Gold Cache - James W. Schultz




Chapter III

While we stood there, uncertain what to do, another party of Indians came out of the dry creek valley and headed also toward the butte; they paid no attention to the herd of buffalo fleeing south.

"Just the one party split up," said Pi'tamakan. "The watcher on the butte signaled both of them to come. Perhaps he discovered us; we should get away from here at once."

Never in all our adventures had Pi'tamakan and I been so agitated as we were just then; and the absence of Jose only added to our trouble.

"There must be some way out of this; let's make medicine, brother," my partner said tensely, and began to pray to his gods.

The first party of riders was now less than a mile from us and was heading straight toward our place of concealment,

"Come; we can wait no longer for Jose," I said.

"Let's bury the powder and ball and try to hide in the timber."

As I started off, Pi'tamakan cried, "Turn back! Look over there!"

I looked where he pointed. The lone watcher, leaping from rock to rock, was hurrying down the northern face of the butte. The first party of riders saw him also, and, swerving out of their course, met him at the foot of the incline; the second party, one of whom led an extra horse, joined the others a moment later. After a minute's talk the man from the butte mounted, and away they all went westward toward the pine breaks of Armell's Creek.

"Kyi! It is all plain enough now!" Pi'tamakan cried exultantly. "From the top of the butte the watcher discovered another war party approaching; he and his party are getting out of the way of it as fast as they can."

At that turn of affairs we felt somewhat easier, and sat down again in the edge of the pines to wait for Jose. But when the sun mounted higher and higher and still he did not appear, we became anxious. The riders had long since disappeared among the pine buttes, and the frightened buffalo were also gone. Once more the country appeared to be deserted by man. It was nearly noon when Jose came stealing down through the timber.

"What makes your eyes so big?" he asked, laughing. "You look as if something had frightened you."

After listening to our account of the watcher on the butte and the riders, he said that he, too, had seen them from the top of the range. Then he told us his news: over on a small creek just south of the butte was a very large war party—as many as five hundred men. Three of their scouts were even now climbing the butte. We would stay right where we were, he said, for it was unlikely that they would come down through our point of timber.

A little later, as we were eating some of our cooked meat, the three men appeared on the top of the butte. They took no trouble to conceal themselves, but sat boldly on the very summit, smoking and surveying the country. Through the glass we could see from their peculiar method of dressing their carefully kept hair and from the designs of quill embroidery on their robes that they were Crows.

During the afternoon we slept by turns. Jose had the last watch, and near sunset he woke us to see the war party filing past the butte. The three watchers had gone down to join it, he said.

Contrary to our expectation the party did not follow the Blackfoot trail at the foot of the butte; instead they left it and traveled northeast toward the mouth of the Musselshell.

"Ah! They go against our other enemies, the Gros Ventres or Assiniboins," said Pi'tamakan with a sigh of relief. "I was beginning to fear for our herd that we worked so hard to get."

We saddled our horses and, as twilight deepened into night, made our way down out of the timber to the big trail. Later, after passing the butte, I saw for the first time, and quite plain in the bright moonlight, the Snowy Mountains, outermost spur of the Rockies. We had slept little during the day, and all the excitement and anxiety had made us weary. The horses, too, were unfit for travel, for they had not had much to eat; so we halted at the first creek that flowed down from the pine-covered slopes of the Snowy Mountains and rested. We slept in turn from about midnight until the evening of the next day; the horses meanwhile stuffed themselves with the green grasses and pea vines that grew among the cottonwoods.

Leaving the stream in the evening, we struck over to Flat Willow Creek and followed it down to its junction with the Musselshell River. Jose said that the war parties often passed here, and so we often halted our horses and listened for any suspicious sounds. At last we saw the first faint tinge of approaching day in the eastern sky. We had to get out of sight and do it quick; but we could find no place of concealment. All three of us were in a fever of haste, which was not lessened by Pi'tamakan's remark that his medicine was warning him that we were in great danger.

It was broad daylight when Jose finally led us into a patch of chokecherry and plum trees near the top of the point that divided the two streams. After picketing the horses, we went out to the edge of the thicket and carefully surveyed the country with the glass. There was no sign of a war party anywhere; nor could we see any game except a small bunch of buffalo away out on the plain east of the main stream.

We were now faint from hunger. I got the meat sack from the pack, but when I opened it such a horrible odor rose that I tossed it and its contents off to the windward from where we sat. There was to be no food for us that day. As usual we divided the day into three watches. Pi'tamakan had the last one, and roused Jose and me about an hour before dark. The country was quiet, he said, and not a living thing was to be seen anywhere except two bull elks feeding in the edge of the timber at the foot of our slope.

Jose took the glass and studied the country. "Everything appears quiet," he said. "Let's kill one of those elk; we can't go much longer without meat."

But Pi'tamakan objected. "My medicine has kept warning me all day that there is danger. Of course we are hungry, but I think it best to sneak out of here as quietly as we can."

But I sided against him, and after some argument Jose went down the hill. As soon as we heard the report of his gun and saw one of the elk tumble, we packed up and joined him. When we got there he had already butchered the animal and cut out a lot of the best meat. Then we learned why the country was so barren of game; all round were the deserted fireplaces of a big camp, and the fluffy ashes on them proved that they had been cold not more than two days. A fresh and dusty trail showed that the tribe had moved up the Musselshell. Jose said that they were probably Crows.

After watering the horses we waited until dark before building a small fire in the thick timber in order to cook the elk meat. Pi'tamakan wanted to move on as soon as we had satisfied our hunger, but Jose insisted that then was our best chance to roast enough of the food to last until we were well across the Yellowstone. The safest of all places, he argued, was a recently deserted camp-ground.

He had no sooner spoken than an owl hooted a short distance upstream, and was answered by another below us.

"There! I knew it!" Pi'tamakan exclaimed. "Those are not owls; they are the enemy."

At the same time our horses began to snort. Jose grabbed a stick and with one sweep of it scattered the fire. "Quick! Get to the horses!" he ordered.

After the brightness of the fire, the sudden darkness momentarily blinded us, and we had to feel our way among the trees toward the spot where the animals, now thoroughly frightened, were thrashing about and tugging on their tie ropes. We had nearly reached them when, close on our right, some one shouted a command in a language that I thought to be Crow. Jose cried to us to fall, and down we went prone on the ground just as a dozen or more guns spit fire and boomed all round us. I had cocked my piece and was trying to decide where to aim it, when Jose called out, "Don't shoot!" And then, raising his voice he shouted in Crow, "Don't shoot! We are friends, Company men. This is your old friend, Yellow Lance!"

Pi'tamakan and I could not understand what he was saying, and had another shot been fired at us we should undoubtedly have shot back. To our surprise, some one near by answered him, and after a short exchange of words Jose told us to get up and move toward the horses, We were captured, he said, and must make no resistance. When we got to our feet the Crows immediately surrounded us; they took our rifles and roughly pawed us over in search for other weapons.' Jose meanwhile continued to talk with our captors, who presently hustled us back to our fireplace. One of their number had collected the scattered embers of the fire and was blowing them, and suddenly they burst into flame.

All eyes were immediately centered upon Pitamakan, and amid general cries of anger at sight of a hated Blackfoot several of the Crows rushed at him. In another instant he would have been clubbed and cut to death had not Jose and the leader of the Crows got him between them and forced the enraged men back. One fellow came from behind and was just raising his war club to brain Pi'tamakan, when I caught it and wrenched it from him.

It was some time before Gray Bull, the leader, got his men quiet enough to hold a sort of council. More wood was thrown on the fire and we all sat down round it; there were thirty-five of the Crows. The talk that followed was of course unintelligible to Pi'tamakan and me, but we listened to it carefully, hoping to gather by the tone of, the speakers' voices what our fate was to be. Jose afterwards told us all that had been said.

In answer to their questions Jose said that we were under orders of the Company's chief at Fort Benton to go to the white men's trail far south and get some bones of yellow metal buttons there buried. He reminded them that the Company and the Crows had ever been good friends, that he himself had lived and traded with them during several seasons in years gone by, and that he had parted with them in friendship. And then, pointing at me, he said that I was the nephew and adopted son of the great trader chief on the upper river. He asked that they allow us to go on our way.

As soon as Jose finished talking, a big, handsome, long-haired man sprang to his feet and began a violent harangue against us. The American Fur Company, he said, was no friend to the Crows; it sold guns and ammunition to their enemies, especially the Blackfeet, and here before this very fire sat one of that hated tribe. He demanded that the party kill all three of us at once.

Following him, several younger members of the party made like demands. The older men stared straight before them into the fire and made no comments whatever. That augured ill for us.

"Be wise," Jose whispered to Gray Bull; "the friendship of the Company is worth much more to you than our death. Help us out of this trouble and I will give you a writing that will procure you many presents from our people at the mouth of the Yellowstone. You shall be made rich in white men's goods."

The chief gave no sign that he had heard, but after several more young men had wildly demanded that we be put to death at once, he sprang to his feet and commanded silence with a wave of the hand.

"Be still," he said sternly. "These are not common white men. Only the council of our chiefs can say what shall be done to them. At daybreak we will take them home with us and let the great ones say whether they shall live or die."

After that there were no more violent demands for our scalps, but some of the young men withdrew to the farthest light thrown by the little fire and talked together in low tones.

Meanwhile the night was wearing on. Several of the party stretched out on the ground to rest; others feasted on our elk meat. At one time and another all had some sleep except the chief and us three captives. Gray Bull told us that they had discovered us by accident. An old man who had lost a knife had returned to the deserted camp-ground to search for it, and had seen us preparing to hide in the thicket on the point. He had at once returned to the camp, less than a half-day's travel up the river, and had told the news.

As soon as it was light enough to travel we set out for the big camp of the Crows. When we had ridden for three or four hours we saw ahead of us, in a long, open bottom of the river, hundreds of fine, new white lodges. Our coming had been reported by the watchers on the hills, and a great crowd came surging down the trail to meet us. They were mostly women and children, who, when they saw Pi'tamakan, began to revile us. Several of them threw sticks and stones at him, and the missiles, striking our horses, caused the animals to rear and plunge..

Pi'tamakan bore the ordeal better than Jose and I did; his face was perfectly calm and he looked his tormentors square in the eyes. Our progress through the camp was necessarily slow; when we reached Gray Bull's lodge, he told us to dismount and enter. He at once ordered his women to strip our horses of saddles and pack and to fetch the things inside. We were glad to pass into the lodge and out of sight of the dense, clamoring crowd that surrounded it.

We were no sooner comfortably seated on the buffalo-robe couches than two of the women began to roast some dried buffalo tongues for us on the clear little cottonwood fire in the center of the lodge. Before the meat was cooked, a tall, handsome woman of thirty-five years or more came into the lodge. She carried in trembling hands a large wooden bowl heaped with pemmican and, kneeling and edging forward a little, pushed it along on the ground toward Pi'tamakan.

"My son," she said in pure Blackfoot, "this is for you."

Then, breaking a strict rule of both Crow and Blackfoot etiquette,—that a woman shall not get SI between men and the fire,—she suddenly sprang to Pi'tamakan's side, threw her arms round him and kissed him a dozen times; then as quickly she moved back toward the doorway and covered her face with her hands.

"I could not help it," she said. "It is so long since I have seen one of my people."

"I am glad that you did it," Pi'tamakan said, and his voice was not as steady as it might have been. "Let us talk together."

"No, not now," she replied. "I must work for you. Big Rain, head chief of these Crows, is my man. He loves me. I go now to talk with him for you all. Take courage."

And with that she hurried out of the lodge.

Talking it over after she had gone, we decided that we had two good friends in camp,—our host, Gray Bull, and this Blackfoot woman. While we were eating the roasted tongues, and the fine pemmican that she had brought us, we wondered how she came to be among the Crows.

"I think that we shall soon know all about her," said Jose. "With two such friends to help, these people will let us go, I feel convinced."

I thought so, too, but Pi'tamakan said: "You forget those young men who drew away from the fire last night and whispered together. Think you that they were talking about their sweethearts?"

Presently Gray Bull entered the lodge and spoke to his women. Immediately they began to sweep the ground with bunches of brush, to straighten out the robe couches, and to pile the many parfleches and other property near the doorway, in order to make all possible room. We knew what that meant the council of the chiefs was to be held right where we were. In preparation for it, Gray Bull got out a very large stone pipe with a long wooden stem, and mixed some tobacco and l'herbe in a homemade, red-painted wooden bowl.

The chiefs soon began to come in. Gray Bull welcomed each one and gave him a particular place to sit near him or the doorway, according to his importance. I had never seen a finer lot of Indians. With the politeness characteristic of all the tribes of the northwestern plains, they did not stare at us, their prisoners, but conversed with one another in low tones while waiting for the one remaining place, that on the right hand of Gray Bull, to be filled. That was the seat of highest honor, and we knew that it was reserved for Big Rain, head chief of the tribe.

He came in presently, a tall, heavy-set, kindly-eyed man about fifty years of age. In his hair he wore a single eagle tail feather, and his only ornament was a necklace of grizzly-bear claws. When he entered the lodge all present smiled up at him and gave the Crow greeting, which he answered as he moved round to the place awaiting him. Upon sitting down he glanced at us, and then took the pipe that Gray Bull had ready and lighted it.

The pipe went from one to another round the circle, but not to us, and meanwhile the chiefs entered into earnest consultation. When, finally, the last whiff had been smoked, Big Rain turned to Jose and demanded to know why we were traveling southward into the Crow country.

At that Jose repeated what he had previously told Gray Bull.

"But why this Blackfoot here?" the chief asked. "If three were needed for the trail, why did not the great white chief send a white man with you instead of him?"

"Let me explain," Jose replied. "This white boy here is the nephew of the chief of the fort. He and the young Blackfoot, the Running Eagle, have been raised together; they are the same as brothers and never apart for a day. Why, you should know what they two have just done! They traveled from the Blackfoot land westward clear to the shore of the great salt water, passed through the country of many fierce tribes, and brought back with them the skin of the sacred fish dog, wanted by a Blackfoot medicine man."

At that all the chiefs clapped hand to mouth and made exclamations of surprise, and for a moment or two our examination was suspended while they talked excitedly of what they had heard about the great ocean and its medicine animals.

"We thought that this young Running Eagle was a spy," Big Rain said. "We know you, Spaniard. We have not forgotten the time you traded for the Company with us, and your word was always true. Do you now say that the boy is not a spy?"

"I do," Jose replied.

Again the chiefs held a consultation, and meanwhile Jose hurriedly told us what had been said. Big Rain interrupted him by asking whether we had seen a large war party on our way southward. He replied that we had seen such a party at the Black Butte.

After that there was more earnest talk between Big Rain and the under chiefs, and then, turning to Jose once more, Big Rain gave the decision of the council.

"We believe all that you have told us," he said, "and but for one thing you would all be free to go on your way at once. The big war party you saw are our people; they have gone northward, as perhaps you guessed, to raid the Blackfoot country. Now, we think that this young Running Eagle here intends to go southward; still, if we set him free, he might hurry north and warn his people of the approach of our war party. Therefore we have decided to hold him until the party returns. You and the white boy, however, may saddle up and go your way right now."

"Then we stay also," Jose replied without an instant's hesitation.

All the chiefs expressed their satisfaction at that decision, and after another smoke they went their ways. As soon as they were gone Gray Bull gave us some advice.

"All is well with you except for some of the young men," he said. "Because of them you must never leave the lodge at night. In the daytime when you do go out, go always together and carry your pistols well in sight.

"I have had a hard time to save you all," he added. "Many of the chiefs are on the young men's side, and I had to talk strong to them. Meanwhile, North Woman—Big Rain's Blackfoot woman— was talking to him, and he listened. Thus were you all saved."

That night we were quite ready to lie down and sleep. Gray Bull himself was worn out. Before stretching himself out on his couch he ordered two of his women to make their beds outside and to give the alarm if any one came near the lodge. Moreover, he told us to have our arms ready. It was evident that he thought we were none too safe even with him.