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   Chapter 7 Among the Pony-Soldiers

The Way of an Indian By Frederic Remington Characters: 20675

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The burial scaffold of the Fire Eater's father had rotted and fallen down with years. Time had even bent his own shoulders, filled his belly and shrunken his flanks. He now had two sons who were of sufficient age to have forgotten their first sun-dance medicine, so long had they been warriors of distinction. He also had boys and girls of less years, but a child of five snows was the only thing which could relax the old man's features, set hard with thought and time and toil.

Evil days had come to the Buffalo Indians. The Yellow-Eyes swarmed in the Indian country, and although the red warriors rode their ponies thin in war, they could not drive the invaders away. The little bands of traders and beaver-men who came to the camps of the Fire Eater's boyhood with open hands were succeeded by immense trains of wagons, drawn by the white man's buffalo. The trains wound endlessly toward the setting sun-paying no heed to the Indians. Yellow-Eyes came to the mountains where they dug and washed for the white man's great medicine, the yellow-iron. The fire boats came up the great river with a noise like the Thunder Bird-firing big medicine-guns which shot twice at one discharge.

The Fire Eater, with his brothers of the Chis-chis-chash, had run off with the horses and buffalo of these helpless Yellow-Eyes until they wanted no more. They had knocked them on the head with battle-axes in order to save powder. They had burned the grass in front of the slow-moving trains and sat on the hills laughing at the discomfiture caused by the playful fires. Notwithstanding, all their efforts did not check the ceaseless flow and a vague feeling of alarm began to pervade them.

Talking men came to them and spoke of their Great Father in Washington. It made them laugh. These talking men gave them enough blankets and medicine goods to make the travvis poles squeak under the burden. When these men also told them that they must live like white men, the secret council lost its dignity entirely and roared long and loud at the quaint suggestion.

Steadily flowed the stream of wagons over the plains though the Indians plied them with ax and rifle and fire. Sober-minded old chiefs began to recall many prophecies of the poor trappers who told how their people swarmed behind them and would soon come on.

Then began to appear great lines of the Great Father's warriors-all dressed alike and marching steadily with their wagons drawn along by half-brothers to the horse. These men built log forts on the Indian lands and they had come to stay.

The time for action had come. Runners went through the tribes calling great councils which made a universal peace between the red brothers. Many and fierce were the fights with these blue soldiers of the Great Father. The Indians slew them by hundreds at times and were slain in turn. In a grand assault on some of these which lay behind medicine-wagons and shot medicine-guns the Indian dead blackened the grass and the white soldiers gave them bad dreams for many days.

The talking-wives and the fire wagon found their way, and the white hunters slew the buffalo of the Indians by millions, for their hides.

Every year brought more soldiers who made more log forts from which they emerged with their wagons, dragging after the trace of the Chis-chis-chash camp, and disturbing the buffalo and the elk. To be sure, the soldiers never came up because the squaws could move the travvis more rapidly than the others could their wagons, but it took many young men to watch their movements and keep the grass burning before them. Since the Indians had made the wagon fight, they no longer tried to charge the soldiers, thinking it easier to avoid them. The young men were made to run their ponies around the Yellow-Eyes before it was light enough in the morning for them to shoot, and they always found the Yellow-Eyes heavy with sleep; but they did not grapple with the white soldiers because they found them too slow to run away and enemies who always fought wildly, like bears. Occasionally the Indians caught one of them alive, staked him out on a hill, and burned him in sight of his camp. These Yellow-Eyes were poor warriors, for they always whined and yelled under the torture. Half-breeds who came from the camp of the Yellow-Eyes said that this sight always made the white soldiers' blood turn to water. Still the invaders continued to crawl slowly along the dusty valleys. The buffalo did not come up from the south-from the caves of the Good Gods where they were made-in such numbers as they once did, and the marching soldiers frightened those which did and kept them away. The young warriors never wearied of the excitement of these times, with its perpetual war-party, but old men remembered the prophecies of the beaver-men and that the times had changed.

The Fire Eater, as he talked to old Weasel Bear over their pipes and kettles, said:

"Brother, we used to think Yellow Horse had lost the Power of his Eyes when he came from his journey with the talking white man. We thought he had been made to dream by the Yellow-Eyes. We have seen the talking wives and we have seen the fire wagon. We have seen the white men come until there are as many as all the warriors in this camp. All the foolish half-breeds say it is as the talking men say. Brother, I have seen in my dreams that there are more of them than the buffalo. They have their caves to the east as the buffalo do to the south, and they come out of them in the time of the green-grass just as the buffalo do. The Bad Gods send the Yellow-Eyes and the Good Gods send the buffalo. The gods are fighting each other in the air."

Weasel Bear smoked in silence until he had digested the thoughts of his friend, when he replied:

"Your talk is good. Two grasses ago I was with a war-party and we caught a white man between the bends of the Tois-ta-to-e-o. He had four eyes and also a medicine-box which we did not touch. All the hair on his head and face was white as the snow. While we were making the fire to burn him with, he talked much strong talk. Before we could burn him he sank down at our feet and died a medicine-death. We all ran away. Bad Arm, the half-breed who was with us, said the man had prophesied that before ten snows all our fires would be put out by his people. Brother, that man had the Power of the Eyes. I looked at him strong while he talked. I have seen him in my dreams-I am afraid."

Weasel Bear continued:

"You hear our young scouts who come in tell us how the white soldiers are coming in droves this grass. There are walking-soldiers, pony-soldiers, big guns on wheels and more wagons than they can count. Many of their scalps shall dry in our lodges, but, brother, we cannot kill them all."

In accordance with the tribal agreements the Chis-chis-chash joined their camp with the Dakota, and together both tribes moved about the buffalo range. Every day the scouts came on reeking ponies to the chiefs. The soldiers were everywhere marching toward the camps. The council fire was always smoldering. The Dakota and Chis-chis-chash chiefs sat in a dense ring while Sitting Bull, Gall, Crazy Horse and all the strong men talked. They regarded the menace with awe; they feared for the camp with its women and children, but each voice was for war. It was no longer poor beaver-men or toiling bull-wagons; it was crowds of soldiers coming up every valley toward the villages which before had been remote and unmolested. If any soothsayer could penetrate the veil of the future he held his peace in the councils. The Indians tied up their ponies' tails for the struggle and painted for war. Three cartridges were all a fine buffalo robe would bring from a trader and even then it was hard to get them; but though the lodges had few robes many brass-bound bullets reposed in the war-bags.

The old thrill came over the Fire Eater in these agitated times. He could no longer leap upon his pony at full gallop, but rode a saddle. The lodge chafed him until he gathered up a few young men who had been acting as spies and trotted forth on a coyote prowl. For many days they made their way toward the south. One day as he sat smoking by a small fire on a mountain-top, somewhat wearied with travel, the restless young men came trotting softly back over the pine needles saying:

"Come out and you will see the white soldiers." He mounted and followed, and sitting there amid the mountain tangle he saw his dreams come true. The traders and the talking men had not lied about the numbers of their people, for his eye did not come to the rear of the procession which wound up the valley like a great snake. There were pony-soldiers, walking-soldiers, guns on wagons, herds of the white men's buffalo, and teams without end. The Fire Eater passed his hands across his eyes before another gaze reassured him, and having satisfied himself he asked a young man: "Brother, you say there are as many more soldiers up north by the Yellowstone?"

"There are as many more-I saw them with my own eyes, and Blow Cloud over there has seen as many to the east. He could not count them."

For an hour the spies watched the white columns before the Fire Eater turned his pony, and followed by his young men disappeared in the timber.

Upon his arrival at the big camp the Fire Eater addressed the council:

"I have just come five smokes from the south, and I saw the white soldiers coming. I could not count them. They crawl slowly along the valley and they take their wagons to war. They cannot travel as fast as our squaws, but they will drive the buffalo out of the land. We must go out and fight them while our villages lie here close to the mountains. The wagon-soldiers cannot follow the women's pack-horses into the mountains."

The council approved this with much grunting, and the warriors swarmed from the villages-covering the country until the coyotes ran about continually to get out of their way. No scout of the enemy could penetrate to the Indian camps. The Indians burned the grass in front of the on-coming herds; they fired into the enemy's tents at night, and as the pony-soldiers bathed naked in the Yellowstone ran their horses over them. They would have put out many of the white soldiers' fires if the wagon-guns had not fired bullets which burst

among them.

But it was all to no purpose.

Slowly the great snakes crawled through the valleys and the red warriors went riding back to the village to prepare for flight.

One morning the Fire Eater sat beside his lodge fire playing with his young son-a thing which usually made his eyes gleam. Now he looked sadly into the little face of the boy, who stood holding his two great scalp braids in his chubby hands. He knew that in a day or two the camp must move and that the warriors must try to stop the Yellow-Eyes. Taking from his scalp a buckskin bag which contained his bat-skin medicine he rubbed it slowly over the boy's body, the child laughing as he did so. The sun was barely stronger than the lodge fire when from far away on the hills beyond the river came a faint sound borne on the morning wind, yet it electrified the camp, and from in front of the Fire Eater's tent a passing man split the air with the wolfish war-yell of the Chis-chis-chash. As though he had been a spiral spring released from pressure, the Fire Eater regained his height. The little boy sat briskly down in the ashes, adding his voice to the confusion, which now reigned in the great camp in a most disproportionate way. The old chief sprang to his doorway in time to see a mounted rider cut by, shrieking, "The pony-soldiers are coming over the hills!" and disappear among the tepees.

With intense fingers the nerved warrior readjusted his life treasure, the bat-skin, to his scalp-lock, then opening his war-bags, which no other person ever touched on pain of death, he quickly daubed the war paint on his face. These two important things having been done, he filled his ammunition bag with a double handful of cartridges, tied his chief's war-bonnet under his chin, and grasping his rifle, war-ax and whip, he slid out of the tepee. An excited squaw hastily brought his best war-pony with its tail tied up, as it always was in these troublesome times. The Fire Eater slapped his hand violently on its quarter, and when he raised it there was the red imprint of the hand of war. The frightened animal threw back its head and backed away, but with a bound like a panther the savage was across its back, a thing which in tranquil times the old man was not able to do.

This was the first time in years that the warrior had had a chance to wear his war-bonnet in battle. Rapidly adjusting his equipment as he sat his plunging horse, he brought his quirt down with a full arm swing and was away. By his side many sturdy war-ponies spanked along. At the ford of the river they made the water foam, and the far side muddy, with their dripping. They were grotesque demons, streaked and daubed, on their many-colored ponies. Rifles clashed, pony-whips cracked, horses snorted and blew, while the riders emitted the wild yelps which they had learned from the wolves. Back from the hills came their scouts sailing like hawks, scarcely seeming to touch the earth as they flew along. "The pony-soldiers are coming-they are over the hill!" they cried. The crowded warriors circled out and rode more slowly as their chiefs marshaled them. Many young Red Lodge braves found the Fire Eater's place, boys who had never seen the old man in war, but who had listened in many winter lodges where his deeds were "smoked." As they looked at him now they felt the insistency of his presence-felt the nervous ferocity of the wild man-it made them eager and reckless, and they knew that such plumes as the Fire Eater wore were carried in times like these.

The view of the hill in front was half cut by the right bank of the coulee up which they were going, when they felt their hearts quicken. One, two, a half dozen, and then the soldiers of the Great Father came in a flood across the ridge, galloping steadily in column, their yellow flags snapping. The Fire Eater turned and gave the long yell and was answered by the demon chorus-all whipping along. The whole valley answered in kind. The rifles began to pop. A bugle rang on the hill, once, twice, and the pony-soldiers were on their knees, their front a blinding flash, with the blue smoke rolling down upon the Indians or hurried hither and thither by the vagrant winds. Several followers of the Fire Eater reeled on their ponies or waved from side to side or clung desperately to their ponies' necks, sliding slowly to the ground as life left them. Relentless whips drove the maddened charge into the pall of smoke, and the fighting men saw everything dimly or not at all.

The rushing Red Lodges passed through the line of the blue soldiers, stumbling over them and striking downward with their axes. Dozens of riderless troop horses mingled with them, rushing aimlessly and tripping on dangling ropes and reins. Soon they were going down the other side of the hill and out of the smoke; not all, for some had been left behind. Galloping slowly, the red warriors crowded their cartridges into their guns while over their heads poured the bullets of the soldiers, who in the smoke could no longer be seen. On all sides swarmed the rushing warriors mixed inextricably with riderless troop horses mad with terror. As the clouds of Indians circled the hill, the smoke blew slowly away from a portion of it, revealing the kneeling soldiers. Seeing this the Fire Eater swerved his pony, and followed by his band charged into and over the line. The whole whirling mass of horsemen followed. The scene was now a mass of confusion which continued for some time, but the frantic Fire Eater, as he dashed about, could no longer find any soldiers. As the tumult quieted and the smoke gave back, they all seemed to be dead.

Dismounting, he seized a soldier's hair and drew his knife, but was not able to wind his fingers into it. He desisted and put back his knife muttering: "A dog-he had not the hair of a warrior-I will not dance such a scalp."

The Fire Eater looked around him and saw the warriors hacking and using their knives, but the enemy had been wiped out. Horses lay kicking and struggling, or sat on their haunches like dogs with the blood pouring from their nostrils. He smiled at the triumph of his race, mounted his pony and with his reeking war-ax moved through the terrible scene. The hacking and scalping was woman's work-anyone could count a coup here. As for the Fire Eater, his lodge was full of trophies, won in single combat. Slowly he made his way down the line of horror until he came to the end-to the place where the last soldier lay dead, and he passed on to a neighboring hill to view the scene. As he stood looking, he happened to cast his eyes on the ground and there saw a footprint. It was the track of a white man's moccasin with the iron nails showing, and it was going away from the scene of action. Turning his pony he trotted along beside the trail. Over the little hills it ran through the sage brush. Looking ahead, the Fire Eater saw a figure in a red blanket moving rapidly away. Putting his pony to speed he bore down upon the man with his rifle cocked. The figure increased its gait, and the red blanket fell from the shoulders revealing a blue soldier. It was but an instant before the pony-drew up alongside and the white man stood still, breathing heavily. The Fire Eater saw that his enemy had no gun, the thought of which made him laugh: "A naked warrior; a man without even a knife; does the man with the iron moccasins hope to outrun my war-pony?"

The breathless and terrified white man held out his hand and spoke excitedly, but the Fire Eater could not understand. With menacing rifle he advanced upon his prey, whereat the white man, suspecting his purpose, quickly picked up a loose stone and threw it at him but only hit the pony.

The Fire Eater straightway shot the soldier in the thigh and the latter sat down in the dirt. The old chief got off his horse, chuckling while he advanced, and sat down a few yards from the stricken man. He talked to him, saying: "Brother, I have you now. You are about to die. Look upon the land for the last time. You came into my country to kill me, but it is you who are to be killed."

The white soldier could not make out the intention of the Indian for the language was mild and the face not particularly satanic. He pleaded for his life, but it had no effect upon the Fire Eater, who shortly arose and approached him with his battle-ax. The man saw clearly now what was to happen and buried his face in his hands. Too often had the hunter-warrior stood over his fallen quarry to feel pity; he knew no more of this than a bird of prey, and he sank his three-pronged battle-ax into the soldier's skull and wiped it on his pony's shoulder saying: "Another dog's head; I will leave him for the women and the boys. If he had thrown away his iron moccasins his fire would not be out. I give the meat to the little gray wolves and to the crows which bring us messages from the spirit-world." And he resumed his mount. Riding back, he saw the squaws swarming over the battlefield, but the warriors had gone. Men that he met in the valley told him that they had more soldiers surrounded in the bluffs up the valley, but that the white-faces could not get away and that the Indians were coming back for fresh ponies. Enough men had been left to hold the besieged.

Coming to his lodge he got a new pony, and, as he mounted, said to his youngest wife: "Wan-ha-ya, give me my little boy: put him up behind me on my pony. I will show him war."

The squaw held the chubling and put him on the desired place, where he caught on like a burr. The Fire Eater made his way to the battle ground. There the squaws were stripping and mutilating. Finding a dead soldier who was naked, he dismounted, setting the boy on the ground. Pulling his great knife from its buckskin sheath he curled the fat little hand around its haft and led him to the white body. "Strike the enemy, little son, strike like a warrior," and the Fire Eater, simulating a blow, directed the small arm downward on the corpse. Comprehending the idea, the infant drew up and drove down, doing his best to obey the instructions, but his arm was far too weak to make the knife penetrate. The fun of the thing made him scream with pleasure, and the old Fire Eater chuckled at the idea of his little warrior's first coup. Then he rode back to the lodge.

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