Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 12

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Chapter XII


FLAT on his back Bridger looked up into a circle of savage faces. Lander stood helpless between two warriors, a red hand over his mouth. The men holding Bridger down stepped back and permitted him to rise. Both his rifle and knife had been taken from him when he was first seized.

In addition to the circle about him there was another and a stronger line a few rods back. He made no move to escape, but when he observed the Deschamps and Rem breeds sneaking through the door and disappearing into the bush he called on his captors to stop them.

"Let the dogs go. We know where to find them when we are drunk and want to dance a mangy scalp," spoke up a deep voice.

Bridger twisted about and beheld a short, powerfully built Indian with much gray in his hair advancing through the inner circle. Waiting until the man stood before him Bridger greeted:

"My friend Gauche comes after I have won my fight."

Lander caught the one word Gauche, and knew he was in the presence of perhaps the most cruel and crafty Indian the Northwest had produced in many years.

Gauche stared coldly at Bridger. He still smarted from the drubbing inflicted by the Aricaras. He knew Bridger was a mighty warrior, but he owed him no trade allegiance. There was a smoldering rage in his black heart which could be eased only by torture or ransom.

Bridger and his young man were not connected with Fort Union, and there was no A. F. C. reprisal to fear. But Bridger was a big man in the mountains, and at the head of a pioneer fur company. He was worth a fat ransom.

"Why don't you say something, Gauche? Your men hear fighting and seize me and my brother and let those mixed bloods go. They came to steal your horses. Why are hands placed on me? Don't you know it is bad business for you to treat a white man this way? Or do you want trouble with white men?"

Gauche smiled inscrutably, and replied:

"I have said it. The Deschamps hair is mangy. My medicine will not feed on such. When I want them I will send some of my squaws to cut off their heads. They have nothing I want.

"Now about yourself. What do I care for your words? Have the white men ever made Gauche, the Left-Handed, run? When he calls himself Wakontonga, the Great Medicine, does he go and hide? When on the war-path he is known as Mina-Yougha, the Knife-Holder, is he ever afraid?"

"Has not Death many times sent to him saying, 'He invites you,' and has not Gauche always answered with a laugh and returned to living out his time? Speak soft, white man; do not leave a trail of words that will make me angry."

"Squaw's talk," sneered Bridger. "Draw off all but a handful of your men and give me a knife or an ax, and you'll find the kind of a trail I will leave for you."

Gauche lifted his ax as if to strike with the flat of it, encountered Bridger's blazing eyes and knew if he struck he must kill. As that did not meet with his purpose he put the ax aside and briefly said:

"I open a new trade. I need you."

"Go on," said Bridger, now sensing what was coming.

"You live among white folks, many sleeps down the long river. You have big lodges filled with goods. You will go with me to my camp, where I shall make a big feast for my war-medicine. Then you will send a talking-paper down the river by the young man. You will send for a fire-canoe to come up here with many presents for the Assiniboins."

"Your medicine must be foolish to make you talk like this," sneered Bridger. "I am on my way to the place-of-building-boats. I am McKenzie's friend. He made me a big feast at the fort last night. We sat up till the moon grew tired, drinking from big bottles.

"McKenzie and his men are following after me. Now I have lived in his lodge and eaten his meat and drunk from his bottle. Let the Assiniboins watch their steps carefully, or they will step on a snake that bites and poisons."

Gauche concealed his concern at this bold speech. Of all things he must not incur the displeasure of McKenzie. It was from Fort Union that he obtained the all-necessary guns and powder and ball and the dearly loved liquor. Adhering to his original purpose of holding the mountain man for a big ransom, he changed his bearing to one of friendliness. He said:

"There are bad men about here. If you are a friend of the Great Chief at the fort you are a friend of the Assiniboins. You shall go to the place-of-building-boats. Our camp is near there. We will go with you to see no bad breeds hurt you."

"Nine men tried to hurt me in the cabin. Those who have not crawled out are too sick to move. To some, perhaps, Death has sent word, 'Come, he invites you.' They were not cunning like Gauche. They went. I do not need your help, Gauche, but you will need mine. Therefore we will travel together."

Gauche was puzzled by these words and studied Bridger suspiciously.

"We will ride to the place-of-building-boats together like two brothers," he sullenly assented.

"Good. Give us our guns and bring our horses. My young man and I are in no hurry but you must ride fast or your sick man will die."

Gauche felt himself trembling. He stepped back and moved about to hide his sudden fear.

"Why speak of a sick man? Where is he?" he demanded.

"In your camp. You pitch your lodges to wait until he gets well or dies. Your medicine is weak. It let the Aricaras whip you. It can not make your friend well."

The chief prided himself on being a magician with the greatest of power. He had a nation of credulous believers and few skeptics. As fast as he found a skeptic he fed him poison. Having devoted so much of his time and thoughts to sorcery and magic, it was natural that he should be ensnared in his own black webs, and he began to wish he had never seen this strange white man, who mocked him before his warriors.

"The white man has a strong medicine?" he muttered.

"Very strong. My young man here has a very strong knife-medicine. Black Arrow of the Crows offered him many ponies for it. But my medicine takes his by the hand and leads it about as you would lead a child."

"Then he shall lead my friend back to strength. He is La Lance, one of my chiefs. There are crooked tongues that will say my magic killed him if he dies.

"There were cords through his bones and wolf-hairs under his skin and bird-claws in his flesh. With my medicine I took them all out and showed them to him. But there is an evil spirit in him my medicine can not reach. My warriors stand about the lodge to shoot it when it comes out, but my medicine can not drive it out."

Bridger turned and nodded lightly to Lander, rapidly explaining:

"Chief has a sick Injun on his hands. Afraid he's going to die an' that his reputation as a poisoner will make other bands in the tribe think he was murdered. That shows it ain't a cut or a gunshot." Then to Gauche:

"Bring our horses and guns, and lead the way. We are in no hurry. We will stop long enough to look at the sick man. I am full up to my neck with this talk."

The horses and weapons were brought up; and, equipped once more and mounted, the white men rode side by side with the Assiniboi'ns in front and bringing up the rear. Lander anxiously murmured:

"But you can't cure the sick man."

"White medicine is stronger'n red any time," replied Bridger. "If it's something very simple I'll use some doctor's stuff in my saddle-bag. I've toted it to the mountains an' back every trip. My medicine would work all right on anything, but I never bother it for something that don't 'mount to much. An' it ain't awful keen to work on an Injun, anyway. I've worked it on Crows, as they're friends of mine, but I always was afraid an Injun would make it grow weak. Jim Baker's got crazy idees 'bout medicine—still, it's all right not to take chances.

"A feast of b'iled berries mayn't do it any good, but I reckon they wouldn't do it any harm. Jim won't take no chances when it comes to his medicine. I've know'd him to travel four hundred miles just to git something he allowed his medicine would relish. Between my medicine an' the doctor's stuff I'll pull the Lance through or kill him."

Gauche's camp consisted of some three hundred warriors. Bridger shrewdly surmised that the Aricaras must have had help from the Sioux tribes to defeat so big a band. When the chief and his prisoners rode into camp there rose a great commotion, and from the snatches of gibes hurled at them Bridger managed to patch out the truth.

Gauche had learned of Bridger's presence at the fort and had determined to capture him and hold him for a big ransom. In this way he would in part make up for the spoils he had planned to take from the Aricaras. The men in the camp on seeing the two whites boldly taunted them with being held for ransom, and Gauche heard it with stolid face and glittering eyes.

Bridger halted in the middle of the camp and said to Gauche:

"Tell your men we are here to cure a sick man of a devil, and that afterward we are to be free to go our way. Tell them that is the only ransom we will pay. If the man dies his friends will say you poisoned him. Then two, three bands will join together against you. Perhaps your own people will turn against you. If La Lance dies it will cost you your life."

"If he dies you will be the cause, and you will die," hissed Gauche. "But I will say what you wish."

And lifting his powerful voice for quiet he told his people how he had made a bargain with the white men. If they cured La Lance they were to go free. If they failed, his people could kill them or hold them for ransom.

This did not please the bulk of the warriors. They cared nothing for La Lance, who came from another band. He had not carried himself so conspicuously as to win their admiration during the Aricara campaign. He had not been wounded. Either his fear had made him sick, or old Gauche was slowly poisoning him to death. They rather approved of the latter fate. To keep secret from his captives the mutinous inclination of some of his men Gauche dismissed all but six of his companions and then led the way to a tent at one side of the camp.

As they rode toward this Bridger opened a saddle-bag and extracted a medicine-case and tucked it under his shirt. As they dismounted from their horses in front of the tent four warriors standing guard there discharged their guns at the ground and one ran about clubbing his gun as if striking at something.

Then one of the guards loudly and proudly called out that the approach of the great master had frightened the evil spirit from the sick man and that they had shot and clubbed it to death as it ran from under the tent. One said it was the size of a river-rat.

Gauche received the compliment in silence and seemed a bit loath to enter the tent. Bridger crowded by him and stood looking down on La Lance, who had three years to live before being dissected and eaten by the Big Bellies. Bridger diagnosed his sickness as malarial fever and felt much relieved.

Gauche now entered and displayed some cords of rawhide, some strands of coarse hair, such as the Indians plucked from between the buffalo's horns for the making of horse-hobbles, and three withered bird-claws.

"These were taken from the sick man's body by my medicine," he modestly reminded.

Bridger gravely bowed his head and declared:

"Your magic is big. Your medicine is very strong, for it drove out a devil. But it was only a little devil and the big devil remains. My medicine let me see the little devil when it ran from under the tent. Will you try again, or shall I use my medicine?"

La Lance began groaning. His eyes were closed and he did not sense the presence of the three men. Gauche hastily decided:

"My white brother shall try his medicine."

Bridger fumbled at his medicine-case and bowed his head as if in deep thought. He tilted his head as if listening to ghost voices; but in his sidelong glance Lander beheld a twinkle in the gray eyes and a twitching at the corners of the firm mouth that told of hidden laughter.

Staring intently at Gauche, the mountain man motioned for silence. Gauche and Lander stood rigid. Only the moaning of the sick man and the murmur of angry warriors outside the tent intruded on the silence. With an abruptness that caused the chief to step back nervously Bridger hissed:

"My medicine tells me the sick man is troubled by the Water Spirit. Your medicine is strong, but it can not drive out the Water Spirit. Wait—my medicine brings another talk to me."

He cocked his head and listened and nodded; then triumphantly announced:

"Now I have it. Send warriors along the river bank toward Fort Union. Before they come in sight of the fort they will find two keelboats tied to the bank. The boats probably will be hidden in the bull-berry bushes. They must look very sharp. They must untie one of these boats and take it up-river to the place-of-building-boats. There they will find a broken boat.

"The Water Spirit says there is big medicine in the broken boat but that it can not work until the sick boat has the strong boat fastened to the sick boat, then will my medicine work and drive out the Water Spirit from the Lance."

Gauche never dreamed of doubting this diagnosis and cure. His savage mind fed on the things it had created. It appealed to him as being extremely logical that the Water Spirit should grieve over the wounded boat and should torment some Assiniboin warrior until an undamaged boat was brought to keep company with the broken one. He left the tent to send men after the hidden craft, and the moment the camp beheld him shouts were raised.

"What do they say?" asked Lander.

Bridger produced a bottle of fever medicine and forced several swallows down the sick man's throat.

"That will give him a jolt, I reckon," he grimly mused. "What are they saying? Oh, not much of anything. Some say the Lance is sick because he is a coward. Others say the tribe's medicine is against his being with Gauche's band and that the Aricaras would have been whipped if he hadn't been along. The most of 'em don't give a hang for the Lance— Ah."


Bridger frowned,

"One of the head men is asking Gauche if we are to be let go without paying a big price. He says we do not belong to the fort; that the Assiniboins would be fools if they didn't make a profit out of us. Now Gauche is talking but I can not hear him well— Buf'ler 'n' beaver! Hear 'em now! That means he's made 'em mad—that he's told 'em we're to go without paying any ransom. He's the boss an' his word is law—let 'em howl all they want to. There's just one thing that'll make him change his mind an' treat us like dirt."

"If we fail to cure this man," said Lander.

"Not by a dern sight. If his warriors don't find that keelboat. Talk to your medicine, boy, an' git it to working. They just got to find that boat."

He lifted a finger and turned to the sick man. Gauche glided in, his dark face scowling.

"Some of my men talk like fools," he growled. "Some of them will go hunting their uncles among the spirits. They forget I am the Left Hand, that I am Mina-Yougha the Knife-Holder and Wakontonga the Great Medicine. It comes of taking them to the white man's fort.

"The man McKenzie thinks to make any trade by treating my warriors as if they were chiefs. They forget I can make black medicine."

"Do they go to find the boat?" asked Bridger anxiously.

"They go. My white brother's medicine must have eyes like the eagle to see so far. He shall give me the medicine that drives out the Water Spirit and I will not ask for gifts from the canoe-that-walks-on-the-water. When does the big spirit leave the Lance?"

Bridger glanced at the flushed face of the sufferer and recalled cases he had treated among his trappers. His answer must be a gamble at the best, as he did not know how long it would require for the men to find the boat and work it up to the chantier. But Gauche was waiting, his small eyes demanding an immediate answer.

"When your young men come back and say the boat is in its place the spirit will leave him," Bridger calmly assured.

"Wait here. I will see a tent is made ready for you," said the chief. This time he was gone but a few minutes. They followed him to a tent pitched within twoscore feet of the sick man's. Motioning them to enter, he left them.

Inside was a kettle of water and some dried buffalo-meat. Before the entrance was fuel and two crotched sticks on which to hang the kettle. Bridger measured out some medicine into a wooden dish and diluted it with water and placed it near the door. Then he lighted a fire and hung the kettle.

"Going to try and cook that stuff?" asked Lander in huge disgust, pointing to the dried meat.

"No, no. That's good just as it is," said Bridger, catching up a strip and working his strong, white teeth through it. "Doesn't smell very bad, either."

"Ugh! Then why the hot water?"

"That sick cuss has fever an' chills. I've got to bu'st it up during the night. I give him a mighty strong dose—full strength. 'Nough to make a horse sweat. Now I must git to him again in 'bout two hours. I need lots of hot water. See those devils scowl at us."

The last, as a band of warriors paraded by the tent at a respectful distance and lowered blackly at the white men.

"Never a Injun had more power over so many men in this valley as Gauche has had over his band," ruminated Bridger. "But the old cuss has it right when he says he may lose his grip because of the men getting to the fort.

"The A. F. C. makes a heap of 'em when they bring in a good trade. They always start their liquor trade at dark an' keep it up all night. Old Gauche has a tin dipper which he never lets go of, an' he rushes in an' out an' gits beastly drunk, an' keeps so. When he's drunk his authority slips a trifle. His men, being drunk, say an' do things they wouldn't dast do before him when sober, an' they ain't made to suffer. This has been going on ever since the A. F. C. got active up here a few years ago.

"Gauche's men are beginning to wonder if he's much better'n they be. He's always held 'em in check by his reputation as a medicine man, poisoner and worker in magic. But the first time he led his band to Fort Union an' stopped outside to vermilion an' dress up an' hear the cannon shot off in his honor he was losing a bit of his power.

"Three years ago there wasn't a man in his band that would 'a' dared to give him any lip. Now he's kept everlastingly at it to think up games where he can run off some Blackfeet horses an' lift some Sioux hair so's they'll stick to him as a big chief.

"His trip down-river give his standing an awful jolt. They blame his medicine for the licking. He thought to make 'em forgit by corralling us an' gittin' a big ransom, but the Lance blocks that game. If the Lance dies the Lance's band will blame him, an' say he poisoned the cuss. He's just got to cure the Lance or have trouble. With his own men gitting sassy he can't afford to let that happen."

"If the Lance gets well he'll probably hold us for ransom just the same," observed Lander.

"He'll have to be crowded awful hard before he'd do that. First place, he'd be afraid of my medicine. Second place, he knows he can't go only 'bout so far before McKenzie would have to call a halt. But if McKenzie l'arns 'bout the beaver packs he won't call a halt till he's got his paws on 'em. I'm going to git out of this camp to-morrer if I have to take Gauche up in front of me."

Lander worried down some of the tough meat while Bridger ate heartily. Groups of warriors kept passing the tent and eying it malevolently. Bridger ignored them but Lander shifted his knife from boot to belt and would have felt more at ease had Gauche been with them. The chief, however, had disappeared.

As the darkness settled over the camp Bridger commented on Gauche's absence and explained it by saying:

"He's gone off alone somewheres to make new medicine. No good comes of shifting your medicines the way he does. Git a good one and stick to it It may git lame when it meets a stronger medicine; but if it averages up well that's all you can ask.

"Jim Baker swapped his medicine for a spotted Cheyenne pony once. Pony bu'sted a leg next day an' the Injun who'd took the medicine sneaked in an' stole Jim's rifle. Just plumb foolishness."

"But if he don't come back his men will get rough," said Lander.

"Sure to. But listen to me; no matter what they try, you keep calm an' act like you didn't know they was round. Time enough to make a fight when you see me letting out."

By degrees the camp quieted down and Lander believed they were to have a quiet night despite the chiefs absence, when a long howl down by the river bank caused him to start nervously. They were sitting before their tent. As the outcry continued Bridger rose and entered the tent and called Lander after him. Then he fixed the flap in place.

"It's hot and stuffy," complained Lander, feeling about and locating a buffalo-robe and sitting down.

"Just remember my orders. Don't show fight till I give the word," quietly replied Bridger.

Now the noise by the river increased in volume. Bridged informed:

"Some of the bucks have fetched liquor from Fort Union."

The two sat and waited while the bedlam drew nearer. Lander was puzzled in following the course of the hideous chorus. It would sweep toward them, then lessen in intensity, only to pass to one side with renewed volume. Bridger lighted his pipe and explained:

"They're feasting from lodge to lodge, giving rum to each tent and asking the people to join 'em. They'll be here by 'n' by."

"And shall we wait?"

"Best thing to do. Fetch in some of the dry wood. I'll make a fire an' open the smoke-hole. Leave the flap back. We'll give 'em a chance to see."

All this was bewildering to Lander, but if Jim Bridger did not know how to handle the situation no man in the mountains or in the Missouri Valley did. So he obeyed and Bridger soon had a small blaze burning inside the tent which brightly illuminated the interior. The flap was fastened wide open. Bridger then seated himself near the opening and motioned for Lander to sit by his side.

"Here they come," he warned. "Full of A. F. C. liquor an' natural cussedness. Don't pay any attention to 'em."

With a rush and an inferno of yells the dusky band swept around the tent and howled ferociously. Bridger smoked on placidly and between puffs talked to Lander, who sat with bowed head as if listening intently.

Several bucks ran up and thrust their heads through the opening but neither of the white men seemed to see them. One of the intruders reached in with his knife and slashed it within a few inches of Bridger's head but the veteran gave no heed to the threat. From the corner of his eye Lander beheld a knife-blade slice through the rear of the tent and nudged Bridger.

"Never mind little things like that," drawled Bridger. "They've got quite a few things they'll try. They don't just dare to kill us, but if they can make us show fight they'll dare anything."

Fascinated and with his heart galloping furiously, Lander watched the knife. Now it was reenforced by other knives and amid horrible yelling the back of the tent was slit to ribbons. Ferocious faces appeared in the openings and fairly spat at them. One man, in a delirium of rage, contented himself with thrusting his body half-way into the tent and stabbing and hacking the ground with his knife, all the time emitting the most devilish shrieks.

"Trying to scare us into stampeding," lazily informed Bridger. "Now sit tight an' don't budge a muscle. They won't shoot at us."

The warning was timely, else Lander would have leaped to his feet to sell his life dearly. Several bucks thrust their guns through the tent and discharged them into the fire, blowing coals and ashes all about

"That's why I made a blaze," Bridger cheerfully explained. "If it had been dark they'd 'a' hit us."

As if acting on a prearranged signal the band now rushed close to the front of the tent and ripped off a hide in order to expose more fully

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"Now sit tight an' don't budge a muscle."

the prisoners. With knives brandishing and guns pointing they crouched low and howled in the faces of the white men. Never by so much as a quiver of an eyelash did Bridger give evidence of knowing they were there.

Lander, by keeping his gaze lowered while he traced patterns with his finger on the ground, also managed to simulate entire indifference. There came one more volley into the coals of the fire, a final surging forward, a last crescendo of inarticulate cries, then as one the visitors fled back to the river bank and their cache of rum.

"That's over," mused Bridger with a sigh of relief, and now the sweat began dotting his forehead.

"Pawnees tried it on me a few years ago, but they didn't have any rum, just pure ugly, an' they didn't go as far as these fellows did. Fine for the sick man! Reckon I'll slip in an' give him a hot dose."

Not relishing to remain alone, Lander went with him. With coals from their fire they ignited a handful of dry twigs and by the light of these Bridger held up the patient's head and forced him to drink a dish of hot water, reenforced with medicine from the medicine-case.

The Lance showed no improvement that Lander could detect but Bridger nodded in approval:

"He's quit groaning. Ain't begun to sweat yet but we'll fetch him before morning."

During the night Bridger visited his patient several times to dose him with hot drinks. The Lance continued to rest easy although his skin remained hot and dry.

Near morning Gauche came to the white men's tent badly spent. He said he had been far from the river making medicine.

"I made two medicines," he explained, watching Bridger furtively. "One was for a war-party against the Blackfeet. I know where and when forty lodges with the white man Berger will pass down the river on the way to Fort Union. I shall send a talk to McKenzie to keep inside his fort. We do not want to hurt any of his people by mistake.

"My medicine tells me that if I wait until the Blackfeet have commenced drinking we can kill them all and run off all their horses. Then will the Assiniboins know my medicine is not sick like an old man."

"Your other medicine?" demanded Bridger suspiciously.

"I made that to make the Lance strong again."

"Then that is why my medicine did not cure him last night," sternly cried Bridger. "Burn or throw away that last medicine, or I will let the man die. Take the war-path and get a new name by killing Blackfeet, but stop opening your medicine-bag toward the Lance, or I will tell the Indians of your nation that you killed the Lance."

"My medicine wanted to help," muttered Gauche. "If it will not work with your medicine I will burn it."

He rose and, bending over the fire, secretly opened a skin pouch and reluctantly allowed the contents to drop into the flames. The whites caught the odor of burning feathers. Rising, Gauche asked:

"Now, when will the Water Spirit leave him?"

"Very soon. Some time before the sun goes down," assured Bridger.