John Ermine


6. John Ermine

For a few days after the departure of the boy the hermit felt depressed; he had added a human interest to his life, which previously had been satisfied by communion with nature alone. The bugs, the plants, the birds, the beasts, the dogs, the hunting, had sufficed. The seat on the rock wall above the cabin, where he mused, and where his eyes went forward over interminable miles of cloud-flecked plain and tier after tier of ragged mountain ranges, had satisfied him, while his mind wandered backward among the years before he became a hermit.

But shortly the time arrived when he was compelled to make his semiannual trip with his pack-horses to the traders for his supplies of ammunition, of pots and pans, of tobacco, blankets, and food-stuffs, without which he could not exist. This journey was always tedious, hard, and dangerous; but he tried always to do it while the horses of the enemy out on the plains were thin and as yet unserviceable. With all the circumspection he was able to use, he had on several occasions nearly lost his life; but needs must, he could renounce everything on earth except his belly. However, this time he accomplished his journey, and aside from straying ponies, turning packs, with the other inevitables of desert life, he, safe and well provided, found his cabin again. The Indians had told him that White Weasel had gone with a war-party. That was nothing;--all men in the wild country were more or less at war all the time. "I hope the boy keeps that corn-silk on his head," soliloquized the hermit; "also I think it would be a good thing for the young savage if he is forced to leave other people's alone. A fresh scalp in that boy's hand will make an extra year's work for me. It cannot be helped--it cannot be helped; it is the law of nature, only that law operates badly out here. What does it matter, however? The women can correct the loss of a man more or less in the world."

With the return of spring came the elk and bighorn. They walked into his park and blew their whistles as they smelled the odors from his hearth. The big gray bears came out of their winter caves and rumbled past his door. These were his greatest foes, constantly stampeding his ponies, even clawing at his heavy log horse-barn, where he always kept one horse to hunt the others with, and trying to circumvent his meat-arbor,--a device hung on a pole high up between two slender trees, which was operated up and down by a rawhide rope. Small black bears often put this out of action, but the dogs were usually able to chase these away. Not so with the silver-tips; for at times one of the playful brutes would come round to indulge himself in the sport of chasing Eric and Hope about the dooryard over their own preserves. They both had been slashed and hugged at intervals in their youth, and so took the big bears at their own estimate. The long, fifty-caliber rifle was called upon on such occasions, and thus far with success.

One day, at the beginning of summer, the boy returned to the hermit's nest,--was barked at, challenged, and finally greeted.

"Have you blinded your ponies' trail carefully, coming up from the valley? The enemy is abroad in the land these days," was asked and answered satisfactorily. The boy's features, which were rather grave in response to the seriousness of his life, were relaxed and beaming. There was an eagle feather in his hair, hanging down behind. He led the pony loaned by the prophet, which bore a bunch of buckskins, and was mounted on a fine animal, quite in the warrior class, with a new elk-horn saddle. His panther skin was rolled behind him. Dismounting, he carefully undid this, and from its folds drew forth a scalp--a braid of long hair, the skin stretched on a wooden ring and half covered down the plat with silver disks made of pounded silver dollars.

"It was a Dakotah, father, and I put his fire out with the medicine gun you gave me. I have danced it with the warriors; I am a warrior now."

The old man's worst fears had been realized, but after eating he had the story from White Weasel.

"When I reached the village, my father's and mother's hearts grew big at the sight of my gun and lion's skin. My mother had made the buckskins you sent down by my father into clothes both for yourself and for myself." Here he presented the hermit with his new dress, made beautiful with yellow ochre and with long fringes at back and sleeves, and open at the front, as was the white man's custom.

"Long-Horse," the boy continued, "was making up a party to go to the Dakotahs. I asked to be one of them, but he thought I was young. I said my medicine was strong and that my horse was fat. He said I was young to learn the war-path secret, but after smoking my talk he consented. I had only eight cartridges and one horse, all the other Indians having two apiece. Your old pack-pony is a war-horse now, father; he has carried a warrior," and the turquoise eyes gleamed brilliantly. "Long-Horse had a big band; we made the war-path medicine and travelled many sleeps with our backs to the sun. One morning our scouts found two men, an Absaroke and a white man, and brought them in. They belonged to the white warriors' camp, which was fighting the Dakotahs, who were all around them, and these men were going for help. Long-Horse moved toward this place guided by the men we had met. Before the sun was up, the Absaroke rode into the camp of the white soldiers, and they were glad to see us. They had the white cloth lodges and many wagons, but their horses had been taken by the Dakotahs and they had lost some soldiers. The white men had put their dead men in the ground. I saw where they had dug in the earth and left mounds such as the prairie-dog builds. The camp was on the low ground, and back of this were bluffs. When the sun gave light, we could see the Cut-Throats swarm on their hill as the ants do when you lift a stone. There were five Cut-Throats to one white soldier, and the white men could not go out to them. While the white men had no women, they had more wagons than I could count, loaded with sugar and coffee until the wheels cut the ground. I never knew there was so much coffee and sugar; where does it come from, father? The white men are rich, and there are so few of them that each has more than he wants. In a place of that kind the Absaroke would have run away, but the white men cannot run, and they think more of the coffee and sugar than they do of their own lives. It made my head weak when I saw the enemy; they rode swiftly; they were all warriors, for they all had the war-feathers in their hair. They had guns, and as they rode they made the gestures of women and snakes and dogs at us. They rode away from a spot which they pointed at, and then they pointed at us, saying we were buffalo that always ran away like this. Long-Horse and the white chief, a big man with short hair, made a long talk. The Absaroke gave their old travelling-ponies to the white warriors, who put their own saddles on them. These white soldiers mounted the ponies on the wrong side, and tired as the horses were, they jumped like rabbits under them. Though I was afraid of the enemy, I had to laugh, father.

"When we were ready, we charged the enemy, and they fled before us; we followed them until they gained the rough hills. We fired at the Dakotahs, and they fired at us, they always working backward in the rough cañons, where we were afraid to follow on horseback because Long-Horse said they were trying to lead us into an ambuscade. All day we fought, although very few were killed. At night the white soldiers and many Absaroke rode swiftly back to the camp. Long-Horse with half of the Absaroke stopped in the strong woods high up on one side of a ravine, and I stayed with them. I had only four cartridges left. All night we lay there and allowed their scouts to go down the cañon without firing on them. In the early morning we heard the Dakotahs coming; they rode down the cut before our faces, not knowing we were there. When Long-Horse gave his war-whoop, we all fired, and jumping on our ponies charged into them. The ground was covered with dying horses and men. My heart grew big, father; everything before my eyes swam red, and I do not remember much except that I rode behind a big Dakotah and shot him in the back. He fell from his horse to the ground and tried to gain his feet, but I rode the pack-pony over him, knocking him down so that he lay still. I turned round and shot him again before he died, and then I took his hair. He had a beautiful head-dress of feathers, which I took, but I left his gun, for it was heavy and a poor one. I chased his pony, the fine war-horse which is out in the stable. The Dakotahs who were not killed had all run away, so I ran the dead man's pony back to camp, where with the help of other Indians I caught him. Long-Horse was killed, and a few Absaroke wounded, but we got many scalps, one of which is mine.

"The white soldiers took me to their lodge and gave me coffee which was heavy with sugar. They spoke your language to me, but I could not understand much of it. A half-Indian man talked the Absaroke for me in their tongue, and when I said I was a Crow,--for that is what the white men call us,--they laughed until my heart grew bad. They asked me if there were any more Crows whose hair was the color of the dry grass, and then they continued to laugh. They said I must have been born on a frosty morning. I did not know what to say, but I saw their hearts warmed to me, and I did nothing. They gave me cartridges, blankets, sugar, and coffee, until the old pack-pony could carry no more. The big chief of the white men wanted me to stay with him, and promised to give me anything I wanted from the wagons. He talked long with the warriors, asking them to leave me with him, and the Absaroke said he could have me, but I did not want to stay. At one time I thought the white soldiers were going to make me stay, for they took me on their shoulders and carried me about the camp, laughing and yelling. I was afraid. Those men were bigger than Indians, and, father, their arms were as hard and strong as the gray bear's. They were always laughing; they roared like the buffalo bulls.

"My color is the same as theirs, father; many of them had hair like mine, though they cut it short. I am a Crow, but I do not understand these things." Whereat the boy fell into a deep meditation.

Cautiously the hermit approached. "Your heart warms to the white man, does it not, my son?"

"Yes, all white men are good to me; they give me everything I want; they are rich, and their hearts are big. They do not know how to keep their horses; they are fools about them, and they mount from the wrong side. I never heard a white man speak to a horse in that camp. When they walk up to a pony, the pony does not know whether they come as a friend or an enemy. Some day I am going to Ashar-Ra,[6] where the white soldiers live. They told me that when I came they would load my pony down with gifts. But I must first learn to talk as you do, father."

[6] Fort Ellis.

Here, at last, was light to brighten the hopes of the hermit. The boy's ambition had been aroused. What if he had gone to war, and what if he did have the much-treasured scalp in his possession? He had only followed the hermit's advice to his tribe concerning war. Then, too, the old man had picked up newspapers at the traders' which told of the invasion of the Black Hills by the white miners. He knew this would provoke war with the Sioux, and it occurred to him that the best possible way to introduce White Weasel to his own people would be through contact with the army. He could go with them, and they might reclaim him. He could not possibly go through the industrial institutions, but he must speak English. There was plenty of time for that, since he could kill elk within a mile of his door with which to maintain himself. He would begin.

"Yes, you must work hard with me now to speak as the white men do. You will soon be a man; you are no longer a boy. You are a white man, but you were brought up by the Absaroke, and you will go back to your own people some day. The more you see them, the better you will like them."

"Why must I go to the white people, father? You do not go to them, and you are a white man."

The hunchback hermit leaned with his head on his hands for a long time; he had not foreseen this. Finally, "You will go because they are your own people; you will join them when they fight the Sioux. You think there are not many of them. Weasel, I am not a liar, and I say there are more white men on the earth than there are buffalo. You are young, you are brave, and you are straight in the back; their hearts will warm toward you. You will grow to be a white chief and own many wagons of coffee and sugar. Some day, Weasel, you will want a white woman for a wife. You have never seen a white woman; they are not like these red squaws; they are as beautiful as the morning, and some day one of them will build a fire in your heart which nothing but death can put out.

"From now on I shall no longer call you White Weasel, but will give you a white name which you must answer to. There shall be no Indian mystery about it, and you shall bear it all your life. I will call you,"--and here the hermit again relapsed into thought.

"I will call you John Ermine; that is a good strong white name, and when you are asked what it is, do not say White Weasel,--say, 'My name is John Ermine.' Now say it!" And the young man ran the thing over his tongue like a treble drag on a snare-drum.

"Now again, after me: 'My--name--is--John Ermine.'" And the prophet cut the words apart with his forefinger.

John Ermine tried his name again and again, together with other simple expressions. The hermit ceased almost to address him in the Indian tongue. The broad forehead responded promptly to the strain put upon it. Before the snow came, the two had rarely to use the harsh language of the tribesmen. Gradually the pressure was increased, and besides words the hermit imposed ideas. These took root and grew in an alarming way after battling strenuously with those he had imbibed during his youth.

"And why is your name Crooked-Bear, which is Indian, while you are white?"

"My name is not Crooked-Bear except to the Indians; my name is Richard Livingston Merril, though I have not heard the sound of it in many snows and do not care to hear it in many more. You can call me 'Comrade'; that is my name when you speak."

Sitting by their cabin door in the flecked sunlight which the pine trees distributed, the two waded carefully across the lines of some well-thumbed book, taking many perilous flying leaps over the difficult words, but going swiftly along where it was unseasoned Saxon. The prophet longed for a paper and pencil to accelerate the speed, but was forced to content himself with a sharp stick and the smoothed-out dirt before him. At times he sprinkled his sensitive plant with some simple arithmetic; again he lectured on the earth, the moon, and the stars. John Ermine did not leave a flat earth for a round one without a struggle, but the tutor ended up by carving a wooden ball which he balanced in his hand as he separated the sea from the land; he averred that he had known many men who had been entirely around it--which statement could not be disputed.

White Weasel had heard the men speak about the talking-wire and fire-wagon, but he did not believe the tales. John Ermine had more faith, although it puzzled him sorely. Raptly he listened to the long accounts of the many marvels back in the States, and his little Sioux scalp took a new significance as he tried hard to comprehend ten thousand men dying in a single battle of the Great White Man's war. Ten thousand dead men was a severe strain on his credulity when Crooked-Bear imposed it upon him. The ships which fought on the water he did not attempt at all; they were not vivid enough for his contemplation.

When were the white men coming to the Indian lands?

"Before you have a mustache, John Ermine, they will come in numbers as great as the grasshoppers, but you will not care; you are a white man."

Last but not least the prophet removed himself from his Indian pedestal in full sight of his ward. He was no prophet; he was only a man, and a poor specimen at that. Simply, and divested of much perplexity, he taught the Christian religion; told the story of Jesus, and had John Ermine repeat the Ten Commandments, which last the teacher could only marshal after many days of painful reflection, so vagrant are most men's memories as age creeps on.