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THE DANGER FROM THE SOUTH
It was the old medicine-man, Shoshawnee, and he was making medicine to himself on the high lookout butte that commanded the prairies to the south. The sunset was beginning to be crimson in the west. It struck full in Shoshawnee’s face, turning it blood-red. But Shoshawnee had no thought for the colour of his face. He had another thought inside him-a thought of such tremendous im portance that there was no room for anything besides. And this was that a danger lay there ambushed in the south. No one else but Shoshawnee knew of the danger; but that was because he had a medicine which never told him lies, and which whispered things to him before they had arrived. And already it had whis pered to him that danger was near, and he had heard the huskies give the ghost-bark when they saw the wind go by.
When he had finished the medicine-song he sat silent, gazing on the prairies. They looked very peaceful, lying abroad there under the sinking sun. Shoshawnee’s eyes, travelling over the immense levels, saw nothing that served to increase the unquiet of his mind. Far to the south there stretched, from the Saska River westwards, a dusky band that was like a shadow cast by the sunset. Shoshawnee knew that it was a herd of buffalo--one of those vast herds which in those old Indian days roamed over the wilderness for a thousand miles; coming always from the lake of mystery in the south; going no man knew whither; which no man had ever counted, or would count till the Palefaces came from the East, and the Red man’s day was done. Shoshawnee watched the buffaloes keenly. So long as they continued their tranquil feeding, he knew that, whatever danger was afoot, it had not yet approached the outskirts of the herd. For the buffalo are very wary and are always ready to stampede. Yet, although his eyes were fixed intently out there so many miles away, his ears were alert for anything that might happen close about. So, although he did not turn his head, he heard the faint whisper of the dried bent-grass as Shasta in his summer moccasins came lightly up the hill.
When he reached Shoshawnee, Shasta did not speak. It is the Palefaces who rush at each other with their tongues. The Red man is never in a hurry with his speech. Why should you hasten your words when the prairies are so broad beside you, and there are no clocks to tick off for you the timeless drift of the summer air? It is only in the cities that men have learnt to waste the hours by counting them; and on the high buttes facing the sunset there is no time.
So the sun had dipped below the prairie before at last Shoshawnee spoke.
“The buffalo go west,” he said slowly, as if the thing was of the utmost importance.
Shasta did not put a question actually into words, but he looked it. Shoshawnee understood.
“There is much pasture to the west. The buffalo eat the prairie to the setting sun.”
“Do they eat the edge of the sunset also?” Shasta asked.
Shoshawnee shook his head.
“The edge of the sunset is the end of the world,” he said. “At the end of all things there is no more grass.”
Shasta was silent at that. It was so unbelievable. The thought stunned him. No more grass!
“But beyond the sunset,” Shoshawnee went on, “when you come to the Happy Hunting-grounds, the grass is always green. And there the blue flower of the camass never fades, and the sarvis berries never decay.”
“The Happy Hunting-grounds!” Shasta murmured in his low, husky voice. “Where?”
Shoshawnee lifted his hand.
“Up there, presently, he said, “you will see the Wolf-trail. It is along the Wolf-trail that you travel to reach them. The Wolf-trail is worn across the heavens by the moccasins of the dead.”
“Is the hunting better there than it is here?” Shasta asked. “Is there more game?”
“It is not better hunting,” Shoshawnee said, correcting him. “It is happier. The dead are full of happiness as they follow along the trail.”
After that there was a long silence, as Shasta kept looking at the sky to watch for the beginning of the Wolf-trail, when the stars should appear. But before that happened Shoshawnee spoke again. This time he spoke quickly, using many words. He spoke so rapidly, and the words followed each other so fast, that at first Shasta could not understand. All he gathered was that danger was in the air, some great danger which as yet you could not see, but which was approaching, always drawing steadily nearer out there on the prairies, and which might arrive before you knew. Then, as Shoshawnee went on, the danger took a shape. It was the shape of Indians on the warpath--Assiniboines that came with deadly cunning and purpose, travelling like wolves along the prairie hollows.
Shasta sent his eyes far across the darkening plains, where all things were becoming shadowy and remote, and where even the great herd of buffalo beyond the Saska was no longer visible. How far away the Assiniboines might be he could not guess. Nor could Shoshawnee tell him, when he asked. All Shoshawnee knew was that they were coming, and that when he had finished his medicine-making he would go and warn the tribe. Of one thing only was he certain, and that was, that how ever near they might be they would not attack at night. The Assiniboines were fierce and cruel but they dreaded the darkness, be cause they declared that the ghosts of their enemies and many evil spirits were abroad. Their favourite hour of attack was just at daybreak when the first glimmer of dawn was mingling with the mist.
When the last light of sunset had faded from the sky, and the prairies were wholly dark, Shasta and Shoshawnee returned to the camp.
Shasta lay awake long that night, listening and wondering. The words of the old medicine-man kept walking in his head. Sometimes it was of the buffaloes he thought, with their pasture that lay out into the sunset and was a-shimmer with the long lights of the west; and sometimes of that mysterious danger that crept nearer and nearer, and gave no sign of its approach. And then the butterfly, the sleep-bringer, flitted across his eyelids and he slept.
It was the western lark-sparrow that woke him in the morning, singing loud and clear upon the lodge-pole over his head. And when he saw the sunlight clear through the painted wall of the tepee, and heard the cheerful morning stir of the camp, it seemed impossible that danger should be afoot in that tremendous peace. Yet, as the day wore on and evening drew near, he felt the same foreboding at his heart as when Shoshawnee had spoken to him of danger when they sat on the lookout bluff.
As for Shoshawnee, he sat there all day, without food or drink, gazing steadily across the prairies and chanting the old medicine chants of the tribe. When evening fell Shoshawnee returned. He had already warned the tribe of what he feared, and Big Eagle had given orders that all was to be in readiness in case of an attack. Scouts had been sent out, but had returned at sundown, saying that no signs of hostile Indians had been seen.
When Shasta went to bed that night the buffalo robe held no sleep for him; and wherever the butterfly flitted, it did not enter his tepee. All night long he lay awake, restless and uneasy. Often and often he left his couch and looked out. The camp was very still and the stars in their high places glittered bright in a cloudless sky. Now and then the small grey owl hooted dismally from the alder thickets beside the creek, or a coyote would bark fitfully somewhere far off in the night. Shasta had not yet grown used to the prairie. It was so vast, so unenclosed! The forest with its crowding trees, and the immense gloom of a hundred miles of shade, was the thing that made him feel at home. But now the camp of his people was pitched far out on the prairie, and the forest only existed in his dreams. As for Nitka and Shoomoo and the wolf-brothers, they seemed even farther off, and to move in some old life lost among the trees. Three times already since his first coming to the camp, it had been moved. The ends of the new lodge-poles, cut in spring among the foot-hills and dragged by the ponies for enormous distances, now showed signs of wear. The camp at present lay in a wide hollow surrounded by swelling ridges, and hidden from sight until you were close upon it. The lookout bluff upon which Shoshawnee had kept his watch lay a good half-mile to the south, and commanded an immense sweep of prairie on every hand.
The last time Shasta had crept out of the tepee he had looked towards the bluff. It humped itself, a black mass against the stars, like a huge bull-buffalo couched in sleep. When he crept noiselessly back, it seemed to follow him, and when at last sleep overtook him,it was humped among his dreams.
Suddenly he was wide awake, his heart throbbing. Something--he did not know what--had called to him, and roused him from his rest. The tepee was still dark, but a faint glimmer--so faint as to be scarcely seen--showed that daybreak was at hand. Shasta sat up, his eyes straining in the dimness, and his ears listening as only wild animals listen when they are startled.
For a little while he heard nothing but the stillness, which itself was so deep that it seemed as if it were a sort of sound. Then, clear and strikingly distinct, he heard repeated the sound which had broken his sleep.
It was a wolf-howl, long-drawn and wailing, and it was answered directly afterwards by another, and yet another. The cries were some distance off--how far Shasta could not tell. The third came from some spot on the prairie beyond the lookout bluff. Every pulse in Shasta’s body beat in answer to the cries. A wild excitement swept through him. His mind seemed, for the moment, to throw off its Indian teaching and swing back into the wild. Yet, wolf-like though the cries were--so alike that only the wolves themselves would have detected the difference--Shasta’s perfect sense of hearing told him that these wailing notes came from no wolf-throats, but from those of Indians who imitated with marvellous closeness the familiar cry. Shoshawnee was right. The danger was at hand. It was within speaking distance: it sang a death-note in the dawn.
Shasta lost no time. He ran swiftly to Big Eagle’s tepee. Without waiting for any ceremony, he snatched aside the flap and stepped inside. Rousing the chief he told him what he had heard. Immediately Big Eagle sprang from his buffalo robes, and, seizing his arms, rushed out into the centre of the camp, uttering the gathering cry. Instantly the whole camp was aroused. The braves came running out of the tepees, their bows in their hands and their long quivers slung over their backs. In less than five minutes the sleeping village was turned into an armed camp, with every man it contained prepared for the fight. In the midst of the excitement Shasta disappeared. When Big Eagle commanded the presence of the “medicine” wolf-boy, no one could say what had become of him. Some were inclined to think that he had played a trick upon them, and that there was no danger at all. But Shoshawnee, the old medicine-man, waved his arms excitedly, and declared over and over again that Shasta had been warned by the spirits, and that the Assiniboines were now close at hand.