IT was many years ago, when I was only a child, began White Ghost, the patriarchal old chief of the Yanktonnais Sioux, that our band was engaged in a desperate battle with the Rees and Mandans. The cause of the fight was a peculiar one. I will tell you about it. And he laid aside his long-stemmed pipe and settled himself to the recital.
At that time the Yanktonnais numbered a little over forty families. We were nicknamed by the other bands Shunkikoheka, or Domestic Dogs, because of our owning large numbers of these animals. My father was the head chief.
Our favorite wintering place was a timbered tract near the mouth of the Grand River, and it was here that we met the Blackfoot Sioux in the fall hunt. On the opposite side of the river from our camp was the permanent village of the Rees and Mandans, whose houses were of dirt and partly underground. For a hundred years before this time they had planted large gardens, and we were accustomed to buy of them corn, beans, and pumpkins. From time to time our people had made treaties of peace with them. Each family of the Rees had one or two buffalo boats -- not round as the Sioux made them, but two or three skins long. In these boats they brought quantities of dried beans and other vegetables to trade with us for jerked buffalo meat.
It was a great gathering and a time of general festivity and hospitality. The Sioux young men were courting the Ree girls, and the Ree braves were courting our girls, while the old people bartered their produce. All day the river was alive with canoes and its banks rang with the laughter of the youths and maidens.
My father's younger brother, whose name was Big Whip, had a close friend, a young man who ever after the event of which I am about to tell you, was known as Bald Eagle. They were both daring young men and very ambitious for distinction. They had been following the Ree girls to their canoes as they returned to their homes in the evening.
Big Whip and his friend stood upon the river bank at sunset, one with a quiver full of arrows upon his back while the other carried a gun under his blanket. Nearly all the people of the other village had crossed the river, and the chief of the Rees, whose name was Bald Eagle, went home with his wife last of all. It was about dusk as they entered their bull-hide boat, and the two Sioux stood there looking at them.
Suddenly Big Whip exclaimed: "Friend, let us kill the chief. I dare you to kill and scalp him!" His friend replied: --
"It shall be as you say. I will stand by you in all things. I am willing to die with you."
Accordingly Bald Eagle pulled out his gun and shot the Ree dead. From that day he took his name. The old man fell backward into his boat and the old woman screamed and wept as she rowed him across the river. The other young man shot an arrow or two at the wife, but she continued to row until she reached the other bank.
There was great excitement on both sides of the river as soon as the people saw what had happened. There were two camps of Sioux, the Blackfoot Sioux and the Yanktonnais, or our people. Of course the Mandans and Rees greatly outnumbered us; their camp must have numbered two or three thousand, which was more than we had in our combined camps.
There was a Sioux whose name was Black Shield, who had inter-married among the Rees. He came down to the opposite bank of the Missouri and shouted to us: --
"Of which one of your bands is the man who killed Bald Eagle?"
One of the Blackfoot Sioux replied:
"It is a man of the Yanktonnais Sioux who killed Bald Eagle."
Then he said: "The Rees wish to do battle with them; you had better withdraw from their camp."
Accordingly the Blackfeet retired about a mile from us upon the bluffs and pitched their tents, while the Yanktonnais remained on the flats. The two bands had been great rivals in courage and the art of war, so we did not ask for help from our kinsfolk, but during the night we dug trenches about the camp, the inner one for the women and children, and the outer one for the men to stay in and do battle.
The next morning at daybreak the enemy landed and approached our camp in great numbers. Some of their women and old men came also, and sat upon the bluffs to watch the fight and to carry off their dead and wounded. The Blackfeet likewise were watching the battle from the bluffs, and just before the fight began one Blackfoot came in with his wife and joined us. His name was Red Dog's Track, but from that day he was called He-Came-Back. His wife was a Yanktonnais, and he had said to her: "If I don't join your tribe to-day, my brothers-in-law will call me a coward."
The Sioux were well entrenched and well armed with guns and arrows, and their aim was deadly, so that the Rees crawled up gradually and took every opportunity to pick off any Sioux who ventured to show his head above the trenches. In like manner every Ree who exposed himself was sure to die.
Up to this time no one had seen the two men who made all the trouble. There was a natural hollow in the bank, concealed by buffalo berry bushes, very near where they stood when Bald Eagle shot the Ree.
"Friend," said Big Whip, "it is likely that our own people will punish us for this deed. They will pursue and kill us wherever they find us. They have the right to do this. The best thing is to drop into this washout and remain there until they cease to look for us."
They did so, and remained hidden during the night. But after the fight began, Big Whip said again: "Friend, we are the cause of the deaths of many brave men this day. We committed the act to show our bravery. We dared each other to do it. It will now become us as warriors to join our band."
Then both stripped, and taking their weapons in hand ran toward the camp. They had to pass directly through the enemy's lines, but they were not recognized till they had fairly passed them. Then they were between two fires. When they had almost reached the entrenchment, they faced about and fired at the Rees, jumping about incessantly to avoid being hit, as is the Indian fashion. Bullets and arrows were flying all about them like hail, but at last they dropped back unhurt into the Sioux trenches. Thus the two men saved their reputation for bravery, and their people never openly reproached them for the events of that day. Young men are often rash, but it is not well to reprove one for a brave deed lest he become a coward.
Many were killed but more of the Rees than of our band. About the middle of the afternoon there came a cold rain. It was in the fall of the year. The bow-strings were wet, and the guns were only flint-locks. You know when the flint becomes wet it is useless, and it looked as if the fight must be with knives.
But the Rees were much disheartened. They had lost many. The women were all the time carrying off the wounded, and there were the Blackfoot Sioux watching them from the hills. They turned and fled toward the river. The Sioux followed like crazy wolves, tomahawking the tired and slow ones. Many were killed at the boats, and some of the boats were punctured with shot and sank. Some carried a load of Sioux arrows back across the river. That was the greatest battle ever fought by our band, the old man concluded, with a deep sigh of mingled satisfaction and regret.