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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Fiery Totem » CHAPTER VI THE MEDICINE MAN
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During the march through the woods the Indians were not communicative. Once or twice Arnold attempted to draw Swift Arrow into conversation, but the old man merely listened in solemn silence. He refused even to respond to direct questions.

Eventually a clearing was reached where a large number of teepees were pitched. It was quite a wigwam village, and thence the two captives were escorted to a tent that stood among many others. They were politely requested to enter, and, on obeying, they found that the teepee was otherwise empty. Several men were posted on guard at a little distance from the entrance, while Swift Arrow departed with the rest of his brethren.

"There's no doubt but that we are prisoners," remarked Arnold, as he sat down upon a buffalo[Pg 53] hide, preparing to make the best of things and take his ease while he might.

"The whole affair is a puzzle," said his companion. "Why on earth they should take us prisoners passes my comprehension. It can't be that they regard us as enemies. They would not have been so polite and considerate if that had been their thought."

"That's just it," laughed Arnold, who, like his son, had the gift for worrying little until he knew exactly what to worry about. "That's just what surprises me. We are treated as prisoners, and not as prisoners. My impression is that we are regarded with more fear than anger."

The time allowed for speculation was soon curtailed by the sound of many voices approaching the tent, though presently there was silence, and a loud voice called to those within—

"The eyes of Mighty Hand would gladly rest on the sight of the White Men."

"He means us," commented Arnold, rising from the couch of fur. "He's too polite to enter the teepee uninvited."

"By all means let his eyes rest upon us," laughed Holden.

The two men then advanced, while one threw[Pg 54] open the flap of the tent. And the picture that met their eyes was one that struck the strangers with admiration, for it seemed to throw the years back to the days when the Indian ruled the prairie—the days that knew the youth of Ballantyne and the prime of Fenimore Cooper.

Ranged in a semicircle before the tent was a crowd of braves and warriors—all arrayed in the picturesque garb that was unspoilt by any touch of Saxon attire, such as is commonly seen among redskins of the present day. Except that the old-time bows and arrows were replaced by more modern muzzle-loaders, there was nothing to suggest any association with white men and white men's tastes.

But it was not so much the background of natives that impressed the Englishmen. Their admiration was called to the central figure. He was an Indian of enormous size—tall, squarely built, and equally proportioned. His head was surmounted with a turban of black fox decorated with eagle feathers that were continued like a wing right down his back and nearly touched the ground. His black hair was threaded with many coloured beads, some of which resembled (and actually were proved to be) nuggets of pure[Pg 55] gold. Necklaces of beads and animals' teeth hung in many strands upon the breast of his deerskin shirt. Leggings and moccasins were a mass of beads, feathers, and porcupines' quills woven in intricately fantastic designs. And, over all, there hung in graceful folds an ermine robe of spotless white.

This was the great chief of the Dacotahs. Mighty Hand was his name, and that hand was famed for its deeds of valour as equally for its deeds of kindness. He was sole monarch of a mighty branch-tribe of the Dacotahs that had long been separated from its renegade brethren, preferring to maintain the old life in the forest and on the prairie rather than a workhouse existence in a Government Reserve. He led his people far from the haunts of white men, and his life was only harmful to the game that supplied his people's needs. Powder and other necessaries he obtained from frontier trading-stations. But he was known as a man of peace and a man of spotless honour. Hence his irregular life and failure to comply with Government Reserve regulations had been hitherto winked at by the officials.

When the Englishmen issued from the tent,[Pg 56] this chief was standing before them in a majestic attitude that at once proclaimed his royal blood. He was unarmed. This was a courtesy to the strangers.

At the chief's right side stood Swift Arrow; at the left was a figure that formed a weird contrast to the other two. This one was lean, bent, and twisted like a gnarled tree that had been starved and warped in the forest. His dress was alike native, but the grotesque ornaments of animals' skulls, tails, dried monkeys' hands, and other gruesome relics gave the wearer an appearance that was repulsive to Saxon eyes. This freak of figure and dress was Thunder-maker, the great Medicine Man of the tribe. Without his presence no state conclave was complete; without his opinion no tribal law or ruling was ever decided.

It must not be thought that the time we have occupied in describing these several features was similarly occupied by the Englishmen in minute observation. Not at all. Arnold, immediately recognising the bearing of the chief, promptly addressed him in English, which Mighty Hand could understand—judging from his first salutation.

"The white brothers of the redmen are gladdened[Pg 57] by this visit of the great chief," he said. "The white brothers have been in great danger from rushing waters—danger from which the great chief's braves snatched them. They are grateful that their lives have been saved, and they are glad to meet the chief and thank him for what was done."

The Indian listened in silence, and, at the pause that followed, he returned in deep tones, as if he were repeating a lesson that he had learnt by heart—

"Out from the silver waters, when the moon is round, they shall come. They shall be pale-face, and they shall look like men."

This was certainly a puzzling rejoinder! To neither of the captives did it convey any knowledge. Arnold, however, deemed that the best course would be to assume no impression that he and his friend were regarded as prisoners.

"The chief speaks well," he returned. "But his tongue deceives him when he says that we look like men. Pale-faces we are. But we are friends to the redman. We would smoke the peace-pipe with him. But we are far from our camp. At our tents are our young sons, who are awaiting our return with anxious hearts. Perhaps[Pg 58] the great chief has also a son! He will know, then, how heavy would be the heart of his papoose if the chief were long absent from his teepee. We therefore beg that the chief will hasten the peace-pipe. Afterwards he will lend a brave to guide the white brothers back to their camp-ground."

While Arnold spoke there was silence among the Indians, and it was obvious, from the chief's face, that his mind was disturbed with indecision.

"Mighty Hand has listened to the words of the pale-face," the chief said. "The white man's words flow as music, but—'out from the silver waters, when the moon is round—— '"

The speaker's voice faded into thoughtfulness, and Holden whispered to his companion—

"What is the fellow driving at? What does he mean by 'out from the silver waters'? Of course we came out from waters, but what has that to do with the moon, I wonder?"

"I can't think, unless—yes, I believe I've got it! It's full moon about this time, Holden. There's some Indian superstition, I imagine, about full moon and people being rescued from the water——"

"It sounds like that from the way he speaks.[Pg 59] You remember Swift Arrow said much the same thing."

"Then depend upon it we've hit the mark. In some way we've got mixed up with a legend or superstition."

Mighty Hand had been consulting with Swift Arrow while the Englishmen had been quietly summing up the situation, but now he again faced the captives.

"Mighty Hand has lived long and seen many wonders and much great medicine. But to-day there is a cloud in his mind. He understands but darkly. It would be a shame that Mighty Hand should bring water to the eyes of his white brother's papoose, but who can say if the Fiery Totem be not calling this day? Behold!"

As he spoke the chief tore open his deerskin shirt, and when the Englishmen bent forward in curiosity they saw—upon the naked breast—the figure of a serpent tattooed in gold and red so cunningly that it seemed as though a living reptile were there resting—a reptile moulded from burning flames, with head raised in the attitude of striking.

The men gave a gasp of wonder and surprise, and at the same instant the Medicine Man jumped[Pg 60] forward, pointed a finger towards the sign, and turned with an evil grin towards the strangers.

"The totem of the Serpent Dacotahs!" he hissed through his teeth. "Can the pale-face look upon it without fear? Can they not feel the poison-tooth break the covering of their flesh?"

At this strange attack Arnold laughed aloud, and Holden smiled as he said—

"The white men are not cowards! They do not shrink before a figure of paint!"

The Medicine Man threw up his arms in a transport of rage.

"They laugh! The white men smile at the sacred totem!" he cried in a wild appeal to the sympathies of the people, who began to respond with disapproving murmurs. "Shall it be that the fiery serpent hear laughing tongues while the hands of the Dacotahs are idle? Who are they that dare to revile our sacred sign with mocking eyes and tongues?"

Matters were beginning to assume a serious aspect towards the strangers, for evidently the Medicine Man was one whose lead was followed by his people, and who knew well how to play upon their weaknesses. So Arnold hastened to[Pg 61] try and pacify the anger that he had inadvertently roused.

"My red brother mistakes," he said, addressing Thunder-maker. "The white man's laughter was at the suggestion of fear. We are brave men who fear nothing. But we did no insult to the totem of the Dacotahs——"

"Dogs!" exclaimed the furious Indian. "Dogs! The fiery totem has been defiled. Revenge, my brothers! Revenge! lest the names Dacotah and Mighty Hand become things for jeers and laughter in the women's tents!"

The Indian was quite frantic with passion, and as he flung his wild appeal to his people the murmurs suddenly burst into a flood of angry roars—knives were snatched from their sheaths, a hundred arms were lifted, and the circle quickly closed upon the helpless men. But just at that moment of peril and almost inevitable death, the great figure of Mighty Hand was seen to start. He stepped forward with one stride, turned his back upon the captives, and then raised his arms, from which his robe hung like great protecting wings that shielded the strangers beneath their folds. And his voice rang out above the angry[Pg 62] clamour like the voice of a wind roaring through the pine forests.

"Back, Dacotahs! Back to your tents ere the strength of Mighty Hand is lifted and you sink to the dust! Is this how the redman treats the stranger who would smoke the peace-pipe by our fire? Is this the welcome that my braves give to those whom Mighty Hand has received with a smile—with no arms in his hand, no tomahawk at his belt? Back, dogs! and hide your coward faces like frightened papooses in the skirts of the women!"

The clamour ceased instantly. The men hung back, and their heads bent with shame, that is, all heads but that of Thunder-maker. His face betokened no shame. Nay, greater fury than ever was depicted, though he was silenced before the anger of his chief. But it was only for a little while that he was thus disconcerted, for soon he resumed—though now he spoke with humble fawning—

"It is death in the heart of Thunder-maker when the eyes of Mighty Hand shoot their looks of fire. But—Thunder-maker speak true. Has he not made great medicine these many suns? Did he not bring the thunder to prove his great[Pg 63] medicine? Has he not many times driven the fever from the camp, till it fled over the prairie like a coyote driven with sticks and dogs? Huh! many wonders has he done, and—more will he do. He will do great medicine this day. He will show if the fiery totem has called in vain for vengeance."

Thus speaking, Thunder-maker dived a hand into the bosom of his shirt and drew out a bundle of dirty linen. The chief had lowered his arms, so that the Englishmen could now see the Indian as he laughed and held up the bundle triumphantly above his head.

"Great medicine!" he exclaimed, fixing his eyes upon the white men. "Great medicine! Look! See! Listen!"

They looked, and as they looked they saw the linen move, as if something inside were struggling to be free, and at the same time they heard a sound like the sudden springing of an old-time policeman's rattle.

"Rattlesnakes!" exclaimed Arnold under his breath.

Thunder-maker laughed when he saw that the sound had been recognised.

"Come! Come, my children!" he cried, as he[Pg 64] turned his face upwards. "Come, my little son—come, my little daughter!"

Then he shook the knot of the bundle, and out from the aperture crept two grey-green bodies—a pair of twisting, writhing somethings that caused the onlookers to shudder and the Medicine Man to laugh, as he repeated carelessly—

"Come, my little papooses! You will speak great medicine in the ears of Thunder-maker!"

Slowly the serpents came from their covering. One remained coiled on the raised wrists, the other—still sounding the ominous rattle—moved slowly downwards till it rested on the man's shoulder. Then Thunder-maker inclined his head, as if listening to a whisper. Afterwards his face lit up with understanding.

"Huh!" he exclaimed. "Did not the spirit of Thunder-maker speak true? Come, my little papoose! You shall show for whom the fiery totem called."

Turning his head so as to look along his shoulder, the Indian suddenly grabbed the writhing reptile with his teeth, after which (holding the other serpent with his right hand) he commenced dancing until he had cleared an open[Pg 65] circular space, of which the Indians and the white men formed the border.

Suddenly he sprang to the middle and tossed the snake to the ground, while he uttered a wild shriek.

Once on the earth, the snake glided swiftly in several directions, while all watched the creature with tense excitement. Then for a second it seemed to pause with its head in the direction of the Englishmen. At the same moment the Indian gave a cry of triumph, tucked the one snake into a fold of his robe and bent down, making passes with his hands above the serpent on the ground. And as his hands moved so the rattlesnake gradually straightened out its body till it lay stiff and straight as a piece of wood.

Thunder-maker paused. Then he rose up slowly and looked with triumph straight into the chief's face.

"My children say that the time has come to take the cloud from the Dacotah. My papooses show who answer call of fiery totem!"


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