Incidents Among the

By David Lewis


Copyright © 2000

          "Injuns is like wolves, Skinner.  They move across the land takin' whut they need, not messin' wif much else.  They run in packs, changin' whar they live wif the seasons an' the game.  They is obligated to the Great Spirit and an' thar bellies, Son, an' thet's the straight of it.  By thar own way a thinkin' they ain't mean, ner cruel, ner superstitious neither.  They jest do whut they gotter do to keep a-goin'.  Doan judge 'em by a white man's standardsthey is a whole 'nother kinda critter.  A white man is too far from the earth ta compare ta a Injun, lessen he's a tame Redskin thet's had all the wild knocked outta him, an' them poor devils is less then dawgs.  Yew cain't never be no heathern, Boy, no matter how hard ya try.  Yew warn't born to it.  The best ya kin do is come to unnerstand thet even if ya live smack in the middle of 'em fer a hunnert years, yer still gonner be white, an' ya still ain't gonner unnerstan everthang they do.  Injuns ain't got no long-term plan.  They ain't locked into nothin'.  The only thang important to a Injun is taday, an' mebbe tamarra.  When ya think about thet, Skinner, it ain't no terrible bad way ta live."

          Peter "Long-Nose-Pete" Alden
          Mountain man and friend

          "Whitemen, Wah!  While it is true that even they are creatures of the Spirit-Which-Lives-In-All-Things, they do not know it.  They burden themselves with things, they make too much of too little, they seek to own, and they are deaf to the voice of the Turtle.  Because they are not human, they are unaware of the order of life.  Like a small child with a sharp knife, they marvel at their power, but see not the danger they create.  It is true that there must be a reason for them to exist, or the Spirit would not have it so, but I cannot comprehend it.  It is admirable that one of them should seek to become a person.  It is unusual that any of them would have the heart to attempt such a thing."

          Sioux warrior and friend

          "I would go north.  White men were north.  If I could avoid the Godless savages, and not freeze to death, I would find them.  I had to."
          Nathaniel Horne

          "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight."
          Traditional Christian Sunday school song


          "When the Spirit-Which-Lives-In-All-Things brought to me the dream, I found it hard to believe that a Whiteman would come to us...but it is true that when the Spirit has chosen a warrior's path, nothing can change it."

          What remains clearest to me from that day is the quiet. Snow, well over knee deep, made the silence total, absolute, almost overwhelming. I was camped under the shelter of a rocky overhang with pines for windbreak, secure in the knowledge that I was safe. Wood gathered before the storm was very dry, providing a smokeless fire, and travel for me or anyone else, was nearly impossible. I had abandoned any thought of running my traps, not wanting to leave tracks to indicate my position, and resigned myself to sitting fireside waiting for the weather to break. It had to. Winter was still weeks away and conditions such as these in which I had found myself could not last overlong. I would wait it out. My horse and pack animal were well situated fifty paces from my lair; I had fire and food for several days; my oilcloth lean-to kept me dry; my truck and possibles were secure; my rifle and pistols oiled, clean, and charged. All was in order, and I stared into the heavy snowfall at peace with the world. Thus I sat, nearly dozing, when I heard the voices, gutteral mouthings that could only be Indians. Damn!  How could I have been so stupid?
          I crept to the top of the overhang behind me and there they were. Seven or eight heathens floundering through the snow on horseback, the closest less than a hundred paces distant. There was no smoke for them to see and I was down-wind so my smell could not give me away, but their route of travel would soon bring them to me, that much was certain. My heart thudded in my chest and my bowels felt weak. I was in dire straits.
          Never one to suffer fear overlong, I threw musket to shoulder and took sight on the closest buck. Flint struck steel, the weapon fired, and he pitched from his pony. Just as suddenly his heathen compatriots reined their horses to the ground and disappeared in the deep snow. I had no other target.
*     *     *
          On my trek west I'd had little contact with natives. Stories I'd heard had convinced me of their savagery and brutality, so I had done my best to avoid any encounter. Truth be known, the tales told to me had even crowded their way into my dreams and I had come to think of the aboriginals as I did the Booger-Man of my childhood; a terror that brought confusion to my brain and sweat to my palms. Now, I was alone in their territory and surely the object of a hunt. I had to escape, but to show myself on horseback was certain death, or worse. It remains unclear to me if reason or fear prompted my next action, but I grabbed my buffalo robe and possibles bag, and bolted down the slope in front of me running for my life.
          My flight was one of little direction. I retained enough presence of mind to stay among the trees where snow was shallow enough for speed, but I had no destination. I just ran as fast as I could, the breath of the Booger-Man hot on my neck. Horses could not move well in the deep snow, nor could they be hurried through the dense tree cover, so I had little fear of being ridden down. My main concern was of a heathen or heathens fleet enough to catch me on foot. Distance was my ally, the falling snow a friend to cover my tracks. On I ran, scrambling through the pines, up and down hills, splashing through a stream or two, taking the odd tumble down a rocky slope. For as long as fear could will my body to go forward I continued, finally falling to the ground, exhausted.
          My breathing slowed, my heart settled down, and I took stock of the situation. I was a fool. My rifle and pistols lay miles behind me, doubtless in savage hands. My supplies and horses were now heathen property. Somewhere in my flight I'd lost my possibles bag with flint and steel, char cloth, compass, and other essentials. From all my truck, nothing remained to me but my capote, robe, long knife, the buckskins I had on, and the three pairs of moccasins I wore. On the bright side, I could neither hear nor see any pursuit. Perhaps the heathens were so concerned with the plunder from my camp they had never chased me at all. I had no way of knowing. The only natives I'd ever encountered were the tame savages near my home and the ones I had run across hanging around various settlements on my way west. One cannot judge the wolf by the behavior of the family dog. With that bit of sage understanding and great fatigue, I rolled in my robe under the roots of an overturned tree and prepared for the night. In retrospect, I should have prepared for the morning.
*     *     *
          It had never been my intention to travel to the western wilderness. Truly, I had left my home and family, but that was a departure of less than my own choosing. My thought had been to move southward as far as necessary to find peace, and that was what I did, but I could find no rest. The new century was upon us and a great number of people were coming to the young United States. Settlements near the coast grew in both size and number, and a traveler could walk scarce a day without encountering a stranger.
          My time spent in taverns and hostels rewarded me with stories of the West. Tale tellers would speak of great rivers, endless plains, dense forests, towering mountains, and other things my young mind fairly reeled to hear. By degrees and over two years of travel I learned all I could of the western lands. Earning my keep and putting some aside was never difficult, and by the end of the second winter of my roaming I had a sizeable poke. That spring I purchased a strong sorrel mare, a mule for pack, a .60 caliber rifle, various supplies, and set out for a place known as Saint Louis, on the banks of the biggest river I'd ever heard of. It was called the Mississippi, and it was said that only the French had crossed it. God himself still crouched on the eastern shore.
*     *     *   
          The next morning came after a cold, fireless night. Sunlight woke me and I clambered stiffly out of my nest into a cloudless, painfully bright day. I was still blinking sleep from my eyes when the arrow struck.
          It entered my left side and I pitched heavily to my right. Presence of mind remained to me and I lay perfectly still. My sight was limited to one eye that was free of snow and I struggled not to look around, but to appear dead. My wounded side ached horribly and I resigned myself to it, believing the pain to be a good sign. Feeling meant life, and although the condition of my wound was unknown to me, I felt it was not overly critical.
          When I fell I landed in tree shadow, and I lay where I dropped until the shadow crawled away and I was fully exposed to sunlight. During all that time I heard nothing from the archer who had wounded me, but I felt, now that I could be clearly seen, he would soon shoot me again or approach what he believed to be my dead body. My long knife was pinned beneath me and I had no other weapon. All I could do was stay the course I had chosen, lie still and wait. How long he took to reach me I cannot say, but my muscles burned with inactivity and tried to twitch as I fought to remain motionless. My bladder screamed at me and I spent my urine into the snow, both for relief and to convince my assailant death had claimed me. I had become certain that I was the victim of only one heathen. Had there been more, they would not have waited so long to approach me.
          At length I heard someone draw breath and finally an inquiring grunt was directed at me. When I still did not move, the mouth voiced some heathen gibberish. My lack of response gave confidence and a song began, a random howling of uncivilized croaks and shrieks. I was glad to hear it, for it told me of his relative position to my rear and assured me he was alone. My eye remained unfocused to assist the impression I was long dead. My robe was bunched atop my back, helping to conceal my tiny breaths. Praying my inactive muscles would function and my wound would allow me to move, I waited for him.
          Coward that the Godless savage was, once he decided I was no danger he strode boldly to my body and knelt directly in front of my face. I could see his legs as he crouched, and watched his hands place bow and arrow on the snow by my head. I held my breath and waited for him to take my scalp. A hand traveled to the hilt of his iron knife, and as the other touched my hair, I screamed.
          The shock to him was total and several things happened in rapid succession. He attempted to throw himself to his feet, but lost balance and fell back in the snow. I lurched to my knees, grasped his arrow from where he had placed it, and drove the shaft into his low belly with all my strength. He bellowed in pain and surprise and I threw myself on him, my hands about his throat, his body pinned beneath mine. He grunted, squirming and clawing for a time, biting through his tongue and lips and spraying me with blood and spittle until he gurgled into silence and emptied his bowels. I fell to my back, shaking with fear and crying with relief that there was now one less heathen to plague the western lands.
          As I had suspected, my wound was not overly serious. The arrow had entered my left side from the rear, a few inches below my arm. Evidently it had glanced off my ribs, for the arrowhead was free of flesh and protruding to the front. Although it hurt as if the Devil himself had done the deed, bleeding was not extensive and the wounds seemed clean. I lay for a time with my bare side in the snow to chill the wounds, then broke off the feathered portion and pulled the shaft free with surprisingly small effort. I had no tobacco with which to plug the holes and was concerned the wounds might sour. As it turned out, my fears were for naught.
          The dead savage yielded me a worn buffalo robe and a rusty iron knife, as well as a small bag of mealy cakes that tasted of turnips. To this day, I cannot abide that flavor. His bow and arrows were useless to me, for I had never learned their workings. I had known men from home accomplished with the longbow, but I had always favored musket and ball. I did, however, use his bowstring to tie the robes into a walking bundle. His two pairs of moccasins were both too small for me, as were his leggings and shirt, and I left them with the body, which I kicked into a shallow ravine and covered with stones and snow.
          My left side and arm stiffened considerably as I made my way to higher ground in an effort to survey the roundabout. I could discern no pursuit, nor could I see any evidence of the dead heathen's horse. I was relieved. No savages trailed me and I was once again alone. Solitude and the absence of natives cheered me somewhat. Had I known what lay ahead of me in the coming days, relief would have been the last of what I felt. God protects us, I believe, from foreknowledge of our trials.
*     *     *
          On my trek west, I crossed the Mississippi river on a ferry, an experience my horse found less than appealing, as in truth did I. On the western bank lay a combination trade post and hostel frequented by French and free trappers alike. It was operated by a man calling himself Tinker Brice. He was a large fellow, and slow, with kindly eyes that spoke of a good heart. I liked him straightaway.
          "A Easterner by the look of ye," he drawled as I entered his place. "A greenhorn by the smell of ye, and a mountain mover by the size of ye." His grin removed any sting from his words.
          "Easterner true, and green enough," I replied, "but right now I'd have trouble kicking a rock off the trail."
          "Enjoyed the ferry ride, did ye?" he chuckled.
          "Like a sore tooth," I smiled.
          "Set yerself, Lad, drink a tankard, and we'll talk of things while ye get yer strength back."
          I spent three days at Tinker's, soaking up as much information as I could. Although he'd never been farther west than the river, he'd had considerable contact with both trappers and traders, and his knowledge seemed extensive. Tinker claimed to have deserted Washington at Valley Forge when just a lad, and traveled west to seek his fortune. Eventually he wound up at the post on the river and had spent the last few years watching people come and go, trading for furs, and putting away a bit for his old age.
          "Hudson's Bay is takin'over everthing," he confided. "This year I'm gonna winter on the east bank, then next spring I'm off to find some kin in the Carolinas. I'm gittin' too old fer all this. A rockin' chair in the company of my family is what I crave, if any of 'em is left livin'".
          He outfitted me, at reasonable cost, with blankets, traps, and other truck as was essential for life in the wilderness. On the fourth morning I sat horseback, ready to leave.
          "I thank you for your kindness," I said. "You have been of great help to me through both supply and information."
          "Go shake them mountains, Lad," he grinned.
          "I will do my best," I replied. "I hope you find your family."
          I reined my mare to go, and he laughed. "Boy, ye talk real nice, and I'm gonna give ye a tip. There is a sayin' folks use where yer headin' when partin' trail from one another. It's fair enough advice and fair enough goodbye too. In reply, 'watch your'n' is all you have to say." I raised an eyebrow in query. "Watch yer topknot," he said.
          "Watch your'n," I replied, and walked my horse west.
*     *     *
          Sitting on the high ground, holding my wounded side, I wondered what to do. Man in the wilderness with weapons, supplies, horses and knowledge is still a feeble animal, with no guarantee of survival. I was in deep trouble. Had it been spring I would have set out to find the Missouri river and the trappers that traveled its waters, but it was not spring. It was autumn, with what seemed to be an early winter howling on its heels. Information I had gleaned on my way west told me of a place north by northwest that offered refuge. The Indians called it the Yellowstone and it was not overly far from the Mussleshell country. It was said that a few white men wintered there amid hot springs and boiling pools to ward off winter's cold and superstitious heathens. I would go north. If I could keep my strength, avoid the Godless savages, and not freeze to death, I would find white men.
          In my entire life I had never gone more than a day or two without food. I had never known true hunger. During the next days hunger and I became constant companions. In truth, my memory of that time is not overly clear. I'm sure I had fire, for my long knife showed scars where it was struck with flint, and I do not see how I could have survived without it.
          At times the cold became awesome. Great trees would shriek with it at night, creaking and groaning as it pushed its way into their hearts. There was no game I could catch and my snares went empty. Occasionally I would find withered serviceberries on frozen briars or hack open rotted logs for the brittle grubs inside, but it was not enough to sustain me. Once I used a club to drive a wolf away from a frozen deer carcass, but little was left save bit of skin and broken bone. Starvation was my partner on the trail and my buckskins became loose upon my body.
          Visions haunted me. My mother would appear, smiling her sweet smile, and vanish as I reached to touch her. From time to time I would walk the green hills of home and smell the scents of my childhood, then the cold and snow would return and I would weep with frustration and self-pity. Strength left my body and I was carried on only by my will, but will is poor substitute for nourishment. After many days, it too began to fail. In spite of seeing my dear Uncle appear before me, urging me to "keep on, Nathaniel, keep on, Laddie-Buck," my life was slipping away. Still I had not come to the country of the yellow stone. In truth, I had no idea where it was, or of where I was. I was lost, all was lost. I could no longer feel my feet, my walk was a lurching stagger, my life-force a candle flame in the wind.
          I was stumbling through trees, a slight downslope aiding my progress, when I decided it was time to die. I had done all I could do. I had given all I  could give. My prayers to God were unanswered and it came to me in my delirium that unanswered prayers were God's specialty. That was fine with me. To hell with God and Heaven's streets of gold. I had lived without His help and I could die without His help, and when I saw Him I would tell Him so. I would not, however, die in this dark forest. I would get through it to clear sky and die with the sun on my body. I could still pass from this vale of tears on some of my own terms.
          On I reeled, walking, lurching, falling, crawling, fighting for every foot of progress, cursing God with every breath. After what seemed an endless time, I was able to discern open land through the trees. Presently I crawled from the gloom onto the edge of a long valley. The sunlight on the snow hurt my eyes dreadfully and I swooned from it. I actually believe that for a time I was free of my body, for I could see it below me, and I was no longer cold or hungry or in pain. The sensation passed and once again I was myself, lying in shadow at the edge of the clearing, sick, weak, and exhausted. I lay there gasping and a vision took shape before me. A savage, a heathen, regarding me with stern visage and shining eyes. He spoke to me and I understood him, although his speech was unfamiliar and his mouth did not move.
          "You believe your journey to be over, Fool. It is not. It is now just beginning. Release your tiny hurts and self-pity and arise. Walk into the snow and await your destiny. The Spirit is not finished with you."
          Frightened, I jerked awake and looked about me. Nothing. The glare from the snow was strong and I squinted my eyes to resist it as I groaned slowly to my feet. I must admit to feeling some stronger and staggered into the clearing a few yards. Shielding my eyes against the brightness, I saw the smoke, and the smoke led my eyes to the camp. Savages! Nearly a mile away they were, at the other end of the narrow valley. It came to me at that moment that I might cheat death a little longer. I must put myself at the mercy of these heathens. Before long, I would have help or receive death. Either was respite, either was relief. Abandoning any hope of survival or fear of dying, I began to force my way down that long, featureless expanse of snow, wishing that I was stronger that I might acquit myself with honor should they come to kill me; that I might fight with power and skill to show how this white man was as much, and more, a warrior than they.


          "As you see another struggle on his path, it is not fitting to accept his burden for him.  If the Spirit-Which-Lives-In-All-Things encourages you, however, it is well to ease his journey."

          I began to walk. The snow was almost knee-deep and very difficult for me. Several times I fell, only to lurch back to my feet and struggle onward. I concentrated on keeping my shadow in proper position, for I could not see clearly. My breath rasped in my chest, my legs trembled with weakness, and finally I sat to gain a moment's rest. When I attempted to rise I found that I could not. The heathen encampment was less than two hundred paces distant and I could discern their blurred forms standing to watch my progress.
          "Bastards," I croaked. "Are you enjoying yourselves? Why do you not come kill me now and be done with it?"
          Although I do not believe they could have heard me, a flurry of activity began among the savages as some of them took to horse. With a great deal of shouting and yelping they plunged their mounts through the snow in my direction. There were three of them, riding single file. As they neared me their shouting grew to fever pitch and each of them began to brandish a club. I was to be beaten to death. Very well. Fear gave me additional strength, and using all of it that I could muster, I swayed to my feet and trembled as I waited for them.          
          The lead savage screeched by me on the run and struck my shoulder a glancing blow. The second did likewise, hitting me on the arm. The third thudded his club against my back, then they ran their horses in a tight circle about me several times, shouting and laughing, and finally pounded back up the path they had broken in the snow, leaving me totally alone. I was confused. The perfect opportunity to kill me was easily within their grasp, and yet they had not. At length, my sluggish brain clutched at the reality of the situation. The ease with which the heathens demonstrated they could have killed me made the actual taking of my life moot. Not only had they spared my life, in riding to me and then back to their camp, they had broken a trail to make my passage easier. It was both an invitation and a warning that I could not ignore. Gathering what tiny resolve  remained to me, I began to crawl through the wet, broken snow. The savages watched in silence.
          My vision was limited as I drug myself into the heathen encampment, but my attention was drawn to one savage in particular. He was a large man who appeared to be quite formidable and seemed to draw respect from those about him. I managed to struggle to my feet as I approached him and I attempted to maintain my full height and present myself as unafraid. In truth, I had no fear, nor bravery either. My physical and emotional condition was such I could not afford the luxury. Surrounded by his Godless compatriots, the heathen sat by a fire. I must admit that even in my extreme condition, I could sense an aura of power about him unique in my experience. His eyes were uncanny, and as he focused his gaze on me my small strength began to flow away. A slight smile flickered across his face and I realized this was the Indian from my vision beside the valley. My knees gave way and everything went black.
*     *     *
          When I came to myself again, it seemed to be early morning. I could hear the gruntings of the heathens as they went about their affairs, the laughter of children, the noises made by horses and dogs. I was alone. I had been placed in one of their curious cone-shaped tents made from buffalo skins tied together over a support of many thin poles placed in a circle, leaned together and secured at the point where they touched. I had seen Indian tipis before but this was my first time to be inside such a dwelling. A fire was burning near the center with the smoke exiting through a hole at the top, and I found myself to be quite comfortable. I was covered by a buffalo robe and because of the shelter, fire, and buffalo wool, I had the luxury of warmth, a condition I had not found myself in for some time.
          My clothing was gone, an obviously satisfactory heathen alternative to tying me up. As I lay there and felt of myself, I noticed my skin to be cracked and dry, doubtless due to my journey in the cold. The lack of food had also taken severe toll and I had left fifty or more pounds behind me on the trail. I attempted to stand up but my weakness would allow me to get only to my knees. When I did I began to tremble as if newborn, falling back and vomiting spittle upon the ground. While lying there, shaking and weak, I looked toward the entrance of the tent as a round moon face appeared through the flap, brown eyes narrowed to slits. I forced myself up onto one elbow, and the face hurled some mutterings at me in obvious disapproval. I smiled my best smile, wished the face a good day, and enquired if its owner had passed a pleasant night. The eyes grew large and round and a high-pitched giggle came from the mouth, identifying the owner as female. She began to shout and disappeared for a brief moment, only to return and force herself into the dwelling.
          This was a large woman, truly one of the biggest I'd ever seen, and she crossed to  me with club in hand. Barking what I could only perceive as a threat, she thudded the club smartly to the earth near my head several times, making it very clear that she was in control of the situation and I was to offer her no resistance. Three other women entered the tipi and my heart began to pound. I'd heard stories of torture and debasement at the hands of heathen squaws. If these four were to be my executioners they were certainly happy in their work, for they stood about me babbling and chatting with each other, laughing over comments and enjoying themselves a great deal. At length they all kneeled and the fat one grasped my robe to pull it from me. I resisted her efforts as best I could, much to the glee of the others, until she placed the head of the club lightly against the bridge of my nose. Very quietly and with great sincerity she spoke to me for a short time. I did not understand her words but I did take her meaning, She and her compatriots had business with me that would not be denied. It was in my best interest to cooperate. I released my hold upon the skin, she flung the robe from my body, and I was left naked to their eyes.
          My embarrassment was acute, but the females did not suffer from such. As the fat one smeared rancid grease over my body they chatted gaily and enjoyed much laughter at my expense. Not one square inch of me was left un-inspected or untouched. My one feeble struggle with the ordeal brought a strike from the club to the outside of my elbow that left me gasping with pain. I settled down and the women conducted their labors with complete ease, while yet another arrived and began to spoon a foul-smelling soup into my mouth. I did not know the contents of the noxious brew, nor did I want to. It tasted terrible and I loved it, gulping it down as rapidly as she would allow me to. After a short time, however, I began to feel ill and signed to her that I'd had enough.
          While I was eating a good deal of discussion had begun among the women about my foot, and I noticed the last three toes on my right foot were gray in color and could not feel the touch of fingers. For some time the discussion continued, each of the savages examining the offending toes in detail, offering opinion to the others as she did so. At length, a decision seemed to be reached. At that moment the women threw themselves upon me so that I could not move while the fat squaw grasped my ankle and began to saw at my foot with an iron knife. As I lost consciousness, I watched her throw my toes into the fire.

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