Read CHAPTER XI - A TRADE AND A TRICK of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

A THIN column of blue smoke was ascending into the quiet April air from a spot far out upon the prairie.  Against the eastern sky, now faintly glowing with the coming dawn, it stood forth, uniting the gray heavens and the duller plains, as straight and clear as a signal-fire.  It gave warning of an Indian camp.

The family at the farm-house, called from their breakfast by the baying of the dogs, gathered bareheaded about the kitchen door and watched the mounting pillar, striving to make out any crouching figures at its base.  But no hint of the size of the redskin company could be gained; and, when the biggest brother had climbed from the lean-to to the ridge-pole of the roof and his mother had peered from the lesser height of the attic window, they could not even catch a glimpse of the top of a tepee, of a skulking wolf-dog, or of the shaggy coat of a grazing pony.

After her mother and the three big brothers had returned to the table, the little girl, whom the barking had called from a bowl of grits and skimmed milk and a wash-pan of kerosene in which her chilblained feet were soaking, struggled to the top of the rain-barrel at the corner of the house and anxiously eyed the rising smoke.  Fresh in her mind was the murder of the Englishman at Crow Creek, whose full granaries and fat coops had long tempted roving thieves from the west; and the slaying of the Du Bois family on the James, just a few miles away.  Many a winter’s evening, about the sitting-room stove, and often in the twilight of summer days, sheltered by her mother’s skirts, she had heard these stories, and that other, almost within her own memory, terrible and thrilling to frontier ears,-the massacre of the Little Big Horn.

The big brothers always laughed at her fright and at the idea of any possible danger; yet they taught her to know an Indian camp-fire, the trail of an Indian pony, and the print of moccasined feet, and told her, if she ever met any braves on the plains, to leave the herd to take care of itself and ride home on the run.  So, remembering only their warnings and forgetting their confident boasting and how sure and awful was the punishment meted out from the forts to erring wards of the nation, her days were haunted by prowling savages that waited behind every hillock, ridge, and stack; and she cried aloud in her sleep at night when, on dream-rides, there was ever an ugly, leering face and a horrid, clutching hand at her stirrup.

But if the big brothers did not share her fear of the Indians, yet they guarded well the farm-house and barn when the Sioux passed in their pungs in winter or on fleet ponies during the summer months.  And when, that morning, the fire marked the near-by camp, there was no scattering to the thawed fields where the plows stood upright in the furrows.  The eldest brother busied himself in the handy sorghum patch; the youngest rounded up the cattle and sheep and drove them south just across the reservation road to the first bit of unturned prairie; and the biggest got out the muskets and loaded them, and leashed the worst-tempered dogs in the pack.

And so the morning passed.  In the sorghum patch the eldest brother placidly dropped seed.  Across the road the youngest lay on his back beside his herd pony.  And, inside, by a window, the biggest sat and watched the smoke, now a wavering spiral in the light breeze that fanned the prairie; while their mother, knowing that the best way to receive an Indian is with corn-cakes and coffee, stood over the kitchen stove.  But the little girl kept her sentinel place on the rain-barrel until the sun veered her shadow from the side of the house to the earth bank piled against it.  Then she climbed down and, running to the sod barn, saddled, bridled, and mounted the swiftest horse in the stalls and careered back and forth between house and stable like an alert scout.

When noon came and the cow-horn summoned the family to the dinner-table, not a sign of an Indian, beyond the smoke, had been seen.  So, by the end of the meal, it was decided that a visit should be paid the camp to see how many braves composed it, and why they did not move on.  The biggest brother volunteered to make the ride, and, when he started off, the little girl, whose horse had been fretfully gnawing the clapboarding at the corner of the kitchen, also mounted and followed on behind, riding warily.

They skirted the corner of the freshly turned potato-field and wheeled into the reservation road behind the herd.  But scarcely had they gotten half-way to the stony rise that bordered the eastern end of the potatoes, when they saw, coming over its brow and also mounted, an Indian.  He was riding fast toward them, and they reined and stood still till he cantered up.

“Hullo,” said the biggest brother, noting the fine army saddle and the leather bridle with its national monogram in brass as the redskin brought his horse to its haunches.

“Hullo,” answered the Indian.  His eyes had an anxious look in them as he glanced from one to the other.

“What you want?” The biggest brother nodded toward the smoke.

The Indian waited a moment, hitching his blanket impatiently as he tried to find an English word with which to reply.  Then, failing, he suddenly slipped from his horse to the ground, threw himself flat upon his face, and began, with much writhing, to breathe heavily, as if in great pain.

“Somebody’s sick,” said the biggest brother, and, without waiting, he clapped his heels against his horse’s sides and set off toward the camp.  The little girl came after, cantering just in advance of the redskin, whom she watched stealthily from the corner of her eye.

A mile out to the east the trio halted for a moment on a low ridge and looked down a gentle slope upon the camp.  It was pitched where the reservation road crossed a ravine, and at its center, beside a rivulet, was a fire of buffalo-chips from which the smoke steadily arose.  About the fire, and before two tepees, sat a half-dozen braves, five in government blankets, with their black mops bound back, the sixth in flannel shirt, leather breeches tucked into high boots, and a broad felt hat over his long hair.  South of the fire, in the ravine, several horses, closely hobbled, were cropping the new grass; and between them and the tepees, lying half under a light road wagon, was an animal stretched flat and covered with blankets.

“It’s that horse,” said the biggest brother.  The Indian behind him grunted and rode ahead down the slope, and, at his approach, the circle about the camp-fire stood up.

As the face of the Indian wearing the wide hat was turned toward them, the little girl gave a joyful cry and whipped her horse with her rope reins.  The army saddle and the monogrammed bridle were no longer a mystery, the camp was no longer to be feared,-for the unblanketed brave was the troop’s scout from the reservation, the half-breed, Eagle Eye!

The next moment he was explaining how, returning from Sioux Falls, where for a fortnight he had been winning admiration for his military appearance, his feats on horseback, and his skill with the rifle, he had fallen in with the party of Indians, which was coming back from a trip beyond the Mississippi.  After a long, hard ride together the day before, they had been forced to go into camp in the ravine because the blue-roan mare which one of them was driving had suddenly lain down and refused to rise.  And she had remained stretched out since, and was breathing deep and painfully.

When the biggest brother rode over to where she lay, he saw at once that she was sorely stricken with pneumonia, and that only prompt attention would be of any use.  Her great brown eyes were wide and starting with agony, her delicate nostrils were distended and dry, and her iron-gray sides were heaving.

“You’ve got to get her out o’ here, Eagle Eye,” said the biggest brother, as he and the little girl leaned over the panting animal; “she’ll go in no time on this wet ground.  Suppose we make a travée and haul her home.”

The Indians received the offer, which Eagle Eye interpreted for them, with many signs of pleasure; and in a moment had taken down the cottonwood lodge-poles cut the previous day, and brought straps and ropes.  But it was mid-afternoon before the rude litter was finished.  Two poles were fastened to the hind axle of the wagon, the width of the wheels apart; across them other poles were roped after having been chopped into short lengths; and on top of these were laid some buffalo robes, blankets, and straw.  Then the mare, too sick to resent handling, was half lifted and half rolled into place.  When the journey to the farm-house was made, the tough Indian pony between the shafts was helped in the hauling by a plow team from the barn.

The travée was untied from the wagon at the stable, and the three big brothers helped the Indians to drag it into a roomy stall, the little girl looking on all the while sympathetically.  Then her mother, the biggest brother, and Eagle Eye poulticed the throbbing chest, put compresses on the silky neck, and poured one hot drink after another down the reluctant throat of the blue mare.

They worked until midnight.  But when the next day broke, chill and drizzily, the horse seemed worse instead of better, and the Indians, who had slept with their guns on their arms at the heads of their saddled ponies, prepared to go.  They seemed so anxious to set off that the big brothers were suspicious that they had stolen the animal and were expecting pursuit.  The fact that she had no saddle-marks on her mottled back, and that they had cumbered themselves with a wagon, bore out the belief.  The eldest brother spoke his mind to Eagle Eye, but the half-breed only said that Black Cloud, who claimed to own her, wished to sell her to the brothers.

“I shouldn’t wonder,” sneered the eldest brother; “she’ll be ready for the pigs by noon.  I wouldn’t take her as a gift,-and you can tell ’em so.”

Eagle Eye turned to Black Cloud and repeated the answer.  It was met with the look that had named him, and a mumbled threat that was lost on the white men.

The little girl had been standing by and had heard the conversation.  She suddenly started for the house, and, when she came flying back a moment later, she had her tin savings-bank grasped tightly in one fist.  Stopping in front of the scout, she held it out to him.

“Eagle Eye,” she panted, “tell Black Cloud I’ll give him all this for the sick horse-two whole dollars.”

Again the half-breed turned to the glowering Indian.  But this time the evil, dusky face lighted, and, after consulting with the other Indians, he took the bank from Eagle Eye and turned out and counted its contents.

“He thanks the white papoose,” said Eagle Eye, returning the empty bank to the little girl, “and the pony is yours.”

Happy over her trade, the little girl rushed away to the sick horse, while the eldest brother, enraged at her interference yet not daring to stop the bargain, mentally promised to give her a lesson later.

“If the mare lives,” he said aside to the biggest brother, “you bet these thieves’ll even things up.”

The evening of things came sooner than he expected.  For at sundown, after the Indians had departed, the swift horse ridden to their camp by the little girl was nowhere to be found!

But, angry as the farm-house felt over the theft, the big brothers knew that it would be worse than foolhardy to try to recapture their animal.  And the trade seemed likely to be fair in the end, after all,-for at midnight the family saw that the blue mare was getting well!

SHRIEKS of laughter from behind the barn, following strange, rapid thumps upon the bare ground, led the three big brothers in that direction one May morning, and, on turning the corner, they found the little girl leaning convulsively against the old straw stack for support, while in front of her, blinded by a big, red handkerchief, and with a long bolster full of hay across her dappled withers, was the blue mare, making stiff, wild plunges into the air, with arched back and head held low.  For the little girl was breaking her to ride!

It was the little girl who broke the horses on the farm to ride.  She played with them as colts, and, with her light weight, mounted them long before they were old enough to carry any one heavier, and yet were too old to be sway-backed.  She tried them first as they stood tied in their stalls, crawling carefully upon them from the manger.  Later, she rode them at a walk up and down the reservation road.

She had learned the First Reader of the saddle on the St. Bernard’s wide, slipping back.  The pinto had been the Second, and she had then passed rapidly to the graduation class of frisky calves and lean, darting shoats.  Now, for two years, all the horses sold at the reservation by the big brothers had been of her training, and the troopers vowed that no gentler, better mounts had ever been in the service.  Her mother viewed the colt-breaking tremblingly, and the big brothers declared that the little girl would be buried some day with a broken neck.  But the little girl said nothing, and continued her riding fearlessly, knowing that love, even with horses, makes all things easy,-except the breaking of the blue mare.

Thirteen hands stood the blue mare, sound, clean-limbed, and beautiful, and the markings of her sharp front teeth showed that she was but four.  From velvet muzzle to sweeping tail, from mottled croup to fetlocks, she shone in the sunlight like corn-silk.  Her mane was black and waved to her wide chest, and her heavy forelock hid an inwardly curving nose that proved an Arab strain.  And when, after many spirited bouts with the hay bolster, the little girl finally won her over to a soft blanket and a stirruped girth, she showed the endurance and strength of a mustang, the speed of a racer, and the gait of a rocking-chair.

She was so tall that she could not be climbed upon, like a pony, from the upper side of sloping ground or from the stone pile on the carnelian bluff, and too skittish to allow a bare foot to be thrust behind her sleek elbows as a step to her back, so the little girl invented a new method of mounting.  Her nose was coaxed to the ground by the offer of a choice wisp of grass, and, as her neck was lowered, the little girl carefully put one leg over her glossy crest and gave her a slap to start her,-when the blue mare raised her head and the little girl hedged along to her back, facing rearward.  Then she slowly turned about!

Herding on the blue mare’s back became a pleasure, not a despised duty, and long jaunts to the station, ten miles away, for mail or groceries, were welcomed.  The eldest brother, too, had ceased to scold the little girl for the trade with Black Cloud or for the loss of the horse that was stolen.  For the blue mare was worth two of the other.

The subject hardly ever came up in the farm-house any more; when it did, it only served to remind the little girl of a dread prophecy of the Swede, that, in good time, the swarthy brave would pass that way again!

The little girl always grew white at the bare thought.  And often the dream of the leering face and the clutching hand would follow her by day.  If she entered the barn, cruel eyes watched her from out dim corners; if she rode through the corn-field, now waist high, the leaves rustled a mysterious warning to her.  “Run-run!” they whispered, and the little girl obeyed and sought the safety of the open prairie.

But there were hours of proud security, when, with the Swede boy as an audience, or, better still, with the colonel’s son, she put the blue mare through her wonderful trick.  This trick had been discovered accidentally by the little girl.  One morning, when she was breaking the horse, she put one hand back playfully and pinched her on the croup to see if she would buck,-and, instead, she promptly lay down!  Afterward, the same pinch brought her again to the ground, and the little girl found that it needed barely a touch to make the mare perform.  But however delighted she was over her discovery, the little girl never mounted the prostrate horse, for she was afraid that she might roll upon her.

The days had passed, and it was now haying-time.  But the mowers stood idle beneath their sheds, and the work-horses grazed contentedly with their heads to the south, for a rain was passing over the prairie.  Inside the farm-house, the little girl, standing against the blurred panes, rebelled against the showers, and fretted for the blue mare and a gallop; the biggest brother, buried deep in a book, thanked Providence; while the eldest, remembering the uncovered cocks in the timothy meadow, cursed the storm.

Toward evening, the third day of the downpour, however, the clouds lifted.  A new moon appeared, holding its chin up,-a promise of sunshine,-and the little girl ran happily to the barn, slipped a lariat into the blue mare’s mouth, secured it with a thong under the jaw, and, bareback, started toward the sloughs beyond the reservation road to bring home the herd.  When she was a mile away, the eldest brother followed her, for he wanted to see if the grass around the farthest slough would make good cutting.  He rode the bald-faced pony, and across his pommel was slung his musket.

The little girl did not see him.  Content with the blue mare beneath her, her mind busy, she rode on.  And her voice, shrill, and broken by her cantering, floated back to the eldest brother in snatches: 

“Scotland’s burning!  Scotland’s burning! 
Fire!  Fire!  Fire!  Fire! 
More water!  More water!”

Then she disappeared over the ridge on her descent to the herd.

The eldest brother urged his horse a little to try to catch up with her.  But she was going faster now, too, and when he reached the top of the ridge she was in the tall grass between him and the cattle, and he could just see her bobbing sailor hat and the flying tail of the blue mare.

Her song ceased as she neared the herd, for twilight was coming down and the meadow blades had taken up the same soft warnings that she had heard in the corn.  Above her, homing birds called to each other, and bullfrogs croaked from the sloughs at her horse’s feet.  There flashed into her mind the night-and-day horror of the Indian’s face and hand, and she began to whistle a little to rally heart as she rode beyond the cows to turn a stray.

But suddenly the sound died on her lips.  For up from the earth rose the ugly, leering face, and out of the grass came the horrid, clutching hand!  With a choking cry, the little girl struck her horse, but the next instant was flung down from her seat, and Black Cloud, rifle in hand, swung himself to her place.

He dared not fire for fear of sounding an alarm, and he dared not wait an instant to club with his gun-stock the little girl, lying stunned and half-dead with fear.  Without a backward look, he drove the blue mare out of the meadow to the prairie and turned her toward the river.

But the eldest brother was scarcely a half-mile behind him.  And, as the strange form came into view, going like the wind through the gathering gloom, he guessed what had happened.  He whipped the bald-face wildly, following the blue mare.  And a race for the Vermillion began!

But it was an uneven one.  In a few leaps the mare had lengthened the distance between her and the bald-face.  Discouraged, and anxious to know what had become of the little girl, the eldest brother resolved to stop.  But as he did so, he raised his musket and sent a load of buckshot after the fleeting brave.

The Indian, safe from pursuit, answered it with a derisive whoop, and, turning his body around, still going swiftly, waved his rifle triumphantly aloft in his right hand and, looking back, leaned for an instant with the other on the blue mare’s croup!

The horse obeyed the sign like a flash.  As if the eldest brother’s shot had found her heart, she stopped dead still and threw herself upon the ground,-and Black Cloud, his face for once almost white, lunged forward, struck his head with crushing force against a boulder on the river’s edge, and lay as motionless as the rock itself!

EARLY that night, when the prairie lay still and sweet, and the new moon was swimming westward from cloud-island to cloud-island, the gray buffalo-wolves came up the Vermillion on their way to the sheep-pen of the Swede, and waked the drowsing valley with their howling.  But the trembling ewes and their babies were not molested; for when the pack reached the river bank near the farthest slough, they halted to quarrel at a boulder-till the sun came up in the east again and glittered on a string of glass wampum lying beside the rock.