Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 7

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Chapter VII


"THEY'RE shootin' from up thar," said Baker pointing to the top of the opposite cliff. "Them are Siksika arrers, worst tribe o' th' Blackfeet. They're worse 'n th' Bloods, an' th' Bloods is worse'n th' Piegans, an' th' three tribes o' th' Blackfeet is worse'n Sioux or Aricaras in fightin' th' whites."

Then with awe in his voice he informed:

"Each tribe has medicine bundles what's most amazin' strong. They worship Napi, th' Old Man, an' he suttingly has took mighty good care of 'em so far. They're allers ag'in' us Americans, but they'll take their trade to H. B. posts fast 'nough. There ain't a fur company west o' th' Mississipp' that ain't tried to make peace with 'em an' git a chance at their furs. Bridger 'n' me have tried to ketch one o' th' devils alive to hold him an' tame him so's we could have some one to take a talk back to th' tribe. Lawdy massy, but there's rich pickin' for th' trader what gits in. Reckon McKenzie o' Fort Union will be th' first. He's got a white hunter what speaks their lingo. We've tried to git at 'em through some o' their neighbors, but they are allers fightin' th' Sioux, Cree, Assiniboins, Flatheads an' th' Snakes. I'd give a season's profits if I had one o' their medicine bundles." Then hastily, as if apologizing, "Not that my medicine ain't strong 'nough, but sometimes ye can git a new medicine that'll work for ye when yer old medicine gits tired."

"They seem to be very quiet. Perhaps they are gone," suggested Lander.

"Ye make me feel like I did afore I ever come to th' mountains," said Baker with a grim smile. "Folks back East allers use to be tellin' 'bout th' noble Injun! Gone away when they've got a fine chance to cut white throats? Sho! I'm plumb 'shamed of ye. I've lived among Injuns an' like some tribes. I know some I'd trust quicker'n I would most whites. Their medicines is powerful strong. Anybody oughter know that. But after all's said they are the most onsartain varmints in th' world. They ain't only half human. Younker, did ye ever see a human that ye'd fed an' treated to th' best fixin's in yer lodge who'd steal yer hosses when he come to go away? Wal, that's th' Injun's notion o' sayin', 'Much obleeged.' My idee is never to give 'em any gifts. Jest ask th' whole b'ilin' to a big feast an' raise half their ha'r. T'other half'll be mighty sharp set to keep peaceful for a while."

"I believe they've gone away," insisted Lander, who was in no mood to listen to Baker's eccentric observations.

"Some trick," mumbled Baker thoughtfully. "S'pose ye jest keep yer eyes to th' front while I look at my medicine."

With great contempt for Baker's superstitions Lander stared toward the river, seeing no sign of the enemy except the fringe of arrows sticking in the carcass of the buffalo. Baker faced toward the cliff behind him, produced his medicine bag, cautiously opened and closed it four times, and muttered:

"That oughter crack hell open 'bout a mile if it ain't lost its old kick. That last sculp, even if I didn't kill it, oughter give any honest medicine a heap o' guts. I'll b'ile some berries an' make it a real feast first chance I git."

Lander by this time had discovered he was very thirsty. And as Baker was absorbed with his heathenish rites, the river but a few yards away and no enemy in sight it seemed a simple matter to advance and fill a hat with water. Baker restored the medicine bag to the bosom of his hunting shirt and turned in time to behold Lander start for the river with a Blackfoot warrior dropping from the heavens to alight within a few feet of him. The long rawhide rope, dangling from the edge of the cliff, was immediately utilized by a second warrior.

"Trouble woke up!" yelled Baker, snatching up his rifle and shooting the warrior from the rope.

Clubbing his weapon he sprang to assist Lander, who by this time had drawn his knife from his boot. The Indian, although realizing he was lost unless instantly reinforced, leaped at Lander and attempted to run him through with a long butcher-knife.

"Load your rifle! I'll take care of this one," called out Lander, parrying the thrust.

Baker reversed his gun and proceeded to reload it, his eyes staring admiringly at the young man's unexpected display of talent.

"Rip him, boy!" he shouted. "Lawdy massy! But that medicine o' mine is shore kickin' an' a rarin'! Fetched 'em right outer th' sky." Then anxiously: "But some things can be overdone. No medicine oughter fetch in more trouble than a man can dish away."

He glanced apprehensively at the swinging rope, then back to the duelists circling about each other.

"Keep away, Baker! This is my game. Watch the rope! They crossed over from the other side. That's why they were still so long."

"Git after him," Baker anxiously urged. "He must have a good medicine, or he'd never come down here—Godfrey! Look out!"

The warrior suddenly shifted his tactics and with a series of lightning-like thrusts took the offensive. Baker cocked his rifle but dared not fire at the dodging figures. He called on Lander to look out, to leap to one side; and then came the miracle. The warrior's knife leaped from his hand and described a glittering arc that ended in the racing river, and he went down with a gush of blood from his throat. Lander, weak with excitement and his exertions, stood trembling and staring at his work.

Baker caught him by the arm and drew him in under the cliff, loudly bawling:

"I'll trade ye a dozen packs o' prime beaver for yer medicine!"

A howl of rage came from the top of the cliff, while futile arrows rattled about the opening of the alcove. But there was no further attempt to descend the rope.

"Of course it was my medicine what fetched 'em down," declared Baker, fearful lest his praise of Lander's medicine might incite jealousy. "When I open that bag four times an' p'int it towards a Injun he's pretty nigh bein' my meat. Wish I could git out there an' sculp 'em!"

"That can wait," snarled Lander, overwrought by his experience and his disgust at a practise commonplace among mountain men. "They must be coming in a bunch. Hear them yelling?"

"It's a small band or they'd been here afore this," growled Baker, wrinkling his brows. "Reckon they're in more trouble. My medicine has sot a trap for 'em. Reckon Bridger's come up. No, there ain't no sounds o' guns."

The clamor on top of the cliff now receded although still audible. Baker pricked his ears and from the ferocious chorus began to deduce the truth.

"Crows jumped 'em!" he suddenly roared,

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"Keep away, Baker! This is my game."

darting from under the cliff and pausing to tear off the two scalps. "Come on! They're ridin' down th' south side o' th' cliff to the plain."

Securing his gun Lander raced after him. They rounded the end of the cliff and came out into the broken country. The river side of the cliff was less than a hundred feet high, and already the Blackfeet had withdrawn from it and were retiring in a compact body and repulsing the attacks of a much larger body of Indians.

"I know'd they was Crows by their yells. See what large bows they use. Make 'em stout with elk or bighorn an' rattlesnake skins. There's mighty good medicine in a snake skin if ye know th' right songs an' can git on th' good side of it. But if ye fail it'll turn on ye like a rattler."

"What shall we do? Go help the Crows or take our mules and ride for it?"

"Stick along here. Crows won't hurt us. They'll take yer mule an' mine if they find it. If we should run away they'd take both guns. Most amazin' thieves."

The two watched the haughty Blackfeet skilfully continue their retreat. Two of their warriors fell before the murderous arrow fire, but were almost immediately scooped up and thrown across their ponies. The Crows, superb horsemen, rushed them from all sides, riding low like Comanches with only the tip of a moccasin showing. But although outnumbering their hereditary enemies, the Crows accomplished nothing more than to slay or severely wound three men and to drive them all away from the river. Baker returned to the river and built a fire.

He began cooking buffalo meat and urged Lander to eat. "They'll gobble down everything when they git here," he warned.

Lander was not hungry. The spectacle of the two dead warriors sickened him.

A rumbling clatter of hoofs and much demoniac yelling and the white men were surrounded by the Crows. The first to arrive leaped to the ground and began feasting on the buffalo. The leader, a weathered wisp of a man, whose hair and skin looked dead but whose eyes were two fires, walked up to Lander and yanked the rifle from his hand. Lander reached to his boot.

"Keep away from that knife!" snarled Baker. "Jest smile."

The leader wheeled on Baker and reached out to appropriate his rifle. The mountain man laughed in his face and taunted:

"Black Arrow can not take scalps, so he must take his friend's rifle."

The Indian drew back, then recognized Baker and sullenly thrust out his hand in greeting and said:

"My young men need guns. But you are our friend. We will take only one gun. That shall pay for saving your lives."

At this Baker became all Indian. He slapped his breast haughtily and in the tongue of the Absaroke said:

"Chief of the Sparrowhawk people, look up the river bank. You will find two dead Blackfoot dogs there. Here are their scalps. Why does Black Arrow come riding in like a foolish Indian raising the buffalo and scaring his white friend's game away? Black Arrow has spoiled our hunting just as the killing was beginning. Why did he not keep away till we had killed more Blackfeet? Shall we give him a gun for that?"

The dead Blackfeet and their scalps now flaunted in the chiefs face carried pardon for the trapper's insolence. The Absaroke, or Crows, could forgive much in a man who had killed two of their terrible foes. There was a rush to examine the slain warriors, and when it was found that one was killed by a knife, although the two loaded rifles had not made that necessary, the chief reflected the respectful attitude of his followers when he asked:

"Why use the knife when you had guns?"

"Why waste lead on those dogs?" countered Baker. "We need our rifles for game, not for killing Blackfeet. My young brother is mighty knife-fighter." Then in English. "Where d'ye l'arn th' knife, younker?"

"Papa Clair."

"Loaded an' primed!" Then in Absaroke: "There is no warrior in your band who can touch him with a knife without losing blood. He is big medicine. Stand your best man before him. If he brings blood without losing blood you shall keep the rifle. If my young brother's medicine is the stronger you shall not take the rifle."

To Lander and scarcely able to conceal his anxiety he said: "I've told 'em they ain't got a man that can tech ye with a knife without bein' blooded. If Papa Clair l'arned ye th' knife ye oughter be prime. Have I spoke too strong?"

"I don't think so," Lander modestly replied. "Papa Clair said I knew all he knew."

"Glory be! Don't kill. Jest prove ye're best man." To the chief: "Got any braves who believe in their medicine?"

Black Arrow scowled at the insolence of the challenge and yelled to his men. One of them, wearing much red cloth as a fringe for his leggings, leaped from his pony and pulling his knife ran toward Lander. With a most savage expression on his haughty face he held the knife upright before his eyes, then lowered it and contemptuously addressed Lander:

"He says he'll cut th' sacred totem o' th' Crows (the Swastika cross) on yer face, then cut yer throat. How's yer medicine?"

"I don't know," muttered Lander, inwardly flinching before the warrior's ferocious bearing. "But I know what Papa Clair has told me."

"Then ye know 'nough to give him his needin's with one hand tied to yer foot. He's waitin'. Git after him an' when they ain't looking' I'll open my medicine bag at him. If our two medicines can't fetch him nothin' short o' th' devil can."

Lander had no heart for the business. He resented Baker's forcing him into the trial. He had fought and killed one Indian to save his life. But this contest, merely to prove his superiority, was not to his taste. However, the brave was growing impatient and sneering openly as he believed he read the other's hesitancy. With a flash of his hand Lander drew Papa Clair's gift knife and stood on guard.

The Indians exclaimed in admiration as they beheld the weapon. The haft was embellished with much silver of Spanish workmanship and there was a fretwork of the white metal on the upper half of the big blade.

Lander's opponent endeavored to rush in and bewilder his man with repeated onslaughts. His point streaked back and forth, all but ripping the skin above the eyes. For a minute Lander worked only on the defensive. Then anger grew up in his heart and calmed his nerves and he stopped giving ground and began advancing. Each forward step was taken with a precision that suddenly stilled the chorus of jeers. And as he advanced he formed his purpose and drove his man toward the river. His blade parried and menaced but refrained from touching the painted breast, although it was obvious to the spectators it could have been fleshed to the hilt several times.

The Indian suspected he was being played with and sought to keep clear of the river, but each attempt to work one side resulted in a vicious slash of the glittering steel that fenced him in. The cries of his friends now told the warrior he was on the brink of the bank and he made a last desperate rally and flung himself forward recklessly. Instantly the stabbing knife was pushed to one side and lifting his hand Lander struck heavily with the haft, the blow falling full between the scowling eyes and knocking the man into the icy current. Lander had had his man at his mercy and had vanquished him without losing or drawing a drop of blood.

"He has big knife medicine," reluctantly admitted Black Arrow. Then to Lander he spoke rapidly. Baker interpreted:

"He says if ye will come to live with him in th' valley o 'th' Big Horn he'll give ye a big lodge an' his darter for a wife. Th' Crows is allers fond o' havin' white men live with 'em. He says he'll let ye handle th' Crow trade in buf'ler robes an' bighorn leather. Th' robes is mighty fine an' it's a chance to trade for a mighty fine profit that most old mountain men would jump at. If I wa'n't tied up with th' Snakes I'd jump at it myself."

"Tell him I am with Jim Bridger, that I want him to bring the Crow trade to Bridger on Green River."

"Jim Bridger won't hold ye to yer bargain when he knows ye can better yerself. Crow women are mighty likely-lookin' women."

"Tell him what I say. Sometimes I'll visit him and teach his young men how to handle the knife."

Baker choked back a laugh and muttered:

"Lawdy massy! First trip out here an' ye're puttin' on more airs then Kit Carson or Jim Bridger hisself." Then gravely:

"But that's th' way to hoot when yer medicine is good an' strong. Makes yer medicine feel proud an' keen to work for ye, too. I'll tell him what ye say. Don't do any hurt to make a friend o' him an' git first whack at his trade. They've been carryin' th' most of it to Fort Union."

Black Arrow was disappointed at Lander's refusal to join his tribe, but readily promised to take a good trade to the Green River rendezvous, but vowed he would deliver it to none but Lander. The warrior who had been knocked into the river now came up to Lander with as the latter believed, hostile intentions. There was a knob the size of an egg between his eyes. Baker was in time with his warning:

"Th' critter don't mean no harm."

The Indian gestured for permission to examine the knife that had conquered him. It was a beautiful weapon, and the brave saved his pride by attributing his defeat to the medicine in it rather than to Lander's skill. He gazed at it longingly, then led up his pony and offered to trade. Lander might have been tempted as the animal was far superior to the average run of horse-flesh owned by mountain men, but Baker warned:

"Don't swap yer medicine. Ye're big guns with 'em now. I'll tell 'em th' medicine won't work for no one but yerself. Ye're lucky if yer medicine ain't mad at ye for even thinkin' o' doin' sech a thing."

So Lander refused, and Baker softened it down in interpreting it, then drew Black Arrow to one side and talked with him some minutes. Coming back to Lander he explained:

"Chief says them Blackfeet, 'bout a hundred 'n' fifty of 'em, are jest back from visitin' their friends, th' 'Rapahos, an' on their way to a big band now campin' in Jackson's Hole near th' Three Tetons. Says th' big band held up a H. B. trader an' took a British flag an' forty packs o' beaver from him. If these Crows had put up a real fight they could 'a' wiped out this small band, as there must be more'n two hundred here. But it was Injun style—gallop lickety-split, shoot arrers while t'other side run away, then quit an' never git down to real business. Th' Blackfeet will fetch their friends back to chaw th' Crows up."

Several young bucks who had followed the river down now began riding back and forth and waving their robes. Black Arrow leaped on his pony and rode up a low bluff. The bucks had signaled "enemy."

Lander mounted his mule and followed the chief. Far in the east was dust. Black Arrow's sharp old eye studied it for a minute; then he turned to Lander and drew his hand across his forehead in the sign for a hat, or white men. Lander was obtuse and the chief touched his hand and then passed it up and down his arms and body. Lander understood this: "All white," and yelled down to Jim Baker:

"Bet it's Bridger's outfit. Chief says they're white men."

Baker repeated this to the Indians surrounding him, and instantly the war-like preparations ceased. The bucks now came tearing up the river making the sign of the hat. As Black Arrow rejoined his men there was a flash of action caused by a brave bringing in the mule Baker had concealed before surprising Lander at the river. Baker appropriated the animal without bothering to explain, and the warrior pulled an ax.

Lander drove his mule between the two and pulled his knife. Black Arrow intervened in time to prevent a tragedy. Explanations followed and peace was restored just as the scouts came up to announce the supposed enemy was some thirty white men, riding as fast as their weary mounts could bring them.

Advising Black Arrow to remain where he was and keep all his men with him Baker motioned to Dander and rode down the river to meet their friends. At the head of the band were Bridger and Papa Clair. Lander, knowing the strength of the outfit, saw that a dozen or more men had been left behind, doubtless to bring up the pack animals.

"My young friend!" joyfully called out Papa Clair, swinging up his hand. "We heard shots! We feared! We rode!"

"Howdy, Jim," sang out Baker.

"Howdy, Jim. Did you find him, or did he find you?" asked Bridger, nodding coldly toward Lander.

"Found each other. Had a muss with Blackfeet. He shot one afore th' scrimmage. Then I got one with my old gun, an' he got another with his knife. Big medicine in that knife o' his'n if any one asks ye. Then Black Arrer with his Crows come along an' drove th' skunks off. Now th' old cuss is back there waitin' to be told he's a big Injun."

"Lander, you've held up my outfit two days," sternly informed Bridger. "You're too much trouble to suit me. I'm sending an express back to St. Louis. Make ready to go with it."

"I stay in the mountains if I ever get into them, Mr. Bridger. If I can't work for you perhaps I can work for some other outfit. If no one will hire me I'll turn free trader."

"Free trader?" scoffed Bridger. "You a trader? Where's your outfit? If you had any goods who'd trade with you? You're crazy."

"M'sieu Bridger, but you are speaking to my young friend," gently remonstrated Papa Clair.

"You can't fix a fight on me, Papa, if you try for a year. Lander's all right but he's out of place up here. When we stopped for two days and searched for him we were giving the A. F. C. that much advantage in trying to make the rendezvous ahead of us. It won't do."

"Ye got plenty o' time, Jim," drawled Baker. "Then ag'in ye ain't goin' to lose no trade o' th' younker. He licked one o' Black Arrer's smartest Injuns in a knife fight an' th' chief wants to take him for his son. Failin' in that he says he'll fetch his trade to Green River an' turn it to th' younker, which means to ye. Hard to beat them Crows for robes made gay with porcupine quills an' fancy sewin'. Reckon he'd clean up all th' Crow trade if he took a outfit an' went an' lived with 'em."

Papa Clair's white mustaches went up as he smiled in keen enjoyment. Bridger's face broke into a wide grin and he whimsically surrendered:

"Reckon the express can git along without you, Lander. Only after this either keep ahead, or behind, or with us. Now we'll have a talk with the chief. Come along, Baker. The rest of you better stay back here till I've smoked with the old cuss."

The men gathered around Lander and eagerly listened to his experience. That he had killed two Blackfeet was enough to erase his name from the roll of greenhorns, and even Porker treated him civilly. Long Simons acted most peculiar however. He kept in the background, yet conspicuous because of his red belt, and alternated between deep chuckles and heavy frowns. Lander liked him, and leaving his mule went to him, remarking:

"You don't seem very glad to see me back."

"Been trailin' ye ever since ye failed to turn up on th' second night. Jest now I've got some trouble an' some fun of my own on my hands. Stick round an' ye'll see what I mean."

"Here come the two Jims," answered Papa Clair.

"Everything is all right, men," called out Bridger. "We'll camp beyond the Crows. No quarreling, remember. They'll treat us right if we treat them right. What now, Baker?"

The last as Baker gave a snort of anger and slid from his mule, threw aside his rifle and discarded his belt. Lander was amazed to behold Long Simons removing his red belt and weapons and throwing them on the ground, his broad face grinning sheepishly.

"Holy blue! Are they crazy?" gasped Papa Clair.

"What's the matter, Jim?" demanded Bridger, his gray eyes twinkling.

"Jest a sort of a childish game. This lank, long perrarie dog let on at th' last rendezvous that my fightin' with grizzlies, when I killed two with my knife, was all a bundle o' lies. I swore I'd make him eat his words if he ever dared come back to th' mountains. An' I'm goin' to do it."

"Talk is cheap," sneered Long Simons. "Ye've kicked half-starved Injuns round so long that ye forgit white men don't crawl when ye bleat. Come along. I'll show ye one grizzly ye can't lick. Afore I'm done with ye, ye'll be tellin' th' boys th' truth. What ye killed with a knife was only two sick wolves."

"No biting or gouging," commanded Bridger. "This is no time for fun. After this all hoss-play must be finished at St. Charles."

"He won't have nothin' more to settle after I git through with him," declared Long Simons as he stripped off his shirt. "His troubles is about to be ended. Come to these arms, ye leetle grizzly tamer."

With a roar of anger Baker jumped into him. The battles Lander had witnessed at St. Charles were tame affairs compared with this. With hoots of joy the mountain men formed a wide ring. Some of the Indians galloped up and to them Bridger explained that two of his men were playing a game. The two combatants discarded all finesse and came together with the intention of sticking until only one was able to stand.

Lander held his breath at the terrific punishment each inflicted and received. It seemed impossible that the human frame could survive such assaults. Baker was an inch shorter than Simons and quite a few pounds lighter. But his technique was that of a panther, a tremendous driving power that allowed his antagonist no breathing spell; an implacable hurricane that would rage until there was nothing left to assail. Long Simons physically was far above the average caliber of man, and grunted with joy in finding a full fight was brought to him.

From the moment they clashed it was almost impossible to distinguish them. They became a revolving mass, two dynamos that whirled over on the ground like a fly-wheel. When they came erect it was only to fall again.

There was no waiting, no cautious testing of the other's strength. Each was confident of his own might, and sought to terminate the contest as speedily as possible. There was no defensive against offensive. It was offensive against offensive, two separate plants confidently conceived and meeting in furious collision.

"Jeer-ru-sa-leem!" screamed Rummy as some invisible force seemed to hurl the two apart and then bring them smashing together. The Indians, now generally attracted, watched with glittering eyes and low grunts of amazement.

Inside of five minutes of incessant, whirlwind tactics both were practically stripped to the buff. Suddenly Long Simons' arm slipped under Baker's arm and up over the shoulder with the broad palm smothering the face and pressing backward.

"Give in, ye babby bear fighter!" gasped Simons.

Lander realized that with a bit more pressure Baker's neck would break should he refuse to release the pressure of his own left arm. Back rocked his head, his wind shut off by the hand plastered over mouth and nose. Then his two fists came together on Simons' throat, each traveling only a few inches. The big fellow relaxed his terrible hold, tottered and fell with blood streaming from his mouth and nose.

He groaned and rolled over on his back, glared up into Baker's wild face and tried to get back on his feet.

"Was them babby b'ars?" faintly asked Baker, his bloody knuckles drawn back for a final blow.

Long Simons wet his hot lips and pumped for air. His voice sounded ridiculously small for so large a man as he weakly replied:

"Reg'lar full grown 'uns, Jim. Extry big 'uns. Belt's on th' ground some'ers."