John Ermine


5. The White Medicine

That the sun rose with customary precision made little difference to the sleepers in the mountain den. Little of its light crept down the hole against the rock wall, and none of it penetrated the warm buffalo-robes. The dogs, growing uneasy, walked about and scratched at the door; they had not been disturbed by last night's vigil. Waking, one by one, the men threw off the robes and went out; all but the boy, who lay quite still, his vitality engaged in feeding the growing bones and stretching muscles.

Out by the stable Crooked-Bear said: "Take your ponies and that of the boy and ride away. They will starve here, and you must go before they weaken and are unable to carry you. A boy changes his mind very quickly, and he may not think in the sunlight what he did in the firelight. I will be kind to him. Tell Ba-cher-hish-a that her son will be a great chief in a few grasses."

Silently, as only the cats and the wolves and the Indians conduct themselves, the men with the led horses lost themselves among the trees, leaving Crooked-Bear standing by his abode with the two great cross-bred mastiffs, on their hind legs, leaning on him and trying to lick his face. As they stood together, the dogs were taller than he, and all three of them about the same color. It was a fantastic scene; a few goblins, hoarse mystery birds, Indian devils, and what not beside, might have been added to the group and without adding to its strangeness. Weasel had found a most unearthly home; but as he awoke and lay looking about the cabin, it did not seem so awfully strange. Down through the ages--borne through hundreds of wombs--in some mysterious alcove of the boy's brain had survived something which did not make the long-haired white man working about the fire, the massive dogs, the skins of wild animals, the sooty interior, look so strange.

As Weasel rose to a sitting posture on the bunk, the dogs got up also. "Down with you! Down with you, Eric! and you, Hope! You must not bother the boy," came the hermit's words of command. The dogs understood, and lay heavily down, but their eyes shone through heavy red settings as they regarded the boy with unarrested attention.

"I am afraid of your dogs, father; they are as big as ponies. Will they eat me?"

"No; do not be afraid. Before the sun goes over the mountains they will eat any one who would raise his hand against you. Come, put your hand on their heads. The Indians do not do this; but these are white dogs, and they will not bite any one who can put his hand on their heads," spoke Crooked-Bear in his labored way with the Indian tongue. He had never mastered all the clicks and clucks of it.

The meat being done, it was put on the table, and White Weasel was persuaded to undertake his first development. The hermit knew that the mind never waits on a starved belly, so he explained to the boy that only dogs ate on the ground. That was not obvious to the youngster; but he sat in the chair and mauled his piece of meat, which was in a tin plate. He drank his coffee out of a tin cup, which he could see was full better than a hollow buffalo horn, besides having the extra blandishment of sugar in it. As the hermit, occupying an up-turned pack-saddle opposite, regarded the boy, he could see that Weasel had a full forehead--that it was not pinched like an Indian's; he understood the deep, wide-open eyes which were the color of new ice, and the straight, solemn nose appealed to him also. The face was formal even to the statuesque, which is an easy way of saying he was good-looking. The bearer of these messages from his ancestors to Crooked-Bear quite satisfied him. He knew that the baby Weasel had been forcibly made to enter a life from which he himself had in mature years voluntarily fled, and for which neither was intended. They had entered from opposite doors only, and he did not wish to go out again, but the boy might. He determined to show him the way to undo the latching.

After breakfast began the slow second lesson of the white man's mystery. It was in the shape of some squaw's work, and again the boy thought unutterable protests. Crooked-Bear had killed an elk the day before, some considerable distance down the mountain, and taking his dogs with the sledges, they sallied down to get it. What with helping to push the heavy loads in aid of the dogs and his disgust of being on foot, at their noon home-coming White Weasel's interest began to flag.

Crooked-Bear noticed this, and put even more sugar into the boy's coffee. He had a way of voicing half-uttered thoughts to himself, using his native tongue, also repeating these thoughts as though to reënforce them. "I must go slow--I must go slow, or the boy will balk. I must lead him with a silken thread; the rawhide will not do--it will not do." Meanwhile the growing youth passed naturally into oblivion on the bunk.

"These Indians are an indolent people," the prophet continued. "They work only by fits and starts, but so am I indolent too. It befits our savage way of life," saying which, he put some coffee-berries into a sack and began pounding them with an axe. "I do not know--I do not remember to have been lazy; it does not matter now if I am. No one cares, and certainly I do not. I have tramped these mountains in all weathers; I have undergone all manner of hardships, yet they said I could not be a soldier in the armies down south. Of course not--of course not; a humpback could not be a soldier. He is fit only to swear at. Men would laugh at a crooked-back soldier. She could see nothing but my back. Ah--ah--it is past now. Men and women are not here to see my back; the trees and the clouds, the mountains and my dogs, do not look at my spine. The Indians say my back was bent by my heavy thoughts. The boy there has a straight back, and I hope he may walk among men. I will see that he does; I will give him the happiness which was denied me, and it pleases me to think that I can do this. I will create a happiness which the vicissitudes of this strange life seem to have denied him, saying, 'Weasel, you are to be a starved and naked nomad of the plains.' No! no! boy; you are not to be a starved and naked nomad of the plains. I have in my life done no intentional evil, and also I have done no intentional good; now this problem of the boy has come to me--how it reaches out its roots for the nourishing things and how its branches spread for the storms!"

Having accompanied these thoughts by the beating of the axe, the hermit arose, and stood gazing on the sleeping lad. "Oh, if I had only had your back!--oh! oh! oh! But if only you had had my opportunities and education--well, I am not a god; I am only a man; I will do what a man can."

When the boy awoke, the hermit said, "My son, did you ever make a gun speak?"

"No; my father's gun hangs with his mystery-bag on his reclining-mat, and a woman or child dare not lay their fingers on it."

"Would you like to make a gun talk?" came gently, but Weasel could only murmur. The new and great things of life were coming fast to him. He would almost have given his life to shoot a gun; to own one was like the creation, and the few similar thoughts of men; it was beyond the stars.

"Weasel," said the man, taking up a carbine, and calling him by name,--which is un-Indian,--"here is a gun; it loads in the middle; I give it to you; it is yours." With which he handed the weapon to the boy.

After some hesitation Weasel took the gun, holding it stiffly in front of him, as an altar-boy might a sacred thing. He could say nothing, and soon sat down, still holding the firearm, regarding it for a long time. When he could finally believe he was not dreaming, when he comprehended that he really did own a gun, he passed into an unutterable peace, akin to nothing but a mother and her new-born child. His white father stepped majestically from the earth that Weasel knew into the rolling clouds of the unthought places.

"To-morrow I will take my gun, and you will take your gun, and we will walk the hills together. Whatever we see, be it man or beast, your gun may speak first," proposed the prophet.

"Yes, father, we will go out with the coming of the sun. My heart is as big as the mountains; only yesterday I was a herd-boy, now I own a gun. This brought it all to me," the boy said almost to himself, as he fumbled a small bag hanging at his neck. The bag contained the dried horse's hoof.

Throwing back his long hair, the prophet fixed his face on his new intellectual garden. He saw the weeds, and he hardly dared to pull them, fearing to disturb the tender seeds which he had so lately planted. Carefully he plucked at them. "No, my son, that was not your medicine which brought the gun, but my medicine; the medicine of the white man brought it to you. The medicine of the white man brought the gun to you because the Great Spirit knew you were a white boy. The medicine of the white man is not carried in a buckskin bag; it is carried here." And the prophet laid his finger on his own rather imposing brow; he swept his hair away from it with a graceful gesture, and smiling on the youth, he waited to see whether the seed had come up with the bad weed.

Weasel's hand left the bag, and followed down to the gun while he looked at his master. It might be so; no Indian boy whom he knew had ever had a gun. This firearm absorbed him, and the man felt it would continue to do so for some time to come; therefore he said no more.

Bright and early was the start of the hunters in the morning. They left the dogs in the cabin, and with snow-shoes slung to their backs, followed down the sledge-trail toward the bare foothills, where the game was. In and out among the shadows of the pine trees passed the figures, vigorous with the mountain ozone, and both happy in their respective ways. On reaching a proper place, they adjusted the broad, oval rackets, and skirted along the timber-line, watching the hills below them, from which the wind had blown the snow. It was not difficult to find game in those days, before the coming of the white men bearing their long-range rifles. Far out on the plain their trained eyes saw the bands of antelope, and, nearer, herds of mule-deer working about in the ravines. "But," said the boy, "my first shot must be at an elk or a bighorn, father."

"Come then, my son, we will go round this point of the hill, and on the sunny southern slope we will find the elk--great bands of them. You shall shoot one, and when you have done that, the herd-boy will be a hunter."

As had been predicted, in due course of their walk they beheld bands of elk lying about or walking slowly, their yellow backs gleaming in the morning sun. The warm winds from the valleys were coming up toward the arctic mountain-tops and away from the elk. "Take off your snow-shoes, my son; they creak on the snow--the elk will hear them; we must go down this ravine, and when we are near enough, you will shoot."

Under cover of the rocks and sparse pines they slowly made their well-considered way noiselessly, the boy's eyes blazing with the hunter's lust, and the old man watching him eagerly. From time to time the Weasel lifted his head above the rim-rock of the ravine to note the position of their approach, but the hermit's heedful eye bore only on his pupil. They had worked their way, after the hunter manner, a long distance downward, and hoped soon to be in a position for a safe shot. The cañon-like ravine which they were following narrowed suddenly; the snow lay in deep drifts against its sides, making it necessary for them to go slowly along the ledges of the rim-rock, the boy always first. As they were about to round the point where the coulée tightened, a big yellow form drifted like a wind-blown feather on to them; it suddenly appeared not twenty feet from their faces, and it was a mountain-lion. Both the men and the animal stopped, the men straightening up while the cougar crouched down. The cat bared its fangs, the boy raised his carbine; both were in search of game, but neither for what he had found. The gun reached its place; the coulée echoed with the heavy report, and through the enveloping smoke flew the great cat as though also impelled by gunpowder. The boy had not missed his mark, and the lion his only by a small margin. The steep snowdrift yielded under his frantic claws, carrying him many yards down the sides.

"Load your gun and shoot him, Weasel; I shall not shoot," came the hermit's voice. The position of his long rifle belied his words, but the youth did not look behind. He fumbled for a cartridge, was slow in working the strange mechanism of the arm, but he was ready by the time the cat, much frustrated by the unresisting snow, had nearly reached him. Again the cañon chorussed to the rifle, and as the heavy black powder-smoke drifted off on the friendly wind, the boy saw that he had killed. All had happened too quickly for his brain if not for his arm.

"Load your gun," came the voice of command in English. The tense situation made the new language strike Weasel's brain through his ear as his bullet had struck the monster. The sound of it was what conveyed the meaning, and the harsh bang of the words went home. An Indian would have had to gluck and cluck and glut for half a minute to make these three words plain. It would have sounded more like grace before meat than a command.

Weasel again broke his rifle and shoved the brass shell home, never looking elsewhere than at the yellow spot of fur on the white snow below him, as its fierce electric nerves slowly softened its expiring motions into quiet. He had never had even a dream of victory such as had taken form before him. He had known old Indian hunters who rode on a lion's skin in the ceremonial days, and he knew what warriors in the tribe wore the grizzly bear-claw necklaces--every one knew those men. Could it be that he would ride on a lion's skin? Could it be that he would carry a gun which loaded in the middle? Yes, it could be if he only had a horse, but ponies were easier than guns or lions' skins in the Indian world. What a vista of power and glory opened in the boy's mind! What vanity of his could not yet be satisfied?

The hermit glanced over the rim-rock and saw the elk in long lines trotting away; he could hear the joints cracking, but his cabin was full of meat. "Boy, this was a white man's medicine-hunt. Could any Indian do that for you?" But the boy heeded not; with a series of wolfish yells he slid down the snowy incline toward his fallen foe. The hermit followed, and drawing their knives, they raised the hide while the body was yet warm, taking head and tail and claws. Weasel was delirious with joy; he laughed and jabbered and ki-yied, while the pleased old man calculated that he had reduced the boy to a state of mind when it was safe to burden his wild young charge with something quite as serious for him as tigers' skins. He would make him begin his English.

They made their way back to the snow-shoes--back to the sledge-road--up to the cabin--received a welcome from the dogs; but the coffee had less sugar than before. Economy was a watchword with him who trailed his necessities over the long journey from the traders on pack-ponies, and so the lion skin tacked on the wall was enough for the boy.

Gradually the man brought English words into the play of conversation, and Weasel sought the key to the white medicine which had so exalted him. The nouns came first, and he soon began to piece them out with other parts of speech; his ear accustomed itself, and with it all came new and larger thoughts carefully strewn in his way by the prophet.

They hunted together; did the little healthy work found in their simple manner of life which no longer seemed fitted for women only; and the grave old man at last saw the spark which he had lighted burst into flame. It was the warmth of human kindness which is the base of everything ennobling to man.

One day when the buds of the leaves were beginning to show themselves, in response to nature's inviting smiles, the dogs barked furiously. The two dwellers of the cabin seized their rifles, ran out to places which had been selected by them for their strategic advantages in calm moments, and waited. Before long they heard challenges in the well-known Absaroke, which they answered.

"Do not talk English to your people, my son; they will not understand," said the hermit; but what he feared was their suspicion of the transformation of the lad. The Absaroke, no more than the Dakotahs, understood or loved the white man; they merely tolerated him for tribal reasons. The prophet had ingratiated himself by fortunate circumstances and an abounding tact.

The newcomers were a dozen chiefs of the tribe, the boy's Indian father among them. They drove a few led ponies belonging to Crooked-Bear, which they were returning after their wintering with the Absaroke herds. The quickly shooting mountain grasses would support them at this season.

Long and seemingly interminable talks followed the pipe about the prophet's blazing hearth. He filled their minds with strong, sensible advice, reënforcing it by supposed inspired sources, until the tobacco which he had appropriated for such occasions gave out. It was a cheap and in fact the only way by which he could purchase immunity from violence--a safe wintering for his ponies and his fall supply of dried buffalo meat.

His influence was boundless, and while he hoped quite as much as the Indians that the white men would never come to these parts during his lifetime, he also knew that they would. He heard reports that the miners were invading the Sioux territory from the south; he knew gold, and he knew white men, and he realized what the combination always produced. In this strait he saw that the efforts of the Sioux would be so taxed to oppose the progress that the Absaroke would profit by their preoccupation. His revelations always favored the alliance between the Absaroke and the yellow-eyes. No one can ever know how much this forgotten hermit of the Chew-cârâ-âsh-Nitishic did for his race in the days when the Indians of the northern plains made their last stand before the white men. The Indians from King Philip's time never understood the powers, resources, and numbers of the white people. Even the Crows in those days wavered before the boastful envoys of the neighbor tribes. The Indians had hunted out of the country the Metis, the Pea-Soups, or the French half-breeds, together with the white trappers, who had often contracted Indian marriages, and who had followed the fortunes of the early fur trade.

At that time old frontiersmen like Norris, who had for years followed up and down the plains, and across the range, admitted that a strong party of seasoned trappers was not safe east of the Big Horn Mountains.

The long palaver terminated with the Indians' promise to send out war-parties against the other tribes. The Weasel was not able to resist a very natural desire to go again to the camps, to visit his foster-mother, the boys of his childhood, and deeper yet to bear the gun and the lion's skin. The important men of the visiting party had come to regard White Weasel with some sort of veneration; he had that about him which was not quite understandable; he was supposed to be near the unknown Power.