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Tahan
Chapter XXII Our Visit to the Creeks—My Horse Race


WE drifted from the desert country back eastward until we reached the Wewoka River in the Creek Nation, Indian Territory.

The Creeks were advanced in civilisation. True, there were among them those not far removed from our condition, but many possessed a culture equal to that of the highest type of the white man.

They were engaged in farming and other industries, and often held fairs to exhibit their products.

We had not been long with them when they had one of these fairs in Muskogee. We learned there were to be horse-races. This alone was enough to draw our whole band to the place.

On our way to the town we saw many things which interested us, and certain it was that we with our wild appearance and our peculiar costumes were of no less interest to the people we passed. Many of them were of the white race.

Arrived at the fair-grounds, we left the women to pitch our tepees and we looked around the town.

We had heard of the railway train with its “Smoke-Horse,” so we went to the station to see it.

With roar and clash and clatter, hiss and shriek, the huge monster came dashing in. Its ear-splitting war whoop startled us. Its blazing eye, like a camp fire in the middle of its forehead, astounded us. When it stopped and the “Smoke-Horse” stood panting and blowing its breath out in great clouds, we stood aloof with our blankets over our heads and talked it over.

The thing itself was far beyond the thing we had pictured.

We wondered what made it go if, as we had heard, it was not really alive.

One of the young fellows declared that the next time it came, he would ambush and lasso the monster so that we could examine it.

We noted its speed; and I for one, felt certain that if it would leave its smooth trail and come out on the open prairie Buckskin could outrun it.

For want of a better name, we called the train the “Big Noise.”

The exhibits at the fair-grounds came in for their share of comment and criticism.

We found the bed-quilts of many pieces and colours most attractive. We thought the big pumpkins and the potatoes might be good eating and we knew the com was excellent. But when we learned that it was necessary to toil all summer to raise them, we lost all interest.

We liked the looks of the fat hogs and the cattle and the chickens, but it was beyond our comprehension how people could be content to live in one spot and work all the time and feed them every day. We greatly admired the horses, but in our judgment the care they required overbalanced their worth.

Contrasted with our free life of the plains this “white man’s road” in which these Creeks were going was unlikable to us. We could kill enough game in a few days to last us for months, and have more fun doing it than they could have in years. We could go and come as we pleased, untrammelled by hog-feeding and rubbing-down horses. And the excitement we had in creeping into an enemy’s camp, outwitting him and getting his horses, was more fun in our opinion than any that the white man could get out of a lifetime.

As we walked about the place with eyes big and ears wide, we saw much which excited our curiosity.

We saw white men and Creeks gazing at wide sheets of paper so intently we thought they were praying to their medicine.

We observed when they ate they used little iron forks. Surely not to keep their fingers clean!

We were struck with the war-bonnets the women wore! Truly these were a queer people.

We noticed how loudly people talked to each other, even when standing or sitting close together.

The plains Indians habitually talked in low tones. Indeed this was necessary when in camp, if we were to enjoy privacy, for the walls of the tepee were thin.

As compared with the white man the Indian is a man of silence. When on a hunt he seldom speaks lest he scare away the game; when on the warpath, he keeps still lest by speaking he discover himself to enemies. Besides, when one is talking neither his eyes nor ears can do their duty.

We were sitting on the ground in a circle talking over the many odd things, when a man on a velocipede went pedalling past. Not a man of us gave so much as a hint of the astonishment we felt, but the wag of the band finally broke the silence caused by the strange sight.

“Ugh. The white man is very lazy. He straddles a wagon wheel and sits down on it to walk.”

He spoke in an undertone, without so much as a ghost of a smile on his stolid face.

No one laughed at the time, but when we entered a tepee and were sure that no strangers could see or hear us, we stoics of the plains were suddenly transformed into the most hilarious of laughers.

Came the day of the big races. A white man approached our camp and told us if we had any horses that could run, to get them ready. Also that we would have to pay him so much money as an entrance fee.

This was another new thing to us. Of money we had not so much as a single piece. Had we possessed any we would not at that moment have had empty stomachs. We had had nothing to eat that day.

We talked a good deal about the lack of courtesy shown us by these Creeks of the white man's road. If they had visited us in our country, not only food but presents of clothing and other things would have been placed before their tepee doors.

We satisfied the white man by giving him two ponies so that my horse could enter the race. When he saw my little steed he broke into most astonishing roars of laughter and called his friends to see the grotesque thing that we called a race-horse.

“And they are to run him in the big race!” they cried between roars.

“All right, my son, but it’s darned tough on you,” called the chief man of them to me as they took their departure.

Many white men and others came to our camp and offered bets.

Some of our people threw robes on the ground and asked the white men to throw their silver on top of them. This every man refused to do. They were afraid the money would be stolen, we were told.

Another strange situation! Men in their own camp afraid that friendly visitors would steal from them!

Some of them offered paper money against our beautifully tanned and painted robes. With this we would have nothing to do. We did not know the value of it. But silver money would make good ornaments.. We would accept it.

Finally, we came to terms with the white men.

When the sun passed short-shadow time, I got ready for the race. I stripped to the skin except for the breech clout, and painted face and body, my legs, with their stripes—red, yellow, white and blue—looking like barber-poles. Then I unbraided my hair, except the scalp-lock, in which I stuck a beautiful eagle feather.

Buckskin was lazily cropping grass at the end of a rawhide lariat I tied it around his under jaw, and he was ready.

The sun was sliding toward the place of long shadows when I mounted and rode toward the judges stand.

The faded and frayed fringe of humanity which bordered the southwestern frontier was surging toward the track and chatting in the many tongues.

Big, clean-limbed horses with shining skins and small gaily jacketed jockeys on their backs, were out on the track warming up.

As I watched those horses, noted their greyhound build, and contrasted them with Buckskin, my heart became a mudhole full of frogs.

In slovenly, loose-jointed gait and with drooping head, old Buckskin, like a bundle of loose-hung accidents, carried me on toward the starting-place.

Near it a young girl stepped out from a tepee and coyly approached us. I brought my horse to a standstill.

How pretty she looked with the little circle of red in the centre of her forehead!

That little circle of red meant much to me because it betokened the fact that she had not yet been taken to wife, and I had asked her the old, old question.

Her name was Nacoomee—Handful-of-Flowers.

She stepped modestly around to the side of my horse, her eyes two camp-fires in the dark. She was barefooted. She had bet her moccasins on Buckskin. The only clothing she had on was a piece of faded red blanket wrapped about her. She had bet her dress of finest doeskin against a handful of lump sugar with a Cherokee woman.

Confused, she turned quickly away, but not before I had caught a flash of the dark eyes, and the music of the words—

“Go, Tahan, and win.”

The mudhole full of croaking frogs in my heart became a sunlit green place in the woods with laughing water and bordering flowers and singing birds. In the midst of it all was a new tepee and Nacoomee, no longer in the rag of a blanket.

At the starting-place Buckskin stopped, put his hindfeet and forefeet close together, humped his back like a buffalo in a storm, hung his big head still lower and lopped forward his long ears as though he was so ashamed of himself he was ready to fall down and die.

“Git that old jack-rabbit out of the way! We’re going to have a race,” yelled a white man at me.

“Y’d better do y’r hair up, sonny, ’er yer bronch’ll git his feet tangled up in it,” gurgled an old cowboy.

At this I took fire and felt like getting my gun and filling his big mouth full of bullets.

The hardest thing for an Indian to bear is ridicule. , But fire bum them! what cared I for those barking coyotes?

Over the fence the crickets were singing their prairie song beneath the dust covered flowers, and yonder stood Nacoomee—the “world”—barefooted and in a strip of red blanket, and her words, “Go, Tahan, and win,” still sounded their sweet music in my ears.

Yonder, too, sat my people, naked and bronzed like statues, indifferent as statues, apparently, as though they had not wagered everything they had on my horse.

I was going to win that race. Buckskin, my good old friend, would that day prove to the howling wolves about us, that he was indeed brother of the wind, and I would ride him as light as a feather in an eagle’s wing.

And at the end of the race there would be more than gloiy.

All the fine horses came up in an even line abreast of us.

Buckskin was quietly dozing. A flag dropped in the judges' stand. My naked heel went into Buckskin’s flank. He was off like an arrow from a bowstring and soon caught up with the “greyhounds.” They had a running start. I had asked for a standing start.

We were to go twice around the big circle—a distance of probably two miles.

The first time we came round it, the horses were strung out and Buckskin and I were at the tail-end of the procession. But at a word from me, he began to creep up and up.

We passed horse after horse until at the head of the home stretch, with but a short distance to go, only two horses were ahead of us. But they were going in their long level leaps like greyhounds. Their riders glanced back and began to whip.

I didn't have to whip Buckskin—he knew as well as I knew. I lay down flat upon him, patted him on the neck and began to chant a wild song.

“Now, Buckskin, you can beat them. You must win. Now, Buckskin, now—go!” I sang.

He understood. He went. When we flashed under the wire all of those fine horses were still coming.

And now the joy, the ecstasy, the glory, of it! The crowd surged around us to get a closer look at good old Buckskin. We got rich on that race. But by far the most precious of all the prizes that Buckskin won for me, was Nacoomee, Hand ful-of-Flowers.


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