IT was a beautiful fall day – 'a gopher's last look back,' as we used to say of the last warm days of the late autumn. We were encamped beside a wild rice lake, where two months before we had harvested our watery fields of grain, and where we had now returned for the duck-hunting. All was well with us. Ducks were killed in countless numbers, and in the evenings the men hunted deer in canoes by torchlight along the shores of the lake. But alas! life is made up of good times and bad times, and it is when we are perfectly happy that we should expect some overwhelming misfortune.
"So it was that upon this peaceful and still morning, all of a sudden a harsh and terrible war-cry was heard! Your father was then quite a young man, and a very ambitious warrior, so that I was always frightened on his account whenever there was a chance of fighting. But I did not think of your uncle, Mysterious Medicine, for he was not over fifteen at the time; besides, he had never shown any taste for the field.
"Our camp was thrown into great excitement; and as the warriors advanced to meet the enemy, I was almost overcome by the sight of your uncle among them! It was of no use for me to call him back – I think I prayed in that moment to the Great Mystery to bring my boy safely home.
"I shall never forget, as long as I live, the events of that day. Many brave men were killed; among them two of your uncle's intimate friends. But when the battle was over, my boy came back; only his face was blackened in mourning for his friends, and he bore several wounds in his body. I knew that he had proved himself a true warrior.
"This was the beginning of your uncle's career, He has surpassed your father and your grandfather; yes, all his ancestors except Jingling Thunder, in daring and skill."
Such was my grandmother's account of the maiden battle of her third son, Mysterious Medicine. He achieved many other names; among them Big Hunter, Long Rifle and White Footprint. He had a favorite Kentucky rifle which he carried for many years. The stock was several times broken, but he always made another. With this gun he excelled most of his contemporaries in accuracy of aim. He used to call the weapon Ishtahbopopa – a literal translation would be "Pops-the-eye."
My uncle, who was a father to me for ten years of my life, was almost a giant in his proportions, very symmetrical and "straight as an arrow." His face was not at all handsome. He had very quiet and reserved manners and was a man of action rather than of unnecessary words. Behind the veil of Indian reticence he had an inexhaustible fund of wit and humor; but this part of his character only appeared before his family and very intimate friends. Few men know nature more thoroughly than he. Nothing irritated him more than to hear some natural fact misrepresented. I have often thought that with education he might have made a Darwin or an Agassiz.
He was always modest and unconscious of self in relating his adventures. "I have often been forced to realize my danger," he used to say, "but not in such a way as to overwhelm me. Only twice in my life have I been really frightened, and for an instant lost my presence of mind.
"Once I was in full pursuit of a large buck deer that I had wounded. It was winter, and there was a very heavy fall of fresh snow upon the ground. All at once I came upon the body of the deer lying dead on the snow. I began to make a hasty examination, but before I had made any discoveries, I spied the tips of two ears peeping just above the surface of the snow about twenty feet from me. I made a feint of not seeing anything at all, but moved quickly in the direction of my gun, which was leaning against a tree. Feeling, somehow, that I was about to be taken advantage of, I snatched at the same moment my knife from my belt.
"The panther (for such it was) made a sudden and desperate spring. I tried to dodge, but he was too quick for me. He caught me by the shoulder with his great paw, and threw me down. Somehow, he did not retain his hold, but made another leap and again concealed himself in the snow. Evidently he was preparing to make a fresh attack.
"I was partially stunned and greatly confused by the blow; therefore I should have been an easy prey for him at the moment. But when he left me, I came to my senses; and I had been thrown near my gun! I arose and aimed between the tips of his ears – all that was visible of him – and fired. I saw the fresh snow fly from the spot. The panther leaped about six feet straight up into the air, and fell motionless. I gave two good warwhoops, because I had conquered a very formidable enemy. I sat down on the dead body to rest, and my heart beat as if it would knock out all my ribs. I had not been expecting any danger, and that was why I was so taken by surprise.
"The other time was on the plains, in summer. I was accustomed to hunting in the woods, and never before had hunted buffalo on horseback. Being a young man, of course I was eager to do whatever other men did. Therefore I saddled my pony for the hunt. I had a swift pony and a good gun, but on this occasion I preferred a bow and arrows.
"It was the time of year when the buffalo go in large herds and the bulls are vicious. But this did not trouble me at all; indeed, I thought of nothing but the excitement and honor of the chase.
"A vast plain near the Souris river was literally covered with an immense herd. The day was fair, and we came up with them very easily. I had a quiver full of arrows, with a sinew-backed bow.
"My pony carried me in far ahead of all the others. I found myself in the midst of the bulls first, for they are slow. They threw toward me vicious glances, so I hastened my pony on to the cows. Soon I was enveloped in a thick cloud of dust, and completely surrounded by the herd, who were by this time in the act of fleeing, their hoofs making a noise like thunder.
"I could not think of anything but my own situation, which confused me for the moment. It seemed to me to be a desperate one. If my pony, which was going at full speed, should step into a badger hole, I should be thrown to the ground and trampled under foot in an instant. If I were to stop, they would knock me over, pony and all. Again, it seemed as if my horse must fall from sheer exhaustion; and then what would become of me?
"At last I awoke to a calm realization of my own power. I uttered a yell and began to shoot right and left. Very soon there were only a few old bulls who remained near me. The herd had scattered, and I was miles away from my companions.
"It is when we think of our personal danger that we are apt to be at a loss to do the best thing under the circumstances. One should be unconscious of self in order to do his duty. We are very apt to think ourselves brave, when we are most timid. I have discovered that half our young men give the war-whoop when they are frightened, because they fear lest their silence may betray their state of mind. I think we are really bravest when most calm and slow to action."
I urged my uncle to tell me more of his adventures.
"Once," said he, "I had a somewhat peculiar experience, which I think I never related to you before. It was at the time of the fall hunt. One afternoon when I was alone I discovered that I was too far away to reach the camp before dark, so I looked about for a good place to spend the night. This was on the Upper Missouri, before there were any white people there, and when we were in constant danger from wild beasts as well as from hostile Indians. It was necessary to use every precaution and the utmost vigilance.
"I selected a spot which appeared to be well adapted to defense. I had killed two deer, and I hung up pieces of the meat at certain distances in various directions. I knew that any wolf would stop for the meat, A grizzly bear would sometimes stop, but not a mountain lion or a panther. Therefore I made a fire. Such an animal would be apt to attack a solitary fire. There was a full moon that night, which was much in my favor.
"Having cooked and eaten some of the venison, I rolled myself in my blanket and lay down by the fire, taking my Ishtahbopopa for a bed fellow. I hugged it very closely, for I felt that I should need it during the night. I had scarcely settled myself when I heard what seemed to be ten or twelve coyotes set up such a howling that I was quite sure of a visit from them. Immediately after-. ward I heard another sound, which was like the screaming of a small child. This was a porcupine, which had doubtless smelled the meat.
"I watched until a coyote appeared upon a flat rock fifty yards away. He sniffed the air in every direction; then, sitting partly upon his haunches, swung round in a circle with his hind legs sawing the air, and howled and barked in many different keys. It was a great feat! I could not help wondering whether I should be able to imitate him. What had seemed to be the voices of many coyotes was in reality only one animal. His mate soon appeared and then they both seemed satisfied, and showed no signs of a wish to invite another to join them. Presently they both suddenly and quietly disappeared.
"At this moment a slight noise attracted my attention, and I saw that the porcupine had arrived. He had climbed up to the piece of meat nearest me, and was helping himself without any ceremony. I thought it was fortunate that he came, for he would make a good watch dog for me. Very soon, in fact, he interrupted his meal, and caused all his quills to stand out in defiance. I glanced about me and saw the two coyotes slyly approaching my open camp from two different directions.
"I took the part of the porcupine! I rose in a sitting posture, and sent a swift arrow to each of my unwelcome visitors. They both ran away with howls of surprise and pain.
"The porcupine saw the whole from his perch, but his meal was not at all disturbed, for he began eating again with apparent relish. Indeed, I was soon furnished with another of these unconscious protectors. This one came from the opposite direction to a point where I had hung a splendid ham of venison. He cared to go no further, but seated himself at once on a convenient branch and began his supper.
"The canon above me was full of rocks and trees. From this direction came a startling noise, which caused me more concern than anything I had thus far heard. It sounded much like a huge animal stretching himself, and giving a great yawn which ended in a scream. I knew this for the voice of a mountain lion, and it decided me to perch upon a limb for the rest of the night.
"I got up and climbed into the nearest large tree, taking my weapons with me; but first I rolled a short log of wood in my blanket and laid it in my place by the fire.
"As I got up, the two porcupines began to descend, but I paid no attention to them, and they soon returned to their former positions. Very soon I heard a hissing sound from one of them, and knew that an intruder was near. Two grey wolves appeared.
"I had hung the hams by the ham strings, and they were fully eight feet from the ground. At first the wolves came boldly forward, but the warning of the porcupines caused them to stop, and hesitate to jump for the meat. However, they were hungry, and began to leap savagely for the hams, although evidently they proved good targets for the quills of the prickly ones, for occasionally one of them would squeal and rub his nose desperately against the tree.
"At last one of the wolves buried his teeth too deeply in a tough portion of the flesh, and having jumped to reach it, his own weight made it impossible for him to loosen his upper jaw. There the grey wolf dangled, kicking and yelping, until the tendon of the ham gave way, and both fell heavily to the ground. From my hiding-place I sent two arrows into his body, which ended his life. The other one ran away to a little distance and remained there a long time, as if waiting for her mate.
"I was now very weary, but I had seen many grizzly bears' tracks in the vicinity, and besides, I had not forgotten the dreadful scream of the mountain lion. I determined to continue my watch.
"As I had half expected, there came presently a sudden heavy fall, and at the same time the burning embers were scattered about and the fire almost extinguished. My blanket with the log in it was rolled over several times, amid snarls and growls. Then the assailant of my camp – a panther – leaped back into the thick underbrush, but not before my arrow had penetrated his side. He snarled and tried to bite off the shaft, but after a time became exhausted and lay still.
"I could now distinguish the grey dawn in the east. I was exceedingly drowsy, so I fastened myself by a rope of raw-hide to the trunk of the tree against which I leaned. I was seated on a large limb, and soon fell asleep.
"I was rudely awakened by the report of a gun directly under me. At the same time, I thought some one was trying to shake me off the tree, Instantly I reached for my gun. Alas! it was gone ! At the first shake of the tree by my visitor, a grizzly bear, the gun had fallen, and as it was cocked, it went off.
"The bear picked up the weapon and threw it violently away; then he again shook the tree with all his strength. I shouted:
"'I have still a bow and a quiver full of arrows; you had better let me alone.'
"He replied to this with a rough growl. I sent an arrow into his side, and he groaned like a man as he tried hard to pull it out. I had to give him several more before he went a short distance away, and died. It was now daylight, so I came down from my perch. I was stiff, and scarcely able to walk. I found that the bear had killed both of my little friends, the porcupines, and eaten most of the meat.
"Perhaps you wonder, Ohiyesa, why I did not use my gun in the beginning; but I had learned that if I once missed my aim with it, I had no second chance. I have told of this particular adventure, because it was an unusual experience to see so many different animals in one night. I have often been in similar places, and killed one or two. Once a common black bear stole a whole deer from me without waking me. But all this life is fast disappearing, and the world is becoming different."