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Irvin Bawden

December 1964


The West was raw and untamed in 1888, a place where a man might be shot for "speaking out of turn," when young John Bawden (father of Irvin Bawden) landed in Montana. A 'greenhorn' newly arrived from civilized Illinois had difficulty discerning just what might be his turn so generally the closed lip seemed most prudent. Even a funeral did not nullify the possibility of lead poisoning.

Soon after John's arrival a young fellow who had been with the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada died of T.B. in Nashua. It was up to the citizens of the town to bury him, but when time came for the funeral, those responsible for the task were all drunk. They stood at the edge of the grave, baffled by the problem of lowering the coffin. To John, a sober onlooker, the solution seemed simple, but to dare venture an opinion was another matter; they might decide he was being presumptuous and take offense. And offense might be fatal to him.

A four-mule government team was standing nearby, and the conclusion that the coffin would just have to be dropped into the grave emboldened him to risk suggesting, "Do you think we might be able to borrow a set of lines from that driver over there?" He breathed a little more freely when his suggestion was accepted with alacrity, and he was delegated to do the borrowing. The driver was willing so the coffin was lowered with the lines, then one of the inebriates jumped down into the grave to tighten the screws on the lid of the roughbox.

Again John watched in silence as a simple task presented seemingly insurmountable difficulty. The screwdriver would not connect with the screw head. Finally, gathering his courage to offer another suggestion, he respectfully asked, "Say, Old Timer, could I maybe help you down there?" Back came the reply, "Pistol," (a term applied to a young fellow) "I believe you could. I'm loaded for a hundred and ten and I can only pack ninety."

John tightened the screws, then the young widow, standing by the graveside, asked if someone would say a prayer. No one spoke. John, relating the incident later, observed that he could at least have repeated the Lord's Prayer, but no one had licensed him to speak so he remained silent, and the bizarre performance ended without even a prayer to comfort the heart of the bereaved. John was shocked by the seeming callousness, yet after the burial they passed the hat and collected enough money to buy the ticket home for the destitute widow. Such was the West.

With the Reservation just across the river, contacts with Indians were frequent. One day as he was cutting logs in full view of the house, he noticed some Indians come into the yard and start sharpening their knives on his grindstone. After watching them a bit, it occurred to him that his wife might be frightened by their presence so he started for the house. When he tried the door, he found it locked, so he called her name, "Nora!" The door was promptly opened by his terrified wife. She had heard tales of Indian massacres so when she saw the Indians sharpening their knives, she thought they were after her scalp. She had been sitting on the bed with a forty-five-colt revolver pointed at the door; had her husband succeeded in opening the door before calling her name, she'd have been a widow.

Later, she became well acquainted with the Indians (John, getting around more, already knew many of them), and they both learned to speak Sioux fluently. The squaws often came to visit her. They would never sit on chairs, but instead would sit cross-legged on the floor, visiting with her. She learned to appreciate their visits as there were few white women in the area. There were just three, besides herself: Mrs. Scobey, the Indian agent's wife, Mrs. Walker, the agency clerk's wife, and Mrs. Atkinson, the doctor's wife. Whenever they planned a square dance, Dr. Atkinson would row across the river to tell the Bawdens because unless Mrs. Bawden was there, they didn't have enough women to form a quadrille!

Another Indian visit that Mrs. Bawden did not soon forget was the one by an old Indian named Yellowrobe. He appeared in his war paint, came in, then just sat in the middle of the floor, staring at her. He was sitting there when Mr. Bawden came in, his wife again "scared half to death." Mr. Bawden grabbed his rifle and ordered Yellowrobe off the place, but the Indian refused to be hurried, even with the business end of a rifle pointing at his stomach, as he backed several hundred yards to the brow of a nearby hill. He was a big, stately-looking Indian, and tough. Later when Scobey, the Indian Agent, wanted to arrest him for some offence, he sent thirteen Indian police, but they were afraid to take him. Yellowrobe told them to "Tell Scobey to go to ----; I'm going to Canada." He went, too, and stayed for about two years. When he came back he evidently had reformed because he made no more trouble, and the Bawdens came to look upon him as a friend.

Irvin recalls Indian visits, too - one when he was about thirteen or fourteen stands out in particular. An old Sioux Indian and his wife were camped just across the creek from the Bawden home, and each day the buck would come over to visit. One day as he was reminiscing he described an encounter the Sioux had had with the Crows. The Crows had stolen some horses from the Sioux, so the Sioux retaliated by stealing about three times that many from the Crows. They had escaped with them almost to the Missouri River and had stopped to eat dinner (main and probably only course: the deer they had shot) when they looked up and saw the Crows coming. At this point the memory was so vivid that the buck jumped out into the middle of the floor, and let out a bloodcurdling warwhoop that just about shook the rafters. The whoop abruptly brought him back to the twentieth century and, at the realization of how he had let himself be carried away with his story, he sheepishly sneaked back and sat down in his corner again.

 

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