Wild at HeartShasta of the Wolves by Olaf Baker

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When Shasta had given the warning and knew that the tribe was fully roused, he crept out of camp. He went so secretly that no one saw him go. Why he went he could hardly have told himself in the shape of a thought. If the cries had not been wolf-cries, it is probable he would not have gone. He was certain that they were not the genuine wolf-calls, yet they came so very close to them that an uneasy feeling inside him made him want to find out what sort of throat could make so exact an imitation.

The direction of his going was towards the lookout butte, from beyond which the last cry had come. If danger was gathering in the prairie hollows it would be from the summit of the butte that you could tell the nature of it, and whether it was widespread or closely drawn. As he approached the butte, his eyes and ears were open at their widest. Things were indistinct and shadowy in the faint glimmer of the dawn. Yet shadowy though they were, Shasta’s piercing eyes stabbed them through and through. Every bush, every clump of grass, every rise or fall of the ground---nothing escaped this piercing gaze. He saw the buck-rabbit leap into the thicket. He saw the coyote drift, like a trail of grey smoke, over the ridge. And while his eyes and cars were busy, he did not forget his nose. With the true wolf-instinct he travelled up-wind. Whatever scents were abroad in the keen air, he would catch them surely, and sift them in his cunning nose. In the early freshness of the dawn, the smell of the ground was sweet with dew. There was not so much a breeze as a soft moving of the air. Along it the whole vast body of the prairie seemed to breathe to the tip of Shasta’s nose. By this time the broad sweet prairie smell was familiar to him. By contrast with it the old smells of the forest seemed to be sharp and thin, like arrow-heads piercing the brain. But, as Shasta knew, this broader prairie smell was made up of a countless multitude of tiny odours that mixed themselves so confusedly that only the stronger ones could be disentangled from the rest.

For some time he did not get any smell which told him of danger, and he had reached the foot of the butte before he met anything suspicious. Suddenly he stopped. As far as you could see or hear, except that the light was a little stronger, everything was exactly as it had been. And yet, to Shasta’s quick sense, something had happened, and he knew that he was warned. It was not that he saw or heard anything first. It was his nose which had caught something that was not a prairie smell. It was not of a thing that was there now. The thing had gone by, but the scent of its passing clung still to the grass-blades, and Shasta seemed to see the Indian body which had left that faint message of itself in smell. Then he found the trail--the dim thing that only wild eyes would see as it lay in the morning twilight.

At first he wondered what to do, whether to follow the track or to go up the butte. He knew that whatever he did must be done at once, or he might be too late. He went swiftly up the butte.

When he reached the top he lay at full length, gazing intently over the prairies. In the pale light of the creeping dawn, they looked wider than ever. They seemed to stretch away and away endlessly, as if the world did not cease at the horizon, but stooped down under the sky. Shasta’s eyes swept that huge greyness with a lightning glance. The hollows lay roughly from northeast to southwest. It was only here and there that it was possible to see their bottoms or what might be concealed along the borders of the streams.

For some minutes Shasta saw nothing suspicious. Then, about two hundred yards to the west, he saw a creeping shape move across the top of a ridge and disappear. It was followed by another and then another. They slid very quickly over the open summit of the ridge. At the very first glance he knew they were not wolves.

He watched a great number pass over in that peculiar sliding way. When there was a pause, and no more seemed to be coming, Shasta turned to leave the butte. What he saw as he did so made his heart leap.

There, not twenty yards away from the foot of the butte, stood an Indian, with his bow in his hand, ready to shoot.

At once Shasta realized that it was a stranger, one of the hostile tribe about to attack the camp. While his mind worked swiftly, deciding what to do, his body never moved a muscle. There he was, crouched upon the butte, as motionless as if he had been suddenly turned to stone.

If he attempted to escape the Indian by running east or west, he knew by the way the brave held his bow that a terrible winged shaft would come singing through the air. The Indians had evidently seen him on the butte, and one of them had been told off to watch that he did not return to camp to carry a warning before the attack was made. By creeping to the top of the butte in order to reconnoitre the outer prairies, Shasta saw that he had exposed himself to a hidden danger behind. He saw himself cut off from the camp, utterly alone. He had already given warning, it is true. Bu his people might not know that the enemy were so close upon them, nor how many were gathering for the attack. And whatever happened, he would be utterly powerless to help them in the fight with their relentless foes. A feeling of desperation, of anger, swept over him. It was like the anger which had wrapped its flames about him when he had turned on Musha-Wunk, the bully.

Suddenly, in a flash, he turned and darted over the brow of the hill. Instantly the Indian shot, but Shasta had been too quick for him, and the arrow buried itself in the hill-side. Shasta was hidden now by the hill, and the Indian could not tell which way he had gone. The boy went down the hill at a tremendous pace in a series of flying bounds. When he reached the bottom he turned sharp to the left. There was broken ground here, and a number of thickets. Threading his way cautiously through these, Shasta worked eastwards, meaning to approach the camp from the far northeastern side. He had not gone very far when he heard a series of war-whoops, followed by savage yells, and he knew that the battle had begun. He regretted now that he had not brought his bow and arrows with him. His only weapon was the flint tomahawk in his belt.

There was much more light now. He could see everything clearly. But the camp was not in sight, because it was hidden in its hollow to the west. The sounds of the fight came to him plainly in the clear morning air.

There was a knoll in front of him. He ran towards it, stooping low as in his wolf days. He had only just reached it, and had thrown himself flat on his stomach, when all at once he heard the running of many feet. The sound was coming in his direction. He lay where he was, absolutely still. All at once he was surrounded by Indians. Something struck him sharply at the back of his head, and he remembered nothing more.

When he came to himself, he found himself lying across the back of an Indian pony, with a horrible aching in his head. The pony was at the gallop. He felt that he was held in his place by the rider. He could not see the rider. He saw nothing but a blur of grass that seemed as if it billowed under him in flowing waves. The blood in his head made a singing like grasshoppers. There was a tightness there as if it were going to burst. He tried to think, but thoughts would not come. He could not tell why he was on the pony’s back. Only the sharp smell of its sweating flanks entered his brain as one smells things in a dream. Then the seas of grass billowed away into nothingness, and it was a blackness where lightnings flashed.

That was all he remembered of that long ride over the prairies, as he was carried by the Assiniboines back to their hunting grounds in the far northwest. It was not till many moons afterwards that he learnt that, owing to his warning, their attack had only partially succeeded, and that his tribe had beaten them off after a fierce encounter in which both sides had lost heavily.

When the Assiniboines reached their camp, Shasta was thrown into a tepee and left to come to himself as best he might. It was not long before he was forced to realize what had happened, and knew that he was a prisoner in the hands of the enemies of his tribe. What he did not know was that they had carried him off to kill him at their great sun-dance as a religious offering. Quite unknown to himself, his fame as a medicine-man had travelled far and wide over the prairies, and had even reached the mountains in the west. This was the wolf-medicine which had made his tribe so powerful since his coming to them. Once he could be killed, the medicine power would be destroyed also, but, as their own medicine-men assured them, it could be destroyed only by fire.

The weeks went by. He was allowed out of the tepee by day, but bound with thongs every night, so that he could not move. He was given much food in order to make him fat and pleasant for the ceremony.

As the time of the great dance grew near, the Indians redoubled their watch upon him. He was not even allowed to come out of the tepee during the day. The heat and the lack of exercise made him suffer in body and in mind. All he knew of the outside world came to him through the hides of the tepee. He would lie awake in the night, listening to the sounds that stirred abroad, and longing unspeakably to be out in the cool air under the star-glimmer and the sky. And then the moon would rise and the interior of the tepee would appear in a silver gloom.

It was at the moon-rising that Shasta’s restlessness increased till it was like a flame that licked along his bones. His brain was on fire. All the pulses of his body beat in the burning of the flames. Then he would crouch, staring with bloodshot eyes that seemed as if they burnt holes in the tepee and pierced into the night. Now and then he would moan a little, or make low wolf-noises in his dry throat, but for the most part he was silent, suffering dumbly, as animals suffer, feeling the old free wolf-life tugging at his heart. Then there would come a moment when it was impossible to bear the torture in silence, and he would throw back his head and vent his misery in howl after howl.

It was small wonder if the Indians beat him for that. Those dismal notes, ringing out in the deep silence of the night, were enough to make the toughest “brave” uneasy in his heart. So each night that Shasta howled, he was beaten; and still the feeling was too strong to be overcome, and he was beaten again. Then, when it was over, and he lay panting and bruised, he would fall upon his thongs in a blind rage, striving to tear them with his teeth. But his teeth were not the fangs of Nitka, and the raw-hide thongs resisted his utmost efforts. So when dawn broke he would lie exhausted, and fall into an aching sort of slumber till they came to unbind him for the day.

Once or twice during these nightly howlings he fancied he heard an answering cry far off among the hills; and once there had been a scratching outside the tepee, and he was certain that a wolf was there. But before he could come to conversation with it an Indian had arrived to beat him, and it had slipped away.

At last the night came before the great dance that was to take place next morning at the rising of the sun. It was in the beginning of the dance that a great fire would be lighted, and that Shasta would be burned, bound fast to a stake driven into the ground. No one told him that this was his last night, and that it was on the morrow that he would be killed. Yet for all that, some instinct warned him that some terrible thing was afoot, and that the end was close at hand.

It was in vain that he had waited all these weeks for his tribe to follow and rescue him. Either they had been too severely punished by the Assiniboines to dare to follow till they had increased their strength, or else they had delayed too long and now had lost the trail. So long he had looked for that rescue from the southeast; and the sun had risen and set and the moon had waxed and waned, and waxed again, and still there had sounded through the foot-hills no thunder of ponies’ hoofs, nor ringing war-cry as the avenging braves swept on.

The night was very still. Moon-rise was at hand. For two nights in succession something had stolen to the outside of Shasta’s tepee. It had stayed only a short time, sniffing and scratching, and then had melted into the shadowy masses of the hills. Shasta had spoken to it. He had said very little, but then, being wolf-taught, he knew just what to say. And so the mysterious visitor had departed wiser than it came. No one saw this creature, either when it entered the camp or departed. Even the husky dogs did not detect it in their sleep. On softly-cushioned feet it glided noiselessly straight to the spot it sought; and when it had paid its visit, it seemed to float along the ground mountainwards like a trail of black mist.

And now, in a terrible suspense, Shasta was waiting, wondering if the thing would come on this, the last night, and whether its coming would bring a message of hope.

Suddenly his eyes shone and a thrill passed through him. Outside, close against the bottom of the tepee, he heard a sniff. It was the sound a wolf makes when it takes the air deeply into its lungs and then sends it out quickly. Shasta began to talk wolf-talk close to the edge of the tepee. The creature outside answered. Then, in a few moments, it melted into the night. When it was gone, Shasta felt more utterly alone than before. He was restless, excited, nervous to a high degree. It was little wonder if he gave voice to the pent-up wretchedness within him in howl after piercing howl. They let him howl that night without beating him, because they thought it was the last time the “medicine”-boy would lift his wolf-voice to the moon, and it was his death-song that he sang.

Shasta did not howl for long at a time. He contented himself by howling at intervals, that were longer or shorter, as his feelings mastered him. But presently his reason for howling changed.

Down the long throats of the canyons between the hills there came, now in solo, now in concert, a series of calls that set Shasta’s blood ablaze. He answered the calls time after time. He knew every variation of them, from the deep-throated note that was almost a bellow, to the thin sharp call of the half-grown cub yearning for a kill. And as Shasta sent out his desperate messages in reply, he used every note of the wolf-language that he knew. Up and down the hills, wailing along the ridges, sobbing in the hollows, went the wild cries for help, and the answering cries that help was at hand.

At daybreak the howling ceased. Over all the wilderness stole the grey silence-the silence of the dawn. Shasta, lying bound in his tepee, watched the cold light as it slowly grew. All at once, directly above his head, a clear song trilled forth. It was a lark-sparrow perched upon the top of a lodge-pole, and welcoming the day. Often and often he had listened to that song before and loved it for its gladsome sound. But then he had been safe among his own people, and free to go in and out as he chose. Now the song brought home to him afresh the sense of his loneliness and utter helplessness, bound by the cruel thongs.

The song ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and almost immediately afterwards the tepee was entered by two Indians. Without unbinding Shasta, they lifted him up and carried him outside. There he found an old white war horse attached to a travois, or Indian carriage. Shasta had seen a travois before, but had never ridden in one. It was a sort of seat or basket, fastened to poles, the thin ends of which crossed in front of the horse, while the thick ends trailed along the ground. The Indians placed him on the travois and then stood beside him, waiting for the signal to start. On all sides Shasta saw that the camp was in movement. All the braves were in their war paint, and wore their big war bonnets stiff with feathers. It was plain to be seen that it was a very great occasion, and that no pains would be spared to make it a success.

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