Gold Cache - James W. Schultz

Chapter I

When we returned from the shores of the Western sea,—and before our memorable adventures with Long Bear, which sent us on the warpath against the Assiniboins,—Pi'tamakan (Eagle Running) went out to the Blackfoot camp to live with his father and take care of the two hundred horses that we had received for the skin of the seal. I was glad to remain at the fort for a time. Although I was still a mere boy, the engages and voyageurs of the American Fur Company no longer patronized me; my adventures during the past two years had made me their equal, for I had seen more of the great Northwest than any man within the stockade.

The blacksmith shop in Fort Benton was always an interesting place to me; indeed, I had half determined to learn the smith's trade. There was no one in the place when I entered it one morning, and so I lighted a fire in the forge and prepared to fashion a serviceable skinning-knife from an old file.

"How! How, thou fish-dog hunter!" some one said, as I thrust the piece of steel into the glowing coals.

Turning toward the doorway, I found a North Blackfoot named Nit-ai'-na (Lone Chiefs confronting me. He had recently returned from a raid far to the south, and with his companions was resting for a few days in a small camp just outside the gates of the fort.

"Help me, my good young friend," he said, gravely offering me his hand.

"Say how; my help is yours," I replied.

Taking a finely embroidered buckskin tobacco pouch from his belt, he said, "On our raid we found a lot of metal buttons. The white men who made them must have been crazy; they neither punched holes in the pieces nor attached to them stems with holes; they cannot be sewed on clothing and are therefore useless. I ask you to make holes in them, so that I can string them together for a necklace."

And with that he put into my hand several shining, heavy yellow disks that he drew from the pouch. They were twenty-dollar gold pieces and there were twenty-five of them! I held in my hand five hundred dollars in gold! It was more money than I had seen in my whole life. To my eager questions he replied briefly that he and his party had found the gold pieces on the white men's trail far to the south, but, as the shining buttons had no holes, the party had taken only a few of them.

"And the rest of them—the boxes full," I asked, "what became of them?"

"We buried them right there where we found them. We thought that perhaps when we came north again we should take more, but on our return we did not pass that place."

"Before we make holes in the pieces let me show them to my uncle," I suggested, and Nit-ai'-na readily agreed to go over to the office with me.

We found Uncle Wesley preparing a bill of lading for a keel boat that was soon to leave with a load of furs for Fort Union, I thrust the gold pieces into his hand and, almost choking with excitement, began to repeat the tale that Lone Chief had told me.

"Hold on; not so fast; you are forgetting your manners," Uncle Wesley cautioned me.

Rising from his chair, he shook hands with Lone Chief, spoke a few words of friendly greeting and motioned him to a seat on the comfortable buffalo-robe couch. Then he mixed tobacco and líherbe, filled a huge stone pipe and passed it to the Indian. Smoking the pipe by turns, they talked of the game and of tribal affairs until I was nearly bursting with impatience for them to get round to the subject of the gold. I thought they would never reach the point.

"Do you know what these are?" Uncle Wesley asked at last, lifting the stack of coins from the desk.

"Yes, of course I do; they are half-made buttons," Lone Chief replied.

"No, younger brother, you are mistaken; they are not buttons," said my uncle. "They are things to buy with. Each one can buy as much as ten large beaver-skins. With five of them you can buy one of our good cap-lock rifles. One of them will buy a three-point blanket."

"Is it so?" Lone Chief exclaimed, clapping his hand to his mouth—the sign for great astonishment. "That being true, I will not have a necklace of them. I will go straight to the trade room and buy things."

But of course he had to smoke the big pipe to the last whiff; it would have been a serious breach of Blackfoot etiquette for him to cut short the friendly, semi-religious ceremony; and while he was finishing the smoke, my uncle, who was as full of curiosity as I, took occasion to ask him how he had happened to find the gold.

"Ah! You shall know about that," said Lone Chief. "It was because of my dream that we started, the six of us, for the far south, for the land of the Spai'-i-kwax [the Spaniards]. I lost a brother in that country. He went to war with a party of our people in that always summer land, and was killed by the enemy. I always thought to go there and avenge his death, and my dream al ways forbade it. But this time my dream was right; my secret helper told me plainly enough to go, and we started on foot and traveled only at night.

"Seeing all things, but ourselves unseen, we went ever southward through our own country to the river of the Elk, and then up the Bighorn River through the country of the Crows. South, beyond the head of the little streams that make the Bighorn, we came to a great trail—a white men's trail that came from the east and went westward through a low place in the big mountains. Wagons and men afoot had recently passed on it, and we followed the fresh sign, anxious to see what they looked like. It was a long way across to the water that runs from the mountains, and we became thirsty. At last we saw a canon in the mountains on the north side of the pass and knew that water must be flowing from it; we hurried all the faster down the trail toward the place where it would strike the stream. And then, as we approached it, there were shots fired there, many shots, and soon a great smoke rose straight into the air. We left the trail, got into the sagebrush and began to crawl through it, hoping soon to see what was going on. We were in time to see a large party of Indians riding away from the fire and coming eastward on the trail. They did not hurry; they passed quite near us and we saw that they were Sioux.

"The party rode horses of the plains, but they led big, white men's horses, loaded with white men's goods: blankets, canvas, and many sacks—probably filled with sugar and other food. After the Sioux had passed out of sight we hurried to the place of the fire, which was close beside the creek; two wagons and much stuff that they contained were almost burned up, and near by lay seven white men, with their bodies stuck full of arrows and their scalps gone. There were buckets. We filled them with water and drenched the smouldering piles; we hoped to save something that might be of use to us; we found a few things that the fire had spared, and in a big keg of salt—the wood was mostly burned away—we found four small boxes.

"They were small boxes, but very heavy. We pried one open with the white men's axe and found it full of these half-finished buttons; we opened the other three, and found that they, too, contained buttons. We each took a few of the pieces in one of the boxes and were about to start on our way when one of the party proposed that we cache the boxes and take more of the shining things when we came back on our way northward. So we did cache them—right in the gravel at the edge of the creek, beside a big rock. And there they are now, as I have said, for when we returned from the south our route was a long way east of the pass."

"How many of them were there in a boa—did you count them?" Uncle Wesley asked.

"We counted one box," was the reply. "It held two hundred and fifty of the half-finished buttons, and the boxes were all of the same size."

At that, I began to do some mental figuring, but Uncle Wesley beat me. "A thousand pieces, twenty thousand dollars 1" he cried. "Thomas, my boy, there is a fortune in that cache."

"Oh, uncle, what a lot of money that is!" I exclaimed. "Get him to go back there with some of us and show us where it's cached."

"I'll see what I can do," he said, "but I don't think there will be any of `us' in the party. You have surely had adventure enough; it is high time for you to settle down to your study books, and work here in the fort."

By this time the pipe had gone out, and Lone Chief started for the trade room. Uncle Wesley went with him. When the last gold piece had crossed the counter, Uncle Wesley put a fine white blanket on top of Lone Chief's purchases. "For your woman," he said.

"And now I want you to do something for me," my uncle went on. "I want you to go back to the big trail with some of my men and show them where the little boxes are cached."

"I am tired from my far journey and do not care to return there," Lone Chief answered. "But you have been good to me and I must be good to you; perhaps I will do as you ask; just give me a night or two to think about it." And with that he picked up his purchases and went out to the camp.

Within the next hour the other five men of the party came in and traded what gold they had—eleven hundred dollars in all. None of them had taken so many of the pieces as Lone Chief had.

The next day passed without a word from Lone Chief, but in the evening he came to our quarters and said that he was still considering the matter of going back to the cache, and that he would give us a definite answer in the morning. All would have been well, I think, had it not been for the too generous hospitality of Uncle Wesley's wife. Tsistsaki filled the chief with cup after cup of strong coffee and numerous flour cakes fried in buffalo tallow grease. The unaccustomed food gave him bad dreams, for on the following morning he came over early and informed us that his medicine had warned him not to go south again. We knew at once that it was useless to argue with him. The rest of Lone Chief's party took warning from his dream and flatly refused to act as guides to the cache. Indeed, it was only on account of their respect and friendship for my uncle that they had even considered doing as he wished. The prospect of gain, of wealth, was no inducement to them; food they always had in abundance; with a few buffalo robes or beaver-skins they could from time to time buy enough to satisfy their other needs.

"Well, Uncle Wesley, you see how it is now," I said. "It is for me to raise that cache. Give me a couple of men and I'll bring back the gold, all right."

"Ha! Hum!" he muttered, and, settling back in the big buffalo-hide chair, combed his long hair with his fingers and was silent for an interminable time. I knew that that was a sign he was weakening, and so I added:—

"Lone Chief can make me a map of the place, and with that for a guide I can certainly find the gold."

"But the risk is great," he objected. "At this time of year the plains are full of war parties of Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne, and the tribes of the far south."

"There were dozens of tribes of the enemy between here and the Pacific, yet I twice safely passed through their country," I answered.

And before he could reply to that remark I got unexpected aid from Tsistsaki. She understood enough English to know what we were talking about and now said in her own tongue:—

"My chief, you know that I have strong medicine. Only a few nights ago, in my dream, I saw our boy here riding out to hunt on the green-grassed plain. You know what that means: it is that he will at least see the new growing things of another summer; and therefore it is safe for him to go after this cache of trade metal. There will be dangers, of course, but he will escape them all. Let him go with his brother, Pi'tamakan, and one or two of your trusted men here, and all will be well."

I have reason to believe that my Uncle Wesley, in a measure at least, respected the superstitions of the Blackfeet; there were few white men who lived long with them who did not eventually believe that dreams and signs had some significance. At any rate, when Tsistsaki finished speaking he drew her down on his knee, and said affectionately, "And so you saw him riding on green grass! Well, he and Pi'tamakan shall go, and Jose shall go with them. He is the only one of the old and trusted engages that I can spare."

"Hooray! Hooray!" I shouted, and gave Tsistsaki a rousing kiss. She had always been my good friend—a second mother to me. Taking my rifle and ammunition from the pegs over the chimney place, I made for the stables, calling to my uncle that I was going after Pi'tamakan.

The camp of the South Blackfeet, or to be correct, the Pi-kan-i, was on the Marias River, due north of the Goosebill Butte—along day's ride from the fort. There was a continual succession of little parties along the trail, going to the fort to trade and returning to camp with their purchases, and so I had company almost all of the way. It was dusk when I rode to the doorway of the lodge of White Wolf, Pi'tamakan's father, and shouted, "Kut ai-pi-stau-pi ni tuk a?" (Is my friend within?)

Instantly the whole family came out of the lodge to greet me. I was just as glad to see them all as they were to see me. During the evening meal I gave the news of the fort and heard all that of the camp. And then, while White Wolf smoked his long pipe, I told of the Blackfeet's find of gold, and asked him to permit Pi'tamakan to go with me and raise the cache.

"When?" the chief asked.

"To-morrow. I want to start back at sunrise."

"Why, you talk as if this thing were just a matter of going over to the next creek and back!" he exclaimed. "It is nothing less than a setting out to war; the trail is through the country of many enemies. Pi'tamakan may go with you, but you shall both go properly. To-morrow old Red Eagle shall make medicine for you; your mothers here shall make extra moccasins for you; and on the next day you may leave for the fort."

So it was that on the following afternoon we had a time of prayer with old Red Eagle in a medicine sweat lodge. While the hot steam made the perspiration run from us in streams, he begged the gods to guard us on the long and dangerous south trail and to help us to return laden with the spoils of the enemy. When he had finished, we ran from the lodge for a plunge into the cold waters of the river.

Later that day we selected for ourselves the best two horses in our large band, and made Red Eagle a present of four head. During our absence he was to ride through the camp every evening and remind the: people that they were to pray with him for our success and safe return. The next morning we started for the fort, and we arrived there long before dark.

On the following day my uncle had Lone Chief make for us a map of the pass in the mountains, of the creek and the place of the burned wagons and the spot where the big rock marked the cache of the gold. The Indian made one on white paper with a lead pencil, and I went over it and over it with him until I remembered every detail of the appearance of the place.

[Illustration] from The Gold Cache by James W. Schultz


Uncle Wesley then wrote a letter addressed "To all whom this may concern." The letter said that we were employees of the American Fur Company at Fort Benton, that we were on business for the Company, and recommended us to the kindness of all whom we might meet. The letter and the map I put into a dried bladder skin impervious to water, which I then hung round my neck under my shirt.

Jose Perez, the man chosen to lead our little expedition, was a Spaniard who had long been a valued employee of the Company.

Pi'tamakan's family trailed in to the fort at the last moment to give advice and to see us start, and the old medicine man came with them to offer more prayers for our success.

When breakfast was over the next morning all of the people of the fort assembled to see us start, and bravely the women bade us good-bye and restrained their tears. I shook hands with my uncle; his voice trembled as he said, "My boy, my boy! I hope I have not made a mistake in allowing you to go. For my sake, as well as your own, be cautious in all things, and do not forget that you are always to do as Jose directs."

And so we started. Each of us rode a powerful, swift horse, and our rifles and pistols were perfect weapons. A single pack animal carried our extra ammunition—fifteen hundred rounds of powder and ball, with caps to match, which with a few blankets, some extra moccasins and three buffalo robes made load enough. Of food we took nothing except a small sack of salt; our daily rations roamed the plains in countless herds and hung in ripening clusters in every berry thicket in the valleys.

We crossed the shallow ford of the river just above the fort and, turning once to wave a last good-bye, entered the long coulee that ran up to the plain. A raven flew southward over our heads with raucous croaks, and we hailed its passing with joyful shouts. It was the wisest of all birds, the Blackfeet said, and its presence was always an omen of success for the warrior and the hunter.