WE were encamped at one time on the Souris or Mouse river, a tributary of the Assiniboine. The buffaloes were still plenty; hence we were living on the "fat of the land." One afternoon a scout came in with the announcement that a body of United States troops was approaching! This report, of course, caused much uneasiness among our people.
A council was held immediately, in the course of which the scout was put through a rigid examination. Before a decision had been reached, another scout came in from the field. He declared that the moving train reported as a body of troops was in reality a train of Canadian carts.
The two reports differed so widely that it was deemed wise to send out more runners to observe this moving body closely, and ascertain definitely its character. These soon returned with the positive information that the Canadians were at hand, "for," said they, "there are no bright metals in the moving train to send forth flashes of light. The separate bodies are short, like carts with ponies, and not like the long, four-wheeled wagon drawn by four or six mules, that the soldiers use. They are not buffaloes, and they cannot be mounted troops, with pack-mules, because the individual bodies are too long for that. Besides, the soldiers usually have their chief, with his guards, leading the train; and the little chiefs are also separated from the main body and ride at one side!"
From these observations it was concluded that we were soon to meet with the bois brules, as the French call their mixed-bloods, presumably from the color of their complexions. Some say that they are named from the "burned forests" which, as wood-cutters, they are accustomed to leave behind them. Two or three hours later, at about sunset, our ears began to distinguish the peculiar music that always accompanied a moving train of their carts. It is like the grunting and squealing of many animals, and is due to the fact that the wheels and all other parts of these vehicles are made of wood. Our dogs gleefully augmented the volume of inharmonious sound.
They stopped a little way from our camp, upon a grassy plain, and the ponies were made to wheel their clumsy burdens into a perfect circle, the shafts being turned inward. Thus was formed a sort of barricade – quite a usual and necessary precaution in their nomadic and adventurous life. Within this circle the tents were pitched, and many cheerful fires were soon kindled. The garcons were hurriedly driving the ponies to water, with much cracking of whips and outbursting of impatient oaths.
Our chief and his principal warriors briefly conferred with the strangers, and it was understood by both parties that no thought of hostilities lurked in the minds of either.
After having observed the exchange of presents that always follows a "peace council," there were friendly and hospitable feasts in both camps. The bois brules had been long away from any fort or trading-post, and it so happened that their inevitable whiskey keg was almost empty. They had diluted the few gills remaining with several large kettles full of water. In order to have any sort of offensive taste, it was necessary to add cayenne pepper and a little gentian.
Our men were treated to this concoction; and seeing that two or three of the half-breeds pretended to become intoxicated, our braves followed their example. They made night intolerable with their shouts and singing until past midnight, when gradually all disturbance ceased, and both camps appeared to be wrapped in deep slumber.
Suddenly the loud report of a gun stirred the sleepers. Many more reports were heard in quick succession, all coming from the camp of the bois brules. Every man among the Sioux sprang to his feet, weapon in hand, and many ran towards their ponies. But there was one significant point about the untimely firing of the guns – they were all directed heavenward! One of our old men, who understood better than any one else the manners of the half-breeds, thus proclaimed at the top of his voice:
"Let the people sleep! This that we have heard is the announcement of a boy's advent into the world! It is their custom to introduce with gunpowder a new-born boy!"
Again quiet was restored in the neighboring camps, and for a time the night reigned undisturbed. But scarcely had we fallen into a sound sleep when we were for the second time rudely aroused by the firing of guns and the yelling of warriors. This time it was discovered that almost all the ponies, including those of our neighbors, had been stealthily driven off by horse-thieves of another tribe.
These miscreants were adepts in their profession, for they had accomplished their purpose with much skill, almost under the very eyes of the foe, and had it not been for the invincible superstition of Slow Dog, they would have met with complete success. As it was, they caused us no little trouble and anxiety, but after a hot pursuit of a whole day, with the assistance of the halfbreeds our horses were recaptured.
Slow Dog was one of those Indians who are filled with conceit, and boasting loudly their pretensions as medicine men, without any success, only bring upon themselves an unnecessary amount of embarrassment and ridicule. Yet there is one quality always possessed by such persons, among a savage people as elsewhere – namely, great perseverance and tenacity in their self-assertion. So the blessing of ignorance kept Slow Dog always cheerful; and he seemed, if anything, to derive some pleasure from the endless insinuations and ridicule of the people!
Now Slow Dog had loudly proclaimed, on the night before this event, that he had received the warning of a bad dream, in which he had seen all the ponies belonging to the tribe stampeded and driven westward.
"But who cares for Slow Dog's dream?" said everybody; "none of the really great medicine men have had any such visions!"
Therefore our little community, given as they were to superstition, anticipated no special danger. It is true that when the first scout reported the approach of troops some of the people had weakened, and said to one another:
"After all, perhaps poor Slow Dog may be right; but we are always too ready to laugh at him! "
However, this feeling quickly passed away when the jovial Canadians arrived, and the old man was left alone to brood upon his warning.
He was faithful to his dream. During all the hilarity of the feast and the drinking of the mock whiskey, be acted as self-constituted sentinel. Finally, when everybody else had succumbed to sleep, he gathered together several broken and discarded lariats of various materials – leather, buffalo's hair and horse's hair. Having lengthened this variegated rope with innumerable knots, he fastened one end of it around the neck of his old war-horse, and tied the other to his wrist. Instead of sleeping inside the tent as usual, he rolled himself in a buffalo robe and lay down in its shadow. From this place he watched until the moon had disappeared behind the western horizon; and just as the grey dawn began to appear in the east his eyes were attracted to what seemed to be a dog moving among the picketed ponies. Upon a closer scrutiny, he saw that its actions were unnatural.
"Toka abe do! toka abe do!" (the enemy! the enemy!) exclaimed Slow Dog. With a warwhoop he sprang toward the intruder, who rose up and leaped upon the back of Slow Dog's warsteed. He had cut the hobble, as well as the device of the old medicine man.
The Sioux now bent his bow to shoot, but it was too late. The other quickly dodged behind the animal, and from under its chest he sent a deadly arrow to Slow Dog's bosom. Then he remounted the pony and set off at full speed after his comrades, who had already started.
As the Sioux braves responded to the alarm, and passed by the daring old warrior in pursuit of their enemies, who had stampeded most of the loose ponies, the old man cried out:
"I, brave Slow Dog, who have so often made a path for you on the field of battle, am now about to make one to the land of spirits!"
So speaking, the old man died. The Sioux were joined in the chase by the friendly mixedbloods, and in the end the Blackfeet were compelled to pay dearly for the blood of the poor old man.
On that beautiful morning all Nature seemed brilliant and smiling, but the Sioux were mourning and wailing for the death of one who had been an object of ridicule during most of his life. They appreciated the part that Slow Dog had played in this last event, and his memory was honored by all the tribe.