IT was the year of the small-pox. The Pawnees had died in their cold tepees by the fifties, the soldiers lay dead in the trenches without the fort, and many a gay French voyageur, who had thought to go singing down the Missouri on his fur-laden raft in the springtime, would never again see the lights of St. Louis, or the coin of the mighty Choteau company.
It had been a winter of tragedies. The rigors of the weather and the scourge of the disease had been fought with Indian charm and with Catholic prayer. Both were equally unavailing. If a man was taken sick at the fort they put him in a warm room, brought him a jug of water once a day, and left him to find out what his constitution was worth. Generally he recovered; for the surgeon’s supplies had been exhausted early in the year. But the Indians, in their torment, rushed into the river through the ice, and returned to roll themselves in their blankets and die in ungroaning stoicism.
Every one had grown bitter and hard. The knives of the trappers were sharp, and not one whit sharper than their tempers. Some one said that the friendly Pawnees were conspiring with the Sioux, who were always treacherous, to sack the settlement. The trappers doubted this. They and the Pawnees had been friends many years, and they had together killed the Sioux in four famous battles on the Platte. Yet–who knows? There was pestilence in the air, and it had somehow got into men’s souls as well as their bodies.
So, at least, Father de Smet said. He alone did not despair. He alone tried neither charm nor curse. He dressed him an altar in the wilderness, and he prayed at it–but not for impossible things. When in a day’s journey you come across two lodges of Indians, sixty souls in each, lying dead and distorted from the plague in their desolate tepees, you do not pray, if you are a man like Father de Smet. You go on to the next lodge where the living yet are, and teach them how to avoid death.
Besides, when you are young, it is much easier to act than to pray. When the children cried for food, Father de Smet took down the rifle from the wall and went out with it, coming back only when he could feed the hungry. There were places where the prairie was black with buffalo, and the shy deer showed their delicate heads among the leafless willows of the Papillion. When they–the children–were cold, this young man brought in baskets of buffalo chips from the prairie and built them a fire, or he hung more skins up at the entrance to the tepees. If he wanted to cross a river and had no boat at hand, he leaped the uncertain ice, or, in clear current, swam, with his clothes on his head in a bundle.
A wonderful traveller for the time was Father de Smet. Twice he had gone as far as the land of the Flathead nation, and he could climb mountain passes as well as any guide of the Rockies. He had built a dozen missions, lying all the way from the Columbia to the Kaw. He had always a jest at his tongue’s end, and served it out with as much readiness as a prayer; and he had, withal, an arm trained to do execution. Every man on the plains understood the art of self-preservation. Even in Cainsville, over by the council ground of the western tribes, which was quite the most civilized place for hundreds of miles, life was uncertain when the boats came from St. Louis with bad whiskey in their holds. But no one dared take liberties with the holy father. The thrust from his shoulder was straight and sure, and his fist was hard.