25: First Visit to the Valley of the Big Horn
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MY brother was again bereaved in 1880 by the death of his little
daughter Orra. At her own request, Orra's body was interred in Rochester,
in beautiful Mount Hope Cemetery, by the side of little Kit Carson.
But joy follows upon sadness, and the summer before Will spent his last
season on the stage was a memorable one for him. It marked the birth
of another daughter, who was christened Irma. This daughter is the very
apple of her father's eye; to her he gives the affection that is her due,
and round her clings the halo of the tender memories of the other two
that have departed this life.
This year, 1882, was also the one in which Will paid his first visit
to the valley of the Big Horn. He had often traversed the outskirts
of that region, and heard incredible tales from Indians and trappers
of its wonders and beauties, but he had yet to explore it himself.
In his early experience as Pony Express rider, California Joe had
related to him the first story he had heard of the enchanted basin,
and in 1875, when he was in charge of a large body of Arapahoe Indians
that had been permitted to leave their reservation for a big hunt,
he obtained more details.
The agent warned Will that some of the Indians were dissatisfied,
and might attempt to escape, but to all appearances,
though he watched them sharply, they were entirely content.
Game was plentiful, the weather fine, and nothing seemed omitted
from the red man's happiness.
One night about twelve o'clock Will was aroused by an Indian guide,
who informed him that a party of some two hundred Arapahoes had
started away some two hours before, and were on a journey northward.
The red man does not wear his heart upon his sleeve for government daws
to peck at. One knows what he proposes to do after he has done it.
The red man is conspicuously among the things that are not always
what they seem.
Pursuit was immediately set on foot, and the entire body
of truant warriors were brought back without bloodshed.
One of them, a young warrior, came to Will's tent to beg for tobacco.
The Indian—as all know who have made his acquaintance—
has no difficulty in reconciling begging with his native dignity.
To work may be beneath him, to beg is a different matter,
and there is frequently a delightful hauteur about his mendicancy.
In this respect he is not unlike some of his white brothers.
Will gave the young chief the desired tobacco, and then questioned
him closely concerning the attempted escape.
"Surely," said he, "you cannot find a more beautiful spot than this.
The streams are full of fish, the grazing is good, the game is plentiful,
and the weather is fine. What more could you desire?"
The Indian drew himself up. His face grew eager, and his eyes
were full of longing as he answered, by the interpreter:
"The land to the north and west is the land of plenty.
There the buffalo grows larger; and his coat is darker.
There the bu-yu (antelope) comes in droves, while here there
are but few. There the whole region is covered with the short,
curly grass our ponies like. There grow the wild plums that are
good for my people in summer and winter. There are the springs
of the Great Medicine Man, Tel-ya-ki-y. To bathe in them gives
new life; to drink them cures every bodily ill.
"In the mountains beyond the river of the blue water there
is gold and silver, the metals that the white man loves.
There lives the eagle, whose feathers the Indian must have
to make his war-bonnet. There, too, the sun shines always.
"It is the Ijis (heaven) of the red man. My heart cries for it.
The hearts of my people are not happy when away from the Eithity Tugala."
The Indian folded his arms across his breast, and his eyes looked
yearningly toward the country whose delights he had so vividly pictured;
then he turned and walked sorrowfully away. The white man's
government shut him out from the possession of his earthly paradise.
Will learned upon further inquiry that Eithity Tugala was the Indian
name of the Big Horn Basin.
In the summer of 1882 Will's party of exploration left the cars
at Cheyenne, and struck out from this point with horses and pack-mules.
Will's eyes becoming inflamed, he was obliged to bandage them, and turn
the guidance of the party over to a man known as "Ready." For days
he traveled in a blinded state, and though his eyes slowly bettered,
he did not remove the bandage until the Big Horn Basin was reached.
They had paused for the midday siesta, and Reddy inquired whether it
would not be safe to uncover the afflicted eyes, adding that he thought
Will "would enjoy looking around a bit."
Off came the bandage, and I shall quote Will's own words to describe
the scene that met his delighted gaze:
"To my right stretched a towering range of snow-capped mountains,
broken here and there into minarets, obelisks, and spires.
Between me and this range of lofty peaks a long irregular line
of stately cottonwoods told me a stream wound its way beneath.
The rainbow-tinted carpet under me was formed of innumerable
brilliant-hued wild flowers; it spread about me in every direction,
and sloped gracefully to the stream. Game of every kind
played on the turf, and bright-hued birds flitted over it.
It was a scene no mortal can satisfactorily describe.
At such a moment a man, no matter what his creed, sees the hand
of the mighty Maker of the universe majestically displayed
in the beauty of nature; he becomes sensibly conscious, too,
of his own littleness. I uttered no word for very awe;
I looked upon one of nature's masterpieces.
"Instantly my heart went out to my sorrowful Arapahoe friend of 1875.
He had not exaggerated; he had scarcely done the scene justice.
He spoke of it as the Ijis, the heaven of the red man. I regarded it then,
and still regard it, as the Mecca of all appreciative humanity."
To the west of the Big Horn Basin, Hart Mountain rises abruptly
from the Shoshone River. It is covered with grassy slopes and
deep ravines; perpendicular rocks of every hue rise in various
places and are fringed with evergreens. Beyond this mountain,
in the distance, towers the hoary head of Table Mountain. Five miles
to the southwest the mountains recede some distance from the river,
and from its bank Castle Rock rises in solitary grandeur.
As its name indicates, it has the appearance of a castle,
with towers, turrets, bastions, and balconies.
Grand as is the western view, the chief beauty lies in the south.
Here the Carter Mountain lies along the entire distance, and the grassy
spaces on its side furnish pasturage for the deer, antelope, and mountain
sheep that abound in this favored region. Fine timber, too, grows on its
rugged slopes; jagged, picturesque rock-forms are seen in all directions,
and numerous cold springs send up their welcome nectar.
It is among the foothills nestling at the base of this mountain
that Will has chosen the site of his future permanent residence.
Here there are many little lakes, two of which are named Irma
and Arta, in honor of his daughters. Here he owns a ranch of forty
thousand acres, but the home proper will comprise a tract of four
hundred and eighty acres. The two lakes referred to are in this tract,
and near them Will proposes to erect a palatial residence.
To him, as he has said, it is the Mecca of earth, and thither
he hastens the moment he is free from duty and obligation.
In that enchanted region he forgets for a little season the cares
and responsibilities of life.
A curious legend is told of one of the lakes that lie on the border
of this valley. It is small—half a mile long and a quarter wide—
but its depth is fathomless. It is bordered and shadowed
by tall and stately pines, quaking-asp and birch trees,
and its waters are pure and ice-cold the year round.
They are medicinal, too, and as yet almost unknown to white men.
Will heard the legend of the lake from the lips of an
old Cheyenne warrior.
"It was the custom of my tribe," said the Indian, "to assemble around this
lake once every month, at the hour of midnight, when the moon is at its full.
Soon after midnight a canoe filled with the specters of departed Cheyenne
warriors shot out from the eastern side of the lake and crossed rapidly
to the western border; there it suddenly disappeared.
"Never a word or sound escaped from the specters in the canoe.
They sat rigid and silent, and swiftly plied their oars.
All attempts to get a word from them were in vain.
"So plainly were the canoe and its occupants seen that the features
of the warriors were readily distinguished, and relatives and
friends were recognized."
For years, according to the legend, the regular monthly trip was made,
and always from the eastern to the western border of the lake.
In 1876 it suddenly ceased, and the Indians were much alarmed.
A party of them camped on the bank of the lake, and watchers
were appointed for every night. It was fancied that the
ghostly boatmen had changed the date of their excursion.
But in three months there was no sign of canoe or canoeists,
and this was regarded as an omen of evil.
At a council of the medicine men, chiefs, and wiseacres of the tribe it
was decided that the canoeing trip had been a signal from the Great Spirit—
the canoe had proceeded from east to west, the course always followed
by the red man. The specters had been sent from the Happy Hunting-Grounds
to indicate that the tribe should move farther west, and the sudden
disappearance of the monthly signal was augured to mean the extinction
of the race.
Once when Will was standing on the border of this lake a Sioux
warrior came up to him. This man was unusually intelligent,
and desired that his children should be educated.
He sent his two sons to Carlisle, and himself took great pains
to learn the white man's religious beliefs, though he still
clung to his old savage customs and superstitions.
A short time before he talked with Will large companies of Indians
had made pilgrimages to join one large conclave, for the purpose
of celebrating the Messiah, or "Ghost Dance." Like all
religious celebrations among savage people, it was accompanied
by the grossest excesses and most revolting immoralities.
As it was not known what serious happening these large gatherings
might portend, the President, at the request of many people,
sent troops to disperse the Indians. The Indians resisted,
and blood was spilled, among the slain being the sons of the Indian
who stood by the side of the haunted lake.
"It is written in the Great Book of the white man," said the old chief
to Will, "that the Great Spirit—the Nan-tan-in-chor—is to come to him again
on earth. The white men in the big villages go to their council-lodges
(churches) and talk about the time of his coming. Some say one time,
some say another, but they all know the time will come, for it is written
in the Great Book. It is the great and good among the white men that go
to these council-lodges, and those that do not go say, `It is well;
we believe as they believe; He will come.' It is written in the Great Book
of the white man that all the human beings on earth are the children
of the one Great Spirit. He provides and cares for them. All he asks
in return is that his children obey him, that they be good to one another,
that they judge not one another, and that they do not kill or steal.
Have I spoken truly the words of the white man's Book?"
Will bowed his head, somewhat surprised at the tone of the old
chief's conversation. The other continued:
"The red man, too, has a Great Book. You have never seen it;
no white man has ever seen it; it is hidden here." He pressed his hand
against his heart. "The teachings of the two books are the same.
What the Great Spirit says to the white man, the Nan-tan-in-chor
says to the red man. We, too, go to our council-lodges to talk of
the second coming. We have our ceremony, as the white man has his.
The white man is solemn, sorrowful; the red man is happy and glad.
We dance and are joyful, and the white man sends soldiers to shoot us down.
Does their Great Spirit tell them to do this?
"In the big city (Washington) where I have been, there is another
big book (the Federal Constitution), which says the white man
shall not interfere with the religious liberty of another.
And yet they come out to our country and kill us when we show
our joy to Nan-tan-in-chor.
"We rejoice over his second coming; the white man mourns, but he sends
his soldiers to kill us in our rejoicing. Bah! The white man is false.
I return to my people, and to the customs and habits of my forefathers.
I am an Indian!"
The old chief strode away with the dignity of a red Caesar, and Will,
alone by the lake, reflected that every question has two sides to it.
The one the red man has held in the case of the commonwealth versus
the Indian has ever been the tragic side.
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