We began our journey for the frontier settlements on the 27th of August, and certainly a more ragamuffin cavalcade never was seen on the banks of the Upper Arkansas. Of the large and fine horses with which we had left the frontier in the spring, not one remained; we had supplied their place with the rough breed of the prairie, as hardy as mules and almost as ugly; we had also with us a number of the latter detestable animals. In spite of their strength and hardihood, several of the band were already worn down by hard service and hard fare, and as none of them were shod, they were fast becoming foot-sore. Every horse and mule had a cord of twisted bull-hide coiled around his neck, which by no means added to the beauty of his appearance. Our saddles and all our equipments were by this time lamentably worn and battered, and our weapons had become dull and rusty. The dress of the riders fully corresponded with the dilapidated furniture of our horses, and of the whole party none made a more disreputable appearance than my friend and I. Shaw had for an upper garment an old red flannel shirt, flying open in front and belted around him like a frock; while I, in absence of other clothing, was attired in a time-worn suit of leather.
Thus, happy and careless as so many beggars, we crept slowly from day to day along the monotonous banks of the Arkansas. Tete Rouge gave constant trouble, for he could never catch his mule, saddle her, or indeed do anything else without assistance. Every day he had some new ailment, real or imaginary, to complain of. At one moment he would be woebegone and disconsolate, and the next he would be visited with a violent flow of spirits, to which he could only give vent by incessant laughing, whistling, and telling stories. When other resources failed, we used to amuse ourselves by tormenting him; a fair compensation for the trouble he cost us. Tete Rouge rather enjoyed being laughed at, for he was an odd compound of weakness, eccentricity, and good-nature. He made a figure worthy of a painter as he paced along before us, perched on the back of his mule, and enveloped in a huge buffalo-robe coat, which some charitable person had given him at the fort. This extraordinary garment, which would have contained two men of his size, he chose, for some reason best known to himself, to wear inside out, and he never took it off, even in the hottest weather. It was fluttering all over with seams and tatters, and the hide was so old and rotten that it broke out every day in a new place. Just at the top of it a large pile of red curls was visible, with his little cap set jauntily upon one side, to give him a military air. His seat in the saddle was no less remarkable than his person and equipment. He pressed one leg close against his mule’s side, and thrust the other out at an angle of 45 degrees. His pantaloons were decorated with a military red stripe, of which he was extremely vain; but being much too short, the whole length of his boots was usually visible below them. His blanket, loosely rolled up into a large bundle, dangled at the back of his saddle, where he carried it tied with a string. Four or five times a day it would fall to the ground. Every few minutes he would drop his pipe, his knife, his flint and steel, or a piece of tobacco, and have to scramble down to pick them up. In doing this he would contrive to get in everybody’s way; and as the most of the party were by no means remarkable for a fastidious choice of language, a storm of anathemas would be showered upon him, half in earnest and half in jest, until Tete Rouge would declare that there was no comfort in life, and that he never saw such fellows before.
Only a day or two after leaving Bent’s Fort Henry Chatillon rode forward to hunt, and took Ellis along with him. After they had been some time absent we saw them coming down the hill, driving three dragoon-horses, which had escaped from their owners on the march, or perhaps had given out and been abandoned. One of them was in tolerable condition, but the others were much emaciated and severely bitten by the wolves. Reduced as they were we carried two of them to the settlements, and Henry exchanged the third with the Arapahoes for an excellent mule.
On the day after, when we had stopped to rest at noon, a long train of Santa Fe wagons came up and trailed slowly past us in their picturesque procession. They belonged to a trader named Magoffin, whose brother, with a number of other men, came over and sat down around us on the grass. The news they brought was not of the most pleasing complexion. According to their accounts, the trail below was in a very dangerous state. They had repeatedly detected Indians prowling at night around their camps; and the large party which had left Bent’s Fort a few weeks previous to our own departure had been attacked, and a man named Swan, from Massachusetts, had been killed. His companions had buried the body; but when Magoffin found his grave, which was near a place called the Caches, the Indians had dug up and scalped him, and the wolves had shockingly mangled his remains. As an offset to this intelligence, they gave us the welcome information that the buffalo were numerous at a few days’ journey below.
On the next afternoon, as we moved along the bank of the river, we saw the white tops of wagons on the horizon. It was some hours before we met them, when they proved to be a train of clumsy ox-wagons, quite different from the rakish vehicles of the Santa Fe traders, and loaded with government stores for the troops. They all stopped, and the drivers gathered around us in a crowd. I thought that the whole frontier might have been ransacked in vain to furnish men worse fitted to meet the dangers of the prairie. Many of them were mere boys, fresh from the plow, and devoid of knowledge and experience. In respect to the state of the trail, they confirmed all that the Santa Fe men had told us. In passing between the Pawnee Fork and the Caches, their sentinels had fired every night at real or imaginary Indians. They said also that Ewing, a young Kentuckian in the party that had gone down before us, had shot an Indian who was prowling at evening about the camp. Some of them advised us to turn back, and others to hasten forward as fast as we could; but they all seemed in such a state of feverish anxiety, and so little capable of cool judgment, that we attached slight weight to what they said. They next gave us a more definite piece of intelligence; a large village of Arapahoes was encamped on the river below. They represented them to be quite friendly; but some distinction was to be made between a party of thirty men, traveling with oxen, which are of no value in an Indian’s eyes and a mere handful like ourselves, with a tempting band of mules and horses. This story of the Arapahoes therefore caused us some anxiety.
Just after leaving the government wagons, as Shaw and I were riding along a narrow passage between the river bank and a rough hill that pressed close upon it, we heard Tete Rouge’s voice behind us. “Hallo!” he called out; “I say, stop the cart just for a minute, will you?”
“What’s the matter, Tete?” asked Shaw, as he came riding up to us with a grin of exultation. He had a bottle of molasses in one hand, and a large bundle of hides on the saddle before him, containing, as he triumphantly informed us, sugar, biscuits, coffee, and rice. These supplies he had obtained by a stratagem on which he greatly plumed himself, and he was extremely vexed and astonished that we did not fall in with his views of the matter. He had told Coates, the master-wagoner, that the commissary at the fort had given him an order for sick-rations, directed to the master of any government train which he might meet upon the road. This order he had unfortunately lost, but he hoped that the rations would not be refused on that account, as he was suffering from coarse fare and needed them very much. As soon as he came to camp that night Tete Rouge repaired to the box at the back of the cart, where Delorier used to keep his culinary apparatus, took possession of a saucepan, and after building a little fire of his own, set to work preparing a meal out of his ill-gotten booty. This done, he seized on a tin plate and spoon, and sat down under the cart to regale himself. His preliminary repast did not at all prejudice his subsequent exertions at supper; where, in spite of his miniature dimensions, he made a better figure than any of us. Indeed, about this time his appetite grew quite voracious. He began to thrive wonderfully. His small body visibly expanded, and his cheeks, which when we first took him were rather yellow and cadaverous, now dilated in a wonderful manner, and became ruddy in proportion. Tete Rouge, in short, began to appear like another man.
Early in the afternoon of the next day, looking along the edge of the horizon in front, we saw that at one point it was faintly marked with pale indentations, like the teeth of a saw. The lodges of the Arapahoes, rising between us and the sky, caused this singular appearance. It wanted still two or three hours of sunset when we came opposite their camp. There were full two hundred lodges standing in the midst of a grassy meadow at some distance beyond the river, while for a mile around and on either bank of the Arkansas were scattered some fifteen hundred horses and mules grazing together in bands, or wandering singly about the prairie. The whole were visible at once, for the vast expanse was unbroken by hills, and there was not a tree or a bush to intercept the view.
Here and there walked an Indian, engaged in watching the horses. No sooner did we see them than Tete Rouge begged Delorier to stop the cart and hand him his little military jacket, which was stowed away there. In this he instantly invested himself, having for once laid the old buffalo coat aside, assumed a most martial posture in the saddle, set his cap over his left eye with an air of defiance, and earnestly entreated that somebody would lend him a gun or a pistol only for half an hour. Being called upon to explain these remarkable proceedings, Tete Rouge observed that he knew from experience what effect the presence of a military man in his uniform always had upon the mind of an Indian, and he thought the Arapahoes ought to know that there was a soldier in the party.
Meeting Arapahoes here on the Arkansas was a very different thing from meeting the same Indians among their native mountains. There was another circumstance in our favor. General Kearny had seen them a few weeks before, as he came up the river with his army, and renewing his threats of the previous year, he told them that if they ever again touched the hair of a white man’s head he would exterminate their nation. This placed them for the time in an admirable frame of mind, and the effect of his menaces had not yet disappeared. I was anxious to see the village and its inhabitants. We thought it also our best policy to visit them openly, as if unsuspicious of any hostile design; and Shaw and I, with Henry Chatillon, prepared to cross the river. The rest of the party meanwhile moved forward as fast as they could, in order to get as far as possible from our suspicious neighbors before night came on.
The Arkansas at this point, and for several hundred miles below, is nothing but a broad sand-bed, over which a few scanty threads of water are swiftly gliding, now and then expanding into wide shallows. At several places, during the autumn, the water sinks into the sand and disappears altogether. At this season, were it not for the numerous quicksands, the river might be forded almost anywhere without difficulty, though its channel is often a quarter of a mile wide. Our horses jumped down the bank, and wading through the water, or galloping freely over the hard sand-beds, soon reached the other side. Here, as we were pushing through the tall grass, we saw several Indians not far off; one of them waited until we came up, and stood for some moments in perfect silence before us, looking at us askance with his little snakelike eyes. Henry explained by signs what we wanted, and the Indian, gathering his buffalo robe about his shoulders, led the way toward the village without speaking a word.
The language of the Arapahoes is so difficult, and its pronunciations so harsh and guttural, that no white man, it is said, has ever been able to master it. Even Maxwell the trader, who has been most among them, is compelled to resort to the curious sign language common to most of the prairie tribes. With this Henry Chatillon was perfectly acquainted.
Approaching the village, we found the ground all around it strewn with great piles of waste buffalo meat in incredible quantities. The lodges were pitched in a very wide circle. They resembled those of the Dakota in everything but cleanliness and neatness. Passing between two of them, we entered the great circular area of the camp, and instantly hundreds of Indians, men, women and children, came flocking out of their habitations to look at us; at the same time, the dogs all around the village set up a fearful baying. Our Indian guide walked toward the lodge of the chief. Here we dismounted; and loosening the trail-ropes from our horses’ necks, held them securely, and sat down before the entrance, with our rifles laid across our laps. The chief came out and shook us by the hand. He was a mean-looking fellow, very tall, thin-visaged, and sinewy, like the rest of the nation, and with scarcely a vestige of clothing. We had not been seated half a minute before a multitude of Indians came crowding around us from every part of the village, and we were shut in by a dense wall of savage faces. Some of the Indians crouched around us on the ground; others again sat behind them; others, stooping, looked over their heads; while many more stood crowded behind, stretching themselves upward, and peering over each other’s shoulders, to get a view of us. I looked in vain among this multitude of faces to discover one manly or generous expression; all were wolfish, sinister, and malignant, and their complexions, as well as their features, unlike those of the Dakota, were exceedingly bad. The chief, who sat close to the entrance, called to a squaw within the lodge, who soon came out and placed a wooden bowl of meat before us. To our surprise, however, no pipe was offered. Having tasted of the meat as a matter of form, I began to open a bundle of presents—tobacco, knives, vermilion, and other articles which I had brought with me. At this there was a grin on every countenance in the rapacious crowd; their eyes began to glitter, and long thin arms were eagerly stretched toward us on all sides to receive the gifts.
The Arapahoes set great value upon their shields, which they transmit carefully from father to son. I wished to get one of them; and displaying a large piece of scarlet cloth, together with some tobacco and a knife, I offered them to any one who would bring me what I wanted. After some delay a tolerable shield was produced. They were very anxious to know what we meant to do with it, and Henry told them that we were going to fight their enemies, the Pawnees. This instantly produced a visible impression in our favor, which was increased by the distribution of the presents. Among these was a large paper of awls, a gift appropriate to the women; and as we were anxious to see the beauties of the Arapahoe village Henry requested that they might be called to receive them. A warrior gave a shout as if he were calling a pack of dogs together. The squaws, young and old, hags of eighty and girls of sixteen, came running with screams and laughter out of the lodges; and as the men gave way for them they gathered round us and stretched out their arms, grinning with delight, their native ugliness considerably enhanced by the excitement of the moment.
Mounting our horses, which during the whole interview we had held close to us, we prepared to leave the Arapahoes. The crowd fell back on each side and stood looking on. When we were half across the camp an idea occurred to us. The Pawnees were probably in the neighborhood of the Caches; we might tell the Arapahoes of this and instigate them to send down a war party and cut them off, while we ourselves could remain behind for a while and hunt the buffalo. At first thought this plan of setting our enemies to destroy one another seemed to us a masterpiece of policy; but we immediately recollected that should we meet the Arapahoe warriors on the river below they might prove quite as dangerous as the Pawnees themselves. So rejecting our plan as soon as it presented itself, we passed out of the village on the farther side. We urged our horses rapidly through the tall grass which rose to their necks. Several Indians were walking through it at a distance, their heads just visible above its waving surface. It bore a kind of seed as sweet and nutritious as oats; and our hungry horses, in spite of whip and rein, could not resist the temptation of snatching at this unwonted luxury as we passed along. When about a mile from the village I turned and looked back over the undulating ocean of grass. The sun was just set; the western sky was all in a glow, and sharply defined against it, on the extreme verge of the plain, stood the numerous lodges of the Arapahoe camp.
Reaching the bank of the river, we followed it for some distance farther, until we discerned through the twilight the white covering of our little cart on the opposite bank. When we reached it we found a considerable number of Indians there before us. Four or five of them were seated in a row upon the ground, looking like so many half-starved vultures. Tete Rouge, in his uniform, was holding a close colloquy with another by the side of the cart. His gesticulations, his attempts at sign-making, and the contortions of his countenance, were most ludicrous; and finding all these of no avail, he tried to make the Indian understand him by repeating English words very loudly and distinctly again and again. The Indian sat with his eye fixed steadily upon him, and in spite of the rigid immobility of his features, it was clear at a glance that he perfectly understood his military companion’s character and thoroughly despised him. The exhibition was more amusing than politic, and Tete Rouge was directed to finish what he had to say as soon as possible. Thus rebuked, he crept under the cart and sat down there; Henry Chatillon stopped to look at him in his retirement, and remarked in his quiet manner that an Indian would kill ten such men and laugh all the time.
One by one our visitors rose and stalked away. As the darkness thickened we were saluted by dismal sounds. The wolves are incredibly numerous in this part of the country, and the offal around the Arapahoe camp had drawn such multitudes of them together that several hundred were howling in concert in our immediate neighborhood. There was an island in the river, or rather an oasis in the midst of the sands at about the distance of a gunshot, and here they seemed gathered in the greatest numbers. A horrible discord of low mournful wailings, mingled with ferocious howls, arose from it incessantly for several hours after sunset. We could distinctly see the wolves running about the prairie within a few rods of our fire, or bounding over the sand-beds of the river and splashing through the water. There was not the slightest danger to be feared from them, for they are the greatest cowards on the prairie.
In respect to the human wolves in our neighborhood, we felt much less at our ease. We seldom erected our tent except in bad weather, and that night each man spread his buffalo robe upon the ground with his loaded rifle laid at his side or clasped in his arms. Our horses were picketed so close around us that one of them repeatedly stepped over me as I lay. We were not in the habit of placing a guard, but every man that night was anxious and watchful; there was little sound sleeping in camp, and some one of the party was on his feet during the greater part of the time. For myself, I lay alternately waking and dozing until midnight. Tete Rouge was reposing close to the river bank, and about this time, when half asleep and half awake, I was conscious that he shifted his position and crept on all-fours under the cart. Soon after I fell into a sound sleep from which I was aroused by a hand shaking me by the shoulder. Looking up, I saw Tete Rouge stooping over me with his face quite pale and his eyes dilated to their utmost expansion.
“What’s the matter?” said I.
Tete Rouge declared that as he lay on the river bank, something caught his eye which excited his suspicions. So creeping under the cart for safety’s sake he sat there and watched, when he saw two Indians, wrapped in white robes, creep up the bank, seize upon two horses and lead them off. He looked so frightened, and told his story in such a disconnected manner, that I did not believe him, and was unwilling to alarm the party. Still it might be true, and in that case the matter required instant attention. There would be no time for examination, and so directing Tete Rouge to show me which way the Indians had gone, I took my rifle, in obedience to a thoughtless impulse, and left the camp. I followed the river back for two or three hundred yards, listening and looking anxiously on every side. In the dark prairie on the right I could discern nothing to excite alarm; and in the dusky bed of the river, a wolf was bounding along in a manner which no Indian could imitate. I returned to the camp, and when within sight of it, saw that the whole party was aroused. Shaw called out to me that he had counted the horses, and that every one of them was in his place. Tete Rouge, being examined as to what he had seen, only repeated his former story with many asseverations, and insisted that two horses were certainly carried off. At this Jim Gurney declared that he was crazy; Tete Rouge indignantly denied the charge, on which Jim appealed to us. As we declined to give our judgment on so delicate a matter, the dispute grew hot between Tete Rouge and his accuser, until he was directed to go to bed and not alarm the camp again if he saw the whole Arapahoe village coming.