The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson


A Night With “North Eagle”

A Tale Founded on Fact.


    THE GREAT transcontinental express was swinging through the Canadian North-West territories into the land of the Setting Sun. Its powerful engine throbbed along the level track of the prairie. The express, mail, baggage, first-class and sleeping coaches followed like the pliant tail of a huge eel. Then the wheels growled out the tones of lessening speed. The giant animal slowed up, then came to a standstill. The stop awoke Norton Allan, who rolled over in his berth with a peculiar wide-awake sensation, and waited vainly for the train to resume its flight towards the Rockies. Some men seemed to be trailing up and down outside the Pullman car, so Norton ran up the little window-blind and looked out. Just a small station platform, of a small prairie settlement, was all he saw, but he heard the voices very distinctly.
    “What place is this?” someone asked.
    “Gleichen, about sixty miles east of Calgary,” came the reply.
    “Construction camp?” asked the first voice.
    “No,” came the answer. “This line was laid about when you were born, I guess.”
    Someone laughed then.
    “But what are all those tents off there in the distance?” again asked the curious one.
    “Indian tepees,” was the reply. “This is the heart of the Blackfoot Reserve.”
    Norton’s heart gave a great throb—the far-famed Blackfoot Indians!—and just outside his Pullman window! [Page 69] Oh, if the train would only wait there until morning! As if in answer to his wish, a quick, alert voice cut in saying, “Washout ahead, boys. The Bow River’s been cutting up. We’re stalled here for good and all, I guess.” And the lanterns and voices faded away forward.
    Norton lay very still for a few moments trying to realize it all. Then raising himself on one elbow, he peered out across an absolutely level open prairie. A waning moon hung low in the west, its thin radiance brooding above the plains like a mist, but the light was sufficient to reveal some half-dozen tepees, that lifted their smoky tops and tent poles not three hundred yards from the railway track. Norton looked at his watch. He could just make out that it was two o’clock in the morning. Could he ever wait until daylight? So he asked himself over and over again, while his head (with its big mop of hair that would curl in spite of the hours he spent in trying to brush it straight) snuggled down among the pillows, and his grave young eyes blinked longingly at those coveted tepees. And the next thing he knew a face was thrust between his berth-curtains, a thin, handsome, clean-shaven face, adorned with gold-rimmed nose glasses, and crowned with a crop of hair much like his own, and a voice he loved very much was announcing in imitation of the steward, “Breakfast is now ready in the dining-car.”
    Norton sprang up, pitching the blankets aside, and seized Professor Allan by the arm. “Oh, Pater,” he cried, pointing to the window, “do you see them—the Indians, the tepees? It’s the Blackfoot Reserve! I heard the trainmen say so in the night.”
    “Yes, my boy,” replied the Professor, seating himself on the edge of his son’s berth. “And I also see your good mother and estimable father dying of starvation, if they have to wait much longer for you to appear with them in the dining-car—”
    But Norton was already scrambling into his clothes, his usually solemn eyes shining with excitement. [Page 70] For years his father, who was professor in one of the great universities in Toronto, had shared his studies on Indian life, character, history, and habits with his only son. They had read together, and together had collected a splendid little museum of Indian relics and curios. They had always admired the fine old warlike Blackfoot nation, but never did they imagine when they set forth on this summer vacation trip to the Coast, that they would find themselves stalled among these people of their dreams.
    “Well, Tony, boy, this is a treat for you and father,” his mother’s voice was saying, “and the conductor tells me we shall be here probably forty-eight hours. The Bow River is on the rampage, the bridge near Calgary is washed away, and thank goodness we shall be comfortably housed and fed in this train.” And Mrs. Allan’s smiling face appeared beside the Professor’s.
    “Tony,” as his parents called him, had never dressed so quickly in all the sixteen years of his life, notwithstanding the cramped space of a sleeping-car, and presently he was seated in the diner, where the broad windows disclosed a sweeping view of the scattered tepees, each with its feather of upward floating smoke curling away from its apex. Many of the Indians were already crowding about the train, some with polished buffalo horns for sale, and all magnificently dressed in buckskin, decorated with fine, old-fashioned bead work, and the quills of the porcupine.
    An imperial-looking figure stood somewhat back from the others, exceptionally tall, with finely cut profile, erect shoulders, rich copper-colored skin, and long black hair interbraided with ermine tails and crested with a perfect black and white-eagle plume; over his costly buckskins he wore a brilliant green blanket, and he stood with arms folded across his chest with the air of one accustomed to command. Beside him stood a tall, slender boy, his complete counterpart in features and dress, save that the boy’s blanket was scarlet, and he wore no eagle plume. [Page 71]
    “What magnificent manhood!” remarked the Professor. “No college our civilization can boast of will ever give what plain food, simple hours, and the glorious freedom of this prairie air have given that brave and his boy. We must try to speak with them, Tony. I wonder how we can introduce ourselves.”
    “Some circumstance will lead to it, you may be sure,” said Mrs. Allan, cheerfully. “You and Tony walk out for some fresh air. Something will happen, you’ll see.” And it did.
    Crowds of the train’s passengers were strolling up and down when the Professor and Norton went outside. “I wish they would not stand and stare at the Indians like that!” remarked the boy indignantly. “The Indians don’t stare at us.”
    “For the best of all reasons,” said the Professor. “Indians are taught from the cradle that the worst possible breach of politeness is to stare.” And just as they began a little chat on the merits of this teaching, a dapper, well-dressed passenger walked up to the distinguished Indian, and in a very loud voice said, “Good morning, friend. I’d like to buy that eagle feather you have in your hair. Will you sell it? Here’s a dollar.”
    Instantly Norton Allan turned angrily to the passenger. “What do you shout at him for?” he demanded. “He isn’t deaf because he’s Indian.”
    “Oh!” said the passenger, rather sheepishly, but in a much lower tone. Then, still raising his voice again, he persisted, “Here’s two dollars for your feather.”
    The Indian never even glanced at him, but with a peculiar, half regal lift of his shoulders, hitched his blanket about him, turned on his heel, and walked slowly away. Just then the train conductor walked past, and the bewildered passenger assailed him with, “I say, conductor, that Indian over there wouldn’t take two dollars for that chicken wing in his hair.”
    The conductor laughed. “I should think not!” he [Page 72] said. “‘That Indian’ is Chief Sleeping Thunder, and ten miles across the prairie there, he has three thousand head of cattle, eighty horses, and about two thousand acres of land for them to rage over. He doesn’t want your two dollars.”
    “Oh!” said the passenger again, this time a little more sheepishly than before; then he wisely betook himself to the train.
    Meantime the boy with the scarlet blanket had not moved an inch, only let his eyes rest briefly on Norton when the latter had reproved the shouting passenger.
    “And this,” continued the conductor kindly, as he paused beside the boy, “is Chief Sleeping Thunder’s son, North Eagle.”
    Norton Allan stepped eagerly forward, raised his cap, and holding out his hand shyly, said, “May I have the pleasure of shaking hands with you, North Eagle?”
    The Indian boy extended his own slim brown fingers, a quick smile swept across his face, and he said, “You not speak loud.” Then they all laughed together, and the Professor, who had been a silent but absorbed onlooker, was soon chatting away with the two boys, as if he, too, were but sixteen years old, with all the world before him.
    That was a memorable day for Norton, for, of course, he met Chief Sleeping Thunder, who, however, could speak but little English; but so well did the friendship progress that at noon North Eagle approached the Professor with the request that Norton should ride with him over to his father’s range, sleep in their tepee that night, and return the following morning before the train pulled out.
    At North Eagle’s shoulder stood Sleeping Thunder, nodding assent to all his son said.
    Of course, Mrs. Allan was for politely refusing the invitation. She would not for a moment listen to such an idea. But the Professor took quite opposite stand. [Page 73] “We must let him go, mother—let him go, by all means. Tony can take care of himself, and it will be the chance of his life. Why, he is nearing manhood now. Let him face the world; let him have this wonderful experience.”
    “But they look so wild!” pleaded the poor mother. “They are wild. Fancy letting our Tony go alone into the heart of the Blackfoot country! Oh! I can’t think of it!”
    Fortunately for her peace of mind the train conductor overheard her words, and, smiling at her fears, said, rather dryly:
    “Madam, if your boy is as safe from danger and harm and evil in the city of Toronto as he will be with North Eagle in the prairie country, why, I congratulate you.”
    The words seemed to sting the good lady. She felt, rather than knew, the truth of them, and the next moment her consent was given.
    The face of North Eagle seemed transformed when he got her promise to let Tony go. “I bring him back safe, plenty time for train,” was all he said.
    Then Sleeping Thunder spoke for the first time—spoke but the one word, “Safe.” Then pointing across the prairie, he repeated, “Safe.”
    “That’s enough, my dear,” said the Professor firmly. “Tony is as safe as in a church.”
    “Yes,” replied Mrs. Allan, “the chief means that word ‘safe.’ And as for that boy, I believe he would die before he’d let Tony’s little finger be harmed.”
    And as events proved, she was almost right.
    Within the hour they were off, North Eagle bareback on a wiry cayuse, Tony in a Mexican saddle, astride a beautiful little broncho that loped like a rocking-horse.
    At the last minute, Sleeping Thunder was detained by cattlemen, who wanted to purchase some of his stock, so the two boys set out alone. The last good-bye was to the conductor, who, after charging them to return in ample time to catch the train, said seriously to Norton: [Page 74]
    “Let nothing scare you, sonny. These Indians look savage, in their paint and feathers, but King Edward of England has no better subjects; and I guess it is all the same to His Majesty whether a good subject dresses in buckskin or broadcloth.”
    Then there was much waving of hats and handkerchiefs. The engineer caught the spirit of the occasion, and genially blew a series of frantic toots, and with the smile of his father and the face of his mother as the last things in his vision, and with North Eagle’s scarlet blanket rocking at his elbow, young Norton Allan hit the trail for the heart of the Blackfoot country.
    For miles they rode in silence. Twice North Eagle pointed ahead, without speech—first at a coyote, then at a small herd of antelope, and again at a band of Indian riders whose fleet ponies and gay trappings crossed the distant horizon like a meteor.
    By some marvelous intuition North Eagle seemed to know just what would interest the white boy—all the romance of the trail, the animals, the game, the cactus beds, the vast areas of mushrooms growing wild, edible and luscious, the badger and gopher holes, and the long, winding, half-obliterated buffalo trails that yet scarred the distant reaches. It was only when he pointed to these latter, that he really spoke his mind, breaking into an eloquence that filled Tony with envy. The young redskin seemed inspired; a perfect torrent of words rushed to his lips, then his voice saddened as he concluded: “But they will never come again, the mighty buffalo my father and my grandfather used to chase. They have gone, gone to a far country, for they loved not the ways of the pale-face. Sometimes at night I dream I hear their thousand hoofs beat up the trail, I see their tossing horns, like the prairie grass in the strong west winds, but they are only spirits now; they will never come to me, and I have waited so long, so many days, watching these trails, watching, [Page 75] watching, watching—but they never come; no, the buffalo never come.
    Tony did not speak. What was there to be said? He only shook his head comprehendingly, and bit his under lip hard to keep back—something, he scarcely knew what. But he, too, watched the buffalo runs with longing eyes, hoping, hoping that even one glorious animal would gallop up out of the rim of grass and sky. But young North Eagle was right—the buffalo was no more.
    Tony was just beginning to feel slightly sore in the saddle when the Indian pointed off to the south-west and said, “There is my father’s tepee,” and within five minutes they had slipped from their mounts, and stood on the Chief’s domain. A woman, followed by three children, came to the door. She was very handsome, and wore the beautiful dress of her tribe. Her cheeks were painted a brilliant crimson, and the parting of her hair was stained a rich orange. North Eagle turned and spoke rapidly to her for a moment in the Blackfoot tongue. She replied briefly. “Here is my mother,” said the boy simply. “She speaks no English, but she says you are welcome and her heart is warm for you.”
    Tony lifted his cap while he shook hands. The woman noiselessly put back the door of the tepee and motioned for him to enter. For a moment he thought he must be dreaming. The exterior of the tepee had been wonderful enough, with its painted designs of suns and planets and wolf heads and horses, but the inside betokened such a wealth of Indian possessions that the boy was fairly astounded. The tepee itself was quite thirty feet in diameter, and pitched above dry, brown, clean prairie sod, which, however, was completely concealed by skins of many animals—cinnamon bear, fox, prairie wolf, and badger. To the poles were suspended suit after suit of magnificent buckskin, leggings, shirts, moccasins, all beaded and embroidered in priceless richness, fire bags, tobacco pouches, beaded gun cases, [Page 76] and rabbit robes. Fully a dozen suits were fringed down the sleeves and leggings with numberless ermine tails. At one side of the tepee lay piled quite a score of blankets in mixed colors, a heap of thick furs, pyramids of buffalo horns, and coils and coils of the famous “grass and sinew” lariats for roping cattle and horses.
    The contents of that tepee would have brought thousands of dollars in New York City.
    Across Norton’s mind there flashed the recollection of the passenger offering his paltry two dollars to Sleeping Thunder for the eagle plume in his hair. No wonder the train conductor had laughed! And just here North Eagle entered, asking him if he would care to see the cattle that were ranging somewhere near by. Of course he cared, and for all the years to come he never forgot that sight. For a mile beyond him the landscape seemed blotted out by a sea of gleaming horns and shifting hoofs—a moving mass that seemed to swim into the sky. It was a great possession—a herd like that—and Norton found himself marvelling at the strange fact that he and his parents, traveling in luxurious Pullmans, and living in a great city, were poor in comparison with this slender Blackfoot boy who was acting host with the grace that comes only with perfect freedom and simplicity.
    The day was very warm, so supper was prepared outside the tepee, North Eagle showing Tony how to build a fire in a prairie wind, lee of the tepee, and midway between two upright poles supporting a cross-bar from which the kettles hung. Boiled beef, strong black tea, and bannock, were the main foods, but out of compliment to their visitor, they fried a quantity of delicious mushrooms, and, although the Blackfeet seldom eat them, Tony fairly devoured several helpings. After supper North Eagle took him again into the tepee, and showed him all the wonderful buckskin garments and ornaments. Tony was speechless with the delight of it all, and even begrudged [Page 77] the hours wherein he must sleep; but the unusual length of the ride, the clear air, and the hearty supper he had eaten, all began to tell on his excitement, and he was quite ready to “turn in” with the others shortly after sunset.
    “Turning in” meant undressing, folding a Hudson’s Bay blanket about him, and lying near the open flap of the tepee, on a heap of wolf skins as soft as feathers and as silvery as a cloud.
    Night crept up over the prairie like a grey veil, and the late moon, rising, touched the far level wastes with a pale radiance. Through the open flap of the tepee Tony watched it—the majestic loneliness and isolation, the hushed silence of this prairie world were very marvellous—and he loved it almost as if it were his birthright, instead of the heritage of the Blackfoot boy sleeping beside him. Then across the white night came the cry of a wandering coyote, and once the whirr of many wings swept overhead. Then his wolfskin couch grew very soft and warm, the night airs very gentle, the silence very drowsy, and Tony slept.
    It was daylight. Something had wakened him abruptly. Instantly all his faculties were alert, yet oddly enough he seemed held rigid and speechless. He wanted to cry out with fear, he knew not of what, and the next moment a lithe red body was flung across his, and his hand was imprisoned in strong, clinging fingers. There was a brief struggle, a torrent of words he did not understand, a woman’s frightened voice. Then the lithe red body, North Eagle’s body, lifted itself, and Tony struggled up, white, scared, and bewildered. The Blackfoot boy was crouching at his elbow, and some terrible thing was winding and lashing itself about his thin dark wrist and arm. It seemed a lifetime that Tony’s staring eyes were riveted on the horror of the things, but it really was all over in a moment, and the Indian had choked a brutal rattlesnake, then flung it at his feet. No one spoke for a full minute, [Page 78] then North Eagle said, very quietly, “He curl one foot from your right hand, he lift his head to strike. I wake—I catch him just below his head—he is dead.”
    Again there was silence. Then North Eagle’s mother came slowly, placed one hand on her son’s shoulder, the other on Tony’s, and looking down at the dead reptile, shook her head meaningly. And Tony, still sitting on the wolf skins, stretched out his arms and clasped them about North Eagle’s knees.
    Mrs. Allan was right—the Indian boy had risked his life to save her son from danger. Rattle-snakes were so rare in the Blackfoot country that it gave them all a great shock. It was almost too tense and terrible a thing to talk much of, and the strain of it relaxed only when the boys were mounted once more, galloping swiftly away toward Gleichen and the train.
    But, notwithstanding this fright, Tony left the tepee with the greatest regret. Before going, North Eagle’s mother presented him with a very beautiful pair of moccasins and a valuable string of elk’s teeth, and North Eagle translated her good-bye words: “My mother says you will live in her heart; that your hair is very beautiful; that she feels the sun’s heat in her heart for you, because you do not speak loud to her.”
    It was a glorious, breezy gallop of ten miles in the early morning, and as they came up the trail Tony could distinguish his mother, already on the watch, waving a welcome as far as her eyes could discern them. Outside the settlement the boys slackened speed, and talked regretfully of their coming separation. North Eagle was wearing an extremely handsome buckskin shirt, fringed and richly beaded. He began unfastening it. “I give you my shirt,” he said. “My mother says it is the best she ever made—it is yours.”
    For a second Tony’s thoughts were busy, then, without hesitation, he, too, unfastened his shirt, which luckily was a fine blue silk “soft” one. “And I give you mine,” he said simply. [Page 79]
    Thus did they exchange shirts, and rode up to the station platform, the Indian stripped to the waist, with only a scarlet blanket about his shoulders, and a roll of blue silk under his arm; the Toronto boy with his coat buttoned up to conceal his underwear, and a gorgeous garment of buckskin across his saddle bow.
    The greetings and welcomings were many and merry. Professor and Mrs. Allan were hardly able to take their eyes from their restored son. But the shadow of the coming good-bye hung above Tony’s face, and he experienced only one great glad moment on the station platform. It was when Sleeping Thunder came up, and before all the passengers, deliberately took the eagle plume from his hair and slipped it into Tony’s hand. Then North Eagle spoke: “My father says you are brave, and must accept the plume of the brave. His heart turns to you. You do not speak loud to him.”
     “All aboard for Calgary!” came the voice of the train conductor. For a moment the cling fingers of the Indian and the white boy met, and some way or other Tony found himself stumbling up the steps into the Pullman, and as the train pulled out towards the foothills he stood on the rear platform watching the little station and the tepees slip away, away, away, conscious of but two things—that his eyes were fighting bravely to keep a mist from blinding them, and that his hands were holding the eagle plume of Sleeping Thunder. [Page 80]