Read CHAPTER XXVI of The Watchers of the Plains A Tale of the Western Prairies , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

THE SUN-DANCE

The pale moon shone down upon a strange scene.

Four great fires marked the limits of a wide clearing. And these were set with consummate accuracy at the cardinal points. Superstition demanded this setting.

The ruddy glow threw into uncertain relief the faces and unkempt figures of a vast concourse of men and women gathered, in one great circle, within the boundary limits of the fires. On the faces of all was an expression of fierce revelry. A dark setting completed the picture. Beyond the fires all was shadow, profound, ghostly. The woods in all directions closed in that weird concourse of beings, and even the devilish light of the fires could not relieve the savagery of the scene.

Like the hub of a gigantic wheel, in the midst of the circle stood a cluster of leafless trees, mighty patriarchs, gnarled and twisted, with great overhanging limbs as stout and rugged as only hoary age can make them.

The clearing inside the human circle was empty for a time, but the crowd without was momentarily increasing, augmented by an incessant stream of dusky, silent figures pouring from the adjacent forest depths. As the minutes wore on the human tide slackened; it became broken, finally it ceased altogether. Men, women and children, all the able-bodied inhabitants of the Rosebud Reservation had foregathered, and the significance of the gathering could not be mistaken.

Now a distant murmur comes from out of the blackness of the woods. At first it is low, faint, and without character. But it grows, it gains in power till its raucous din breaks upon the waiting multitude, and immediately a responsive murmur rises from ten thousand voices. Those who hear know the meaning of the discordant noise. The “med’cine” men of the tribe are approaching, chanting airs which accord with their “med’cine,” and serve at the same time to herald the coming of the great Sioux chief, Little Black Fox.

Nearer and nearer, louder and louder. All eyes are upon the black fringe of the forest where the trees no longer have power to obstruct the moonlight. And of a sudden a number of writhing, twisting figures come dancing into view.

They draw nearer to the expectant throng. Necks are craned, eyes are straining to watch the antics so significant to these creatures of superstition. For have not these strange beings power to invoke the spirits, to drive away evil influence from the path of him whose approach they herald?

They reach the clearing; they leap within the human circle. Their painted faces are distorted with the effort of their wild exertions; their befeathered heads are rendered still more hideous by the lurid blending of conflicting lights. Thirty creatures, hardly recognizable as human beings, dance to the accompaniment of a strange crooning of the women onlookers; to the beating of sad-toned drums, and the harsh scraping of stringed instruments. But the dance is marked by a distinct time. It has unmistakable features and figures, and it proceeds to its natural finish which leaves the dancers prostrate upon the ground, with their faces pressed hard into the dusty earth. It is a wild scene.

But the Sun-dance has only begun. There is much to follow.

Now a single figure moves out of the crowd, and takes its position in the arena. It is the young chief. His attitude is one of sublime dignity. His erect figure and haughty carriage bear the indelible stamp of his illustrious forbears. Silently he raises one hand, and a deathly hush falls upon his people.

And Little Black Fox speaks.

Tall, handsome, lithe, a frame of great bone and smooth sinewy muscle, he is an imposing figure. He wears no blanket, just the buckskin, beaded as becomes his high rank.

He harangues mightily, now working himself into an almost uncontrolled fury, again letting his voice die down to that plaintive, musical note which alone belongs to the Sioux tongue. And his speech is of war wild, fierce, unreasonable war, such as his people love. He is thrilling with the untamed spirit of his ancestors, and every word he utters carries a ready conviction to the untutored souls to whom it is addressed.

He sweeps on in a torrential flow of passion, and those who listen are roused at once to a savage enthusiasm. There are no interruptions. The oration is received in complete silence. These are Indians taken into their sovereign’s council; they are there to hear while the young brave pronounces, with all the fire of his ardent, aboriginal nature, the doom of their white masters.

The wise men of the council are grouped together and sit aloof. They sit like mummies, smoking, and with every appearance of indifference. But their ears are wide open. One alone displays interest, and it is noticeable that he is different from all the rest of the aged group. He is younger. He has blue eyes and fair hair, and his skin is pale. Yet he, too, is blanketed like his companions. He listens acutely to the end of the speech. Then he silently moves away, and, unheeded, becomes lost in the adjacent woods.

As the chieftain’s last words die away the men of “med’cine” rise from their groveling attitude and a fresh dance begins. But this time it is not confined to the clearing. It is one which launches them into the midst of the audience. Hither and thither they caper, and from their tracks emerge a number of very young men. It might be that this is the “Dance of Selection,” for it undoubtedly has the result of bringing forth a number of striplings from the ranks of the onlookers.

The dancers have made the complete circuit, and about one hundred young men, little more than boys, join in the great Sun-dance.

Now ensues one of the most terrible scenes of human barbarity conceivable. In the course of the dance the “med’cine” men seize upon each of the willing victims in turn. On the breast of each boy incisions are made with long, keen knives; two parallel incisions on each side of the chest. The flesh between each two of these is then literally torn from the underlying tissues, and a rough stick is thrust through the gaping wounds. So the would-be brave is spitted.

Now a rawhide rope is attached to the centre of the stick, the end of it is thrown over the gnarled limb of one of the trees in the centre of the clearing, and the youth is lifted from the ground and remains suspended, the whole weight of his body borne by the two straps of bloody flesh cut from his chest.

The dance proceeds until each youth is spitted and suspended from the central cluster of trees, then, with one accord, the men of the audience break from their places and join in the war-dance. They dance about the victims with a fierce glee like hundreds of fiends; they beat them, they slash them with knives, they thrust lighted brands upon the fresh young flesh till it blisters and throws out nauseous odors. Their acts are acts of diabolical torture, inconceivably savage. But the worst agony is endured in desperate silence by each victim. That is, by all but one.

Out of all the number hanging like dead men upon the trees only one youth finds the torture unendurable.

He cries aloud for mercy, and his shrieks rise high above the pandemonium going on about him.

Instantly he is cut down, the stick is removed from his body, and he is driven from the ceremony by the waiting squaws, amidst a storm of feminine vituperation. He is the only one whose heart is faint. He will never be permitted to fight. He must live with the squaws all his days. He is considered a squaw-man, the greatest indignity that can be put upon him.

Thus are the braves made.

While the Sun-dance was still at its height two men who had taken no part in it, except that of secret spectators, moved quickly and silently away through the forest. Their gait was almost a flight, but not of fear.

Ten minutes of half running and half walking brought them to a spot where two horses were tethered under the guardianship of the fierce General. Here they mounted, and, without a word, proceeded with all speed in the direction of the Agency.

At the door they halted, and Seth spoke for the first time since leaving the Sun-dance. Parker had already dismounted, but the other remained in his saddle.

“Say, you’ll move right off,” he said quickly, “an’ git Hargreaves an’ his wimminfolk clear, too. Guess you’ll make the farm ’fore me, sure. Take the bridge for it. Rosebud ‘ll let you in. Guess you’ll find plenty o’ company ’fore daylight. Rosie ’ll see to the signals.”

“Yes,” Parker nodded. “They’re moving to-night. This is a carefully planned surprise.”

Seth glanced at the eastern sky.

“Four hours to daylight,” he mused. Then: “Yes, guess there’s more’n Black Fox’s hand in this. So long.”

He rode off with his faithful dog at his heels, making for the ford, and watchful of every shadow as he went. His night’s work was yet only half done.

Crossing the river he climbed the opposite bank and rode out upon the prairie. Making a wide detour he came to within a hundred yards of the front of Nevil Steyne’s hut. Here he halted and dismounted. Crouching upon the ground he scanned the sky-line carefully in every direction. At last he seemed satisfied, and, flinging his bridle reins to the dog, who promptly took them in his powerful jaws and quietly sat down in front of the horse’s head, moved cautiously forward.

In a few moments he came upon two horses standing asleep, tethered by long ropes to picket-pins. One of these he released and led back to his own. Then he remounted and rode on. Again he circled wide of his destination, and this time struck into the woods that lined the river. His way now lay down the black aisles of tree trunks which he pursued until he came to a spot he was evidently in search of. Then he again dismounted, and, entrusting the two horses to the dog’s care, moved forward on foot.

With unerring judgment he broke cover directly in rear of Nevil’s log hut. There was neither window nor door on this side, a fact which he was evidently aware of, for, without hesitation, but with movements as silent as any Indian, he crept round to the front, and sidled to the window. Here there was a light shining dully, but no means of obtaining a view of the interior. He moved on, and, crouching at the doorway, listened intently. A few seconds satisfied him. Wanaha was inside; she was awake, for he heard her moving about. He knew at once that Nevil was out.

With a satisfied sigh he moved away. This time he walked eastward toward the bridge, keeping close in the shadow of the woods. A couple of hundred yards from the hut he stopped and took up a position just within the shelter of the undergrowth, whence he had a perfect view of the open plain in front, and yet was sufficiently sheltered by the echoing woods to hear the least movement of any one passing that way. And so he waited.

Nor did he wait long. Eyes and ears trained to this sort of work were kept ever on the alert. But it was his ears which told him at last of some one approaching. Some one was moving through the woods. The sound was faint and distant, but he heard it. There was no mistake. And he knew it was Nevil Steyne returning home.

Clearing the brush he made his way into the midst of the aisles of leafless tree-trunks. Pausing in the shadow of one of the forest giants he waited. The footsteps came nearer. He shifted his position again; for his ears told him that he was not yet on the track which Nevil would take.

At last, however, he came to a stand, and did not move again. Guided by a wonderful hearing, he knew that he was in a direct line between the man approaching and his home.

He leant against a tree, his eyes and ears straining. Some few yards away there was a shaft of moonlight stretching right across the path which Nevil must take, and on this path Seth kept his eyes.

The man came on all unconscious of who and what was awaiting him. He had no thought of his presence at the Sun-dance having been detected. His thoughts were on what the morrow was to bring forth; on what it would mean to him when Rosebud was removed from his path. She alone stood between him and that which he had schemed for ever since the arrival of the memorable letter from his brother. He was in a mood of intense satisfaction. He knew that at last he was to realize his desires, that at last he was to pay off a long score which he owed Seth of White River Farm.

He stepped into the moonlit patch. The sudden flash of light made him pause. It startled him. He looked beyond apprehensively, then he looked up, and the great moon above reassured him. He moved on. The next moment he stopped dead. He could proceed no further. A ring of metal was pressing against his forehead, and Seth was behind it, and his smooth, even voice, coldly compelling, held him.

“Say, I’ve been lookin’ fer you,” it said. “You’re comin’ right up to the farm. The Injuns are out. Savee? Jest fer once you’re goin’ to work on our side. Say, you’re goin’ to fight ’em with us.”

There was a deathly silence. Neither moved. The gun was pressing the man’s forehead still. Nevil stood like one paralyzed.

“Wal?” questioned the cold voice, proceeding from Seth’s shadowy figure.

And Nevil was driven to speech.

“I’m not a fighting man. I ”

But his denial was cut short.

“You’ve jest got ten seconds to make up your mind. You’re goin’ to fight for us, or ”

Seth had in no way raised his tones from the cold level of his manner at the beginning. His victim had only a shadowy impression of him. He saw only a hazy outline in the blackness of the forest; and he needed no further sight to convince him. There was sufficient in the tone, and in the pressure of the gun at his head. He knew the rest. Here was a sudden collapse of all his schemes. There could be no resistance. Seth had the drop on him.

“I’ll go,” he said sullenly.