The White Wampum

The Cattle Thief

They were coming across the prairie, they were
galloping hard and fast;
For the eyes of those desperate riders had sighted
their man at last—
Sighted him off to Eastward, where the Cree
encampment lay,
Where the cotton woods fringed the river, miles and
miles away.
Mistake him? Never! Mistake him? the famous
Eagle Chief!
That terror to all the settlers, that desperate Cattle
That monstrous, fearless Indian, who lorded it over
the plain,
Who thieved and raided, and scouted, who rode like
a hurricane!
But they’ve tracked him across the prairie; they’ve
followed him hard and fast;
For those desperate English settlers have sighted
their man at last.

Up they wheeled to the tepees, all their British
blood aflame,
Bent on bullets and bloodshed, bent on bringing
down their game;
But they searched in vain for the Cattle Thief: that
lion had left his lair,
And they cursed like a troop of demons—for the
women alone were there.
“The sneaking Indian coward,” they hissed; “he
hides while yet he can;
He’ll come in the night for cattle, but he’s scared
to face a man.”
“Never!” and up from the cotton woods rang the
voice of Eagle Chief;
And right out into the open stepped, unarmed, the
Cattle Thief.
Was that the game they had coveted? Scarce fifty
years had rolled
Over that fleshless, hungry frame, starved to the
bone and old;
Over that wrinkled, tawny skin, unfed by the
warmth of blood.
Over those hungry, hollow eyes that glared for the
sight of food.

He turned, like a hunted lion: “I know not fear,”
said he;
And the words outleapt from his shrunken lips in
the language of the Cree.
“I’ll fight you, white-skins, one by one, till I
kill you all,” he said;
But the threat was scarcely uttered, ere a dozen
balls of lead
Whizzed through the air about him like a shower
of metal rain,
And the gaunt old Indian Cattle Thief dropped
dead on the open plain.
And that band of cursing settlers gave one
triumphant yell,
And rushed like a pack of demons on the body that
writhed and fell.
“Cut the fiend up into inches, throw his carcass
on the plain;
Let the wolves eat the cursed Indian, he’d have
treated us the same.”
A dozen hands responded, a dozen knives gleamed
But the first stroke was arrested by a woman’s
strange, wild cry.
And out into the open, with a courage past
She dashed, and spread her blanket o’er the corpse
of the Cattle Thief;
And the words outleapt from her shrunken lips in
the language of the Cree,
“If you mean to touch that body, you must cut
your way through me.”
And that band of cursing settlers dropped
backward one by one,
For they knew that an Indian woman roused, was
a woman to let alone.
And then she raved in a frenzy that they scarcely
Raved of the wrongs she had suffered since her
earliest babyhood:
“Stand back, stand back, you white-skins, touch
that dead man to your shame;
You have stolen my father’s spirit, but his body I
only claim.
You have killed him, but you shall not dare to
touch him now he’s dead.
You have cursed, and called him a Cattle Thief,
though you robbed him first of bread—
Robbed him and robbed my people—look there, at
that shrunken face,
Starved with a hollow hunger, we owe to you and
your race.
What have you left to us of land, what have you
left of game,
What have you brought but evil, and curses since
you came?
How have you paid us for our game? how paid us
for our land?
By a book, to save our souls from the sins you
brought in your other hand.
Go back with your new religion, we never have
Your robbing an Indian’s body, and mocking his
soul with food.
Go back with your new religion, and find—if find
you can—
The honest man you have ever made from out a
starving man.
You say your cattle are not ours, your meat is not
our meat;
When you pay for the land you live in, we’ll pay
for the meat we eat.
Give back our land and our country, give back our
herds of game;
Give back the furs and the forests that were ours
before you came;
Give back the peace and the plenty. Then come
with your new belief,
And blame, if you dare, the hunger that drove him to
be a thief.”


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This work (Flint and Feather by E. Pauline Johnson) is free of known copyright restrictions.