John Ermine


19. Flight

Ermine understood the "talking wire,"--the telegraph had been made plain to him,--and he knew the soldiers were stretching one into the west. He sheered away from the white man's medicine, going up a creek where only the silent waters swirling about his horse's legs could know the story of his ride, which secret they would carry to the eternal sea.

The gallant pony's blood was rich from the grain-sacks; he had carried a rider in the strain of many war-trails, and his heart had not yet failed. In the prime of life, he was now asked to do the long, quick distance that should lose the white man; those mighty people who bought the help of mercenary men; whose inexhaustible food came in the everlasting wagons; and who spoke to each other twenty sleeps apart. His rider had violated their laws, and they would have him. Only the pony could save.

Having walked the bed of the creek as far as he deemed necessary, Ermine backed his pony out of the stream into some low bushes, where he turned him about and rode away. All day over the yellow plains and through the defiles of the hills loped the fugitive. Once having seen buffalo coming in his direction, he travelled for miles along a buffalo path which he judged they would follow. If by fortune they did, he knew it would make the scouts who came after rub their eyes and smoke many pipes in embarrassment. Not entirely satisfied with his precautions,--for he thought the Indians would cast ahead when checked,--he continued to urge the pony steadily forward. The long miles which lay before his pursuers would make their hearts weak and their ponies' forelegs wobble.

He reflected that since he was indeed going to join Mr. Harding's party at the secret place in Gap-full-of-arrow-holes,[15] why would not Lewis's scouts follow the easy trail made by their ponies and trust to finding him with them; and again, would the Englishman want his company under his altered status? This he answered by saying that no horse in the cantonment could eat up the ground with his war-pony; and as for the Englishman, he could not know of the late tragedy unless the accused chose to tell him. What of his word? Why was he keeping it? With a quick bullet from his rifle had gone his honor, along with other things more material. Still, the Gap lay in his way, so he could stop without inconvenience, at least long enough for a cup of coffee and some tobacco. The suddenness of his departure had left him no time to gather the most simple necessities, and he was living by his gun. Only once did he see Indians far away in the shimmer of the plains. He had dropped into the dry washes and sneaked away. They might be Crows, but the arrows of doubt made sad surgery in his poor brain; the spell of the white man's vengeance was over him. Their arms were long, their purses heavy; they could turn the world against him. From their strong log-towns they would conjure his undoing by the devious methods which his experience with them had taught him to dread. The strain of his thoughts made his head ache as he cast up the events which had forced him to this wolfing through the lonely desert. He had wanted to marry a pretty girl whose eyes had challenged him to come on, and when he had ventured them, like a mountain storm the whole cantonment rattled about his head and shot its bolts to kill. As the girl had fled his presence at the mere extension of his hand, in swift response to her emotions the whole combination of white humanity was hard on the heels of his flying pony.

[15] Pryor Gap.

From the summit of the red cliffs Ermine looked down into the secret valley of his quest, and sitting there beside a huge boulder he studied the rendezvous. There were Ramon's pack-ponies--he remembered them all. There curled the smoke from the tangle of brushwood in the bottom, and finally Wolf-Voice and Ramon came out to gather in the horses for the night. He rode down toward them. Their quick ears caught the sound of the rattle of the stones loosened by his mount, and they stopped. He waved his hat, and they recognized him. He came up and dismounted from his drooping horse, stiff-hided with lather and dust, hollow-flanked, and with his belly drawn up as tight as the head of a tom-tom.

"Are you alone in the camp? Has no one been here?"

"No; what for waas any one been here?" asked and answered the half-breed. "De King George Man,[16] she waas set by dose fire an' waas ask me 'bout once a minit when waas Ermine come."

[16] Any person who belonged to the Queen.

The men drove the horses in while Ermine made his way through the brush to the camp-fire.

"A-ha! Glad to see you, Mr. Ermine. Gad! but you must have put your horse through. He is barely holding together in the middle. Picket him out, and we will soon have some coffee going."

Ermine did as directed and was soon squatting before the fire with his cup and plate. To the hail of questions he made brief response, which Harding attributed to fatigue and the inclination of these half-wild men not to mix discourse with the more serious matter of eating.

"How did you leave every one at the camp?"

Ermine borrowed a pipe and interspersed his answers with puffs.

"Left them in the night--and they were all sitting up to see me off. My pony is weak, Mr. Harding. Will you give me a fresh one in the morning? We ought to start before daylight and make a long day of it."

"My dear man, before daylight? Are we in such haste? It seems that we have time enough before us."

"This is a bad country here. Indians of all tribes are coming and going. We are better off back in the range. In two or three sleeps we will be where we can lie on the robe, but not here;" saying which, Ermine rolled up in his saddle blanket, and perforce the others did likewise, in view of the short hours in store.

The last rasping, straining pack-rope had been laid while yet the ghostly light played softly with the obscurity of the morning. The ponies were forced forward, crashing through the bushes, floundering in the creek, cheered on by hoarse oaths, all strange to the ear of Harding. The sedate progression of other days was changed to a fox-trot--riding-whips and trail-ropes slapping about the close-hugged tails of the horses.

Harding congratulated himself on the unexpected energy of his guide; it would produce results later when wanted in the hunting. The ponies strung out ahead to escape the persecution of the lash, but Wolf-Voice saw something new in it all, and as he rode, his fierce little eyes gleamed steadily on Ermine. The half-breed knew the value of time when he was pushing the horses of the enemy away from their lodges, but these horses had no other masters. He turned his pony alongside of Ermine's.

"Say, John, what for you waas keep look behin'? Who you 'fraid follar dese pony? Ain't dose Canada-man pay for dese pony--sacre, what you was do back de camp dare? De Sioux, she broke hout?" And the half-breed's mischievous eye settled well on his confrère.

"Well, I did that back there which will make the high hills safer for me than any other place. Don't say anything to Mr. Harding until I feel safe. I want to think."

"You waas shoot some one, mabeso?"

"Yes--that ---- ---- Butler. He said he would force me to give up the paper we found in the moonlight on the soldier trail down the Yellowstone a year ago. He pulled his pistol, and I shot him."

"You kiell heem--hey?"

"No, caught him in the arm, but it will not kill him. I may go back and do that--when the soldiers forget a little."

"Den you waas run away--hey?"

"Yes; I made the grass smoke from Tongue River to here. I don't think they can follow me, but they may follow this party. That's why I look behind, Wolf-Voice, and that's why I want you to look behind."

"What for you waas come to de King George Man, anyhow?"

"I wanted coffee and tobacco and a fresh pony and more cartridges, and it will be many moons before John Ermine will dare look in a trader's store. If the white men come, I will soon leave you; and if I do, you must stay and guide Mr. Harding. He is a good man and does what is right by us."

"Ah!" hissed the half-breed, "old Broken-Shoe and White-Robe, she ain' let dose Engun follar you. You 'spose dey let dose Crow tak de ack-kisr-attah[17] to Crooked-Bear's boy? Humph, dey 'fraid of hees medecin'."

[17] Soldiers.

"Well, they will pile the blankets as high as a horse's back, and say to the Shoshone, 'Go get the yellow-hair, and these are your blankets.' What then?"

"Ugh! ugh!--a-nah," grunted the half-breed; "de ---- ---- Shoshone, we will leek de pony--come--come!"

The energy of the march, the whacking ropes, and scampering horses passed from satisfaction to downright distress in Mr. Harding's mind. He pleaded for more deliberation, but it went unheeded. The sun had gone behind the hard blue of the main range before they camped, and the good nature of the Englishman departed with it.

"Why is it necessary to break our cattle down by this tremendous scampering? It does not appeal to my sense of the situation."

"Wael, meester, wan more sun we waas en de hiell--den we have long smoke; all you waas do waas sit down smoke your pipe--get up--kiell dose grizzly bear--den sit down some more."


But this observation of the half-breed's was offset by Ramon, who was cleaning a frying-pan with a piece of bread, and screwing his eyes into those of Wolf-Voice. The matter was not clear to him. "What good can come of running the legs off the ponies? Why can't we sit down here and smoke?"

"You waas trader--you waas spend all de morning pack de pony--spend all the afternoon unpack heem--a man see your night fire from stan where you waas cook your breakfast--bah!" returned Wolf-Voice.

This exasperated Ramon, who vociferated, "When I see men run the pony dat way, I was wander why dey run dem." Wolf-Voice betook himself to that ominous silence which, with Indians, follows the knife.

Ermine was lame in the big white camp, but out here in the desert he walked ahead; so, without looking up, he removed his pipe, and said in his usual unemotional manner, "Shut up!" The command registered like a gong.

Wolf-Voice sat down and smoked. When men smoke they are doing nothing worse than thinking. The cook ceased doing the work he was paid for, and also smoked. Every one else smoked, and all watched the greatest thinker that the world has ever known--the Fire.

The first man to break the silence was the Englishman. Whether in a frock coat, or a more simple garment, the Englishman has for the last few centuries been able to think quicker, larger, and more to the purpose in hours of bewilderment, than any other kind of man. He understood that his big purpose was lost in this "battle of the kites and crows." The oak should not wither because one bird robbed another's nest. As a world-wide sportsman he had seen many yellow fellows shine their lethal weapons to the discomfiture of his plans; and he knew that in Ermine he had an unterrified adversary to deal with. He talked kindly from behind his pipe. "Of course, Ermine, I am willing to do what is proper under any and all circumstances, and we will continue this vigorous travel if you can make the necessity of it plain to me. Frankly, I do not understand why we are doing it, and I ask you to tell me."

Ermine continued to smoke for a time, and having made his mind up he removed his pipe and said slowly: "Mr. Harding, I shot Butler, and the soldiers are after me. I have to go fast--you don't--that's all."

The gentleman addressed opened wide eyes on his guide and asked in low amazement, "D---- me--did you? Did you kill him?"

"No," replied Ermine.

Rising from his seat, Mr. Harding took the scout to one side, out of reach of other ears, and made him tell the story of the affair, with most of the girl left out.

"Why did you not give him the photograph?"

"Because he said he would make me give it and drew his pistol, and what is more, I am going back to kill the man Butler--after a while. We must go fast to-morrow, then I will be where I am safe, for a time at least."

All this gave Harding a sleepless night. He had neither the power nor the inclination to arrest the scout. He did not see how the continuance of his hunt would interfere with final justice; and he hoped to calm the mood and stay the murderous hand of the enraged man. So in half-bewilderment, on the morrow, that staid traveller found himself galloping away from the arms of the law, in a company of long-haired vagabonds; and at intervals it made him smile. This was one of those times when he wished his friends at home could have a look at him.

"Say, Wolf-Voice," said he, "Ermine says he is going back to kill Lieutenant Butler sometime later."

"He says dat--hey?"

"Yes, he says that."

"Wiell den--she wiell do eet--var much, 'fraid--what for she wan kiell dose man Butler? She already waas shoot heem en the harm."

"I think Ermine is jealous," ventured Harding.

"What you call jealous?" queried the half-breed.

"Ermine wants Butler's girl and cannot get her; that is the trouble."

"Anah-a! a bag of a squaw, ees eet?" and Wolf-Voice ran out to head a pack-horse into the line of flight. Coming back he continued: "Say, Meester Harding, dese woman he ver often mak' man wan' kiell some ozer man. I have done dose ting."

"Whew!" said Harding, in amazement, but he caught himself. "But, Wolf-Voice, we do not want our friend Ermine to do it, and I want you to promise me you will help me to keep him from doing it."

"'Spose I say, 'Ermine, you no kiell Meester Butler'--he teel me to go to hell, mabeso--what den?"

"Oh, he may calm down later."

"Na--Engun she no forget," cautioned the half-breed.

"But Ermine is not an Indian."

"Na, but she all de same Engun," which was true so far as that worthy could see.

"If we do not stop him from killing Butler, he will hang or be shot for it, sooner or later, and that is certain," said Harding.

"Yees--yees; deese white man have funny way when one man kiell 'nozer. Ermine ees brave man--he eese see red, an' he wiell try eet eef he do hang. No one eese able for stop heem but deese Crooked-Bear," observed the half-breed.

"Is Crooked-Bear an Indian chief?"

"Na; she ain' Enjun, she ain' white man; she come out of the groun'. Hees head eet waas so big an' strong eet were break hees back for to carry eet."

"Where does this person live?" ventured Harding.

"Where she eese lieve, ah?--where Ermine an' his pony can find heem," was the vague reply. "You no wan' Ermine for kiell deese Butler; weel den, you say, 'Ermine, you go see Crooked-Bear--you talk wid heem.' I weel take you where you wan' go een de montaign for get de grizzly bear."

"I suppose that is the only solution, and I suppose it is my duty to do it, though the thing plays havoc with my arrangements."

Later the trail steepened and wound its tortuous way round the pine and boulders, the ponies grunting under their burdens as they slowly pushed their toilsome way upwards. When Ermine turned here to look back he could see a long day's march on the trail, and he no longer worried concerning any pursuit which might have been in progress. They found their beds early, all being exhausted by the long day's march, particularly the fugitive scout.

On the following morning, Harding suggested that he and Ermine begin the hunting, since fresh meat was needed in camp; so they started. In two hours they had an elk down and were butchering him. The antlers were in the velvet and not to the head-hunter's purpose. Making up their package of meat and hanging the rest out of the way of prowling animals, to wait a pack-horse, they sat down to smoke.

"Are you still intending to kill Mr. Butler?" ventured Harding.

"Yes, when you are through hunting, I shall begin--begin to hunt Butler."

"You will find your hunting very dangerous, Ermine," ventured Harding.

"It does not matter; he has got the girl, and he may have my life or I shall have his."

"But you cannot have the girl. Certainly after killing Butler the young lady will not come to you. Do you think she would marry you? Do you dream you are her choice?"

"No, the girl would not marry me; I have forgotten her," mused Ermine, as he patiently lied to himself.

"Does this maiden wish to marry Butler?" asked Harding, who now recalled garrison gossip to the effect that all things pointed that way.

"She does."

"Then why do you kill the man she loves?"

"Because I do not want to think he is alive."

The wide vacancy of the scout's blue eyes, together with the low deliberation in his peaceful voice, was somewhat appalling to Harding. He never had thought of a murderer in this guise, and he labored with himself to believe it was only a love-sickness of rather alarming intenseness; but there was something about the young man which gave this idea pause. His desperation in battle, his Indian bringing-up, made it all extremely possible, and he searched in vain for any restraining forces. So for a long time they sat by the dead elk, and Harding sorted and picked out all the possible reasons he could conjure as to why Ermine should not kill Butler, until it began to dawn upon him that he was not replying to his arguments at all, but simply reiterating his own intentions despite them. He then recalled cases in England where fists had been the arguments under a rude lover's code; only out here the argument was more vital, more insistent, and the final effect left the lady but one choice should she care to interest herself in the affair.

Resuming his talk, Harding suggested that his guide go to his own friends, who might advise him more potently than he was able, and ended by asking pointedly, "You have friends, I presume?"

"I have one friend," answered the youth, sullenly.

"Who is he?"

"Crooked-Bear," came the reply.

"Crooked-Bear is your friend; then you must listen to him; what he advises will probably be the thing to do."

"Of course I will listen to him. He is the only person in the world I care for now. I have often heard him talking to himself, and I think he has known a woman whom he cannot forget," spoke Ermine. "He will not want me to seek my enemy's life. I have talked too much, Mr. Harding. Talk weakens a man's heart. I will make no more talk."

"Well, then, my man, go to your friend; I can do nothing more," and Harding arose. They tied their meat on the saddles, mounted, and sought their camp. On the following morning Ermine had gone.