and thunder, wind and rain. The universe was dual, masculine and feminine.
Now the priests were declaring the stars continued maleficent despite the recent sacrifice of the Comanche woman. White Hair heard them with surprise, for was not the village much richer from the raid on the immigrant train?
"The Dakotas are coming," explained the priest.
"O-pit-i-kut has had a woman sacrificed," protested White Hair.
"The Morning Star is satisfied, but the Evening Star has had no sacrifice," replied the priest.
"A man shall be sacrificed to her," said White Hair.
"Red flesh will not please. The flesh must be white," warned the priest.
"White Hair will bring white flesh," was the laconic assurance.
The chief spoke confidently, yet he was worried. The Dakotas traveled fast. His young men had been reporting their progress ever since sunrise. The sacrifice must be made at once if the impending evil was to be avoided. He lamented his negligence in not taking some of the immigrants alive. He had wished to do so, but his friend insisted there should be no prisoners. And it might be several moons before another train could be surprised and captured.
The priest guessed his perturbation, and reminded—
"There is white flesh near; the little trader who lives with the Black Buffalo."
"I will tell Black Buffalo when he comes. He grows tired of the little trader."
"Our medicine says we must sacrifice before the sun sleeps a second time," warned the priest. "Send after the little trader."
White Hair sprang to a horse, saying:
"The victim must not know he is to be sacrificed till brought to the painted cross. I will go to the Black Buffalo and bring him and the little trader back with me. I will ride outside of the trail and meet any of our scouts who have seen the Dakotas since the first runners came in."
Because of his slight detour toward the open prairie White Hair missed meeting Murty on the river trail, and arrived at the trading-post shortly after his friend set out for the village. Bowls was first to see the Indian approaching, and with a squeal of terror crawled behind some buffalo-robes. Clay advanced to the door to greet the chief.
Leaping from his horse White Hair strode to the door and pushing Clay aside entered, expecting to find Murty at the bottle or asleep.
"Where is the Black Buffalo?" he demanded, his sharp gaze noting the two rifles and the weapons in Clay's belt.
"On his way to Little Pawnee Village," growled Clay, his pale eyes lighting venomously at the overbearing demeanor of the chief.
White Hair reached behind the short counter and found Murty's bottle and drained it. Clay was consumed with rage. This liberty violated all ethics of trade.
"Waugh!" grunted White Hair, smacking his lips. "Black Buffalo's friend will go to the village now. Black Buffalo wants him."
"You scum! You just showed you don't know where Black Buffalo is!" cried Clay in English. Then in the chief's tongue: "If Black Buffalo wants me he will come for me, or send a talking paper."
The rank liquor registered quickly on the Indian, and maniacal lights shone in his black eyes. A white man must be sacrificed to the Evening Star. The Evening Star was jealous, and the Dakota were advancing. Were there no other white man available the chief would have sentenced Black Buffalo himself.
"Come!" he ordered, and his crest of black and gray hair seemed to bristle. "The medicine pipe has passed from left to right. Black Buffalo says for you to come."
"You have not seen Black Buffalo. I stay here," boldly replied Clay.
With a guttural growl of rage White Hair seized him about the waist and was carrying him to the door when a terrified sallow visage emerged from behind the robes, and a scrawny arm, shaking spasmodically, sought to aim a long-barreled pistol. Clay, held helpless and glaring over the chief's shoulder, yelled:
"Git it closer! Git nearer!"
With a puppy whine of fear Bowls crawled to his feet. White Hair caught the alarm and, dropping his captive, spun about.
"Th' Injun I seen!" shrieked Bowls, and he closed his eyes and fired just as the chief leaped upon him.
Both crashed to the earthen floor. Clay pulled his rescuer from the savage and stood him on his feet. Bowls still retained the smoking pistol and stared from it to the silent figure sprawled out at his feet.
"You done for him!" panted Clay, hardly able to comprehend the miracle.
Bowls dropped the weapon and whimpered:
"Th' Injun with th' painted hair. Is he dead?"
Clay by this time began to realize their predicament. With a snarl of fear he jumped to the door and glared up and down the trail. There was no one in sight. Turning to the stupefied immigrant he commanded:
"Help me git him outer here. Oh, Lawd! What won't they do to us if they find him!"
"I knew him when I seen his hair," shivered Bowls. "Reckon I killed him."
"Catch hold of his heels, you fool! He can't hurt you."
It seemed as if they never would cross the narrow opening and gain the shelter of the woods. Only by fearful imprecations could Clay hold Bowls to the grim task till they reached the river bank. Directing him to procure some stones for weights Clay crouched beside the' dead chief and tried to think. As his mind cleared he could foresee the wild excitement and mad search for the chief. Four years on the Arkansas had taught the trader many things; he knew the Pawnees would quickly trace their leader to the post and at once read the signs on the floor and along the river path.
"They must have known he was coming here," he muttered, essaying to make a summary of all the evidence. "He come to see Murty, so he must'a' passed him on the way. The village don't know but what they met. Murty wants to be shet of me and the chief was going to take me to the village. Said the pipe had passed from left to right. They've made new medicine and I figgered in it some way. By the Lawd Harry! They'll soon have a white scalp for this streaked one! Murty's or mine. But the village don't know him and Murty didn't meet. If they thought the two met——"
He was still nursing his inspiration when Bowls staggered up with an armful of rocks.
"Gimme that rope 'round your waist," Clay ordered. "Then go up the path and watch if any one comes to the post. Don't show yourself. My partner'll be back soon. I've got a plan, but it depends on whether he comes alone or not. If Injuns come with him we must both hide. If he comes alone I'll see him. But you stay hid. Git!"
After Bowls departed Clay sat for some moments, testing the edge of his knife with his thumb and working himself up to perform a very disagreeable task.
₪ MURTY arrived at the village just as the priests and leading men began another medicine smoke. A young buck informed him that White Hair had gone to the trading-post. Without dismounting the trader galloped down the trail. He could not understand why he had not met the chief. An animal instinct was telling him something was radically wrong. It was imperative that he find the chief and arrange for a band of his braves to swoop down and capture the immigrant and Clay. At first he had thought to wait and spare Clay till after the Fall season closed. But he fancied his partner was growing suspicious. A clean sweep was best.
Leaping from his horse he ran to the post, calling the chief's name, Clay met him at the door, inquiring—
"What you yelling about?"
"White Hair? Where is he?"
"Come and went. Stirred up about something. Drank half a bottle of your whisky and then reckoned he'd take a package of presents back to his squaw, said something about you gitting more'n your share."
Murty flushed beneath his heavy tan and barked—
"The fool's drunk."
"Of course. Turned down most a quart. I wouldn't let him have any presents till you said so. Thought first he was going to knife me, but he cleared out, a-yelling how the devil'd be to pay if his squaw didn't git them presents in a rush. Mebbe I oughter give them to him. Most wish I had after he quit." And Clay pointed to a package of trade gee-gaws and squaw's finery on the counter. "Fixed them up after he went hellytowhooping. According to his say the Dakotas will be here soon and I guess we'll need his help, or else take to the timber."
Murty swore fiercely. He was worried about the Dakotas. To run for it meant the loss of four years' profits and the forfeit of the Pawnees' friendship. What with the danger of the Dakotas and his own private homicide plans he was rather uncertain just what to do.
"I've done nothing but miss the fool!" he raved. "He's got to be found at once. He's got to lead his men ag'in th' Dakotas an' hit 'em hard afore they strike th' Arkansas, or we'll all be wiped out. You did right, Joey, in not letting him have the goods. He mustn't git the notion he can come an' help himself. But we'll take them up to him. Ye'll be safer at the village till we know how the game is goin' with th' Dakota. Git yer hoss."
"If you think best," meekly assented Clay, passing over the parcel of gifts. "But we'll be leaving Bowls."
"Ain't he 'round here?" cried Murty. "He's too white-livered to go far. No; we didn't oughter leave him behind. Give him a hoot."
Clay rushed out and yelled the immigrant's name repeatedly.
"No use," he puffed. "Wait for me and I'll ride down the trail a piece. Don't leave me alone."
This was a masterstroke. For Murty, wild with impatience to find the chief and perfect a fighting unit to surprise the Dakota, was no longer doubtful as to Clay's eagerness to seek safety at the village.
"Find th' pup an' foller me, Joey," he directed. "I'll send some o' th' young bucks down to meet ye. Ye won't be in no danger. But I must put a fightin' heart into White Ha'r without a minute lost, or our goose is cooked. Swing a leg over yer hoss an' th' minute ye find him come a humpin'."
"Why can't you wait a bit?" Clay began to expostulate, but now sure of his man Murty swung into the saddle and raced away.
₪ MURTY smiled grimly as he cantered along. The disappearance of his partner had been a matter rather difficult for him to arrange to his satisfaction. It had been less easy than the proposed victim had supposed. Questions would be asked when he returned to the frontier without him. There were several old mountain men who were still curious to learn just how another partner of his up in the Medicine Bow Mountains had died. Now, with the killing blamed on the hostile Dakota the finale would be as simple as it was agreeable.
"Cussed if it ain't playin' right into my hands," he exulted. "No matter whether th' Pawnees win or lose I'll jump this place with what furs I can take, an' cache th' rest. Then I can look up a new partner an' move down Green River way, where no questions will be asked."
He entered the village and drew rein before White Hair's lodge. Tossing his package of presents to the chief's young squaw, he raised his bull-like voice in a demand for the chief to appear. Priests and warriors crowded thick about him and he was astounded to learn White Hair had not returned.
"He went to Black Buffalo's lodge. Black Buffalo must have seen him there," said a priest.
"He had been there. He was gone when I went back the second time. I missed him going and coming," replied the puzzled trader.
"He went to get the little trader. The Evening Star is angry with her children, the Skidi."
Wild suspicions shot through Murty's mind. Clay had said nothing about any invitation from the chief to come to the village.
"Send some of your warriors to bring the little trader here. He was to follow after me with another white man who escaped from the immigrant train. Bring them both and let the Evening Star be fed. Then find the chief——"
A staccato shriek at his feet caused him to jump and lurch half out the saddle. What he saw bereft him of reason for a moment, and he could only glare with his mouth open and his eyes bulging. The squaw had opened the pack and was now holding up a gay handkerchief to which was pinned a fresh scalp. The streak of grayish-black identified it beyond all question.
It was the focal point for every pair of savage eyes in the savage circle.
"Gawdamighty! White Ha'r's top-knot! Clay done f'r him an' put his ha'r in the bundle to do f'r me," babbled the dazed plotter.
"The Black Buffalo sells us to the Dakotas!" shouted the priest.
₪ SOMETHIN' comin'. Ain't Injuns," barked the night guard of the trappers' camp on the Smoky.
They were employees of the American Fur Company and were making for St. Louis, the rival of Montreal as an outfitting center.
"White man's voice," decided one of the trappers, as the faint cry was repeated.
"Mebbe a game to git us off our guard," grunted another as he rolled aside and nursed his rifle. "Injuns thicker'n wild mustard."
They listened a moment, then the cry came again from the darkness, sounding near at hand, but very weak.
"Yeh. Friends to honest men. Come into th' light," ordered the guard, dropping on one knee.
Two men stumbled into the firelight, and one glance at their despairing, haggard faces told the mountain men they were no renegade whites acting as decoys. They were made comfortable by the fire and provided with food. They ate ravenously, Bowls falling asleep with a buffalo rib half raised to his mouth.
Clay produced a pipe and after tobacco had been given him he wearily explained:
"Me'n' that feller have been running from Injuns more'n a month. Lost track of time. He swears it's two months, but he's been loony at times. We was following the Arkansas and was chased away from it by some Pawnees. We got clear of them, but didn't dare beat back to the river. Then our powder give out. Then our hosses stampeded one night. We threw away our rifles and went it afoot. We didn't dare travel much in the daytime during the last two weeks as the country seemed full of Injuns making for the Arkansas. Guess if we hadn't hit your camp we'd'a' cashed in. Dead tired. Talk more tomorrer."
"Th' Injuns ye see was Dakota tryin' to round up Little Pawnee Village," informed the guard. "They tried it four weeks ago an' got a awful drubbin'. Seems ol' White Ha'r's people fed a white man to one o' their star gods th' night afore th' battle, an' their medicine was so strong they licked 'bout five times their number. What Dakotas escaped hustled back home, an' now they've come back with some eight hundred. Yeh; Arkansas is a good river to keep shet of till th' trouble's over atween th' two tribes."
The firelight struck sparks from Clay's pale eyes. Half-rising from the buffalo robe he faintly murmured:
"White man, eh? Happen to hear his name?"
"Yeh; an' it didn't bring any sorrer," growled the trapper. "Skunk had a post down th' river. Kilt his partner an' murdered ol' White Ha'r, th Pawnee chief. Name was Murty. One of our men happened along th' day follerin' th' fight an' l'arned all 'bout it. Better go to sleep."
"Yes; I can sleep fine now," mumbled Clay.