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George Bird Grinnell

The Attack on the Camp

It is the first thing that I can recollect, and comes back to me now dimly—only as a dream. My mother used to tell me of it, and often to laugh at me. She said I was then about five or six years old.

I must have been playing with other little boys near the lodge, and the first thing that I remember is seeing people running to and fro, men jumping on their horses, and women gathering up their children. I remember how the men called to each other, and that some were shouting the war cry; and then that they all rode away in the same direction. My mother rushed out and caught me by the hand, and began to pull me toward the lodge, and then she stopped and in a shrill, sweet voice began to sing; and other women that were running about stopped too, and began to sing songs to encourage their husbands and brothers and sons to fight bravely; for enemies were attacking the camp.

I did not understand it at all, but I was excited and glad to hear the noise, and to see people rushing about. Soon I could hear shooting at a distance. Then presently I saw the men come riding back toward the camp; and saw the enemy following them down toward the lodges, and that there were many of these strangers, while our people were only a few. But still my people kept stopping and turning and fighting. Now the noise was louder. The women sang their strong heart songs more shrilly, and I could hear more plainly the whoops of men, and the blowing of war whistles, and the reports of guns.

Presently one of our men fell off his horse. The enemy charged forward in a body to touch him, and our few men rushed to meet them, to keep them from striking the fallen one, and from taking the head. And now the women began to be frightened, and some of them ran away. My mother rushed to the lodge, caught up my little sister, and threw her on her back, and holding me by the hand, ran toward the river. By this time I was afraid, and I ran as hard as I could; but my legs were short and I could not keep up, even though my mother had a load on her back. Nevertheless, she pulled me along. Every little while I stumbled and lost my feet; but she dragged me on, and as she lifted me up, I caught my feet again, and ran on.

Before long I began to tire, and I remember that I wanted to stop. In after years mother used to laugh at me about this, and say that I had asked her to throw away my sister, and to put me on her back and carry me instead. She used to say, too, that if she had been obliged to throw away either child I should have been the one left behind, for as I was a boy, and would grow up to be a warrior, and to fight the enemies of our tribe, I might very likely be killed anyway, and it might as well be earlier as later.

When we reached the river, my mother threw herself into it. Usually it was not more than knee-deep, but at this time the water was high from the spring floods, and my mother had to swim, holding my sister on her back, and at the same time supporting me, for though I could swim a little, I was not strong enough to breast the current, and without help would have been carried away.

After we had crossed the river and come out on the other side, we looked back toward the village, and could see that the enemy were retreating. They might easily have killed or driven off the few warriors of our small camp, but not far from us there was a larger camp of our people, and when they heard the shooting and the shouting, they came rushing to help us; and when the enemy saw them coming, they began to yield and then to run away. Our warriors followed and killed some of them; but the most of them got away after having killed four warriors of our camp, whose hard fighting and death had perhaps saved the little village.

After the enemy had retreated, my mother crossed the river again, being helped over by a man who was on the side opposite the camp, and who let us ride his horse, while he held its tail and swam behind it.

In the village that night there was mourning for those who had lost their lives to save their friends. Their relations cried very pitifully over the dead; and early the next day their bodies were carried to the top of a hill near the village, and buried there.

After the mourning for the dead was ended, the people had dances over the scalps that had been taken from the enemy, rejoicing over the victory. Men and women blackened their faces, and danced in a circle about the scalps, held on poles; and old men and old women shouted the names of those men who had been the bravest in the fight. We little boys looked on and sang and danced by ourselves away from the circle.

It was soon after this that my uncle made me a bow and some blunt-headed arrows, with which he told me I should hunt little birds, and should learn to kill food, to help support my mother and sisters, as a man ought to do. With these arrows I used to practice shooting, trying to see how far I could shoot, how near I could send the arrow to the mark I shot at; and afterwards, as I grew a little older, hunting in the brush along the river, or on the prairie not far from the camp with the other little boys. We hunted the blackbirds, or the larks, or the buffalo birds that fed among the horses' feet, or the other small birds that lived among the bushes and trees in the bottom. If I killed a little bird, as sometimes I did, my mother cooked it and we ate it.


Hunting in the brush along the river.

This was a happy time for me. We little boys played together all the time. Sometimes the older boys allowed us to go with them, when they went far from the village, to hunt rabbits, and when they did this, sometimes they told us to carry back the rabbits that they had killed; and I remember that once I came back with the heads of three rabbits tucked under my belt, killed by my cousin, who was older than I. Then we used to go out and watch the men and older boys playing at sticks; and we had little sticks of our own, and our older brothers and cousins made us wheels; and we, too, played the stick game among ourselves, rolling the wheel and chasing it as hard as we could; but, for the most part, we threw our sticks at marks, trying to learn how to throw them well, and how to slide them far over the ground.

I remember another thing—a sad thing—that happened when I was a very little boy.

It was winter; the snow lay deep on the ground; a few lodges of people were camped in some timber among the foothills; buffalo were close, and game was plenty; the camp was living well. With the others I played about the camp, spinning tops on the ice, sliding down hill on a bit of parfleche, or on a sled made of buffalo ribs, and sometimes hunting little birds in the brush. All this I know about from having heard my mother tell of it; it is not in my memory. This is what I remember: One day, with one of my friends, I had gone a little way from the camp, and down the stream. A few days before there had been a heavy fall of snow, and after that some warm days, so that the top of the snow had melted. Then had come a hard cold, which had frozen it, so that on the snow there was a crust over which we could easily run.

As we were playing we went around the point of a hill, and suddenly, close to us, saw a big bull. He seemed to have come from the other side of the river, and was plowing his way through the deep snow, which came halfway up to the top of his hump. When we saw the bull we were a little frightened; but as we watched him we saw that he could hardly move, and that after he had made a jump or two he stood still for a long time, puffing and blowing, before he tried to go further. As we watched him he came to a low place in the prairie, and here he sank still deeper in the snow, so that part of his head was hidden, and only his hump showed above it. My friend said to me, "Let us go up to this bull, and shoot him with our arrows." We began to go toward him slowly, and he did not see us until we had come quite close to him, when he turned and tried to run; but the snow was so deep that he could not go at all; on each side it rose up, and rolled over, away from him, as the water is pushed away and swells out on either side before a duck that is swimming. My friend was very brave, and he said to me, "I am going to shoot that bull, and count a coup on him"; and he ran up close to the bull, and shot his blunt-headed arrow against him, and then turned off. The bull tried hard to go faster, but the snow was too deep; and when I saw that he could not move, I, too, ran up close to him, and shot my arrow at him, and the arrow bounded off and fell on the snow. Again my friend did this, and then I did it; and each time the bull was frightened and struggled to get away: but the last time my friend did it the bull had reached higher ground, where the snow was not so deep, and he had more freedom. My friend shot his arrow into him, and I was following not far behind, expecting to shoot mine; but when the bull felt the blow of the last arrow, he turned toward my friend and made a quick rush; the snow was less deep; he went faster; my little friend slipped, and the bull caught him with his horns and threw him far. My friend fell close to me, and where he fell the snow was red with his blood, for the great horn had caught him just above the waist, and had ripped his body open nearly to the throat.

I went up to him in a moment, and, catching him, pulled him over the smooth crust, far from the bull; but when I stopped and looked at him, he was still, his eyes were dull, and he did not breathe; he was dead.

I did not know what to do. I had lost my friend, and I cried hard. Also, I wished to be revenged on the bull for what he had done; but I did not wish to be killed. I covered my friend with my robe, and started running fast to the camp, where I told my mother what had happened. Soon all the men in the camp, and some of the women, had started with me, back to where the bull was. My friend's relations were wailing and mourning, as they came along, and soon we reached his body, and his relations carried him back to the camp. Two of the men went to where the bull stood in the snow and killed him; and after he was dead I struck him with my bow.