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CHAPTER XII CRAFTY TACTICS
So unexpected had been Thunder-maker's tactics and so immediate the response of his people, that the attack was over before the Englishmen were well aware that it had begun. Not that any foreknowledge would have availed them much. They were unarmed, while the Dacotahs were both armed and numerous. Still, the average Englishman does not like to be trussed up without showing some marked resistance. It makes him feel small to be trapped without dealing a blow in self-defence.

The place was brilliantly lit with burning brands which many of the Indians had brought, and the camp was in an uproar with the voluble chatter of the men as they crowded round the captives, while Thunder-maker excitedly cried out his story of the affair.

So well did the Medicine Man concoct his lies[Pg 130] so as to work upon the feelings of his people that meanwhile it seemed as though the Englishmen were in for a hot time. Indeed, so great was their wrath that knives were already reflecting the flames, and fingers were nervously twitching about the locks of their guns. And all the time Thunder-maker was dancing about in a frenzy of passion. He was not brave enough to strike a blow, but he hoped to shift the responsibility upon the shoulders of his brethren.

What would have been the termination of the scene it is not difficult to decide, had not the old figure of Swift Arrow pushed a way through the seething multitude and taken a place at Arnold's side, while he faced his people with burning indignation.

"What is this, brothers?" he exclaimed. "Is this how the Dacotahs treat the stranger in their tents?"

"They are witches, not men!" came from many throats, and Thunder-maker added—

"They call me from teepee—call me without words, and fill Thunder-maker with hot fire!"

"Bah!" ejaculated Swift Arrow with utter contempt, as he turned to the last speaker. "Is[Pg 131] not Thunder-maker great medicine himself? Has he no weapon to protect himself from magic?"

But the Medicine Man had his reply ready.

"Thunder-maker sleep. When Thunder-maker sleep he have no power against magic." Then he turned to the surrounding Indians with a wild appeal. "Shall it be, brothers, that the great medicine of the Dacotahs die before arrows of the evil spirits?"

"Kawin![3] Kawin!" was the general reply, and again the knives glistened as they were raised in many hands.

Thunder-maker shrieked with triumph.

"Then save our tribe from the magic of the evil ones!" he cried as he flung his arms upwards and turned to the captives with a fiendish grin of exultation.

The Indians were now worked up to a condition of irresponsible madness. Another such impulse from the Medicine Man, and the thirsty knives would be quenched.

"Stay!" commanded Arnold suddenly.

So unexpected was the word from that quarter that for the time curiosity superseded frenzy, and all paused to hear what the white man might[Pg 132] have to say. And Arnold, seeing the advantage, went on with a calmness that seemed to act like a spell upon the excited minds. "Stay! My white brother and I are not afraid to die, if it be Manito's will that we find the Happy Hunting-ground this night, and if the Dacotahs have so forgotten the brave name of their tribe that they would slay the stranger who came to their tents in trouble. But first tell me: is it the way of the redmen to kill a prisoner without the wish of their chief——"

"Ha!" interrupted Thunder-maker, hissing the exclamation through his teeth, for even now he felt his victims slipping through his hands. "Do not listen, brothers! They are evil spirits—they speak magic words against which nothing prevails. They have forked tongues that dart as fire. Ugh! I spit upon them—dogs!"

The Englishmen met the verbal onslaught as firmly as a rock resists a wave, and Arnold did not so much as look towards the madman, but resumed, in the same even tones as before.

"Who are you, redmen? Are you dogs, to be beaten to obey the first loud voices? Shall the howling wolf put fear into your hearts, to drag down a prey that he dares not attack alone?[Pg 133] Or are you children of your rightful chief? Who is chief of the Dacotahs—Thunder-maker or Mighty Hand?"

"The fiery totem is on the breast of Mighty Hand," answered one of the warriors. The hubbub had fallen, and all were listening intently—partly with the native courtesy that forbids the rude interruption of speech, and partly because the better self was beginning to replace the moment's frenzy.

"Ah," resumed Arnold with a smile, "I see that the understanding of the pale-face was wrong. We thought that the chief was Thunder-maker, as you hastened to obey his words."

"Thunder-maker great medicine——" began Swift Arrow, when the former speaker rejoined—

"Then he would make himself great chief. Will you braves suffer this insult to the wearer of the fiery totem?"

"Ka—Kawin!" was the chorus that met this question, and the dark looks that had been directed towards the Englishmen but a little while since were now turned towards the defeated Medicine Man, who was standing sullen and silent.

But Thunder-maker was not yet conquered,[Pg 134] though he was apparently humbled. To give him his due, he was a man of wonderful resource, and when he saw that the tide was turning against him he was quick to meet the occasion.

"My brothers, listen not to the words of Thunder-maker," he said quietly, and with a pretence of sad emotion that he had failed to influence the other Indians to take the right course. "Did not Thunder-maker say that these evil spirits have tongues of magic? Did he not say that no weapon could prevail against those magic words? But let it be as my red brothers wish. Mighty Hand rest in teepee. He not come from tent at night, unless the war-cry call him. So let it be as these—dogs—say. Let them rest in their tent to-night, and at another sun we will bring them before the great chief Mighty Hand, who is the greatest of warriors, and chief of the greatest of all tribes, the Dacotahs. I have spoken."

"And spoken well," said Holden, thinking that it might be well to propitiate the Medicine Man for the time. But Thunder-maker, stooping forward with a pretence of picking up something from the ground, came close enough to whisper, so that only the Englishmen could hear him[Pg 135]—

"By another sun, when Mighty Hand looks upon the pale-faces, it may be that the friends of Thunder-maker have looked first!"

The words were spoken with all the venom of a savage threat, and before Holden could make reply the Medicine Man was speaking loudly to Swift Arrow.

"The Dacotahs shall see great medicine when the fiery totem again turn eyes upon the evil water-spirits. Thunder-maker will now go to his teepee. He would speak with his little children that they show much magic."

But Swift Arrow did not deign to reply. He turned to the Englishmen, and with a few movements of his hunting-knife severed the cords that bound them.

"The stranger who has raised no arm against the redmen may not be bound in the camp of the Dacotahs. My brothers did wrong. The pale-faces will forgive my foolish people."

"We do not blame you. You are a good man, and Manito smiles upon the kind heart," returned Arnold quietly.

Thoroughly worn out with the events of the previous day as well as the exciting incidents of the night, the two friends were glad to be at[Pg 136] liberty to return to their tent and stretch their tired limbs upon the robes that had been provided for them. The Indians had quickly dispersed at the bidding of old Swift Arrow, and soon the camp was once more in peace.

Little was said by either of the men as they lay down at opposite parts of the teepee, and it was not long before sleep came to the relief of weariness.

For a couple of hours or more the Englishmen were wrapt in deep slumber. Then, just as the grey dawn was beginning to chase the shadows from the forest, Holden suddenly awoke. It was not the calm awakening that follows refreshing rest, but that sudden return of the senses that one sometimes experiences accompanied by a horrible instinct of danger.

Holden sat up and looked round. Nothing strange was to be seen within the tent, and when he looked through the entrance all seemed peaceful without. The brown teepees were not even stirred by a morning breeze. Not a soul was to be seen, and it was too early even for the birds to sing their morning anthems.

He looked at Arnold, and saw that his friend was still enjoying profound rest. So, laughing[Pg 137] at his own weakness, Holden returned to his robes and was soon dozing again.

Then a second time he wakened with the former conviction even stronger than before.

He raised himself on his right elbow, and as he did so was startled by a sound that is calculated to strike terror into the hearts of men quicker than the most formidable of human foes.

It was the danger-signal of a rattlesnake—the harsh alarm that is unmistakable even when heard for the first time, and the sinuous green thing was poised in the centre of the tent, with head thrown back in the attitude to strike. It had been startled by Holden's sudden movement on awakening, and now was armed to repel its supposed enemy.

The man dared not move, for the least motion of a muscle might be sufficient to frighten the deadly little rope of flesh, and then——?

The continued sound of the rattle had roused Arnold by this time; but at his first stirring Holden spoke, though he managed to do so without moving his lips.

"Keep still. There's a rattlesnake in the tent. It's got an eye on me, and——"

But the rest of the sentence was choked, for[Pg 138] the man's blood suddenly ran cold as another serpent came from among the fur robes, writhing its cold chill body across his bare hand as it lay at his side, and then moving towards its companion.

"There's another—just crawled over my hand," whispered Holden hoarsely.

"And I see a third—over there just beyond my feet!" said Arnold. "What on earth are we to do?"

"Lie still. We can do no more, unless we get a chance to make a bolt for it. But they are between us and the door."

The men waited in tense silence, preserving the immovable attitudes of statues until, as time passed, other serpents made their appearance and the teepee was swarming with a dozen at least. They seemed to be everywhere. They crawled over the robes and peered into the men's faces, they wriggled beneath the covering and even passed across Holden's bared throat. But they were no longer aggressive. They were more of an exploring than an antagonistic bent.

"I wonder where they have come from and why they have congregated in this particular tent?" Arnold questioned in a whisper, and,[Pg 139] with the question, the explanation seemed to flash into Holden's mind like a flame of fire.

"Thunder-maker!" he exclaimed. "The treacherous hound! This is his work. I was wakened by something before. He must have been letting loose his vile creatures."

Just then the snakes returned unpleasantly near to the men's heads again, so further conversation was impossible, for it is remarkable what little sound will attract a serpent's attention, and the nature of a rattler is to regard every sound and movement as something dangerous to be fought.

For more than an hour the men lay in strained positions, watching the writhing movements of the ugly creatures, and wondering how long the position could be sustained.

And then, just when it seemed that the situation could not be supported another minute, they became aware of a sound of soft whistling at no great distance from the rear of the tent. At first the sound was quite low, and barely audible, but gradually it increased in volume until it took the form of a sort of minor tune of barbaric rhythm played on some sort of reed instrument.

At the beginning the music was unheeded by the serpents, but as it became more distinct it was observable that the creatures became restless and uneasy. Now and then one would raise its head and begin to sway gently to and fro, in agreement with the rhythm. But gradually each seemed to be irresistibly drawn towards the back of the tent, as the spell of their master's music fascinated them. One by one they passed in one direction—moving slowly yet steadily in obedience to the call.

And as the last of the reptiles passed beneath the edge of the tent-cloth both men sprang from their couches and rushed round to the teepee that was pitched a little way behind their own.

But they found Thunder-maker reclining on a heap of robes and apparently asleep; and not a sign was seen to suggest the presence of a "rattler."

So much for the art of the snake-charmer and the craft of an evil man.


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