Gold Cache - James W. Schultz




Chapter IV

When we awoke the next morning we found that the camp had long been astir. The women, who were cooking some meat for us, re: ported that no one had come near the lodge during the night.

After we had eaten breakfast we were called to the lodge of Big Rain, and upon entering we received a hearty Blackfoot greeting from both the chief and his wife, North Woman. She set before us some pemmican and some delicious service-berry soup.

As soon as the meal was over, the chief excused himself, saying that he was called to another lodge; he told us to stay where we were a long time and—as he put it—talk with our elder sister. As he left the lodge be gave North Woman's hand a squeeze.

She watched him go. "Ai, but he is a good man, my man!" she murmured.

After telling us that she was the daughter of Black Weasel, chief of the I'-pok-si-maik (Fat Roaster) band of the North Blackfeet, she asked us about her people. We could tell her little about them, for that branch of the Blackfeet spent most of the time on the Saskatchewan plains and usually traded with the Hudson's Bay Company. However, Pi'tamakan said that her father must still be alive, for a recent northern visitor in his father's lodge had mentioned the name of Black Weasel. At that, woman-like, she cried a little and spoke of her mother, and of how much she should like to have news of her.

"Oh, how I long for peace between these two tribes!" she cried. "One has half my heart and one the other half, and between them both it is always being torn."

When Pi'tamakan asked her how she came to be living with the Crows, she replied that many years before she had followed a war party of her tribe on a raid into the Bighorn country. The men had been surprised by the enemy and killed, and the victors had brought her to the Crow camp. Finally Big Rain had won her love, and she had chosen to stay with him rather than return to her people.

"My man, Big Rain, is a good man," she said. "I am happy with him and his people. It is only when the men go to war and return with Blackfoot scalps that my heart is down."

"But the Crows are not great fighters," said Pi'tamakan proudly. "We have killed many, many more of them than they have killed of our people."

"Young man, do not boast! Pray, rather, that they do not get your scalp. You are in great danger, all of you."

Night came again, and at sleep-time Gray Bull once more ordered his women to make their beds outside and watch. But to that we objected, and had our way. It was asking too much of the women, that they work during the day and stand guard over us at night. Jose took the first watch, Pi'tamakan the second, and I the third. In the latter part of my watch, just before dawn, I saw a lone, shadowy figure approaching on all fours, and I coughed. At that the man turned back, and after a little, when he thought he could no longer be seen, got on his feet and disappeared among the lodges. The incident showed only too plainly that North Woman had good grounds for the warning she had given us.

Thereafter the days dragged along monotonously. The talk was frequently of the big war party we had seen on the way to the Blackfoot country, and as the time came nearer and nearer for the warriors to return we became correspondingly uneasy. Should they come home defeated and with a loss of life, it was evident that no effort of the chiefs could save us. It was North Woman who finally suggested a plan for our escape.

More than half of the men were now away at war and meat was becoming scarce in camp. So few were the hunters that even the old men had to ride out after game. North Woman's plan was that Big Rain and Gray Bull should order us out with them to kill meat for the camp, and that, once started, we should keep going on our southward way. Of course we should lose our pack horse, extra ammunition, and bedding; but the loss was of no moment when balanced against our lives.

We left it to North Woman to talk with the two chiefs about the matter. Somewhat to our surprise they eagerly fell in with the plan, and proposed that it be carried out the next day. Plainly they wanted to keep on the good side of the rich and powerful American Fur Company.

I had now to fulfill our promise to Gray Bull, and determined that Big Rain should fare equally well. As a substitute for paper I got a piece of new white parAeche—half-tanned buffalo cowhide—from one of the women, and with the red-hot point of a file burned into it the following message:—

Factor Am. F. Co., Fort Union.

Gray Bull and Big Rain saved our lives. Give each $200 in trade. Charge to my uncle.

(Signed) Thomas Fox.

When I handed this to Gray Bull, and explained also to Big Rain what it meant, the two were pleased enough. We then replenished our powder and ball pouches from the extra store of ammunition, and divided all that was left between the two men; the pack-horse and our bedding we gave to North Woman.

Soon after sunrise the next morning Gray Bull's herder brought in the horses, and we quickly caught and saddled ours. By the time we were ready to start, Big Rain came riding over from his lodge, and the five of us headed up the valley through the camp. The chiefs had caused it to be known the evening before that they had ordered us to help kill meat for the lodges of the absent warriors, and we expected that no attention would be paid to us. But in that we were mistaken; early as it was, a number of young men were already catching and saddling their fast buffalo runners, with the evident intention of following our party.

About two miles above the camp we struck out on the plain south of the river and, topping a ridge, saw a large herd of buffalo about five miles farther on. Behind us at a considerable distance we saw a dozen riders. They were not trying to catch up with us, and that in itself was enough to cause us some uneasiness. They were not out to hunt meat; they were simply keeping on our trail.

"We must ride on together until we approach and charge into the herd of buffalo," said Gray Bull. "Then, in the excitement of the chase, you must strike off in whatever direction looks best to you."

Big Rain approved of the plan of Gray Bull, and for a while we went steadily on over the broken, hilly country. We had gone only a mile or so farther when, first on one side and then on the other, we saw, nearly abreast of us, more men from the camp.

"I am afraid that our plans have been over-heard," said Big Rain.

"That must be it," Gray Bull replied. "What shall we do now? We have to decide quick."

"We can do nothing except go on and make a real hunt of this," said Big Rain, after a moment's thought. And with that he signaled the party on each side of us to go slow and cautiously. To us he said, "When we start into the herd, you three keep between Gray Bull and me, and when we stop you stop."

Then halting us, he signaled the party of men in our rear to come on. With very evident reluctance they quickened their horses into a trot. When they finally came up, Big Rain looked them one by one square in the eyes.

"Now, then, you young men," he said, "meat is much needed in camp, and I have these prisoners out with their good guns and good horses to help us kill some. If any of you think to harm them, it is best that you go back to camp right now, for whoever attempts that has got to fight Gray Bull and me. Go, hurry, half of you, to the party out there to the west, and half to the other party, and repeat my words. I have said. Go."

And go they did, without a word. But as they started, we caught a menacing gleam in the eyes of more than one of them.

Half an hour later we came to the foot of a low, steep ridge—the last one between us and the buffalo herd. There we stripped off our saddles, not only to lessen weight, but to avoid our getting entangled in them if we should fall. After Gray Bull had offered a prayer to the gods for our safety and for a big killing, we were ready for the chase. Side by side we rode up the ridge and topped it; the instant our trained horses sighted the buffalo they laid back their ears and eagerly dashed in among them. It was amusing to see the big bulls on the outskirts of the herd, heads down and half asleep, suddenly wake up with a snort, crook their short-tufted tails, and wheel and run with almost the agility of a cat.

But it was not the bulls we wanted. Young cows, and, above all, dry cows, were what we sought, and in that great herd there very many of them. Choosing our animals, we rode up beside them and fired. Generally one shot was enough. Loading and firing, we flew on. Presently the two side parties closed in on the fleeing herd and the animals became confused; the great, compact mass of them broke up into three different bands, which struck out in as many directions. It had become impossible for us to preserve any kind of order in the chase. Gray Bull and Big Rain were now almost side by side. I was on the right of them, Jose on their left. Pi'tamakan was slightly in the lead, right in the midst of a plunging mass of shaggy backs and clattering hoofs and tossing, black homed heads. As the other hunters converged upon this part of the herd, all was confusion. At that moment I saw Pi'tamakan go down.

"They have shot him!" I cried. "He will be trampled to pieces!"

The two chiefs and Jose had also seen him go down, and we all checked our excited horses as soon as we could. Looking back, we expected to see nothing but a mangled figure on the ground. But, no! There Pi'tamakan was on his feet, gun in hand, and walking swiftly toward us. We rode back and met him.

"What happened?" I asked. "Did your horse fall?"

"No! I saw one of those Crows aiming his gun at me and I just slid off my horse."

"What says he?" Gray Bull asked.

"That he had to jump or be shot," Jose replied.

On hearing that, the chiefs became furious and demanded that Pi'tamakan point out the man who had tried to kill him. Jose objected. No harm had been done, he said, and it was best that we cause no more enmity in camp than we already had. Moreover, even if they should question the man, he would say that he had been aiming at a buffalo near Pi'tamakan, and there the matter would have to end.

"Let it be given out that Pi'tamakan's horse stumbled and threw him," Jose urged.

Both Pi'tamakan and I joined in that request, and at last the chiefs gave in, although they were still very angry.

"Well, then, let's begin butchering what we have killed," said Gray Bull.

[Illustration] from The Gold Cache by James W. Schultz

AT THAT MOMENT I SAW PITAMAKAN GO DOWN.


Turning back to the nearest of our kills, we set to work at skinning three of the cows. The hunters had killed in all more than two hundred head, and Big Rain sent a messenger to camp to tell of the success of the chase. Shortly after midday hundreds of women came riding out to help butcher and to pack home their share of the fine meat. Early in the afternoon we went back to camp, with our horses loaded with tongues and sets of fat boss ribs. North Woman and Gray Bull's head wife accompanied us. Far back on the trail, but keeping us constantly in sight, came a dozen or more of the young Crows.

The next morning Big Rain and North Woman came over to eat with us. North Woman announced that she had thought out a new plan for our escape. While one of Gray Bull's women stood outside to warn us if any one came near, she outlined her scheme.

From the time of our arrival in the Crow camp each one of our horses had been tied neck and neck to one of Gray Bull's horses, in order to prevent them from straying. North Woman had learned that some of the young men were watching the animals at night, to prevent our sneaking out to them and riding away. She proposed that at dusk her man and Gray Bull should picket three of their best horses some distance above camp near the river, if they could do so unobserved, and that later on we should take them and flee southward.

Big Rain said that he thought it a good plan, and so did we; but Gray Bull only shook his head, and it was a long time before he spoke. His breast began to heave with deep-drawn breaths, a grim scowl came over his face, and his eyes seemed to be afire.

"Big Rain," he cried suddenly, striking his hands together, "are we chiefs of this Crow people or are we not? Let us show that we are. Let us call a council and say straight out that these three here of the Long Knife traders are going to start on their southward way and that none shall prevent their

"Why, you are right," Big Rain answered. "We should have done that long ago., We will show these fool young men something. Wife, go for the camp crier."

The crier came presently—a little, dried-up old man of mighty voice—and got his orders; and within a half-hour all the men of the camp, young and old, were gathered round our lodge, with the women and children forming an outer circle. Meanwhile, the rest of the chiefs had come into the lodge, and had readily offered to back the two leaders in anything they might say or do. When the crier announced that the people waited on us, we all went outside.

"Listen, all of you!" Big Rain shouted, after he had surveyed the crowd. "We chiefs are not going to give you any reasons for what we are going to do; we know that we are right, and that is enough. To-day, now, just as soon as their horses can be brought in, we are going to send these three we captured on their way. Young men, listen: if any of you attempt to follow or to harm them, white or Spaniard or Blackfoot, we shall find it out. That is all we have to say. You may go."

The crowd immediately began to break up; the women were chattering, but the young men went without a word. While a herder went for our horses we turned back into the lodge. Now that we were to leave the camp openly, we decided to take a part of the extra ammunition with us; but our pack-horse we left with North Woman.

Presently we had started, with Gray Bull and Big Rain, who wished to see us safe on our way. By mid-forenoon we were clear of the camp, and struck straight across the plain for the mouth of the Bighorn River.

Just before sunset we came to the foot of some rocky hills and unsaddled at a small spring at the base of one of them. There we rested until after dark, drinking our fill of the cool water and eating some pemmican and dried tongue that the women had put up for us. From there we moved up to the top of the hill, picketed the horses, and slept soundly.

The country was peaceful enough when we awoke and went back to the spring for our morning meal. The chiefs were now satisfied that their young men had not followed us, and so they left us. We rode southward toward the breaks of the Yellowstone.

About noon we saw a lone horse ahead of us with something hanging under its belly. As soon as the animal sighted us it pricked up its ears and came trotting and whinnying to meet us. It was trailing a long, three-plait reata, and the thing under its belly was an elkhorn-bowed saddle. We dismounted, cut the cinch, and examined the outfit. Jose at once pronounced the saddle to be of Cheyenne make. The horse was a very ordinary animal and quite thin. There was still some dried sweat on its hair, and so we guessed that it had been ridden hard within a day or so. Adding the reata to our picket ropes, we rode on, with the horse closely following.

At the first rise of ground we carefully surveyed the country ahead. There was no game near us, but south toward the river and along the spring hills great numbers of buffalo and antelope were peacefully grazing and resting. Whence had come the lone horse and where was its owner?

"I believe that there is a Cheyenne war party north of us," said Jose. "The Cheyenne country is away off there to the southeast, along the head of Powder River and over on the Platte. When a horse gets loose it always strikes out for its range and the band it runs with. Well, when we first saw it this horse was going south. We've got to keep a sharp watch behind, as well as ahead of us."

"The Cheyennes are great fighters," said Pi'tamakan. "I hope that they may meet some of those proud young Crows."

We considered remaining right where we were until dark, but the day was very hot and our throats were already parched from thirst; so we decided to push on for the river as fast as possible and take the chance of being discovered by some prowling enemy.

It was still early in the afternoon when we looked down on the Yellowstone from the rim of the wide valley. On the farther side, and about two miles below, we could see the junction of the Bighorn with the larger river. Both of the valleys were full of game, and the sight of the different bands relieved our apprehensions; it was unlikely that they would be so tranquil if any war party were near. Down we went to the river and drank our fill of the cool water. After a short search we found a ford, crossed, and went on.

An hour before sunset two whitetail deer bounded out of a narrow belt of timber half a mile ahead of us, circled back in the open for some distance, and then whisked into the shelter of the trees again.

"Look there!" cried Pi'tamakan. "Something is frightening the game."

Three elk burst from the timber. One staggered along far behind the others and suddenly tumbled down in a heap. No shot had been fired; it was plain that an arrow had caused its death. At our right, only a few yards away, was a grove of cottonwoods. We immediately urged our horses toward it, and had no sooner reached its shelter than an Indian ran from the timber out to the fallen elk, and was followed more leisurely by a dozen or more others.

"Huh!" Pi'tamakan exclaimed. "They are afoot; we have no need to fear. Let's show ourselves and make them feel bad because they can't get our scalps and our horses."

The idea of tantalizing the party brought a broad grin to Jose's usually solemn face, and of course I was always ready for anything exciting. So we rode out of the grove, with the stray horse closely following. The moment that we were clear of the brush the war party saw us and as one man dropped flat to the ground. Acting as if we had not seen them, we kept our horses at a walk on a course by which we should pass about four or five hundred yards from where the Indians lay. There was some sagebrush and greasewood on the flat, but not enough to conceal their movements entirely; we could see them crawling out from clump to clump in order to intercept us.

As they advanced, we bore more and more to the west, until they at last realized that we had seen their movements and were playing with them. At that they all sprang up and, with wild yells, ran as fast as they could in an attempt to get within firing range.

"They're Cheyennes. Come on; it' is time we were getting out of here," said Jose, quirting his horse into a swift lope.

The enemy soon realized that we were fast leaving them behind; stopping, they raised their guns and fired at us. We did not even hear the drone of a ball. Jose shouted at them in derision, and motioned them with waves of his arm to come on. I was close behind him and had eyes only for the enemy; but suddenly I realized that I could no longer hear the thudding of Pi'tamakan's horse. I looked back, and then called out to Jose to stop. Pi'tamakan had turned and was riding at full speed toward the war party. Shouting the Blackfoot war song, he kept straight on. The Cheyennes stood silent, with raised guns.

"Oh, the foolish boy!" Jose groaned. "He is riding straight to his death."