John Ermine


1. Virginia City

One fine morning in the fall of '64 Alder Gulch rolled up its shirt sleeves and fell to the upheaving, sluicing, drifting, and cradling of the gravel. It did not feel exactly like old-fashioned everyday work to the muddy, case-hardened diggers. Each man knew that by evening he would see the level of dust rise higher in his long buckskin gold-bags. All this made for the day when he could retire to the green East and marry some beautiful girl--thereafter having nothing to do but eat pie and smoke fragrant cigars in a basking sunshine of no-work. Pie up at Kustar's bake-shop was now one dollar a pie, and a pipe full of molasses and slivers was the best to be had in the market. Life was hard at Alder in those days--it was practical; and when its denizens became sentimental, it took these unlovely forms, sad to relate.

Notwithstanding the hundreds who toiled in the gulches, Virginia City itself held hurrying crowds,--Mormon freighters, pack trains, ponies, dirty men off the trails, wan pilgrims, Indians, Chinese, and almost everything else not angelic.

Into this bustle rode Rocky Dan, who, after dealing faro all night at the "Happy Days" shebang, had gone for a horseback ride through the hills to brighten his eyes and loosen his nerves. Reining up before this place, he tied his pony where a horse-boy from the livery corral could find it. Striding into that unhallowed hall of Sheol, he sang out, "Say, fellers, I've just seen a thing out in the hills which near knocked me off'en my horse. You couldn't guess what it was nohow. I don't believe half what I see and nothin' what I read, but it's out thar in the hills, and you can go throw your eyes over it yourselves."

"What? a new thing, Dan? No! No! Dan, you wouldn't come here with anything good and blurt it out," said the rude patrons of the "Happy Days" mahogany, vulturing about Rocky Dan, keen for anything new in the way of gravel.

"I gamble it wa'n't a murder--that wouldn't knock you off'en your horse, jus' to see one--hey, Dan?" ventured another.

"No, no," vouched Dan, laboring under an excitement ill becoming a faro-dealer. Recovering himself, he told the bartender to 'perform his function.' The "valley tan" having been disposed of, Dan added:--

"It was a boy!"

"Boy--boy--a boy?" sighed the crowd, setting back their 'empties.' "A boy ain't exactly new, Dan," added one.

"No, that's so," he continued, in his unprofessional perplexity, "but this was a white boy."

"Well, that don't make him any newer," vociferated the crowd.

"No, d---- it, but this was a white boy out in that Crow Injun camp, with yeller hair braided down the sides of his head, all the same Injun, and he had a bow and arrer, all the same Injun; and I said, 'Hello, little feller,' and he pulled his little bow on me, all the same Injun. D---- the little cuss, he was about to let go on me. I was too near them Injuns, anyhow, but I was on the best quarter horse in the country, as you know, and willin' to take my chance. Boys, he was white as Sandy McCalmont there, only he didn't have so many freckles." The company regarded the designated one, who promptly blushed, and they gathered the idea that the boy was a decided blonde.

"Well, what do you make of it, anyhow, Dan?"

"What do I make of it? Why, I make of it that them Injuns has lifted that kid from some outfit, and that we ought to go out and bring him in. He don't belong there, nohow, and that's sure."

"That's so," sang the crowd as it surged into the street; "let's saddle up and go and get him. Saddle up! saddle up!"

The story blew down the gulch on the seven winds. It appealed to the sympathies of all white men, and with double force to their hatred of the Indians. There was no man at Alder Gulch, even the owners of squaws,--and they were many,--who had not been given cause for this resentment. Business was suspended. Wagoners cut out and mounted team-horses; desperadoes, hardened roughs, trooped in with honest merchants and hardy miners as the strung-out cavalcade poured up the road to the plateau, where the band of Crows had pitched their tepees.

"Klat-a-way! Klat-a-way!" shouted the men as they whipped and spurred up the steeps. The road narrowed near the top, and here the surging horsemen were stopped by a few men who stood in the middle waving and howling "Halt!" The crowd had no definite scheme of procedure at any time,--it was simply impelled forward by the ancient war-shout of A rescue! A rescue! The blood of the mob had mounted high, but it drew restive rein before a big man who had forced his pony up on the steep hillside and was speaking in a loud, measured, and authoritative voice.

The riders felt the desire for council; the ancient spirit of the witenagemote came over them. The American town meeting, bred in their bones and burned into their brains, made them listen to the big temporary chairman with the yellow lion's mane blowing about his head in the breeze. His horse did not want to stand still on the perilous hillside, but he held him there and opened.


"Gentlemen, if this yar outfit goes a-chargin' into that bunch of Injuns, them Injuns aforesaid is sure goin' to shoot at us, and we are naturally goin' to shoot back at them. Then, gentlemen, there will be a fight, they will get a bunch of us, and we will wipe them out. Now, our esteemed friend yer, Mr. Chick-chick, savvies Injuns, as you know, he bein' somewhat their way hisself--allows that they will chill that poor little boy with a knife the first rattle out of the box. So, gentlemen, what good does it all do? Now, gentlemen, I allows if you all will keep down yer under the hill and back our play, Chick-chick and me will go into that camp and get the boy alive. If these Injuns rub us out, it's your move. All what agrees to this motion will signify it by gettin' down off'en their horses."

Slowly man after man swung to the ground. Some did not so readily agree, but they were finally argued off their horses. Whereat the big chairman sang out: "The ayes have it. Come on, Mr. Chick-chick."

These two rode up the hill and over the mesa, trotting along as they talked. "Now, Chick-chick, I don't know a heap about Injuns. The most that I have seen of them was over the sights of a rifle. How are we goin' at this? Do you habla Crow lingo, Señor?"

"No," replied that much mixed-blooded man, "I no cumtux Crow, but I make the hand talk, and I can clean up a ten-ass Chinook; all you do is to do nothing,--you no shake hands, you say nothing, until we smoke the pipe, then you say 'How?' and shake hands all same white man. You hang on to your gun--suppose they try take it away--well, den, icta-nica-ticki, you shoot! Then we are dead." Having laid his plan of campaign before his brother in arms, no more was said. History does not relate what was thought about it.

They arrived in due course among the tepees of a small band of Crows. There were not probably a hundred warriors present, but they were all armed, horsed, and under considerable excitement. These Crows were at war with all the other tribes of the northern plains, but maintained a truce with the white man. They had very naturally been warned of the unusual storm of horsemen bearing in their direction, and were apprehensive concerning it. They scowled at the chairman and Mr. Chick-chick, who was an Oregon product, as they drew up. The latter began his hand-language, which was answered at great length. He did not at once calm the situation, but was finally invited to smoke in the council lodge. The squaws were pulling down the tepees; roping, bundling, screaming, hustling ponies, children, and dogs about, unsettling the statesmen's nerves mightily as they passed the pipe. The big chairman began to fancy the Indians he had seen through the sights more than these he was regarding over the pipe of peace. Chick-chick gesticulated the proposition that the white papoose be brought into the tent, where he could be seen.

The Indians demurred, saying there was no white boy--that all in the camp were Crows. A young warrior from outside broke into their presence, talking in a loud tone. An old chief looked out through the entrance-flap, across the yellow plains. Turning, he inquired what the white horsemen were doing outside.

He was told that they wanted the white boy; that the two white chiefs among them would take the boy and go in peace, or that the others would come and take him in war. Also, Chick-chick intimated that he must klat-a-way. The Indians made it plain that he was not going to klat-a-way; but looking abroad, they became more alarmed and excited by the cordon of whites about them.

"When the sun is so high," spoke Chick-chick, pointing, and using the sign language, "if we do not go forth with the boy, the white men will charge and kill all the Crows. One white boy is not worth that much."

After more excitement and talk, a youngish woman came, bearing a child in her arms, which was bawling and tear-stained,--she vociferating wildly the time. Taking the unmusical youngster by the arm, the old chief stood him before Chick-chick. The boy was near nine years of age, the men judged, white beyond question, with long, golden hair braided, Indian fashion, down the sides of his head. He was neatly clothed in dressed buckskins, fringed and beaded, and not naked or half naked, as most Indian boys are in warm weather. It was not possible to tell what his face looked like in repose, for it was kneaded into grotesque lumps by his cries and wailing.

"He is a Crow; his skin is white, but his heart is Absaroke. It makes us bleed to see him go; our women will mourn all this snow for him, but to save my band I give him to you. Take him. He is yours."

Chick-chick lifted the child in his arms, where the small cause of all the turmoil struggled and pulled hair until he was forced to hold him out at arm's length. Mounting, they withdrew toward their friends. The council tepee fell in the dirt--a dozen squaws tugging at its voluminous folds. The small hostage was not many yards on his way toward his own kind before the Indian camp moved off toward the mountains, urging their horses with whip and lance. This movement was accelerated by a great discharging of white men's guns, who were supposed to be sacrificing the little white Crow to some unknown passions; whereas, they were merely celebrating the advent of the white child unharmed. He was indeed unharmed as to body, but his feelings had been torn to shreds. He added his small, shrill protesting yells to the general rejoicing.

Chick-chick, or Chickens, as the miners often called him, had not entered the expedition because of his love for children, or the color of this one in particular; so, at the suggestion of the chairman, it was turned over to a benevolent saloon-keeper, who had nine notches in his gun, and a woman with whom he abided. "Gold Nugget," as he was promptly named by the diggers and freighters, was supposed to need a woman, as it was adjudged that only such a one could induce him to turn off the hot water and cease his yells.

The cavalcade reached town, to find multitudes of dirt-begrimed men thronging the streets waiting for what sensation there was left in the affair. The infant had been overcome by his exertions and was silent. They sat him on the bar of his godfather's saloon, while the men shouldered their brawny way through the crowd to have a look at him--the lost white child in the Indian dress. Many drinks and pistol shots were offered up in his honor, and he having recovered somewhat, resumed his vocal protests. These plaints having silenced the crowd, it was suggested by one man who was able to restrain his enthusiasm, that the kid ought to be turned over to some woman before he roared his head off.

Acting on this suggestion, the saloon-keeper's female friend was given charge. Taking him to her little house back of the saloon, the child found milk and bread and feminine caresses to calm him until he slept. It was publicly proclaimed by the nine-notch saloon-keeper that the first man who passed the door of the kid's domicile would be number ten to his gun. This pronunciamiento insured much needed repose to Gold Nugget during the night.

In the morning he was partially recovered from fears and tears. The women patted his face, fed him to bursting, fingered the beautiful plaits of his yellow hair, and otherwise showed that they had not surrendered all their feminine sensibilities to their tumultuous lives. They spoke to him in pleading voices, and he gurgled up his words of reply in the unknown tongue. The saloon-keeper's theory that it would be a good thing to set him up on the bar some more in order to keep trade, was voted both inhuman and impracticable by the women. Later in the day a young man managed to get on the youngster's blind side, when by blandishments he beguiled him on to his pony in front of him. Thus he rode slowly through the streets, to the delight of the people, who responded to Gold Nugget's progress by volley and yell. This again frightened him, and he clung desperately to his new friend, who by waving his arm stilled the tempest of Virginia City's welcome, whereat the young man shouted, "Say--do you think this kid is runnin' for sheriff?"

The Gulch voted the newcomer the greatest thing that ever happened; took him into partnership, speculated on his previous career, and drank his health. Above all they drank his health. Unitedly they drank to his weird past,--his interesting present, and to his future life and happiness, far into the night. It was good for business, said the saloon-keepers one to another.

On one of the same mountain winds which had heralded his coming was borne down the Gulch next morning the tragic words, "The kid has gone!"

"Gone?" said the miners; "gone whar?"

Alder promptly dropped its pick, buckled on its artillery, and assembled before the nine-notch man. "Where has the kid gone?" it demanded.

His woman stood beside the bar, wild-eyed and dishevelled. "I don't know, gentlemen--I don't have an idea. He was playing by the door of my shack last evening. I went in the house for a minute, and when I came out he was gone. I yelled, and men came, but we could not find him hide or hair."

"If any man has got that kid away from me,--mind you this now,--he will see me through the smoke," spoke nine-notch, as he rolled his eye malevolently for a possible reply.

Long search and inquiry failed to clear matters. The tracks around the house shed no new light. The men wound their way to their cabins up and down the Gulch, only answering inquiries by, "The kid is gone."