The River's Warning

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The River's Warning  (1902) 
by Hamlin Garland

From Frank Leslie's Popular Magazine, 1902. Illustrated by R. Emmett Owen. This story was later included in Garland's 1923 collection, The Book of the American Indian.

"You see in those days," he explained, "in the war time with the game robbers, every boy was brought up to hate the whiteman who came into our land to kill off our buffalo. We heard that these men killed for money like the soldiers who came to fight us, and that made our fathers despise them. I have heard that the white boys were taught to hate us in the same way, and so when we met we fought. The whiteman considered us a new kind of big game to hunt and we considered him a wolf paid to rob and kill us. Those were dark days.

WE were visiting the camp of Big Elk on the Washetay and were lounging in the teepee of the Chief himself as the sun went down. All about us could be heard the laughter of the children and the low hum of women talking over their work. Dogs and babies struggled together on the sod, groups of old men were telling stories and the savory smell of new-baked bread was in the air.

The Indian is a social being and naturally dependent upon his fellows. He has no newspapers, no posters, no hand-bills. His news comes by word of mouth. therefore the "taciturn redman" does not exist. They are often superb talkers. dramatic, fluent, humorous. Laughter abounds in a camp. The men joke, tell stories with the point against themselves. ridicule those who boast and pass easily from the humorous to the very grave and mysterious in their faith. It is this loquacity, so necessary to the tribe, which makes it so hard for a redman to keep a secret.

In short, a camp of Indians is not so very unlike a country village where nothing but the local paper is read and where gossip is the surest way of finding out how the world is wagging. There are in both villages the same group of old men with stories of the past. of the war time. to whom the young men listen with ill-concealed impatience. When a stranger comes to town all the story—tellers rejoice and gird up their loins afresh. It is always therefore in the character of the eager listener that I visit a camp of red people.

Big Elk was not an old man, not yet sixty, but he was a story teller to whom everybody listened. for he had been an adventurous youth, impulsive and reckless, yet generous and kindly. He was a handsome old fellow natively, but he wore his cheap trousers so slouchily and his hat was so broken that at a distance in the day-time he resembled a tramp. That night as he sat bare-headed in his teepee with his blanket drawn around his loins, he was admirable. His head was large. and not unlike the pictures of Ben Franklin.

"You see in those days," he explained, "in the war time with the game robbers, every boy was brought up to hate the whiteman who came into our land to kill off our buffalo. We heard that these men killed for money like the soldiers who came to fight us, and that made our fathers despise them. I have heard that the white boys were taught to hate us in the same way, and so when we met we fought. The whiteman considered us a new kind of big game to hunt and we considered him a wolf paid to rob and kill us. Those were dark days.

"I was about twenty-two, it may he, when the old man agent first came to the East bank of the Canadian. and there sat down. My father went to see him, I remember, and came hack laughing. He said: 'He is a thin old man and can take his teeth out in pieces and put them back,' and this amused us all very much. To this day, as you know that is the sign for an agent among us to take out the upper teeth.

"We did not care for the agent at that time for we had plenty of buffalo meat and skins. Some of the camp went over and drew rations, it is true, but others did not go. I pretended to be very indifferent, but I was crazy to go, for I had never seen a whiteman's house and had never stood close to any whiteman. I heard the others tell of a great many wonderful things over there—and they said there were white women and children also.

I WAS ambitious to do a great deed in those days and had made myself the leader of some fourteen reckless young warriors like myself. I sat around and smoked in teepee, and one night I said: 'Brothers, let us go to the agency and steal the horses.'

"This made each one of them spring to his feet. 'Good, Good!' they said. 'Lead us. We will follow. That is worth doing.'

" 'The whitemen are few and cowardly,' I said. 'We can dash in and run off the horses, and then I think the old men will no longer call us boys. They will sing of us in their songs. We shall be counted in the council thereafter.'

"They were all eager to go and that night we slipped out of camp and saddled and rode away across the prairie which was fetlock deep in grass. Just the time for a raid. I felt like a big chief as I led my band in silence through the night. My bosom swelled with pride like a turkey-cock and my heart was fierce.

"We came in sight of the whiteman's village next day about noon, and veering a little to the north, I led my band into camp some miles above the agency. Here I made a talk to my band and said: 'Now you remain here and I will go alone and spy out the enemy and count his warriors and make plans for the battle. You can rest and grow strong while I am gone.' "

Big Elk's eyes twinkled as he resumed. "I thought I was a brave lad to do this thing and I rode away trying to look unconcerned. I was very curious to see the agency. I was like a coyote who comes into the camp to spy out the meat rocks." This remark caused a ripple of laughter, which Big Elk ignored. "As I forded the river I glanced right and left, counting the wooden teepees," (He made a sign of the roof)—"and I found them not so many as I had heard. As I rode up the bank I passed near a white woman and I looked at her with sharp eyes. I had heard that all white women looked white and sick-like. This I found was true. This woman had yellow hair and was thin and pale. She was not afraid of me—she did not seem to notice me and that surprised me.

"Then I passed by a big wooden teepee which was very dirty and smoky. I could see a man, all over black, who was pounding at something. He made a sound, clanks clank, cluck-clank, I stood at the door and looked in. It was all very wonderful. There were horses in there and this black man was putting iron moccasins on the horses' feet.

"An Arapahoe stood there and I said in signs: 'What do they do that for?' He replied: 'So that the horses can go over rocks without wearing off their hoofs.'

"That seemed to me a fine thing to do and I wanted my pony fixed that way. I asked where the agent was, and he pointed toward a tall pole on which fluttered a piece of red and white and blue cloth. I rode that way. There were some Cheyennes at the door, who asked me who I was and where I came from. I told them any old kind of story and said, 'Where is the agent?'

"They showed me a door and I went in. I had never been in a white man's teepee before and I noticed that the walls were strong and the door had iron on it. 'Ho!' I said, 'This looks like a trap. Easy to go in, hard to get out. I guess I will be very peaceful while I am in here."

"The agent was a little old man—I could have broken his back with a club as he sat with his back toward me. He paid no attention till a half-breed came up to me and said. 'What do you want?'

That night we saddled and rode away

As I thought of it all that night, I came to feel a great rage.

" 'I want to see the agent.'

" 'There he is, look at him,' and he laughed.

"The agent turned around and held out his hand. 'How how,' he said. What is your name?'

"His face was very kind, and I went to him and took his hand. His tongue I could not understand, but the half-breed helped me. We talked. I made up a story. 'I have heard you give away things to the Cheyennes,' I said, 'therefore I have come for my share.'

" 'We give to good red people,' he said. Then he talked sweetly to me. 'My people are Quakers,' he said. 'We have visions like the red people—'but we never go to war. Therefore has the Great Soldier, the Great Father at Washington, put me here. He does not want his children to fight. Thou are all brothers with different ways of life. I am here to help your people,' he said, 'and you must not go to war any more.'

"All that he said to me was good—it took all the fire and bitterness out of my heart and I shook hands and went away with my head bowed in thought. He was as kind as my own father.

"I had never seen such white people before; they were all kind. They fed me; they talked friendly with me. Not one was making a weapon. All were preparing to till the soil. They were kind to the beasts, and all the old Cheyennes I met said, 'We must do as this good old man says.'

I RODE home very slowly. I strutted no more. The stuffing was gone out of my chest. I dreaded to come back into my camp where my warriors were waiting for me. I spread my blanket and sat down without speaking, and though they were all curious to hear, they waited. for I smoked a pipe in sign of thought. At last I struck the ashes from my pipe and rose and said: 'Listen, brothers, I shall not go to war against the agency.'

"They were all astonished at this and some were instantly angry. 'Why not? What has changed your plan so suddenly?'

I rode home very slowly. I strutted no more.

" 'I have seen the agent; he is a good old man. Every one was pleasant to me. I have never seen this kind of white man. No one was thinking of war. They are all waiting to help the Cheyennes. Therefore my heart is changed—I will not go out against them.'

"My band was in a turmoil. One by one they cried out: 'You are a girl, a coyote with the heart of a sparrow.' Crow-Kill made a long speech: 'This is strange business. You talk us into making you chief; you lead us a long hard ride and now we are without food, while you, having your belly full of sweet food and a few presents in your hand, you want to quit and run home crying like a papoose.' "

The old story-teller was pitilessly dramatic in reciting the flood of ridicule and abuse poured out upon his head.

"Well, at last I said: 'Be silent! Perhaps you are right. Perhaps they deceived me. I will go again to-morrow and I will search closely into hidden things. Be patient until I have studied the ground once more."

"As I thought of it all that night I came to feel again a great rage—I began to say: "You are a fool. You have been blinded." I slept uneasily that night, but I was awake early and rode away to the agency. I remained all day among them. I talked with all the Cheyennes and in signs I conversed with the Arapahoe—all said the same thing. 'The agent does not lie. He is a good man. Nevertheless I looked the ground all over and at night I rode slowly back to the camp, "Again I said: 'I will not go to war against these people,' and again my warriors cried out against me. They were angrier than before. They called me a coward. 'We will go on without you. You are fitted only to carry a papoose and stir the meat in a pot,' they said.

"This filled me with wrath and I rose and said: 'You call me a woman! Who of you can show more skill in the trail? Who of you can draw a stronger bow or bring down bigger buffalo bulls? It is time for you to be silent. You know me—you know what I have done. Now listen; I am chief. To-morrow when the East gets light we will cross the river and attack the agency! I have spoken!"

"This pleased them very much and they listened and looked eagerly while I drew on the sand lines to show where the horse corral was and where the store house was, I detailed five men to go to the big fence and break the chain on the gate, while I led the rest of the band to break into the store house. Then I said: "Do not kill any one unless they come out against you with arms in their hands. Some of them gave me food; I should be sorry if they are hurt.'

"That night I could not sleep at all, for my heart was swollen big in my bosom. I knew I was doing wrong, but I could not stand the reproach of my followers.

"When morning came, the river was very high, and we looked at it in astonishment, for no clouds were to be seen. The banks were steep and the current swift, and there was no use attempting to carry out our plan that day.

" 'We must wait,' I said, and with black looks and aching bellies we waited all that day. 'The river will go down to-morrow,' I said to comfort them.

"We had only a little dried beef to eat and the river water to drink, and my warriors were very hungry.

"Who of you can show more skill on a trail?"

THAT second morning I was awake before dawn watching to see what the river had done during the night. Behold, it was an arrow's length higher than before! Then I said: "Friends, I am no liar. I started on this plan with a heart to carry it out, but my heart is deeply troubled. I did not sleep last night, for a pain in my breast kept me awake. I will not deceive you. I am glad the water is deeper this morning. I believe it is a sign from the Great Spirit that we are to turn back and leave these white people in peace.'

"But to this Crow-Kill and most of the others would not listen. 'If we go back now,' said he, 'everybody will laugh at us.'

"Quickly I turned upon him and cried out: 'Are you the boaster who has prattled of our plans? The camp will know nothing of our designs if you have not let your long tongue rattle on the outside of your mouth,' At this he fell silent and I went on. 'Now I will wait one more day. If the river is high to-morrow—the third day—then it will surely be a sign, and we must all bow to the will of the Great One who is above us.'

"To this they all agreed, for the sky was still clear and blue and the river was never known to rise on three successive days. They put their weapons in order, and I recounted my words of instruction as to the battle.

"I went aside a little from the camp that night, and took my watch on a little mound. The moon rose big in the East and made a shining trail over the water. When a boy I used to think, may be that trail led to the land of the spirits—and my heart was full of peaceful thoughts that night. I had no hate of anybody." The old man's voice was now deep and grave and no one laughed. "I prayed to the Great Spirit to send the water so that I could go back without shame. All night I heard the water whisper, whisper in the grass. It grew broader and broader and the moon passed over my head. I slept a little, and then I woke, for something cold had touched my heel. I looked down and in the grass at my feet lay the shining edge of the river.

"I leaped up and ran and touched the others. 'See,' I called out, 'the water has come to speak to you!' and I scooped water from the river's edge and flung it over them. 'The Great Spirit has spoken. All night I heard it whisper in the grass. It said: "Peace, peace. You must go to war no more." Come. We will ride away with clean hands and glad hearts.' "

As he finished his story Big Elk put away his pipe abstractedly, as though his mind yet dwelt on the past. His hearers were silent and very serious. He had touched the deepest chord in the redman's soul—the chord that vibrates when the Great Spirit speaks to them in a dream.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1940, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 82 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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