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Horse Thieves

Dreamed early 1870s? by Plenty Coups, as told to Frank Linderman, 1928

When near the Chief's house I saw a horseman turn in at the gate. At first I thought him a white man, reflecting that white men always disturbed us. But when the rider dismounted I knew he was an Indian, Coyote-runs.

"I feared you were a white man," I told him, after greeting Plenty-coups, who sat with Braided-scalp-lock under the trees. "But when I saw you get off your horse, I knew you were a Crow." [Indians dismount from their horses on the right side; whites on the left.]

The Chief laughed at this, and I saw that I had, by good fortune, touched a responsive chord in his memory. "We have learned many things from the white man," he said. "Some of them are good, but the off side of a horse is the natural one for us, and we have not changed our way of mounting or dismounting. Habit is strong with all men, and even when they borrow customs to fool others they become careless, so that natural habits give them away."

He turned to Coyote-runs, spoke rapidly and with glee, reminding him of some incident; then he said to me: "The white man, even with all his smartness, cannot long make his trail look like an Indian's, any more than an Indian can fool his own people by pretending to be white. Both will at last forget the game they are playing and do some natural thing. Then they get caught.

"Once upon a time in winter I went to the mountains with Sharp-head and Big-sky to kill mountain sheep. They were plentiful then, and we stayed but two nights on the hunting grounds. The second night I had a bad dream. I knew something was wrong in our village on Rock Creek, and by daybreak we were packed up and traveling toward it.

"Somebody had stolen about a hundred head of our horses the night before, and the thieves were believed to be white men. As they had left one boot -track in a patch of snow, I went out to look at it. It had been made by a white man's boot, right enough, and there was only one imprint to judge by. No Indian wore boots, but the track seemed to me to turn in a little at the toe. The man had mounted a horse just there, on the near side as a white man does, and yet the boot track did not turn out enough at the toe to make me certain the horse thieves had been white men. I searched for another track but there was none, so at last I gave up, calling a council to talk things over. The country now had many white men in it, and we feared they might object to our chasing horse thieves wherever their trail led.

"All except myself believed the horses had been taken by white men and that our property was gone forever. "I will dream,' I told them. "Go back to your lodges. Stay there till morning, unless I call you in the night.'

"After a sweat-bath I plunged into the icy river and then slept. Near midnight one of the Little-people came to me in a dream. He stood at my feet and said:

'My son, you were in the mountains and have come back to gain a good bay horse and a pinto. They shall be yours if you follow the trail of the Sioux who have robbed you.'

"I knew then that the boot-track had been made by an Indian's foot, and that we should retake our property. I called out, and men came again to my lodge. 'Get your fastest horses,' I told them. 'We shall look for the thieves' trail at once.'

The old Chief's story of the chase was minute in every detail. Finding where the stolen horses had been driven across the ice on the Yellowstone on dirt scattered so that the animals might walk more easily, the Crows followed northward until they reached a few log houses built on the present site of Billings. Here they learned that a gray horse and saddle had been stolen. This made their cause common with the whites of the little village, and a letter addressed "to all white men," vouching for his character and the worthiness of his mission, was written and given Plenty-coups, who now believed he had a warrant to follow the thieves wherever they went. Such letters were often written years ago when the country was changing from wilderness to settled communities. I have more than once written them for Indians myself.

"I do not believe those white men would have given me that letter if they had not hoped I would bring back their gray horse," smiled the Chief. "You see the ground was frozen so that any trail was difficult to follow," he went on, "and white men are not used to such work. However, a hundred horses make a sign that is easily followed over any ground, and we found where the thieves had camped on the present site of Huntley. They were two whole days ahead of us. So we hurried on until, in the afternoon, we came upon a place where they had stopped to let the horses eat grass a while, near the mouth of a little box-canyon. Not once did I see a boot-track all this while, although I searched wherever such a sign might show itself. Late that evening we came to a bunch of culls [inferior horses] the thieves had cut out of the stolen band and left in a little canyon between the Elk River and the Musselshell. Forty head of these were strong enough to travel, and I sent all but Bell-rock back to our village with them.

"In another day's ride Bell-rock and I found a few more culls at the mouth of a box-canyon that had been barricaded against pursuers, but we left them to pick up coming back. I discovered another boot-track at the barricaded canyon, but still thought it turned in too much at the toe to belong to a white foot. Bell-rock, however, yet felt uncertain what manner of men we were f ollowing, red, or white. My dream had told me the thieves were Indians, Sioux, and that we should overtake them. They were traveling more slowly now, while we were gaining on them all the time. Still, nothing had shown us positively by sign whether they were white men or Indians.

"Finally, when the sun was nearly out of sight, we saw smoke. It came from their old campfire, but they were gone. A half-burned log told us we were still half a day behind them. At this place too, while looking for more sign, we picked up a white man's coat, a hat, and a pair of trousers. They did not fool us much. White men wear too many clothes and never leave any off their bodies in cold weather. The clothes settled the question for me, but Bell-rock still believed the thieves might be white men; and we both disliked the thought of trailing white men in a country where they were so plentiful. I got off my horse to feel in the trousers pockets, knowing nothing would be in them, and as I did so, beheld an offering to the thieves' medicine hanging on the limb of a tree. It was a small bundle of red cloth, and some tobacco.

"Now we laughed! Now we danced ! Here was proof that the men we were following were red like ourselves, and Sioux at that. My heart began to sing. Two of them would be riding the good bay horse and the pinto, which the Little-person had spoken of in my dream. They would be mine, and I should be paid for this trouble by getting back my property. The foolish Sioux had given themselves away. They could not wait to reach their own country to offer cloth and tobacco to their medicine, but, even when wearing a white man's boot to fool us, had offered it while we were on their trail. You see? They forgot and did the natural thing, just as all men do after a while. But I had felt certain after seeing the first boot-track, anyway, and my dream had assured me they were Indians. Whenever a man pretends to be somebody else than himself he does not last long.

"We passed another camp where they had killed a white man's cow, and had even stopped to dry some of the meat a little over their fire. By this we knew they believed themselves safe and would grow more careless. Not far from the mouth of the Musselshell we came to a house. A white man and a Crow woman lived there. The man's name was Long-hair [Carpenter?], and he gave us food. The woman said she had heard many horses pass the house the night before. I told her that when we returned we should be very hungry. 'I will fire two shots if it is night, and by them you will know who has come,' I told her. Then we rode on.

"We knew long before this that there were four men with the stolen horses, and their trail told us we ought to catch up by dark. When the first star came into the sky, Bell-rock pulled up his horse and turned to the wind. 'I smell smoke,' he said.

"We got down to walk, following the smell till we saw a little fire blazing in some willows. When we drew close we could see a Sioux putting dry wood on the fire that sent up sparks as though telling us it was glad we had come. I might easily have killed that Sioux, and I wished to, but Bell-rock objected. 'They are four to two,' he whispered, 'and besides I would rather have our horses than a Sioux scalp.'

"I knew he was right, even while I was thinking what a fine mark for my rifle the man by the fire made. He had long, nicely braided hair and wore better clothes than we did. I have never forgotten how much I wished to send him to his Father. White men ruled the country now, however, and might not think I had done right in killing the Sioux and besides there were our horses. We might lose them if I fired a shot.

"'Good,' I told Bell-rock. And in almost no time, without disturbing their guards, we had rounded up not only our own horses but the Sioux's. After we had driven them a little way, and while Bell-rock kept them going, I went back to the Sioux camp. I did not wish them to have to guess who had beaten them at their own game, so I split a willow stick, thrust into it the letter the white men in Billings had given me, tied some red cloth to the stick, and stuck it in the ground where the Sioux must see it when they looked for the horses. Of course they would not be able to read the letter, any more than I could, but they would carry it to some white man who would tell them what it said, and then they would know who set them afoot in the Big Dry.

"The stars were sparkling in the sky, and the wind was on my back, when I caught up to Bell-rock and the horses. The way was far, even to the house of Long-hair. Almost the first thing I did when it was light enough to see, was to look for the two horses the Little-person had described; and there they were, just as he had said, a bay and a fine pinto. Of course I had known they would be there, without looking.

"It was past the middle of the night when we saw the black-looking house of Long-hair, like a great rock on the plains. The running horses clattering over the frozen ground set a dog to barking near the corral, and a horse whinnied as though greeting friends. I fired two shots, and a candle-light flickered through the glass window in the house. We were safe. A rest would give us strength, besides helping the horses. I shall never forget how good that woman's Crow words sounded at the door of that white man's house, nor how kind she and her man were to us. They helped us corral the band, fed the horses great piles of clean hay, and gave us food and a bed where we slept like dead men until long after the sun came.

"When we were ready to go on, Long-hair and his woman went out to the corral with us, where we gave them two good horses. To play even they sent one of their cowboys with us to help drive the band. This man was very kind, cooking for us when we camped and making coffee that had plenty of sugar in it. But when we arrived at the Elk River we let him go back, ourselves pushing on to Billings, where we gave the white men the gray horse. They never recovered their saddle, because we had not been able to get it from the Sioux without a fight and perhaps we should not have got it even then. Not once did we permit ourselves to become careless, though so near our own country. We had done well and did not propose to lose what we had gained. The bay horse, I now saw, had once belonged to the Crows. His old owner often tried to trade with me for him, but because of my dream I kept him until he died of old age."

As he always did after telling a story of adventure, Plenty-coups here expatiated on the days of his youth, laughing jovially with Coyote-runs and Plain-bull over some incident; and then, as though remembering the present, he sobered.

"Those were happy days," he said softly. "Our bodies were strong and our minds healthy because there was always something for both to do. When the buffalo went away we became a changed people. Meat-eaters need meat. Other food is strange to them. Idleness that was never with us in buffalo days has stolen much from both our minds and bodies. When I think of buffalo meat I am hungry, and I think of it often. The buffalo was not only our food but our clothing and shelter. The other animals furnished only a change of meat and summer clothes. The buffalo was everything to us."

EDITOR'S NOTES

Source: Archive.org's online text of Plenty Coups, Chief Of The Crows by Frank Linderman (p.243-252)
Passage was untitled; "Horse Thief" is only my title of convenience.
Date range: extensive white settlement began in late 1860s; soon after Little Big Horn (1876) the Sioux were unable to raid freely; Billings boomed in 1882.

--Chris Wayan



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