William O. Stoddard
Two Arrows: A Story of Red and White
THE HUNGRY CAMP
The mountain countries of all the earth have always been wonder-lands. The oldest and best known of them are to this day full of things that nobody has found out. That is the reason why people are always exploring them, but they keep their secrets remarkably well, particularly the great secret of how they happened to get there in that shape.
The great western mountain country of the United States is made up of range after range of wonderful peaks and ridges, and men have peered in among them here and there, but for all the peering and searching nothing of the wonder to speak of has been rubbed away.
Right in the eastern, edge of one of these mountain ridges, one warm September morning, not long ago, a band of Nez Percé Indians were encamped. It was in what is commonly called "the Far West," because always when you get there the West is as far away as ever. The camp was in a sort of nook, and it was not easy to say whether a spur of the mountain jutted out into the plain, or whether a spur of the plain made a dent in the ragged line of the mountains. More than a dozen "lodges," made of skins upheld by poles, were scattered around on the smoother spots, not far from a bubbling spring of water. There were some trees and bushes and patches of grass near the spring, but the little brook which trickled away from it did not travel a great way into the world, from the place where it was born, before it was soaked up and disappeared among the sand and gravel. Up and beyond the spring, the farther one chose to look, the rockier and the ruggeder everything seemed to be.
Take it all together, it was a forlorn looking, hot, dried-up, and uncomfortable sort of place. The very lodges themselves, and the human beings around them, made it appear pitifully desolate. The spring was the only visible thing that seemed to be alive and cheerful and at work.
There were Indians and squaws to be seen, a number of them, and boys and girls of all sizes, and some of the squaws carried pappooses, but they all looked as if they had given up entirely and did not expect to live any longer. Even some of the largest men had an air of not caring much, really, whether they lived or not; but that was the only regular and dignified way for a Nez Percé or any other Indian warrior to take a thing he can't help or is too lazy to fight with. The women showed more signs of life than the men, for some of them were moving about among the children, and one poor, old, withered, ragged squaw sat in the door of her lodge, with her gray hair all down over her face, rocking backward and forward, and singing a sort of droning chant.
There was not one quadruped of any kind to be seen in or about that camp. Behind this fact was the secret of the whole matter. Those Indians were starving! Days and days before that they had been away out upon the plains to the eastward, hunting for buffalo. They had not found any, but they had found all the grass dry and parched by a long drought, so that no buffalo in his senses was likely to be there, and so that their own ponies could hardly make a living by picking all night. Then one afternoon a great swarm of locusts found where they were and alighted upon them just as a westerly wind died out. The locusts remained long enough to eat up whatever grass there was left. All through the evening the Nez Percés had heard the harsh, tingling hum of those devourers, as they argued among themselves whether or not it were best to stay and dig for the roots of the grass. The wind came up suddenly and strongly about midnight, and the locusts decided to take advantage of it and sail away after better grass, but they did not leave any behind them. They set out for the nearest white settlements in hope of getting corn and apple-tree leaves, and all that sort of thing.
The band of Nez Percés would have moved away the next morning under any circumstances, but when morning came they were in a terribly bad predicament. Not one of them carried a watch, or he might have known that it was about three o'clock, and very dark, when a worse disaster than the visit of the locusts took place. By five or six minutes past three it was all done completely, and it was the work of a wicked old mule.
All but a half a dozen of the ponies and mules of the band had been gathered and tethered in what is called a "corral," only that it had no fence, at a short distance from the lodges. Nobody dreamed of any danger to that corral, and there was none from the outside, even after the boys who were set to watch it had curled down and gone to sleep. All the danger was inside, and it was also inside of that mule. He was hungry and vicious. He had lived in the white "settlements," and knew something. He was fastened by a long hide lariat to a peg driven into the ground, as were all the others, and he knew that the best place to gnaw in two that lariat was close to the peg, where he could get a good pull upon it. As soon as he had freed himself he tried the lariat of another mule, and found that the peg had been driven into loose earth and came right up. That was a scientific discovery, and he tried several other pegs. Some came up with more or less hard tugging, and as fast as they came up a pony or a mule was free. Then he came to a peg he could not pull, and he lost his temper. He squealed, and turned around and kicked the pony that belonged to that peg. Then he stood still and brayed, as if he were frightened to find himself loose, and that was all that was needed.
It was after three o'clock, and in one minute the whole corral was kicking and squealing, braying, biting, and getting free, and joining in the general opinion that it was time to run away.
That is what the western men call a "stampede," and whenever one occurs there is pretty surely a mule or a thief at the bottom of it; but sometimes a hail-storm will do as well, or nearly so. By five or six minutes past three all of that herd were racing westward, with boys and men getting out of breath behind it, and all the squaws in the camp were holding hard upon the lariats of the ponies tethered among the lodges. When morning came there were hardly ponies enough to "pack" the lodges and other baggage and every soul of the band had to carry something as they all set off, bright and early, upon the trail of the stampeded drove of ponies. Some of the warriors had followed it without any stopping for breakfast, and they might have caught up with it, perhaps, but for the good generalship of that old mule. He had decided in his own mind to trot right along until he came to something to eat and drink, and the idea was a persuasive one. All the rest determined to have something to eat and drink, and they followed their leader. It was not easy for men on foot to catch up with them, and before noon the warriors sat down and took a smoke, and held a council as to what it was best to do. Before they finished that council the ponies had gained several miles more the start of them. The next council the warriors held contained but three men, for all the rest had gone back as messengers to tell the band that the ponies had not been recovered. By nightfall the remaining three had faithfully carried back the same news, and were ready for a fresh start.
After that there had been day after day of weary plodding and continual disappointment, with the weather growing hotter and the grass drier, until the trail they were following brought them to the spring in the edge of the mountain range without bringing them to the wicked old mule and his followers.
That had not been the whole of the sad history. On the evening before the stampede that band of Nez Percés had been well supplied with riding ponies and pack-mules, and had also been rich in dogs. No other band of their size had more, although their failure to find buffaloes had already begun to have its effect upon the number of their barking stock. Not a dog had been wasted by feeding him to the other dogs, but the human beings had not been allowed to starve, and after the march began towards the mountains there was less and less noise in that camp night after night.
There was no help for it; the ponies ate the grass up at the spring, and then one of them had to be eaten, while the warriors rode all around the neighborhood vainly hunting for something better and not so expensive. They did secure a few rabbits and sage-hens and one small antelope, but all the signs of the times grew blacker and blacker, and it was about as well to kill and eat the remaining ponies as to let them die of starvation. A sort of apathy seemed to fall upon everybody, old and young, and the warriors hardly felt like doing any more hunting. Now at last they sat down to starve, without a dog or pony left, and with no prospect that game of any kind would come into camp to be killed. It is a curious fact, but whole bands of Indians, and sometimes whole tribes, get into precisely that sort of scrape almost every year. Now it is one band, and now it is another, and there would be vastly more of it if it were not for the United States Government.
There was nothing droll, nothing funny, nothing that was not savagely sad, about the Nez Percés' camp that September morning. Every member of the band, except two, was loafing around the lodges hopelessly and helplessly doing nothing, and miserably giving the matter up.
A YOUNG HERO
Away from the camp a long mile, and down in the edge of the dry, hot, desolate plain, there was a wide spread of sage-bushes. They were larger than usual, because of having ordinarily a better supply of water sent them from the mountains than if they had settled further out. In among such growths are apt to be found sage-hens and rabbits, and sometimes antelopes, but the warriors had decided that they had hunted out all of the game that had been there, and had given the bushes up. Two of the members of the band who were not warriors had not arrived at the same conclusion, and both of these were among the "sage-brush" that morning. The first had been greatly missed among the lodges, and had been much hunted for and shouted after, for he was the largest and most intelligent dog ever owned by that band. He was also about the ugliest ever owned by anybody, and his misfortunes had earned for him the name of One-eye. He could see more with the eye he had left – and it was his right – than any other animal they had ever had, or than most of the warriors. He saw what became of the other dogs, for instance, and at once acquired a habit of not coming when an Indian called for him. He kept his eye about him all day, and was careful as to where he lay down. Just about the time when the ponies began to go into the camp-kettles he was a dog hard to find, although he managed to steal pony-bones and carry them away into the sage-brush. Perhaps it was for this reason that he was in even better condition than common that morning. He had no signs of famine about him, and he lay beside what was left of a jackass-rabbit, which he had managed to add to his stock of plunder. One-eye was a dog of uncommon sagacity; he had taken a look at the camp just before sunrise, and had confirmed his convictions that it was a bad place for him. He had been to the spring for water, drinking enough to last him a good while, and then he had made a race against time for the nearest bushes. He lay now with his sharp-pointed, wolfish ears pricked forward, listening to the tokens of another presence besides his own.
Somebody else was there, but not in bodily condition to have made much of a race after One-eye. It was a well-grown boy of about fifteen years, and One-eye at once recognized him as his own particular master, but he was a very forlorn-looking boy. He wore no clothing, except the deer-skin "clout" that covered him from above his hips to the middle of his thighs. He carried a light lance in one hand and a bow in the other, and there were arrows in the quiver slung over his shoulder. A good butcher-knife hung in its case by the thong around his waist, and he was evidently out on a hunting expedition. He was the one being, except One-eye, remaining in that band of Nez Percés, with life and energy enough to try and do something. He did not look as if he could do much. He was the son of the old chief in command of the band, but it was two whole days since he had eaten anything, and he had a faded, worn, drawn, hungry appearance, until you came to his black, brilliant eyes. These had an unusual fire in them, and glanced quickly, restlessly, piercingly in all directions. He might have been even good-looking if he had been well fed and well dressed, and he was tall and strongly built. Just such Indian boys grow up into the chiefs and leaders who make themselves famous, and get their exploits into the newspapers, but as yet this particular boy had not managed to earn for himself any name at all. Every Indian has to do something notable or have something memorable occur to him before his tribe gives him the honor of a distinguishing name. One-eye knew him, and knew that he was hungry and in trouble, but had no name for him except that he suggested a danger of the camp-kettle.
There could be no doubt about that boy's pluck and ambition, and he was a master for any dog to have been proud of as he resolutely and stealthily searched the sage-bushes. He found nothing, up to the moment when he came out into a small bit of open space, and then he suddenly stopped, for there was something facing him under the opposite bushes.
A low whine replied to him, and a wag of a dog's tail was added, but a watch was kept upon any motion he might make with his bow or lance.
"Ugh! no. Not kill him," remarked the boy, after almost a minute of profound thinking. "Eat him? No dog then. All old fools. No dog hunt with. No pony. Starve. Keep One-eye. Try for rabbits."
He called repeatedly, but his old acquaintance refused to come near him, whining a little but receding as the boy advanced.
"Ugh! knows too much."
It was a matter to lessen the value of One-eye that he understood his own interests, and his master ceased, wearily, his efforts to entice him. He pushed on through the bushes, but now he was instantly aware that One-eye was searching them with him, keeping at a safe distance, but performing regular hunter's duty. He even scared up a solitary sage-hen, but she did not fly within range of bow and arrow. She was an encouragement, however, and so were the remains of the rabbit to which One-eye managed to pilot the way. They seemed like a promise of better things to come, and One-eye stood over them for a moment wagging his tail, as much as to say,
"There; take that and let me up!"
The boy picked up the rabbit and said several things to the dog in a clear, musical voice. He spoke the guttural, Nez Percé dialect, which is one of the most difficult in the world, and One-eye seemed almost to understand him – and yet there are white boys of fifteen who stumble dreadfully over such easy tongues as Greek and Latin.
The boy and dog seemed to be on better terms after that, and went on through the sage-brush towards where a straggling line of mesquite scrubs marked the plain. The dog was ranging the bushes right and left, while the boy slowly followed the narrow lane of an old, hard-beaten "buffalo path," with an arrow on the string, ready for anything that might turn up. They were nearly out of the mesquites when One-eye uttered a quick, sharp, low-voiced whine, which his master seemed to understand. It is not every dog that can whine in the Nez Percé dialect, but the boy at once dropped upon his hands and knees and crept silently forward. He had been warned that something was the matter, and his natural instinct was to hide until he should discover what it might be. Again the dog whimpered, and the boy knew that he was hidden ahead and beyond him. He crawled out of the trail and made his way under and through the bushes. He made no more sound or disturbance than a snake would have caused in doing the same thing, and in half a minute more he was peering out into the open country.
His brilliant eyes served him well. Only an Indian or a dog would have rightly read the meaning of some very minute variations in the brown crest of a roll of the prairie, far away to the eastward. Only the keenest vision could have detected the fact that there was a movement in the low, dull line of desolation. Back shrank the boy, under the bushes at the side of the trail, and One-eye now had enough of restored confidence to come and crouch beside him. In a few minutes more the spots were noticeably larger, and it was plain that the buffalo were approaching and not receding. At another time and under different circumstances, even an Indian might have been unwise, and have tried to creep out and meet them, but the weakness of semistarvation brought with it a most prudent suggestion. It was manifestly better to lie still and let them come, so long as they were coming. There was no sort of fatigue in such a style of hunting, but there was a vast deal of excitement. It was a strain on any nerves, especially hungry ones, to lie still while those two great shaggy shapes came slowly out upon the ridge. They did not pause for an instant, and there was no grass around them to give them an excuse for lingering. They were on their way after some, and some water, undoubtedly, and perhaps they knew a reason why there should be an ancient buffalo-trail in that direction, trodden by generation after generation of their grass-eating race. The boy was a born hunter, and knew that he was lurking in the right place, and he drew back farther and under deeper and more perfect cover, hardly seeming to breathe. One-eye did the same, had almost looked as if he wanted to put his paw over his mouth as he panted. On came the two bisons, and it was apparent soon that no more were following them.
"Bull – cow," muttered the boy. "Get both. Laugh at old men then. Have name!"
His black eyes flashed as he put his best arrow on the string and flattened himself upon the dry, hot earth. Nearer and nearer drew the gigantic game, and with steady, lumbering pace they followed the old trail. It was a breathless piece of business, but it was over at last. The bull was in front, and he was a splendid-looking old fellow, although somewhat thin in flesh. Neither he nor his companion seemed to have smelled or dreamed of danger, and they walked straight into it. The moment for action had come, and the boy's body rose a little, with a swift, pliant, graceful motion. With all the strength starvation had left in him he drew his arrow to the head. In another second it was buried to its very feathers in the broad breast of the buffalo bull, and the great animal stumbled forward upon his knees, pierced through the heart. The young hunter had known well the precise spot to aim at, and he had made a perfect shot. The cow halted for a moment, as if in amazement, and then charged forward along the trail. That moment had given the boy enough time to put another arrow on the string, and as she passed him he drove it into her just behind the shoulder, well and vigorously. Once more he had given a deadly wound, and now he caught up his lance. There was little need of it, but he could not be sure of that, and so, as the bull staggered to his feet in his death-struggle, he received a terrific thrust in the side and went down again. It was a complete victory, so far as the bull was concerned, and One-eye had darted away upon the path of the wounded cow.
"Ugh! got both!" exclaimed the boy. "Have name now."