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The Three Friends, An Osage Legend, by Percy B. St John


The tribe known as the Osages, or Wa-saw-sees, as they denominate themselves, wander perennially round the head waters of the Arkansas and Neosho, or Grand Rivers, hunting, fishing, and trading with the Americans at Fort Gibson, the outermost south-western fort on the frontier of the United States. Tall, even gigantic in stature, they have many qualities which excite the admiration and applause of their white brethren. Like most Indians, they are brave and warlike; but their peculiarity consists in rejecting the customs of the whites, particularly the use of whisky. Wearing their wild and primitive costume, they stalk amid the hunters, squatters, trappers, and trampers that frequent the neighbourhood of Fort Gibson, overtopping them in general by a head, but still more surpassing them in the essential virtue of sobriety and temperance—a failure in the exercise of which would doubtless soon remove them from the pre-eminence they now enjoy.

In a secluded valley, through which a stream that fell into the Neosho wound its way, lay some time back one of the villages of this nomadic tribe. The wigwams were about a hundred in number, scattered over the narrow plain, near the mouth of the valley, and surrounded by a rude picket. Built of bark and reeds, they were evidently constructed simply for the necessities of the summer season, during which the warriors chased the deer and buffalo for immediate consumption, and to lay up in store for winter. Overlooking the village was a grassy mound, that narrowed the mouth of the valley, and caused the rippling stream that flowed at its feet to turn abruptly from its course. From the summit of this hillock, the lodges wore the appearance of a huge congregation of bee-hives, while the eye rested pleasantly on many adjuncts to the scene, which rendered it agreeable and picturesque. The village was alive with a busy throng of women, few if any men being discovered; while children were seen at every point, adding still greater animation to the picture. The first were all actively employed. Some stood at the entrance of their wigwams, busily engaged in cooking; others were drying and packing the results of the hunting of the warriors; while others, again, were laboriously occupied in cleaning fresh buffalo-skins, preparatory to their being cured for use as robes. Not a married woman was idle. Not so, however, the maidens. They were yet enjoying the sweets of a liberty which, however, despite the hardships incident to the married state in the wilds, they were no less anxious to sacrifice than are many bright-eyed beauties nearer home. The Osage girls—and many of them were exceedingly pretty—were congregated near the edge of the stream, in which dozens of little urchins were bathing. Dancing was usually their chief amusement; but on the present occasion they were spectators of a scene which possessed more immediate interest.

Somewhat apart from the maidens was a group, on which the Osage girls gazed curiously and enviously. Three Indian youths, all under twenty, nowise related by blood, but connected only by the bonds of friendship, stood on a rising bank in deep abstraction. Nah-com-e-shee, Koha-tunha, and Mun-ne-pushee—for such were the names of the young men—had at an early age contracted for one another one of those peculiar affections which inexplicably arise sometimes between persons of the same sex, and which often are more sincere and durable even than love. So wedded were they to this feeling, as to have publicly declared their intention of never marrying, in order that their amity might suffer no division. Their hearts, they said, were so occupied by friendship, that love could not find the remotest corner to creep into. How many smiling faces were clouded by this strange announcement, we cannot say; but sure we are, if any had before suffered them to occupy their thoughts, this resolution increased the number of their admirers manifold. Indian girls have ways and means of setting their caps at young men, as the phrase is, as well as more civilised damsels, and the Osage maidens were not idle on this occasion. Besides, that many really loved the youths, the honour of the sex was concerned. It was not to be borne that friendship should triumph over love, and it may therefore be readily conceived what an artillery of bright eyes was reproachfully opened upon the three friends. They, however, remained insensible to all the attractions of female society; they joined not in the dance, nor told nor listened to the tale of love or war by the evening fire; but rode together, hunted together, trapped together, and earned the highest renown as indefatigable and bold huntsmen.

The ambition of the three friends, however, reached to higher flights than emulating the first hunters of their tribe. They wished to equal in renown the greatest warriors of the Osage nation; and it was a knowledge of the fact, that they were about to start on a marauding expedition, which created so great a sensation in the throng of maidens. The three youths had been deeply engaged in discussing their plans, and were, at the moment we speak of, uttering a silent prayer to the great Manitou for success in their undertaking. Tall, erect, and admirably proportioned, they presented an excellent group for a statuary. While their shaven heads were adorned with the helmet crest and eagle plume, they bore round their necks ornaments of the gayest kind. A magnificent cloak of buffalo-skin adorned their shoulders, while a spear, shield, tomahawk, bow and quiver, formed their arms. Leggings, moccasins, with wampum garters tied below the knee, completed, with the waist-cloth, their attire. Three fine horses were tied to an adjoining tree, showing that they were in every way ready for the expedition. It was still morning, and many miles of ground were to be crossed before night, the youths having signified their intention of making an excursion into the Pawnee Pict territory.

As soon as their silent invocation was ended, the Osage braves stalked gravely towards their richly-caparisoned steeds, and mounting them, rode slowly from the camp. For some miles, their course was along a wide-spread rolling prairie; but soon the presence of trees gave sign of their approaching a river. It was not, however, until nightfall that they gained the banks of the Arkansas. Hitherto, their progress had been open and bold, being within the hunting-grounds of their own people; but now the frontier line of the Pawnee Picts lay before them, in the shape of the dark rolling waters of the Arkansas, and it was time to use caution and artifice. It was determined, as their horses were somewhat fatigued, and as they depended on them for escape in case of need, that they should seek repose upon the friendly side of the river, and cross the Arkansas in the morning. Their horses were accordingly tethered, a diminutive fire lighted in a deep dell or hole, and every other needful preparation made to pass the night. A frugal repast was consumed, and then each warrior leaned against a tree, and, smoking his pipe, gravely conversed upon the best mode of acquiring distinction and renown. Many opinions were given: but nothing less than surprising a whole Pawnee village, slaughtering the inhabitants, and returning to their homes loaded with scalps, appeared to the heated imaginations of the youths a sufficiently glorious enterprise to satisfy their ambition. At length the fatigues of the day overpowered them, and the three friends fell into a deep sleep.

The sun had just tipped with gold the summits of the trees, the wild-cock was crowing in the woods, the thousand choristers of the forest were pealing in rich harmony, when the Osage warriors awoke. They smiled grimly on one another, and then started, each man mechanically placing his hand upon the back and crown of his head. Their scalp locks, helmet crests, and eagles' plumes had all disappeared. Petrified with astonishment, they started to their feet. Who could have done so daring a deed? Not an enemy surely, or they would have taken the lives thus placed within their power. The friends wasted their thoughts in vain conjecture, and then, burning with indignation, turned to seek their horses. The long sweeping tails of these animals had also been cut off. That it was the Pawnee Picts, they no longer doubted; and fearful was the ire of the Osages at the contempt with which they had been treated. The trail of their night visitors was plainly marked, and led towards a copse, where they had evidently left their horses. It then turned to the river-bank, and was lost. Nah-com-e-shee, however, glancing his eye over the opposite plain, gave a cry of delight, and pointed out to his companions the flashing of spears in the morning sun.

To plunge into the river, to reach the other shore, and to ride madly over the plain in chase of their audacious foes, was the work of an instant. In vain, however, they strained their eyes to catch another glimpse of the retreating party, until again the flashing of the spear-heads was seen near at hand, and plunging over the next hillock, the friends found themselves in presence of—three lances stuck in the ground. If the Indians boiled with passion before, their rage now knew no bounds: they vowed, with little consideration for the possibility or probability of the matter, to exterminate every Pawnee Pict from the face of the earth. This resolution being unanimous, a halt was made, and a council of war held. Some ten minutes were passed in discussion, and then away went the Osages on the trail of their foes, just as they caught sight, in the rear, of a perfect cloud of horsemen pouring over the plain in the distance. It was a war-party of the Pawnee Picts, about twenty of whom came riding fast in pursuit of the three friends. A thickly-wooded ravine lay about a mile distant. Towards this the Osages hastened for refuge, their souls bounding with delight at the prospect of a contest which now opened before them.

The ravine was soon reached. It was narrow, and on both sides thickly wooded, while several clumps of timber lay near its mouth. The Osages saw that the only hope of coping with a superior force was by defending the entrance; and, accordingly, dismounting from their steeds, turned them loose, and strung their bows. On came the Pawnee Picts, riding furiously over the prairie. The intentions of the Osages were too plain to be mistaken, and none of their pursuers ventured to brave the discharge of arrows which was ready for their reception; but, imitating the example set them, cast loose their horses, and sought the shelter of a copse. The unequal struggle now commenced, and loud war-whoops rung through the valley. Arrows flew constantly from foe to foe. The Pawnees, having a great superiority in numbers, succeeded oftenest in wounding their adversaries. Still they gained not upon them; the Osages, though soon severely hurt, preserving the same undaunted front, and returning their missiles with unabated vigour.

At length, however, their arrows were spent, and clutching their tomahawks, the friends, casting a glance of stern but undying affection on each other, prepared to die like men. On came the Pawnees, yelling the fearful war-whoop, and waving their hatchets on high. Already were a dozen of them within a few yards of the devoted trio, when their yell was echoed from the forest, and three of their foremost warriors lay low, slain by a flight of arrows from the top of the ravine. Back turned the Pawnees to their shelter, while the Osages, taking advantage of the confusion, snatched the usual trophy of victory from their fallen foes, and then, catching their steeds, mounted and fled. Guided by the trampling of horses, they rushed in pursuit of those to whose timely assistance they owed their lives. In vain, however, did they urge their steeds; their unknown assistants were not to be overtaken. For about an hour the three friends continued their ride, and then halted to bind up their wounds, and conceal themselves for the rest of the day.

The spot selected was admirably adapted for the purpose, being an open glade in the forest, surrounded on all sides by trees. Here they turned their horses loose once more, and lay down upon the grass, weary and faint. To find herbs, and with them to form a kind of poultice, fastened on with bark by means of ligatures of grass, was their first duty, and then the inner man was considered. None of them had tasted food since the previous night, and there was none in their possession. Nah-com-e-shee, being the warrior who was least severely wounded, and having picked up several Pawnee arrows, started into the forest in search of game. With the keen perception of an Indian, he selected that side which appeared a little inclined to descend, as it naturally excited his suspicion that a stream lay in that direction. This was the more probable, that a little purling spring that bubbled up in the green open glade tended thither. Nor was the warrior's sagacity at fault, for a smart walk brought him to the banks of a narrow and slowly-running river. Within, sight of this Nah-com-e-shee concealed himself, and prepared to wait even for hours the passage of a deer or elk. His patience was not, however, put to so severe a test, as, ere long, a rustling in the bushes opposite attracted his attention. Raising his eyes from their fixed position, he saw the antlers of a buck rearing themselves over a thicket of brush, and next moment a noble deer bounded to the bank to drink. An arrow pierced its heart from the Indian's unerring bow ere its lips had touched the water, and Nah-com-e-shee rushed eagerly towards the spot. Three mounted warriors were before him, and while he sought cover, captured and bore away the prize.

The Osage knew that it was useless to remain on the watch any longer, and, pursuit being madness, turned back and sought his companions, who were more indignant than ever at this new outrage. Repose was, however, absolutely necessary, and was now sought, all trusting to the keenness of their senses to awake ere they could be surprised. It was dark night ere they awoke, and then the three friends groaned with rage that was absolutely frightful. Each felt himself ornamented by a squaw's petticoat, thrown loosely over him. Burning with passion, they grasped one another's hands, and vowed terrible vengeance.

At this instant a dim light was seen through the trees, blazing up at a considerable distance in the forest. It was the fire of a camp, and the hearts of the Osage warriors were at last glad. They had been so often outwitted, that the utmost caution was used. Each divested himself of every unnecessary article of clothing, while their tomahawks were the only arms they preserved. Clutching these, they crept stealthily, and with a serpent's tread, into the forest. As they advanced, the glare of the fire grew brighter; and at length, when within a couple of hundred yards, they could plainly hear the green wood crackling in the full stillness of evening. A faint odour of broiled venison came pleasingly to their nostrils, and then three figures were plainly discerned round the fire.

Between the spot occupied by the Osages and the hostile camp lay a rough piece of ground, full of holes and natural ditches. Across this the three friends began to crawl, holding their breath, and clutching their deadly weapons, while their hearts beat with anxiety lest their victims should escape. Half the distance was passed over, and still more strongly was the cooking made evident to the hungry senses of the creeping Osages. Still the unconscious warriors moved not, but kept their backs turned to the approaching foe. They were evidently eating, and holding converse at intervals. At length, as the friends came still nearer, they appeared to finish their meal, and sunk gradually on the leafy ground to rest. The Osages breathed more freely, and advanced with less caution, until at length, when within half-a-dozen yards, they rose, gave the terrific war-whoop, and leaped madly upon the camp. It was vacant—their victims had escaped. The friends, amazed, were about to fly from their dangerous proximity to the light, when three distinct laughs were heard.

The Osages stood immovable, gazing at one another with a grim, half-angry, half-comic expression, and ere they could speak, three maidens disguised as warriors stood meekly one before each brave, a horse's tail in one hand, and the other trophies in the other. The friends tried their utmost to look angry; but the countenances of the girls were so meek, and yet so malicious, that the gravity of the braves was overcome, and they laughed heartily at the conclusion of their expected deadly struggle.

The girls then explained that, for reasons of their own, disapproving of the celibacy of the three friends, they had resolved to excite their admiration and interest, that they had followed them immediately after their departure, had crept on them in the night, and divested them of their crests, &c., and played them every other trick which has been recorded in this legend. The warriors listened, and when they narrated how they had saved their lives in the ravine, seemed each struck with the same sudden conviction; namely, that the lives thus preserved belonged to the preservers, and at once made public their opinion. The damsels laughed gaily, and promised to entertain the notion, but recalled their lovers to a remembrance of their hungry state. Merrily and blithely supped the three maidens and the three friends that night beneath the greenwood tree; and when in after-years they met at eventide, all happy husbands and wives, with dusky boys and girls crowding round them, that it was the brightest moment of their existence, was the oft-repeated saying of the THREE FRIENDS.