BLACK HAWK, THE SAC KING

Submerged in the icy stream, the waves and fierce current impeded our progress toward the shore, and soon, the effort being too great for my pony’s strength, he showed signs of exhaustion, rising each time with greater difficulty from the water as the waves rolled high above our heads. Observing this, I slipped from his back and caught the stirrup with one hand, swimming with the other; but now my weight being on one side, threw him off his balance, so that he more than once came nigh to being overturned. In this extremity I knew not what to do; but when hope was fast giving way to despair, I bethought me how my father had once saved his life in a like case, and so releasing the stirrup I caught hold of the pony’s tail. At this, freed from the unequal burden, he shot forward with new life, seeming no longer to regard my weight in the least. In this way we at last approached the shore, where soon my horse’s feet, and then my own, touched the bottom, and we were saved. Climbing the bank, my joy was shared by my sturdy companion, for as we emerged from the water he straightened out his nose and whinnied again and again, as if in triumph. Patting him on the neck, I rested, looking back across the angry waters; but nothing met my gaze save the high-rolling waves tipped with foam and flying spray. Unable to make headway, my father and mother had drifted with the current, and this toward the dreadful rapids, now scarce a mile away. At the thought I sprang into the saddle, calling in a frenzy of fear: “Father! father! mother! mother!” but foolishly, for no sound answered my cry save the splash of the water and the whir of the tempest as it swept across the darkened river. Trembling with fright, I put spur to my horse, hoping to intercept their progress ere it was too late, but how I could not tell. In this way I went on until I could plainly hear the roar of the rapids, but of means of rescue I could discern none whatever. This until as I skirted a little bay I was gladdened by the sight of a boat drawn up on the shore and half hidden by the overhanging shrubbery. Seeing it, I gave a shout, and looking about, saw in the edge of the forest, which here grew nearly to the water’s edge, a rude hut of logs. Jumping from my horse, I ran toward it, and without waiting to make summons of any kind, burst in the door, which was but loosely held with a wooden latch. At first I could see no one, but scanning the interior, all its parts became fixed in my brain as if it were for that and nothing else that I had come. At the farther extremity of the room, on a rude hearth, a dull fire burned, and above it a kettle of water simmered. From the rafters festoons of corn hung, and near by vegetables and pieces of venison and smoked fish. On the wall a bunch of arrows, loosely tied, was held by a wooden peg, and beside it an Indian bow. Below this a rifle rested. Of furniture there was none, pallets of bear and panther skins serving alike for seats and beds. On the floor a gourd filled with water supplied the place of pail and cup, and in the corner a rude box answered for a cupboard. At my feet a floor hard as flint glistened in the dim light like polished oak; and this was all. No detail of the dark inclosure escaped me, yet while thus seeing without consciousness, my eyes sought the help I came for, and this fortunately, for in the twilight of the room and in lonely abandonment an Indian woman sat. Her bent form and worn and wrinkled face told of a life of sorrow and hardship, and my first thought was one of discouragement; but giving it no heed, I ran to where she sat, and grasping her hand, cried, at the top of my voice:
“Help! help me to save my father and mother who are drowning in the river, and quick, before it’s too late!”
At this she looked up as if not fully understanding, but upon repeating my appeal, she rose to her feet, saying slowly, as if not accustomed to the tongue, but plainly as one could wish:
“What has happened to the white-faced child?”
“The ferryboat’s upset, and they’re in the river; but we can reach them before it’s too late, if you’ll come with me, and quick,” I answered, grasping her hand.
“The white child’s mother’s in the water?” she answered, interrogating me and pointing toward the river.
“Yes, my father and mother; and quick, please, or it’ll be too late,” I answered, in a frenzy of haste. Comprehending at last, she answered, and now with animation and a wish to aid me:
“Yes, yes, my child; I’ll come, I’ll come.”
Saying which, she started forward, but as she did so the room darkened, and looking up I saw an Indian chief standing in the open door. His face and rugged features, bronzed by the sun, bore traces of paint, and surmounting his head, which seemed higher and greater than that of other men, there waved a plume of crimson encircled about with feathers of the sparrow-hawk. When he smiled with gentle tenderness on my companion I was filled with new hope; but a moment after, looking in my direction, his face darkened, as if he saw in me one of a race he hated, and so was dumb. Trembling, I could not speak; and looking toward him spellbound, his form, before commanding, seemed to tower higher and higher, while his eyes glowed in his dark face as if emitting flames of fire. Looking up, the woman spoke to him in the Indian tongue, smiling as she did so; but to all she said he paid no heed. At last, going to where he stood, she put her hand upon his breast and spoke to him again, and now with entreaty, as if asking a boon, pointing first at me and then toward the river. As she went on in this way, his features after a while relaxed, and finally reaching out his hand as if in acquiescence, he let it rest in gentle caress upon her upturned face. At this she smiled and drew back, as if made happy by his touch. Crossing the room and opening a door that led into a dark inclosure, he brought forth an oaken oar, and looking toward me, said, as one accustomed to command, but not unkindly, “Come.” Upon this, and without speaking, I followed to the shore where the boat lay hid. Shoving it into the stream, he motioned me to enter, seating himself in the stern. Pointing upward as we reached the open water, I cried:
“There, there! they must be there!”
1To this he vouchsafed no reply, but dipping his oar far into the water, the little boat shot into the bay and thence into the stream beyond. This, while still disturbed by high-rolling waves, was no longer lashed by the storm, the hurricane having passed as quickly as it came. Standing up in the boat, as we went forward my eyes sought in vain for some glimpse of those we came to help. At last, seeing nothing, fear chilled my heart and my limbs grew cold; but as we neared the center of the stream and were yet unable to discover any trace of those we sought, I saw above the glistening whitecaps, far away, an object rising and falling in the troubled waters. Filled with new hope, I pointed toward it, crying:
“There, there they are!”
Upon this my companion, putting forth all his strength, the boat flew through the water as a swallow might cut its surface, and in a moment I was made happy by the sight of my father upholding the form of my dear mother. At this I called to them, but they returned no answer to my anxious cry; and at last, when we had reached the spot, I should still have lost them except for the great strength of my companion, who, stooping, lifted first my mother and then my father into the boat, and they were safe.
Embracing them, with tears of joy, I stripped off my jacket and wrapped it about my mother’s form, and for this she gave me a gentle smile, but speech or motion seemed gone from her forever. At the sight, my father, who did not appear much the worse for his adventure, fell to chafing her hands and limbs, I helping, and this with such vigor that in a little while she was able to move and speak. Now, after some further respite, my father turned about and thanked our rescuer with every show of love and gratitude for what he had done. To this, however, the other made no response, nor indeed appeared to have heard what was said to him. His eyes, turned toward the shore, were fixed on the dark forest we were fast approaching, and this as if there was naught else on earth. Thinking he had not heard, my father thanked him again, and now more earnestly. To this the chief at last responded, but without lowering his gaze or manifesting any interest whatever in those about him.
“Thank La Reine! It is she, the soft-hearted, who has saved you, not I.”
“You, too, surely; and we can never thank you enough,” my mother answered, turning to him.
“Yes, and we shall treasure your memory as long as we live, for we owe you our lives, and shall be ever grateful for it,” my father again spoke up.
“Speak not to me of gratitude, for it has no meaning in the mouths of such as you. The voice of your race is ever thus soft-spoken, but only that it may the better hide its treachery,” the chief answered, but absently and without passion, as if addressing an invisible spirit.
“Now and here, and to those we love and to whom we owe our lives, it is true and as we say,” my father answered, surprised out of himself at what the other said.
“It is ever the same, and has no spark of life in it, more than the mist above yonder troubled waters,” the other answered, without lowering his gaze. “It was with such speech that your race crept into my country, and like a tide that rises in the night overcame and destroyed my people, while they yet trusted and believed, and so it has always been.”
“Surely that cannot be laid to us, for we have never injured your people in any way. Tell us who you are, your name only, if you will, so that we may treasure it as long as we live, and our children afterward,” my father cried in desperation, as if determined not to be thus put off.
“I have no name nor place in life,” the chief answered, sorrowfully, raising his eyes to the clouds that flew across the darkened sky. “In my youth I trusted your race, and thought to live with it in peace, dreaming of great and noble things for my people. In the end I have done nothing, and dying shall leave no trace, more than the wind that sweeps the tops of yonder trees, or the leaves that fall bitten by the winter’s frost. As soon seek to follow the flight of the bird that has been snared or the path of the fish in the tumbling waters, for I have done nothing, and have no home nor place among men. A king and the son of kings, I dare not whisper my name lest the air betray it to my enemies and I suffer unjustly! Coming among us, your race divided my children, as the clouds are parted or the lightning cleaves the towering cottonwood. Scattered, where are they? Ask the Great Spirit, for only he can tell! Living in concord, you brought division; loving their king, you sowed distrust; loyal, you planted treason; sober, you made them drunk that you might buy their lands for a song. Now driven from their birthplace, they seek in a strange land the home of those who have no country; and I, coming back like a thief to visit the forests and streams of my youth, dare not speak my name aloud. Thank me not, for it is the act of the doe, the gentle-hearted La Reine, not I.”
Ceasing, he raised his hand as if to forbid further speech, and giving the paddle a deeper and longer sweep, quickly brought the boat into the cove from whence we came. Securing the little craft, the chief took my mother in his arms and carried her to the cabin, where a great fire now welcomed our coming. Placing her upon a bed of furs, he spoke some words to La Reine in her own tongue, and then taking the rifle from its place, opened the door and went away. Nor did he return; and to all our inquiries La Reine answered only, and sadly, that we should see him no more. Nor would she tell his name, nor aught of his history save that he was a chief whose people had been divided and scattered, yielding their homes to the whites. Thus to their dying day my father and mother knew not that it was Black Hawk, the Sac chief, who had saved their lives. Nor I for many years, and then only by chance was I made acquainted with it.