It was one night not long after his conversation with Gomposh that Nitka made it plain to Shasta that he was to accompany her and Shoomoo for some unknown purpose. Shasta had grown used to the appearing and disappearing of foster-brothers every year, and so the four half-grown wolves that trotted by his side on the eventful night were quite familiar to him, and did not perplex him in the least.
It was a very clear night, with the stars shining down through the tall tops of the pines and a faint glimmer low down in the north east where presently the moon would lift her mighty bowl of silver and water the world with light. Now and then a little waft of wind would send a shiver through the trees, and when it died away the stillness of the forest was deeper than before. It was very dark under the trees. Unless you had Indian’s or wolf’s eyes you would not have been able to see your hand in front of your face. But the eyes that were in Shasta’s head were Indian with a wolf’s training. and were al most equal to the wolves’. He saw many things which no child born of white people has ever seen since America was discovered nor ever will as long as the world shall last, because the dwellers in the forest are very wise and wary and are a part of the Great Secret that is hidden amongst the trees; and many of them are never seen at all except by the wild animals themselves, and you will not find their names in any work on zoology (which is the polite word for Natural History), because zoology, after all, is only the science which divides things into classes according to their teeth.
Yet although Shasta’s eyesight was nearly as keen as the wolves’, his speed was not as fast as theirs, and so the going was slower than it would have been if the pack had been alone. For all that, Shasta’s pace was only slow compared with the wolves, and if you had seen him running on all fours you would have thought that his speed was very quick indeed.
The order of their going was in this manner: Shoomoo went first (as became the leader of the pack); after him, in single file, came two of the cubs; Shasta followed next, with a wolf brother on each side of him, but slightly behind, so as to guard him if any danger threatened; last of all, with her keen eyes glowing like coals, came old Nitka, bringing up the rear. It would have been a fearless animal indeed which would have attacked such a pack travelling in this wary way. Even a grizzly, or a bull caribou, would have thought twice before encountering the combined force, and would have wisely turned aside without disputing right of way.
Where they were going--what it all meant--Shasta could not guess. He had never travelled at night like this before. The most he had done after dark was to go short distances from the cave and back again, and that never alone, but always with either Nitka or Shoomoo somewhere close at hand. But this long journey was unlike anything he had ever done before. It was strangely exciting: it made the blood dance in his veins. He felt that something big was going to happen, and that now at last he would learn the secret of the wolves. For although he had lived the life of a wolf all these years, there was a feeling in his heart that there was something else, something he had yet to learn, before he should be one with the wolves, as of their very blood. And the feeling, reaching upward from his heart, tugged at his brain with tiny fingers that groped always in the dark.
After some time they left the trees behind them and came out upon the open mountain. Then it was a long climb upwards, going aslant the mountainside towards the east. There was more light now, for the time of moonrise was close at hand. Shasta could see the vast shoulder of the mountain hump itself up against the stars. That was ahead. Behind, and to the right, the canyon plunged down into a hollow of darkness that seemed bottomless. His ears caught the sound of a dull roar. He knew it would be a stream beating against the boulders and complaining huskily as it went. The going was faster now, for the land was open, and Shasta increased his pace. Soon they reached a bench, or terrace, along the side of a gorge. Running lightly along this, Shasta heard another sound. It was long and mournful, sliding up and down a minor scale of unutterable grief. It came drifting over the mountains as if the wind carried it, dropping it at times, and then taking hold of it again. Though it was so faint it was not like the voice of a single wolf, but of many wolves singing in chorus together by the silver edges of the moon. He expected his companions to stop and answer it. He had often heard them sing that same song at moonrise, or just before dawn, but, to his surprise, the pack swept on as if they had never heard that sorrowful voice sobbing along the air.
The terrace came to an end abruptly in a spur of rock, but Shoomoo, with a great bound, leaped to a higher ledge and the pack followed. Shasta could not leap in the wolf manner. He climbed instead, using his feet and hands with wonderful agility.
The upper ledge brought them to the summit of the mountain. Here a wide caribou barren stretched away in an unbroken extent to the north and east. There was good hunting here, as the wolves knew. Many and many a fat caribou cow might be cut out of the herd and pulled down when the right season came, but they were not for hunting now. Something quite as strong as the hunting cry was calling to them, and they would obey it in spite of everything else.
On the summit of the mountain the cry Shasta had heard before came again. Only this time it was loud and clear, filling all the spaces of the night with echoes that sounded hollowly from far away. And now Shasta was aware that the wolves were not alone. Other dusky forms were flitting silently on ahead, and to the right and left. As they went on the number of these shadowy forms increased. They were all going in the same direction, and evidently with the same purpose, whatever that might be.
Soon Shasta saw the great rocks rise up ahead. They had passed over the summit of the mountain now, and were descending the brow. The rocks, jagged and torn into all sorts of peculiar shapes, formed a fringe to the downward slope. Beyond, the country fell away sheer to the prairies below. As Shasta approached the rocks he saw that they were alive. On all their ledges and pinnacles wolves were crowded. There were many hundreds of them. He could not have believed that there were so many wolves in all the world! And they were all howling together in a wild, uncanny chorus that, to Shasta’s ears, was like a swinging song, very beautiful to hear. Only it was terrible also, and sent shivers down his back. And his heart beat wildly, and he felt as if he had not eaten food for many days.
He could not tell how or why, but suddenly he found himself sitting upon a rock, surrounded by the wolves. And then, as he watched them with their heads thrown back, and their long noses pointed to the stars, he felt something which he could not understand taking hold of him. He could see the wolves plainly now, for the moon was rising. She was behind the mountain yet, but the light of her coming was abroad in the sky.
Shasta looked round to see if Nitka or Shoomoo was close to him. At first he could not distinguish them among the number of the other wolves. Then he caught sight of the great bulk of Shoomoo at the summit of a rock, cut out blackly, like granite, against the rising of the moon. There were many other big wolves there, for it was a gathering of all the packs, but none was as mighty as Shoomoo, towering there, like a king, upon his rock. Once he had found Shoomoo he did not search for Nitka or the foster-brothers. He was simply content to know that they were there. It was upon Shoomoo that his eyes were fixed, for he felt dimly as if, somehow or other, he was the centre of the mystery and the wild heart of the song. And then, immediately behind Shoomoo’s giant form, a disc of silver showed suddenly, and the first gleam of the moon-rising shone down upon the wolves.
The singing had been wild before, but now in the moonlight it grew wilder still. It was enough to make even an Indian’s flesh creep to hear this uncanny chorus from hundreds of wolfish throats, rising and falling in the stillness of the night. And for miles and miles, through the endless spruce forests, down the black-throated canyons, along the dreary barrens of the caribou, the wild song went sobbing in a passion of despair. Not an animal, winged or four-footed, in all that savage region but was awake and shivering to the sobbing of the wolves. Kennebec, the mighty eagle, caught it, dreaming far away upon his midnight crags. Gomposh, the old wise one, heard it, sitting in the mouth of his cave on the blue pine hill; and, as he listened, he rumbled a reply--a low, deep growl that seemed to roll about inside him and never got farther than his chest. And far away over the prairies, on the lonely ridges where the Indians bury their dead, the coyotes caught the chorus and, howling dismally, flung it back. Now and then, on the outskirts of the wolf-ring, a fox would appear from nowhere, sit down on his tail, and lift his snout and sing. For though, in the usual course of things, the wolves and foxes are sworn enemies, on the nights when the great chorus is sung the foxes are allowed to give themselves to music, and have no cause to fear.
But it was not alone the creatures of the wild who responded to the cry. Far down at the foot of the mountain where the country of the plains began, Shasta heard an answering chorus in the pauses when the wolves seemed to listen for the echoes of their song. And the chorus, too, was wolfish and utterly despairing, as if the prairie wolves were gathering down below. Yet, though Shasta did not know it, the answer was not a wolf one, but belonged to the Indian huskies, those gaunt starved creatures, part wolf, part dog, which the Indians have bred for long years, and of which the camps are full.
In every pause between the challenge of the wolves, the answer of the huskies was still wilder and fuller of despair. As the moon rose, and the light became stronger, Shasta could see more and more plainly what was going on down there at the mountain’s foot. He saw peculiar pointed things different from anything he had ever seen before. They were arranged in a circle round something which was very red and bright. He did not know, because there was nobody to tell him, that this bright red thing was an Indian camp fire, and that the pointed things about it were the wigwams of the braves. Beyond the wigwams he could see a row of dark objects. These were the huskies sitting on their tails, and sobbing out their sorrow to the wolves. Sometimes the row would break and the huskies would rush wildly about, yelping and snapping at each other as if they had suddenly gone mad. And then they would gather together again, and sit in a long row, and lift their sorrow to the moon.
Presently Shasta saw something else. He saw forms leave the wigwams and come out into the circle between them and the fire. They were like wolves, but seemed to be clothed with loose skins that covered their bodies and fore-legs. The thing which he noticed most particularly was that they did not go on all fours in the true wolf fashion, but walked upon their hind legs only, with their bodies straight in the air. As far as he could tell, they had come out of the wigwams to listen to the wolves. Yet they made no sound, and continued to listen silently, not letting any voice which might be in them wail forth into the night.
The sight of these dumb creatures on their hind legs made Shasta strangely restless. He wanted to lift his arms and loose his heart out in a cry. And as he watched the figures, the feeling grew. He could not tell--poor little wild soul that he was--that these odd and silent forms were those of his own people; that he belonged to them in his blood and in his brain; and that here, in the wolf-world, he was an outcast from his kin. And the Indians, gazing up at those black wolf-shapes cut out against the stars, little guessed that, among that dusky throng, crouched one of their own tribe, kidnapped long ago by an enemy and left in the forest to die of starvation or be torn in pieces by the beasts.
There was a long pause, broken by neither wolves nor huskies. The silence was so deep that you could almost hear the shadows as they shortened under the moon.
All at once Shasta threw back his head and howled. It was the true wolf howl, long, vibrating, desolate. The desire to do so came on him suddenly, unexpectedly; a thing wholly strange and not to be explained. The note sang out sharply into the air. It seemed to rip, like a wolf’s fangs, the silver throat of the moon.
The wolves cocked their ears and listened intently. Here was a new voice which they had never heard before; a wolf voice truly, yet with some fine difference which set it apart from all others and made it impossible to forget.
When Shasta had ended, and the last dim echo of his howl had faded from the rocks, he sat silent, shivering with fear. For now he had done what only a leader of a pack had the right to do--he had broken in upon the silence of the wolves.
What would they do? Would they punish him for his impertinence? Suppose some leader gave the signal for the entire pack to sweep down upon him and tear him limb from limb? Nitka and the foster-brothers would not be strong enough to save him. Even Shoomoo’s giant bulk would be of no avail against the fury of the united pack. Always before when he had known fear, he had taken to his legs, and either he had escaped to the cave in time or else Nitka or Shoomoo had been at hand to save him; but he knew that his legs would be useless now. The great fear seemed to take from them the power of running, and to freeze him to the rock.
He did not move a muscle. He did not even dare to turn his eyes. Yet he saw everything with astonishing clearness down to the smallest detail. There was Shoomoo, motionless on his pinnacle, his ears erect, his hair bristling, the moonlight falling silverly on his dark coat and casting his shadow blackly down below. And there were the countless members of that vast pack equally motionless, equally alert, all their heads turned in one direction, all their gleaming eyes turned one way. And Shasta, seeing all those terrible eyes fixed upon him, not only saw them, but felt them--felt the fierce wolfish thought behind that united all the pack into one wolf-mind.
The silence was terrible. No arrow-headed flight of wild geese came honking from the north to break it. Not even the solitary song of the white-throated sparrow on his fir branch slipped softly out to show that he was awake and that there was a sweetness in the night; and if nothing sounded, so also nothing stirred, nothing except the wolfish shadows that shortened invisibly under the moon.
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