Upon the wide tableland that lies at the back of a certain Indian agency, a camp of a thousand teepees was pitched in a circle, according to the ancient usage. In the center of the circle stood the council lodge, where there were gathered together of an afternoon all the men of years and distinction, some in blankets, some in uniform, and still others clad in beggarly white man's clothing. But the minds of all were alike upon the days of their youth and freedom.
Around the council fire they passed and repassed the pipe of peace, and when the big drum was struck they sang the accompaniment with sad yet pleasant thoughts of the life that is past. Between the songs stories of brave deeds and dangerous exploits were related by the actors in turn, with as much spirit and zest as if they were still living in those days.
"Tum, tum, tum," the drum was sounded.
"Oow, oow!" they hooted in a joyous chorus at the close of each refrain.
"Ho!" exclaimed finally the master of ceremonies for the evening. "It is Zuyamani's story of his great ride that we should now hear! It was not far from this place, upon the Missouri River, and within the recollection of many of us that this occurred. Ye young men must hear!"
"Ho, ho!" was the ready response of all present, and the drum was struck once according to custom. The pipe was filled and handed to Zuyamani, who gravely smoked for a few moments in silence. Then he related his contribution to the unwritten history of our frontier in these words:
"It was during the winter following that summer in which General Sibley pursued many of our people across the Muddy River (1863), that we Hunkpatees, friendly Sioux, were camping at a place called 'Hunt-the-Deer,' about two miles from Fort Rice, Dakota Territory.
"The Chief Soldier of the garrison called one day upon the leading chiefs of our band. To each one he said: 'Lend me your bravest warrior!' Each chief called his principal warriors together and laid the matter before them.
"'The Chief Soldier at this place,' they explained, 'wants to send a message to Fort Berthold, where the Rees and Mandans live, to another Chief Soldier there. The soldiers of the Great Father do not know the way, neither could any of them get through the lines. He asks for a brave man to carry his message.'
"The Mandans and the Rees were our hereditary enemies, but this was not the principal reason for our hesitation. We had declared allegiance to the Great Father at Washington; we had taken our stand against the fighting men of our own nation, and the hostile Sioux were worse than enemies to us at this time!
"Each chief had only called on his leading warriors, and each in turn reported his failure to secure a volunteer.
"Then the Chief Soldier sent again and said: 'Is there not a young man among you who dares to face death? If he reaches the fort with my message, he will need to be quick-witted as well as brave, and the Great Father will not forget him!'
"Now all the chiefs together called all the young men in a great council, and submitted to them the demand of the Great Father's servant. We knew well that the country between us and Fort Berthold, about one hundred and fifty miles distant, was alive with hostile Sioux, and that if any of us should be caught and recognized by them, he would surely be put to death. It would not be easy to deceive them by professing hostility to the Government, for the record of each individual Indian is well known. The warriors were still unwilling to go, for they argued thus: 'This is a white man's errand, and will not be recorded as a brave deed upon the honor roll of our people.' I think many would have volunteered but for that belief. At that time we had not a high opinion of the white man.
"Since all the rest were silent, it came into my mind to offer my services. The warriors looked at me in astonishment, for I was a very young man and had no experience.
"Our chief, Two Bears, who was my own uncle, finally presented my name to the commanding officer. He praised my courage and begged me to be vigilant. The interpreter told him that I had never been upon the war-path and would be knocked over like a rabbit, but as no one else would go, he was obliged to accept me as his messenger. He gave me a fine horse and saddle; also a rifle and soldier's uniform. I would not take the gun nor wear the blue coat. I accepted only a revolver, and I took my bow and quiver full of arrows, and wore my usual dress. I hid the letter in my moccasin.
"I set out before daybreak the next morning. The snow was deep. I rode up the river, on the west bank, keeping a very close watch all the way, but seeing nothing. I had been provided with a pair of field glasses, and I surveyed the country on all sides from the top of every hill. Having traveled all day and part of the night, I rested my horse and I took a little sleep.
"After eating a small quantity of pemmican, I made a very early start in the morning. It was scarcely light when I headed for a near-by ridge from which to survey the country beyond. Just as I ascended the rise I found myself almost surrounded by loose ponies, evidently belonging to a winter camp of the hostile Sioux.
"I readjusted my saddle, tightened the girths, and prepared to ride swiftly around the camp. I saw some men already out after ponies. No one appeared to have seen me as yet, but I felt that as soon as it became lighter they could not help observing me. I turned to make the circuit of the camp, which was a very large one, and as soon as I reached the timbered bottom lands I began to congratulate myself that I had not been seen.
"As I entered the woods at the crossing of a dry creek, I noticed that my horse was nervous. I knew that horses are quick to discover animals or men by scent, and I became nervous, too.
"The animal put his four feet together and almost slid down the steep bank. As he came out on the opposite side he swerved suddenly and started to run. Then I saw a man watching me from behind a tree. Fortunately for me, he carried no weapon. He was out after ponies, and had only a lariat wound upon one shoulder.
"He beckoned and made signs for me to stop, but I spurred my horse and took flight at once. I could hear him yelling far behind me, no doubt to arouse the camp and set them on my trail.
"As I fled westward, I came upon another man, mounted, and driving his ponies before him. He yelled and hooted in vain; then turned and rode after me. Two others had started in pursuit, but my horse was a good one, and I easily outdistanced them at the start.
"After I had fairly circled the camp, I turned again toward the river, hoping to regain the bottom lands. The traveling was bad. Sometimes we came to deep gulches filled with snow, where my horse would sink in up to his body and seem unable to move. When I jumped off his back and struck him once or twice, he would make several desperate leaps and recover his footing. My pursuers were equally hindered, but by this time the pursuit was general, and in order to terrify me they yelled continually and fired their guns into the air. Now and then I came to a gulch which I had to follow up in search of a place to cross, and at such times they gained on me. I began to despair, for I knew that the white man's horses have not the endurance of our Indian ponies, and I expected to be chased most of the day.
"Finally I came to a ravine that seemed impossible to cross. As I followed it up, it became evident that some of them had known of this trap, and had cut in ahead of me. I felt that I must soon abandon my horse and slide down the steep sides of the gulch to save myself.
"However, I made one last effort to pass my enemies. They came within gunshot and several fired at me, although all our horses were going at full speed. They missed me, and being at last clear of them, I came to a place where I could cross, and the pursuit stopped."
When Zuyamani reached this point in his recital, the great drum was struck several times, and all the men cheered him.
"The days are short in winter," he went on after a short pause, "and just now the sun sank behind the hills. I did not linger. I continued my journey by night, and reached Fort Berthold before midnight. I had been so thoroughly frightened and was so much exhausted that I did not want to talk, and as soon as I had delivered my letters to the post commander, I went to the interpreter's quarters to sleep.
"The interpreter, however, announced my arrival, and that same night many Ree, Gros Ventre, and Mandan warriors came to call upon me. Among them was a great chief of the Rees, called Poor Dog.
"'You must be,' said he to me, 'either a very young man, or a fool! You have not told us about your close escape, but a runner came in at dusk and told us of the pursuit. He reported that you had been killed by the hostiles, for he heard many guns fired about the middle of the afternoon. These white men will never give you any credit for your wonderful ride, nor will they compensate you for the risks you have taken in their service. They will not give you so much as one eagle feather for what you have done!'
"The next day I was sent for to go to headquarters, and there I related my all-day pursuit by the hostile Sioux. The commanding officer advised me to remain at the fort fifteen days before making the return trip, thinking that by that time my enemies might cease to look for me.
"At the end of the fortnight he wrote his letters, and I told him that I was ready to start. 'I will give you,' he said, 'twenty Rees and Gros Ventres to escort you past the hostile camp.' We set out very early and rode all day, so that night overtook us just before we reached the camp.
"At nightfall we sent two scouts ahead, but before they left us they took the oath of the pipe in token of their loyalty. You all know the ancient war custom. A lighted pipe was held toward them and each one solemnly touched it, after which it was passed as usual.
"We followed more slowly, and at about midnight we came to the place where our scouts had agreed to meet us. They were to return from a reconnaissance of the camp and report on what they had seen. It was a lonely spot, and the night was very cold and still. We sat there in the snowy woods near a little creek and smoked in silence while we waited. I had plenty of time to reflect upon my position. These Gros Ventres and Rees have been our enemies for generations. I was one man to twenty! They had their orders from the commander of the fort, and that was my only safeguard.
"Soon we heard the howl of a wolf a little to the westward. Immediately one of the party answered in the same manner. I could not have told it from the howl of a real wolf. Then we heard a hooting owl down the creek. Another of our party hooted like an owl.
"Presently the wolf's voice sounded nearer, while the owl's hoot came nearer in the opposite direction. Then we heard the footsteps of ponies on the crisp, frosty air. The scout who had been imitating the wolf came in first, and the owl soon followed. The warriors made a ring and again filled the pipe, and the scouts took the oath for the second time.
"After smoking, they reported a trail going up a stream tributary to the Missouri, but whether going out or coming in it was impossible to tell in the dark. It was several days old. This was discussed for some time. The question was whether some had gone out in search of meat, or whether some additional men had come into camp.
"The Bunch of Stars was already a little west of the middle sky when we set out again. They agreed to take me a short distance beyond this creek and there leave me, as they were afraid to go any further. On the bank of the creek we took a farewell smoke. There was a faint glow in the east, showing that it was almost morning. The warriors sang a 'Strong Heart' song for me in an undertone as I went on alone.
"I tried to make a wide circuit of the camp, but I passed their ponies grazing all over the side hills at a considerable distance, and I went as quietly as possible, so as not to frighten them. When I had fairly passed the camp I came down to the road again, and I let my horse fly!
"I had been cautioned at the post that the crossings of the creeks on either side of the camp were the most dangerous places, since they would be likely to watch for me there. I had left the second crossing far behind, and I felt quite safe; but I was tired and chilled by the long ride. My horse, too, began to show signs of fatigue. In a deep ravine where there was plenty of dry wood and shelter, I cleared the ground of snow and kindled a small fire. Then I gave the horse his last ration of oats, and I ate the last of the pemmican that the Ree scouts had given me.
"Suddenly he pricked up his ears in the direction of home. He ate a mouthful and listened again. I began to grow nervous, and I listened, too. Soon I heard the footsteps of horses in the snow at a considerable distance.
"Hastily I mounted and took flight along the ravine until I had to come out upon the open plain, in full view of a party of about thirty Sioux in war-paint, coming back from the direction of Fort Rice. They immediately gave chase, yelling and flourishing their guns and tomahawks over their heads. I urged my horse to his best speed, for I felt that if they should overtake me, nothing could save me! My friend, White Elk, here, was one of that warparty.
"I saw that I had a fair lead and the best horse, and was gaining upon them, when about two miles out I met some more of the party who had lingered behind the rest. I was surrounded!
"I turned toward the north, to a deep gulch that I knew I should find there, and I led my horse along a narrow and slippery ridge to a deep hole. Here I took up my position. I guarded the pass with my bow and arrows, and they could not reach me unless they should follow the ridge in single file. I knew that they would not storm my position, for that is not the Indian way of fighting, but I supposed that they would try to tire me out. They yelled and hooted, and shot many bullets and arrows over my head to terrify me into surrender, but I remained motionless and silent.
"Night came, with a full round moon. All was light as day except the place where I stood, half frozen and not daring to move. The bottom of the gulch was as black as a well and almost as cold. The wolves howled all around me in the stillness.
At last I heard the footsteps of horses retreating, and then no other sound. Still I dared not come out. I must have slept, for it was dawn when I seemed to hear faintly the yelling of warriors, and then I heard my own name.
"'Zuyamani, tokiya nunka huwo?' (Where are you, Zuyamani?) they shouted. A party of my friends had come out to meet me and had followed our trail. I was scarcely able to walk when I came out, but they filled the pipe and held it up to me, as is done in recognition of distinguished service. They escorted me into the post, singing war songs and songs of brave deeds, and there I delivered up his letters to the Chief Soldier."
Again the drum was struck and the old men cheered Zuyamani, who added:
"I think that Poor Dog was right, for the Great Father never gave me any credit, nor did he ever reward me for what I had done. Yet I have not been without honor, for my own people have not forgotten me, even though I went upon the white man's errand."