In that terrible silence when Shasta trembled with the fear that was in him, and did not dare to move, the great thing happened.
The stillness of the wolves, which was in itself so horrible a thing, as if the whole pack was only waiting for some signal to hurl itself upon him--began to show signs of breaking up. Here and there a head would wag, and a lolling tongue show between white fangs. A she-wolf would snap at her neighbour. A half-grown cub would lick his chops, growling softly in his throat. A stir, a restless movement, set the pack heaving. Teeth were bared and hackles rose. A thousand eyes glimmered in the shadows of the moon. The restlessness increased, growing moment by moment. The pack swayed, bristled, became one wolf-throat with a growl like the rumble of an avalanche.
There came a supreme moment before the pack began its dreadful work. If nothing happened before the moment passed, then Shasta would be doomed. It was then that the thing happened and that Shasta breathed again.
Like an arrow from the bow, like the avalanche itself, with a roar like a mountain lion, the giant Shoomoo loosed himself from his rock! Down he came, over the heads of the startled wolves, with a leap that made the eyes blink. He brought himself up suddenly, right over Shasta’s body. The boy made no attempt at resistance, and was knocked down by the blow.
But even in that instant, while his head struck the rock, and he felt a stab of pain, he knew that Shoomoo would not hurt him, that underneath Shoomoo’s protection he would be safe.
He lay flat on his back, with the big wolf’s body above him, blotting out the night. A sweet feeling of warmth and tenderness ran in his blood. Some sure thing whispered at his heart that Shoomoo would tear the pack to pieces, or be himself torn, before he would allow it to touch a hair of the little body that lay so confidingly there.
The astonished wolves gazed at this extraordinary thing. At first it looked as if Shoomoo had given the signal to attack, and, to the younger wolves, it seemed as if the moment of the kill had arrived. These half-grown wolves surged forward, leaping over the backs of the older wolves, who, with more wisdom, hesitated, gazing warily at Shoomoo. But these rash younger ones, in the face of Shoomoo’s bared fangs, realized their mistake before it was too late and drew back. One, however, paid the penalty of his rashness. He was a trifle duller-witted than the others. He failed to catch, as they did, that swift message from mind to mind, which, among the forest creatures, is like an electric current, warning them, in the tenth part of a second, what to seek and what to shun. Even as they rushed forward the other wolves had caught the message and had held themselves back just in the nick of time. The duller cub had blundered, and he had blundered to his fate.
Snarling with rage, Shoomoo met him in his leap, and with one slash of his fangs, ripped his throat. Then, breaking his neck, he flung him clean over his shoulders down the precipice behind.
After that, not a single wolf dared to approach. The renown of Shoomoo’s powers as a fighter had spread through the wolf-world far and wide. It was by reason of this that he was not known merely as one of the great pack leaders, but held a position which made him a sort of king over the combined packs.
And now it was plain, even to the dullest, that Shoomoo had taken the man-cub under his special care. If Shoomoo befriended the man-cub any wolf who dared to dispute his right must run the risk of death. Moreover, what was even more important, Shoomoo’s claiming Shasta as his, proved beyond any argument that, henceforward, Shasta would have to be regarded as a member of the pack.
The wolves, old and young, wise and foolish, looked on at this astonishing thing, said nothing, and licked their chops.
When Shoomoo had satisfied himself that the pack had learnt its lesson and that Shasta’s life was in danger no longer, he moved aside, lifting his large paws delicately, so that he should not touch the child. And then Shasta sat up, a little dazed because of the blow he had received, and rubbed the sore place on his head, and smiled at the wolves.
And when Shoomoo, walking very deliberately and stiff-legged, his tail arched with pride, moved toward his rock, Shasta went with him, and took up his position at his foster-father’s side.
When they were seated together on the rock Shoomoo threw up his long snout, and sent a deep howl shuddering to the moon. Shasta took it up, and sent his own voice spinning after it. Then, as with one voice, the whole pack replied. And then again that wild wolf chorus rose and fell, chanting, sobbing, wailing its unearthly dirge out into the silent hollows of the night.
And down below, the tall shapes of the Indians went back to their tepees, where sleep came to them, in spite of the “medicine” of the wolves, because sleep is the greater medicine.
When the last wailing sob had died away, and the last lonely echo came shivering from the peaks, the wolves began to go. There was no signal for a general move. They went singly, or in little companies. Shasta, looking down from his rock, saw the pack thinning by slow degrees. As a single wolf, or several, departed, they seemed to detach themselves from the edges of the pack softly, as vapours do from the blown edges of a cloud. And these vapour-like forms drifted across the open ground without any sound till they were lost along the barren, or in the shadow of the trees. Soon, out of all that vast pack, not fifty wolves were left. Then there were only twenty-five. At last there remained but Shoomoo, Nitka, the foster-brothers and Shasta himself.
The moon was still high overhead, intensely bright and the shadows of the rocks had a marvellous blackness. The vast and solemn woods hung like folded nightmares, along the mountainsides. The silence seemed like a solid thing which you could strike with a stone and set humming.
Shasta, breathing deeply after his howling song, looked down curiously on the Indian village far below. The bright redness in the middle of it still glowed, but less brightly than before because the fire was dying. All round it the tepees stood in a motionless ring. Shasta did not know that they were tepees, nor even that they were not alive. They seemed to be waiting there and listening. Now that the wolf-chorus was over he half expected them to move. No sound came up from the huskies, which, like the wolves, had disappeared. They had slunk back to the tepees and were now fast asleep. No sound; no movement. Shasta wondered what it all could mean, and where those strange wolves were hidden that could go upright on their hind feet. It was a mystery which his little brain could not solve. He wanted to ask Shoomoo, but something seemed to tell him that it would be useless, and that Shoomoo would not be able to explain.
Presently Shoomoo stretched himself, laid back his ears, and yawned. Then he leaped down from the rock and trotted off. Shasta followed at once, because he knew that the moment Shoomoo went the rest of the family would move, and he had no wish to be left alone in that unearthly place which seemed to lie somewhere between the gorges and the moon.
They went back in the same order as they had come--Shoomoo leading, Shasta in the middle, Nitka bringing up the rear. Down the mountain slopes, along the ravines, through the endless leagues of forest, they passed in silence like a procession of grey ghosts. It was the same trail also. Never for a yard’s space did they quit that long back trail. And they were the same wolves, not altered in the least degree from what they were before. Yet to Shasta all was different in an odd way which he did not understand. He seemed to be closer to his wolf kindred than ever before--to have a finer sense for all they did and were. Up to the present he had lived with them, played with them, eaten and slept with them; but now he seemed to be one with them as he had never been before. And this, though he did not know it, was because of the singing of the wolf-chorus; because he had sung himself, as it were, into the very heart of the Wild.
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