Drifting Crane: The Indian And The Pioneer by Hamlin Garland

Story type: Literature

Before them, surely, sullenly and slow,
The desperate and cheated Indians go.


The people of Boomtown invariably spoke of Henry Wilson as the oldest settler in the Jim Valley, as he was of Buster County; but the Eastern man, with his ideas of an “old settler,” was surprised as he met the short, silent, middle-aged man, who was very loath to tell anything about himself, and about whom many strange and thrilling stories were told by good story-tellers. In 1879 he was the only settler in the upper part of the valley, living alone on the banks of the Elm, a slow, tortuous stream pulsing lazily down the valley, too small to be called a river and too long to be called a creek. For two years, it is said, Wilson had only the company of his cattle, especially during the winter-time, and now and then a visit from an Indian, or a trapper after mink and musk-rats.

Between his ranch and the settlements in Eastern Dakota there was the wedge-shaped reservation known as the Sisseton Indian Reserve, on which were stationed the customary agency and company of soldiers. But, of course, at that time the Indians were not restricted closely to the bounds of the reserve, but ranged freely over the vast and beautiful prairie lying between the coteaux or ranges of low hills which mark out “the Jim Valley.” The valley was unsurveyed for the most part, and the Indians naturally felt a sort of proprietorship in it, and when Wilson drove his cattle down into the valley and squatted, the chief, Drifting Crane, welcomed him, as a host might, to an abundant feast whose hospitality was presumed upon, but who felt the need of sustaining his reputation as a host, and submitted graciously.

The Indians during the first summer got to know Wilson, and liked him for his silence, his courage, his generosity; but the older men pondered upon the matter a great deal and watched with grave faces to see him ploughing up the sod for his garden. There was something strange in this solitary man thus deserting his kindred, coming here to live alone with his cattle; they could not understand it. What they said in those pathetic, dimly lighted lodges will never be known; but when winter came, and the new-comer did not drive his cattle back over the hills as they thought he would, then the old chieftains took long counsel upon it. Night after night they smoked upon it, and at last Drifting Crane said to two of his young men: “Go ask this cattleman why he remains in the cold and snow with his cattle. Ask him why he does not drive his cattle home.”

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This was in March, and one evening a couple of days later, as Wilson was about re-entering his shanty at the close of his day’s work, he was confronted by two stalwart Indians, who greeted him pleasantly.

“How d’e do? How d’e do?” he said in reply. “Come in. Come in and take a snack.”

The Indians entered and sat silently while he put some food on the table. They hardly spoke till after they had eaten. The Indian is always hungry, for the reason that his food supply is insufficient and his clothing poor. When they sat on the cracker-boxes and soap-boxes which served as seats, they spoke. They told him of the chieftain’s message. They said they had come to assist him in driving his cattle back across the hills; that he must go.

To all this talk in the Indian’s epigrammatic way, and in the dialect which has never been written, the rancher replied almost as briefly: “You go back and tell Drifting Crane that I like this place; that I’m here to stay; that I don’t want any help to drive my cattle. I’m on the lands of the Great Father at Washington, and Drifting Crane ain’t got any say about it. Now that sizes the whole thing up. I ain’t got anything against you nor against him, but I’m a settler; that’s my constitution; and now I’m settled I’m going to stay.”

While the Indians discussed his words between themselves he made a bed of blankets on the floor and said: “I never turn anybody out. A white man is just as good as an Indian as long as he behaves himself as well. You can bunk here.”

The Indians didn’t understand his words fully, but they did understand his gesture, and they smiled and accepted the courtesy, so like their own rude hospitality. Then they all smoked a pipe of tobacco in silence, and at last Wilson turned in and went serenely off to sleep, hearing the mutter of the Indians lying before the fire.

In the morning he gave them as good a breakfast as he had–bacon and potatoes, with coffee and crackers. Then he shook hands, saying: “Come again. I ain’t got anything against you. You’ve done y’r duty. Now go back and tell your chief what I’ve said. I’m at home every day. Good day.”

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The Indians smiled kindly, and drawing their blankets over their arms, went away toward the east.

During April and May two or three reconnoitering parties of land-hunters drifted over the hills and found him out. He was glad to see them, for, to tell the truth, the solitude of his life was telling on him. The winter had been severe, and he had hardly caught a glimpse of a white face during the three midwinter months, and his provisions were scanty.

These parties brought great news. One of them was the advance surveying party for a great Northern railroad, and they said a line of road was to be surveyed during the summer if their report was favorable.

“Well, what d’ye think of it?” Wilson asked, with a smile.

“Think! It’s immense!” said a small man in the party, whom the rest called Judge Balser. “Why, they’ll be a town of four thousand inhabitants in this valley before snow flies. We’ll send the surveyors right over the divide next month.”

They sent some papers to Wilson a few weeks later, which he devoured as a hungry dog might devour a plate of bacon. The papers were full of the wonderful resources of the Jim Valley. It spoke of the nutritious grasses for stock. It spoke of the successful venture of the lonely settler Wilson, how his stock fattened upon the winter grasses without shelter, etc., what vegetables he grew, etc., etc.

Wilson was reading this paper for the sixth time one evening in May. He had laid off his boots, his pipe was freshly filled, and he sat in the doorway in vast content, unmindful of the glory of color that filled the western sky, and the superb evening chorus of the prairie-chickens, holding conventions on every hillock. He felt something touch him on the shoulder, and looked up to see a tall Indian gazing down upon him with a look of strange pride and gravity. Wilson sprang to his feet and held out his hand.

“Drifting Crane, how d’e do?”

The Indian bowed, but did not take the settler’s hand. Drifting Crane would have been called old if he had been a white man, and there was a look of age in the fixed lines of his powerful, strongly modeled face, but no suspicion of weakness in the splendid poise of his broad, muscular body. There was a smileless gravity about his lips and eyes which was very impressive.

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“I’m glad to see you. Come in and get something to eat,” said Wilson, after a moment’s pause.

The chief entered the cabin and took a seat near the door. He took a cup of milk and some meat and bread silently, and ate while listening to the talk of the settler.

“I don’t brag on my biscuits, chief, but they eat, if a man is hungry enough. An’ the milk’s all right. I suppose you’ve come to see why I ain’t moseying back over the divide?”

The chief, after a long pause, began to speak in a low, slow voice, as if choosing his words. He spoke in broken English, of course, but his speech was very direct and plain, and had none of those absurd figures of rhetoric which romancers invariably put into the mouths of Indians. His voice was almost lion-like in its depth, and yet was not unpleasant. It was easy to see that he was a chief by virtue of his own personality.

“Cattleman, my young men brought me bad message from you. They brought your words to me, saying he will not go away.”

“That’s about the way the thing stands,” replied Wilson, in response to the question that was in the old chief’s steady eyes. “I’m here to stay. This ain’t your land. This is Uncle Sam’s land, and part of it’ll be mine as soon as the surveyors come to measure it off.”

“Who gave it away?” asked the chief. “My people were cheated out of it. They didn’t know what they were doing.”

“I can’t help that. That’s for Congress to say. That’s the business of the Great Father at Washington.” Wilson’s voice changed. He knew and liked the chief; he didn’t want to offend him. “They ain’t no use making a fuss, chief. You won’t gain anything.”

There was a look of deep sorrow in the old man’s face. At last he spoke again: “The cattleman is welcome; but he must go, because whenever one white man goes and calls it good, the others come. Drifting Crane has seen it far in the east, twice. The white men come thick as the grass. They tear up the sod. They build houses. They scare the buffalo away. They spoil my young men with whisky. Already they begin to climb the eastern hills. Soon they will fill the valley, and Drifting Crane and his people will be surrounded. The sod will all be black.”

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“I hope you’re right,” was the rancher’s grim reply.

“But they will not come if the cattleman go back to say the water is not good. There is no grass, and the Indians own the land.”

Wilson smiled at the childish faith of the chief. “Won’t do, chief–won’t do. That won’t do any good. I might as well stay.”

The chief rose. He was touched by the settler’s laugh; his eyes flashed; his voice took on a sterner note. “The white man must go!”

Wilson rose also. He was not a large man, but he was a very resolute one. “I shan’t go!” he said, through his clinched teeth. Each man understood the tones of the other perfectly.

It was a thrilling, a significant scene. It was in absolute truth the meeting of the modern vidette of civilization with one of the rear-guard of retreating barbarism. Each man was a type; each was wrong, and each was right. The Indian as true and noble from the barbaric point of view as the white man. He was a warrior and hunter–made so by circumstances over which he had no control. Guiltless as the panther, because war to a savage is the necessity of life.

The settler represented the unflagging energy and fearless heart of the American pioneer. Narrow-minded, partly brutalized by hard labor and a lonely life, yet an admirable figure for all that. As he looked into the Indian’s face he seemed to grow in height. He felt behind him all the weight of the millions of westward-moving settlers; he stood the representative of an unborn State. He took down a rifle from the wall–the magazine rifle, most modern of guns; he patted the stock, pulled the crank, throwing a shell into view.

“You know this thing, chief?”

The Indian nodded slightly.

“Well, I’ll go when–this–is–empty.”

“But my young men are many.”

“So are the white men–my brothers.”

The chief’s head dropped forward. Wilson, ashamed of his boasting, put the rifle back on the wall.

“I’m not here to fight. You can kill me any time. You could ‘a’ killed me to-night, but it wouldn’t do any good. It ‘ud only make it worse for you. Why, they’ll be a town in here bigger’n all your tribe before two grass from now. It ain’t no use, Drifting Crane; it’s got to be. You an’ I can’t help n’r hinder it. I know just how you feel about it, but I tell yeh it ain’t no use to fight.”

Drifting Crane turned his head and gazed out on the western sky, still red with the light of the fallen sun. His face was rigid as bronze, but there was a dreaming, prophetic look in his eyes. A lump came into the settler’s throat; for the first time in his life he got a glimpse of the infinite despair of the Indian. He forgot that Drifting Crane was the representative of a “vagabond race;” he saw in him, or rather felt in him, something almost magnetic. He was a man, and a man of sorrows. The settler’s voice was husky when he spoke again, and his lips trembled.

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“Chief, I’d go to-morrow if it ‘ud do any good, but it won’t–not a particle. You know that, when you stop to think a minute. What good did it do to massacree all them settlers at New Ulm? What good will it do to murder me and a hundred others? Not a bit. A thousand others would take our places. So I might just as well stay, and we might just as well keep good friends. Killin’ is out o’ fashion; don’t do any good.”

There was a twitching about the stern mouth of the Indian chief. He understood all too well the irresistible logic of the pioneer. He kept his martial attitude, but his broad chest heaved painfully, and his eyes grew dim. At last he said: “Good-by. Cattleman right; Drifting Crane wrong. Shake hands. Good-by.” He turned and strode away.

The rancher watched him till he mounted his pony, picketed down by the river; watched him as, with drooping head and rein flung loose upon the neck of his horse, he rode away into the dusk, hungry, weary and despairing, to face his problem alone. Again, for the thousandth time, the impotence of the Indian’s arm and the hopelessness of his fate were shown as perfectly as if two armies had met and soaked the beautiful prairie sod with blood.

“This is all wrong,” muttered the settler. “There’s land enough for us all, or ought to be. I don’t understand—- Well, I’ll leave it to Uncle Sam anyway.” He ended with a sigh.

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