As the tops of the mountains grew white, the camp was moved into a deep gorge of the Big Horn Mountains out of the way of the trailing Yellow-Eyes. For a thousand feet the rock walls rose on either side. A narrow brook wound down between their narrow ways. Numerous lateral canons crossed the main one, giving grass and protection to their ponies. As it suited the individual tastes of the people, the lodges were placed in cozy places. When the snows fell the Indians forgot the wagon-soldiers, as they feasted and gossiped by their camp-fires.
They felt secure in their eerie home, though the camp-cryer frequently passed, shouting: "Do not let your ponies wander down the canon and make trails for the Yellow-Eyes to see." The women worked the colored beads and porcupine quills, chatted with each other, or built discreet romances as fancy dictated. The men gambled, or made smoke-talks by the night fires. It was the Indian time of social enjoyment.
Restless young men beat up the country in search of adventure; and only this day a party had arrived with Absaroke scalps which they were dancing after the sun had gone. The hollow beat of the tom-toms multiplied against the sides of the canon, together with the wild shrieking and yelling of the rejoicers; but the old Fire Eater had grown weary of dancing scalps. He had danced his youthful enthusiasm away, caring more to sit by his lodge fire playing with his little boy or passing the pipe with men who could remember the days which were better than these--with men who could recall to his mind the ardor of his lost youth. Thus he sat on this wild, whooping night with old Big Hand by his side to smoke his talk, and with his son asleep across his lap.
"Where did the war-party leave its trail as it came to the lodges?" he asked.
Big Hand in reply said: "The man who strikes said they came over the mountains--that the snow lay deep. They did not lead up from the plains. They obeyed the chiefs. If it was not so, the camp-soldiers would have beaten them with sticks. You have not heard the women or the dogs cry."
"It is good," continued the Fire Eater. "The wagon-soldiers will not find a trail on the high hills. The snow would stop their wheels. They will dream that the Chis-chis-chash were made into birds and have flown away." The Fire Eater chuckled as he loaded his pipe.
Then Big Hand: "I have heard, brother, that ponies passed the herders at the mouth of the canon last smoke. It was cold, and they had their robes tight over their heads. It is bad."
"Yes, you talk straight. It is bad for the pony-trails to show below where the land breaks. Some dog of an Absaroke who follows the Grey Fox may see them. Ponies do not go to live in the hills in the time of snow. The ponies will not travel straight, as the herders drive them back. They will understand. With another sun, I shall call the council. It will talk the herders' eyes open. The young men have closed ears in these days. The cold makes their bones stiff. Brother, when we were young we could see a horse pass in the night. We could smell him. We could tell if he had a man on his back."
Big Hand gave wise consideration to his companion's statement, saying it was as he spoke. "Brother, those big horses which we took from the pony-soldiers run badly in the herd. They gather in a bunch and run fast. They go over the herders when they see the valley. They will do nothing unless you strike them over the head. They are fools like their white riders were."
So the old men gravely passed the pipe over the little things of life, which to them bore all their interest in the world. The squaw combed her hair and from time to time put fresh sticks on the fire. After a while the boy woke up and stretched himself cubbishly across his father's knees. The ancient one gave him a piece of fresh meat, which he held in both hands as he gnawed it, smearing his chubby face with grease. Having devoured his morsel he blinked sleepily, and the old Indian tucked him away in the warm recesses of his old buffalo-robe couch, quite naked, as it was their custom to sleep during the winter nights. Long sat the smokers, turning their tongues over youthful remembrances, until Big Hand arose and drawing his robe about him, left the lodge.
The Fire Eater removed the small buckskin bag which contained his little brown bat's skin from his scalp-lock and smoked to it saying: "Keep the big horses from running down the canyon--keep the eyes of the herders open while I sleep--keep the little boy warm--keep the bad spirits outside the lodge after the fire can no longer see them." With these devotions concluded, he put the relic of the protection of the Good Gods in his war-bag which hung on his resting-mat over his head. Undressing, he buried himself in his buffalo robes. The fire died down, the tom-toms and singing in the adjoining lodges quieted gradually, and the camp slept. All was still, and it was bitter cold outside, though the Chis-chis-chash lay snugly under their hairy rugs, drawing them over their heads, shutting out the world of spirits and sound and cold.
In the ceaseless round of time the night was departing to the westward, when as though it were in a dream the old warrior was conscious of noise. His waking sense was stirred. Rapid, frosty crackling of snow ground by horse's hoofs came through the crevices of his covering. All unusual, he sat up with a savage bang, as it were, and bent a stiff ear to the darkness. His senses were electric, but the convolutions of his brain were dead. A rifle shot, far away but unmistakable. Others followed; they came fast. But not until the clear notes of a bugle blazed their echoing way up the rock walls did he, the Fire Eater, think the truth. He made the lodge shake with the long yell of war. He did the things of a lifetime now and he did them in a trained, quick way. He shoved his feet into his moccasins and did no more because of the urgency of the case; then he reached for his rifle and belt and stood in the dark lodge aroused. His sleep was gone but he did not comprehend. Listening for the briefest of moments, he heard amid the yelping of his own people the dull, resonant roar which he knew was the white man's answer.
|"He made his magazine gun blaze until empty."|
He meditated long before he reached down and gathered up his offspring. Carefully wrapping up the wailing infant, he handed it to a squaw who stood near shivering and moaning wildly. "Stay here and hold my boy. I am going back."
Shoving cartridges into his magazine, he made his way down, the light snow flying before him. Rounding the rocks he could see down into the main canon; see the pony-soldiers and their Indian allies tearing down and burning the lodges. The yellow glare of many fires burned brightly in contrast with the cold blue of the snow. He scanned narrowly the place where his own lodge had been and saw it fall before many hands to be taken to their fires. With raised shoulders and staring eyes he stood aghast. He drunk in the desecration in all its awful significance. The bat's skin--the hand of the Good Gods--was removed from him; his shadow was as naked as his back.
In the snow a hundred yards below him lay his young squaw, the mother of his boy, and she had not moved since she lay down.
As the pony-soldiers finally saw the stark figure of the Indian among the rocks they sent a shower of bullets around him. He had no medicine; the Bad Gods would direct the bullets to his breast. He turned and ran frantically away.
The last green-grass had seen the beplumed chief with reddened battle-ax leading a hundred swift warriors over the dying pony-soldiers, but now the cold, blue snow looked on a naked man running before bullets, with his medicine somewhere in the black smoke which began to hang like a pall over the happy winter camp of the bravest Indians. The ebb and flow of time had fattened and thinned the circumstances of the Fire Eater's life many times, but it had never taken his all before. It had left him nothing but his boy and a nearly empty gun. It had placed him between the fire of the soldiers' rifles and the cruel mountain winds which would pinch his heart out.
With his boy at his breast he flew along the rim-rock like a crow, hunting for shelter from bullets and wind. He longed to expend his remaining cartridges where each would put out a white man's fire. Meanwhile, recovering from their surprise, the Indians had gathered thickly on the heights and fought stiffly back. Being unable to follow them, the pony-soldiers drew back, but as they retreated they left the village blazing, which the Chis-chis-chash could not prevent. Their rifles had only handed them over to the hungry winter.
The Fire Eater sat muffled on a ledge, firing from time to time, and anxiously scanning his shots. The cold made him shake and he could not hold his rifle true. His old, thin blood crept slowly through his veins, and the child cried piteously. His fires were burning low; even the stimulus of hate no longer stirred him as he looked down on the white men who had burned his all and shot his wife and were even then spattering his den in the rocks with lead. He gave up, overpowered by the situation. With infinite difficulty he gathered himself erect on his stiffened joints and took again his burden in his trembling arms. Standing thus on the wind-swept height, with the bullets spotting the rocks around him, he extended his right hand and besought the black, eddying smoke to give him back his bat-skin; he begged the spirits of the air to bring it to him. He shouted his harsh pathos at a wild and lonely wind, but there was no response.
|"He shouted his harsh pathos at a wild and lonely wind, but there was no response."|
In the light of day they could see how completely the ravishing fire had done its work. Warriors came limping back from the battle, their robes dyed with a costly vermilion. They sat about doing up their wounds in filthy rags, or sang their death-songs amid the melancholy wailing of the squaws.
Having warmed himself and quieted the boy, the Fire Eater stalked down the canon, past the smoking poles, stopping here and there to pick up fragments of skins which he used to swaddle the boy. Returning warriors said the soldiers were going away, while they themselves were coming back to get warm. Hearing this, the old man stalked down the creek toward the place where his lodge had been. He found nothing but a smouldering heap of charred robes and burnt dried meat. With a piece of lodge pole he poked away the ashes, searching for his precious medicine and never ceasing to implore the Good Gods to restore it to him. At last, dropping the pole, he walked up the side canon to the place where his wife had fallen. He found her lying there. Drawing aside the robe he noticed a greenish pallor and fled from Death.
Finding the ponies tethered together by their necks, he caught them, and improvising packs out of old robes and rawhide filled them with half-burnt dried meat. With these he returned to the fires, where he constructed a rude shelter for the coming night. The boy moaned and cried through the shivering darkness as the old Fire Eater rocked him in his arms to a gibberish of despairing prayer.
Late in the night, the scouts came in saying that the walking-soldiers were coming, whereat the Indians gathered their ponies and fled over the snow. The young men stayed behind and from the high cliffs fought back the soldiers. Many weak persons in the retreating band sat down and passed under the spell of the icy wind. The Fire Eater pressed along carrying his rifle and boy, driving his ponies in a herd with others. It was too cold for him to dare to ride a horse. The crying boy shivered under the robe. The burden-bearer mumbled the troubled thoughts of his mind: "My mystery from the Good Gods is gone; they have taken it; they gave it to the fire. I am afraid. The bad spirits of the wind will get under my robe. They will enter the body of my boy. Oh! little brown bat, come sit on my hand! Do not let them take the boy!"
Hour after hour he plodded along in the snow. His body was warmed by his exertions and the boy felt cold against his flesh. He noted this, and with the passing moments the little frame grew more rigid and more cold until it was as a stone image in the Fire Eater's arms. Stopping with his back to the wind, he undid the robe and fingered his burden. He knew that the shadow had gone;--knew that the bad spirits had taken it away. "Oh! Bad Gods, oh! Evil Spirits of the night, come take my shadow. You have stolen my boy; you have put out my lodge fire; put out the fire of my body! Take vengeance on me! I am deserted by the Good Gods! I am ready to go! I am waiting!"
Thus stood in the bleak night this victim of his lost medicine; the fierce and cruel mysteries of the wind tugged at his robe and flapped his long hair about his head. Indians coming by pushed and pulled him along. Two young men made it a duty to aid the despairing chief. They dragged him until they reached a canyon where fires had been lighted, around which were gathered the fugitives. The people who had led him had supposed that his mind was wandering under suffering or wounds. As he sank by the side of the blaze he dropped the robe and laid the stiffened body of his frozen boy across his knees. The others peered for a time with frightened glances at the dead body, and then with cries of "Dead! dead!" ran away, going deeper down the canon. The Fire Eater sat alone, waiting for the evil spirits which lurked out among the pine trees to come and take him. He wanted to go to the spirit-land where the Cheyennes of his home and youth were at peace in warm valleys, talking and eating.