The Prairie/Chapter XVIII
My visor is Philemon's roof; within the house is Jove.
The trapper, who had meditated no violence, dropped his rifle again, and laughing at the success of his experiment, with great seeming self-complacency, he drew the astounded gaze of the naturalist from the person of the savage to himself, by saying—
"The imps will lie for hours, like sleeping alligators, brooding their deviltries in dreams and other craftiness, until such time as they see some real danger is at hand, and then they look to themselves the same as other mortals. But this is a scouter in his war-paint! There should be more of his tribe at no great distance. Let us draw the truth out of him; for an unlucky war-party may prove more dangerous to us than a visit from the whole family of the squatter."
"It is truly a desperate and a dangerous species!" said the Doctor, relieving his amazement by a breath that seemed to exhaust his lungs of air; "a violent race, and one that it is difficult to define or class, within the usual boundaries of definitions. Speak to him, therefore; but let thy words be strong in amity."
The old man cast a keen eye on every side of him, to ascertain the important particular whether the stranger was supported by any associates, and then making the usual signs of peace, by exhibiting the palm of his naked hand, he boldly advanced. In the mean time, the Indian betrayed no evidence of uneasiness. He suffered the trapper to draw nigh, maintaining by his own mien and attitude a striking air of dignity and fearlessness. Perhaps the wary warrior also knew that, owing to the difference in their weapons, he should be placed more on an equality, by being brought nearer to the strangers.
As a description of this individual may furnish some idea of the personal appearance of a whole race, it may be well to detain the narrative, in order to present it to the reader, in our hasty and imperfect manner. Would the truant eyes of Alston or Greenough turn, but for a time, from their gaze at the models of antiquity, to contemplate this wronged and humbled people, little would be left for such inferior artists as ourselves to delineate.
The Indian in question was in every particular a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions. As he cast aside his mask, composed of such party-coloured leaves, as he had hurriedly collected, his countenance appeared in all the gravity, the dignity, and, it may be added, in the terror of his profession. The outlines of his lineaments were strikingly noble, and nearly approaching to Roman, though the secondary features of his face were slightly marked with the well-known traces of his Asiatic origin. The peculiar tint of the skin, which in itself is so well designed to aid the effect of a martial expression, had received an additional aspect of wild ferocity from the colours of the war-paint. But, as if he disdained the usual artifices of his people, he bore none of those strange and horrid devices, with which the children of the forest are accustomed, like the more civilised heroes of the moustache, to back their reputation for courage, contenting himself with a broad and deep shadowing of black, that served as a sufficient and an admirable foil to the brighter gleamings of his native swarthiness. His head was as usual shaved to the crown, where a large and gallant scalp-lock seemed to challenge the grasp of his enemies. The ornaments that were ordinarily pendant from the cartilages of his ears had been removed, on account of his present pursuit. His body, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, was nearly naked, and the portion which was clad bore a vestment no warmer than a light robe of the finest dressed deer-skin, beautifully stained with the rude design of some daring exploit, and which was carelessly worn, as if more in pride than from any unmanly regard to comfort. His leggings were of bright scarlet cloth, the only evidence about his person that he had held communion with the traders of the Pale-faces. But as if to furnish some offset to this solitary submission to a womanish vanity, they were fearfully fringed, from the gartered knee to the bottom of the moccasin, with the hair of human scalps. He leaned lightly with one hand on a short hickory bow, while the other rather touched than sought support, from the long, delicate handle of an ashen lance. A quiver made of the cougar skin, from which the tail of the animal depended, as a characteristic ornament, was slung at his back, and a shield of hides, quaintly emblazoned with another of his warlike deeds, was suspended from his neck by a thong of sinews.
As the trapper approached, this warrior maintained his calm upright attitude, discovering neither an eagerness to ascertain the character of those who advanced upon him, nor the smallest wish to avoid a scrutiny in his own person. An eye, that was darker and more shining than that of the stag, was incessantly glancing, however, from one to another of the stranger party, seemingly never knowing rest for an instant.
"Is my brother far from his village?" demanded the old man, in the Pawnee language, after examining the paint, and those other little signs by which a practised eye knows the tribe of the warrior he encounters in the American deserts, with the same readiness, and by the same sort of mysterious observation, as that by which the seaman knows the distant sail.
"It is farther to the towns of the Big-knives," was the laconic reply.
"Why is a Pawnee-Loup so far from the fork of his own river, without a horse to journey on, and in a spot empty as this?"
"Can the women and children of a Pale-face live without the meat of the bison? There was hunger in my lodge."
"My brother is very young to be already the master of a lodge," returned the trapper, looking steadily into the unmoved countenance of the youthful warrior; "but I dare say he is brave, and that many a chief has offered him his daughters for wives. But he has been mistaken," pointing to the arrow, which was dangling from the hand that held the bow, "in bringing a loose and barbed arrow-head to kill the buffaloe. Do the Pawnees wish the wounds they give their game to rankle?"
"It is good to be ready for the Sioux. Though not in sight, a bush may hide him."
"The man is a living proof of the truth of his words," muttered the trapper in English, "and a close-jointed and gallant looking lad he is; but far too young for a chief of any importance. It is wise, however, to speak him fair, for a single arm thrown into either party, if we come to blows with the squatter and his brood, may turn the day. You see my children are weary," he continued in the dialect of the prairies, pointing, as he spoke, to the rest of the party, who, by this time, were also approaching. "We wish to camp and eat. Does my brother claim this spot?"
"The runners from the people on the Big-river, tell us that your nation have traded with the Tawney-faces who live beyond the salt-lake, and that the prairies are now the hunting grounds of the Big-knives!"
"It is true, as I hear, also, from the hunters and trappers on La Platte. Though it is with the Frenchers, and not with the men who claim to own the Mexicos, that my people have bargained."
"And warriors are going up the Long-river, to see that they have not been cheated, in what they have bought?"
"Ay, that is partly true, too, I fear; and it will not be long before an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels, to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert, from the shores of the main sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains; fill'd with all the abominations and craft of man, and stript of the comforts and loveliness it received from the hands of the Lord!"
"And where were the chiefs of the Pawnee-Loups, when this bargain was made?" suddenly demanded the youthful warrior, a look of startling fierceness gleaming, at the same instant, athwart his dark visage. "Is a nation to be sold like the skin of a beaver?"
"Right enough—right enough, and where were truth and honesty, also? But might is right, according to the fashions of the 'arth; and what the strong choose to do, the weak must call justice. If the law of the Wahcondah was as much hearkened to, Pawnee, as the laws of the Long-knives, your right to the prairies would be as good as that of the greatest chief in the settlements to the house which covers his head."
"The skin of the traveller is white," said the young native, laying a finger impressively on the hard and wrinkled hand of the trapper. "Does his heart say one thing and his tongue another?"
"The Wahcondah of a white man has ears, and he shuts them to a lie. Look at my head; it is like a frosted pine, and must soon be laid in the ground. Why then should I wish to meet the Great Spirit, face to face, while his countenance is dark upon me."
The Pawnee gracefully threw his shield over one shoulder, and placing a hand on his chest, he bent his head, in deference to the grey locks exhibited by the trapper; after which his eye became more steady, and his countenance less fierce. Still he maintained every appearance of a distrust and watchfulness that were rather tempered and subdued, than forgotten. When this equivocal species of amity was established between the warrior of the prairies and the experienced old trapper, the latter proceeded to give his directions to Paul, concerning the arrangements of the contemplated halt. While Inez and Ellen were dismounting, and Middleton and the bee-hunter were attending to their comforts, the discourse was continued, sometimes in the language of the natives, but often, as Paul and the Doctor mingled their opinions with the two principal speakers, in the English tongue. There was a keen and subtle trial of skill between the Pawnee and the trapper, in which each endeavoured to discover the objects of the other, without betraying his own interest in the investigation. As might be expected, when the struggle was between adversaries so equal, the result of the encounter answered the expectations of neither. The latter had put all the interrogatories his ingenuity and practice could suggest, concerning the state of the tribe of the Loups, their crops, their store of provisions for the ensuing winter, and their relations with their different warlike neighbours without extorting any answer, which, in the slightest degree, elucidated the cause of his finding a solitary warrior so far from his people. On the other hand, while the questions of the Indian were far more dignified and delicate, they were equally ingenious. He commented on the state of the trade in peltries, spoke of the good or ill success of many white hunters, whom he had either encountered, or heard named, and even alluded to the steady march, which the nation of his great father, as he cautiously termed the government of the States, was making towards the hunting-grounds of his tribe. It was apparent, however, by the singular mixture of interest, contempt, and indignation, that were occasionally gleaming through the reserved manner of this warrior, that he knew the strange people, who were thus trespassing on his native rights, much more by report than by any actual intercourse. This personal ignorance of the whites was as much betrayed by the manner in which he regarded the females, as by the brief, but energetic, expressions which occasionally escaped him.
While speaking to the trapper he suffered his wandering glances to stray towards the intellectual and nearly infantile beauty of Inez, as one might be supposed to gaze upon the loveliness of an ethereal being. It was very evident that he now saw, for the first time, one of those females, of whom the fathers of his tribe so often spoke, and who were considered of such rare excellence as to equal all that savage ingenuity could imagine in the way of loveliness. His observation of Ellen was less marked, but notwithstanding the warlike and chastened expression of his eye, there was much of the homage, which man is made to pay to woman, even in the more cursory look he sometimes turned on her maturer and perhaps more animated beauty. This admiration, however, was so tempered by his habits, and so smothered in the pride of a warrior, as completely to elude every eye but that of the trapper, who was too well skilled in Indian customs, and was too well instructed in the importance of rightly conceiving, the character of the stranger, to let the smallest trait, or the most trifling of his movements, escape him. In the mean time, the unconscious Ellen herself moved about the feeble and less resolute Inez, with her accustomed assiduity and tenderness, exhibiting in her frank features those changing emotions of joy and regret which occasionally beset her, as her active mind dwelt on the decided step she had just taken, with the contending doubts and hopes, and possibly with some of the mental vacillation, that was natural to her situation and sex.
Not so Paul; conceiving himself to have obtained the two things dearest to his heart, the possession of Ellen and a triumph over the sons of Ishmael, he now enacted his part, in the business of the moment, with as much coolness as though he was already leading his willing bride, from solemnising their nuptials before a border magistrate, to the security of his own dwelling. He had hovered around the moving family, during the tedious period of their weary march, concealing himself by day, and seeking interviews with his betrothed as opportunities offered, in the manner already described, until fortune and his own intrepidity had united to render him successful, at the very moment when he was beginning to despair, and he now cared neither for distance, nor violence, nor hardships. To his sanguine fancy and determined resolution all the rest was easily to be achieved. Such were his feelings, and such in truth they seemed to be. With his cap cast on one side, and whistling a low air, he thrashed among the bushes, in order to make a place suitable for the females to repose on, while, from time to time, he cast an approving glance at the agile form of Ellen, as she tripped past him, engaged in her own share of the duty.
"And so the Wolf-tribe of the Pawnees have buried the hatchet with their neighbours, the Konzas?" said the trapper, pursuing a discourse which he had scarcely permitted to flag, though it had been occasionally interrupted by the different directions with which he occasionally saw fit to interrupt it. (The reader will remember that, while he spoke to the native warrior in his own tongue, he necessarily addressed his white companions in English.) "The Loups and the light-fac'd Red-skins are again friends. Doctor, that is a tribe of which I'll engage you've often read, and of which many a round lie has been whispered in the ears of the ignorant people, who live in the settlements. There was a story of a nation of Welshers, that liv'd hereaway in the prairies, and how they came into the land afore the uneasy minded man, who first let in the Christians to rob the heathens of their inheritance, had ever dreamt that the sun set on a country as big as that it rose from. And how they knew the white ways, and spoke with white tongues, and a thousand other follies and idle conceits."
"Have I not heard of them?" exclaimed the naturalist, dropping a piece of jerked bison's meat, which he was rather roughly discussing, at the moment. "I should be greatly ignorant not to have often dwelt with delight on so beautiful a theory, and one which so triumphantly establishes two positions, which I have often maintained are unanswerable, even without such living testimony in their favour—viz. that this continent can claim a more remote affinity with civilisation than the time of Columbus, and that colour is the fruit of climate and condition, and not a regulation of nature. Propound the latter question to this Indian gentleman, venerable hunter; he is of a reddish tint himself, and his opinion may be said to make us masters of the two sides of the disputed point."
"Do you think a Pawnee is a reader of books, and a believer of printed lies, like the idlers in the towns?" retorted the old man, laughing. "But it may be as well to humour the likings of the man, which, after all, it is quite possible are neither more nor less than his natural gift, and therefore to be followed, although they may be pitied. What does my brother think? all whom he sees here have pale skins, but the Pawnee warriors are red; does he believe that man changes with the season, and that the son is not like his father?"
The young warrior regarded his interrogator for a moment with a steady and deliberating eye; then raising his finger upward, he answered with dignity—
"The Wahcondah pours the rain from his clouds; when he speaks, he shakes the lulls; and the fire, which scorches the trees, is the anger of his eye; but he fashioned his children with care and thought. What he has thus made, never alters!"
"Ay, 'tis in the reason of natur' that it should be so, Doctor," continued the trapper, when he had interpreted this answer to the disappointed naturalist. "The Pawnees are a wise and a great people, and I'll engage they abound in many a wholesome and honest tradition. The hunters and trappers, that I sometimes see, speak of a great warrior of your race."
"My tribe are not women. A brave is no stranger in my village."
"Ay; but he, they speak of most, is a chief far beyond the renown of common warriors, and one that might have done credit to that once mighty but now fallen people, the Delawares of the hills."
"Such a warrior should have a name?"
"They call him Hard-Heart, from the stoutness of his resolution; and well is he named, if all I have heard of his deeds be true."
The stranger cast a glance, which seemed to read the guileless soul of the old man, as he demanded—
"Has the Pale-face seen the partisan of my people?"
"Never. It is not with me now, as it used to be some forty years ago, when warfare and bloodshed were my calling and my gifts!"
A loud shout from the reckless Paul interrupted his speech, and at the next moment the bee-hunter appeared, leading an Indian war-horse from the side of the thicket opposite to the one occupied by the party.
"Here is a beast for a Red-skin to straddle!" he cried, as he made the animal go through some of its wild paces. "There's not a brigadier in all Kentucky that can call himself master of so sleek and well-jointed a nag! A Spanish saddle too, like a grandee of the Mexicos! and look at the mane and tail, braided and platted down with little silver balls, as if it were Ellen herself getting her shining hair ready for a dance, or a husking frolic! Isn't this a real trotter, old trapper, to eat out of the manger of a savage?"
"Softly, lad, softly. The Loups are famous for their horses, and it is often that you see a warrior on the prairies far better mounted, than a congress-man in the settlements. But this, indeed, is a beast that none but a powerful chief should ride! The saddle, as you rightly think, has been sit upon in its day by a great Spanish captain, who has lost it and his life together, in some of the battles which this people often fight against the southern provinces. I warrant me, I warrant me, the youngster is the son of a great chief; may be of the mighty Hard-Heart himself!"
During this rude interruption to the discourse, the young Pawnee manifested neither impatience nor displeasure; but when he thought his beast had been the subject of sufficient comment, he very coolly, and with the air of one accustomed to have his will respected, relieved Paul of the bridle, and throwing the reins on the neck of the animal, he sprang upon his back, with the activity of a professor of the equestrian art. Nothing could be finer or firmer than the seat of the savage. The highly wrought and cumbrous saddle was evidently more for show than use. Indeed it impeded rather than aided the action of limbs, which disdained to seek assistance, or admit of restraint from so womanish inventions as stirrups. The horse, which immediately began to prance, was, like its rider, wild and untutored in all his motions, but while there was so little of art, there was all the freedom and grace of nature in the movements of both. The animal was probably indebted to the blood of Araby for its excellence, through a long pedigree, that embraced the steed of Mexico, the Spanish barb, and the Moorish charger. The rider, in obtaining his steed from the provinces of Central-America, had also obtained that spirit and grace in controlling him, which unite to form the most intrepid and perhaps the most skilful horseman in the world.
Notwithstanding this sudden occupation of his animal, the Pawnee discovered no hasty wish to depart. More at his ease, and possibly more independent, now he found himself secure of the means of retreat, he rode back and forth, eyeing the different individuals of the party with far greater freedom than before. But, at each extremity of his ride, just as the sagacious trapper expected to see him profit by his advantage and fly, he would turn his horse, and pass over the same ground, sometimes with the rapidity of the flying deer, and at others more slowly, and with greater dignity of mien and attitude. Anxious to ascertain such facts as might have an influence on his future movements, the old man determined to invite him to a renewal of their conference. He therefore made a gesture expressive at the same time of his wish to resume the interrupted discourse, and of his own pacific intentions. The quick eye of the stranger was not slow to note the action, but it was not until a sufficient time had passed to allow him to debate the prudence of the measure in his own mind, that he seemed willing to trust himself again, so near a party that was so much superior to himself in physical power, and consequently one that was able, at any instant, to command his life, or control his personal liberty. When he did approach nigh enough to converse with facility, it was with a singular mixture of haughtiness and of distrust.
"It is far to the village of the Loups," he said, stretching his arm in a direction contrary to that in which, the trapper well knew, the tribe dwelt, "and the road is crooked. What has the Big-knife to say?"
"Ay, crooked enough!" muttered the old man in English, "if you are to set out on your journey by that path, but not half so winding as the cunning of an Indian's mind. Say, my brother; do the chiefs of the Pawnees love to see strange faces in their lodges?"
The young warrior bent his body gracefully, though but slightly, over the saddle-bow, as he replied—
"When have my people forgotten to give food to the stranger?"
"If I lead my daughters to the doors of the Loups, will the women take them by the hand; and will the warriors smoke with my young men?"
"The country of the Pale-faces is behind them. Why do they journey so far towards the setting sun? Have they lost the path, or are these the women of the white warriors, that I hear are wading up the river of 'the troubled waters?'"
"Neither. They, who wade the Missouri, are the warriors of my great father, who has sent them on his message; but we are peace-runners. The white men and the red are neighbours, and they wish to be friends. —Do not the Omahaws visit the Loups, when the tomahawk is buried in the path between the two nations?"
"The Omahaws are welcome."
"And the Yanktons, and the burnt-wood Tetons, who live in the elbow of the river, 'with muddy water,' do they not come into the lodges of the Loups and smoke?"
"The Tetons are liars!" exclaimed the other. "They dare not shut their eyes in the night. No; they sleep in the sun. See," he added, pointing with fierce triumph to the frightful ornaments of his leggings, "their scalps are so plenty, that the Pawnees tread on them! Go; let a Sioux live in banks of snow; the plains and buffaloes are for men!"
"Ah! the secret is out," said the trapper to Middleton, who was an attentive, because a deeply interested, observer of what was passing. "This good-looking young Indian is scouting on the track of the Siouxes—you may see it by his arrow-heads, and his paint; ay, and by his eye, too; for a Red-skin lets his natur' follow the business he is on, be it for peace, or be it for war,—quiet, Hector, quiet. Have you never scented a Pawnee afore, pup?—keep down, dog—keep down—my brother is right. The Siouxes are thieves. Men of all colours and nations say it of them, and say it truly. But the people from the rising sun are not Siouxes, and they wish to visit the lodges of the Loups."
"The head of my brother is white," returned the Pawnee, throwing one of those glances at the trapper, which were so remarkably expressive of distrust, intelligence, and pride, and then pointing, as he continued, towards the eastern horizon, "and his eyes have looked on many things—can he tell me the name of what he sees yonder—is it a buffaloe?"
"It looks more like a cloud, peeping above the skirt of the plain with the sunshine lighting its edges. It is the smoke of the heavens."
"It is a hill of the earth, and on its top are the lodges of Pale-faces! Let the women of my brother wash their feet among the people of their own colour."
"The eyes of a Pawnee are good, if he can see a white-skin so far."
The Indian turned slowly towards the speaker, and after a pause of a moment he sternly demanded—
"Can my brother hunt?"
"Alas! I claim to be no better than a miserable trapper!"
"When the plain is covered with the buffaloes, can he see them?"
"No doubt, no doubt—it is far easier to see than to take a scampering bull."
"And when the birds are flying from the cold, and the clouds are black with their feathers, can he see them too?"
"Ay, ay, it is not hard to find a duck, or a goose, when millions are darkening the heavens."
"When the snow falls, and covers the lodges of the Long-knives, can the stranger see flakes in the air?"
"My eyes are none of the best now," returned the old man a little resentfully, "but the time has been when I had a name for my sight!"
"The Red-skins find the Big-knives as easily as the strangers see the buffaloe, or the travelling birds, or the falling snow. Your warriors think the Master of Life has made the whole earth white. They are mistaken. They are pale, and it is their own faces that they see. Go! a Pawnee is not blind, that he need look long for your people!"
The warrior suddenly paused, and bent his face aside, like one who listened with all his faculties absorbed in the act. Then turning the head of his horse, he rode to the nearest angle of the thicket, and looked intently across the bleak prairie, in a direction opposite to the side on which the party stood. Returning slowly from this unaccountable, and to his observers, startling procedure, he riveted his eyes on Inez, and paced back and forth several times, with the air of one who maintained a warm struggle on some difficult point, in the recesses of his own thoughts. He had drawn the reins of his impatient steed, and was seemingly about to speak, when his head again sunk on his chest, and he resumed his former attitude of attention. Galloping like a deer, to the place of his former observations, he rode for a moment swiftly, in short and rapid circles, as if still uncertain of his course, and then darted away, like a bird that had been fluttering around its nest before it takes a distant flight. After scouring the plain for a minute, he was lost to the eye behind a swell of the land.
The hounds, who had also manifested great uneasiness for some time, followed him for a little distance, and then terminated their chase by seating themselves on the ground, and raising their usual low, whining, and warning howls.
James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie, Intro, Author Intro, Ch.1, Ch.2, Ch.3, Ch.4, Ch.5, Ch.6, Ch.7, Ch.8, Ch.9, Ch.10, Ch.11, Ch.12, Ch.13, Ch.14, Ch.15, Ch.16, Ch.17, Ch.18, Ch.19, Ch.20, Ch.21, Ch.22, Ch.23, Ch.24, Ch.25, Ch.26, Ch.27, Ch.28, Ch.29, Ch.30, Ch.31, Ch.32, Ch.33, Ch.34