John Ermine


10. A Brush With The Sioux

The days saw the big serpents of men crawl on and on--hither and yon over the rolling land, saw them splash through the rivers, wind round the hills, and lie comfortably down at night. About them fluttered the Indian scouts like flies around a lamp,--hostiles and allies,--marking down each other's sign, dashing in and out, exchanging shots, but always keeping away from the coils of the serpents.

Many men besides Captain Lewis held out their hands to Ermine, attracted as they were, first by his picturesque appearance, fine pony, and seat, and Lewis's enthusiasm; but later by his low-voiced simplicity and acute knowledge concerning the matters about them. They in turn unravelled many tangled skeins for Ermine; regiments began to unwind into companies, details, squads; the wagons assorted themselves, and it was not long before the young scout could tell a colonel from a cook's police at a glance. Numbers of these men had seen the ten thousand men die, had been with them when they died, had even, some of them, lain down with them sapped by their own wounds, though of course they had not died. One big man slapped Ermine on the back hard enough to make him cough, and said, "I'd rather take my chance at Cold Harbor than go poking round the hills alone as you do, my boy." And Ermine had to move away quickly to avoid another exclamation point, but such little appreciation warmed him. Also the solidarity of these fellowships took the more definite form of a Colt's revolver, a copy of Upton's tactics, a pocket Bible, a comb from a bald-headed man who respected the unities, together with trifles enough to litter up his saddle-bags.

Old Major Ben Searles in particular used to centre his benevolent eyes on Ermine. He had a boy back in the States, and if he had gone to some other school than West Point might have been a superintendent of an orphan asylum as easily as the soldier which he was. Ermine's quaint questions gave him delicious little mental jolts.

"Why is it, Uncle Ben," asked Ermine, "that all these men come out here to march, get killed, freeze, and starve? They don't have any wives, and I can't see what they have to protect except their eatables."

"You see, Kid, they enlist to do what the government wants them to do, and the government wants them to make the Sioux stop killing white folks just now."

"Yes, but they won't do it. Why don't the government mount them on buffalo ponies, make them eat dried meat, and run after the Sioux instead of taking the villages to war?"

"Well, Ermine, I don't know why. I suppose that is what the Indians would like them to do, and I reckon that is the reason the soldiers don't do it. Soldiers calculate not to do what the enemy wants them to do. Don't you get discouraged; wait a year or two or three, my boy. Oh, we'll get there; we don't know how, but we always stand pat!"

"Pat? pat? What do you mean by 'standing pat'? Never heard that word. What does it mean?" questioned the young man.


Old Searles laughed. "'Pat' is a word we use in a game of cards, and it means that when you think you are licked you guess you are not. It's a great word, Ermine."

The huge column having crawled over the country as far as it was ordered, broke into divisions, some going down the river in steamboats and other parts through the hills to their far-off posts and cantonments.

The Sioux scouts regarded this as a convenient solution of the awkward situation. Neither they nor the white men could do anything with that unwieldy gathering. Two infantry regiments stayed behind as a reminder to the Sioux that the game was not played out. To one of these Captain Lewis was attached, which good fortune gave Ermine continued employment.

The soldiers began to build winter cantonments at the mouth of the Buffalo Tongue River, or, as the white men called it, "The Tongue," and to gather great quantities of stores which were hauled from Fort Benton. Here was something that the Sioux could attack; they jumped the trains savagely, burned the grass, cut in on the animals to stampede, and peppered up the men as they slept. Stores the troops must have; and though they met repulse at times, they "pounded" the trains through to the Tongue.

It was the custom for wagon trains to go into camp early in the afternoon, which gave the stock a chance to graze while it was yet daylight; it also made it possible to guard them from sudden forays by Indians. On one of these occasions Ermine was with a train which made one of the halts as usual. The Indians had not interfered, and to kill time a few officers, among whom was Searles, started a game of poker. Ermine looked on over their shoulders, trying to comprehend. He had often played the Indian game of "hand," so that poker was merely a new slide between wealth and poverty. Seeing him, Captain Lewis sent him on some trivial errand. While he was gone, an agreement was made to have him come in, and then they were to "Skin him alive" just to see how he would stand it. It worked out beautifully. First they separated what little money he had from his clothes, the officers meanwhile sitting like owls and keeping their faces sober by dint of lip-biting; then the sombrero, which was stacked up as five dollars, found its way to Captain Lewis's head in place of a very bad campaign hat. Next came off the buckskin coat, which was followed by the revolver, and slowly, so that his suspicions might not be aroused, all his personal property, including the saddle and gun, which properly did not belong to him, was laid on the grass beside the victors.

"This is going to be a cold winter, John," laughed one, "or else we'd let you in on that shirt."

"Want to put that pony up for a hundred, Ermine?" asked another.

"No; I'll keep the pony; he's medicine. I've often lost all I had with the plum stones. I guess I don't understand poker." And the young scout arose smiling. The officers laughed themselves into tears, jumped up, and brought comrades to see how they had trimmed John Ermine. Every one greatly enjoyed what they called Ermine's preparations for the winter. He had his government shirt, his blanket breeches, and moccasins left; he had not been so poor since he was a herd-boy, but he had known forms of poverty all his life, so it was not new. What he did not enjoy was his belittlement. The hard-working men in those dangerous, monotonous days were keen for any weakness; and when he heard their laughter he wanted a horse-bucket full of human blood to drown his thoughts. He was greatly disturbed, not so much on account of his losses, although they were everything, as he viewed them, as the ridicule in store for him at Tongue River. There is no greater stimulant to a hardy mind than poverty, and John Ermine's worked like a government-six in a mud-hole, far into the night.

The trio of gamblers, who wore their spoils on their own persons, to the huge edification of the camp, arranged to prolong the torture until they should see the young hatless, coatless, unarmed scout on his bare-backed pony during the next march. At the following camp they were to play again, lose to him, and end the joke. Confidences were exchanged, and every one was as tickled as a cur with a new collar.

One of the officers of the poker engagement rode a well-bred American horse of which he was very proud. He had raced it successfully and never declined an opportunity, of which fact Ermine was aware.

It had slowly come to his mind that he had been foully dealt with, so about midnight he jumped up--he had a plan. By dint of daring, fortunate machination, and the coöperation of a quartermaster sergeant whom he took into his confidence, he watered the American horse, fed him with a heavy feed of very salt corn, and later watered him again. The horse had been on short rations and was a glutton. It was with the greatest difficulty that the noble animal managed his breakfast at all; but he was always willing at each opportunity to weaken the saline solution in his stomach.

When the train pulled out, there was Ermine, bare-backed and ridiculous. He rode through the volley of jeers and approached the horse-racing officer, saying, "If you are a good gambler, come on; I will run my horse against yours, three arrow-flights and a pitch, horse against horse."

The laughing stopped; here was a new idea--the quarter-bred blood horse, with his sleek bay quarters, against the scout's pony--a good enough animal, but thin and overworked.

The officer halted and stroked his chin with his thumb and forefinger.

"Hum--hum--yes; by Gad, if my horse can't take that runt into camp, he isn't good enough for me. I'll go you."

A cheer went up from those assembled, and some hidden force carried the thrill down the train, which halted. Uncle Sam's business could wait.

The distance was paced off on the level plain; the judges were set; the scouts and officers lined up.

The American's horse's eyes fairly bulged with excitement; he broke into a dripping perspiration, but seemingly no one noticed this but Ermine. He knew that the load of water would choke him in twenty yards.

The old war-pony was thin from overwork, but responsive as a dog to his bareback rider, and dangerous-looking to one used to see ponies which show worse in condition than out, by reason of the ungraceful architectural lines.

The pistol spoke; the pony gained three jumps from the mark. The American made the best of a bad job, but Ermine was able to turn at the finish and back him over the judges' line.

The officer nearly had apoplexy, as he pulled up. He threw himself off the horse and handed the reins to Ermine.

The action of both challenge and race had been so rapid and so badly calculated on the officer's part that he lacked time to assimilate the idea that he was a fool. He tried to maintain a composure which was lacking, as every one could see.

"If you will get all my clothes, saddle, and gun back from your comrades, I will give you your horse," said the scout.

The spectators who knew about the poker game now sat howling hopelessly on their horses' backs. Searles and the others now came to their beaten friend's aid; they shed their plunder in front of Ermine's horse, produced the saddle and gun from a near-by escort wagon, laid them carefully down with the rest, and the victor granted peace.

"Here is your horse," said Ermine, and he laughed.

The occurrence had a serious side; the three officers were quick to appreciate that. Searles stood in front of the scout and made utterance: "I want to say before all these men that the poker game was not on the square--that we robbed you purposely for a joke, and that we intended to give your property back to you to-night; and I call on all these men to witness my remarks."

"Yes, yes," came the chorus; "it was all a joke. Searles said he would give it back. Don't hold it out against him, Ermine," and other reassuring remarks. They recognized the young scout's magnanimity as a conqueror.

The laughing ceased; the thing evidently had been carried too far. It would not sound well when told at Tongue River. The unfortunate horse-race had made proper restitution impossible.

By this time John Ermine had his clothing and saddle arranged and was mounted. He spoke:--

"Well, if that is so, if it only was a joke, I suppose I ought to say that I sat up half of last night salting your horse. Look at him! He is blowing yet; he is as full of water as a drowned buffalo. I am glad it did not kill him; let us bury the axe."

Major Searles and his fellows were unlike many jokers; they slowly readjusted after the shock and laughed with the others.

The march was resumed, but the customary monotony of this slow pacing of interminable landscape was often abruptly broken by individuals ha-haing loudly, as the sequence of events took a new hold of their risibles; and Mr. John Ermine tightened in an ever increasing hold on their fancies.

Major Searles, riding beside his horse-racing confrère, tried to cheer him. "Brace up, compadre; that boy has you buffaloed. We are all right; we are nothing but a bunch of monkeys. The only thing we forgot was that a fellow who has lived all his life with Injuns is likely to know how to gamble and race horses. He'll be wanting to juggle the bone[12] for us yet, and we are bound to go him."

[12] Indian game of "hand."

"You bet," came the reply; "he has got us staked out, and he can come along and do jig steps on our chest any time he feels like it. That is where we have to moisten our lips and look pleasant, too."

An old wagon boss sauntered by on his mule with its mouth à la crocodile.

"Ha, ha! reckon you fellers has had all the fun that's a-comin' to you. That boy had that last deck marked, bottomed, sanded, and pricked, with more up his sleeve and some in the back of his neck."

John Ermine and Wolf-Voice, meanwhile, had gone well out in front of the train, loping this way and that about the course of advance, with eyes for everything.

Presently they were seen to stop, turn, and come back, flying as fast and straight as the antelope runs.

"How now, by Gad! here's smoke for us!" said Searles. No one laughed any more.

Swift and noiseless as the birds came the scouts; nearer and nearer, until their flying horses' hair could be seen; then sounded the hoof-beats until they drew rein. Wolf-Voice's hair fairly stood up, and his fierce little eyes danced attendance; he talked all the languages he knew, and worked his free hand in most alarming sign signals to help his expression.

"What's up, Ermine?" said the Major.

"Well, Major, the ground out there is alive with fresh pony-tracks. I think you had better bunch up."

The train was strung out, having passed a bad "draw." Turning, the Major shouted: "Close up in columns of fours! Deploy that escort out!"

The order flew down the train; the whips cracked, and the straining mules trotted into position; the infantry guard ran out from the sides, shoving shells into the breech-blocks. Even while this was in motion, a torrent of Sioux poured over the bluffs, back of the flat, and came on.

The soldiers dropped on to their knees in the sage-brush. The Major spurred to the particular point for which they were headed, followed by scouts and several mounted men.

"Steady, men! hold your fire!"

The men were aiming, and each had five cartridges in his teeth. In a sonorous roll came, "Steady--steady--steady!" And the gay stream of savagery bore on.

"Fire!" Like a double drag on a drum which gradually dies, the rifles rattled down the extended line, all concentrated on the head of the flying column. The smoke played along the gray sage; there was a sharp clatter of breech-blocks, and an interval.

"Ready! Fire!" and this repeated.

The Major jogged to a wind-blown place and saw that the column had veered to its right but was not checked. Followed by his few mounted men, he rode along behind their line parallel with the head of the charge, but before the slow and steady fire the Indian line drew out. The train was caught in the circle, but the enemy had not the heart to ride over the deadly skirmish line. The close columns of wagons now turned off down toward the river, and, keeping their distances, the infantry followed it. Indian ponies lay kicking out on the dry plain, and here and there could be seen warriors who retired slowly from the racing Indians; they had been plugged.

Bullets kicked up the dust, and one or two soldiers had to be helped along by their comrades.


The heated air shimmered over the land; but for the rattle and thud of gun and pony, the clank, snort, and whip-cracks among the wagons, the great, gray plains lay silent.

No eye save that of a self-considering golden eagle looked on, and he sailed placidly far above. Ponies and mules strained and lathered, men sweated and grunted and banged to kill; nature lay naked and insensate.

The Indians made a stand under the cut banks of the river, but were flanked out. The train drove slowly into a corral form, when the mules were unhooked. The guard began to rifle-pit among the wagons, and the Indians drew off to breathe their ponies. They had stopped the train, but the "walk-a-heap" soldiers were behind the wagons, which were full of "chuck," and water was at hand. Indians always dreaded the foot-soldiers, who could not run away, and who would not surrender, but worked their long rifles to the dying gasp; they were "heap bad medicine"; they were like wounded gray bears in a den of rocks--there was no reasonable method for their capture.

Major Searles jumped from his horse, took off his hat, and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. "So far, so good! so far, so good! but not so very d---- far either," he mused.

Towing his pony behind him, Wolf-Voice came up, legs bowed and wobbly, horseback fashion when afoot. Calling loudly, he said:--

"By Jeskris, Maje Searl, bout two-tree minit you bettar look out; dose Kul-tus-til-akum she mak de grass burn yu up, by Gar. Win' she waas come deese way."

"Yes--yes, that's right. Here you, Ermine, and you, Lieutenant Smith, take what men you want and kill a wounded mule--drag his hide over the grass to windward; it is short and won't burn high. And, Lieutenant, give me all the men you can over here; they will try to come through the smoke." Saying which, the Major made his way to the ammunition wagons and had the mules hooked to them, intending to run these into the river in case the fire came through.

In fighting Indians, the Major, who was an old hand, knew that one must act quickly, for they are rapid tacticians and their blows come fast.

These preparations had no sooner been made than, true to Wolf-Voice's admonitions, the Indians came down, and, just out of rifle-range, started the fire down wind. Almost no air was stirring; the flames ran slowly through the short buffalo-grass, but weeds and sage made considerable smoke, which came toward the train.

The dripping carcass of the mule was dragged in a ring round the windward side of the train; the smoke eddied over the wagons; the Indians could not be seen; every man's eyes and ears were strained and fingers twitched as they lay at an "aim" or "ready," among the wagon-wheels.

The mules grew restive and sat back on their fastenings; but there, matters had been well attended to, for the side-lines and hobbles were leathered and laced.

To the silent soldiers this was one of the times when a man lives four years in twenty minutes; nothing can be compared to it but the prolonged agony between your "Will you have me?" and her "yes" or "NO."

As the fire came nearer, they heard its gentle crackle, crackle; their nerves all crackled in unison. It reached the bloody ring left by the poor mule--"would the d---- Injuns never come?" At the guard line the flames died and crackled no more. The smoke grew thinner, and at last they saw out through it; the Indians held themselves safely out of rifle-shot.

"Hum," said Searles, as he stepped down from a wagon-wheel, "they didn't want any of this chicken pie." And then he did what he was never known to do under ordinary circumstances; and when he was through, the men cheered, and every mule-skinner who had heard him envied a man who could talk it off just like that.

"Ah, Maje Searl," chimed in Wolf-Voice, "don' you been scare; dose Injuns no say goo'by yet, mabeso."

And they did not say good-by. They dismounted and went behind the washes in the shallow river. They peppered and banged the men as they watered the stock, the perilous trip only being made behind a strong skirmish line with three men hit and a half-dozen mules. The soldiers ate a quiet supper and put out the fires before the sun went down. The Indians, with the declining light, crawled in on the train and pecked at the monster.

"Pe-e-e-eing" went a bullet on a wagon-tire; "slap" went another on a wagon-box; "thud," as one buried in a grain-bag; "phud," and the ball made a mule grunt; but the echoing Springfields spit their 45's at the flashes.

Searles sent for Ermine and Wolf-Voice, and sitting on the grass behind a barricade of grain-sacks, he began: "We are corralled, and I haven't escort enough to move. I can hold out till snow, but can't graze my stock. Some one has to go back for reënforcements. Will you go? It can be made on a good horse by morning."

"Well, Major, I'll try it. I can go if I can get through with a fair start. The moon will come up later, and I must go now while there is a chance," said Ermine.

"Will you go also, Mr. Wolf-Voice?"

"Well, hit be good chance for geet keel. Yaes, I go, mebeso, feefty doaller," vouchsafed that worthy, after nicely balancing the chances.

"What do you want for going, John Ermine?" asked the Major.

"I don't want anything. I came to fight the Sioux. I do not go to war for fifty dollars." But it was too dark for the half-breed to see the contempt in Ermine's face, so he only shrugged his shoulders and contented himself with, "Oh, weel, mabeso dose soldier-man go for not so much. I do not."

"All right, all right! I'll give you an order for fifty dollars. Here are the papers." And the Major handed one to each. "Now, don't lose them, whatever else you do."

"Ma pony, she steef, no good. I was go on de foot." And Wolf-Voice proceeded to skin off his motley garments. In these desperate situations he believed in the exemplar of his name; its methods were less heroic but more sure.

Ermine half stripped himself, and his horse wholly; bound up the tail, and in the gloom rubbed the old dried horse's hoof on his heels. It had, at least, never done any harm, and at times favored him. Sak-a-war-te and the God of the white men--he did not know whether they were one or two. Trusting his valuables to the care of the Major, he was let out of the corral after a good rattle of firing, into the darkness, away from the river.

Only a few rifles ripped the night air in response to this, which he took to indicate that the better part of the Indians were along the river. He glided away, leading his pony, and the last the soldiers saw was the flash of a gun turned in an opposite direction from the wagon train. Neither Wolf-Voice or Ermine again appeared.

The slow fight continued during the night and all the next day, but by evening the Indians disappeared. They had observed the approach of reënforcements, which came in during the following morning, led by Ermine. Wolf-Voice, who had been on foot, did not make the rapid time of his mounted partner, but had gone through and acquired the fifty dollars, which was the main object.