II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

6. Council
Stuart James was a man who had dealt with many kinds of Indians and learned much of their beliefs and the way they thought. As a young man he had first gone West on the Santa Fe Trail, driving a freight wagon for pay and carrying in it sixty dollars´ worth of goods laboriously accumulated with his own money. The trail´s terminus had early become known as a good place for ambitious Americans to make a profit, for it lay 1500 miles from Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico, which was the nearest true port, and little closer to the Mexican centers of production. Squealing oxcarts took three years to make the round trip, and even then brought back only fantastic luxuries for the wealthy rancheros, not common things for the everyday use of ordinary people. St. Louis was closer--850 miles on a straight line--and of that nearly a quarter could be covered by riverboat, leaving only an eight- or ten- week overland haul by wagon, with which native importers had no hope of competing. As an isolated frontier post, Santa Fe needed all sorts of things it was incapable of producing for itself: sugar and coffee, guns and powder and lead, iron kettles, needles and pins, knives and spoons, thread, thimbles, shawls, tools and hardware, hand mirrors and wall looking glasses, cottons, silks, velvets, lace, tobacco, spices, china, jewelry, musical instruments, furniture. In return it could offer furs from the Rocky Mountains and silver from the mines of northern Mexico, harness and mules, sheep, cowhides, tallow, raw wool, and woollen goods. Anglo traders could normally expect a fifty per cent return and not uncommonly enjoyed a hundred, even with the import taxes and the proper “gifts” to government officials to consider.

Stuart´s first venture brought him a nine-hundred-dollar return--fifteen times his original investment. But even at that early age he had the ability to look past the established way of doing things and consider how he might break new ground. He had talked with the other caravaneers, Missourians, New Englanders, French-Canadians, with Mexican ciboleros and American mountain men, and he knew that to the west and north, beyond the adobe apartment-towns of the peaceful and at least partially Christianized Pueblo Indians, there lived the wild tribes, the Navajo and Apache, who hated the Mexicans and raided them so regularly that Mexican settlement west of the San Francisco River had advanced no further than Tucson in two hundred years. But these tribes didn´t yet know the Americans and had no reason to abhor them. Stuart decided to take a chance. The following year he loaded up on Indian trade goods and joined the wagon train carrying supplies to the Rocky Mountain trappers´ rendezvous. There he hired a guide and struck out southward up the Snake and Salt Rivers, over the mountains to the Green, and down that to the Colorado, where he encountered the Navajo. They recognized him as being of a tribe of whites distinct from their ancient Spanish-speaking enemies and welcomed him and his goods. Their cousins the Apache did likewise when he advanced further south. He was gone for two years and when he turned up at rendezvous again it was to find that he´d been given up for dead. The goods he had traded to the Indians brought him twice what his Santa Fe venture had. He continued in the same fashion for several years, doing a little trapping by the way, taking beaver from the Gila in Arizona and the American and Stanislaus in California, buying horses and mules there at ten dollars apiece and selling them in the Rockies for four or five times what he´d paid. When the beaver trade died off around ´37, he worked out a deal with the Bents, whose adobe fort on the Arkansas was already a well-known stop on the Santa Fe Trail, and used that as a base, continuing as he´d begun. By then he had become responsible for his nephew Lucas, and the boy spent most of his youth at Bent´s. Once he varied his routine with a trip to the Kootenai Valley and on from there west to Fort Vancouver in British Columbia. He dealt with mountain, plateau, plain and desert tribes, trappers and rancheros and Mexican miners; he was an accomplished linguist who could talk with the Mexicans and the Southwestern tribes in Spanish, with the Canadians in French, with the Indians in Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, a smattering of Blackfoot, and the sign language of all the tribes.

By the time the Mexican War ended, Stuart was a wealthy man. He realized, shrewdly, that American settlement would flood the former Mexican possessions as soon as the treaties were signed, and that the Americans, being more driving and ambitious, would inevitably come into conflict with the wild tribes among whom he had made his fortune, turning them against the idea of peaceful trade; but news of the discovery of gold in Califorbia convinced him that the establishment of an independent trading post on the plains could be a source for still more wealth. In the spring of ´49, he made up a wagon caravan and set out to choose his spot.

At first he ran the trading store himself, but he soon realized that he could make more money by renting it out and going into cattle, as so many other early settlers had on a smaller scale. Buying strayed stock from the Indians quickly suggested the possibility of causing it to stray himself, and that in turn engendered the idea of taking advantage of the rugged individualism of the wagon emigrants, who often started out with high hopes in formally organized companies but began breaking up long before they hit the South Platte fork. He was always careful, however, to maintain excellent relations with the Indians, particularly the local Arapaho. His nephew married into the tribe, taking as his wife the niece of one of the most respected civil chiefs, Crop-Eared Wolf, and this only cemented the bond Stuart had with the tribesmen. Lucas and Mountain Lamb had two children now--David, who was six, and Judy, who was three.

Indians and their ways had fascinated Stuart from his earliest boyhood, and he had read everything he could get his hands on about them and talked with everyone who had occasion to deal intimately with them. He had lived among the various tribes in the ´30´s and ´40´s, even had a Navajo wife for a while, and thought their manner of life eminently suited to their environment. He had also observed from a very early point that Indians, as a rule, didn´t lie, and were poorly equipped to catch a lie when it was presented to them; they had nothing to lie about, naturally. All their problems were environmental: enemies, wild animals, sickness, shortage of food, weather, the land itself. You can´t lie to your environment, or lie to yourself about it; if you try, it kills you. Thus, although he had never broken his word to an Indian or dealt with one dishonestly in a trade, he was aware that it was very easy for a shrewd man to manipulate them. That knowledge lay at the heart of the plan he had for Ezra Standish.

Unlike most clergy and many lay Christians, he saw no reason to downgrade other religious faiths to the advantage of his own. He knew that the Arapaho had a good deal more understanding of the white man´s religion than the latter, as a rule, had of theirs. The Plains Indians, being nomads, had always done a good deal of tribal visiting with one another, and knew that songs and ceremonies, like language, differed from tribe to tribe, but they also saw the similarities that existed-- the belief in a supreme power and in lesser, subordinate powers, including personal guardians not unlike the patron saints of the Catholics; the necessity of right conduct and prescribed ritual in obtaining what people desired; the existence of a pleasant afterlife to which all the dead went as of right, for the concept of Hell was unknown to them until the missionaries introduced it. They respected all religions, even though their own was the only one they fully understood. They said that many individuals, such as their own medicine men, had special knowledge and power that was part of some overall power too great to be understood by any one people or group; that no one could see more than some part of its wonder, which was why there were so many religions. Many of the tribal leaders believed that the Arapahoes´ Man-Above and the Christians´ God were the same being called by different names, and that the two groups differed only in the way they worshipped; they felt there was nothing in their traditional religion to keep them from simultaneously following it and attending the white man´s church, finding some good in each, just as they found the old Arapaho virtues, courtesy and hospitality and loyalty and deep religious feeling, to be subscribed to by the best of white people too. There were important differences, of course. No modern white man, not even in the clergy, put such everyday importance on his religion as did the Arapaho. Everything they owned and every act of their lives was in some way connected with their beliefs, and all creation had a place in them. They believed not only in a power higher than all people and all the created world, which they called the Man-Above, but in a power in the world that governed everything that grew, Mother-Earth, and in the power of Sun and Moon, Morning Star, and the Four Old Men who directed the winds and rains and seasons and gave the breath of life. They believed that everything created was holy and had some part of the power that was over all. Some animals, such as the bear, buffalo, and badger, had more power than others. It had always been known that the wild turkey had special power, and that the meadowlark understood and spoke Arapaho. Some plants, too, had importance, like the sweet-smelling cedar and purifying sage.

James had seen little of his Arapaho neighbors over the last three months; summer was their season for raiding against the Utes (their greatest enemies), Shoshoni, Pawnee, Navajo, and Crow, for hunting and gathering food to stockpile against the cold to come, for catching and taming horses, and for congregating with the other bands to renew their sense of tribehood, to observe communal rituals, to court and be courted. He knew their wanderings had occasionally brought some or all of the members of Wolf´s band back to the area of Jamesburg, but he´d missed connections with them and wasn´t current with their news. Now, though, the buffalo rutting season was over and the vast herds had dispersed, breaking up into small bands of from five to fifty; the great Indian encampments had scattered in response, since it was impossible for them to find meat sources large enough to feed all the people, and the individual bands were once again roaming more or less at random within whatever particular area they tended to use for most of the year, each watching the weather signs and making up its mind which of its usual winter camps it wanted to use for the coming season. It was a good time to visit white trading posts and the homes of white friends like Stuart James.

The Arapaho had never been a large tribe like the Sioux; eighty years ago, at what was perhaps their peak, they had numbered around 3000 souls. Between about 1830 and 1840 they and the Cheyenne had divided into Northern and Southern divisions, which never quarrelled or had any differences in their beliefs, but now lived generally well apart, the former northward from Fort Laramie up to the Yellowstone, the latter centered around Bents´ New Fort, which this year had been leased to the government. Their commonly used name meant “trader,” and they had long been noted as commercial travellers who got along well with most other tribes from the Rockies to east beyond the Mississippi, and held their own against those who were their enemies, although they had always been known as friendly and peace- loving. Even their Sun Dance featured no such physical tortures as did the versions held by their allies, the Cheyenne and Sioux; the young men who vowed to do the dance must remain on their feet, facing the center pole, blowing their whistles, and taking neither water nor food, for all the days of the ceremonies, but that was all. It was not an ordeal or a way of proving one´s manhood, but an occasion for the induction of new chiefs, the conferring of new names, the giving of public gifts to the poor or as a reward for some special kindness, and the making of offerings to the powers in hopes of some particular favor, such as the healing of a sick child or the settling of a quarrel between husband and wife. Like all the nomadic hunting tribes, they spent most of their time in bands numbering from one to three hundred persons, divided into extended families of thirty to fifty each; a group that began to swell past that size would find the problem of feeding it to be serious, and the usual solution was fission--a group of families, led by some young man of exceptional character and ability, would hive off from the parent body like a swarm of bees and go off on its own. Crop- Eared Wolf was chief over some forty lodges, and could count sixty men of fighting age among his followers, though these ordinarily went to war in groups numbering between five and thirty; if more than the latter indicated an interest in following some warrior on a raid, it would generally be expanded from a stealthy strike for horses to a hit-and-run attack on the enemy camp. When one of James´s Mexican house-servants observed the train of loose and baggage ponies, mounted men and women and children, and dogs coming up Paint Creek toward the ranch headquarters, he went running to give the news, and by the time the Indians pulled out on the flat where they usually camped at such times, Stuart, Lucas, and Lucas´s little family were on their way down to greet and welcome them, to distribute presents and to offer a live beef for a feast. As always, Mountain Lamb and her children went off to visit with her mother and aunts, nephews and nieces and cousins; Lucas gravitated toward the young braves of roughly his own age, including his wife´s favorite half-brother, Buffalo Rider; and Stuart sat down to have a smoke with Crop-Eared Wolf and the other important men of the band.

Buffalo Rider was in his middle twenties, and like most Indians he had married young; the nomadic life meant that many children were lost to illness or exposure, so couples wanted all the bearing years they could squeeze out, even discounting the possibility that the husband would die young in battle. His wife and young son had been lost in a Pawnee raid about eighteen months ago, and he had gone back to his parents´ lodge to live; his mother had urged him to remarry, but he had shown little enthusiasm for the idea. He wore a single eagle feather in his hair, pointing straight up as a sign that he had performed some act of exceptional courage, and moccasins beaded with an equal- armed cross; around his neck hung a broad band of otterskin, the long tail arranged to hang down his back, with almost three dozen fiercely curving grizzly claws pierced through the bead-edged strip of flannel that bound it, and a nickel-silver cross of orthodox Christian design, but bigger, twenty inches long from top to bottom and wide in proportion. The crosses were the designs that represented his power, which came from the Morning Star and the Sun, two of the nine greatest worshipped by his people; ever since this was revealed to him, it had been commonly thought in the band that he was destined for great things, and the tragic loss of his little family had amazed and troubled his relatives and neighbors, who wondered whether he had been keeping his power alive in his mind and heart, as a man must. If he became lazy or careless and gave little attention to its obligations, he might lose it, and the protections that went with it.

As brothers-in-law Buffalo Rider and Lucas had always been good friends, and the Indian would often save up questions regarding white affairs and customs for his sister´s husband, certain that Lucas would be able to explain anything that troubled him in a clear and understandable way. As soon as Lucas found his kinsman that day, he noticed a change in him. Buffalo Rider seemed somehow more alive, more aware of the world around him, than he had since the Pawnees destroyed his family. “My friend,” Lucas greeted him, “you are not as you have been for so long. Is your heart again good? Have you decided to follow the advice of your mother and seek a new wife?”

“I am thinking of it,” Rider agreed. “I believe that my guardians have shown me the woman I should pay court to. I have wanted to speak to you about this.”

“How is that?” Lucas wondered. “Surely you know the young women of your village far better than I do, since you live among them every day. Or has some maiden caught your eye at the great encampment of the nation?”

“The woman I have seen does not dwell among the Arapaho,” the warrior told him. “Half a moon ago I went with some deerskins to the trading store in your uncle´s village. In it I saw a woman who was not like the white women around her. Her hair was long and fine and of almost the color of a deer, and her features were thin and fine, but her skin was brown, almost like an Indian´s, and she wore around her neck a Sun-cross like mine, only much smaller. That was how I knew that my guardians wished me to notice her. Do you know this woman, my brother? Do you know where her parents live, so I may know where to take my ponies and gifts for them to accept?”

“I know the woman you speak of, yes,” Lucas replied. “She is not an Indian or a halfbreed, but from the lands far south called Mexico. She has no parents, but came to the village alone.”

“All the better, then,” said Buffalo Rider. “Tell me where she lives and I will court her until she agrees to choose me. Does she have many suitors? Or is she already married?”

Lucas knew that even if he said she was, it wouldn´t necessarily be any bar to his brother-in- law´s ardor. Among the Plains tribes women had a good deal of freedom, and it wasn´t at all unknown for a man to pay bold siege to a young married woman, making songs to urge her to run away with him. And, not uncommonly, she agreed to do so, or else divorced her husband--a very simple process involving the placement of his clothes, weapons, and other goods outside the door of the lodge, which, since she had built it, remained her property-- and, after a proper interval, took the young suitor in his place. But he remembered what his uncle had said a week or so before regarding his plans for Ezra Standish, and saw this new interest of Buffalo Rider´s as a perfect opportunity to set the stage for their fulfillment. “No,” he said slowly, “she is not married, but she has one powerful suitor, a very wealthy white man with strong spirit helpers. It will not be easy for you to win her from him, my brother.”

Rider´s eyes narrowed. “Does this white man have strange eyes, green like new leaves in spring and quick and sharp like the eyes of a fox? Does he dress in rich colors, in clothes almost as fine as those of a white woman?”

Lucas showed his surprise. “Yes, that is the man. Have you seen him?”

“He too was in the store that day. When I raised the woman´s Sun-cross from her neck with my fingers, to see it more clearly and know if it was indeed like a child of my own, he came from nowhere to stand beside her and put his arm around her as if she belonged to him, and his other hand went to the gun at his side. His eyes were hard in warning and they troubled me. That is why I asked if she was married; I thought perhaps he was her husband.”

“No, but he would like to be,” Lucas lied. “Perhaps, my brother, we should tell my uncle of this.”

“Why?” asked Buffalo Rider. “If she is not his wife, she is free to choose whomever she will, and I am free to court her.”

“White people do not court as Indians do,” Lucas told him, “and even if they did, to show your interest in this woman may not be wise. You have called the village ‘my uncle´s,´ but that is no longer altogether true. Part of it, the lodge where the trading store is, belongs now to the white man you saw, and he got it with a kind of power that Indians do not have. He will use that power to get the woman too, if he can. And if he sees that you are a rival to him, he may use it to do you harm. My uncle can explain it more clearly than I.”

Buffalo Rider had no difficulty with the concept of the main building having changed hands; among Indians anything that could be made by human effort was personal property and could be sold or given at will by its owner--it was only the ownership of land that they had a problem grasping. He did seem puzzled at Lucas´s assertion that he should seek Stuart´s ear and advice, but he had known the Jameses all his adult life, knew that his chief and council respected them, and saw no reason not to trust them. “Very well,” he said, “I will do as you say, brother.”

“Let us wait,” Lucas proposed, “until he has smoked with your chief. Then I will tell him what you have said to me. I think he will wish to hold council over this matter, for the coming of this white man is troubling to him also.”

+ + + + + + +

That night there was a feast, featuring the beef Stuart had given to the village, though the Indians thought it stronger than buffalo and not so sweet, and found that it needed long cooking to make it tender, where they ordinarily preferred to eat buffalo rare. They accepted it, however, in the spirit it was given, and served in return dog meat, which was always the main dish at special occasions among the Arapaho, prompting neighboring tribes to call them Dog-Eaters. This was followed by games and horse races and a war dance, with the warriors telling the stories of their deeds, and then by social dancing, mostly for the young folks. Once the latter was well under way, Stuart and Lucas, Buffalo Rider and Crop-Eared Wolf, and the leaders of the village retired to the medicine lodge for another smoke and to discuss the matter of Rider´s proposed courtship of Inez.

The older men, like Buffalo Rider, knew that white men could sell or otherwise transfer ownership of their “lodges,” but were not yet aware of the details of Stuart´s loss of his. Several wondered what connection it could have with the young woman who had caught the warrior´s eye. Stuart had dealt with Indians for years enough that he knew just how to lead up to it, going the long way around the barn, trusting them to keep track of the thread of his discourse. “My nephew has told me,” he began, “of how his brother- in-law, Buffalo Rider, has seen in my village a young woman whom he wishes to court. I think this woman would make a good wife for Buffalo Rider, and I would not hesitate to encourage him in what he desires--except that he is my kinsman, as all here know, and I would feel myself to have failed in my duty to him if I did not warn him that to do it might place him in peril of his life, and more, of his spirit.

“All Arapaho know that certain things--colors or designs, feathers or claws of a given animal--have power for particular persons. Each young man goes out to the hills or away on the prairie alone, to fast and meditate and pray until he sees a vision that shows him what his own special power and protection is. Perhaps the eagle or deer or otter comes and talks with him, showing him some event that is to happen or something he must do for his family or his people. Always afterward this bird or animal will give him success in his undertakings and protection when he is sick or in danger. Now, most white people do not do this, but it does not mean they do not have special guardians. Many Arapaho know of the black-robe priests who serve the white man´s God. These priests speak of beings they call ‘saints,´ who stand below their God in power, and to whom people may pray, asking them to intercede with God to gain what the petitioner wishes. Among some Indians similar things are done. The Pawnee believe their creator, Tirawa, is too remote from men to be directly approached by prayer, so they petition him through the lesser powers, like the Morning Star.

“The white man, like the Arapaho, believes in a good Man-Above and an evil Man-Below. Most pray to the Man-Above for what they want, whether it is good health, or success in some endeavor, or knowledge about what they should do when they are undecided. And, as among the Arapaho, there are those among the whites who have special gifts and knowledge. The Arapaho have priests and medicine men, who know, each of them, everything connected with some one of the Arapaho ceremonies, and who know songs and rituals for healing the sick and for bringing success in hunting and war, for bringing rain when it is needed, and for warding off hail and lightning and great winds that may hurt the people and damage their lodges. These services they perform for anyone who has need of them, or for the whole village, and sometimes the whole tribe. They get their songs from older medicine men and priests, or from visions of their own, and they must have unusual gifts of memory and understanding to do what they do. In the same way, the white man has doctors and priests who train under older masters of their kind of knowledge, and who can sometimes do remarkable things for the bodies and minds of the people who come to them for help.

“But no people, be it red or white, is totally without bad persons, and so it is with mine as with yours. I have travelled and traded among many tribes, and have found that in all sorts of country--in the dry desert, in the green forests, on the shores of the great western salt water, and here on the plain--there is a belief in people who get power not from the Man- Above or from the good living things on the face of the world, but from the Man-Below. I sometimes wonder that the Arapaho do not seem to have this belief when so many other red men do.”

Indians were notoriously curious, and this hint caught the attention of all his listeners. The band´s chief medicine man, Bear Song, who was naturally the one most closely concerned with matters of religion, took the bait as Stuart had hoped he would. “Tell us of this belief, brother,” he requested.


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