The year passed until the snow fell no longer and Big Hair said the medicine chiefs had called it "The Falling Stars Winter" and had painted the sign on the sacred robes. The new grass changed from yellow to a green velvet, while the long hair blew off the horses' hides in bunches and their shrunken flanks filled up with fat. As Nature awoke from the chill and began to circulate the Indians responded to its feel. They stalked among the pony herds, saying to each other: "By the middle of the moon of the new Elk Horns, these big dogs will carry us to war. There the enemy will know that the Chis-chis-chash did not die in the snow. There will be blood in our path this grass."
Red Arrow and the Bat prayed often together to the Good God for fortune in war, as they sat in the lodge running their eyes along their arrows, picking those which were straightest, and singing:
"This arrow is straight
This arrow is straight
It will kill us a man
It will kill us a man--"
and the Bat boasted to his chum: "When I come to the enemy, I shall go nearer than any other Red Lodge man. I shall have more scalps to dance and no bullet or arrow can stop the Bat when he strikes his pony with the whip." Red Arrow believed this as much as the boaster did, for men must believe they will do these things before they do them. "Red Arrow, we will not go with a big war-party. We will go with Iron Horn's band of twenty warriors. Then next winter at the warriors' feasts when we tell what we did, we will count for something. Red Arrow, we will see for the first time the great war-medicine."
The boys of the camp herded the ponies where the grass was strongest, and the warriors watched them grow. It was the policy of the tribe to hang together in a mass, against the coming of the enemy, for the better protection of the women and the little ones, but no chiefs or councils were strong enough to stop the yearning of the young Cheyennes for military glory. All self-esteem, all applause, all power and greatness, came only down that fearful road--the war trail. Despite the pleadings of tribal policy Iron Horn, a noted war- and mystery-man, secretly organized his twenty men for glorious death or splendid triumph. Their orders went forth in whispers. "By the full of the moon at the place where the Drowned Buffalo water tumbled over the rocks one day's pony-travel to the west."
Not even Seet-se-be-a knew why the Bat was not sitting back against his willow-mat in the gray morning when she got up to make the kettle boil, but she had a woman's instinct which made her raise the flap to look out. The two war-ponies were gone. Glancing again behind the robes of his bed she saw, too, that the oiled rifle was missing. Quickly she ran to the lodge of Red Arrow's father, wailing, "My man has gone, my man has gone--his fast ponies are gone--his gun is gone," and all the dogs barked and ran about in the shadows while Red Arrow's mother appeared in the hole in the tepee, also wailing, "My boy has gone, my boy has gone," and the village woke up in a tumult. Everyone understood. The dogs barked, the women wailed, the children cried, the magpies fluttered overhead while the wolves answered back in piercing yells from the plains beyond.
Big Hair sat up and filled his pipe. He placed his medicine-bag on the pole before him and blew smoke to the four sides of the earth and to the top of the lodge saying: "Make my boy strong. Make his heart brave, O Good Gods--take his pony over the dog-holes--make him see the enemy first!" Again he blew the smoke to the deities and continued to pray thus for an hour until the sun-lit camp was quiet and the chiefs sat under a giant cotton-wood, devising new plans to keep the young men at home.
Meanwhile from many points the destined warriors loped over the rolling landscape to the rendezvous. Tirelessly all day long they rose and fell as the ponies ate up the distance to the Drowned Buffalo, stopping only at the creeks to water the horses. By twos and threes they met, galloping together--speaking not. The moon rose big and red over their backs, the wolves stopped howling and scurried to one side--the ceaseless thud of the falling hoofs continued monotonously, broken only by the crack of a lash across a horse's flank.
At midnight the faithful twenty men were still seated in a row around Iron Horn while the horses, too tired to eat, hung their heads. The old chief dismissed his war-party saying: "To-morrow we will make the mystery--we will find out whether the Good Gods will go with us to war or let us go alone."
Sunrise found the ponies feeding quietly, having recovered themselves, while the robed aspirants sat in a circle; the grass having been removed from the enclosed space and leveled down.
A young man filled the long medicine-pipe and Iron Horn blew sacrificial puffs about him, passing it in, saying: "Let no man touch the pipe who has eaten meat since the beginning of the last sun. If there are any such he must be gone--the Good Gods do not speak to full men." But the pipe made its way about the ring without stopping.
Iron Horn then walked behind the circle sticking up medicine-arrows in the earth--arrows made sacred by contact with the Great Medicine of the Chis-chis-chash and there would hold the Bad Gods in check while the Good Gods counseled.
Resuming his seat, he spoke in a harsh, guttural clicking: "What is said in this circle must never be known to any man who does not sit here now. The Bad Gods will hear what the Good Gods say in such an event and the man who tells against them will be deserted by the Good Gods forever. Every man must tell all his secrets--all the things he has thought about his brothers since the last war-medicine; all the things he has done with the women of the tribe; all that the Gods have whispered in his dreams. He must tell all and forever say no more," and Iron Horn rested on his words for a moment before continuing his confession.
"Brothers, I am a great medicineman--no arrow can touch me--I do not fear men. I am too old for the women to look upon. I did not say it at the time but when the sun was low on the land last winter I made it turn blue for a time. I made it cold in the land. Our horses were poor and when I made the sun blue we crusted the buffalo and killed many with our lances. Brothers, it was I who made the sun blue in the winter.
"Brothers, I love you all--I shall say no more," and Iron Horn threw tobacco on the earth in front of him.
A young man next to him dropped his robe from about his body and with fierce visage spoke excitedly, for it was his first confession, and his Indian secretiveness was straining under the ordeal. It was mostly about gallantries and dreams--all made like the confessions which followed. They were the deeds and thoughts common to young Indian men. They ministered to the curiosity of people whose world lay within the camping circle of their small tribe, and they were as truthful as a fear of God could make them, except the dreams, and they too were real to the Indian mind.
The men now began to paint themselves and to take their paraphernalia from their war-bags and put it on. Iron Horn said: "Brothers--when it is dark I will put a medicine-arrow Into the ground where my feet are now, and if in the morning it has not moved we will go back to the lodges; but if it has moved, we will go in the direction in which it points. When we start toward the enemy no man must eat, drink or sit down by day, no matter how long or fatiguing the march; if he halts for a moment he must turn his face toward his own country so that the Gods may see that it is his wish to return there. We must sleep with our own faces toward our village. No two men must lie covered by the same robe. He must not ride or walk in a beaten path lest the spirit of the path go running on ahead of us to warn the enemy, and if by chance we do, we must come to the big medicine and rub it on the horses' legs to ward off the danger." This said, Iron Horn said much more to his young braves--all the demon fears which the savage mind conjures up in its contact with the supernatural, together with stated forms of decorations to be painted on the ponies, and then he dismissed them, saying: "Come to the circle before the moon rises while it is yet dark, but meanwhile sit each man alone and in silence and we will see what the Good Gods do with the arrows."
The warriors led their ponies off to various points in the savage gorge and sat motionless the live-long day while the river rushed ceaselessly over the wild rocks and the ravens soared in the blue heavens.
By night they came gliding back--picking their way among the rocks and stood by the bared earth of the mystery place. The chief struck a light and bending over saw the arrow lying out in the middle of the space many feet away from where he had placed it. The smooth earth was dotted by the tracks of coyotes but the arrow pointed nearly southwest, and it was the way they must take. Rising, he pointed, saying: "The Good Gods say we must go this way--where they point. The medicine is strong--the Gods sent their little medicine-wolves to show us.
"We will make the sacrifices and then we will go. We shall strike the enemy."
They struck a pole in the center of the circle, and when the moon rose each warrior approached it and either hung some piece of rag or buckskin on it or put various implements at its foot, muttering meanwhile prayers for protection and success and rubbing the pole with his weapons to vitalize them spiritually.
By the full light of the moon the mounted men, each leading a horse, rode slowly off one after the other, into the hills, and they did not halt until nearly morning when they again sat in a magic circle and took heed of the medicine-arrows before lying down to sleep in a long row, facing toward the village.
The day following found the small war-party advancing cautiously, preceded far in advance on its flanks by watchful scouts. They were all eyes for any hunting bands of Utes or Shoshones and might see the Yellow-Eyes trooping along in a line as the ducks fly.
For days marched the band, winding through the hills or splashing through the flat river until early one morning they observed one of the scouts far in advance flashing a looking-glass from a hilltop. Lashing their horses they bore on toward him, dashing down the cut banks at reckless speed or clambering up them helter-skelter. No inequalities of ground opposed their desperate speed.
Arriving at the place they rode boldly up to the mounted scout and far down on the plains saw three Yellow-Eyes driving twelve pack-animals heavily loaded. They paused to repaint their faces and put the sacred war-marks on the ponies, not forgetting to tie up their tails before continuing the mad charge. The poor beaver-hunters saw the on-coming, knew their danger and instantly huddled their horses and began dropping their packs. They had selected a slight knoll of the prairie and before many minutes had a rude barricade constructed with their packages. Dropping behind this they awaited the Indians with freshly primed rifles and pistols.
The Chis-chis-chash rode in a perfect line and when within a hundred yards gave shrill ki-yi's, lashed their whips and the ponies clattered through the dust. It would be all over with the three luckless trappers in an instant. When nearly half the distance had been consumed three rifles cracked. Iron Horn and another warrior reeled on their mounts but clung desperately, stopping in no way the rush. In an instant when it seemed as if the Indians were about to trample the Yellow-Eyes, a thin trail of fire ran along the grass from the barricade and with a blinding flash a keg of powder exploded with terrific force right under the front feet of the rushing ponies. Pistols cracked from behind the pile of roped goods. Four ponies lay kicking on the grass together with six writhing men, all blackened, bleeding and scorched. The other ponies reeled away from the shock--running hopelessly from the scene with their unresting and half-stunned riders. All but one, for the Bat pulled desperately at his hair-lariat which was tied to the under jaw of the horse, striking his pony across the head with his elk-horn whip, and, lashing fiercely, he rushed the pony right to the barricade. Firing his rifle into it swerving, he struck the bunch of trapper-horses which had already begun to trot away from the turbulent scene, and drove them off in triumph. He alone had risen superior to the shock of the white man's fire trap.
Four of the wounded Indians got slowly to their feet, one after the other, and walked painfully away. The whites had reloaded meanwhile and fatally shot the last man as he was nearly out of range.
When the defeated party came together, it made a mystic circle in the turf of open prairie, not over three arrow flights from the Yellow-Eyes, and there sat down. In the center lay the Indian dead and three more, sightless, with their hair singed off and their bodies horribly scorched, while Iron Horn was stretched on a blanket, shot through the body and singing weakly his death-song.
|"He rushed the pony right to the barricade."|
They took the dead and wounded and deposited them near where the led-horses were kept. The injured men were attended to, and the dead buried carefully in robes.
"One warrior lies dead near the feet of Yellow-Eyes; if they get his scalp he will go to the hungry islands in the middle of the Big Water and we shall never see him in the spirit-land. We must not let them touch his hair, brothers. If the Yellow-Eyes come from behind their packs we must charge--we must eat the flying fire or all be rubbed out. If they do not come out the ravens will not have to wait long for the feast." Thus said the Bat. He had kept his word about going farther toward the enemy than any other and was now moved to resort to strategy. He did not martial his warriors in a line but deployed them about the citadel of the plains. That place, robbed of its horrors, gave no sign of life except a burned and injured pony which half raised itself and slowly moved its head from side to side in its agony. But behind it there was promise of deadly rifles and the bursting fire.
The warriors stood like vultures on the plains, by twos and threes, smoking and feeding their ponies from their lariats. They spoke of the chief no longer as the Bat, but called him "Fire Eater," or "The man who eats the flying fire." The ravens hovered about the place and wise gray wolves sat haunched in a still larger ring without. Slowly the sun moved across the heavens. The scene was quiet and pitiful.
Night came on, but nothing happened. Before the moon rose out of the darkness a rifle flashed behind the bales, when again the quiet became intensified by the explosion. The wolves sang their lullaby of death, but on the prairie that was as the ceaseless, peaceful surging of the waves on the ocean sand.
When the warriors returned in small parties to their camp for refreshment they saw the dead body of Owl Bear--he who had fallen outside the barricade of the Yellow-Eyes. The "Fire Eater" had brought it in during the night--having approached and carried it away--drawing the fire of the rifle but saving the hair and shadow-self of his brother.
For seven days the Chis-chis-chash stood about the doomed place. Twice they had approached it and had lost another warrior, shot by the fatal rifle of the beaver-men. Then they had drawn off and given up in the face of the deadly shooting--concluding to let nature work for the victory.
Becoming eager and restless on the last day, the "Fire Eater" wounded the white war-party. Splendidly painted and with feather hanging from his tail, he galloped out toward the fort. His brothers, seeing this rashness, closed in with him, but no sign of life came from the stronghold.
Boldly he rode up to the edge of the bales of goods, and glancing over saw the swelled and blackened bodies of the three beaver men and knew by the skinned lips and staring eyes that thirst had done its work. The braves gathered, but no man dismounted and one by one they turned and rode away. "The bad spirits of the dead may get into our bodies--come away--come away--the sun shines now, but we must be far away when the night sets in. Our medicine-arrows will keep them off after that," said the Fire Eater.
Much cast down the Red Lodge warriors gathered up their dead and rode slowly back toward the village.
On the morning of the second day the Cheyennes awoke to find the Fire Eater gone, but he had left his horses on their hands. "The young chief's heart is bad. He has gone away by himself. He will not want us to follow him. He cannot go into the village with our dead and wear the mourning paint," whispered they, one to another.
This was true--for the fierce spirit of the young man could not brook defeat. The Chis-chis-chash should never see blackened ashes on a cheek which was only fitted for the red paint. The shield of the Fire Eater should never face to the lance--the little brown bat flapped fiercely in the wind and screamed for blood and scalp braids. The warrior traveled lazily on his journey--light-hearted and fiercely resolved.
After many days of wolfish travel he saw signs of the vicinage of the Shoshone Indians. They were a hungry band who had come out of the mountains and were hunting the buffalo. He followed the pony tracks where they were not lost in the buffalo's trails, finding picked bones, bits of castaway clothing and other signs until he saw the scouts of the enemy riding about the hills. Approaching carefully in the early night and morning he found the camp and lay watching for depressions in the fall of some bluffs. But the young men were ceaselessly active, and he did not see an opportunity to approach. During the night he withdrew to a pine-clad rocky fortress which promised better concealment, and his surprise was great in the morning to see the Sho-shones preparing to make a buffalo-surround in the valley immediately in front of him. From all directions they came and encompassed the buffalo below.
|"The Fire Eater slung his victim across his pony, taking his scalp."|
On his road he met a belated scout of the enemy coming slowly on a jaded horse. This man suspected nothing until the Fire Eater raised his rifle, when he turned away to fly. It was too late and a second scalp soon dangled at the victor's belt. He did not take the tired horse for it was useless.
Swiftly he rode now for he knew that pursuit was sure, but if one was instituted it never came up and before many days the Cheyennes rode along his own tepees, waving the emblem of his daring, and the camp grew noisy with exultation. The mourning paint was washed from each face and the old pipe-men said: "The Bat will be a great leader in war--his medicine is very strong and he eats fire." The chiefs and council withheld their discipline, and the Fire Eater grew to be a great man in the little world of the Chis-chis-chash, though his affairs proportionately were as the "Battles of the Kites and Crows."