Washington Irving'sThe Adventures of Captain Bonneville

Chapter 10

Black feet in the Horse Prairie--Search after the hunters--Difficulties and dangers--A card party in the wilderness--The card party interrupted--"Old Sledge" a losing game--Visitors to the camp--Iroquois hunters--Hanging-eared Indians.

ON the 12th of October, two young Indians of the Nez Perce tribe arrived at Captain Bonneville's encampment. They were on their way homeward, but had been obliged to swerve from their ordinary route through the mountains, by deep snows. Their new route took them though the Horse Prairie. In traversing it, they had been attracted by the distant smoke of a camp fire, and on stealing near to reconnoitre, had discovered a war party of Blackfeet. They had several horses with them; and, as they generally go on foot on warlike excursions, it was concluded that these horses had been captured in the course of their maraudings.

This intelligence awakened solicitude on the mind of Captain Bonneville for the party of hunters whom he had sent to that neighborhood; and the Nez Perces, when informed of the circumstances, shook their heads, and declared their belief that the horses they had seen had been stolen from that very party. Anxious for information on the subject, Captain Bonneville dispatched two hunters to beat up the country in that direction. They searched in vain; not a trace of the men could be found; but they got into a region destitute of game, where they were well-nigh famished. At one time they were three entire days with-out a mouthful of food; at length they beheld a buffalo grazing at the foot of the mountain. After manoeuvring so as to get within shot, they fired, but merely wounded him. He took to flight, and they followed him over hill and dale, with the eagerness and per-severance of starving men. A more lucky shot brought him to the ground. Stanfield sprang upon him, plunged his knife into his throat, and allayed his raging hunger by drinking his blood: A fire was instantly kindled beside the carcass, when the two hunters cooked, and ate again and again, until, perfectly gorged, they sank to sleep before their hunting fire. On the following morning they rose early, made another hearty meal, then loading themselves with buffalo meat, set out on their return to the camp, to report the fruitlessness of their mission.

At length, after six weeks' absence, the hunters made their appearance, and were received with joy proportioned to the anxiety that had been felt on their account. They had hunted with success on the prairie, but, while busy drying buffalo meat, were joined by a few panic - stricken Flatheads, who informed them that a powerful band of Blackfeet was at hand. The hunters immediately abandoned the dangerous hunting ground, and accompanied the Flatheads to their village. Here they found Mr. Cerre, and the detachment of hunters sent with him to accompany the hunting party of the Nez Perces.

After remaining some time at the village, until they supposed the Blackfeet to have left the neighborhood, they set off with some of Mr. Cerre's men for the cantonment at Salmon River, where they arrived without accident. They informed Captain Bonneville, however, that not far from his quarters they had found a wallet of fresh meat and a cord, which they supposed had been left by some prowling Blackfeet. A few days afterward Mr. Cerre, with the remainder of his men, likewise arrived at the cantonment.

Mr. Walker, one of his subleaders, who had gone with a band of twenty hunters to range the country just beyond the Horse Prairie, had likewise his share of adventures with the all-pervading Blackfeet. At one of his encampments the guard stationed to keep watch round the camp grew weary of their duty, and feeling a little too secure, and too much at home on these prairies, retired to a small grove of willows to amuse themselves with a social game of cards called "old sledge," which is as popular among these trampers of the prairies as whist or ecarte among the polite circles of the cities. From the midst of their sport they were suddenly roused by a discharge of firearms and a shrill war-whoop. Starting on their feet, and snatching up their rifles, they beheld in dismay their horses and mules already in possession of the enemy, who had stolen upon the camp unperceived, while they were spell-bound by the magic of old sledge. The Indians sprang upon the animals barebacked, and endeavored to urge them off under a galling fire that did some execution. The mules, however, confounded by the hurly-burly and disliking their new riders kicked up their heels and dismounted half of them, in spite of their horsemanship. This threw the rest into confusion; they endeavored to protect their unhorsed comrades from the furious assaults of the whites; but, after a scene of "confusion worse confounded," horses and mules were abandoned, and the Indians betook themselves to the bushes. Here they quickly scratched holes in the earth about two feet deep, in which they prostrated themselves, and while thus screened from the shots of the white men, were enabled to make such use of their bows and arrows and fusees, as to repulse their assailants and to effect their retreat. This adventure threw a temporary stigma upon the game of "old sledge."

In the course of the autumn, four Iroquois hunters, driven by the snow from their hunting grounds, made their appearance at the cantonment. They were kindly welcomed, and during their sojourn made themselves useful in a variety of ways, being excellent trappers and first-rate woodsmen. They were of the remnants of a party of Iroquois hunters that came from Canada into these mountain regions many years previously, in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company. They were led by a brave chieftain, named Pierre, who fell by the hands of the Blackfeet, and gave his name to the fated valley of Pierre's Hole. This branch of the Iroquois tribe has ever since remained among these mountains, at mortal enmity with the Blackfeet, and have lost many of their prime hunters in their feuds with that ferocious race. Some of them fell in with General Ashley, in the course of one of his gallant excursions into the wilderness, and have continued ever since in the employ of the company.

Among the motley Visitors to the winter quarters of Captain Bonneville was a party of Pends Oreilles (or Hanging-ears) and their chief. These Indians have a strong resemblance, in character and customs, to the Nez Perces. They amount to about three hundred lodges, are well armed, and possess great numbers of horses. During the spring, summer, and autumn, they hunt the buffalo about the head-waters of the Missouri, Henry's Fork of the Snake River, and the northern branches of Salmon River. Their winter quarters are upon the Racine Amere, where they subsist upon roots and dried buffalo meat. Upon this river the Hudson's Bay Company have established a trading post, where the Pends Oreilles and the Flatheads bring their peltries to exchange for arms, clothing and trinkets.

This tribe, like the Nez Perces, evince strong and peculiar feelings of natural piety. Their religion is not a mere superstitious fear, like that of most savages; they evince abstract notions of morality; a deep reverence for an overruling spirit, and a respect for the rights of their fellow men. In one respect their religion partakes of the pacific doctrines of the Quakers. They hold that the Great Spirit is displeased with all nations who wantonly engage in war; they abstain, therefore, from all aggressive hostilities. But though thus unoffending in their policy, they are called upon continually to wage defensive warfare; especially with the Blackfeet; with whom, in the course of their hunting expeditions, they come in frequent collision and have desperate battles. Their conduct as warriors is without fear or reproach, and they can never be driven to abandon their hunting grounds.

Like most savages they are firm believers in dreams, and in the power and efficacy of charms and amulets, or medicines as they term them. Some of their braves, also, who have had numerous hairbreadth 'scapes, like the old Nez Perce chief in the battle of Pierre's Hole, are believed to wear a charmed life, and to be bullet-proof. Of these gifted beings marvelous anecdotes are related, which are most potently believed by their fellow savages, and sometimes almost credited by the white hunters.