The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

CHARCOAL


 

PRETTY-FACE HAD PROMISED to behave herself once more. But this time she promised in a different way, and her husband, Charcoal, was satisfied, which he had not always been before. Charcoal wanted to be what his agent called “a good Indian.” He wanted to have a new cooking stove, and a looking-glass. He already had cattle on loan, and was one of the best workers in the hay-fields. But it was disturbing that he should so often come back from his work to find his wife talking to Bad-young-man, who never did a stroke of work, who ranged off the reserve into Montana or Kootenay scorning permits, and who made trouble wherever he came. Pretty-face would promise solemnly never to have a word with Bad-young-man again, but many times had she had broken her promise, and Charcoal would return to meet the rover on his pony, and hear his impudent hail as he passed him in his barbaric trappings, his hair full of brass pistol cartridges and the tin trademarks from his tobacco plugs. But this last promise of Pretty-face was in something different, and Charcoal was satisfied. So satisfied was he that he bought for her the medicine-pole-bag, which made her, without any question, the first lady on the reserve.

    And Pretty-face kept her promise. It was true that Bad-young-man was away, no one knew where; but Charcoal was infinitely satisfied to come home and find her looking after the children, or preparing his supper herself, instead of leaving it to her mother, whose cookery his soul hated. He took a great satisfaction now in the prospect of his small shanty and his larger stable, with three tepees grouped around them, and his verdant garden patches fenced to keep out the cattle. He took a greater pleasure out of his wife’s social position than she did, and viewed the medicine-pole-bag with a sort of awe. With an infantine curiosity he wondered what were the sacred mysteries of the “Mow-to-kee” when the centre pole was raised. Pretty-face allowed him to see the contents of the parfleche bag, which had cost him so many good dollars; the snake-skin head-band into which the feathers were stuck; the little sacks of paint, red earth and grease; the shells in which the paint is mixed; the sweet grass to burn as incense during prayer-making; and the whistle to mark the rhythm for dancing.

    More and more evident were the results of his toil and his obedience to his agent and his instructor. He began to see clearly that what they had told him was truth. He could trace every dollar of the twenty-five he had paid for the medicine-pole-bag to some good stroke of work he had done in the hay-fields. He did not know it, but the agent had asked the Department for lumber to build him a new house, and his chief ambitions were forming solidly in the future. Verily, the white man’s ways were the best.

    So his feeling was all the more intense when he returned home one evening in October and found that Bad-young-man had been there. He did not see him, but there was no need of such crude evidence. There was no visible trace in the demeanor of Pretty-face nor in the bearing of the mother-in-law. His wife had even prepared his favourite dish for supper. But another date had been written down. Bad-young-man had come back.

    Charcoal ate his meal in silence, and Pretty-face was so frightened that she went away when he began to fill his pipe. But he did not really care just then what she did. He wrapped a blanket around his shirt and went out to see his paternal grandfather, who lived in one of the tepees. He had been a mighty warrior in his day, but now he was old, and could only remember the time of his prowess which had gone by. He could talk, but he could not see, and his chief delight was in smoking and sleeping in the sun. That night when he smelt Charcoal’s tobacco, his tongue was loosened, and he told many a story of violent deed and desperate death; of how he had killed Crees as if they were coyotes; of how he had shot and scalped whitemen who now seemed to own the prairies, and he had scalps to prove his valour. Charcoal was convinced that the old way was a good way, and he went out into the moonlight, unhobbled one of his ponies and rode away furiously, yelling every little while at the moon. When he came back he pulled Pretty-face out of one of the tepees where she was hiding. She thought he was going to kill her, but he only warned her that he would kill her and Bad-young-man if he ever heard of them being together again. Then he let her go, and went and got the medicine-pole-bag and gave it to his grandfather.

    After a night’s sleep he had forgotten his lapse to paganism, and again found himself wanting to be a “good” Indian. It was the end of October, and a ration day, and Charcoal went up to the ration house himself, instead of sending one of his women. He rode his best pony, and took his rifle with him. The farther he got from home the more restless he felt, and he went down to his brother-in-law’s camp and had dinner.

    It was late in the afternoon when he returned to his own place taking a shortcut over an unused trail. As he neared his camp he saw fresh marks of a pony’s hoofs. They ran into the bushes beside the trail. He knew they were made by Bad-young-man’s pony. He seemed to be only thinking as he rode along but was keenly watching, and when he saw a slight movement, hardly the tremble of leaves, he fired. His pony stopped. Something fell out from the bushes, half way across the trail. It was Bad-young-man’s body. The pony sniffed, then plunged and dashed by; but Charcoal never dropped his eyes. When he reached the house he went into the tepee to talk with his grandfather, and the women who had heard the shot rushed off to find Pretty-face.

    After Charcoal had head what his grandfather had to say, he declared that the old way was the best, that he had done well, and he went out and made his “mark” to kill a white man. But he would take his time over that; no one would miss Bad-young-man for a long while. Pretty-face, remembering his warning, expected to be shot, and she kept out of sight for two days; but when he saw her he only scolded and called her the worst name he could in his own language, and nearly the worst he could in English, and because he had nothing to eat all the time except her mother’s odious bannocks fried in rancid grease. Charcoal’s settlement was some distance from the main trail to Macleod, and there was so little likelihood of any one coming up to his hill; so, for a week, Bad-young-man lay as he had fallen. No one went near him. For a day and a night his pony stood by him, but, wandering away looking for grass he was taken by one of the women and hobbled at night with the others.

    Suddenly Charcoal became restless. Watching from a small hill near his house, he saw the agent stop and look up at his place as if debating whether to visit him or not. He went on, but the next time he might come. That night it was dark, and a heavy cloud in the east threatened snow. Charcoal deemed that this was a good time to do a little shooting, so when one of the farm instructors, moving about his house, came between the lamp and a window, he heard the sharp crack of a rifle, and saw a flower-pot jump off the window sill. He did not believe he was hit until the doctor, tracing the bullet from the point of his hip backward, produced it from somewhere near his spine. Another inch and he would not have seen the flower-pot jump off the window sill. Up came the cloud carrying and scattering snow, and away went Charcoal with it.

    In the morning the reserve was alive with excitement. The Northwest Mounted Police patrols were out scouring the country, but safely were the marks of Charcoal’s pony hidden in the obscurity of the snow. Charcoal kept close to his place all day, but one of his women brought him up the news. The instructor was not even badly hurt; in a day or two he would be as well as ever. Charcoal did not care very much; all white men were alike to him; only he made his mark to kill one, the Agent this time. He would have done so had not Bad-young-man’s pony broken away and gone straight to the lower camp. His appearance caused a commotion, and soon it was known everywhere that Bad-young-man’s pony had come back without Bad-young-man, and the question naturally arose—what had become of that celebrated gambler and lady-killer. Every possible and probable cause of his disappearance was canvassed, when Medicine-pipe-crane-turning declared that he had been murdered. He had no evidence to offer, but he looked the pony all over and declared that he had been murdered.

    Charcoal was uneasy when he found that Bad-young-man’s pony had strayed off, and later in the morning he saw a girl of Wolf-bull’s band come out of the bushes near his trail. Something in the way this girl hurried along made him know that she had found Bad-young-man. Toward evening, when the police rode up with tramp and jangle, they found only Charcoal’s blind grandfather huddled up in his tepee. Hours before Charcoal and his whole menage, ponies, women, kids, kettles, blankets and all, had taken to the brush.

   That night it was known over the whole reserve that Charcoal had shot Bad-young-man and tried to kill an instructor. The word went out by runners to the farthest police posts, and while the fugitives were hidden in the bottom of some coulee under the stars and out of the wind, his fame had travelled from Macleod half-way round the world. No one could understand how Charcoal, who wanted to be a “good” Indian, had done this thing. He was a mild, big fellow, with sad eyes in a face rather emaciated. But, whatever reasons he had had, he was now to be caught and punished. It was once more civilization against savagery. Against this one Indian who had dared to follow the old tradition was arrayed all organized law. The Mounted Police, the Indian agent, and the Bloods, the people of his own clan and totem, who had learned well the white man’s treachery, were banded together to hunt him down. 

    Charcoal resolved that, so far as he was able, he would make it a long and merry chase. To that end he began by discarding all the comforts of his home; and one evening, about sundown, a squad of police were surprised to stumble on his women with the paraphernalia of his camp scurrying along the main trail. They gathered them in, but from them they could gain no clue to the whereabouts of the murderer. Now that he was free of his impediments Charcoal began a flitting to and fro that puzzled the most cunning scouts and unsettled the most phlegmatic brave on the reserve. Knowing all the fleetest ponies he stole them by night and used one until it was played out. In vain the scouts followed the tracks in the snow. Reports came in that he had been seen, mounted on a white horse, in the Belly River bottom; but it was found to be one of Cochrane’s cowboys. Three-bull’s piebald racer, the fastest pony on the reserve, was stolen, although his owner was watching all night, and the next morning he was found forty miles away completely exhausted. The Indians fell into a panic; no one did a stroke of work. Reports came in, which, if true, would mean that he had been seen on the same night in two different places thirty miles apart. The Indians believed that he had some “medicine”, and that he would never be caught. Three weeks had been lost in the chase, and even the police were beginning to chaff one another. It looked probable that Charcoal had retired to the wilds of the Kootenay, or had flitted over the line to Montana.

    He could have done either of these things readily enough, but, with a sort of bravado he chose to circle like a hawk about his own reserve. He well knew what an excitement his escapade was causing, and his gratified vanity bore him through perils and hardships which he might have shunned. All the nights of the late October were cold; he sometimes lay next his pony in the bottom of a coulee, sheltered from the wind, with his single blanket for a covering, or riding in the teeth of a storm of snow or sleet to appear or disappear like a spirit. Hunger pursued him. The white man, with his cunning, had locked up his women, and they could not cache food for him. He distrusted his relatives, he knew that they would be bribed to hunt him down or lay a trap for him. Sometimes he stood under the stars so near their tepee that he could hear their breathing. Once he stole two days’ rations from a Mounted Policeman who was sleeping by his hobbled horse. But always he was hungry. His face grew more emaciated and his eyes took on the glitter of ice under starlight. He called on his gods to strike his enemies. They had taken his country from him, his manners and his garb, and when he rebelled against them, their hands were upon him. Sometimes he felt as if his head was on fire, and he held his hands up in the dark to see the reflection of the flames. Sometimes he reeled in his saddle when he took off towards the foothills of the Rockies, shining silvery in the distance, like an uplifted land of promise.

    He was getting tired of it all. A sort of contempt for his pursuers, for the hundreds of them that could not catch him, crept upon him. He grew more careless and more daring. They found his trail mingled with their own. One day after a storm, in which three inches of snow had fallen, he struck the trail boldly at Bentley’s, crossed the ford there without any attempt at concealment, worked his way down the river. Again he forded; then doubling on his tracks through thick brush, recrossed his own trail at Bentley’s, and then followed the river bank up stream. Then, after a mile or so, he came out into the open. It was a clear morning after the storm; above, a lofty blue sky; below, the plain stretching away covered with the gleaming snow. He was riding leisurely, when suddenly, without turning around, he knew he was followed. Urging his horse and glancing over his shoulder, he saw three mounted men on his trail about a mile away. He dashed ahead, at first without eagerness, with an air of reckless contempt. The next time he looked he noticed that one of the horsemen had begun to draw away from his companions.

    Charcoal’s pony was not fresh, he had ridden him many a mile in the night, and the beast showed signs of fatigue. He urged him to the top of his speed, but next time he looked behind his pursuer had gained. He could see that he was mounted on a spirited horse which was perfectly fresh. He calculated that before he had gone another mile his enemy would be abreast of him. His own beast, instead of responding to his cries, seemed to lag. When Charcoal looked over his shoulder again he could almost distinguish the features of his pursuer. He had long, blonde moustaches and a ruddy face. Charcoal knew who it was. It was Sergeant Wales of the Pincher Creek detachment. He was rapidly overhauling him. Charcoal could hear him shout now and then. Glancing once more behind him, he saw that Wales had drawn his pistol and he would soon be within its range. Again he urged his tired beast. He kept his eyes fixed for a while on the snow which the hoofs of his pony were tramping. Over the light, uneven sound of his hoofs and the movements of his trappings, he began to hear the pounding of the approaching feet, regular and strong, and the jingle and rattle of accoutrements. Every moment he expected to hear the whistle of a bullet past his ears.

    Suddenly the thought flashed through him that Wales intended to take him alive and lead him back to the barracks a captive. No, he would never do that. Once more, and for the last time, he looked behind him. Rushing splendidly, horse and rider moving as one, they thundered down upon him. Sun flashing from red tunic, from points of brass and steel, foam springing from nostril white as the snow into which it fell, on they came to overwhelm irresistibly this rickety pony with its starved rider. Charcoal gazed for moment; he could see the eye-balls of his captor gleam. He did not utter a sound; he merely smiled with the glorious excitement and triumph. I will make him shoot me, the Indian thought. His rifle lay in the hollow of his arm; he turned away, and fired. Now he will shoot me in the back, he thought. No. Thirty yards they went. The Indian heard a cry behind him. He turned in time to see the towering frame of Wales swerve in his saddle, bend backwards, swing from his horse. In a flash Charcoal wheeled his pony. The horse, dragging its master’s weight, rushed on for twenty yards, then stopped. Quickly, so quickly that the words of the story seem laden, Charcoal dismounted. A couple of bullets whistled far over his head from his other pursuers half a mile away. Then he did something inconceivably brave for an Indian. He ran close to the dead man, fired into him, grabbed his horse, leaped into the saddle and was off. From a mile distant he saw his pursuers stooping over the body of the sergeant. Slowly he raised his arm and turned from them, making for Stand-Off and the mouth of the Kootenay.

    Wolf-plume was Charcoal’s brother-in-law. He had a house with two stories, and one bed in which he never slept. Following the agent’s directions, by day his house wore an inviting appearance; by night it was lighted as if prepared for feasting and tea drinking. The third night after the shooting of Wales, the snow had begun to fall near sundown, and fell silently, unmoved by wind, as the night deepened. Through the snow, an Indian, leading his horse, his face hidden in his blanket, approached Wolf-plume’s house. He tapped softly at the door. When Wolf-plume came, the covering dropped a little from his face. It was Charcoal. At first he would not come nearer. But, reassured by the words of his brother-in-law, and drawn powerfully by the odour of a stew that came out strongly into the snow, he threw the rein off his arm, left his horse standing, and entered. There was no danger in sight. A bench was placed for him. The stew tasted like nothing which had ever passed his lips before; and weariness overcame him, weariness and sleep. After weeks of privation, starved, frozen, jaded with the saddle, hunted for his life, he laid down in the house of his friends and slept.

    He slept. Then Wolf-plume took the lamp out of the east window and from miles away started the policemen who had waited only for that signal. Soon they surrounded the little house. They let him sleep as a free man, sleep as the snow fell and the clouds cleared off, and stars came out piercingly bright in the sky. He woke toward morning, and all about him was the stamping of horses and the movement of red tunics.

    Many days after that, just before they hanged him, he thought of the medicine-pole-bag. He had often thought of Pretty-face, but did not want to see her. He had thought of many things which he did not understand. He was to be killed in the white man’s manner; to his mind it was only vengeance, death for deaths, which the warriors of his own race dealt to their foes in the old days, and in a braver fashion. They had driven away the buffalo, and made the Indian sad with flour and beef, and had put his muscles into harness. He had only shot a bad Indian, and they rose upon him. His gun had shot a big policeman, and when they had taught his brother-in-law their own idea of fair dealing he was taken in sleep, and now there was to be an end. He did not know what Père Pauquette meant by his prayers, and the presentation of the little crucifix worn bright with many salutations. It was all involved in mystery.

    Groping about for some solace he sent for the medicine-pole-bag, and when they brought it and he was left alone, he placed it in a corner of his cell and gazed for a long time upon the parfleche covering with its magical markings. When they had left him for his last sleep he gathered it to his breast, and all night he slept contentedly. Early the next morning they took it away. It was very cold early spring. He did not hear or understand what Père Pauquette murmured in his ear. His was the calm of a stoic. He breathed deeply the scent of the sweet grass with which the medicine-pole-bag was filled, which clung to his shirt and rose like incense about his face. And so Charcoal died.