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The Great Sioux Trail: A Story of Mountain and Plain, a novel by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 14. The Dreadful Night

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When Will came out of the lodge he witnessed such a scene as one might have looked upon ten thousand years ago. The cold was bitter, but there were many fires. Vast icicles hung from the slopes of the mountains, glittering in the sun like gigantic spears. The trees were sheathed in ice, and, when the wind shook the boughs, pieces fell like silver mail. It was an icy world, narrow and enclosed, but it was a cheerful world just the same.

The squaws were pounding the bear meat, much as the white housewife would pound a steak, but with more vigor. Grizzly or any other kind of big bear was exceedingly tough, even after treatment, but, in the last resort, the Indians would eat it, and, despite their great stores of ordinary food, Xingudan feared they would not last through the long and bitter winter now promised.

The huge skins which had all the quality of fur were welcome. Will believed the bears were not grizzlies, and later, when he heard of the mighty Alaskan bears, he was sure of it. Great portions of the animals could not be used, and, as Xingudan knew that the odor would draw the fierce carnivora at night, he ordered it all carried to a point far up the valley and dumped there. Then the night was filled with howlings as the big wolves came down again and fought and ate.

Will listened with many a shudder as, heavily clothed and armed, he helped to keep the guard about the village and the corral, and, as he listened, he reverted by another great stage back into the primitive. He was with his friends, those who had fought beside him, those who cared for him, and those who looked upon him as a leader. For the present, at least, he was content. His hours were full of useful labor, of excitement, and of rewards. He knew that another of the great bearskins would be placed in the lodge that belonged to himself and Inmutanka, and that the best of the food would always be theirs if they were willing to take it.

The most difficult of their tasks was to procure enough food for the ponies, and they were continually turning up the snow in secluded alcoves in search of it. Once the weather moderated considerably for a week, and the snow melting in vast volume freshened all the grass and foliage. Heavy and continuous rains for several days renewed much vegetation, apparently dead in this secluded valley, and the ponies, which were permitted to graze freely in the course of the day, although they were driven back to the corral at night, regained much of their lost flesh. The Indians also used this interval to gather and store much forage for them.

With the cessation of the rain however, the fierce cold returned. Everything froze up tight and fast again, and once more at night they heard the fierce howlings of the wild beasts. The fires around the corral were renewed and were never permitted to die, and it was necessary also to keep them burning continually about the village. A wolf stole in between the lodges, killed and carried off a little child. He was trailed by Will, Roka, now his fast friend, and a young warrior named Pehansan, the Crane, because of his extreme height and thinness. But Pehansan's figure, despite its slenderness, was so tough that he seemed able to endure anything, and on this expedition he was the leader. They tracked the wolf up the mountain side, slew it with arrows and recovered the body of the child, to which they gave proper burial, thus making sure of the immortality of its soul.

The danger from the wild beasts remained. It was the theory of the old and wise Xingudan that the pony herd drew them. The fierce winter made the hunting bad, but the word had been passed on by wolves, mountain lions and bears that a certain valley was filled with fine, toothsome horses, little able to protect themselves, and all of the fierce meat-eaters were coming to claim their share.

"We shall have to fight them until the spring," said the wise old chief, "and since we have neither cartridges nor powder and lead, we must make hundreds and hundreds of arrows."

This was hard and tedious labor, but nearly all in the village, who were able, devoted most of their time to it. They used various kinds of wood, scraping the shafts until they were perfectly round, and making on every one three fine grooves which kept them from warping. The arrows were of two different kinds, those for hunting and those for war. The barb of the war arrow was short, and it was not fastened very tightly to the shaft. When it struck the enemy, it would become detached and remain in the wound, while the shaft fell away. A cruel device, but not worse than has since been shown by highly civilized people in a universal war.

The head of the hunting arrow was longer, more tapering and it was fastened securely. The people of the village made these in much greater numbers than the war arrows, as they certainly expected no fighting with men before the spring, and then they would procure ammunition for their rifles. The Sioux were not good marksmen at long range, but they shot their arrows with amazing swiftness. Will noted that a man holding a dozen arrows in his left hand could fire them all in as many seconds, and they could be discharged with such power that at very close range one would pass entirely through the body of a buffalo.

While Will did not learn to shoot the arrows as fast as the Indians, he was soon a better marksman at long range than anybody else in the village. Then Xingudan gave him the most beautiful bow he had ever seen. It was made of pieces of elkhorn that had been wrapped minutely and as tightly as possible with the fresh intestines of a deer. When the intestines dried the bow became to all purposes a single piece of powerful horn, yet with the flexibility and elasticity that one horn did not have. It was unbreakable, it did not suffer from weather, and it had among the Sioux the same value that a jewel of great price has among white people. Will knew that old Xingudan considered it a full equivalent for his repeating rifle, revolver and field glasses that the old chief kept in his lodge.

Will and the Crane, otherwise Pehansan, formed a warm friendship, and he found a similar friend in Roka, the stalwart warrior who had come with the order for his death by torture. Soon after he received the gift of the great bow the three decided on a hunting expedition toward the upper end of the valley, all traveling on snowshoes.

"Beware of the wild beasts, my son," said Inmutanka.

"We have heard nothing of them for a week past," said Will.

"The greater reason to expect them, because the word has been sent over a thousand miles of snow fields that we are here to be eaten. I know you are brave, watchful and quick, but take many arrows and see that Roka and Pehansan do the same."

Will was gay and light of heart, but he obeyed the injunction of Inmutanka and filled the quiver. He saw that Roka and Pehansan had an abundance, also, and the three, wrapped in furs, departed on their snowshoes. The Indians had not gone much toward the upper end of the valley. The slopes were less precipitous there and the forest heavier, giving better hiding for the great wild beasts, and hence making them much more dangerous. But with his magnificent new bow on his shoulder and his stout comrades beside him Will was not afraid.

The cold was less intense than it had been for some time and the exercise of walking with the snowshoes gave them plenty of warmth. The snow itself, which had now begun to soften at the surface, lay to a depth of about three feet, hiding the river save where the Indians had cut holes through ice and snow to capture fish.

Pehansan, an inveterate hunter who would willingly have passed a thousand years of good life in such pursuits, had an idea that elk might be found in some of the secluded alcoves to the north. His mind was full of such thoughts, but Will, exhilarated by motion, was looking at the mountain tops which, like vast white pillars, were supporting a sky of glittering blue. He swept his hand in a wide gesture.

"It's a fit place up there for Manitou to live," he said.

"Beyond the blue the hunting grounds go on forever," said Pehansan.

"I can understand and appreciate your belief," said Will in his enthusiasm. "Think of it, Pehansan, to be strong and young forever and forever; never to know wounds or weariness; to hunt the game over thousands and tens of thousands of miles; to find buffaloes and bears and elk and moose twice, yes, three times as big as any here on earth; to discover and cross rivers and lakes and seas and always to come back safe! To sleep well every night and to wake every morning as keen for the chase as ever! to have your friends with you always, and to strive with them in the hunt in generous emulation! Aye, Pehansan, that would be the life!"

"Some day I shall find the life of which you speak so well, Waditaka! A happy death on the battlefield and lo! I have it!"

"Think you that the snow is now too soft to bear the weight of the wolves?" asked Roka, breaking into plain prose.

"Not yet," replied Pehansan, the mighty hunter, "but it may be soon. Hark to their howling on the slopes among the dwarf trees!"

Will heard a long, weird moaning sound, but he only laughed. It was the voice of the great wolves, but they and the bears had been defeated so often that he did not fear them. He swung the magnificent bow jauntily and was more than willing to put it to deadly use.

As the bird flies, the valley might have had a length of twenty miles, but following its curves it was nearer forty, and as the three had no reason for haste they took their time, traveling over the river bed, because it was free from obstruction. At noon they ate pemmican, and, after a rest of a half hour, pushed on again. The valley at this point was not more than two miles wide, and Pehansan had his eyes set on a deep gorge to the left, where the cedars and pines sheltered from the winds seemed to have grown to an uncommon size.

"May find elk in here, where snow is not deep. Best place to look. Don't you think?" he said.

"I agree with you," replied Will.

"Pehansan speaks well," said Roka.

Then they left the river bed and, bearing away toward the west, approached the gorge which Will could now see was very deep, and with a comparatively easy slope. He had an idea that many of the great carnivora came into the valley by this road, but he did not speak of it to the other two.

About an hour after noon they came to the edge of the forest and Pehansan, searching in the snow, found large tracks which were evidently those of hoofs.

"Elk?" said Will, "and a big one, too, I suppose."

"No," replied Pehansan, "not elk. Something bigger."

"What can it be? Moose, then?"

"No, not moose. Bigger still!"

"I give it up. What is it?"

"A mountain buffalo, a bigger beast than those we find in the great herds on the plains, which you know, Waditaka, are very big, too."

"Then this giant is ours. He has come in here for food and shelter, and we ought not to have much trouble in finding him. Lead on, Pehansan, and I'll get a chance to use this grand bow sooner than I had thought."

The tracks were deep sunken in the snow, but he was not yet expert enough to tell their probable age.

"How old would you say they are, Pehansan?" he asked.

"Made to-day," replied the Indian, bending his glowing eyes upon the trail. "Two, three hour ago. He not far away."

"Then he's ours. A big mountain buffalo fresh on the hoof will be welcome in the village."

"Be careful about the snowshoes," said Roka. "The buffalo will be among the trees and bushes and when we wound him he will charge. The snowshoes must not become entangled."

Will knew that it was excellent advice and he resolved to be exceedingly cautious. He could walk well on the snowshoes though he was not as expert as the Indians, but he held himself steady and made no noise among the bushes as they advanced, Pehansan leading, with Roka next.

"Very near now," whispered Pehansan, looking at the deep tracks, his eyes still glowing. It was a great triumph to kill a mountain buffalo, above all at such a time, and it was he, Pehansan, who led the way. If the other two shared in the triumph so much the better. There was no jealous streak in the Crane.

Pehansan knew also that the quest was not without danger. Wounded, the buffalo could become very dangerous and on snowshoes, among the thick bushes, it would be difficult for the hunters to evade the crashing charges of that mighty beast.

He came to a wide and deep depression in the snow.

"He lie down here and rest a while," he said. "Just beyond he dig in the snow for bunches of the sweet grass that grow here in summer and that keep alive under the snow."

"Then he is not a half hour away," said Roka.

"Not more than that," said Pehansan. "We barely creep now."

Will began to feel excitement. He had killed big buffaloes before, but then he had his repeating rifle, now he was to meet a monster of the mountains only with the bow and arrow. Even in that moment he remembered that man did not always have the bow and arrow. His primitive ancestors were compelled to face not only buffaloes but the fierce carnivora with the stone axe and nothing more.

The great trail rapidly grew fresher. Among the pines and cedars, the snow was not more than a foot deep and the three hunters had much difficulty in making their way noiselessly where the brush was so dense. But the footprints were monstrous. The great hoofs had crushed down through the snow, and had even bitten into the earth. Will had a curious idea that it might not be a mountain buffalo, large as they grew, but some primordial beast, a survivor of a prehistoric time, a mammoth or mastodon, the pictures of which he recalled in his youthful geography. If America itself had so long passed unknown to the white man, why could not these vast animals also be still living, hidden in the secluded valleys of the great Northwest?

Pehansan paused and turned upon the other two eyes that glowed from internal fires. He, too, had been impressed by the enormous size of the hoof prints, the largest that he had ever seen, but there was no fear, nor even apprehension in his valiant soul.

"It is the king of them all," he said. "Pteha (the buffalo) in these mountains has grown to twice the usual size, and attacked by cold and hunger he has the temper of the grizzly bear. He is but a little distance away, and we need rifles to go against him, but we do not turn back! Do we, Roka? Do we, Waditaka?"

"We do not," whispered Roka.

"Not thinking of such a thing," whispered Will.

They pushed their way farther, crossed a small ravine and, resting a moment or two on the other side, heard a puffing, a low sound but of great volume.

"Pteha," whispered Pehansan.

"Among the cedars, scarce fifty yards away," said Roka. "Now suppose we separate and approach from three points. It will give us a better chance to plant our arrows in him, and he cannot charge more than one at a time."

"Good tactics, Roka," whispered Will.

Roka, as the oldest, took the center, Pehansan turned to the right and Will to the left. The white youth held his great elkhorn bow ready and the quiver of arrows was over his shoulder, but, after the Sioux fashion, he carried five or six also in his left hand that he might fire them as quickly as one pulls the trigger of a repeating rifle. The figures of Roka and Pehansan were hidden from him almost instantly by the bushes and he went forward slowly, picking his dangerous way on the snowshoes, his heart beating hard. He still had the feeling that he was creeping upon a mammoth or mastodon, and the low puffing and blowing increased in volume, indicating very clearly that it came from mighty lungs.

The feeling that he had been thrown back into a distant past grew upon Will. He was in the deep snow, armed only with bow and arrows, around him were the huge, frozen mountains, desolate and awful in their majesty, and before him, only a few yards away, was the great beast, the puffings and blowings of which filled his ears. He fingered the elkhorn bow and then recalled his steadiness and courage. A few steps farther and he caught a glimpse of a vast hairy back. Evidently the animal was lying down and it would give the hunters an advantage, as they could fire at least one arrow apiece before it rose to its feet.

Another long, sliding step on the snowshoes and he saw more clearly the beast, on its side in a great hollow it had made for itself in the snow. But as he looked the huge bull lurched upward and charged toward the right, from which point Pehansan was coming. Evidently a shift of the wind had brought it the odor of the Crane, and it attacked at once with all the ferocity of a mad elephant.

Will had a clear view of a vast body, great humped shoulders, and sharp, crooked horns. But now that the danger had come his pulses ceased to leap and hand and heart were steady. The arrow sang from the bow and buried itself deep in the great bull's neck. Another and another followed until a full dozen were gone, every one sunk to the feather in the animal's body. Roka and Pehansan were firing at the same time, sending in arrows with powerful arms and at such close range that not one missed. They stood out all over his body and he streamed with blood.

But the bull did not fall. No arrow had yet touched a vital spot. Bellowing with pain and rage, he whirled, and catching sight of Will, who was only a few yards away, charged. Pehansan and Roka uttered warning shouts, and the youth, who in his enthusiasm had gone too near, made a convulsive leap to one side. Had he been on hard ground and in his moccasins he might easily have escaped that maddened rush, but the long and delicate snowshoes caught in a bush, and he fell at full length on his side. Then it was the very completeness of his fall that saved him. The infuriated beast charged directly over him, trampling on the point of one snowshoe and breaking it, but missing the foot. Will was conscious of a huge black shape passing above him and of blood dripping down on his body, but he was not hurt and he remembered to cling to his bow.

The raging bull, feeling that he had missed his prey, turned and was about to charge again. Will would not have been missed by him a second time. The youth would have been cut to pieces as he struggled for his balance, but Pehansan did a deed worthy of the bravest of the brave. Far more agile on the snowshoes than Will, he thrust himself in front of the animal, waved his bow and shouted to attract his attention. The bull, uttering a mighty bellow, charged, but the brave Crane half leaped, half glided aside, and his arrows thudded in the great rough neck as the beast rushed by.

When the monster turned again, Will, although he was compelled to lean against a bush for support, had drawn a fresh sheaf of arrows from the quiver, and he sent them home in a stream. Roka from another point was doing the same and Pehansan from a third place was discharging a volley. The great beast, encircled by stinging death, threw up his head, uttered a tremendous bellow of agony and despair and crashed to the earth, where he breathed out his life.

Will, trembling from his exertions and limping from the broken snowshoe approached cautiously, still viewing that huge, hairy form with wonder and some apprehension. Nor were Roka and Pehansan free from the same nervous strain and awe.

"What is it?" asked Will, "a mammoth or a mastodon?"

"Don't know mammoth and don't know mastodon," replied Pehansan, shaking his head, "but do know it is the biggest of all animals my eyes have ever seen."

"It is a woods or mountain buffalo that has far outgrown its kind, just as there are giants among men," said Roka.

"If this were a man and he bore the same relation to his species he would be thirteen or fourteen feet tall," said Will, his voice still shaking a little. "Why, he'd make most elephants ashamed to be so puny and small."

"He, too, like the bears, came out of the far North," said Pehansan. "Maybe there is not another in the world like him."

"That hide of his is thick with arrows," said Will, "but in so big a skin I don't think the arrow holes will amount to much. We ought to have it. We must carry so grand a trophy back to the village to-night."

Roka shook his head.

"Not to-night," he said. "We three be strong, but we cannot move the body of this mighty beast, and so we cannot take off the skin."

"I will go to the village and bring many people," said Pehansan.

Again the wise Roka shook his head.

"No," he said, "we three will stay by the bull. You are fast on your snowshoes, Pehansan, and you can shoot your arrows swift, hard and true, but you would never reach the village, which is many miles from here. The fierce wild animals would devour you. We must clear the snow away as fast as we can and build fires all about us. The beasts have already scented the dead bull, and will come to eat him and us."

The shadows of the twilight were falling already, and they heard the faint howls of the meat-eaters on the slopes. Will and his comrades, taking off their snowshoes, worked with frantic energy, clearing away the snow with their mittened hands, bringing vast quantities of the dead wood, lighting several fires in a circle about the bull, and keeping themselves, with the surplus wood, inside the circle. Then, while Will fed the fires, Roka and Pehansan carefully cut the arrows out of the body.

"We may need them all before morning," said Roka.

"It is so, if the growling be a true sign," said Pehansan.

The two warriors partly skinned the body and cut off great chunks of meat, which they broiled over the fires, and all three ate. Meanwhile, Will, bow and arrows ready, watched the bushes beyond the circle of flame. If his situation had been nearly primitive in the day it was wholly primitive at night. The mighty bull buffalo was to him truly a mammoth, and beyond the circle of fire, which they dreaded most of all things, the fierce carnivora were waiting to devour the hunters and their giant prize alike. When a pair of green eyes came unusually near Will fired an arrow at a point midway between them, and a terrific howling and shrieking followed.

"It was one of the great wolves, I think," said Roka, "and your arrow sped true. The others are devouring him now. Listen, you can hear his big bones cracking!"

Will shuddered and threw more wood on the fires. What a blessed thing fire was! It saved them from the freezing night and it saved them from the teeth of the wild beasts, which he knew were gathering in a great circle, mad with hunger. The flames leaped higher, and he caught glimpses of dusky figures hovering among the bushes, wolves, bears and he knew not what, because imagination was very lively within him then and he had traveled back to a primordial time.

The night became very dark and the snow hardened again under the cold that came with it. Will, crouched by one of the fires with his bow and arrows ever ready in his hands, heard the sounds of heavy bodies, either sinking into the snow or crushing their way through it. The wind rose and cut like a knife. Despite his heavy buffalo robe overcoat he moved a little closer to the fire, and Pehansan and Roka almost unconsciously did the same. They were all sitting, and the great body of the slain bull towered above them. The sound of the wind, as it swept through the gorges, was ferocious like the growling of the beasts with which it mingled.

"The spirits of evil are abroad to-night," said Roka. "The air is full of them and they rush to destroy us, but Manitou has given us the fire with which to defend us."

A long yell like that of a cat, but many times louder, came from a point beyond and above them, where a tree of good size grew about fifty yards away. Roka seized a piece of burning wood and held it aloft.

"It's a monstrous mountain lion stretched along a bough," he said. "Look closely, Waditaka, and you will see. At a long distance you are the best bowman of us all. Can you not reach him with an arrow from your great elkhorn bow?"

"I think so," replied Will, concentrating his gaze until he could make out clearly the outlines of the giant cat. "He's a monster of his kind. All the animals in this region seem to be about twice the size of ordinary types."

"But if the arrow touches the heart the big as well as the little will fall."

"True, Roka, and while you hold that torch aloft I can mark the spot on his yellowish hide beneath which his heart lies. Steady, now, don't let the light waver and I think I can reach the place."

He fitted the arrow to the string, bent the great bow and let fly. The arrow sang a moment through the air, and then it stood out, buried to the feathers in the body of the lion. The wounded beast uttered a scream so fierce that all three shuddered and drew a little closer together, and then launched itself through the air like a projectile. It struck in the snow somewhere, disappeared from their sight, and they heard terrible sounds of growling and fighting.

"Your arrow went straight to its heart," said Roka. "The spring was its last convulsion of the muscles and now the other beasts are fighting over its body as they eat it."

"I don't care how soon this night is over," said Will. "All the meat-eating wild beasts in the mountains must be gathering about us."

"It is not a time for sleep," said Roka gravely. "While Manitou has given us the fire to serve as a wall around us, he tells us also that we must watch every minute of the night with the bows and arrows always in our hands, or we die."

"Aye," said Pehansan, "there is one that comes too near now!"

He sent an arrow slithering at a bulky figure dimly outlined not more than ten yards away. At so short a distance a Sioux could shoot an arrow with tremendous force, and there followed at once a roar of pain, a rush of heavy feet, and a wild threshing among the bushes.

"I know not what beast it was," said Pehansan proudly, "but like the other it will soon find a grave in the stomachs of the great wolves."

They did not see any more figures for an hour or two, but a dreadful howling came from the great beasts, from every point in the complete circle about them. The three watched closely, eager to speed more arrows, but evidently the carnivora had taken temporary alarm and would not come too near lest the flying death reach them again. Roka cut fresh pieces from the buffalo and roasted them over one of the fires.

"Eat," he said to his comrades. "It is as wearing to watch and wait as it is to march and fight. Eat, even if you are not hungry, that your strength may be preserved."

Will, who at any other time would have found the meat of the bull too tough before pounding, ate, and he ate, too, with an appetite, Roka and Pehansan joining with vigor.

The odor of the cooking steak penetrated the darkness about them and they heard the fierce growling of bears and the screaming of great cats. Will was growing so much used to these terrible noises, he felt so much confidence in their ring of fire that he laughed, and his laugh had a light trace of mockery.

"Wouldn't they be glad to get at us?" he said, "and wouldn't they like to sink their teeth in the giant bull here? Why, there's enough of him to feed a whole gang of 'em!"

"But he'll feed our people down in the village," said Pehansan, who was also in good spirits. "Still the wild beasts are coming nearer. It is great luck that we have so much wood for the fires."

He and Will built the fires higher, while Roka sent two or three arrows at the green or yellow eyes in the dark. The roars or fierce yells showed that he had hit, and they heard the sound of heavy bodies being threshed about in the dusk.

"We are not eaten but some of our enemies are," said Will. "It would be a good plan, wouldn't it, to slay them whenever we can in order that they may be food for one another?"

"It is wisely spoken," said Roka. "We will shoot whenever we see a target, but we will never neglect the fires because they are more important even than the arrows."

All through that dark, primordial night, in which they were carried back, in effect, at least ten thousand years, they never relaxed the watch for a moment. Now and then they sent arrows into the dusk, sometimes missing and sometimes hitting, and the growling of the bears and wolves and the screaming of the great cats was almost continuous. The darkness seemed eternal, but at length, with infinite joy, they saw the first pale streak of dawn over the eastern mountains.

"Now the fierce animals will withdraw farther into the forest," said Roka. "Beyond the reach of our arrows they will be, but they will not depart wholly."

"Someone must go to the village for help," said Will, "help not only for us, but to take away two or three tons of this good meat. Why, the bull looks even bigger this morning than he did last night. One of my snowshoes is broken, but, if Pehansan will lend me his, I'll make the trip."

"You will not," said Roka. "Despite your skill with the bow and arrow you would be devoured before you had gone a mile. The fierce beasts would be in waiting for you and you would no longer have a ring of fire to protect you."

"Then what are we to do, Roka? We can't stay here forever within the ring of fire, living on steaks cut from the bull."

"Waditaka has become a great young warrior and he thinks much. Few as young as he is think as much as he does."

"I don't grasp your meaning, Roka."

"Perhaps it would be better to say that no one thinks of everything."

"I'm still astray."

"We'll call the people of the village to us."

"If you had the voice of old Stentor himself, of whom you never heard, you couldn't reach the village, which you know is more than twenty miles away."

"We will not call with our voices, Waditaka. Behold how clear the morning comes! It is the light of bright winter and there is no light brighter. The sun is rising over the mountains in a circle of burning gold and all the heavens are filled with its rays."

"You're a poet, Roka. The spell has fallen upon you."

"Against the shining blaze of the sky the smallest object will show, and a large object will be seen at a vast distance. Bring our blankets, Pehansan, and we will spread them over the little fire here."

Will laughed at himself.

"The smoke signals!" he exclaimed. "How simple the plan and how foolish I was not to think of it!"

"As I told you," said Roka, "one young warrior, no matter how wise, cannot think of everything. We will talk not with our mouths but with the blankets."

In this case the signals were quite simple. Pehansan passed the blanket twice rapidly over the fire, allowing two great coils of smoke to ascend high in the air, and then dissipate themselves there. After five minutes he sent up the two smoky circles again. The signal meant "Come."

"We will soon see the answer," said Roka, "because they are anxious about us and will be looking for a sign."

All three gazed in the direction of the village, the only point from which the reply could be sent, and presently a circle of smoke, then two, then three, rose there. Pehansan, in order to be sure, sent up the two circles again, and the three promptly replied.

"It is enough," said Roka joyfully. "Now they will come in great force on their snowshoes, and we will be saved with our huge prize."

They waited in the utmost confidence and at times Pehansan sent up the two rings again to guide the relief band. But the people from the village had a long distance to travel, and it was noon when they saw the dark figures among the undergrowth and hailed them with joyous cries. At least thirty had come, a few young warriors--there were few in the village--but mostly old men, and the dauntless, wiry old squaws.

They exclaimed in wonder and admiration over the mighty beast the three had killed, and among the bushes about the campfire they found great skeletons, all eaten clean by the huge mountain wolves.

"Truly you were saved by fire," said old Xingudan, who had himself headed the relieving party.

With so many to lift and pull they were able to remove the entire robe from the giant buffalo, the finest skin that many of them had ever seen. It was so vast that it was a cause of great wonder and admiration.

"It belongs," said Xingudan, "to Waditaka, Pehansan and Roka, the three brave warriors who slew the buffalo."

"The three live in different lodges and they will have to pass it one to another for use," said Inmutanka.

Will glanced at Roka, who understood him, and then he glanced at Pehansan, who also understood him.

"It is the wish of the three of us," said the youth, "that this great skin be accepted by the brave and wise Xingudan, whose knowledge and skill have kept the village unhurt and happy under conditions that might well have overcome any man."

A look of gratification, swift but deep, passed over the face of Xingudan, but he declined the magnificent offer. Nevertheless the three insisted, and old Inmutanka observed wisely that the skin should go only in the lodge of the head chief. At last Xingudan accepted, and Will, although he had not made the offer for that purpose, had a friend for life.

The band began to cut up the vast body, which, when the flesh was well pounded and softened by the squaws, would alone feed the village for quite a period. The task could not be finished that day, but they built such a ring of great fires for the night that the fierce carnivora did not dare to come near. The next day they reached the village with the great bull, carried in many sections.

Will's nerves had been attuned so highly during the terrible siege that he collapsed to a certain extent after his return to the village, but he suffered no loss of prestige because of it, as everybody believed that he and his comrades had been besieged by evil spirits, and Pehansan and Roka as well were compelled to take a long rest. He remained in the lodge a whole day, and Inmutanka brought him the tenderest of food and the juices of medicinal herbs to drink, telling him it was said on every side that the prophecy had come true, and his craft and skill had saved the village in the terrible winter.

The second day he was in the village, where the women and old men were pounding and drying the flesh of the buffalo, but only the most skilful were permitted to scrape the vast skin, which, when it was finally cured, would make such an ornament as was never before seen in the lodge of a Sioux chief. But Will, Pehansan and Roka were not allowed to have a share in any work for a long time. They were three heroes who had fought with demons and who had triumphed, and for a space they were looked upon as demi-gods.

Nevertheless, they had their full share in the hunt. The wise old Xingudan, backed by the equally wise old Inmutanka, forbade any expeditions far from the village unless they were made in great force, and their judgment was soon proved by the fact that many bears, wolves and mountain lions of the greatest size were slain. Numerous fires, however, made the region immediately about the lodges safe, and as the river flowed almost at their feet the women could break the thick ice and catch fish, without fear of the wild beasts.

It was during this interval that Will began to think again very much of the faithful white friends whom he had lost, the redoubtable scout, the whistling and cheerful Little Giant, and the brave and serious Brady. Heraka had told him that they were dead, but he could not believe it. He began to feel that he would see them again, and that they would renew the great quest. He had preserved the map with care, but he had not looked at it for a long time. Yet he remembered the lines upon it as well as ever. As he had reflected before, if it were destroyed, he could easily reproduce it from memory.

Then his three lost friends became vague again. The months that had passed since his capture seemed years, and he was so far away from all the paths of civilization that it was like being on another planet. He had never yet learned exactly where he was, but he knew it must be in the high mountains of the far north, and therefore toward the Pacific coast.

Then all these memories and mental questions faded, as the life of the village became absorbing again. Frightened herds of elk and moose, evidently chased by the great carnivora or in search of food, came into the valley and the Indians killed as many as they needed. They might have killed more, but Xingudan forbade them.

"Let them take shelter here," he said, "and grow more numerous. It is not to the interest of our people that the big deer should decrease in numbers, and if we are wise we will let live that which we do not need to eat."

They saw the wisdom of Xingudan's words and obeyed him. Perhaps there was not another Indian village in all North America which had greater plenty than Xingudan's in that winter, so long and terrible, in the northern mountains. Big game was abundant, and fish could always be obtained through holes in the thick ice that invariably covered the river. Their greatest difficulty was in keeping the horses, but they met the emergency. Not only did the horses dig under the snow with their sharp feet, but the Indians themselves, with Will at their head, uncovered or brought much forage for them.

Will understood why such sedulous care was bestowed upon the ponies, which could be of little use among the great mountains. When spring was fully come they would go eastward out of the mountains, and upon the vast plains, where they would hunt the buffalo. Then he must escape. Although he was an adopted Sioux, the son of Inmutanka, and had adapted himself to the life of the village, where he was not unhappy, he felt at times the call of his own people.

The call was especially strong when he was alone in the lodge, and the snow was driving heavily outside. Then the faces of the scout, the Little Giant and the beaver hunter appeared very clearly before him. His place was with them, if they were still alive, and in the spring, when the doors of ice that closed the valley were opened, he would go, if he could.

But the spring was long in coming. Xingudan himself could not recall when it had ever before been so late. But come at last it did, with mighty rains, the sliding of avalanches, the breaking up of the ice, floods in the river and countless torrents. When the waters subsided and the slopes were clear of snow Xingudan talked of moving. The lodges were struck and the whole village passed out of the valley. The tall youth, dressed like the others and almost as brown as they, who had been known among white people as Will Clarke, but whom the Indians called Waditaka, wondered what the spring was going to bring to him, and he awaited the future with intense curiosity and eagerness.

Joseph A. Altsheler's Novel: Great Sioux Trail: A Story of Mountain and Plain


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