Bird Woman—Sacajawea - James W. Schultz
After a long time the men came straggling back from their search for our companions. A few of them caught up horses and saddled them, and rode away to look again for the missing ones. The rest, tired enough, lay down to sleep again. Our captor made Otter Woman and me lie down close to him, and Leaping Fish Woman's captor signed her to lie beside us. We could not sleep, so great was our sorrow that we had not got away with our companions. When morning came, and we were again on the trail down the valley, we were so tired that it was all we could do to sit upon our horses.
Day after day we continued on down that valley of the Big River, through great groves of cottonwoods and across wide, long, grassy bottoms that were just covered with buffalo and antelope and deer and elk, and so tame that they would do no more than get out of the trail ahead of us. Each evening our captors killed a number of fat buffalo cows, and took only the choice parts of them, leaving great quantities of meat to the wolves. We had never seen waste like that, and we expected the gods in some way to punish them for it. Our Snake people took every part of the animals they killed, and were glad enough to eat even the toughest of the meat.
On and on we traveled, and one day arrived at the village— this village—of our captors. How we three girls did stare at it: the great, sloping, earth-roofed, round lodges, all enclosed with a fence of cottonwood logs set upright in the ground. And how the people stared at us, and we at them, at the women and girls especially, some of them wearing gowns of strange, soft, red or blue material that we were soon to know was trade cloth. Our captors entered the village singing their war song, waving the scalps that they had taken, and were loudly greeted and praised by their people. The man who had captured Otter Woman and me led us into his lodge, and we were surprised at the great size of it and the comfort of it. There the coldest weather of winter could never be felt; and what soft beds of buffalo robes there were, built all along the wall and curtained with brightly painted leather. Two women, the wives of our captor, and their children, came into the lodge with us, and our captor signed to us that we were to mind them, to do all that they told us to do. One of the women, the head wife, gave us one of the couches and motioned us to sit upon it. We did so, and she soon gave us large earthen dishes full of food that she took from pots set around the little fire. It was very strange food, corn boiled with meat, and it tasted so good that we ate it all.
So life began for us in this village of the Minnetarees, as you call these people. That is not the right name for them; in their language they call themselves Hidasta.
We got our greatest surprise of all that first evening when three white men came into the lodge to visit our captor. They were, we learned in time, traders from a post of the Nor'west Company, somewhere north on the Assiniboine River. Two of them were young men, smooth faced and blue-eyed, and their hair was sun-colored. We thought them the most handsome men that we had ever seen. The other man, much older than they, had dark hair growing long upon his cheeks and under his nose, and that made his appearance so horrible, so sickening, that, after one quick look at him, we could not look again. Somehow we were not afraid of the two young men; we liked to look at them; at their white skins tinged, on their cheeks, with faint red; and we could not help but admire their strangely fashioned clothes. They asked us many questions in the sign language, about our people and our country, and we answered them all as well as we could.
On the very next day our captor's women—his name was Red Arrow—set us to work tanning buffalo leather. Later on we were taught to do many kinds of work. What we liked most to do was to work in their field of corn and other plants; it was pleasant to see them grow and flower, and the flowers turn into fruit that was so good to eat. And we soon had a helper in our work, for, as he had signed us that he would do, Red Arrow bought Leaping Fish Woman from her captor, paying him four horses and a gun. It was his great pleasure to tease her every evening, and, sad-hearted as we were, Otter Woman and I could not help but laugh with the rest at the way she would suddenly anger at him, spit at him, and say to him in the sign language all the mean, taunting things that she could think of.
Well, at first we three were always talking about escaping from these people, but as time passed Otter Woman and I became less and less eager for it, as we thought of the great dangers that we should risk upon the long trail to our country. Leaping Fish Woman was different; more brave than we were; she never ceased planning to escape, and often told us that, if we would not make the attempt with her, she would go alone. We did not believe that she meant it.
The summer passed, and the long winter, and by the time spring came, we had all three learned to talk in the language of our captors. As soon as the new grass began to grow, Leaping Fish Woman talked more and more about going back to our people, and at last, one evening, she told us that if we would not go with her, she would try to escape all by herself that very night. Fear of the long trail, the terrible bears along it, and men, too, Blackfeet men, was something that we could not get over, and we said so, and, still believed that she would not go without us. When we awoke the next morning she had gone! All the men of the village turned out to help Red Arrow search for her, but they found not even a footprint of her in the trails. We two missed her terribly for a long time! Then twice that summer war parties returned to the village with Snake scalps and Snake horses that they had taken in raids across the mountains, and their rejoicings over their deeds also hurt us; we were unhappy enough!
With the coming of winter, a white man who was married to a Minnetaree woman, and who lived in the village below, moved up to this village and bought a lodge in it. He had been a Nor'wester, but was now free, a free man. He trapped and hunted a little part of the time, and did some trading with the Cheyennes and other tribes that now and then came to visit the Minnetarees and the Mandans. This man—I may as well tell you now that it was Charboneau—was often a visitor in our— in Red Arrow's lodge. With other men he came there to gamble, to play hide-the-bone for horses, guns, knives, and all kinds of small property. Often, very often, we would awake in the morning and find the men still playing the game. There would sometimes be men from the lower Minnetaree village and from the Mandan villages gambling with them.
The white man, Charboneau, could not understand the language of this tribe, although he had long had a Minnetaree wife, and so he conversed with the people in the sign language. Well, when we awoke one morning a number of men were still gambling in the lodge, among them the white man, who was playing against our captor, Red Arrow. The players were ranged in two rows, one on each side of the fire, and a man on one side of it played against the man directly opposite him. When otter Woman and I awoke and sat up, a game had just been concluded, and the players began making bets for a fresh game. We noticed that the white man was smiling, and Red Arrow appeared to be very low-hearted as they arranged their bets, so we knew that Red Arrow was a heavy loser in the games of the night. The two began arguing about the bet to be made for the fresh game, and at first otter Woman and I, no more than half awake and sleepy-eyed, paid little attention to them. Then I saw the white man sign to our captor: "You say that you have nothing left to bet. You have several things; plenty to bet. Your spotted buffalo runner is a good horse, my black runner is faster than he. I will bet my black against your spotted horse!"
Red Arrow considered the offer for a long time.
"No, I dare not bet that horse," he answered. "That horse is my meat-getter; if I should lose him, my women and my children would go hungry!"
"But you *may win!" the white man argued. "You have been losing all night, so it is now time for you to begin winning. I really think that you will win this bet!"
Again Red Arrow thought and thought, rubbing his hands hard together; his forehead wrinkling deeply as he stared at the fire—stared at it and yet did not see it. I have never seen any one frown so hard as he did. And then he suddenly straightened up and cried out as he made the signs: "No! No! I will not risk my children's food in this hide-the-bone game!"
The white man laughed: "I will let you have the chance to get still more meat for your children," he signed. "I will bet my fast buffalo horse against your two Snake captives!"
"Yes!" Red Arrow signed.
"No! No!" I screamed, and so did Otter Woman. I had by this time well learned the Minnetaree language. "Oh, Red Arrow! Oh, great chief! Good chief! Do not gamble us off! We will work for you, oh, so hard!" I pleaded. But he would not even look at us. He held the two bones, the little white one and the black one. He looked down along the line of the men in his row and asked them if they were ready? They were; they had all made their bets. He began juggling the bones as the gambling song was raised. He shifted them from one hand to the other in front of him; shifted them behind his back. Time and again he did this, nodding his head and bowing his back in time to the song, and at last held his two closed hands up in front of his shoulders and the singing suddenly ceased. The white man looked long at the two hands, stared long at Red Arrow right in his eyes, stared again at the hands, and then slapped his right hand into the palm of the other as he pointed to Red Arrow's left hand. And as suddenly Red Arrow sank down in his seat and, opening that hand, showed the black bone, and Otter Woman and I began to cry. The white man had won us from the man who, though our captor, had ever been as kind to us as though we were his own children!
Red Arrow's women cried out at him, calling him names, for they had learned to love us. Red Arrow himself sat like one who had suddenly lost his mind. Then he straightened up and cried and signed to the white men: "I will now bet my spotted fast runner. I will bet him against the two girls!"
The white man shook his head. "No," he signed back, "I have won them, and I shall keep them!"
"I will bet all my fourteen horses against them!" Red Arrow offered.
"No! I have won them; I shall keep them!" he again answered. And then, turning to Otter Woman and me, he signed us to take up our belongings and go with him to his lodge. There was nothing for us to do but obey. As we followed him out of the lodge, crying harder than ever, we left Red Arrow sitting with bowed head and all humped over, his women furiously scolding him for having wagered and lost us!
Ah, well! Youth, my friend, quickly accustoms itself to whatever is to be; it was not long before Otter Woman and I dried our tears. The Minnetaree wife of the white man was very gentle-hearted, very kind to us, and we soon learned to love her. She was not strong, so we undertook to do her work. It was not long before we were doing all of it, the lodge work, the garden work, the tanning of skins, and the bringing in of wood and water. We talked less and less about trying to escape to our people, and, after a winter or two had passed, we never mentioned it except when a war party returned to the village with Snake scalps and Snake horses. Excepting at such times we were contented, yes, quite happy. The white man, of winters enough to have been our father, was sometimes cross, but generally good to us; his anger went as quickly as it came. And so, working hard and playing not at all, the winters and summers passed, during which we grew up to be young women.
There came a time when I felt so badly that I could not talk about it. I cried and cried, and was near jumping into the river to end it all! It was a disappointment; a blow at the heart, my friend! A young Mandan, named White Grass, who often visited in the Minnetaree village, looked at me, and I at him, for he was good to look at; so slim and tall, fine of face, and long-haired. And from looking at one another, we came, in time, to saying a few words as we met and passed. At last, one day when Otter Woman and I were tending our garden of growing corn, he came and told me that he loved me, and I— I was not ashamed—I told him that I had long been hoping that he would say that to me. We sat down right there at the edge of the corn, and, while Otter Woman worked, he told me what we should do. We should have a lodge of our own in the village of his people. They would build it for us; furnish it. We should have a garden of our own and raise plenty of good food, and he would hunt and bring in plenty of meat, and we should be very comfortable and happy. To all that he said I answered, yes, that would be the way of it. And then Otter Woman, listening to our happy talk, said to me: "Don't be crazy! Don't be making plans until you know what our white man owner will say to this!"
"He will say yes, of course! I will give him ten horses for you! He cannot refuse to take ten horses, ten good, big horses!" my young sweetheart cried.
And then I laughed happily, and said that he would never refuse to take that many for me, more, far more than I was worth.
But Otter Woman shook her head: "No," she said, "best that you end your dream right now, right here; he will not sell you for twenty—no, not for all the Mandan horses!"
White Grass sprang to his feet, pulled me up beside him, and said to otter Woman: "I will prove to you that you are wrong; we will go to the white man right now and I shall give him the horses!"
Away we went across the flat and into the village. We paused at the entrance to the lodge and looked at one another, for the first time afraid that all might not come out as we wanted it. Then White Grass shrugged his shoulders and straightened up and led the way, and, oh, how handsome he was, how fearless, as he stopped before the fireplace and said to the white man, sitting on his couch beyond it: "White man! Great chief! This girl, your slave, I love and she loves me. Ten horses, ten good, big horses I give you for her!"
The white man would not have understood what White Grass said to him had he not accompanied his talk with the sign language. As it was, he was slow to understand, and the youth had to repeat it. Then he did understand; he sprang to his feet and raged at the youth, who could not understand a word of his French speech: "Dog Mandan," he howled, "go away from here! Go! Go! Go! Never enter this lodge again! Outside in the village, in the gardens, the timber, wherever you see this Snake girl, go away around and never speak to her. Hurry! Get out of here!"
White Grass made no answer to that; he just stared at the still shouting, arms-waving white man, and slowly turned to go. As he passed he said to me: "Take courage, sweetheart. I go, but I shall return. I go to make a name for myself, to take horses, and still more horses from the enemy, and scalps, too, and when I come again he will not dare refuse to give you to me!"
I, too, turned to go, go back to the corn and ask my almost-sister to comfort me. Nearly blinded with my tears, I was feeling my way along when the white man thundered to me to stop, and then told his Minnetaree woman to go with me to the corn, to watch me and see that the young Mandan never came near. The poor, sick woman did as she was told, and thereafter, wherever Otter Woman and I went, she was obliged to go with us. But her heart was not with her white man; it was with us. The very next day, when we were in the corn, she watched the not distant village and all who came from it, while White Grass circled in from the hills and had a last talk with me. It was all very straight: otter Woman sat by my side while he told me again and again how much he loved me, and I promised him that, no matter how long I should have to wait, I would be his woman. He would leave the next day, he said, with a party going to war against the Pawnees, and would, no doubt, take plenty of horses from them. That would be the beginning of his work to get together so many horses that the white man could not refuse to trade me for them. He then kissed me four times, the sacred number, and mounted his horse and rode away down the flat.
My friend, that was the last that I ever saw of my Mandan sweetheart. He had not been gone a moon before word came to us from the Mandan village that, on their way to the Pawnee country, the war party which he accompanied had been ambushed by the Arickarees, and all but two had been killed. The two survivors told that my sweetheart had fought bravely to the very last, and had killed a great warrior of the Arickarees, a chief named Turtle, before he fell. The white man laughed when this news came to us in our lodge, laughed long and loud _ and looked at me. And I—although I felt that my heart was going out from me—I would not let even one tear fall before him, nor in any way show that this sad news was anything to me. Yes, I kept my face calm, and told my almost-sister to talk with me; to say anything, no matter what, to keep us talking. She understood; she started the talk by asking me if I thought that the buffalo would become well furred early in the coming winter!
But, oh, how I cried and mourned for my lost sweetheart when off in the corn, or the timber, away from the white man!
Working hard, Otter Woman and I harvested the corn and other garden growths, and stored them away when dry, and then we brought in load after load of firewood for winter use. And although my Mandan sweetheart was gone, the white man still had his Minnetaree woman go with us where-ever we went. Day by day, moon by moon, the woman became more thin, more weak, and with the first snow of winter she took to her couch, and soon died. The white man did not seem to care; he ordered us to help her relatives put up a scaffold out on the flat and lash her robe-bound body upon it. When we had done that and had returned to the lodge, he said to me: "Now that the old woman is gone, you two shall be my wives. You shall be my head wife; your place is here beside me on this couch, and your friend, there, shall have that couch. As you are the head wife, I look to you to keep this lodge in good shape. Yours will be the blame if there is not always garden food in the pot, plenty of wood on hand. And what time you are not otherwise busy, you will tan the hides I bring in. If you are not a fool, you will make your friend work as hard as you do, and even harder. Now, do you understand all that I have said?"
For moons back I had seen this coming, dreading it terribly, and now that it had come I was so scared of him that I could not answer, not even to nod my head. I was more scared than when I had been seized in the river by the Minnetaree warrior; and this time I was scared to such weakness that I felt I had not the power to move even a finger. Otter Woman was scared too; she was crying. The white man went silent. I could hear him breathing hard, as he did when angry, but I could not look at him; I remained as I was, all bowed over on my couch and, oh, so sick at heart! Then, soon, I heard him spring from his couch; he seized me and lifted me and threw me over upon his couch, crying out: "I'll teach you to mind me! Now stay there, right there where you belong!" My friend, that was a night of terror! So it was that I became the head wife of Charboneau!
Thus far, my son, had Sacajawea got in the story of her adventures, when her man came in and ended it for the time. And he came in cross, cursing his luck, for he had lost the good horse we had given him. But that was nothing, no, nothing to what occurred the following day. It was about noon when Sacajawea's son, a fine, sturdy boy of eleven or twelve years, returned from a visit with young Mandan friends in their village. His mother introduced him to us, and he gave me greeting in French, which he spoke with but little trace of Indian accent. Soon after he entered, his father came in and asked whose horse was that tied near the lodge entrance.
"It is mine!" the boy answered proudly. "It is a gift from my close friend, Big Cottonwood."
"Ha! Is that so!" Charboneau exclaimed, rubbing his hands and smiling happily. "Well, my son, you shall loan him to me for a time. Last night I lost a good horse in the hide-the-button game, so I will now stake your horse against him and win him back."
And with that out he went, and the boy burst into tears: "Three horses have I had," he wailed, "and he has gambled them off. And now he takes this one from me and will lose it. I shall never, never have a horse to keep for my very own!"
Poor lad! I felt sorry for him. My disgust at this Charboneau grew, and my companions despised him as much as I did. And, sure enough, the man did lose the horse. He came in soon after night-fall, said not a word to me, ordered his woman to set food before him, and after eating, smoked in silence until bedtime. Truly, that was an unhappy lodge. It depressed my companions and me, and, now that he had nothing more to gamble off, Charboneau remained with us the most of the time, moaning over his losses and hinting that he could recover them if we would only give him something for an entering stake in the game. We did not take the hints. Three or four times, at my request, Sacajawea began telling me of her adventures with Lewis and Clark, but always Charboneau took the story away from her, and told what he did; how, but for him, the expedition would never even have reached the Falls of the Missouri so I never did get her story of it all. Your almost-mother, here, Earth Woman, and Crow Woman, too, know it well, so let them tell it to you.
Did Sacajawea love Charboneau? you ask. I don't know about the love. She mothered him; was patient with him; endured his bursts of anger; and was, no doubt, faithful to him to the end. For the sake of her son, whom she dearly loved, she was sure to be good to the father. She was surely good to us wanderers from the camp of the Pi-kun'-i, and greatly interested in my endeavor to bring about a peace treaty between them and the Cheyennes. Yes, and it was through her own suggestion that I worked upon Heavy Robe's interest in medicines, and so I got him to become strongly in favor of a treaty of peace with the Cheyennes, in order that he might see their wonderful medicines, the Sacred Arrows and the Buffalo Hat. Accompanied by the Cheyenne-Mandan chief, Big Man, we visited the Cheyenne camp on the Little Missouri, and made plans with their chiefs for a great peace meeting between them and the Pi-kun'-i, and that took place early in the following spring. It was about the grandest ceremony I ever witnessed. But all that is another story, my son. Some day you shall write the story of my life, and in that will be all about our meeting the Cheyennes, and how, afterward, they went north with us to trade with Terrible Tongue.
After leaving the Minnetaree and Mandan villages for the Cheyenne camp, I never saw Sacajawea again. But years afterward, at Jim Bridger's place on Green River, I did meet her son, Baptiste, who had grown to be a fine, upstanding man. He spoke English, as well as French, and was Bridger's Snake interpreter. He well remembered my visit in the lodge of his father and mother in the Minnetaree village as soon as I brought to his mind the incident of his father losing his Mandan gift-horse in the hide-the-button game. He told me that his father was dead, and that his mother was then living with her own Snake people. I never met Baptiste again, and never heard anything more about his mother.