The first time I saw him he was leaning against the heavy log bars of the horse corral, keeping back the bunch of wild range horses, while the rest of the outfit were inside roping the necessary steeds for a long ride across the bad lands. With curious concentration he was watching the evolutions of the maddened animals as they rushed with thundering hoof beats from one side of the corral to the other, dodging with marvelous avoidance the skilfully thrown lasso as it flew through the air toward some intended victim’s neck.
"Which one will ye have, Charley?” called out one of the men in the corral. I was not yet well enough acquainted with the outfit to know them by name.
“I'll take that there roan filly with the white stripe in her face and the white off-hind foot.” answered Charley, fixing his attention with nervous intensity on the animal as she dodged in and out among her fellows trying to avoid the fatal loop which at last firmly circled her neck. The man at the bars threw his whole weight on the top log while he leaned forward to observe the struggles and writhings of the captured animal. The roan filly, with a white stripe in her face and the white off-hind leg. was brought up to the corral entrance and the rope handed to the man who had called for her. He gently let down the bars and leading the mare through, faced her about with a steady hand and put the bars up again. Then he led the mare a few yards away where a heavy cowboy saddle, a saddle blanket, and a riding bridle were lying in a heap upon the ground. The roan made one or two snorts and plunges and I had time to note the superb muscular strength of the man who held the rope, before he began the process of saddling up. He had a deep chest, with a great column-like neck set strongly upon it, and tense, corded muscles in his arms that showed through his shirt sleeves like a braided horse-hair lariat. He held the roan strongly with his single right hand while he picked up the bridle with the left and approached her. The mare stiffened her fore legs and threw her weight backward, but was held as in a vise by the rope clenched in the strong man’s right hand. Quietly the left hand approached, gave one or two short pats upon her neck, then gently rubbed her forehead, then imperceptibly slid the bridle down the left arm, then stroked the filly’s nose,—then firmly thrust the bit against her teeth, into the mouth,—then quickly carried the headstall over the ears and with another movement, almost too swift to be followed by the eye, brought the throat latch under and buckled it. The bridle was on.
The mare quivered in every knot of muscle for a final struggle against the next part of the ceremony which she had learned to dread,—placing the heavy cowboy’s saddle upon her back and cinching the wicked girth until it was so tight no bucking or plunging could loosen it. The young man, still strongly grasping the rope with a running noose about the horse’s neck, led her a step or two forward and for the first time I observed something awkward in his movement. While the saddle blanket lay on the ground, in perfectly plain sight beneath the glance of his eyes, and within three feet of him, he groped about in two or three places where it was not before he placed his hand upon it. Shifting the rope which held the horse from his right to his left hand, he reached with his right, holding the saddle blanket, toward the mare’s shoulder. With the first touch of the blanket upon her quivering flesh the roan sprang forward trying to bolt head on, but was checked and thrown back upon her haunches by the wonderful muscle in the man’s left arm. Before she could recover, the saddle blanket was upon her back and the right hand was groping again,— this time for the saddle. The saddle was, of course, in plainer sight than the blanket had been and the man’s face was once or twice turned so that he must have seen it, yet it was only at the third or fourth grasp of the hand that it lit upon the pommel and carried it with a quick, easy reach to the mare’s back. With a deft stroke of the fingers the stirrup and cinch were let down on the farther side and, grasping the rope with an extra contraction of the left arm muscles to hold the horse steady, the right hand went under the belly, caught the swinging girth, brought it up into place and,—after quieting two or three ineffectual leaps on the part of the fllly,—passed the thick leather strap rapidly through the girth ring, doubled it across in a Texas loop, cinched it tightly,—and the roan filly with the white stripe in her forehead and the white off-hind foot was ready to be mounted.
A moment later the lasso noose was loosened and slipped over the horse’s head, thrown to the ground, and grasping the loose bridle reins with his left hand he caught the stirrup with his left foot, swung himself into the saddle and, after a brief exhibition of fancy pitching and double action bucks from the roan, horse and rider went off down a ravine of broken bad lands on the gallop.
As they disappeared in a cloud of gumbo dust I remarked to another one of the outfit who was saddling up: “Charley isn’t a bad horse man.”
“He’s fa’r fur a feller’ at ‘s stone-blind!” was the answer,
Charles Palmier, son of a French trader, and a Sioux Indian mother, was, when I first met him at his home, on the Palmier ranch, in the heart of the bad lands of the great Sioux reservation, South Dakota, a young man about twenty-two years of age. He had been stricken with a disease of the eyes,—common enough trouble in Indian camps where sanitary measures are neglected. The frontier “medicine man,” a white doctor, to whom the child was taken, administered a series of strong eye washes which utterly destroyed the sight and left him before his seventh birthday “stone-blind,” as it was sympathetically phrased by his cowboy associates.
Life anywhere to a man stricken blind must have a vast void of unknown darkness. Life to a plains Indian boy stricken blind before he had learned to read should be a succession of unknown voids. The clear sunlit atmosphere through which the eye pierces a hundred miles to find some familiar peak or bad land butte as a guide in travel must be a torment to a blind man who feels its touch upon his cheek, but cannot fathom its lucid depths.
The country about Charles Palmier’s boyhood home is one of the wildest and most romantic of any part of North America. A hundred miles away from any railroad the White river valley, South Dakota, winds through a succession of bad land basins, where the earth’s surface is not merely gashed, ridged and broken as in rough country farther east,—but is carved and scrolled and sculptured in a thousand fantastic forms that no imagination ever dreamed: now rising in a shape of great white stone walls, with portholes and strange beings peering through them,—now towering in castles and turrets with spires and pinnacles piled one above another for a thousand feet; now scooped out into some gigantic abyss into whose dizzy depths the mountain sheep can hardly find its way to crop the sweet grass that sparsely grows in its deeper shadows. Scattered all over the land like this are gullies, deep, narrow crevices, masses of debris,—the ruins of some fallen bad lands tower,—and here and there patches of grass and sage brush which makes the native pasture for horses, cattle and mountain sheep. Roads and cowpaths in this region are so long and crooked they seem modeled on the horns of a Texas steer and of Rocky Mountain sheep. Along the edge of precipices they go with sudden, sharp, absurd little turns that almost throw you out of your saddle,—then plunge headlong down into a sunken valley, then double in and out through a labyrinth of ruined pillars of some ancient fortress, then trail the long spur of some far winding ridge to scale its summit.
In such a land as this Charles Palmier, the French-Indian boy, found himself blind at seven years of age. How should a blind child learn to live in a land where a man needs the full use of his eyesight to escape death every hundred yards? Charles Palmier has answered that question. I cannot here relate the process. It is doubtful even if he could do it. I will speak only of results:
One day when Charles was about fifteen years old, a stranger riding through the bad lands saw him playing with his dog on the edge of a steep gully near the ranch and inquired the way to Wounded Knee.
"You see that old cottonwood down the canyon?” said Charles. “The road forks there; take the right hand fork and follow until you come out on top of the ridge just this side of that high twin butte, leave the main travelled road there and bear to the right on a dim trail along the edge of the ravine until you, come to a bunch of elm trees in a little pocket. Go down the slope to the left of the elm trees and you will come into the main road, leading southwest to Wounded Knee.”
At a ranch a few miles farther on the traveller told them that he had been directed by an Indian boy near Palmier’s ranch who showed a remarkably intimate knowledge of the country, every prominent feature of the route having been correctly described by him. When told that the Indian boy was “as blind as a butte rock” he refused to believe it and no amount of argument or explanation could persuade him that a boy who could “see” cottonwood trees, white rock pillars and bad land ridges miles away was blind.
Baptiste Pourier, one of the most noted scouts of General Crook during the long years of war with the Sioux, lives on the Medicine Root Creek, about forty miles from the Palmier ranch. Riding the bad lands one day in search of some stray stock he came to Palmier’s. Charley was sitting out in front of the corral repairing a quirt. It had been about ten years since “Big Bat” had spoken with Charley. He thought he would test the boy’s memory and called out to him in a voice changed as much as possible. “Hello, Charley.” The blind boy straightened himself up and responded without a moment’s hesitation, “Hello, there, Mr. Pourier.”
What memories of summer twilight hours, when the tallest turrets of bad land castle towers burned crimson with the parting benediction of a sun already sunk below the horizon when the outfit had unsaddled from a hard day’s riding and sat around the ranch yard smoking cigarettes and discusing the trivial trail incidents of the day ! What memories of twilight hours flooded with the melody of old time ballads,— “Annie Laurie,” “Old Kentucky Home,” “Nellie Gray,” “Old Black Joe," “Ben Bolt,”—with the rich accompaniment of Charley’s violin or guitar and the deep diapason of his bass voice joining in the refrain. Music,—the one language understood by ignorant and educated, by savage and citizen,—had become the passion of the blind boy’s life since the light of the visible world had been shut from his sight. The stray traveller who brought a new melody to the bad lands was more to the Palmier Ranch than the Greek bearing golden gifts.
Still another memory of those days. It was Christmas week, 1902. Charley had been over visiting at the Jones ranch, about three miles distant, headquarters for a family of noted mountain sheep hunters and for frontier good cheer. A little after noon he mounted his favorite cowhorse, “Tex,” and started for home. Instead of taking the main travelled road down the canyon he chose a shorter one, little used, which led over a high ridge and along the edge of a canyon precipice about one hundred feet in height. A fierce snow storm was coming on from the northwest and in the pure animal delight that such an atmospheric change develops in both boy and beast. Charley, after galloping Tex up to the top of the ridge, dismounted and walked along the old road kicking pebbles in front of him until he could hear them rattle at the bottom of the canyon bed far below. At the sound another vagrant thought took possession of his mind,— to walk to the edge of the precipice and, kicking heavy clods loose, listen to their thunder on the ice of the creek bed at the bottom. He repeated this several times and each time the roar of the mass of gravel and bowlder filled his soul with a wild joy that only human hearts can know who love the wilderness solitude. He stamped the canyons verge again to send down one final avalanche of thunder. The edge was undermined and quick as a flash his footing melted into falling fragments, the bridle reins which were lying loosely over one arm fell away before he could grip them, and, feet foremost, he shot over the precipice—eighty feet—to the ice below.
It was about two o’clock in the afternoon when he went over the edge. When he became conscious again it was some time in the night. He could not tell the hour, but his senses had always distinguished day from darkness. It was dark and very cold. The force of his fall had broken through the ice into the water of the little stream beneath and the water was now freezing. It was the freezing sensation that restored him to the battle for life. He reached out with his right arm. A sharp pain stopped him. His arm was broken at the wrist. He tried to lift his leg and found that it was broken below the knee. There was time to think and Charley thought hard. He knew that Tex had gone home, and was now sheltering himself on the lee side of the ranch corral. But there was no one at the ranch to take note of the riderless horse. Everyone there had been gone away for a week leaving the blind boy to run the ranch alone. He knew that no one would miss him for several days either at his own ranch or at the neighbors’. The freezing sensation grew sharper. He must get out of the creek bed or he would freeze to death before morning. With a painful, mighty muscular effort he threw his weight on his elbows and dragged his body out of the water hole. His familiarity with every feature of the landscape now stood by him in this moment of crisis. The map of the canyon spread out before his visionless eye. About four rods from the creek bed opposite the cliff where he had fallen was a wild plum thicket with two or three cottonwood trees and some fallen underbrush. Like all Indians he was an inveterate cigarette smoker and in his pocket was a bunch of matches. The only chance he had to escape freezing was to reach that plum thicket and make a fire that would keep him warm till morning. He dragged himself up the opposite slope and out to the plum thicket. He was encouraged by the presence of his favorite dog which had found its way to the canyon bed, remained with him during his entire period of unconsciousness and now, delighted at the turn affairs had taken, ran to and fro about him, licking his broken arm and stimulating his brain and heart to stronger resolutions
The plum thicket was there all right, the familiar cottonwood trees were there, the dead log and underbrush,—the blind boy had not lost his hearings nor his local geography for a moment. He gathered with his sound hand a little pile of dry cottonwood leaves and inner hark. The skill which enables the cowboy to light a cigarette on horse-back in the face of the fiercest gale with hardly the waste of a match made it an easy task for him to start his fire. He groped about breaking dry brush with his sound hand and piling it upon the fire until he had a strong blaze. Then gathering a supply of reserve fuel to keep the fire going he hugged it as closely as he could until his frozen clothing was thawed out and began to dry. According to the best of his reckoning it was somewhere between ten and twelve o’clock when he awoke to consciousness. It was a long night with his crushed arm and his fractured leg, but the necessity of breaking brush in order to keep the fire going helped to shorten it, and the unmistakable sympathy of the dog as he crept close to his crippled master with mute manifestations of tender anxiety gave a sense of companionship. By the time daylight came he had his clothing dry and began to consider his future prospects in life.
If he stayed where he was he might not be missed for a week, in which time he would starve or freeze to death. About twenty rods away on the other side of the canyon bed was the road ordinarily travelled by the Indians and ranchmen in that part of the country. In the winter time travel is only occasional, for in cold weather the average Indian family hugs the fireplace, and the cowboys ride the range merely to look out for stock which may be in distress. To leave his warm fire and drag himself through the grass and brush to the canyon road was not cheerful to think upon, but it was his only chance. Charley has no idea how long it took him to reach the road, but, as his track afterward showed, he steered nearly a straight course to his destination. It was a comfort at last to feel the print of horses’ hoofs and the track of wagon tires in the yellow canyon clay and to hope that where some had travelled others would surely travel soon.
All day he waited. Late in the afternoon he thought he heard the rattle of a wagon far down the canyon. He listened and heard— what ears so often hear as they strain to catch a longed-for note—silence. Silence for so long a time that he abandoned hope. Then again, he thought he heard the rattle of a wagon just as though it were coming down the hill and striking the frozen pebbles of the water course. Then again a silence,—but not so long. Then full and firm—the rattling treble of the wagon axles followed by the heavy bass thump, thump, of horses’ feet. Then, presently, the full chorus of axle and hoofbeat and rattling boards and snorting horses and the wagon stopped a few yards from the boy and his dog.
The driver was a squaw, alone, and the next difficulty encountered was how to get the cripple into the wagon. He had grown so stiff from his wounds and the cold that he was unable to climb in and the squaw was not strong enough to lift a hundred and seventy-five pounds of Indian and load it into a wagon. The matter was finally solved by taking out the wagon endgate and laying some poles so as to form an inclined plane up which Charley was painfully dragged, rolled and shoved until he was loaded very much like a prize animal for the stock show. There was then the drive to the nearest ranch where surprise and sympathy were both quickly hushed in the face of the immediate necessity of getting the blind boy to a competent surgeon. He was placed immediately in a spring wagon and started on the long drive to Pine Ridge Agency. Eighty miles of bad lands, and mountain sides and mountain torrents,—over breakneck jumpoffs and side hill hogbacks, before the brick walls of the United States hospital rose like a red beacon of hope in the valley of the White Clay and the surgeon’s hand could deal with the problem of a blind Indian with two broken limbs.
Three months later, when the grass in the bad lands valleys around the Palmier ranch was just shooting so that the ponies could get their bite of verdure, Charles Palmier saddled up “Tex" at the old corral and rode over the familiar canyon road to the Jones ranch,—pausing to examine the little plum thicket and the bed of ashes which had saved his life the December before.
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