THE FIERY TOTEM
A TALE OF ADVENTURE IN THE CANADIAN NORTH-WEST
BY ARGYLL SAXBY, M.A., F.R.G.S.
AUTHOR OF "BRAVES, WHITE AND RED" "COMRADES THREE!" "TANGLED TRAILS" ETC. ETC.
LONDON THE RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY 4 BOUVERIE STREET AND 65 ST. PAUL'S CHURCHYARD
I. A PERILOUS PASSAGE 5
II. DEER-STALKING 14
III. THE LONELY CAMP 22
IV. FRIENDS OR FOES? 33
V. LOST IN THE FOREST 41
VI. THE MEDICINE MAN 53
VII. THE FRIEND IN NEED 67
VIII. NIGHT IN THE WIGWAM 83
IX. THE TEMPTATION 96
X. A DEATH-TRAP 104
XI. TO THE RESCUE! 115
XII. CRAFTY TACTICS 130
XIII. THE PRICE OF A ROBE 142
XIV. THE BATTLE OF WITS 151
XV. OFF! 165
XVI. A NIGHT'S TERROR 172
XVII. THE FATE OF RED FOX 181
XVIII. HOT ON THE TRAIL 191
XIX. THUNDER-MAKER'S DOWNFALL 205
XX. THE FIERY TOTEM 217
THE FIERY TOTEM
A PERILOUS PASSAGE
"Well, good-bye, boys! You won't go far from camp before we return, will you?" The speaker was one of two men seated in an Indian canoe. He gripped the forward paddle, while his companion at the stern added cheerfully—
"The backwoods is not the City of London. There are no policemen to appeal to if you lose your way. Besides, we hope to find dinner waiting for our return. Hunting lost sons is not the same sport as hunting moose."
Both the boys laughed at the elder man's remark, and one—Bob Arnold by name—answered—
"Don't worry about us, father. Alf and I can take care of ourselves for half a day. Can't we, Alf?"
"Rather," the younger chum replied. "It's our respected parents who'll need to take care of themselves in unknown waters in that cockleshell." Then he called out merrily, imitating the tone of the first speaker—his father: "Take care of yourselves, dads! Remember the Athabasca River is not Regent Street!"
"Cheeky youngster!" returned the elder man banteringly, as he struck the forward paddle into the water. "There's not much of the invalid left about you after three months' camping."
Then with waving hands and pleasant chaffing, that showed what real good chums the quartette were, the men struck out for the centre of the river, leaving their sons watching from the strand before the camp that was pitched beneath the shadow of the great pine trees.
It was a glorious morning—just the right sort for a hunting-expedition. The air was just chilly enough to render paddling a welcome exercise, and just warm enough to allow intervals of pleasant drifting in the centre of the current when there were no shoals or driftwood to be avoided.
"Yes," remarked Holden, the younger of the two men, as the rhythm of the dripping paddles murmured pleasantly with Nature's music heard from leafy bough and bush; "yes, Alf's a different boy now. Who would have believed that these three short months would have changed a fever-wasted body into such a sturdy frame?"
"It looks like a miracle," returned the other man. "It was a great idea, that of a six months' trapping in the backwoods. When we get back to England we'll all four look as healthy as savages. My Bob is the colour of a redskin."
"It was a great blessing that you were able to bring him. It wouldn't have been half as enjoyable for Alf, not having a chum."
The elder man laughed softly as he turned a look of good-comradeship towards his companion.
"That's just as it ought to be, Holden," he said. "You and I were chums at school, chums at college, and now chums in business. It's the right thing that our sons should follow our good example. At least, that's my opinion."
"And you know it's mine," was the response. "But, I say! Do you think we are wise to keep quite in the centre of the current? It seems to be driving pretty hard, and we don't know the course. We might wish to land if we saw rapids."
"I dare say you are right," replied Arnold. "We'll steer straight across that bend ahead of us. After that we can keep well under the shadow of the willows—or near them. We will look for a good landing spot and strike inwards. There ought to be moose or some equally good sport among those bluffs and clearings."
It is one thing to make plans; it is quite another matter to carry them out. Especially is this the case when strangers are travelling in strange country.
Of course the present mode of travel was no novelty to either of the men. Their youth had been passed in Western Canada (though not in the vicinity of the present voyage) before their parents sent them home to college in England. But even the hardened voyager knows that experience does not anticipate all chances, and this case was no exception to the rule.
The river was certainly beginning to run at a pace that was perceptibly swifter than that of the start when two miles farther up. This did not give any cause for concern, however, for the ears of the travellers were prepared for any sound that indicated rapids, and there was no other contingency that they felt need to dread.
At a little distance ahead, the course could be seen to take a sharp turn to the right, where the dense growth of beech and towering pines resembled the portals of a giant gateway; and, as it neared the opening, the canoe swung round the curve with the swift flight of a swallow.
It was a sudden change of pace, due mainly to the sharpness of the turn. But as soon as the men fully entered the fresh span of the course they both started involuntarily, for the banks were so steep as to prohibit landing, and the river narrowed towards a second gateway formed by towering cliffs—steep as a Colorado canon.
"Look out!" exclaimed Holden, as he knelt high and gripped his paddle firmly. "Leave the steering to me, I can manage better from the stern. Come back here if you can."
The canoe had already begun to dance among foaming crests like an egg-shell.
Arnold crept towards his companion.
"Not a pleasant look out!" he remarked, with a grim smile on his face. "It will be a marvel if we get through that canon with dry skins."
"Dry skins!" laughed Holden. His voice was laughing, but his eyes were fixed steadily a few yards in front of the canoe with that firm gaze of a brave man looking peril straight in the face. "Dry skins! It'll be a greater marvel if we get through it with any skins at all!"
"We'll have a good try, anyway," responded Arnold. Then he remarked quaintly: "This is like old times, isn't it—you and I out in a scrape together? I hope the Head won't blow us up for it when we get back to school!"
The river had now entered the narrow course, and was rushing on a foaming way with an awesome roar.
Now and then the canoe would leap to one side as a wave hungrily licked her prow; sometimes she would push her nose into a crest that splashed the travellers with spray. Fortunately the spring torrents were over, and danger from drifting logs was not to be reckoned with, but the possibility that rocks might be hidden among the white waves was a reasonable cause for concern—all the more so, considering that they were unknown.
Onwards they dashed at breakneck speed, while both the men sat grimly silent, prepared to take bravely whatever fate might be in store for them. Probably their thoughts were more of the two boys at the camp than of their present strait—more engaged with commending their sons to the care of God than speculating as to the result of this adventure.
Then, with a suddenness that gave no time for thought, there was a crash like crackling match-wood—a rush of water that seemed to crush all within its embrace. Next moment the two men were struggling in the stream.
At that crisis, Arnold's first thought was for his friend—just as it had always been since he fought his chum's first battles at school.
He grabbed wildly, and held on to something that he afterwards found to be his friend's jacket.
"Are you all right?" he yelled above the din of the waters, as both men reached the surface.
"A1 at Lloyd's!" came the cheerful reply—undaunted even in extremity.
"That's good. We'll weather this yet. Hang on to my coat, and we'll keep together!"
Being expert swimmers, there was little cause for fear so long as the current passed clear of obstacles, and the men had little to do but keep a suitable position, for the force of the water bore them well on the surface. But the chief danger was from undercurrents and whirlpools, and as the boundaries of the river rapidly narrowed this risk became more serious every moment.
As they rushed onwards, so the two walls of the canon came nearer—shutting out the light until the scene resembled the gloomy depths of a seething cauldron.
Closer and closer came the walls; swifter and swifter rushed the water.
Now the limits were so narrow that the river was but a smooth riband darting between walls worn glassy by the wear of countless ages.
The friends came so close that they touched one another's shoulders.
That was one moment.
The next instant each felt himself shot forward through a narrow opening like a cork that is volleyed from a bottle; and when the men came to realise their position, they found themselves floating on the surface of a placid lake into which the canon poured its flood.
They looked at one another. The adventure had parted them, but Arnold laughingly held up a portion of Holden's coat as a banner to signal his position.
"Our same old luck!" exclaimed Holden, laughing.
"It'll cost you a new coat!" returned Arnold with equal cheer.
It was perhaps a hundred yards to the nearest shore, so the men immediately started in that direction. Both were considerably exhausted by the experiences through which they had providentially passed without serious injury, and consequently the progress was slow.
But at last they reached the bank, where the red and grey willows bent their long strands in a tangled trellis.
Knee deep in the mud, the men stood upright, to clear the way to freedom. But, as they parted the nearest branches, a number of arms were suddenly forced through the scrub; a number of hands gripped them with irresistible strength; and before they could realise what had happened they were rudely dragged up the bank of the lake.
The boys did not find that time hung heavily on their hands when left to their own devices.
The two tents that marked the camp at Crane Creek were pitched on a grassy slope that led down to the Athabasca's dancing waters. This had been their camp-ground for several days after a desultory hunting pilgrimage from Loon Portage—the last town where they had left railways and civilisation. Having penetrated northwards into a region that was apparently remote from attacks of the plough and beyond the sound of the rancher's whoop, it was determined to make this a headquarters for a couple of months or so. Sport in much variety had already been found. Moose-tracks had been seen in the vicinity, and it had been with the hope of practically substantiating the discovery that the two elders had started off that morning.
The boys' first consideration was that of dinner.
"Let's go into the woods and see what we can find!" Bob Arnold suggested to his chum, after they had watched the canoe disappear round a bend of the river. "There's only the carcase of a prairie chicken left in the larder. That won't be much to satisfy our paters when they come back."
"And we'll want to tackle a small morsel ourselves," added Holden. "I've never had such an appetite in my life until I came West. There's something inside me that is always calling out: 'Grub! Grub! Give me grub!'" And the boy sniffed the pine-scented air with relish, as a hungry street gamin sniffs the fragrance of a cook-shop.
Bob laughed as he strolled back to the tents and stuck a tin dipper into a wooden pail near by for a draught of cold water that had lately been taken from a moss-bordered spring.
"You're a freak of Nature; that's what you are, Alf. Two months ago you were as thin and white as a sheet of paper, and even Saturday's school resurrection-pie failed to tempt you. Now you are the colour of a redskin, and nothing is safe from your teeth!"
"I'll not deny that I'm sometimes a bit peckish," returned the younger boy, entering one of the tents and filling a cartridge belt, which he proceeded to buckle round his waist. Then he remarked with twinkling eyes: "Say! Mustn't the fellows at St. Wenford's be green with envy if they think of themselves swotting away in class while we're having the time of our lives in the backwoods? They'll all be back by this time, for the school was only to be closed for seven weeks, the doctor said. Lucky thing fever is—in some ways."
"In some ways—perhaps," repeated Bob in an undertone that had much seriousness in it, as he followed his friend's example in preparing for the hunt. "But it didn't seem very lucky—to me—when—when your dad was sent for, post-haste, that night. It didn't seem the best of luck then—to me, I mean."
"Nor to me," added Alf with equal seriousness. Both boys sighed at the memory, and then the younger resumed light-heartedly: "I tell you what it was, Bob, I was thoroughly riled with that fever. We always meant to be chums for the rest of our lives, just like our dads; and it put my back up to find the fever trying to upset our plans. That's what did it. Once I got the spirit of fight into me, I knocked the stuffing out of the old fever!"
"That you did!" laughed Arnold. "The doctors said they never saw anything like your recovery, once you set to work. Well, I'm fixed up for shooting. Are you all right? Better take hunting-knives. They come in handy."
"And a repeating rifle, in case of big game. One will be enough; we can take turns in carrying it."
"All aboard. I'll just see that the camp-fire is properly stamped out, and then we'll set off."
In a short time all preparations were completed, and the two boys were ready to enjoy a morning's adventure in any form that it chose to offer.
Having hopes that something bigger than duck or chicken might reward their efforts, the chums immediately struck inwards through the bush, following an old trail from a buffalo wallow that was the ancient path of those bovines when they sought water to drink or mud to wallow in when the mosquitoes were troublesome.
Beyond chipmunks, gophers, and a single jack-rabbit (the latter falling to Bob's gun), nothing was met to tempt powder for some time. Then they reached a large "slough" that in early spring would be a small lake, though now it was filled with long blue grass and wild lavender. Here the boys paused as they examined the clearing.
"It's a likely-looking place for rattlesnakes," Bob remarked. "It hardly seems probable that—— What's that?—Over there in the centre?" The speaker's voice had suddenly dropped to an excited undertone as he pointed to a couple of small dark marks that peeped above long grass and might have been the ends of a broken branch.
Alf stared keenly for a few moments.
"I thought I saw them move——"
"So did I. Wait a minute and we'll make sure."
Keeping as still as statues, the boys waited in silence with both pairs of eyes steadily fixed upon the dark objects, and the pulses of each gave a sudden jump, for then the points moved and sank among the long grass.
"Antelope! Those are horns!" decided Alf, to which Bob returned, with a sly dig at his chum's ribs—
"'Horns?' Antlers, you old duffer! We're not hunting cows!"
"Same thing," was the retort. "Horns or antlers both mean deer in these parts." Next the boy gave a slight start. "Say! I thought I heard the branches moving above my head!"
The young hunters turned to look upwards among the dense leaves of a gigantic maple tree whose lower branches were matted with twining convolvulus and other wild creepers.
"A bird or a chipmunk," was Bob's decision. "In any case, whatever it is, this antelope comes first. We are both at windward, though I guess he hasn't scented us yet on account of the long grass. But I think it would be better if we got round to the lee-side and waited for him to rise."
"How would it be if I were to stay here, in case he comes this way?" Alf suggested. "You could take the rifle——"
"A good idea. No, you keep the rifle," amended Bob, falling in with the suggestion. "If I get to lee, I'll be near enough to do damage with the breech-loader. If I fail, you'll have the longer sight with the rifle."
"All right," said Holden. "I'll wait just where I am behind this red willow. I'll not fire until I'm certain that your gun is out of it."
"Good. I'm off," responded Bob, and immediately he started a cautious creeping journey in the shelter of the bush, in hopes of reaching the lee-side of the slough without attracting the attention of the animal that was apparently resting in innocent bliss among the cool blue grass.
During his silent guard Alf a second time thought that he heard a rustling above his head. But, following former experience, he thought that the sound was due to nothing more than a flying squirrel at the most, and he did not allow his eyes to be diverted from the spot where the signs of the antelope had last been seen.
By and by he at last caught sight of his chum. Bob had reached the farther end of the oval slough, and had risen to show himself. He waved his arm to announce his position before creeping down to the grass. Holden answered the signal, and rose to be ready for emergencies. But, as he moved his right foot, he stepped upon something soft, whereupon he was startled by a cry like that of a kitten. He gave a swift glance downwards, and saw that he had inadvertently trodden on something small and furry which was now expressing pain by means of shrill infantile wails.
But his attention was immediately diverted by the sight of a dark body starting up from the long grass in the slough. At the same instant he heard the sharp crack of Arnold's gun. Alf darted the butt of his rifle to his shoulder, to be in readiness for an emergency shot; but, before the position was attained, something launched down upon him from the trees—bearing him forwards into the willow bush, while the forest echoed with the snarls of an infuriated wild beast.
THE LONELY CAMP
A lynx may be only a cat, but a cat that is the size of a young tiger, with all a tiger's ferocity, is no pleasant opponent at any time. Add to naturally aggressive tendencies the fact that her baby has cried out in pain, and you have an angry mother-fiend that takes a deal of seeking to find her equal in fierceness.
In this case the lynx had been watching the young hunters with one eye for some time from her shelter among the leaves of the overhanging maple. She had been keeping the other eye upon her offspring, having an idea that the humans might endanger its safety; and, when she heard the cry of pain, she simply dropped from her branch right upon Holden's back, fixing her claws in his coat and snapping furiously at his neck.
Luckily the boy's hunting-coat was of tough buckskin, and when the lynx set her teeth in the collar she imagined that she was wreaking vengeance upon flesh and blood. And the sound she made was enough to chill the marrow.
Arnold had heard the scream and his chum's cry of surprise at the sudden assault. But he did not understand it at first. He surmised vaguely that it was nothing more than sympathetic rejoicing at his successful shot that had toppled a fine buck antelope in the grass.
However, second thoughts quickly dispelled the first surmise, for he heard Holden calling upon him in evident trouble.
"Bob! Come quickly! There's something on my back, and I can't get at it!"
Bob dashed into the long grass as the shortest route. But before he had crossed the slough Alf had managed to free himself from one sleeve of his coat, and had got the lynx beneath him.
Now it was a hand-to-hand fight. The claws of the animal seemed to be everywhere. They struck with lightning swiftness, and the teeth snapped like steel gins. In fact, the boy's opponent was simply a mass of fur and claws—nothing that could be gripped, but everything that could wound.
"Don't shoot!" exclaimed Alf, as his friend appeared with gun half raised in his hands. "You can't get a clean shot at her—ugh! the brute! She's clawed my shoulder!"
It was a fierce struggle while it lasted.
Hot and panting, Alf fought to get a grip of the creature's throat. She, on her part, seemed to divine his purpose, and battled successfully to prevent him.
The combatants rolled over. The lynx was uppermost, and she made a vicious snap at the boy's face. But the quick head-turn of a trained boxer avoided that snap, and the sharp white teeth met in the lad's coat collar, slightly grazing his neck.
Alf gave a cry of pain.
That was too much for Bob, who snatched his hunting-knife from its sheath, and threw himself upon the enemy.
One plunge of the blade in the animal's side made it yell like a thing possessed. Then Bob dug his thumbs into the lynx's neck and pressed his fingers into its throat, pulling towards him with all his might, to drag the animal from his friend.
The knife was still sticking in the wound, and as the lynx felt another enemy above her, she momentarily turned her attention to the one above, while she struck with her claws to deliver herself from the fingers that were choking her.
That was Alf's chance. He plucked at the hunting-knife, and plunged it into the wild animal with three rapid thrusts.
Then followed another scream more wild and blood-curdling than the rest. It was a death-cry; for in a moment more Bob stood up, holding a limp body by the neck.
Holden slowly rose from his bed of broken willows, and he grinned as he regarded his clothes—especially the jacket, that hung from his left arm like the evening dress of a Weary Willie.
"Rather the worse for wear and tear!" he remarked with comical ruefulness.
"Which? The clothes or yourself?" questioned Bob, as he threw the lynx's carcase to one side.
"I guess it's the clothes more than anything else. There's a lot of blood about, but that's the lynx's more than mine."
In truth the lad was a strange spectacle, for hardly an inch of his clothes had not been visited by claws or teeth. The boy himself was covered with dust and dirt, while crimson patches of blood completed a picture that was both humorous and pathetic.
Fortunately, both the boys were able to look at the matter from the former point of view. Physical damage was not severe. There was a scratch on Alf's shoulder. Arnold examined it carefully, but decided that no danger was likely to follow, since the claws had passed through the leather jacket before touching the flesh. As a precaution against blood-poisoning, he insisted upon sucking the wound, after which he bound it with a handkerchief.
"That will be all right, I expect," he said, as the operation was completed. "I don't think we need worry about the other scratches."
"There would have been more—worse ones, probably—if you hadn't turned up," said Alf. "I couldn't get at the beast any way. She seemed to have claws like a porcupine's quills."
"And she knew jolly well how to use them. Do you think she's worth skinning?"
The dead lynx was examined.
"I don't think the hide is worth the trouble," commented Holden. "It's a bit ragged in any case, and the hunting-knife did not improve it. But I'll take the tail as a memento. What about the antelope?"
"Oh, I got him all right. He's lying somewhere in the grass."
"Good!" exclaimed Alf delightedly. He had soon recovered from the exhaustion of the fight. "That will surprise the paters when they return to grub. And say! I'm as hungry as a hawk. Let's get back to camp. It must be getting on for noon by this time."
"Half-past ten. That's all," remarked Bob, as he looked at his watch. "Time drags when the appetite's healthy. I vote we leave the antelope where it is for the present, and shoot a few chicken for dinner. It would be a pity for us to try skinning the animal. We might spoil it altogether. I dare say father will do it for us afterwards."
"What about wolves?" questioned Alf.
"Yes, I hadn't thought of them. But I don't think there's much chance of wolves coming in the daytime. It would be safe enough until night."
"Right you are," agreed Alf. "First for the tail of my lynx, and then a bee-line for the camp."
Retracing their path by the buffalo trail, the boys were soon on the home journey again. Five prairie chicken were bagged on the way, and soon the hunters were once more at the camp-ground.
Of course Holden's first move was to strip, plunge into the river, and then robe himself in garments that were less like a rag-picker's bundle. Meantime, Arnold set to work lighting a fire and preparing the chicken for roasting on wooden spits, as their camping experience had taught them.
By midday the meal was in readiness. The birds were cooked, "biscuits" were baked in the camp-oven, the fragrant smell of coffee was issuing from a billy-tin, and all preparations completed to welcome the elder hunters.
But time went past, and there was no sign of a canoe on the river.
"I wonder if they have missed their way?" remarked Alf, to whom the waiting was a trial, considering inside calls and tempting odours.
"I don't think that's likely," said Bob. "Your dad and mine are both old backwoodsmen. I'm beginning to think something has happened——"
"Possibly. But of course we can't tell. But it isn't like them to be late when they promised to be back by noon."
"But then, if an accident has happened to one, the other could always come back and let us know," Alf answered; and his chum returned—
"That's just what I've been thinking. I don't want to frighten you, old man, but I can't help thinking that something has gone wrong with both."
"Perhaps it's the canoe. It might have got damaged. They were exploring new water, you know."
"As likely as not. In that case they'll come back by land, and that would take some time, as, of course, they would go much quicker by water. We'll wait a little longer, and if they don't arrive we'd better have our grub. They'll turn up later."
The boys waited as patiently as possible, but ultimately, with no sign of the travellers, they were obliged to dine alone; though the meal was not eaten with customary cheerfulness, for both the boys shared forebodings of troubles to come.
The day wore on, and still no signs of the wanderers, while the anxiety of the boys rapidly increased. And when night came, without bringing any news to allay concern, they then began to decide that some serious accident must have taken place.
Until late into the hours of darkness the two lads sat by the camp-fire, starting hopefully at each sound from the forest or river—ready to believe that any whisper of Nature must be the sound of a reassuring messenger.
How different it was from their usual little camp-fire gatherings! At such times they were wont to loll about while reciting the many incidents of the day just gone, and planning fresh exploits for the morrow. Even last night they had thus sat and planned the expedition that had ended in adding a heavier gloom to the night.
The fire-flies flickered their tiny lamps, the night-hawks shrieked as they swooped from the heavens, the owls hooted their dismal cries, and the wolves wailed in the distance as they fought over the remains of the antelope that had been left to them.
It must have been near midnight when Bob broke an unusually long spell of silence.
"Well, old boy," he said, with forced brightness, "I guess the best thing we can do is to turn in. They won't be back to-night, that's certain."
"Yet—one might come. I wouldn't like to be asleep if—if there was any call, you know."
"Then we'll take it turn about—two hours asleep, two hours watch," was the elder boy's practical suggestion. "Besides, very likely we are worrying ourselves without need. Anything may have happened to keep them from returning—not even an accident, as we've been supposing. One never knows what may take place in the backwoods, and—and perhaps they were forced to wait till morning."
Bob knew, and Alf knew as well, that it was but a plucky attempt to look at fears in the best light—an effort to convince both against their conviction that their evil forebodings were groundless.
But Alf was not easily convinced.
"I am sure that nothing except accident could have happened to prevent at least your father or mine from returning to camp. They would know that we should be worried. And no matter how far they went by canoe in the morning, there has been plenty of time to walk the distance. I can't help thinking that they came upon tracks of the moose, as they wanted, and——"
"Hush," interrupted Bob kindly. "Don't let your imagination run away with you like that, old man. Besides, you know what good shots both our fathers are. They know the ways of most big game. No; I can't think that you are right. Such an accident might happen to one—even the finest trapper; but, to both—believe me, it's out of the question. Now, turn in like a good chap. I'll take first watch."
"You'll wake me as soon as the two hours are up?" pressed Alf, reluctant to leave the watch when he might have first sign of news.
"Yes, I'll waken you. Don't worry about that. You are tired as a dog as it is—what with fighting lynxes and other excitements. In two hours you'll find that I'll be too ready for sleep to let you doze a second over time."
FRIENDS OR FOES?
So sudden had been the attack when the two men were snatched from the waters of the treacherous Athabasca, that they were too confused to realise what was taking place. No signs of any prowlers had been previously evident, though possibly the fact that danger from that quarter was unconsidered might have secluded what would have been discernible by suspicious eyes.
Moreover, the men were so exhausted by the adventures through which they had just passed that they were only able to offer feeble resistance, and, by the time their scattered faculties were collected, they found themselves lying bound in the centre of a chattering throng of Indians.
Such conduct was certainly surprising in these days, when the redmen are a peaceable people who have learned to regard the pale-faces as well-meaning friends, and have long since buried the hatchet of tribal feuds.
"What on earth can be the meaning of this?" Arnold questioned of his companion, who lay at his side.
"It's certainly extraordinary," the other man said. "Yet they don't seem particularly aggressive."
"No. They offered no indignities, such as would have been our fortune in olden days. But did you notice how that old warrior examined the knots himself? He seems to be a sort of head-man. I can remember a smattering of a few dialects, and I am sure I heard him say to the braves: 'Not too tight. Do not hurt the pale-faces, but keep them firm.'"
"It's certainly mysterious," said Holden. "Perhaps we have arrived in the middle of some sacred feast. Or perhaps we've come upon them when they were about to carry out some form of lawlessness."
Arnold shook his head decidedly.
"No. There are no signs of feasts. As for the latter, these are Dacotahs—one of the most law-abiding tribes. We'll have to look further than that for an explanation. Of this I am certain: we are in no immediate danger. That they are chattering about us is evident from these side-glances; but there is nothing hostile in the looks."
"More like awe than hostility."
"Just what I was thinking. But see! That old warrior is coming our way again. We'll learn something this time, perhaps."
As Arnold spoke, an old Indian was seen to step from the chattering crowd. He was tall, well built, and still a fine specimen of manhood, though his face bore traces of many years.
That he received the homage due to rank as well as to years was made plain by the respectful way that a path was cleared, so that he might pass through the group of twenty or thirty redskins. He carried himself with the air of one who commands respect as his right.
All the same, though there was no hesitation in the steady stride with which the Indian approached the captives, nor in the stern set of his face, there was something in his eyes that indicated awe in the heart. The other Indians barely attempted to conceal their feelings. Throughout there was the expression that seemed to say (to put it in plain English): "Plucky of you, old chap. But better you than me!"
Reaching the Englishmen, who were bound hands and legs, so that they were unable to adopt any position unaided except sitting or lying down, the old warrior stopped at a couple of yards' distance.
Drawing his blanket tightly round his figure, he folded his arms and thus addressed the strangers in excellent English—
"The tomahawk has been buried between the pale-faces and the redman for countless suns, and for many suns their hands have met as the hands of brothers. And the heart of Swift Arrow is sore within him this day, for the hands of the Dacotahs have been raised in their might against those whose faces shine as those of our pale-face brothers."
The old man paused, and Arnold jerked in—
"Then why on earth raise them? We did not bid you truss us up with these rawhide thongs?"
The Indian shook his head.
"The ears of Swift Arrow are old. They understand not as when he was a brave."
"Your idiom is too much for him, old man," said Holden quietly. "Try him with something easier. Better not let him know that we can speak Indian, though. It might be to our advantage later to know without being known."
"Quite right," answered the elder man. Then he addressed the Indian again.
"We would ask, O Swift Arrow, for what good purpose your braves have bound us. We have been in peril from the waters; we seek the friendship of your land. Is this the way the Dacotahs treat their white brothers when they seek the friendship of your shores?"
The Indian felt the reproach, and his eyes fell for a moment with shame.
"The pale-face speaks words that go right into the heart like burning arrows. But Swift Arrow knows well that all things must be fulfilled. The sun must come and the darkness follow. Then darkness come, and after—the sun again. All things must be as Manito will."
The Englishmen looked at one another with puzzled expressions.
"I wonder what he means by that?" questioned Holden. "'All things must be fulfilled.' What can that have to do with us?"
The Indian heard the question and understood.
"All things must be as Manito will," he repeated; and Arnold, catching swiftly at the words, demanded sharply—
"Is it willed that we be bound, as the Dacotahs of old bound their captives for burning?"
This was evidently a point of view that had not occurred to the redskin, for he was at a loss for an immediate reply. He looked first at one man and then at the other, after which he repeated half aloud, half to himself, as if he were conning the exact meaning of the words—
"When the moon is round, and they rise out of the silver waters—— "
"Yes, yes!" interrupted Arnold, and speaking at guesswork. "That is true. We know that—'out of silver waters'—but is anything said about bonds?"
The old man shook his head. He was deeply puzzled.
"The pale-face speaks true, and it may be that the redman is wrong. There are many trails, but only one that leads to good hunting-ground. How shall the redman's eyes see right?"
Then Arnold assumed an air of indifference as he remarked carelessly, though not without a certain sneer in his tone—
"Does Swift Arrow ask a question of his white brothers, or does he talk as old squaws chatter—foolish words like running water? We could tell him much, but it is well to know with whom one speaks. Words may be wasted as rain upon rocks."
"Let the pale-face speak," returned the Indian with dignity, though it was plain that he was moved by the sneering tones.
"Then listen. We who came 'out of the silver waters,' as you put it, can tell you much. But how can we speak in bonds? The pale-face is a chief. He will not speak as a slave to his master."
But the old man shook his head.
"It cannot be so, lest you return to the waters from whence you came——"
"Oh, that's it, is it?" exclaimed Arnold, with sudden enlightenment. "If that's all, it's easily settled. Look here—you know that when a pale-face says he will do a thing he will surely do it?"
"My white brother's word is ever truth."
"And when we say we will not do a thing, you know that we will keep our promise?"
The Indian bowed assent.
"Well, look here! If you will remove these cords, my friend and I will promise not to fight and not to run away without telling you first that we intend to do so. We will go with you where you will. We are not foxes to hide behind bushes; we are no half-breeds to hide behind forked words. I have spoken."
The old man was immediately impressed by this view of the situation. He retired for a few minutes to consult with his friends, and afterwards solemnly returned, accompanied by a couple of young men.
"My white brother has spoken well," he said. "The redman will take the word of his white brother." Then he turned to the braves, gave a brief order in Indian, and the next moment Arnold and Holden stood up free.
"What next, I wonder?" questioned the latter, as he looked inquiringly at Swift Arrow.
He was not kept long in doubt, for the old man called the Indians together, signing to the Englishmen to take places in the centre of the group. Afterwards the company started on a trail that led away from the lake through the woods to the north-east.
 Manito = God.
LOST IN THE FOREST
Morning came, but it brought no news of the absent men. There now seemed to be no possible doubt that some accident of a serious nature had overtaken both, and the boys were at their wits' end to know what steps to take.
There had been but one canoe for the outing, so it was not possible to follow up the river course in pursuit of explanation. The only course was to take the journey on foot. That would be a tedious process, seeing that the river twined in some parts like a corkscrew. Two or three miles might be walked, and yet only half the distance might be covered as the crow flies. However, there seemed nothing else to be done. It was impossible to remain idly at the camp waiting for what might turn up. Meantime, their services might be urgently needed, and delay might only increase the necessity.
"I vote we pack up our outfit in the tents and set off on the chance of finding their tracks," said Bob. "We can take a good supply of cartridges with us, in case we are delayed and need to forage for food."
"It's my opinion that we may have to go a good long way," was Holden's view. "It would be as well to take a small axe and one or two things for possible camping. A pannikin would be useful——"
"And a small coil of rope. You can never go far in the bush without finding a use for rope."
"But suppose they come back in our absence?"
"Ah, that's well thought of," Arnold agreed. "It might mean starting out to hunt for us. We'll leave a note explaining things."
As soon as breakfast was over, the boys made their preparations for departure. They filled knapsacks with such supplies as they deemed necessary to meet the circumstances and possible emergencies. They packed away the loose articles of the camp outfit, and pinned a note against the flap of the tent to explain the cause of their absence to any person who might reach the ground before their return. Then they set out bravely on their quest.
It was their first intention to follow the course of the river, even though their journey might be considerably lengthened thereby. But very soon it was found that such tactics were, in the main, impracticable. In some parts the banks were steep and rocky; in others they were so thickly clothed with bush that a pathway was only possible after the axe had cut its way. The latter was particularly the case when a certain great bend of the Athabasca was reached, so the chums determined to attempt a short cut across the loop by plunging straight through the forest.
"It seems easy enough," Alf had said. "We are going about due north, I think. The bend goes due west, but as the main part of the river flows north according to the map, if we go straight on we are bound to strike the water again."
"Right, old man," responded Bob. "In any case, the paters could not be so near home, or they would have had plenty of time to get back, even by crawling. So it would be almost wasting energy to trudge so far out of the way."
It is one thing to say "go north," it is quite another matter to hold a steady course in a forest. The Indian can do it; likewise the trapper. They know the signs of the compass such as Nature has provided for them. They know on which side of the trees certain moss is to be found, and they know the signs that the blizzard wind leaves behind it when it has passed on its way from arctic zones. To such as have been initiated into the higher mysteries of woodcraft from their earliest years, a due course to any set point of the compass is second nature. But those who are unlearned in the art soon find out their mistake when they put their inexperience into practice. The sun is a pointing finger to the craftsman—a disastrous lure to the ignorant.
Bob and Alf pursued their way pluckily. Determined to keep a steady course, the tomahawk had to be requisitioned at frequent intervals in order to clear a passage through the thorns and binding creepers that impeded the way.
At any other time the adventure would have been one of sheer delight, for who would not have enjoyed exploring unknown land—probably land, too, where only the Indian's foot and the feet of the wild creatures of the forest had ever pressed?
Once or twice the boys saw the great velvet eyes of an antelope peeping at them through a screen of maple leaves. Again the scrub would rustle, as a fox crouched down to hide his skulking body from the strangers' sight. The cat-birds were calling their sad messages to each other among the maple leaves, and lively little chipmunks would utter their shrill piping sounds of warning to their friends as they started before the advance of the young explorers. Yes, it was an experience to fill the heart with joy when any ordinary call inspired the venture spirit.
On this occasion, however, neither of the boys had eyes for such pleasant sights, or ears for such sounds as are the delight of the trapper's life. Their minds were too full of anxiety to permit room for ordinary enjoyment, and they hardly spoke as they pressed forward in single file.
In this way they continued for two hours or more. At intervals they would take it in turn to act as leader and handle the axe; but they did not allow a pause in the pushing forward, until at last Bob called a halt, feeling that a rest had been earned.
"We ought to be getting near the river again by this time," he remarked.
"That's what I've been thinking," said Alf. "You see, it was such a sharp westward turn that the river took after we crossed the ford, that I don't think we can be far off now. It must come round to the east again."
"Yet there's no sound of it——"
"That is what's puzzling me. We've covered a couple of miles at the least."
"And done enough work for four," added Bob. "However, let's get to work again. The sooner there, the sooner this job will be over."
"Thank goodness it looks pretty clear ahead now—more pine trees and less of the beastly scrub," said Holden.
Once more the boys pressed forward; but, although they continued the march for quite another hour, apparently they were as far off as ever from the river, for they neither sighted water nor came within hearing distance of the object of their search.
Again they stopped and faced one another with perplexed expressions.
"I'll tell you what it is, old man—we've missed the way," said Alf.
But Bob was never ready to admit defeat of any sort.
"Nonsense," he said. "We've kept a fairly straight course."
"Or thought we have. To my mind, if we'd kept straight on we ought to have reached the river by this time. As it is, there is no sign of it."
"That's true. Except for being free from the brushwood, we might almost be where we started. It looks much the same—no slope or any other sign to suggest that we are nearer to the water."
"What's to be done?"
"I see nothing for it but to go back again and follow the river, as we were doing in the first place. We were fools to think of taking short cuts. The other way may have seemed longer, but it would have been a deal shorter in the long-run."
Both the boys were feeling rather fagged by this time, for their trudge had been of an exceptionally fatiguing nature. But each kept the thought to himself, and cheerfully stepped out with the intention of retracing his steps. It was a disappointment and irksome enough; yet there was no help for it, and the situation had to be faced pluckily.
But all the best intentions seemed to go wrong that day, and it did not take an hour's marching before Bob stopped and turned to his chum with a crestfallen countenance.
"Look here, old man, I don't know what you're thinking, but my own opinion is——"
"That we've missed the path; that we are lost——"
"I'm afraid that is the truth of it. You see, we've never come to any of the places that we had to clear with the tomahawk."
"Then what's to be done?" Alf questioned.
Arnold took out his watch and looked at it.
"What's to be done? Grub. That's the first thing. After that we can make fresh plans. It's noon now, and we can do nothing while we're hungry. Besides—well, to tell the truth, I'm feeling a little tired."
"I, too," responded Alf, with a faint smile. "I didn't want to say so while I thought you wished to go on——"
"Just my own idea," Bob returned, with a slight laugh, as he lowered himself to a soft place under the shadow of a large maple. "So we'll rest here and have a bite. We'll feel better afterwards."
The little camp was made, and a meal was enjoyed from the contents of Bob's haversack—biscuits and cold venison. Neither of the lads thought it was worth while to trouble about shooting and cooking a meal just then. They would reserve that till night, in the event of their not being able to find Crane Creek again.
After a considerable rest, the march was resumed for the third time. On this occasion, however, the process was varied. Their first purpose was, of course, to find the path by which they had come; so at Bob's suggestion they carefully proceeded to walk in a circle—checking the route by notching the trees, and taking wider courses each time a circuit was completed.
But even these means were ineffective. Circle after circle was made, and still the earlier track was undiscovered. All the afternoon was thus occupied, and, when evening came, the boys were footsore and weary—glad to throw themselves down on the first piece of springy grass, too tired even to trouble about preparing food.
The disappointment was beyond words. They had started out in the morning full of cheerful hopes of being able to render aid to their parents who (they felt sure) were in need of assistance. And now, not only was this purpose frustrated, but they themselves were in that terrible plight of being lost in the backwoods—a hundred miles or more from the haunts of white men, with nothing but plucky hearts to help them, and limited ammunition to supply bodily needs.
The sun passed over their heads and sunk somewhere beyond the forest. They could not tell where it vanished, for the camp was amid such dense surroundings that they could hardly see beyond a hundred yards through the branches.
With dusk, and after a sparse meal, it was decided to light a fire, more for the sake of the cheering sight than the need for warmth.
Bob was the first to rise, and as he stood upright he was heard to give vent to a decided—
"What's the matter?" grunted Alf, as he also proceeded to rise.
"Matter?" repeated his chum. "Nothing; only I have stuck my head into a cloud of moths—big ones and little ones. There seems to be a regular party going on under this tree."
"It's that luminous patch in the tree that we've been sitting under," said Holden, at the same time drawing his friend's attention to what looked like a patch of light on the trunk of the maple about five feet from the ground.
"That's curious," remarked Bob, bending forward to examine the spot. "I wonder what it can be? It looks like the light on one of those luminous match-boxes that are made so that you can see them in the dark."
"They say that rotten wood sometimes has that effect——"
"But this tree is quite sound. And see! There's another the same on that tree to the right!"
It was certainly strange, and the boys picked up their guns and sauntered over to examine the next trunk, on which they found the same peculiar light attracting an equally numerous lot of moths of many descriptions.
"There's another!" exclaimed Alf, pointing ahead of him.
By this time the boys were quite excited by their discovery, and when Alf suddenly drew attention to the further discovery that the marked trees were almost in a straight line, their excitement was still further stirred.
"It's the strangest thing I ever heard of—in the natural history way," the younger lad said. "To find all these trees marked on the same side, and all in a straight line—why, it would puzzle the brains of anybody to explain it!"
Without any decided plan, and more out of curiosity than from any other motive, the chums proceeded from one tree to another, examining each as they reached it, and marvelling all the time at what they decided as being one of the most remarkable freaks of Nature that they had ever heard about.
Then they became aware of a strange sound that reached them from no great distance through the trees. It was a most remarkable sound—not that of any animal with which they were familiar; indeed, it was not a sound that suggested any beast or bird.
"What on earth is it?" questioned Alf, as the weird wail sighed through the forest.
"It sounds like a harmonium in distress!" replied Bob, with a slight laugh. And even as he spoke the wail was repeated, though this time could be distinctly heard the voice of some person struggling to articulate to some musical accompaniment the words—
"Rool Britanny! Britanny rool waves! Britons ne-vaire—ne-vaire—ne-vaire Shall be sla-aves!"
THE MEDICINE MAN
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 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 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 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, 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 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 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. 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 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 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 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 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 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 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!"
THE FRIEND IN NEED
Even considering the serious nature of their quest and the plight they were in, it was not possible for the boys to refrain from laughing when they recognised Britain's national song as caricatured by the singer. But they had sufficient wisdom to control most of their amusement to "inward laughing." It is not always safe in the backwoods to announce your presence too suddenly where strangers are concerned—especially strangers who are not of the white skin.
"That's a rum sort of music to come upon a hundred miles from nowhere," remarked Bob, with a grin, to his chum.
"Let's hope that it comes from a throat that has something of civilisation about it," said Alf.
"It doesn't sound quite like a white man. That 'ne-vaire' is more French accent than English—probably a half-breed."
"What do you think we ought to do?"
"Investigate. We've got no choice. We're lost; that's certain enough. What's more, there seems to be very little chance of finding our own trail back to the camp."
"That's true enough," Alf assented. "But suppose we come upon a camp of half-breeds, as you suggested? I've heard that they're not the best of friends to white people in out-of-the-way places."
Arnold nodded in agreement.
"I dare say that's true. But, at the same time, most yarns of the kind have usually got large bits of ornamental stuff stuck round the facts. We'll have to take our chance of falling in with friends or foes."
"Right-away. If you're ready, I'm ready also," said Alf promptly. "It will be a strange thing if 'Rule Britannia' leads Britons into a mess instead of out of one."
Having thus determined what course to pursue, the two boys began to creep cautiously through the bush towards the locality from whence still proceeded the music that was being repeated with all the diligence of some one who was determined to learn his lesson thoroughly.
The night was now quite dark, but presently the chums were able to distinguish the flickering of a camp-fire at no great distance before them.
Taking every care not to betray their presence by any careless footstep, they twined a path with all the success that a professional tracker would have admired. Then, penetrating a more than usually dense portion of the bush, the young explorers found themselves right on the edge of the encampment, and the picture that they then discovered was one that was surely calculated to drive away all melancholy thoughts and feelings of fatigue, for the time being at least.
Seated on the end of a water-keg, in front of a moderate-sized "A" tent, was a man of gigantic size whose black hair stood up from his head as if he were constantly seeing ghosts, and whose equally black beard streamed down his breast like a cataract of ink. He was dressed in a blue shirt, corduroy trousers protected with cowboy "shaps," and heavy top-boots. In his hands was an accordion, at his side sat a collie dog, while in front of him, with his back to the fire—standing with his hands behind his back in the attitude of a schoolboy repeating a lesson—was a tousle-headed half-breed, whom he of the black beard was addressing in encouraging tones—
"Noo then, ma callant, we'll just be having that last line ower again. It's no' bad as an eemitation o' a cat left oot on a winter's night; but it's no' just what I call 'ceevilised'; no' just quite that—yet."
Then the accordion sounded a dismal chord suggestive of an attack of asthma, the half-breed reattacked the "ne-vaire, ne-vaire, ne-vaire" in a manner that made up in energy what it lacked in music, and the collie raised his head to add a long-drawn wail to the concert.
"That's a wee bit better," was the player's verdict at the finish. "I'm thinking we'll make a ceevilised creature oot o' you in time, Haggis." Then the speaker turned to the dog. "As for you, Bannock, you're a bit oot o' tune at times. But it's no' that bad for a doggie. It's good to be aye trying to do our best——"
"Hear! hear!" shouted Bob, whose interested amusement had quite banished his caution.
The effect of the boy's applause was electric. The two men started. The half-breed snatched up a gun that was leaning against a tree near by; one hand of the bearded man deposited the musical instrument upon the ground as his right picked up a handy rifle; while Bannock, the dog, crouched down with bristling hair and deep growling.
"Come oot and show yourself, whoever ye be!" commanded the master, as he raised himself to his great height, with rifle in readiness and eyes staring towards that part of the bush where the chums stood. "Come forward this instant, or I'll bore as many holes in your body as there are farthings in a pound!"
In obedience to the gentle invitation, and not in the least nervous, now that they knew who the musicians were, the boys immediately made their appearance.
"There's no need to be afraid——" began Holden reassuringly, when he was interrupted by a huge guffaw of derision.
"Afraid! And what for shall Skipper Mackintosh be afraid? Unless it's mosquitoes, there's no man or beast in Canada that'll turn a hair on his hide." Then, seeing the lads as they approached into the firelight, the man immediately changed his tone of address as he also altered the threatening pose of his rifle. "What! A pair o' laddies?" he exclaimed in astonishment, and Bob replied—
"Neither of whom is particularly anxious to be riddled with a pound's worth of farthing bullets!"
But the words had barely passed the boy's lips before the rifle had been dropped to the ground and the man had sprung forward excitedly to grab a hand of each boy in his great fists.
"Faix! but this is a fine sight for sore eyes!" he exclaimed, as he vigorously pumped the arms up and down. "I've no' seen a white face (barring a trader's, and that was ower dirty to call it 'white') this twelvemonth past. I'm right glad to see you!"
"And I guess we're jolly glad to see you," returned Alf. "It's a treat, but—speaking for myself, I really want to use my hand again. It'll be jelly in a few more seconds."
"And mine too!" laughed Bob, who could not help wincing at the vigorous form of the welcome.
The Scotsman immediately released his severe grasp.
"Sakes! But I'm that glad to see you, laddies, I feel just like squeezing for another hour. I suppose, noo, that I'm no' just dreaming? You're no' by chance just twa o' them muckle moths that's come into my dream in a make-believe?"
"We're human, sure enough," Arnold laughed in reply, and Alf added—
"Terribly human we are, for we've lost our way in the forest, and we're beastly tired as well as hungry."
"Lost—tired—hungry?" repeated Mackintosh. "That has a human sound—terribly human, as you say." Then he turned towards the half-breed, who had been standing an amazed spectator of the scene. "Did you hear that, Haggis?" he demanded. "Did you hear that—'hungry and tired'?"
"Haggis hear," was the quiet reply of the native, to which the Scot retorted angrily—
"You heard? And yet, one meenit after, I see you standing there like a daft gowk instead o' hustling for food as fast as your legs can move you? Ma conscience! But you tak' a deal of ceevilising! You dinna ken the first meaning o' the word 'hospitality.' Off wi' you!"
There was no need to repeat the order, for the half-breed immediately disappeared within the tent, and the almost simultaneous rattling sound of tin-ware was evidence of his haste to supply the want.
Mackintosh then turned to the boys.
"Noo then, rest yourselves, laddies. Sit doon by the fire, and you'll soon have a bit o' something to grind between your molars. Haggis is slow to understand, but he's quick enough when he kens what's wanted."
Not unwillingly, the chums soon stretched themselves in comfortable positions beside the camp-fire at either side of their eccentric host. Bannock, however, still eyed the strangers with suspicion, so Mackintosh was forced to introduce the dog formally to each boy in turn, at which the intelligent animal extended a paw with all the air of one who is accustomed to polite society.
"He's a fine chap," explained the Scot. "There's no' a single thing that he canna do (according to the leemitations o' Nature) except speak. And even that he manages to do in his ain way. Noo, come here, Bannock, and lie down while oor freends spin us their yarn. They've no' told us yet who they are, where they come frae, nor where they're going."
"That's a yarn that's quickly told," remarked Bob. The half-breed by this time had returned from the tent with generous supplies of cold deer, damper, and wild berries, after serving which he placed a pan on the fire in preparation for coffee. "It's a yarn that won't take long in the telling, though, if you'll excuse me, I'll eat while I speak."
"Eat awa'," assented the other, while he lit a corn-cob pipe to satisfy his own immediate wants. "There's plenty mair where that came frae, and the coffee will soon be ready!"
Arnold then launched into a brief recital of his and his chum's adventures, beginning with the departure of their fathers on the previous morning, and concluding—
"So all this afternoon we've been wandering about trying to find a path back to our camp, so as to start afresh by the river course. But it was no use."
"And we might have been wandering still if it had not been for a strange accident that led us here," added Alf, at which remark Mackintosh questioned—
"And what might that be? The soond o' Haggis's nightingale voice?"
"No—at least, not in the first place. We heard that later. What first started us in this direction was a curious sort of light that we discovered on one of the trees. And while we were examining it we noticed that there were other lights on other trees in a straight line with one another. Strange, wasn't it?"
"Very," returned the Scotsman dryly. "Very strange."
"It would be a good thing for a naturalist," said Bob. "I noticed that there was a perfect cloud of moths flying about wherever there was a patch of light. A collector of moths and butterflies would reap a harvest. I suppose you've noticed the lights as well as we?"
"H'm—yes—considering that I painted the trees mysel' this afternoon," was the reply. "It's an invention o' my own. I'm what you call a collector of moths and butterflies. An entomologist is a shorter way o' putting it. Well, there's many folks stick to treacle—I mean, stick to the auld-fashioned way o' putting dabs of treacle and speerit on trees to attract the nocturnal creatures. That's all very fine and good. But you canna carry gallons o' treacle on a tramp like this, when your whole outfit must be packed on one pony. So says I to mysel': 'Moths are attracted by light; I must invent a composeetion o' phosphorus to take the place o' treacle.' And those lights that you found on yon trees are the result."
"And a splendid idea it is!" exclaimed Alf, who had also done his little share of treacling at school. "Is it a success?"
"Magnificent. I've found more moths than were known to exist in the West. I'm thinking that I'll open the eyes o' the Royal Edinburgh Entomological General Natural History Exchange Society when I get back again after my journeys. But——" The speaker here paused in his enthusiasm, remarking seriously, "I'm thinking there's other matters o' mair importance before us the noo than moths. Your faithers went doon the Athabasca, you said?"
"Yes; in a canoe," said Bob.
Mackintosh shook his head ominously.
"That's bad. I suppose they'd never been there before—indeed, it was no' possible, or they'd never have made the attempt yesterday."
"Is it—dangerous?" questioned Holden, in an undertone of dread, for the man's voice conveyed no small impression of the risks the voyagers had run. "We had not thought of danger in the river. We only thought of moose."
Mackintosh grunted uneasily.
"The river is more treacherous than any moose. There's a terrible narrow bight atween cliffs where it runs like lightning, and then shoots in a waterfall into the Silver Lake. Man! I've seen great trunks o' pine giants flung through yon opening like wee arrows a hundred feet in the air afore they touched water again."
"Then a canoe——"
"If it reached so far in safety it would shoot likewise."
"You think it possible that the canoe might pass the gully unharmed?" Bob then questioned. It was always his nature to struggle for the brightest view, and the man's answer was somewhat in the same spirit.
"It's no' the way o' Skipper Mackintosh to find trouble until trouble finds him. He's been in a' the back corners o' Europe, Africa, India, China, and America; and, if he learned nothing mair from his travels, he learned this: troubles are easier conquered when you meet them wi' a firm lip at the proper time. But the man that moans before he kens what he's moaning about—well, it's little strength he's got left when the fight really begins."
"Yet if, as you say, the Athabasca is so dangerous——" began Alf, when he was again interrupted with kindly roughness.
"If? Laddie, laddie, are you forgetting that there's a Hand that could guide the frailest birch-bark safely through Niagara itsel'? And I doot not that I'm right when I say that it's my opeenion that that same Hand has no' been very far from your faithers in their plight. Does either o' you ken anything o' this by chance?"
As he spoke Mackintosh dived his hand into the hip-pocket of his overalls and produced a white handkerchief which he spread out upon the ground by the fire. The boys bent forward, and immediately Alf exclaimed—
"That's my father's! See! His initials are at the corner. Where did you find it?"
"Not in the Athabasca!" said Mackintosh with quiet triumph. "Haggis and I came upon it this morning a hundred yards from Silver Lake."
"Then that means that they are on shore!" exclaimed Bob with delight at the relief from one anxiety that the evidence of the handkerchief provided.
"Ay. The Athabasca is free from that charge, at any rate. That hanky has no legs to walk by itsel'. It must have been carried. By whom? No' by an Indian, though I ken there's been Indians in the viceenity. If a redskin had found it, he'd have taken better care o' it. And so it's clear to me that one o' your faithers must have dropped it on dry land, and so—so—— Well, you both o' you can have a sound night's rest."
So convincing were the tones in which the man clothed his words that the spirits of the boys were quickly stirred from gloomy anticipations to comparative cheerfulness.
"You've lifted a load from my mind, Mr. Mackintosh," Bob said gratefully, "for of course it is all fairly plain now. As likely as not they passed through that horrible gully, but were too worn out yesterday to start the trudge back to camp. It would be a long way, too, seeing how the river winds."
"In that case, most likely they are back at the camp by this time," suggested Alf. "But they would understand our being away, for they would find the note that we pinned to the tent."
"That's right, laddies. Look for the bright side and you'll always find it," the Scotsman remarked. "But I'm thinking that your reasoning is a wee bit oot in one respect—they have no' gone back yet, else Haggis or I would have seen them. This camp is in the direct natural path from that part o' the Athabasca. My opeenion is that they've fallen in with the Indians—a tribe o' Dacotahs, and peaceable folk they are. It's no' to be expected that the gully could be passed unscathed. So it's likely to me that they're nursing themselves for a day wi' the redskins, after, maybe, sending a brave to your camp to tell you o' it. So to-morrow we'll lose no time in starting for Silver Lake. That's the best plan I can think o'."
"You mean to come with us?" asked Alf.
"What do you take me for—a savage?" was the reproachful return. "Do you think that Skipper Mackintosh is going to allow twa laddies like you to go wandering aboot the backwoods when he can guide you? And when Skipper fails, is there no' the Haggis and Bannock—a pair o' the finest scouts and trackers that ever set foot in bush or prairie? What do you take me for, I'd just like to know?"
"One of the kindest hearts in the world, Mr. Mackintosh," said Bob fervently.
"Bah! Fiddlesticks and porridge-sticks!" was the rough rejoinder, though a pair of eyes were turned kindly enough upon the youths—eyes that glistened in a way that rather suggested the nearness of water. "All a pack o' nonsense! If a man is no' ready to help his fellow-creatures when they need him—well, I'm thinking that he ought to have a pin stuck through his thorax and mounted in a box among my moths, labelled, 'A horrible freak o' Nature.' And I'd have you know, too, that my name is Mackintosh—Skipper Mackintosh. There's no 'Misters' in the backwoods. 'Skipper' is the name that my auld faither gave me to commemorate his discovery o' a new variety of skippers in the entomological world. Mind that, and—and good-night to you, laddies. Good-night, and God bless the pair o' you."
NIGHT IN THE WIGWAM
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 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 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.