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The Last of the Chiefs: A Story of the Great Sioux War

The Last of the Chiefs: A Story of the Great Sioux War

Author:Joseph A. Altsheler


The boy in the third wagon was suffering from exhaustion. The days and days of walking over the rolling prairie, under a brassy sun, the hard food of the train, and the short hours of rest, had put too severe a trial upon his delicate...
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  The boy in the third wagon was suffering from exhaustion. Thedays and days of walking over the rolling prairie, under a brassysun, the hard food of the train, and the short hours of rest, hadput too severe a trial upon his delicate frame. Now, as he layagainst the sacks and boxes that had been drawn up to form a sortof couch for him, his breath came in short gasps, and his facewas very pale. His brother, older, and stronger by far, whowalked at the wheel, regarded him with a look in which affectionand intense anxiety were mingled. It was not a time and place inwhich one could afford to be ill.

  Richard and Albert Howard were bound together by the strongest ofbrotherly ties. Richard had inherited his father's bigness andpowerful constitution, Albert his mother's slenderness andfragility. But it was the mother who lived the longer, althougheven she did not attain middle age, and her last words to herolder son were: "Richard, take care of Albert." He had promised,and now was thinking how he could keep the promise.

  It was a terrible problem that confronted Richard Howard. Hefelt no fear on his own account. A boy in years, he was a man inthe ability to care for himself, wherever he might be. In aboyhood spent on an Illinois farm, where the prairies slope up tothe forest, he had learned the ways of wood and field, and wasfull of courage, strength, and resource.

  But Albert was different. He had not thrived in the moist air ofthe great valley. Tall enough he was, but the width of chest andthickness of bone were lacking. Noticing this, the idea of goingto California had come to the older brother. The great gold dayshad passed years since, but it was still a land of enchantment tothe youth of the older states, and the long journey in the high,dry air of the plains would be good for Albert. There wasnothing to keep them back. They had no property save a littlemoney--enough for their equipment, and a few dollars over tolive on in California until they could get work.

  To decide was to start, and here they were in the middle of thevast country that rolled away west of the Missouri, known butlittle, and full of dangers. The journey had been much harderthan the older boy had expected. The days stretched out, theweeks trailed away, and still the plains rolled before them.

  The summer had been of the hottest, and the heated earth gaveback the glare until the air quivered in torrid waves. Richardhad drawn back the cover of the wagon that his brother mightbreathe the air, but he replaced it now to protect him from theoverpowering beams. Once more he anxiously studied the country,but it gave him little hope. The green of the grass was gone,and most of the grass with it. The brown undulations swept awayfrom horizon to horizon, treeless, waterless, and bare. In allthat vast desolation there was nothing save the tired and dustytrain at the very center of it.

  "Anything in sight, Dick?" asked Albert, who had followed hisbrother's questioning look.

  Dick shook his head.

  "Nothing, Al," he replied.

  "I wish we'd come to a grove," said the sick boy.

  He longed, as do all those who are born in the hills, for thesight of trees and clear, running water.

  "I was thinking, Dick," he resumed in short, gasping tones, "thatit would be well for us, just as the evening was coming on, to goover a swell and ride right into a forest of big oaks and maples,with the finest little creek that you ever saw running throughthe middle of it. It would be pleasant and shady there. Leaveswould be lying about, the water would be cold, and maybe we'd seeelk coming down to drink."

  "Perhaps we'll have such luck, Al," said Dick, although his toneshowed no such hope. But he added, assuming a cheerful manner:"This can't go on forever; we'll be reaching the mountains soon,and then you'll get well."

  "How's that brother of yours? No better, I see, and he's got toride all the time now, making more load for the animals."

  It was Sam Conway, the leader of the train, who spoke, a roughman of middle age, for whom both Dick and Albert had acquired adeep dislike. Dick flushed through his tan at the hard words.

  "If he's sick he had the right to ride," he replied sharply."We've paid our share for this trip and maybe a little more.You know that."

  Conway gave him an ugly look, but Dick stood up straight andstrong, and met him eye for eye. He was aware of their rightsand he meant to defend them. Conway, confronted by a dauntlessspirit, turned away, muttering in a surly fashion:

  "We didn't bargain to take corpses across the plains."

  Fortunately, the boy in the wagon did not hear him, and, thoughhis eyes flashed ominously, Dick said nothing. It was not a timefor quarreling, but it was often hard to restrain one's temper.He had realized, soon after the start, when it was too late towithdraw, that the train was not a good one. It was made upmostly of men. There were no children, and the few women, likethe men, were coarse and rough. Turbulent scenes had occurred,but Dick and Albert kept aloof, steadily minding their ownbusiness.

  "What did Conway say?" asked Albert, after the man had gone.

  "Nothing of any importance. He was merely growling as usual. Helikes to make himself disagreeable. I never saw another man whogot as much enjoyment out of that sort of thing."

  Albert said nothing more, but closed his eyes. The canvas coverprotected him from the glare of the sun, but seemed to hold theheat within it. Drops of perspiration stood on his face, andDick longed for the mountains, for his brother's sake.

  All the train fell into a sullen silence, and no sound was heardbut the unsteady rumble of the wheels, the creak of an ungreasedaxle, and the occasional crack of a whip. Clouds of dust aroseand were whipped by the stray winds into the faces of thetravelers, the fine particles burning like hot ashes. The trainmoved slowly and heavily, as if it dragged a wounded length overthe hard ground.

  Dick Howard kept his position by the side of the wagon in whichhis brother lay. He did not intend that Albert should hearbitter words leveled at his weakness, and he knew that his ownpresence was a deterrent. The strong figures and dauntless portof the older youth inspired respect. Moreover, he carried overhis shoulder a repeating rifle of the latest pattern, and hisbelt was full of cartridges. He and Albert had been particularabout their arms. It was a necessity. The plains and themountains were subject to all the dangers of Indian warfare, andthey had taken a natural youthful pride in buying the finest ofweapons.

  The hot dust burned Dick Howard's face and crept into his eyesand throat. His tongue lay dry in his mouth. He might haveridden in one of the wagons, too, had he chosen. As he trulysaid, he and Albert had paid their full share, and in the laborof the trail, he was more efficient than anybody else in thetrain. But his pride had been touched by Conway's words. Hewould not ride, nor would he show any signs of weakness. Hestrode on by the side of the wagon, head erect, his step firm andspringy.

  The sun crept slowly down the brassy arch of the heavens, and theglare grew less blinding. The heat abated, but Albert Howard,who had fallen asleep, slept on. His brother drew a blanket overhim, knowing that he could not afford to catch cold, and breathedthe cooler air himself, with thankfulness. Conway came backagain, and was scarcely less gruff than before, although he saidnothing about Albert.

  "Bright Sun says than in another day or two we'll be seeing themountains," he vouchsafed; "and I'll be glad of it, because thenwe'll be coming to water and game."

  "I'd like to be seeing them now," responded Dick; "but do youbelieve everything that Bright Sun says?"

  "Of course I do. Hasn't he brought us along all right? What areyou driving at?"

  His voice rose to a challenging tone, in full accordance with thenature of the man, whenever anyone disagreed with him, but DickHoward took not the least fear.

  "I don't altogether like Bright Sun," he replied. "Just why, Ican't say, but the fact remains that I don't like him. Itdoesn't seem natural for an Indian to be so fond of white people,and to prefer another race to his own."

  Conway laughed harshly.

  "That shows how much you know," he said. "Bright Sun is smart,smarter than a steel trap. He knows that the day of the red ispassing, and he's going to train with the white. What's the useof being on the losing side? It's what I say, and it's whatBright Sun thinks."

  The man's manner was gross and materialistic, so repellent thatDick would have turned away, but at that moment Bright Sunhimself approached. Dick regarded him, as always, with thekeenest interest and curiosity mixed with some suspicion. Yetalmost anyone would have been reassured by the appearance ofBright Sun. He was a splendid specimen of the Indian, althoughin white garb, even to the soft felt hat shading his face. Buthe could never have been taken for a white man. His hair wasthick, black, and coarse, his skin of the red man's typicalcoppery tint, and his cheek bones high and sharp. His lean butsinewy and powerful figure rose two inches above six feet. Therewas an air about him, too, that told of strength other than thatof the body. Guide he was, but leader he looked.

  "Say, Bright Sun," exclaimed Conway coarsely, "Dick Howard herethinks you're too friendly with the whites. It don't seemnatural to him that one of your color should consort so freelywith us."

  Dick's face flushed through the brown, and he shot an angryglance at Conway, but Bright Sun did not seem to be offended.

  "Why not?" he asked in perfect English. "I was educated in amission school. I have been with white people most of my life, Ihave read your books, I know your civilization, and I like it."

  "There now!" exclaimed Conway triumphantly. "Ain't that ananswer for you? I tell you what, Bright Sun, I'm for you, Ibelieve in you, and if anybody can take us through all right toCalifornia, you're the man."

  "It is my task and I will accomplish it," said Bright Sun in theprecise English he had learned at the mission school.

  His eyes met Dick's for a moment, and the boy saw there a flashthat might mean many things--defiance, primeval force, and thequality that plans and does. But the flash was gone in aninstant, like a dying spark, and Bright Sun turned away. Conwayalso left, but Dick's gaze followed the Indian.

  He did not know Bright Sun's tribe. He had heard that he was aSioux, also that he was a Crow, and a third report credited himwith being a Cheyenne. As he never painted his face, dressedlike a white man, and did not talk of himself and his people, thecurious were free to surmise as they chose. But Dick was sure ofone thing: Bright Sun was a man of power. It was not a matter ofsurmise, he felt it instinctively.

  The tall figure of the Indian was lost among the wagons, and Dickturned his attention to the trail. The cooling waves continuedto roll up, as the west reddened into a brilliant sunset. Greatbars of crimson, then of gold, and the shades in between, piledabove one another on the horizon. The plains lost their brown,and gleamed in wonderful shimmering tints. The great desolateworld became beautiful.

  The train stopped with a rumble, a creak, and a lurch, and themen began to unharness the animals. Albert awoke with a startand sat up in the wagon.

  "Night and the camp, Al," said Dick cheerfully; "feel better,don't you?

  "Yes, I do," replied Albert, as a faint color came into his face.

  "Thought the rest and the coolness would brace you up," continuedDick in the same cheerful tone.

  Albert, a tall, emaciated boy with a face of great refinement anddelicacy, climbed out of the wagon and looked about. Dick busiedhimself with the work of making camp, letting Albert give whathelp he could.

  But Dick always undertook to do enough for two--his brother andhimself--and he really did enough for three. No other was soswift and skillful at taking the gear off horse or mule, nor wasthere a stronger or readier arm at the wheel when it wasnecessary to complete the circle of wagons that they nightlymade. When this was done, he went out on the prairie in searchof buffalo chips for the fire, which he was fortunate enough tofind without any trouble.

  Before returning with his burden, Dick stood a few momentslooking back at the camp. The dusk had fully come, but the fireswere not yet lighted, and he saw only the shadowy forms of thewagons and flitting figures about them. But much talked reachedhis ears, most of it coarse and rough, with a liberal sprinklingof oaths. Dick sighed. His regret was keener than ever thatAlbert and he were in such company. Then he looked the otherway out upon the fathomless plains, where the night had gathered,and the wind was moaning among the swells. The air was now chillenough to make him shiver, and he gazed with certain awe into theblack depths. The camp, even with all its coarseness androughness, was better, and he walked swiftly back with his loadof fuel.

  They built a dozen fires within the circle of the wagons, andagain Dick was the most active and industrious of them all, doinghis share, Albert's, and something besides. When the fires werelighted they burned rapidly and merrily, sending up great tonguesof red or yellow flame, which shed a flickering light overwagons, animals, and men. A pleasant heat was suffused and Dickbegan to cook supper for Albert and himself, bringing it from thewagon in which his brother and he had a share. He fried baconand strips of dried beef, boiled coffee, and warmed slices ofbread over the coals.

  He saw with intense pleasure that Albert ate with a betterappetite than he had shown for days. As for himself, he was ashungry as a horse--he always was on this great journey--andsince there was plenty, he ate long, and was happy.

  Dick went to the wagon, and returned with a heavy cloak, which hethrew over Albert's shoulders.

  "The night's getting colder," he said, "and you mustn't take anyrisks, Al. There's one trouble about a camp fire in the open--yourface can burn while your back freezes."

  Content fell over the camp. Even rough men of savage instinctsare willing to lie quiet when they are warm and well fed. Jokes,coarse but invariably in good humor, were exchanged. The firesstill burned brightly, and the camp formed a core of light andwarmth in the dark, cold wilderness.

  Albert, wrapped in the cloak, lay upon his side and elbow gazingdreamily into the flames. Dick sat near him, frying a piece ofbacon on the end of a stick. Neither heard the step behind thembecause it was noiseless, but both saw the tall figure of BrightSun, as he came up to their fire.

  "Have a piece of bacon, Bright Sun," said Dick hospitably,holding out the slice to him, and at the same time wonderingwhether the Indian would take it.

  Bright Sun shook his head.

  "I thank you," he replied, "but I have eaten enough. How is Mr.Albert Howard now?"

  Dick appreciated the inquiry, whether or not it was prompted bysympathy.

  "Good," he replied. "Al's picking up. Haven't seen him eat ashe did to-night for months. If he keeps on this way, he'lldevour a whole buffalo as soon as he's able to kill one."

  Bright Sun smiled, and sat down on the ground near them. Itseemed to the boy, a keen observer of his kind, that he wished totalk. Dick was willing.

  "Do you know," asked Bright Sun, "that reports of gold in theregion to the north, called by you the Black Hills, have come tous?"

  "I heard some one speak of it two or three days ago," repliedDick, "but I paid no attention to it."

  Bright Sun looked thoughtfully into the fire, the glow of whichfell full upon his face, revealing every feature like carving.His nose was hooked slightly, and to Dick it now looked like thebeak of an eagle. The somber eyes, too, expressed brooding andmastery alike.

  Despite himself, Dick felt again that he was in the presence ofpower, and he was oppressed by a sense of foreboding.

  "It was worth attention," said Bright Sun in the slow, precisetones of one who speaks a language not his own, but who speaks itperfectly. "The white man's gold is calling to him loudly. Itcalls all through the day and night. Do these men with whom youtravel go to anything certain far over on the coast of theWestern ocean? No, they are leaves blown by the wind. The windnow blows in the direction of the Black Hills, where the gold issaid to be, and to-morrow the wagon train turns its head thatway."

  Dick sat up straight, and Albert, wrapped in his blanket, leanedforward to listen.

  "But the engagement with us all," said Dick, "was to go to thePacific. Albert and I paid our share for that purpose. Conwayknows it."

  The Indian looked at Dick. The boy thought he saw a flickeringsmile of amusement in his eyes, but it was faint, and gone in amoment.

  "Conway does not care for that," said the Indian. "Yourcontracts are nothing to him. This is the wilderness, and itstretches away for many hundreds of miles in every direction.The white man's law does not come here. Moreover, nearly allwish him to turn to the North and the gold."

  Albert suddenly spoke, and his tone, though thin from physicalweakness, was quick, intense, and eager.

  "Why couldn't we go on with them, Dick?" he said. "We havenothing definite on the Pacific coast. We are merely takingchances, and if the Black Hills are full of gold, we might getour share!"

  Dick's eyes glistened. If one had to go, one might make the bestof it. The spirit of romance was alive within him. He was onlya boy.

  "Of course we'll go, Al," he said lightly, "and you and I willhave a tone of gold inside a year."

  Bright Sun looked at the two boys, first one and then the other,stalwart Dick and weak Albert. It seemed to Dick that he saw anew expression in the Indian's eyes, one that indicated theshadow of regret. He resented it. Did Bright Sun think thatAlbert and he were not equal to the task?

  "I am strong," he said; "I can lift and dig enough for two; butAlbert will also be strong, after we have been a little while inthe mountains."

  "You might have strength enough. I do not doubt it," said BrightSun softly, "but the Black Hills are claimed by the Sioux. Theydo not wish the white men to come there, and the Sioux are agreat and powerful tribe, or rather a nation of several alliedand kindred tribes, the most powerful Indian nation west of theMississippi."

  Bright Sun's voice rose a little toward the last, and the slightupward tendency gave emphasis and significance to his words. Thebrooding eyes suddenly shot forth a challenging light.

  "Are you a Sioux?" asked Dick involuntarily.

  Bright Sun bent upon him a look of gentle reproof.

  "Since I have taken the ways of your race I have no tribe," hereplied. "But, as I have said, the Sioux claim the Black Hills,and they have many thousands of warriors, brave, warlike, andresolved to keep the country."

  "The government will see that there is no war," said Dick.

  "Governments can do little in a wilderness," replied Bright Sun.

  Dick might have made a rejoinder, but at that moment a burlyfigure came into the light of the fire. It was Sam Conway, andhe glanced suspiciously at the Indian and the two boys.

  "Are you telling 'em, Bright Sun, when we'll reach California?"he asked.

  Bright Sun gave him an oblique glance. The Indian seldom looksthe white man in the face, but it was obvious that Bright Sun wasnot afraid of the leader. Conway, as well as the others, knewit.

  "No," he replied briefly.

  "It's just as well that you haven't," said Conway briskly,"'cause we're not going to California at all--at least not thisyear. It's the wish and general consensus of this here trainthat we turn to the North, go into the Black Hills, and fill ourwagons with gold."

  "So it's decided, then, is it?" asked Dick.

  "Yes, it's decided," replied Conway, his tone now becomingpositively brutal, "and if you and your brother don't like it,you know what you can do."

  "Keep on alone for the coast, I suppose," said Dick, looking himsteadily in the face.

  "If you put it that way."

  "But we don't choose," said Dick, "Al and I have an interest inone wagon and team, and we're going to hold on to it. Besides,we're quite willing to try our luck in the Black Hills, too.We're going with you."

  Conway frowned, but Dick also was not afraid of him, and knewthat he could not turn the two boys out on the prairie. They hada full right to go with the train.

  "That settles it," he said, turning away. "You can do as youplease, but what happens after we get into the Black Hills isanother thing. Likely, we'll scatter."

  The sound of his retreating footsteps quickly died away in thedarkness, and Bright Sun, too, slid among the shadows. He wasgone so quickly and quietly that it gave Dick an uncanny feeling.

  "What do you make of it, Al?" he asked his brother. "What doesBright Sun mean by what he said to us?"

  The glow of the flame fell across Albert's pale face, and, by thelight of it, Dick saw that he was very thoughtful. He seemed tobe looking over and beyond the fire and the dark prairie, intotime rather than space.

  "I think it was a warning, Dick," replied Albert at last. "MaybeBright Sun intended it for only you and me. But I want to go upthere in the Black Hills, Dick."

  "And so do I. It'll be easier for you, Al, than the trip acrossthe continent. When you are a mile and a half or two miles abovethe sea, you'll begin to take on flesh like a bear in summer.Besides, the gold, Al! think of the gold!"

  Albert smiled. He, too, was having happy thoughts. The warmglow of the fire clothed him and he was breathing easily andpeacefully. By and by he sank down in his blanket and fell intoa sound sleep. Dick himself did not yet have any thought ofslumber. Wide-awake visions were pursuing one another throughhis brain. He saw the mountains, dark and shaggy with pineforests, the thin, healing air over them, and the beds of gold intheir bosom, with Albert and himself discovering and triumphant.

  The fire died down, and glowed a mass of red embers. The talksank. Most of the men were asleep, either in their blankets orin the wagons. The darkness thickened and deepened and cameclose up to the fires, a circling rim of blackness. But Dick wasstill wakeful, dreaming with wide-open eyes his golden dreams.

  As the visions followed one after another, a shadow which was nota part of any of them seemed to Dick to melt into the uttermostdarkness beyond the fires. A trace of something familiar in thefigure impressed him, and, rising, he followed swiftly.

  The figure, still nebulous and noiseless, went on in thedarkness, and another like it seemed to rise from the plain andjoin it. Then they were lost to the sight of the pursuer,seeming to melt into and become a part of the surroundingdarkness. Dick, perplexed and uneasy, returned to the fire. Thesecond shadow must certainly have been that of a stranger. Whatdid it mean?

  He resumed his seat before the red glow, clasping his arms aroundhis knees, a splendid, resourceful youth whom nature and a hardylife had combined to make what he was. His brother still sleptsoundly and peacefully, but the procession of golden visions didnot pass again through Dick's brain; instead, it was a long trailof clouds, dark and threatening. He sought again and again toconjure the clouds away and bring back the golden dreams, but hecould not.

  The fire fell to nothing, the triumphant darkness swept up andblotted out the last core of light, the wind, edged with ice,blew in from the plains. Dick shivered, drew a heavy blanketaround his own shoulders, and moved a little, as he saw the dimfigure of Bright Sun passing at the far edge of the wagons, butquickly relapsed into stillness.

  Sleep at last pulled down his troubled lids. His figure sank,and, head on arms, he slumbered soundly.