John Ermine


9. In Camp

The three horsemen jogged into camp, and it can hardly be stated who was the more impressed by the sight--John Ermine as he passed through the crowds of soldiers, or the soldiers as they looked at the bare-backed rider with the yellow braids and the glaring handkerchief. They had left their impedimenta with the worn-out ponies back in the hills with little hope of recovering them. The gathering men who had seen the chase gave tokens of their approval by yelling Ki-yis in imitation of the Indians. "Say, Yellow, you're no brevet"--"You wa'n't crazy to wait for them Sioux"--"The general will feed you on mince-pie"--"You'll be a sergeant in the rag-bag troop," and other expressions numerous and 'uncooked' fell on their ears. Ermine felt embarrassed with the attention of so many people centred on him, but his face was cut to stand such shocks. His swift glances about the thronging camp began to illumine the "ten-thousand-men" proposition; he saw lines of tents, wagons without end, but no women; he would have to postpone that feast.

The officer leading stopped in front of a tent around which many officers and men were standing or coming and going. He spoke to one who wore a big hat and a split blond beard, a man less pretentious in his garb than any about him, but whose eye arrested Ermine by the commanding keenness. Dismounting, the officer, saluting, said: "General Crook, these two men were just chased into camp by Indians. They say they are Crows, or at least from the Crows, and they want to be made scouts."

"What Indians chased you?" asked the general.

"We do not know; we were waiting on the hill to come in here by daylight; they surprised us, and we did not stop to talk with them," replied John Ermine.

"Where did you come from, my boy?" he continued.

"I came from the Stinking Water country to help you fight the Sioux--myself and Wolf-Voice there," replied Ermine.

Turning to that waif, the general said, "Who are you?"

Patting his chest impressively, Wolf-Voice spoke: "Me? My mother she was Gro Ventre; I am a warrior; I spak de English; I was scout with Yellow Hair.[11] I am brav mans."

[11] General Custer.

"Umph--no doubt," softly hazarded the Gray Fox. "You were not with him when he died? I suppose you attended to that matter with proper thoroughness. Have you seen any Sioux signs?"

"Yaas--day follar de wagon, dey aire leave dar pony-track all roun you."

Once fastening his quizzical eyes on the white lad, the general asked, "Do you talk Crow?"


"Can you make the hand talk?"

Ermine gave the sign for "Yes."

"Have you ever been to school?"

"No, sir."

"Who taught you to speak English?"

"My old comrade, Crooked-Bear," said Ermine.

"Crooked-Bear--Crooked-Bear," mused the general. "Oh, I give it up," as he turned away. "You are not one of the Pike County breed, it seems--Crooked-Bear--Crooked-Bear. Take them to the scout camp, Ferguson." And the general retired to his tent, somewhat perplexed by the young man's make-up.

The trio went on toward the scout camp, and as they passed a man on foot he inquired of Ferguson, "Where did you get that pair of aces?"

"The Sioux dealt them to me this morning; will they fill your hand?"

"Yes, sir--think they will." Then to John Ermine, "Do you savvy this country, pardner?"

"Yes, sir; I have always lived in this country," spoke he, with a wave of his arm around the horizon which had the true Indian swing to it, an accomplishment only acquired by white men after long years of association with the tribes. All the signs and gestures made by Indians are distinctive with them and are very suggestive from their constant use of the sign language. The old chief of scouts recognized the significance of the motion on the instant, and knew that one who could make it very probably possessed the other qualifications for his corps.

"What is your name?"

"John Ermine, sir," came the answer. The "sir" had been an acquisition of the last few interviews. He had heard it from the mouth of Crooked-Bear on infrequent occasions, but his quick perceptions told him that it was useful in these canvas towns.

"All right. Will you turn these men over to me for duty, Lieutenant Ferguson?" spoke the chief of scouts, who was a short infantry officer with a huge yellow mustache.

"I will," replied Ferguson, as he turned his horse. "Go with Captain Lewis there; and good luck to you, Mr. Ermine."

After answering certain questions by the chief of scouts, which were intended to prove their fitness for the job, the two late fugitives had the pleasure of knowing that Uncle Sam would open his wagons to them in return for their hair and blood when his representative should order the sacrifice. Wolf-Voice never allowed his mind to dwell on market values, and John Ermine felt that he could do what "ten thousand men" were willing to do in an emergency.


Having done with these formalities, under the trained guidance of Wolf-Voice the two men speedily found their way to the scouts' mess, where they took a hearty toll of the government. About the cook fire squatted or sprawled the allies of the white troops. There were Crows and Indians from other tribes--together with half-breeds whose heraldic emblazonment ought to be a pretty squaw. A few white men came about from time to time, but they did not abide with the regular crew. New faces appeared as they came in from the hills to "cool coffee."

John Ermine walked aimlessly around camp, all eyes and ears. No backwoods boy at a country fair ever had his faculties so over-fed and clogged as he. In turn the soldiers attempted to engage him in conversation as he passed about among them, but the hills had put a seal of silence on his lips; he had not yet found himself amid the bustle.

Remarks which grated harshly came to his ears; the unkindness of them undermined the admiration for the white soldiers which the gentle treatment of the officers had instilled.

"Ain't that yellow handkerchief great?"--"Sure he'd do well with a hand-organ on the Bowery."--"Is he a square shake or a make-up?"--and other loose usage of idle minds.

"Say, Bill, come look at the sorrel Injun," sang one trooper to another who stood leaning on a wagon-wheel whittling a stick, to which that one replied: "You take my advice and let the sorrel Injun alone; that butcher knife on his belly is no ornament."

By noon Ermine's mind had been so sloshed and hail-stoned with new ideas that his head was tired. They were coming so fast that he could not stow them, so he found his way back to the scout camp and lay down on a stray robe. The whole thing had not impressed him quite as he had anticipated; it had a raw quality, and he found he did not sift down into the white mass; he had a longing for the quiet of Crooked-Bear's cabin--in short, John Ermine was homesick. However, after a few hours' sleep, he became hungry, which shifted his preoccupation to a less morbid channel.

The scouts talked excitedly of the enemy with whom they had skirmished out on the hills; they discussed the location of the Sioux camp, and speculated on the intention of the Gray Fox. Sunlight or firelight never in the ages played on a wilder group than this; not on the tribes of Asiatics who swarmed in front of Alexander; not in the deserts of Northern Africa: nor on the steppes of Asia, at any period, did sun or fire cut and color cruder men than these who were taking the long, long step between what we know men are and what we think they were.

A soldier stepped briskly into the group, and touching Ermine on the shoulder, said, "The Captain wants to see you; come on." He followed to the tent designated, and was told to come in and sit down. The officer sat opposite, on a camp stool, and after regarding him kindly for a moment, said: "Your name is John Ermine and you are a white man. Where were you born?"

"I do not know, Captain, where I was born, but I have lived all my life with the Crows."

"Yes; but they did not teach you to speak English."

"No; I have lived some years with my old comrade up in the mountains, and he taught me to speak English and to write it."

"Who was your old comrade, as you call him? He must have been an educated man," queried the Captain, looking insistently into Ermine's eyes.

"Captain, I cannot tell, any more than to say that he is an educated white man, who said he is dead, that his fires have burnt out, and he asked me not to speak about him; but you will understand."

Captain Lewis did not understand, nor did he avert his perplexed gaze from Ermine. He was wondering about the boy's mind; had it become deranged? Clearly he saw that Ermine had been a captive; but this mystery of mind cultivation by one who was dead--had he struck a new scheme in psychical research? The Captain rolled a cigarette and scratched a match on the leg of his breeches.

"My old companion told me I ought to come here and help fight the Sioux."

"Have you ever been to war?"

"Yes; I took a scalp from a Sioux warrior when I was a boy, and I wear the eagle feather upright," spoke Ermine in his usual low and measured voice.

"Ho, ho! that is good. I see that you carry a Spencer carbine. I have not seen one lately; we do not use them now."

"It is the best I have, Captain." The Captain took his cigarette from his mouth and bawled: "Jones! Oh Jones, Jones!" Almost instantly a soldier stepped into the tent, touching his forehead in salute. "Go down and draw a carbine, fifty rounds, a saddle, blanket, and bridle." Jones disappeared. "Oh, Jones, Jones, and a shirt and hat." Then turning to Ermine, "Do you ever wear shoes?"

"Only this kind I have on, sir."

"Do you want some shoes?"

"No; I think I am better off with these. I have tried on the heavy leather shoes, but they feel as though my feet were caught in a trap."

"Ha, ha! a trap, hey--a good deal so; well, any time you want anything come to me. And now, my boy, may I give you a little advice?"

"You may, sir; I shall be glad of it. I know I have much to learn," assented John Ermine.

"Well, then, you are an odd-looking person even in this camp, and that is saying much, I can assure you. I will have a hat here in a moment which will displace that high-art headgear of yours, and may I ask if you will not take your hair out of those braids? It will be more becoming to you, will not be quite so Injuny, and I think it will not interfere with your usefulness."

"Yes, sir, I will," quietly said the young man, who forthwith undid the plats with a celerity which comes to the owners of long hair. Having finished, he gave his head a toss; the golden tresses, released from their bindings, draped his face, falling down in heavy masses over his shoulders, and the Captain said slowly, "Well, I will be good God-d----d!"

After having soothed his surprise by a repetition of this observation several times, the Captain added, "Say, you are a village beauty, Ermine, by Gad--I'd like a photograph of you." And that worthy continued to feast his eyes on the bewildering sight. It seemed almost as though he had created it.

The orderly entered at this point, loaded down with quartermaster and ordnance stuff. His hat had found its way on to the back of his head during these exertions, and he came up all standing, but the discipline told. All he did as he gazed helplessly at Ermine was to whistle like a bull elk. Quickly recovering himself, "I have the stuff, sir,--but--but I'm afraid, sir, the hat won't fit."

"All right, all right, Jones; it will do." And Jones took himself out into the darkness. To a passing comrade he 'unloaded': "Say, Steve, you savvy that blond Injun what was run in here this morning? Well, he's in the Captain's tent, and the Captain has got him to take his hair down, undo them braids, you see; and say, Steve, I am a son-of-a-gun if it ain't like a bushel of hay; say, it's a honey-cooler. You will fall dead when you see it."

Meanwhile Ermine was put in possession of the much-coveted saddle and a new gun, one with a blue barrel without a rust-spot on it anywhere, inside or out. His feelings were only held in leash by a violent repression. The officer enjoyed the proceedings hugely as the young man slipped into the new shirt and tied the yellow handkerchief round his neck. The campaign hat was a failure, as Jones had feared. It floated idly on the fluffy golden tide, and was clearly going to spoil the Captain's art work; it was nothing short of comical. Frantically the officer snatched his own hat from his camp-chest, one of the broad rolling sombreros common on the plains in those days, but now seen no more; this he clapped on Ermine's head, gave it a downward tug together with a pronounced list to the nigh side. Then, standing back from his work, he ran his eyes critically for a moment: "Good! now you'll do!"

Ermine's serious face found itself able to relax; the ripples broadened over it, his eyes closed, and his mouth opened ever so little, only escaping looking foolish by the fact that he had a reserve; he did not close or broaden too much.

"Well, my boy," said the officer, as he began to put up his papers on the chest, "go down to camp now; the outfit moves to-morrow; you'll do in a free-for-all, by Gad."


When this greeted the easy ears of our hero, he found the loud bustle, so characteristic of the white soldier, more noisy than ever. Slowly the dancing refrain passed from regiment to regiment. The thing itself is dear to the tired soldier who dreads its meaning. It is always a merry beginning, it accords with the freshness of the morning; when associated with youth it never fails to cheer the weary dragging years of him who looks behind.

The tents fluttered down; men ran about their work, munching crackers and hot bacon; they bundled and boxed and heaved things into the escort wagons. Teamsters bawled loudly--it is a concomitant with mule association; yet they were placid about their work of hooking up; their yells never interfered with their preoccupied professionalism. The soft prairie winds sighing through the dreaming teamster's horse-blankets fills his subconscious self with cracks, whistles, howls. "You blaze!"--"Oh, Brown!"--"D---- you, Brigham!"--, ----, ----, and other phrases which cannot be printed. That mules and teamsters have never received a proper public appreciation of their importance in war is one of the disheartening injustices of the world. Orderlies and mounted officers tore about; picturesque men who had been saved from the scrap-heap of departing races ranged aimlessly or smoked placidly; they had no packing to do, their baggage was carried in their belts. One of these was John Ermine, who stood by his pony, watching Captain Lewis; this busy man with his multitudinous duties had been picked out for a guiding star. Having presently completed all the details, the Captain mounted and rode away, followed by his motley company. The camp being cleared, the officer turned, and with a wave of his hand which covered the horizon in its sweep, yelled, "Go on now; get to the hell out of here!"

In quick response the wolfish throng broke apart, loping away over the yellow landscape flaming out toward all points; the trained skirmishers trusted their instincts and their horses' heels. John Ermine rode slowly over a hill, and looking backward, saw the long, snakelike columns of horse and foot and wagons come crawling. It was the most impressive sight he had ever beheld, but he could not arrange any plan in his own mind whereby the command was going to fight the Sioux. All the Indians in his world could not and would not try to stem that advance: as well try to stop the falling of the snow or the swarms of grasshoppers. Again, there was no necessity, since the command could no more catch the Sioux than it could reach the sailing hawks or flapping ravens.

Keeping his sharp eyes circling, Ermine mused along. Yes, he remembered what Crooked-Bear had said: "The white men never go back; they do not have to hunt buffalo in order to live; they are paid by the year, and one, two, even a lifetime of years make no difference to them. They would build log towns and scare away the buffalo. The Indians could not make a cartridge or gun," and other things which he had heard came into his mind. It was the awful stolidity of never ending time which appalled Ermine as he calculated his strategy--no single desperate endeavor would avail; to kill all those men behind him would do the Sioux no good whatever. In single battles the white men were accustomed to leave more men than that, dead, on the field. Still, think as he would, the matter was not clear to him. A mile away on his right he saw a friendly scout rise over a bluff; the horse and man made a dot on the dry yellow grass; that was the difference between the solid masses of dust-blown white men behind him and the Indian people; that sight gave him a proportion. If all these white men were dead, it would make no difference; if that Indian on the far-off hill was dead, he could never be replaced.

John Ermine felt one thing above all this abstraction: it was a deep-seated respect for the Sioux personally. Except when a fellow-scout occasionally showed himself on a distant rise, or he looked behind at the dust-pall over the soldiers, there was nothing to be seen of the Sioux; that was another difference, and one which was in no wise reassuring to Ermine. The dry, deserted landscape was, however, an old comrade, and acted as a sedative after the flutter of the camps. The camp held dozy, full-bellied security, but these silences made his ears nervous for a rattle of shots and a pat-a, pat-a, pat-a, of rushing ponies. That is how the desert speaks.