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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Fiery Totem » CHAPTER VIII NIGHT IN THE WIGWAM
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While the two boys had been holding their lonely watch at the camp prior to setting forth the following morning on their disappointing search, matters of serious moment were taking place at the encampment of Mighty Hand and his brother Dacotahs.

Thunder-maker's triumph had been complete. The savage mind seldom looks for a simple explanation of anything that surprises him. When the unusual is not understood, he does not search for a simple and natural explanation. He immediately flies to the supernatural and attributes to good and evil spirits actions that a little common sense would have readily explained in an everyday way.

The Medicine Man of a tribe is different from others of his race. He is the brainy exception of craft united to common sense, and he uses[Pg 83] these to best advantage for his own interests. Thunder-maker's method of divining was very simple after all—nay, even childish. We have seen it performed by redskin jugglers, as we have also seen the same effects produced by Arab diviners on the Syrian desert.

The explanation is found in the fact that serpents are exceedingly sensitive to blows. A cut with an ordinary willow wand is usually sufficient to break the spine and disable all but the monsters of the class. At the same time, although the first blow may daze a snake, it is some time before the final effect takes place, and the creature will wriggle about for some time after having been struck, while its energy is practically nil—that is to say, it merely lives without possessing any real strength.

Now, Thunder-maker's cunning was well aware of all this, and when he dropped the rattler from his teeth he was careful to do so in such a way that the creature would touch the ground with considerable violence. Then he allowed it to wriggle about until in time its head faced the Englishmen. That was the moment for which he had waited, and immediately he started forward with a cry that startled the snake into still[Pg 84] fear. A few passes with his hands fascinated the creature long enough for the Medicine Man to show the Indians that the creature was undoubtedly pointing in the direction of the captives, and when that was done the crafty redskin had achieved his purpose:

The serpent had divined whom the sacred totem of the tribe had called that day.

Then Thunder-maker had replaced his assistant in the linen cloth before it revived sufficiently to commence wriggling again, and, perhaps, point its supernatural head to some one else.

Both Arnold and Holden had observed how Mighty Hand had been wavering between reason and superstition until the intervention of the Medicine Man had caused superstition to take the uppermost place. A moment before, and the chief would have released the captives and sent them back to their camp in charge of a guide. But the art of Thunder-maker had stepped in to convince the people that the sacred totem of their tribe had been calling that day, and that it was the Englishmen for whom it called.


Ah, that was what the strangers found inexplicable. Of this, however, there was no doubt:[Pg 85] their arrival had been at a most unfortunate time, when some answer to the supposed call of the totem was then expected. They were that answer, and the result—who can say what the consequences would be when falsehood and superstition had a savage people at command?

So the Englishmen were requested to return within the teepee that had been reserved for their prison. But, curiously enough, they were not treated in any way after the traditional Indian mode of treating prisoners. They were not bound; no guard was placed at the entrance, though sentries were placed round the camp of which the prison teepee was the centre. The best food that the Indians possessed was supplied to them, as well as a sufficiency of fur robes to sleep upon. All the same, in spite of these kindnesses and other thoughtful attentions, there was no room for doubting that they were prisoners who were not to be allowed any opportunity for escape, and the men could only accept the present situation in a philosophic spirit, and await the course of events with such patience as they could muster.

As the day passed, and darkness fell upon the forest, the Englishmen stretched themselves upon[Pg 86] the robes, while in whispers they tried to arrive at the solution of the mystery and form some sort of plan for future action.

"It's all owing to that scoundrel Thunder-maker," Arnold said. "If he had not stepped in, Mighty Hand would have released us. I could see by his face that he was favourably disposed towards us."

"It is a serious business," said Holden.

"Serious enough for us, for there is no knowing what may happen when people get mixed up with native superstitions. At the same time, what I worry about most is the boys."

Holden sighed at the thought of Bob and his son Alf being alone at the deserted camp.

"Yes," he said. "It will be hard on them if anything happens to us—miles away from civilised habitations. Of course, I don't give up hope of coming out of this right enough in the long-run, and we may be worrying over very little after all. But meantime—the boys—I wonder what they are doing now?"

At this question the elder man gave a slight laugh.

"You wonder?" he repeated. "I don't think you need go very far for the answer if you[Pg 87] haven't quite forgotten our own schooldays. What would you and I have done if two of our chums had disappeared from camp as we did?"

"Gone to look for them," was the prompt reply, to which Arnold resumed—

"And I think there's not so very much difference between Arnold and Holden pères and fils. You take my word for it: at this very minute the youngsters have summed up the situation and are planning a rescue expedition, if, indeed, they have not already set out. Neither Bob nor Alf is the sort of chap to sit still and moan at such a time."

"Yes, I believe you are right. Neither of the youngsters would allow himself to be knocked over by the first difficulty. And they would know that some accident must have taken place, for we promised to be back at camp by dinner-time."

"All the same, we don't want them to be mixed up in this affair in the event of their coming on our track," said Arnold. "We must contrive to prevent that, but—— Hullo! Who's this?"

A dark outline had suddenly filled the space at the opening of the tent at this juncture, but the Englishmen were not left long in doubt of the nature of their late visitor, for a voice addressed them in Indian accents.[Pg 88]

"Thunder-maker would speak words of counsel with his white brothers."

"Oh, he would, would he?" returned Arnold, and his companion added—

"There was very little friendship about Thunder-maker this afternoon."

The Indian gave a low laugh, as though he were thoroughly enjoying some secret joke.

"There are days when hunter's path must be straight; there are days when crooked trail lead him where he find much deer. To-day—crooked trail. But Thunder-maker friend. He would speak in ear of white brother—low, soft. Thunder-maker wise man. He speak words of wisdom to his friends. But—none may hear but pale-face."

"By that you mean that you want to come into the teepee?" said Arnold. "All right. Come along. And if you have any sense to speak of, out with it."

The Indian noiselessly entered and took a seat on the robes between the Englishmen. He did not speak during these movements, but when he was comfortably settled he turned to Holden and addressed him in a whisper—

"Night dark, and red men sleep—all but braves, who watch that white men no return to[Pg 89] Silver Lake." And a second time the Medicine Man laughed quietly.

"Silver Lake!" returned Holden. "I shouldn't think we need any watching to prevent that. Without a canoe, Silver Lake is not much use to us."

"Still—braves watch. They believe that white men return to waters. They came without canoes; they go back without canoes."

"Fools!" exclaimed Holden. "What do they think we are? Spirits?"

"Huh! My white brother speaks true. Indians—some Indians—fools," answered Thunder-maker, at which Holden uttered an exclamation betokening sudden enlightenment.

"By Jove, Arnold! That's it! That explains the whole business. These idiots take us for spirits, since they saw us scramble out from the lake without any boat in sight. Spirits! It's almost too silly to believe."

"Yet that's what Thunder-maker means," said Arnold, to whom the solution of the mystery was now equally clear. "That is what you wish us to understand, isn't it, Thunder-maker?"

"The understanding of the white man travels quick."[Pg 90]

"And that accounts for the kind treatment—the food, half-freedom, and the rest. But if your people think us spirits, why do they keep us here? Why not let us return?"

The Indian paused for a moment before he replied, after which he remarked quietly, and with a peculiar inflection of tone that added deep meaning to his words, while at the same time it betrayed the fact that there was some curious reason to account for this confidence—

"Dacotahs fools. They think white brothers spirits—evil spirits. They have not the eyes of Thunder-maker."

"I see," said Arnold thoughtfully. "But you forget, Thunder-maker, that your trickery with the snakes helped them to that opinion."

Once more the Medicine Man laughed quietly in a manner that irritated his hearers, and Holden broke in roughly—

"Come now, you old cheat, explain yourself! You didn't believe as the rest of your people did. And if not, why did you behave in such a double way? Out with it. You had some purpose in coming here to-night, and you may as well give us the truth right away."

It is not possible to hasten an Indian in the[Pg 91] matter of speech. Hasty response or rapid talk they deem discourteous. Thunder-maker was no exception to his race in this respect, but he was exceptional in another, inasmuch as when bent on a subject he stuck to it without using many unnecessary words or ornaments of speech. He waited in thoughtful silence for several minutes. Possibly in his cunning way he was mentally scrutinising the peculiarities of his companions in the teepee—deciding what course would be best to enable him to be assured of their trust. Whether or not he judged their characteristics correctly will be seen later.

"My white brother has asked for the truth," the Indian began. "Thunder-maker shall speak words as straight as the path of a burning arrow.

"Many years ago—when the buffalo lived upon the prairie to feed the redman and provide his robes—the great tribe of Dacotahs would hunt in the valley that is known even to-day as the Peace Camp. Many deer would feed there, and the buffalo would eat the blue grass, and Manito had filled the camp with fruit and flowers. In those days the Dacotahs were ruled by a mighty warrior, Flying Cloud—the son of the fiery totem serpent that saved his life by slaying[Pg 92] the chief of the Chippeways in the war-path by night."

Here the speaker paused, as though he expected some comment from the listeners regarding the seeming miracle. But no remark being forthcoming, he resumed—

"For many years our tribe lived in prosperity. Pemmican was in plenty, and the redmen kept the hunting-grounds in peace. Then—one night—Chief Fire-water came to the camp, and a brave with foolish mind praised Fire-water more than the sacred totem. He was slain by Flying Cloud ere the insult was cool on his lips. But the serpent was angered. He flashed tongue of fire to the Dacotahs—called down the rains and the tempest upon the Peace Camp by night, until the water spirits rushed through the valley on white horses, destroying trees and fruits—washing the land bare of earth. And, when the sun came up from his teepee of fire, Flying Cloud and the best warriors of the Dacotahs had been carried away by the water spirits and were never seen again.

"Then there was great wailing in the camp, and the totem of the tribe was called upon to cease anger, lest the Dacotahs be a tribe no more.[Pg 93]

"And the serpent had pity, and spoke thus to the warriors and braves—

"'I will stay my anger; but I have given power to the spirits that ride on white horses, and I may not call it back again.'

"'Then what shall the Dacotahs do?' asked the warriors. 'It may be that the spirits will again ride their white mustangs and take from us our chief and our young men.'

"And the serpent replied—

"'When such time come, the Dacotahs will see two white spirits rise out of the lake that is silver. When the moon is round, they shall rise out of the lake that is silver. They shall come without canoe to bear them, and without arrow or tomahawk for fighting. By this shall you know them. Then shall the Dacotahs lay hands upon the white spirits; they shall treat them kindly, but they shall bring them to the Peace Camp and there consume them with fire. Then shall the power of the water spirits be broken. Then shall the Dacotahs be safe. Then shall the fire of my anger be quenched.

"'But I—the sacred totem of the Dacotahs—am mighty and full of pity. The Dacotahs are brave, but they are not all wise. It may be that[Pg 94] their ignorance might lead them to bring suffering to those who are not evil spirits. But let them not hold back in doubt, for I shall stay their hand, even though the torch be set at the wood. For if the eyes of my children are blind, I shall be near to guide them. And the sign of this shall be: I shall appear before the eyes of all people as a serpent of fire. By this shall they know that they have erred. They shall withhold the torch, free the captives, and be to them as brothers.'"

Once more the speaker waited for a space, until he knew that his hearers had time to grasp the full meaning of the legend that he had related. Then he lowered his voice and spoke with deep meaning that was not difficult for the Englishmen to understand—

"Yesterday the moon was round. Two white spirits came from the lake that is silver without canoe for sailing, without arms or tomahawk for fighting. The fiery totem called, and was answered.... By another sun Mighty Hand will lead the white spirits of the water to the camp that is called Peaceful!"


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