Bird Woman—Sacajawea - James W. Schultz
On the fourth evening of our capture we camped just above the falls of the river. That was as far as we had ever come out upon the plains with our people. On the following day we traveled until evening along a trail running across a high, waterless plain, and then again struck the river and made camp. Then for two days we crossed a great plain, and in the evening of the second day made camp at the west end of some mountains, the Bearpaw Mountains of your Blackfeet country, as I afterward learned. Used as we were to a mountain country, the plains terrified us. We had not thought that they were of so great extent. As far as we could see to the north and the east, they ran to the very edge of the world without a break, and to the southeast, past a point of low mountains, they were also without end. If we did in some way escape from our captors we saw that, without horses or the means of carrying water, we should die from thirst before we could ever recross them.
On that night, at the point of the mountains, our captors for the first time left no guard over the camp when they lay down to sleep, and the horse herd, with its guard of three or four men, was out of sight from us behind a ridge. As soon as we were sure that we were to have no guard we began to whisper to one another that as soon as it was safe to do so, we should one by one crawl out from camp into the dark pine forest near by and then run for our lives.
"But where shall we run?" one of the boys asked us. "We do not want to go east, we cannot go west across the waterless plain. I say that this is not the time for us to try to escape; we must wait. And, anyhow, seeing that we were quiet enough this night, our captors will cease watching us, and so, when the right time comes, we shall surely get away from them."
We all agreed that the boy was right, and soon went to sleep.
On the following morning, leaving the little mountain range on our right, we soon came to a small stream running east in a wide, low valley in the plain. We were sure that it came from our great mountains; it was the stream that, later on, my white chiefs named Milk River. We said to one another that, if we could escape from our captors now, we could follow it up to our mountains, and then turn south along them to the Big River,—the Missouri,—and then through the pass at the head of it to our people. As we rode along in the midst of our captors we agreed to try to escape from them that night.
On that day the great number of game herds that we saw astonished us. The wide valley and the great plain through which it ran were grass-hidden by buffalo and antelope, and in every grove of timber were herds of elk and both kinds of deer. Late in the afternoon, as we passed a point of timber, we came upon a big bear that was going into it with an antelope fawn hanging from its mouth. As soon as it saw us it dropped the fawn, sat up and looked at us, and then, with loud roars, came charging straight at us. Think of it! A bear charging more than a hundred riders, driving several hundred horses! It had no fear of the thunder of the horses' feet; no fear of the odor of many men that the west wind carried to it. With long, swift leaps it came straight at us, and we all, captors and prisoners, scattered out before it and rode for our lives, and, fast as we rode, it almost overtook one of us, a girl who was on a small, slow horse. It followed us a long way before it gave up the chase, and then, when it did stop, our captors did not turn back to attack it. They rounded up the scattered herd of horses and we went on.
That evening, when we made camp by the river, and just below a large grove, our captors for the first time ordered us to gather wood for the cooking-fires. We were afraid to go into the timber; we thought that there might be in it another of the great bears of this plains country, bears much larger than we had ever seen in our mountains, and in signs we told our captors that we were afraid. At that one of them turned upon us so fiercely that we just ran for the timber, more afraid of him than we were of bears. After all, we said to one another, there might not be a bear in that grove. We went into the grove; a step or two at a time; farther and farther in; so far at last that we were out of sight of our captors.
"Come! Let us run! Let us go up this grove and hide in the thick willows, and when night falls, start up this valley for our mountains!" one of the boys proposed.
"We should never reach our mountains; the big bears would kill us all!" said a girl, and all the other girls agreed with her that that was true enough.
Said a boy, "I have been thinking hard; this is how it is with us: were we to escape from our captors, and from the bears along the way, still we should never reach our mountains; for without a bow and arrows to kill meat for us, we should starve to death on the long trail."
And what he said was true enough. It was true, too, as others said, that there were no roots in this country; that the berries were not ripe; that we had seen only a very few very small fish in the little river.
Then said the first boy—he was older and more wise than any of us: "Let us hurry and gather a lot of wood for the fires. Although our hearts are very low, let us talk and laugh around our fire. So shall we make our captors think that we no longer want to escape from them. They will cease watching us. There will come a time when we can steal bow and arrows from them; a gun, even; and then we shall do the best we can to travel back to our people."
As our leader proposed, that we did. We surprised our captors by our talk and laughter that evening; we could see them watching us; talking about us; agreeing that we were forgetting our people and the wrong that they had done to them and to us.
Day after day we rode on and on down that valley, once cutting a big bend in it, and on the evening of the fifth day from the time that we struck it, camped at its junction with a very wide river of dirty water that we knew was no other than the Big River we had left not far out from our mountains. And here its valley was quite wide, and its groves of cottonwoods and willows of great length and breadth. Could we escape from our captors into one of them, we believed that they would never find us.
On this evening we did not wait to be told to gather firewood. We began bringing it in from a great heap of dry drift that was lodged on a sand-bar just below the mouth of the little river. There were several logs in it that could easily be rolled into the stream, and we noticed that the boy who had become our leader—his name was Elk Horn—looked at them a long time, and let us make a trip to camp with wood while he walked around them and upon them, and, standing at one end and then another, pushed against them with the back of his legs. We were providing wood for six fires every evening. On this evening he told us to make our fire at the edge of the circle nearest the river, unless we were ordered not to do so. We did make it there, and were not told to move it to the center of the circle. None of our captors paid any attention to us, other than to lay beside our place plenty of meat of a fat cow that they had killed while we were making camp.
After we had cooked and eaten all the meat that we wanted, Elk Horn said to us: "Now I am going to tell you something. While I am telling it, little by little, do not all look at me. Look at one another, saying a few words, and do some laughing. Now I begin: If I can steal a bow and arrows or a gun, after our captors fall asleep, we shall try to escape from them."
He stopped there, and we talked and laughed about nothing, but it was hard to do because we were so anxious to hear what more he had to say.
"At the edge of the drift pile by the river are two dry logs that we can roll into the water," he went on. "If I can get a bow and arrows or a gun, without awaking any one, we shall then, one by one, crawl away from here and down the bank of the river to the drift. When we are all there we shall roll the logs in so that they will float, and then half of us clinging to one and half to the other, we shall push out and swim to the other shore. Of course we shall drift downstream a long way in doing that—" There he paused while we talked and laughed again, and then went on: "But once we get into the timber on the other side we shall be safe; our captors will hunt a long time for us up this side of the river and never think that we crossed it. In the shelter of the timber over there we can go on and on up the valley, traveling in the day-time and killing what meat we need, and so, if the bears do not get any of us, we shall all be again with our people by the end of another moon; maybe before that; it may not be as far to our mountains as we think. There! I have said it. Be sure, all of you, to keep Awake and watch me, and one by one follow me to the drift if I leave the circle!"
We all thought Elk Horn's plan a good one. One by one we told him that we should do as he said. Oh, how fast our hearts beat! Mine did, anyhow, as we watched our captors, hoping that they would soon lie down and sleep and sleep soundly. Some of them did so soon after their evening meal, but others sat up, smoking and talking, as long as there was any wood to burn. We all lay down soon after Elk Horn had told us his plan for escape, our little fire went out, and we watched our captors, pretending that we were asleep. Would you believe it—my close friend, Otter Woman, lying by my side, almost at once went to sleep! I nudged her, pinched her, whispered to her that she must keep awake. She promised that she would and went right to sleep again! And I soon knew, from the way they breathed, that all the others, except Elk Horn, were asleep! He was on the opposite side of the fireplace from me, lying on his stomach, his head to the enemy. I could see him now and then slowly raise his head and look at them. I felt sure that he would not sleep.
Two men remained up, talking and smoking, long after all the others were asleep. Three or four times their little fire went down to nothing but a few red coals, and they would liven it with handfuls of dry twigs. As I watched these men I found that I was getting sleepy; two or three times I caught myself falling asleep; it was only by the greatest effort that I made myself break out of a doze and open my eyes. After the two men could find no more twigs and had lain down by their dying fire, I found it still more difficult to keep awake, and toward the last of my watch I cast off my robe, exposing myself to the cold night air, and even bit my wrists now and then. So doing, I did keep awake, and was the only one of us to see Elk Horn when he began to wriggle like a snake toward the nearest sleeping group of our captors. In the bright moonlight I could see him quite plainly. He went so slowly that he did not seem to move at all, and, as he neared the sleeping men, he often as slowly raised up and looked at them for a long time. Watching him, I was becoming more and more excited; all feeling of sleep left me; my whole body began to tremble with eagerness for his success. When he had crawled quite near the sleepers, I sat up so that I could see plainly all that he did. Oh, how my heart went down as I saw him, after crawling close to the nearest of the sleepers, begin to back away. I thought that he was giving up; was coming back to us; that there would be no escape for us!
But no! He back-crawled only to start again, circling around to the right of the circle of sleepers. Having done that, he crawled straight to the outer one of them, more slowly than ever, paused by his side, and then as slowly began backing away from him, and, finally turning, came toward us. I almost cried out loud, "He has seized it!" when I saw that he was shuffling along with him something that he gripped with his right hand, and as he neared us I made out that it was a bow and arrow case!
It was now time for me to awaken our sleepers, and, right at the start, I made a great mistake: I should have begun with my best friend, Otter Woman, lying at my side. Instead of that I awakened the girl nearest me on my right, then one by one the girls beyond her, and from them I passed around to the boys and one by one aroused them. I did this very carefully, putting my hand upon the mouth of each one, and whispering, "Awake! It is time to go!" And as I awakened them, girls and boys, they would one by one sit up, see Elk Horn coming, and then begin crawling toward the bank of the river.
I now came around back to otter Woman, put my hand over her mouth and whispered to her to awake. She never moved. I shook her gently, whispering again and again, but all that she would do was to breathe more heavily. I dared not pinch her, nor do anything else that would make her wake suddenly and cry out. I continued to hold my hand upon her mouth and move her head this way and that, and whisper, "Awake! Come, we must go!" And all that time our companions were going. I looked around and saw that they had all of them, excepting one other girl, the first that I had awakened, gone out of sight down the slope of the river-bank. This other girl had gone to sleep again right after I had awakened her! Oh, how angry ' I was at these two girls! I was minded to leave them! I did start to do so, but my love for Otter Woman drew me back to her. Again I rolled her head and whispered to her; time and again I did that, and still without effect. So, finally, after a look at the sleeping men, I stood up, took hold of her two hands, and began to pull her to her feet; and at that she suddenly awoke, shrieking as loudly as she could, "No, No! Don't kill me!"
Ha! As one man, our captors awoke and sprang to their feet, looking around and calling to one another, and then came rushing to us, some of them seizing Otter Woman and me, and the other girl, Leaping Fish Woman, while others ran in all directions seeking the missing. Scared as I was, I noticed that none of them went farther than the edge of the slope of the bank, and the two or three who ran to it turned and also ran for the timber above us, after hurriedly looking down the slope and out at the drift pile on the sandbar. We were soon left with but one man guarding us, the man who had captured Otter Woman and me at the Three Forks of the Big River—the man who owned us. All of the others had gone off into the timber along the little river, and some across it, into the big grove of cottonwoods running up the main river. This man was not at all angry at us for attempting to escape, and he did not seem to care if our companions were recaptured or went free. He just laughed at us, and signed to us to go with him into the timber and gather some wood, and that we should then build a fire and roast and eat some meat.
Of course we were wondering what had become of our companions. We did not believe that they had had time to get the logs into the water and push out into the stream before our captors were aroused by Otter Woman's shrieks. We were quite sure that they had hidden in the drift pile, or behind it, when the shrieking and shouting began. And now, as we went with the man toward the timber, I heard, surely heard, a splash in the water behind us. We all heard it, and we three looked at one another and at our captor, but he paid no attention to it. I afterward saw that it was a sound natural enough to him, a dweller on this Big River; its banks and sandbars are being continually cut and swept away by its current. It was not until I returned to my people with my white chiefs that I learned that the splash that we heard really was the splash of a log from the drift pile. Those boys and girls had hidden behind the pile, and then, when all became still, they got one log into the stream and, drifting far down with it, reached the other shore. From there, after almost two moons of travel, they entered our west side country and found our people. Elk Horn had no trouble in killing what meat they wanted, and in making fire with a bow drill, with the bow and arrows that he had taken from the sleeping enemy, nor, on that long trail, did those boys and girls see any enemies; they did have two narrow escapes from the great bears of the Big River Valley.
We were three sad-hearted girls that sat by the little fire we built for our captor. He offered us meat, but we refused it; even the sight of it, in our despair, sickened us. As he ate his meat our captor often broke out laughing, and finally signed to us: "My friends up there in the timber are like birds, running in all directions in search of their little ones. Myself, I have my little ones; here you are right with me. I wish that you could see your faces: so sad, so old-looking, as if you were very, very old and about to die! No, my little ones, you are not to die; you will soon be living in a good lodge; eating plenty of food; wearing good gowns. Yes, you will soon be happy enough. Come, now, wipe away your tears and laugh!"
Otter Woman and I just sat and stared at him. But the other girl was different; even then, young as she was, she would get quickly, fearlessly angry. In answer to the man she suddenly darted her head forward like a snake, and spit at him! And at that the man laughed all the harder and signed to her: "Now, that is what I like to see, a brave heart! Women of brave heart make good wives. I shall buy you from your captor, and when you grow up you shall be my wife!"
In answer to that, Leaping Fish Woman again spit at him, and signed, too, "I hate you!"