Two Kohl Sisters


14. The Land Of The Burnt Thigh

We were living in the Land of the Burnt Thigh, the famous hunting ground of the Brulé Indians, whose name was derived from a great prairie fire which had once swept the land.

The story of that great fire was told me by a famous interpreter who had heard the tale many times from his grandfather. It was three seasons after the big flood of 1812, he said, and the grass was high on Bad River, bringing many buffalo down from the north. About two weeks after the leaves turned they went to the prairie to get the winter's meat. Being a hunting party, the women and children accompanied them. The young boys wandered from the camps, shooting prairie dogs and small birds. One day when a number of boys were returning to camp, a great prairie fire swept down from the north. The boys ran for the river, but the fire was too swift for them, and they were overtaken. Throwing themselves on the ground, they turned their faces from the fire and wrapped their heads and bodies in their robes, waiting for the fire to pass. Where they lay the grass was high and there were many small bushes; so when the fire came, the ground was hot and they were all burned on the right thigh, though otherwise unhurt.

The escape of the boys was considered so remarkable that the Sioux called this tribe the "people with the burnt thigh." Apparently some French trader rendered the name into his language, and thus we have "Brulé" or burned.

The Land of the Burnt Thigh was famous not only for its great prairie fire and the fact that it had been the feeding ground of the buffalo, which had come in big herds to winter pasture; but also because it had been a notorious rendezvous for horse thieves. In the early days lawless gangs turned to stealing horses instead of robbing banks. A bold outfit of horse thieves plied their trade over a vast section of the Bad River country, of which the Brulé had been a part. Here in the tall grass they found refuge and feed for the horses, with water in the creeks and water holes almost the year around. In the night they would drive their loot in, and the law was helpless in dealing with them.

Much has been said of Indians stealing the white man's horses and little of the depredations of the whites upon the Indians. These gangs stole constantly from the Indians, taking the best of their herds. A little band of Indians, realizing that they must get back their horses at any cost, tracked the thieves and here on the Burnt Thigh attacked them. But they were driven back by the outlaws, who had their lookout, according to the Indians, on the very site of Ammons; concealing themselves here in the tall grass, they could see anyone approaching for miles around. They had seen the Indians coming, just as we had seen them that first day at the settlement. The gang opened fire, killed several of their number, and routed the rest.

The Indians made no protest. All they knew of law was the power of the government, a force not to be appealed to for protection, but rather one against which the red men must struggle for their rights. They had no recourse, therefore, against the thieves. And it was not until the National Guard was sent to round them up that this lawless band was tracked to its lair and captured.

On the Land of the Burnt Thigh that summer the grass was dry, and nowhere was there water with which to fight fire. Heat waves like vapor came up from the hard, dry earth. One could see them white-hot as they rose from the parched ground like thin smoke. From the heat expansion and the sudden contraction when the cool of the night came on, the earth cracked open in great crevices like wide, thirsty mouths, into which horses stumbled and fell beneath their riders.

A young couple went to town one day and returned that night, looking for their home. They wandered around their claim, seeking their shack. It lay in ashes, destroyed by a prairie fire.

Heine came wading through the hot yellow grass. "Did you carry matches with you, Heine?"

"Nope," he answered laconically. "I don't need no matches."

"Suppose a prairie fire should come?" Everyone was supposed to carry matches; no child was allowed to leave home without matches and instructions to back-fire if he saw a fire coming. Heine sat down and wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his little shirt.

"I look first behind when I start. Can't no prairie fire come till I get here."

"But with these hot winds--"

We watched constantly for the first sign of smoke. Sacks, old heavy comforts and pieces of carpet were kept at hand as fire extinguishers, in case there were enough water on hand to wet them--which was seldom.

There were no more water holes, and it got dryer and hotter. Ben Smith's men were still drilling for water. They were down 1500 feet. From the print shop we could hear the drill grinding through hard earth.

Prairie fires began to break out all around the Strip. The homesteaders began to be afraid to leave their shacks for fear they would find them gone on their return. Ammunition for the fight was pitifully meager. They fought with plows that turned firebreaks, back-fired to stop the progress of the fire, beat it out with their wet sacks.

If fire ever got a start on the Burnt Thigh now, with its thick high grass as dry as powder and no water, every habitation would be completely annihilated. Protests about our lack of protection seethed until they found expression in the newspaper. We had no equipment, no fire fighters, no lookouts, no rangers. Surely the government owed us some means of fighting the red devil of the plains.

One evening when the parched ground was beginning to cool we noticed a strange yellow haze settling over the earth, felt a murky heat. The world was on fire! Not near the settlement, miles away it must be, probably on the Indian lands beyond the Strip.

From the heat in the air, the threatening stillness, the alertness of the animals as they lifted their heads high in the air with nostrils dilated, we knew it was coming toward us. The heavy reddish fog portended a big fire, its tongue of flame lapping up everything as it came.

Already a group of homesteaders was gathering at the print shop, organizing systematic action; men from every section hurrying in with little sacks and kegs of water splashing until they were half empty; a pathetic, inadequate defense to set up against so gigantic an enemy. Chris Christopherson rattled by with his tractor to turn broad furrows. Dave Dykstra, who would never set the world on fire but would do a good deal in putting it out, hastened up to help. Here they came! Men with kegs of water, men with pieces of carpet, men with nothing but their hands and their fear to pit against the fire.

Off to the south the sky was red now, and the smell of fire was in our nostrils, faint but unmistakable. None of us knew how fast a big fire could travel. The settlers still knew so pitiably little about combating the frontier.

From the Indian settlement came Swift Running Deer on the horse which had taken the State Fair prize last year. In Sioux (the young buck was too excited to remember his English) he said the fire was on beyond the Brulé somewhere. Most of the Indians had ridden off to it while he had come to tell the whites.

"If the wind stay down, it mebbe no come, but heap big fire like that take two day--three day--mebbe seven to die."

It was still and peaceful now, but there was little hope that two or three days could pass without wind--and if the wind came from that direction there was no hope for the Brulé.

Coyote Cal, who had come riding through the Strip, stopped at the print shop. Ida Mary tried to persuade him to ride around to the homesteads and tell the girls who lived alone that the fire was still a long way off and that men had gone to fight it.

Coyote Cal stretched his long, angular figure to full height and stood there hesitant. "No, miss, I'd ruther fight fire," he said at length.

"But the girls will be frantic with fear."

"Hain't no use a calf-bawlin' over a prairie fire. If it gits yuh, it gits yuh, an' that's all there is to it."

With these consoling words he swung into the saddle and turned his horse's head toward the fire.

Ma Wagor came outside where Ida Mary and I watched the reflection of flame against the darkening sky. The air was still. There was no wind.

"I'm goin' home to milk the cow," Ma announced. She had paid forty dollars for that cow, she reminded us, and she wanted every last drop of milk out of her. Besides, she didn't believe in anybody leaving this world hungry.

The red dusk found the plains stirring. The ominous silence was broken by rumbling wagons hurrying with their barrels of water, tractors chugging, turning long fresh rows of dirt as breaks, teams everywhere plowing around shacks and corrals.

Night came on, inky black. The red light on the horizon and billowy clouds of smoke intensified the darkness. Over the range, cattle were bellowing in their mad fear of fire. They were coming closer to the reservation fence, running from danger.

The hours crept past; around us on the plains the settlers had done all they could, and they were waiting as Ida Mary and I were waiting, watching the red glow on the sky, thinking of the men who were desperately beating out the advancing flames, wondering if each tiny gust foretold the coming of the wind.

Inside the shack we moved about restlessly, putting the money we had on hand in tin cans, the legal paper in the little strong box, and burying them in the small, shallow cave. If the fire came, we would seek refuge there ourselves, but it wouldn't be much use. We knew that.

Out again to look at the sky, and then up and down the print shop, restlessly up and down. Ida Mary made coffee; we had to do something, and there was nothing for us to do but wait. Wait and listen to the silence, and look our own fear squarely in the eyes and know it for what it was.

"What's that?" said Ida Mary in a queer, hoarse voice. She put down her cup and sat rigid, listening. Then she jumped to her feet, her face white. "Edith," she cried, "it's the wind--it's the wind!"

Out of nowhere came the moaning sound of the wind, sweeping unchecked across space, blowing from the south! While we listened with caught breath, it seized some papers and sent them rattling across the table, blew a lock of hair in my eyes, made the dry grass rustle so that it sounded for one glorious moment like rain.

We ran outside and stood in the darkness, our dresses whipping around us, looking at the sky. Here and there above the red haze we saw a bright, jagged tongue of flame leap up, licking the black sky.

The homesteaders who had not gone to the fire found waiting alone intolerable, and one by one they drifted in to the store, waiting taut and silent.

At midnight we heard the staccato beats of a horse's hoofs. A messenger was coming. Only one horse on the plains could travel like that; it was Black Indian. And a moment later Lone Star Len flung himself from the horse and came in.

He had been fighting flame. His face was blackened almost beyond recognition.

"It's all right," he said at once, before we could question him. "The fire's over on the government land. It's beyond the Strip."

His eyes and lips were swollen, face and hands blistered. "It's still ragin'," he went on, "but there is a little creek, dry mostly, between the fire and the Strip. It's not likely to get this far. 'Course, the wind is bad. It's blowin' sparks across on the grass, this side of the creek. But some of the settlers and Indians are watchin' it."

Ida Mary came in from the shack with sandwiches and black coffee and set them before him.

"You didn't need to bother doin' that for me," he protested; "you girls better go to bed."

"When did you have anything to eat?" Ida Mary asked, as he drank the hot coffee and devoured the food ravenously, moving his hands as though they hurt him unbearably.

"This mornin'. Been working with that fire since noon; I had started for the chuck-wagon when I smelt smoke...."

"Lone Star, why did you risk your life to save a reservation full of homesteaders?" I asked him.

He stood for a moment with a chagrined expression on his smoke-scarred face.

"Cattle needs the grass," he replied as he stalked out and rode slowly, wearily away into the flame-lighted night.

The fire had broken out on range and government land off toward the White River country--to the southeast, where Lone Star rode herd. As the country for the most part was uninhabited, the fire had swept the plains for miles before the fighters reached it. Sparks and flames had jumped the creek, but by now the grass was burned back far enough on both sides so that the danger for this region was past.

The amused natives told how a man had jolted up on a stiff horse, a painting outfit in his saddlebag, to watch the fire. "This is great," he exclaimed as he plied brush and color. Then, as a volley of wild sparks shot across the narrow stream and went into flame nearby, he threw down the brush, rushed in among the fire-fighters, worked madly until the flames were extinguished, then went back and finished the picture.

"Who is he?" someone in the gaping crowd asked.

"The cartoonist from Milwaukee," a Brulé settler answered.

For several days longer the fire raged, with the air smoky and a red and black pall over the earth. Then it faded as our other terrors had faded, and was gone.

Already, in the midst of fire and water famine, there stalked ghosts of cold and hunger--the coming winter. With no money left to provide the necessities of life, the homesteaders stared into the face of a food famine. Most of them were now living on meager rations, counting every penny, their crops shriveled in the fields.

Ada put her small wages into flour and coffee. And Heine remarked, "My Ma says might be we'll starve and freeze yet. She's goin' to pray." We watched him trudge back across the plains, a sturdy little fellow, one suspender holding up patched overalls over a faded blue shirt, bare feet which walked fearlessly and by some miracle escaped the constant menace of rattlesnakes, ragged straw hat shading the serious round face. The plains had made him old beyond his six years.

With the realization of danger which the prairie fire had brought, The Wand began to advocate government rangers and lookouts to be stationed at strategic points. I was in the print shop writing an article on conditions when Lone Star came in.

"I want to get my paper forwarded, Miss Printer," he stated; "I'm leavin' the country. It's gettin' too crowded in these parts. Too lonesome. I don't see how people can live, huddled up with somebody on every quarter-section."

"Where are you going now?"

"Goin' to an honest-to-God range country," he said. "A short-grass country, but rich feed. You can get away from landgrabbers there. It's bigger'n all creation."

"Where shall I send the paper?"

"Wyoming. The Rawhide country. Just send the paper to Lost Trail. I'll be goin' on there. I know a cattleman around Lost Trail."

Rawhide country. Lost Trail. About them was the atmosphere of far-flung space, of solitude and peace.

"I may go there myself some day," I told him.

"If you do," he said soberly, "leave this doggone newspaper shebang behind. It's a pest to the country. Don't clutter up any more range with homesteadin' herds. Worse than grasshoppers; at least the grasshoppers leave, and the homesteaders appear to be here to stay."

He rode off, a strange, solitary figure, topped the ridge and dropped out of sight as swiftly as he had appeared that first morning, stopping the eagle in its flight. When he had gone I turned back to my article. In this gigantic homestead project, The Wand declared, there should be protection. We demanded of the local land offices why the Department of the Interior did not establish Service Bureaus on government territory to expedite development, to lessen hardship and danger. But the Land Offices could not help us. They were only the red-tape machines of the Public Lands Department.

The federal government was taking in revenue by the millions from the homesteaders. Millions of acres of homestead land at from $1.25 to $6 an acre provided a neat income for the United States Treasury. And, we contended, the homesteaders of America should be given consideration. There was nothing radical about these articles, but here again I became known as "that little outlaw printer."

Had I been experienced, I might have carried this appeal to Washington and said, "Put the revenue from these lands back into them. That is not charity, it is development of natural resources."

Any such entreaty, coming from an upstart of a girl printer, would have been like a lamb bleating at a blizzard. But the homesteaders might have been organized as a unit, with official power to petition for aid. I did not know then that I could do such things.

Meantime the print shop buzzed with activity. The harvest of proofs, on which I had gambled the paper, was on. It kept one person busy with the clerical work on them. While the Strip was yet a no-man's land, I had pledged the printing equipment company 400 proofs as collateral. That was a low estimate. As a matter of fact The Wand won an all-time record, publishing in one week 88 proofs, the highest number ever to be published in any issue of a newspaper of which the government had record. From the Department of the Interior, from the Land Office, from other newspapers congratulations poured in. It seems to me that some sort of medal was awarded to us for that.

It wasn't the record which mattered, of course. To us the publication of these notices signified that the settlers had stuck it out with parched throats to get their deeds; that some 14,000 acres of wasteland had passed into private units in one week's time.

It meant endless work. Type, numbers, checking, straining eyes and nerves beyond endurance. But it also meant (for that one lot) over $400 income for the newspaper. Proof money had been coming in for several weeks. Every mail brought long heavy envelopes from the Land Office, containing proof applications made there. From among the homesteaders we hired amateur typesetters to help out, and anybody who happened to be handy turned the press; on occasion we resorted to old Indian warriors, and once to a notorious cattle rustler.

And all this time we watched the sky for rain and skimmed the green scum from the dam water to drink. Looking up from the type one morning, I saw an old Indian standing before me, old Porcupine Bear. Slipping in on moccasined feet, an Indian would appear before one without warning. At first this sudden materializing at my elbow had alarmed me, but I had long grown accustomed to it. Old Porcupine Bear was a savage-looking character--one of the very old warriors who seldom left camp. One never knew how old some of these aged Indians were, and many of them did not know themselves how many seasons they had lived. This old man, we figured, must be a hundred years old.

"Will there be rain, Porcupine?" I asked him. "Will you hold your Rain Dance soon?"

The deep wrinkles in his leathery face were hard set as if from pain. His coal-black hair, streaked with gray and hanging loose over his shoulders, looked as if it had not been combed for days.

"To-wea," he wailed. "My to-wea (my woman). Him sick. The fever. Goin' die." He dropped his face into the palm of his hard hand and let it lie there motionless in demonstration of her passing. He wanted to get a box like white squaws had, the boxes in which they went to the Happy Hunting Ground.

He was on the road to Pierre for a coffin. Others of the tribe, we gathered, had put in money to help buy it. He opened a beaded sack and showed us. There was enough to buy a pretty good one. In broken Sioux and signs we advised him to wait--mebbe-no-die. Mebbe-walk-some-more. He shook his head stubbornly. His herbs--he was a medicine man who had healed many sick ones--had not worked. Even his pazunta had failed.

The Indian's pazunta was his shield against disease--against all evil. It drives the Evil Spirit away. It may be anything he selects--an herb, a stone, a rabbit's foot--so long as he selects it secretly and divulges to no one what it is. The pazunta is invested with divine curative power, according to the Indians.

When he got back to his wigwam with the satin-lined "last-sleep-box," Porcupine Bear found his to-wea cooking supper; so the old brave, it was said, slept in the good soft bed himself. "Why not?" said Ida Mary. He had slept on the ground and fought many hard battles; let him have his cushioned resting place while he could enjoy it; but I shuddered at the thought.

A week or so later he came again. It was a day when I was at the breaking point. He stood looking at me, shaking his head as he had done over his to-wea. I must have looked like a ghost, for in a gesture of friendship he said:

"You want my last-sleep-box?"

The prairie fire had not got me down, but at the thought of that box I went to bed and stayed there three days.