One day in the time of the Yellow-grass the Fire Eater had sat for hours, without moving, beside his tepee, looking vacantly out across the hills and speaking to no human being. His good squaws and even his much cherished children went about the camping-space quietly, not caring to disturb the master. He was tired of the lazy sunshine of home; the small cackle of his women, one to another, annoyed him; he was strong with the gluttony of the kettle which was ever boiling; the longing for fierce action and the blood-thirst had taken possession of him. Many times he reached up with his hand to the crown of his head and patted the skin of the little brown bat, which was his medicine. This constantly talked to him in his brown study, saying: "Look--look at the war-ponies--the big dogs are fat and kick at each other as they stand on the lariats. They are saying you are too old for them; they are saying that the Fire Eater will ride on a travvis. They think that the red hands will no more be painted on their flanks."
But the warrior, still with his sleepy dog-stare fixed on the vacant distance, answered the bat-skin: "We will seek the help of the Good Gods to-night; we will see if the path is clear before us. My shadow is very black beside me here--I am strong." Thus the Indian and his medicine easily agreed with each other in these spiritual conversations--which thing gave the Fire Eater added respect for the keeper of his body and his shadow-self.
Far into the night the preoccupied Indian leaned against his resting-mat watching the little flames leaping from the split sticks as his youngest squaw laid them on the fire. The flickering yellows sang to him:
"The fire does not sit still,
The fire does not sit still--
Come, brother, take up the pony-whip,
Come, brother, take up the pony-whip,"
and much more that was soothing to his mood.
After a time he sprang to his feet and drove the woman out of the lodge. Untying his war-bags he produced a white buffalo-robe and arranged it to sit on. This was next to the bat-skin his strongest protector. When seated on it he lost contact with the earth--he was elevated above all its influences. Having arranged his gun, shield and war-bonnet over certain medicine-arrows the sacred bat-skin was placed on top. This last had in the lapse of years been worn to a mere shred and was now contained in a neat buckskin bag highly ornamented with work done by squaws. Lighting his medicine-pipe, after having filled it in the formal manner due on such occasions, he blew the sacrificial whiffs to the four corners of the world, to the upper realms and to the lower places and then addressed the Good Gods. All the mundane influences had departed--even his body had been left behind. He was in communion with the spirit world--lost in the expectancy of revelation. He sang in monotonous lines, repeating his extemporizations after the Indian manner, and was addressing the Thunder Being--the great bird so much sought by warriors. He sat long before his prayers were heeded, but at last could hear the rain patter on the dry sides of the tepee and he knew that the Thunder Bird had broken through the air to let the rain fall. A great wind moaned through the encampment and in crushing reverberations the Thunder Bird spoke to the Fire Eater: "Go--go to the Absaroke--take up your pony-whip--your gun wants to talk to them--your ponies squeal on the ropes--your bat says no arrow or bullet can find him--you will find me over your head in time of danger. When you hear me roar across the sky and see my eyes flash fire--sit down and be still --I am driving your enemies back. When you come again back to the village you must sacrifice many robes and ponies to me." Lower and lower spoke the great bird as he passed onward--the rain ceased to beat--the split sticks no longer burned--the Fire Eater put up the sacred things and was alone in the darkness.
In the early morning the devotee stalked over to the great war-prophet--a mystery man of the tribe who could see especially far on contemplated war-paths. The sun was bright when they were done with their conversation, but the signs were favorable to the spirit of war. The Thunder Bird had on the preceding night also told the war-prophet that the Chis-chis-chash had sat too long in their lodges, which was the reason why he had come to urge activity.
Accordingly--without having gone near the boiled meat--the Fire Eater took the war-pipe around the Red Lodges and twenty young men gladly smoked it. In council of the secret clan the war-prophet and the sub-chief voiced for war. The old chiefs and the wise men grown stiff from riding and conservative toward a useless waste of young warriors, blinked their beady eyes in protest but they did not imperil their popularity by advice to the contrary. The young men's blood-thirst and desire for distinction could not be curbed. So the war-prophet repaired to his secret lodge to make the mystery, while the warriors fasted until it was done. Everything about the expedition had been faithfully attended to; all the divinities had been duly consulted; the council had legitimatized it; the Fire Eater had been appointed leader; the war-prophet had the sacred protection forthcoming, and no band had lately gone forth from the village with so many assurances of success.
For many days the little streak of ponies wound over the rolling brown land toward the north. Each man rode a swift horse and led another alongside. Far ahead ranged the cautious spies; no sailing hawk, no wailing coyote, no blade of grass did anything which was not reasoned out by mind or noted by their watchful eyes.
The Absaroke were the friends of the Yellow-Eyes who had a little fort at the mouth of the Muscleshell, where they gave their guns and gauds in great quantities. The Chis-chis-chash despised the men who wore hats. They barely tolerated and half protected their own traders. Nothing seemed so desirable as to despoil the Absaroke traders. They had often spied on the fort but always found the protecting Absaroke too numerous. The scouts of the Fire Eater, however, found immense trace of their enemy's main camp as it moved up the valley of the Yellow-stone. They knew that the Absaroke had finished their yellow-grass trading and had gone to hunt the buffalo. They hoped to find the little fort unprotected. Accordingly they sped on toward that point, which upon arrival they found sitting innocently alone in the grand landscape. Not a tepee was to be seen.
Having carefully reconnoitered and considered the place, they left their horses in a dry washout and crawled toward it through the sage brush. As the sky grew pale toward the early sun there was no sign of discovery from its silent pickets. When within a hundred yards, in response to the commanding war-cry of the Fire Eater, they rose like ghosts from the sage and charged fast on the stockade. The gray logs stood stiffly unresponsive and gave no answering shots or yells as the Indians swept upon them. The gate was high, but the attacking force crept up on each other's bent backs as they strove for the interior. A tremendous commotion arose; rifles blazed inside and out. Two or three Indians sprang over but were shot down. Hatchets hacked at the timbers; gun-muzzles and drawn arrows sought the crevices in the logs; piercing yells rose above the hoarse shouts of the besieged for the stockade was full of white men.
The savages had not noticed a great number of Mackinaw boats drawn up on the river bank and concealed by low bushes. These belonged to a brigade of freighters who were temporarily housed in the post. As the surprised whites and creoles swarmed to the defense the Indians found themselves outnumbered three to one. The Fire Eater, seeing several braves fall before the ever-increasing fire from the palisades and knowing he could not scale the barrier, ordered a withdrawal. The beaten band drew slowly away carrying the stricken brothers.
The medicine was bad--the war-prophet had not had free communication with the mystery of the Good Gods. Some one had allowed himself to walk in a beaten path or had violated the sacred rights of the warpath, and the spirit of secrecy had left their moccasins. The skin of the little brown bat did not comfort the Fire Eater in his fallen state. He cast many burning glances back at the logs, now becoming mellowed by the morning light. The sun had apparently thrown his protection over them and the omen struck home to the wondering, savage mind. He remembered that the old men had always said that the medicine of the Yellow-Eyes was very strong and that they always fought insensibly like the gray bears. The flashing rifles which had blown their bodies back from the fort had astonished these Indians less by their execution than by the indication they gave that the powers of darkness were not with them. They looked askance at the Fire Eater for their ill-success. He was enraged--a sudden madness had overpowered and destroyed his sense of the situation. One of those moods had come upon the savage child-mind when the surging blood made his eyes gleam vacantly like the great cats.
Slowly the dismayed band withdrew to the washout--casting backward glances at the walls which had beaten down their ambitions and would paint the tribes with ashes and blood-sacrifices for the lost. When there, they sat about dejectedly, finding no impulse to do more.
From out of the west, in response to their blue despondency, the clouds blew over the plains--the thunder rumbled--the rain came splashing and beating and then fell in blinding sheets. The Fire Eater arose and standing on the edge of the bank raised his arms in thanks to the Thunder Bird for his interposition in their behalf, saying: "Brothers, the Thunder Bird has come to his poor warriors to drive our enemies back as was promised to the prophet. He will put out the fires of the Yellow-Eyes, behind their medicine-logs. We are not afraid--our medicine is strong."
|"The Fire Eater raised his arms to the Thunder Bird."|
The beaver-men--the traders--the creoles and the half-breeds slid from their horses and showered their bullets over the washout, throwing clouds of wet dirt over the braves crowding under its banks. The frightened Indian ponies swarmed out of one end of the cut, but were soon brought back and herded together in the sagebrush by the moccasin boys of the Yellow-Eyes.
In maddened bewilderment the Fire Eater leaped upon the flat plain, made insulting gestures and shouted defiant words in his own language at the flashing guns. Above the turmoil could be heard the harsh, jerky voice which came from the bowels of the warrior rather than from his lips. No bullet found him as he stepped back into cover, more composed than when he had gone out. The nervous thrill had expanded itself in the speech. To his own mind the Fire Eater was a dead man; his medicine had departed; his spiritual protection was gone. He recognized that to live his few remaining hours was all--he had only to do the mere act of dying; and that he would do as his demon nature willed it. His last sun was looking down upon him.
The Yellow-Eyes knew their quarry well. They recognized of old the difference between an Indian cooped up in a hole in a flat plain and one mounted on a swift war-pony, with a free start, and the whole plain for a race-track. They advanced with all caution--crawling, sneaking through sage and tufted grass. Occasionally as an Indian exposed himself to fire, a swift bullet from a beaver-man's long rifle crashed into his head, rolling him back with oozing brains. The slugs and ounce balls slapped into the dirt from the muskets of the creole _engages_ and they were losing warrior after warrior. By cutting the dirt with their knives the Indians dug into the banks, avoiding a fire which raked the washout; and by throwing the dirt up on either side they protected their heads as they raised to fire.
A man walking over the flats by midday would have seen nothing but feeding ponies and occasional flashes of fire close to the grass, but a flying raven would have gloated over a scene of many future gorges. It would have seen many lying on their backs in the ditch--lying quite still and gazing up at his wheeling flight with stony gaze.
The white men had no means of knowing how successful had been the rifle-fire and they hesitated to crawl closer. Each party in turn taunted the other in unknown tongues, but they well knew that the strange voices carried fearful insult from the loud defiance of the intonation. The gray bears or the mountain cats were as merciful as any there. As the sun started on its downward course the nature of the Gothic blood asserted itself. The white men had sat still until they could sit still no longer. They had fasted too long. They talked to each other through the sagebrush, and this is what happened when they cast the dice between Death and Dinner: A tall, long-haired man clad in the fringed buckskin of a Rocky Mountain trapper of the period, passed slowly around the circle of the siege, shouting loudly to those concealed among the brush and grasses. What he said the Chis-chis-chash did not know, but they could see him pointing at them continually.
The Fire Eater raised his voice: "Brothers, keep your guns full of fire; lay all your arrows beside you; put your war-ax under you. The Yellow-Eyes are going to kill us as we do the buffalo in a surround. Brothers, if the Thunder Bird does not come our fires will go out now. We will take many to the spirit-land."
Having completed the circle the tall white man waved a red blanket and started on a run toward the place where the Indians lay. From all sides sprang the besiegers converging with flying feet. When nearly in contact the Indians fired their guns, killing and wounding. The whites in turn excitedly emptied theirs and through the smoke with lowered heads charged like the buffalo. The bowstrings twanged and the ravens could only see the lightning sweep of axes and furious gun-butts going over the pall of mingled dust and powder smoke. If the ravens were watching they would have seen nothing more except a single naked Indian run out of the turmoil, and after a quick glance backward speed away through the sagebrush. He could not fight for victory now; he only sought to escape; he was deserted by his Gods; he ran on the tightened muscles of a desperate hope.
A bunch of horses had been left huddled by a squad of the enemy who had gone in with the charge on post and for these the Fire Eater made. No one seemed to notice the lone runner until a small herds-boy spied him, and though he raised his childish treble it made no impression. The Fire Eater picked up a dropped pony-whip and leading two ponies out of the bunch, mounted and lashed away. He passed the screaming boy within killing distance, but it was an evil day.
Before the small herder's voice asserted itself he was long out of rifleshot though not out of pony-reach.
A dozen men dashed after him. The warrior plied his whip mercilessly in alternate slaps on each pony-quarter and the bareback savage drew steadily away to the hills. For many miles the white men lathered their horses after, but one by one gave up the chase. The dice doubtless said dinner as against an Indian with a double mount and many will think they gave a wise choice.
On flew the Fire Eater. Confusion had come to him. The bat on his scalp-lock said never a word. His heart was upside down within him. His shadow flew away before him. The great mystery of his tribe had betrayed and bewitched him. The Yellow-Eyed medicine would find him yet.
From a high divide the fugitive stopped beside a great rock to blow his horses and he turned his eyes on the scene of ill-fate. He saw the Yellow-Eyes ride slowly back to their medicine-logs--he saw the ravens lighting down on the dry watercourse and for a long time he stood--not thinking--only gazing heavy-headed and vacant.
After a time he pulled his ponies' heads up from the grass and trotted them away. Growing composed, with his blood stilled, thoughts came slowly. He thanked the little brown bat when it reminded him of his savior. A furious flood of disappointment overcame him when he thought of his lifelong ambitions as a warrior--now only dry, white ashes.
Could he go back to the village and tell all? The council of the Red Lodges would not listen to his voice as they had before. When he spoke they would cast their eyes on the ground in sorrow. The Thunder Bird had demanded a sacrifice from him when he returned. He could not bear the thoughts of the wailing women and the screaming children and the old men smoking in silence as he passed through the camp. He could not wash the ashes from the faces of his people. The thoughts of it all deadened his soul, and he turned his ponies to the west. He would not go back. He had died with his warriors.
When the lodges lay covered with snow the Chis-chis-chash sang songs to the absent ones of the Fire Eater's band. Through the long, cold nights the women sat rocking and begging the gods to bring them back their warriors. The "green-grass" came and the prophet of the Red Lodges admitted that the medicine spoke no more of the absent band. By "yellow-grass" hope grew cold in the village and socially they had readjusted themselves. It had happened in times past that even after two snows had come and gone warriors had found the path back to the camp, but now men saw the ghost of the Fire Eater in dreams, together with his lost warriors.
Another snow passed and still another. The Past had grown white in the shadows of an all-enduring Present when the Chis-chis-chash began to hear vague tales from their traders of a mighty war-chief who had come down to the Shoshones from the clouds. He was a great "wakan" and he spoke the same language as the Chis-chis-chash. This chief said he had been a Cheyenne in his former life on earth, but had been sent back to be a Shoshone for another life. The Indians were overcome by an insatiate curiosity to see this being and urged the traders to bring him from the Shoshones--promising to protect and honor him. The traders dominated by avarice, hoping to better their business, humored the stories and enlarged upon them. They half understood that the mystery of life and death are inextricably mixed in savage minds--that they come and go, passing in every form from bears to inanimate things or living in ghosts which grow out of a lodge fire. So for heavy considerations in beaver skins they sent representatives to the Sho-shones and there for an armful of baubles they prevailed upon those people to allow their supernatural war-chief to visit his other race out on the great meadows.
"If in the time of the next green-grass," said the trader, "the Chis-chis-chash have enough beaver, we will bring their brother who died back to their camp. We will lead him into the tribal council. If on the other hand they do not have enough skins, our medicine will be weak."
In the following spring the tribe gathered at the appointed time and place, camping near the post. The big council-lodge was erected--everything was arranged--the great ceremonial-pipe was filled and the council-fire kept smoldering. Many packages of beaver-skins were unloaded by squaws at the gate of the traders and all important persons foregathered in the lodge.
When the pipe had passed slowly and in form the head-chief asked the trader if he saw beaver enough outside his window. This one replied that he did and sent for the man who had been dead.
The council sat in silence with its eyes upon the ground. From the commotion outside they felt an awe of the strange approach. Never before had the Chis-chis-chash been so near the great mystery. The door-flap was lifted and a fully painted, gorgeously arrayed warrior stepped into the centre of the circle and stood silently with raised chin.
There was a loud murmur on the outside but the lodge was like a grave. A loud grunt came from one man--followed by another until the hollow walls gave back like a hundred tom-toms. They recognized the Fire Eater, but no Indian calls another by his name.
Raising his hand with the dignity which Indians have in excess of all other men the Fire Eater said: "Brothers, it makes my heart big to look at you again. I have been dead but I came to life again. I was sent back by the gods to complete another life on earth. The Thunder Bird made the Yellow-Eyes kill all my band when we went against the Absaroke. My medicine grew weak before the white man's medicine. Brothers, they are very strong. Always beware of the medicine of the traders and the beaver-men. They are fools and women themselves but the gods give them guns and other medicine things. He can make them see what is to happen long before he tells the Indians. They can see us before we come and know what we are thinking about. They have brought me back to my people, and my medicine says I must be a Chis-chis-chash until I die again. Brothers, I have made my talk."