Wild at HeartShasta of the Wolves by Olaf Baker

Wild at Heart Homepage | Contents | Previous Chapter

Not more than a couple of minutes had passed before the news of the capture had gone through the camp. The Indians, old and young, men, women and children, came crowding round to see this strange monster which Looking-All-Ways had found. Shasta, sitting hunched upon his calves, glared round at the company with his beady eyes shining through the masses of his hair. The Indians, seeing the glitter of them, thought it wiser not to come too close, and every time Shasta threw back his head to shake the hair out of his eyes, a murmur went through the crowd.

Looking-All-Ways told his tale. He had been hunting on the caribou barren, behind the high rocks. On his return, he had come upon the little monster crouching on the rocks where the wolves had gathered, and looking down upon the camp.

Poor little Shasta gazed at the strange beings around him with wonder and awe. He did not feel a monster. It was they who were the monsters--these tall, smooth-faced creatures with skins that seemed to be loose, and not belonging to their bodies at all! No wonder his eyes glittered as he turned them quickly this way and that, taking in all the details of his surroundings with marvellous rapidity. The thing excited him beyond measure. He felt a growing desire to throw back his head and howl.

For a time nothing happened. The Indians were content to stare at him in astonishment, while Shasta glared back. Then the chief, Big Eagle, gave orders that his arms should be untied. Looking-All-Ways stepped forward and unloosened the deer-skin thong. Shasta submitted quietly, for he had a strong feeling within him that it was the best thing to do. Only he wanted to howl so very badly! Yet he kept the howl down in his throat, and crouched, humped up, with his hands upon the ground.

Suddenly one of the Indians, bolder than the rest, touched Shasta’s back, running his hand down his spine. Like a flash, Shasta, whirling round, with a wolfish snarl, seized the offending hand. With a cry of fear and pain the Indian sprang back, snatching his hand away. After that, the Indians gave Shasta more room, for now they had a wholesome dread of his temper. If they had not touched him, Shasta would not have turned on them. But the touch of that strange hand maddened him, and set his pulses throbbing. It was the wild blood in him that rebelled. In common with all really wild creatures, he could not bear to be touched by a human hand. And all his life afterwards he was the same. He never overcame the shrinking from being touched by his fellows.

After a while the Indians began to move off, and soon Shasta was left to himself with only Looking-All-Ways to watch him. For some time Shasta stayed where he was without stirring. He wanted to take in his new surroundings fully, before deciding what to do. The only thing about him that he moved was his head and his eyes. He kept moving his head rapidly this way and that, as some un familiar sound caught his ear. He observed the shapes of things, and their colour and movements, with a piercing gaze which saw everything and lost nothing. And because he was so true to his wolf training, he sniffed at them hard, to make them more understandable through his nose. It was all so utterly new and unexpected that it was like being popped down into the middle of another world. Next to the Indians themselves, the things that astonished him most were their lodges. He watched with a feeling of awe the owners going in and out. Some of the lodges were closed. Over the entrances flaps of buffalo-skin were laced, and no one entered or came out. Shasta had a feeling that behind the laced flaps mysterious things were lurking--he could not tell what. Or perhaps they were the dens where the she-Indians hid their cubs. If so, they were strangely silent and gave no sign of life. Many of the tepees were ornamented with painted circles and figures of animals and birds that ran round the hides. At the top, under the ends of the lodge-poles, the circles represented the sun, moon and planets. Below, where the tepee was widest and touched the ground, the circles were what the Indians call “Dusty Stars,” and were imitations of the prairie puff-balls, which, when you touch them, fall swiftly into dust. The tepee against which Shasta crouched was ringed by these dusty stars, but he did not know what they were meant for. He only saw in them round daubs of yellow paint. And because he knew nothing about painting, or that one thing could be laid on another, he thought that the tepees and their decorations had grown as they were, like tall mushrooms, bitten small in their tops by the white teeth of the moon. But wherever his gaze wandered, it always returned to Looking-All-Ways, who sat a few paces away towards the sun, and smoked a pipe of polished stone. And there was this peculiarity about Looking-All-Ways, that, al though his name suggested a swift and prairie-wide glance, which made it impossible for one to take him by surprise, he had a habit of sitting in a sleepy attitude, staring dreamily straight in front of him, as if he noticed nothing that was going on around. Shasta, of course, did not yet know his name. All he knew was that if Looking-All-Ways had a slow eye, he was extremely swift as to his feet. And as he watched him, he measured distances with his own cunning eyes behind his heavy hair. This distance, and that! So far from the last porcupine quill on Looking-All-Ways’ leggings to the nearest toe-nail on Shasta’s naked foot! So far again from the toe-nail to the dusty stars at the edge of the tepee; and from the tepee itself to that lump of rising ground toward the northwest! Shasta began to lay his plans cunningly

If he made straight for the knoll, Looking- All-Ways might catch him before he could reach it, but if he darted behind the tepee, he might be able to dodge and double, and make lightning twists in the air, and so baffle the Indian until he could reach the trees. As always, when in danger, Shasta’s instincts turned toward the trees. It was not until long afterwards that he learnt the ancient medicine song and sung:

“The trees are my medicine.
When I am among them,
I walk around my own medicine.”

Shasta was nervous of the tepee--he did not know what might be immediately behind it. That was one reason which kept him so long where he was. If he could see what was on the other side he would feel better, and more inclined to run. Another reason was the sense of being surrounded on all sides by strange creatures whose behaviour was so utterly unlike the wolves that there was no saying what they would do the moment he started to run. Yet, whenever he looked away from the lodges, there were the high bluffs and the precipices, and the summits of the spruces and the pines, like the ragged edges of the wolf-world. That way lay freedom, and the life that had no terror for him, and in which he was at home.

The more he looked at the tree-tops over the summits of the rising ground to the northwest, the more he felt the desire growing in him to be up and away.

At last the moment came when he could bear it no longer. He glanced warily at his captor before making the dash. The time seemed favourable. Looking-All-Ways had his eyes upon the remote horizon. There was a dull look in them as if they were glazed with dreams. Suddenly, without the slightest warning, Shasta leapt and disappeared behind the tepee.

The thing was done with the quickness of a wolf. In spite of that, the slumberous-looking mass of the Indian uncoiled itself like a spring. The dream-glaze over his eyeballs vanished in a flash. Instantly they became the eyes of an eagle when he swoops.

Shasta had scarcely reached the back of the tepee when the Indian was on his feet and had started in pursuit. This time Shasta did not make the mistake of running a straight course. He made a zigzag line through the outermost tepees, turning and twisting with bewildering quickness. Even when he darted out into the open, he did not run straight. It was a marvel to see how he turned and doubled. And every time when Looking-All-Ways, with his greater speed, was almost upon him, Shasta would draw his muscles together and leap sideways like a wolf. And every time he leaped, he was nearer to freedom than before.

Suddenly something happened which he could not understand. Looking-All-Ways was not near him. He was farther behind than he had been at the beginning of the chase. Yet Shasta felt something slip over his head, tighten round his body with a terrible grip, and bring him to the ground with a jerk. When he looked round in astonishment and terror, there was his pursuer fifty paces away, at the other end of a raw-hide lariat!

Shasta struggled and tore at the hateful thing which was biting into his naked body. But the thing held. The more he struggled the tighter it became. It was dragging him back to the camp. In a very few minutes he was among the lodges again and knew that escape was hopeless.

After this attempt, the Indians secured him firmly with thongs, one of which was fastened to a stake driven in the ground. They were fond of making pets of wild animals. And now they felt they had in their midst a creature so wonderful that it was more than half human, and which might prove to be a powerful “Medicine” to the tribe. Once more they crowded round the strange boy, and jabbered to each other in their throats. Shasta had never heard such odd sounds. The strange eyes in their hairless faces troubled him, but the noises that came out of their mouths made him tingle all over. It was not until near sunset that the crowd separated, the Indians going back to their evening meal.

Shasta looked wistfully at the sun as it dipped to the mountains, rested for a moment or two upon their summits and then disappeared. The sun was going to his tepee, and the stars which decorated it were not dusty. But they would not bind him with deer thongs, the people in those lodges; for nothing is bound there, where the sun and moon go upon the ancient trails. And of those trails only the “wolf-trail” is visible, worn across the heavens by the moccasins of the Indian dead.

The smell of the cooking came to Shasta’s nose, and tickled it pleasantly. Not far off, a group of squaws were cooking buffalo tongues. Seeing his eyes upon them, one of them took a tongue from the pot and threw it to him with a laugh. Shasta drew back, eyeing it suspiciously--this steaming, smelling thing which lay upon the ground. But by degrees the pleasant smell of it overcame him, and lie began to eat. It was his first taste of cooked food. When he had finished, he licked his lips with satisfaction, and wished for more. But though the squaws laughed at him, they did not offer him another, for buffalo tongues are a delicacy and not to be lightly given away.

The smoke of many fires was now rising from the lodges. Besides the cooking, Shasta could smell the sweet smell of burning cotton wood. As the dusk fell and twilight deepened into night, the lodges shone out more and more plainly, lit by inside fires. And in the rising and falling of the flames the painted animals upon the hides seemed to quiver into life, and to chase each other continually round the circles of the tepees. Then, one by one, the fires died down, and the lodges ceased to shine. They became dark and silent, hiding the sleepers within. Only one here and there would give out a ghostly glimmer like a sentinel who watched.

As long as the lodges glimmered Shasta did not dare to move. He felt as if the dusty stars of them were eyes upon him. But when the last glimmer died, and all the tepees were dark, he began to move stealthily backwards and forwards, tugging at the thongs.

But, try as he would, he could not loosen them. They were too cunningly arranged for his unskilled fingers to undo, and when he tried his strong white teeth upon them he had no better success.

The camp was very still. Presently the wind rose and made the lodge ears flap gently. Shasta did not know what it was, and the sound made him uneasy. All at once there was another sound which set his pulses throbbing.

It was a long, sobbing cry, coming down from the mountains. In the midst of his strange surroundings it was like a voice from home. He knew it for the voice of a wolf- brother walking along the high roof of the world. He waited for it to come again. In the pause, nothing broke the stillness, except the gentle flap, flap of the lodge-ears at the top of the tepees.

Again the cry came. This time it sounded less clear, as if the wolf were farther away. Shasta felt a desperate sense of loneliness. He was being left to his fate. If the wolf-brother went away and did not know that he was there, how would he carry a message to the rest of the pack? For if Nitka only knew that he was taken captive by these strange man-wolves, surely she would come and rescue him, if any power of rescue lay in her feet and paws.

Shasta did not wait any longer. He threw his head backwards and let out a long, howling cry. It was the genuine wolf-cry. Any wolf hearing it would recognize it at once, and answer it in his mind even if he did not give tongue.

The noise aroused the Indian huskies, but before they yelped a reply the wolf on the mountains howled again, and Shasta knew that his call had been answered. He howled back louder and more desperately than before. The mournful singing note went with a throb and a quiver far into the night, and the wind, catching it, sped it farther on its way. Again the answering cry came back from the mountains. It came singing down the canyon like a live and quivering thing.

Now the huskies could bear it no longer. They broke out into a loud clamour, rushing about wildly, and yelping at the top of their voices. In a moment, the whole camp was astir. The Indians rushed out of their lodges to see what was the matter, shouting to each other and bidding the women and children stay where they were. Looking-All-Ways came running to Shasta, fearing lest he should have escaped. But Shasta, the cause of it all, sat there quietly crouched in front of the tepee, and making no outward sign, though every nerve in his body was tingling with excitement.

It was some time before the camp settled down again and peace was restored. Every now and again a husky would whine uneasily, or give the ghost-bark which Indians say the dogs give when spirits are abroad. But by degrees even these uneasy ones dropped off to sleep, and no sound broke the intense stillness which brooded over the camp.

Shasta, however, had no thought of sleep. His mind and body were both wide awake. To him the silence was only a cloak, which muffled, but did not kill, all sorts of fine sounds that trembled on the air.

The wind had dropped now, and the flapping of the lodge-ears had ceased. He listened intently, waiting, always waiting, for what he knew would come.

It was in the strange hour just before dawn that two grey wolf-shapes came loping down the mountainside. They approached the camp warily, bellies close to the ground, and eyes a-glimmer in the dark.

It was Nitka and Shoomoo.

The huskies were fast asleep and did not hear them. On they came, moving as soundlessly as the shadows which they seemed.

They crept in among the ring of tepees. On all sides lay the sleeping Indians, unconscious that, in their very midst, two great wolves were creeping towards their goal. If Shasta had been on the leeward side, he would have scented their approach, but he sat crouched to the windward of the wolves and was not aware of their coming until they had actually entered the camp. Then his wolf-sense warned him that something not Indian was moving between the lodges. So that when, suddenly, Nitka’s long body glided into view, he was not astonished, and not in the least alarmed. Her cold nose against his arm, and then the warm caress of her tongue, told him all she wanted him to know. Close be hind her stood Shoomoo. But he did not caress Shasta. As usual, he kept his feelings to himself, and waited for Nitka to take the lead.

Nitka had never seen deer-thongs before, nor how they could bind you so that you could not move. But her keen brain soon took in the problem, and once her brain grasped the thing she was ready to act. Holding down with one paw the thong which bound Shasta to the stake, she set her gleaming teeth to work. Shoomoo followed her example, and in a very few minutes the thing was cut, and Shasta was once more free.

Directly Shasta felt that he was free, a wild joy took possession of him. It was not the Indians themselves that terrified him so much as the feeling of being a prisoner in their hands. To be bound, to be helpless, not to be able to run when you wished--that was the terrible thing. The creatures themselves--the smooth-faced hind-leg-walking wolves--seemed harmless enough. At least, they had not yet shown any signs of wanting to hurt him. And something almost drew him to them with a drawing which he could not understand. Still, the thing which made it impossible to feel they were really friends was this being bound in their midst, with this horrible rawhide thong. Directly Nitka’s teeth had done the work, and he felt that he could move from the stake, his own thought was to make sure of his freedom by leaving the camp without a moment’s delay.

So far, nothing seemed to have warned the Indians what was going on. The camp was wonderfully still. In a few minutes more the dawn would break. When it did, danger would begin for all wild things within or near the circle of the camp. Above, the stars still shone brightly between the slow drift of the clouds. The tall shapes of the lodges loomed black and threatening, like creatures that watched. Now that the work for which they had come was finished, both Nitka and Shoomoo were uneasy and anxious to be gone. The smells of the camp did not please them as they had pleased Shasta. To their noses, they were the danger scents of something which they did not understand. And fear was in their hearts. It was not the fear that wild animals have of each other; it was deeper down. It was the instinctive fear of man.

As soon as she had gnawed through the thong, and nosed at Shasta to satisfy herself that he was not only free but able to make use of his legs, Nitka gave the sign to Shoomoo. What sign it was, no one not born of wolf blood could have told you. Even Shasta could not have done so, though he was aware that the sign was given, for the unspoken sign- language of the animals is not to be cramped into the narrow shapes of human speech. Whatever the sign was, Shoomoo obeyed. lie slid round the nearest tepee as noiselessly as if his great body floated on the air. Shasta followed, with Nitka close behind. She had led the way into the camp, because of her greater cunning, but now it was for Shoomoo to find the way out. Her place now was close to her strange cub, so that she could protect him on the instant from any danger that might threaten.

Two grey shadows had drifted into camp. Now three were stealing out, under the stars, and no human eye watched their stealthy departure. All would have been well, if an unlucky husky dog had not happened to wake as the three shadows glided past.

There was a short bark, a rush, and a worrying snarl. Then one piercing yelp rent the silence, and the husky lay a bleeding form, thrown by Shoomoo’s jaws three yards away. With that the whole husky pack was on its feet, roused from its slumbers in an instant. At least twenty furious dogs hurled themselves at the wolves. Never had Nitka and Shoomoo a finer chance to show their fighting power. From two large grey timber-wolves they seemed to transform themselves into leaping whirlwinds that snatched and tore, and flung husky dogs like chaff into the air. At first Shasta was in the centre of the fight. He could not, of course, help his foster parents, for his teeth and hands were useless at such a time; all he could do was to save himself as much as possible from the brunt of the attack. This he did by crouching, leaping and running when the right moment came. Beyond every thing else, he kept his throat protected with his arms, for his wolf-knowledge and training taught him that this was the danger spot, which if you did not guard, meant the losing of your life.

Once or twice he felt a stinging pain, as a husky snatched at him and the sharp teeth scored his flesh; but each time the dog paid dearly for his rashness, and was not for biting any more. It was only when Nitka or Shoomoo was busy finishing a dog that the thing happened. Otherwise, they kept close to Shasta, one on each side, guarding him from attack. Each time Shasta was touched, Nitka’s anger passed all bounds. She not only punished the offender with death, but she tore at the other dogs with redoubled fury.

So the fight rolled towards the forest--a yapping, snarling mass of leaping bodies and snatching teeth. In its track the bodies of dead and dying huskies lay bleeding on the dark ground.

The thing that Shasta dreaded most was lest the Indians should come to the rescue of their dogs. But having had one false alarm, they did not trouble to rouse themselves again, and even Looking-All-Ways remained on his bed of buffalo robes and said evil things of the huskies for disturbing his repose.

It was not many minutes before the fight was over. The huskies, finding themselves out matched by the superior strength and fury of the wolves, began to lose heart. When the moment came that they had had enough of it, the wolves seemed to know it by instinct. They passed in a flash, from defence to attack, and, covering Shasta’s retreat towards the trees, they charged the pack with unequalled fury. Such an onset was irresistible. The huskies gave way before it, completely routed. Their only care was how to save their skins, as they fled, yelping into the night. Of the twenty dogs which had attacked the wolves, only ten found their way back to camp; and of these many had ugly wounds which they carried as scars to the end of their days. It had been so great a fight that the Indians marvelled when the morning light showed them the blood-stained ground and the bodies of the dogs that had died in the fray.

All the way back through the dark woods Shasta felt a great joy within him. And the gloom seemed alive with things that gave him greeting as he ran. He could not see them clearly--those things. Yet now and then something shadowy stirred, and swayed to wards him, or drifted softly by. And though they were so faint and shadowy, he knew them for the good, secret things of the forest, which none but the wild creatures know. His wounds were a little sore, but, even as he ran, Nitka found time to doctor them with her tongue. She paid no heed to her own. There would be time enough to attend to them when they had reached the den. Neither she nor Shoomoo had really dangerous wounds, although they were bleeding in many places. A day or two’s rest and licking would make them all right, and as long as their man-cub was safe they did not care.

It was bright morning before they reached the den. The sun had risen and was pouring down upon the Bargloosh all the freshness of his early beams. From the tip of a fir branch, a clear little song slipped into the morning air. It was Killooleet, the white-throated sparrow, trilling his morning tune. He had his nest somewhere near the den, only the wolves never found out where. All they knew him by was his song, and the flicker of his flight as he darted daintily past. The very fanning of his wings seemed to sweeten the air. As for his song--he spilt it out at them in little trickling tunes all through the day, or whenever he happened to wake up in the night. The old wolves didn’t mind him much, one way or the other, but Shasta was fond of him, and used to make a gurgle in his throat whenever Killooleet spilt his voice. And now, as he approached the cave, the song of Killooleet seemed a welcome home, and when he looked up into the tree there was Killooleet perched on the fir-tip, with the sunlight shining full on his little wobbling throat!

Return to Top of Page | Contents | Next Chapter