The Man that draws the Handcart

by Edward Eggleston

George Northrup was but a boy of fifteen when his father died. Having nothing to keep him at home, he went to the Indian country, which at that time was in Minnesota. He had a boyish notion that he could go through to the Pacific Ocean by making his way from one tribe to another. When he was eighteen years old, a few years before the Civil War, he tried to make this journey. He loaded his provisions into a handcart, and took a big dog along for company. For thirty-six days he did not see anybody, or hear any voice but his own. Then he found paths made by Indian war parties. He knew, that, if one of these parties should find him, he would be killed.

One morning he found all his food stolen from his handcart. Either Indians or wolves had taken it. He now saw how foolish his boyish plan had been. He turned back, and at last reached a trading post, almost starved to death. For days he had had little to eat except such frogs as he could catch.

After this the Indians always called him "The-man-that-draws-the-handcart."

As he grew older, he became a famous trapper and guide. He knew all about the habits of animals. He could shoot with a better aim than any Indian or any other white man on the frontier. He often walked eighty miles in a day across the prairie. He could manage the Indians as no other man could.

This strange young man lived among rough and wicked men. But he never drank or swore, or did anything that anybody could have thought wrong. He never even smoked, as other men about him did, but he lived his own life in his own way. Everybody loved him for his gentleness. Everybody admired him for his courage and manliness. All the spare money he got he spent for good books.

When winter time came, he would sometimes hire other trappers, who did not know the country so well as he did, to work for him. He would go away beyond the settlements and set up a camp. He would teach the other men how to trap. When spring came, he would bring many furs into the settlement. One winter he camped in the country of the Yankton Indians. He had six men with him. The Yanktons were wild Indians, and Northrup was in some danger. But he had a friend among the Indians, a chief called by a good long name, Taw-ton-wash-tah.

But all the Yanktons were not friendly to the white men. There was one chief whose name was Old-man. He got together a party to go and rob Northrup and drive him away. Taw-ton-wash-tah tried to keep these Indians from going, but he could not do it.

Northrup did not know that a party had been sent out against him. His men went on with their trapping, while George went hunting to get food for them. They had only a small bag of flour, and this they did not eat. They kept the flour for a time that might come in which they could not find any animals to kill for meat.

One day George followed the tracks of an elk. He overtook it six miles from his camp. He crept up to it and shot it. Then he loaded his gun, so as to be ready for anything that might happen. While he was skinning the elk, he looked up and saw the heads of Indians coming up over a little hill. He quickly jumped into the bushes. He saw that there were thirteen Indians in the party. He put his hand on his bullet pouch, and knew by the feeling of it that there were fifteen bullets in the bag. "Every bullet must bring down an Indian," he said to himself.

One of the Indians called out in his own language, "Is The-man-that-draws-the-handcart here?"

George quickly replied in their language, "Stop! If any man comes one step nearer, I will kill him. Tell me whether this is a war party or a hunting party."

One of the Indians stepped out in front and fired off both barrels of his gun. This was a sign of friendship.

Northrup did not think this offer of peace worth much; but, if he refused it, he would have to fight against thirteen Indians. He could only accept it by firing off both barrels of his gun. This would leave him with his gun unloaded.

But he slipped the cap off one barrel of his gun. Then he fired the other barrel, and brought down the hammer of the one from which he had taken the cap, so as to make it seem that that barrel of his gun was empty. Then he slyly slipped the cap back on his gun, so as to have one barrel ready for use.

He went with the Indians to their camp, where he was a kind of prisoner, but he managed to load the empty barrel of his gun by going behind a tree where the Indians could not see him.

He knew that the Indians would try to get to his camp before he did. As his men did not know how to manage Indians, the Indians could steal everything in the camp. If they should take his provisions, George and his men might starve on the prairies, which were covered with snow.

So George made up his mind that he must get to his camp before the Indians, or lose his life in trying.

He said to the chief, "Old-man, I am going home."

He did not wait for an answer, but started along the trail leading to his camp. He expected the Indians to shoot him, but they only fell into line and marched behind him.

George knew that if the Indians got into the camp with him, they would find everything scattered about. Before he could get things together, they would steal most of them. So he tried once more what he could do by boldness. He turned and said to the chief, "My men are new men. They do not know Indians. If you should go in with me, they might shoot. It is better that I should go in first, and tell them that you come as friends."

Old-man said "Ho," which is the way that a Yankton has of saying "All right."

Northrup went into the camp, and gathered everything together in one place, and told his men to keep watch over the things. The Indians staid about the camp two days, trying to get a chance to rob the white men, but Northrup kept his eye on them. Once he found one of his men without a gun.

"Where is your gun?" he said.

"The Indians are sitting on it," said the man. "They will not give it up."

George found several Indians sitting on the gun. He took hold of the gun and looked at the Indians. They all got up. It seemed that they could not help doing what he wanted them to do. Northrup gave the gun back to its owner, and told him not to let it go out of his hands again.

George had a fine double-barreled rifle. An English gentleman whose guide he had been had sent him this gun from London. When he was in his tent one day, he heard the Indians on the outside of it disputing who should have his gun. He knew by this that they meant to kill him.

George patted his rifle as though it had been an old friend, and said, "Well, old gun, whoever gets you will have to be quick." After that his hand was always on his gun, and his eye was always on the Indians.

He asked his men where the sack of flour was.

"Old-man has it," said one of his men.

To let the chief keep the flour was to run the risk of starving, but Northrup knew that if he took it away there might be a battle. He stepped up to the chief and took the bag of flour from his side and started away without saying a word.

"Man-that-draws-the-handcart," said the chief angrily, "bring back my flour."

George stopped, and opened his coat. He pointed toward his heart and said,—

"Old-man, if you want to kill me, shoot me, but you shall not take away my flour and leave me to starve."

"Very well," said the chief sternly, "then, Man-that-draws-the-handcart, you shall go south."

In the language of these Indians, to go south means to die. They think the soul journeys to the southward after death. Old-man meant to say that Northrup should die.

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"You shall go South!"

"Very well," said George, looking the Indian in the eye, "I will go south, then; but if I go south, you shall go with me, and just as many more as I can take. Remember, Old-man, you must go south if I do."

Old-man knew Northrup very well. He knew that if anybody tried to kill him, George's sure aim would be taken at Old-man first of all. George had also told all of his men to shoot the chief if there should be any trouble.

After lingering for two days, the Indians stole a bag of chopped buffalo meat, or pemmican, and an old gun. With these they went off, and George hurried away to a better camping place, where they could not find him again.