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

WANAHA THE INDIAN

The moon at its full shone down upon a scene of profound silence. Its silvery rays overpowered the milder starry sheen of the heavens. The woods upon the banks of the White River were tipped with a hard, cold burnish, but their black depths remained unyielding. All was still so still.

Thousands of Indians are awaiting in silent, stubborn hatred the morrow’s sentence of their white shepherds. A deep passion of hatred and revenge lies heavy on their tempestuous hearts; and upon the heart of their warlike chieftain most of all.

The heart that beats within the Indian bosom is invincible. It is beyond the reach of sympathy, as it is beyond the reach of fear. It stands alone in its devotion to warlike brutality. Hatred is its supreme passion, just as fearlessness is its supreme virtue. And hatred and revenge are moving to-night moving under the calm covering of apparent peace; moving now lest the morrow should put it beyond the power of the red man to mete out the full measure of his lust for native savagery. And so at last there comes a breaking of the perfect peace of night.

A dark figure moves out of the depths of the woods. It moves slowly toward the log hut of Nevil Steyne. It pauses at a distance and surveys the dim outline against the woodland backing.

Another figure moves out from the woods, and a moment later another and yet another; and each figure follows in the track of the foremost, and they stand talking in low murmurs. Thus twenty-five blanketed figures are gathered before the hut of the white renegade. They are Indians, hoary-headed patriarchs of their race, but glowing with the fierce spirit of youth in their sluggish hearts.

Presently they file away one by one, and it becomes apparent that each old man is well armed. They spread out and form themselves into a wide circle, which slowly closes in upon the hut. Then each decrepit figure huddles itself down upon its haunches, like some bald-headed vulture settling with heavily flapping wings upon its prey.

Sleep has not visited the eyes of those within the hut. When things go awry with those who live by double-dealing, sleep does not come easily. Nevil Steyne is awake, and his faithful wife keeps him company.

The interior of the hut is dismantled. Bundles of furnishings lie scattered about on the floor. It is plain that this is to be the last night which these two intend to spend in the log hut which has sheltered them so long.

The squaw is lying fully dressed upon the bed, and the man is sitting beside her smoking. They are talking, discussing eagerly that which has held the man’s feverish interest the whole night.

There is no kindness in the man’s tone as he speaks to the woman. He is beset with a fear he cannot conceal. It is in his tone, it is in his eyes, it is in his very restlessness.

The woman is calm. She is an Indian, and in her veins runs the blood of generations of great chiefs. Fear has no place in her heart, but her devotion to her man makes her anxious for him. Her slow, labored use of his language is meant to encourage him, but he takes no comfort from it. His utter selfishness, his cowardice, place him beyond mere verbal encouragement.

“It still wants two hours to dawn,” Nevil exclaimed, referring to his watch for about the twentieth time in the last hour. “God, how the time hangs!”

The woman’s dark eyes were upon his nervous face. She noted the anxious straining of his shifty eyes. Their whites were bloodshot, and his brows were drawn together in the painful concentration of a mind fixed upon one thought.

“It will pass,” she said, with all the hopefulness she could express.

“Of course it will. Do you suppose I don’t know?” The man spoke with harsh irritation. “You you don’t seem to understand.”

“Wanaha understands.” The squaw nodded. Then she, too, gave way to a slight irritation. “Why you not sleep, my Nevil? Wanaha watch. It a long journey. Sleep, my husband. You fear foolish. So.”

The man turned scornful eyes in her direction, and for a moment did not speak. Then presently he said

“Sometimes I think it’s unnecessary for us to go. I can’t make up my mind. I never had such difficulty in seeing clearly before. Your brother was so quiet and calm. He spoke so generously. I told him the whole story. How I was forced by that damned Seth to go into the fort. And how I was forced to fight. Pshaw! what’s the use of talking? I’ve told you all this already. Yet he listened to all I had to say, and as I made each point he nodded in that quiet, assured way of his you know. I think he understood and was satisfied. I think so and yet it’s no use, I can’t be sure. I wish he’d lost his temper in his usual headstrong way. I understand him when he is like that. But he didn’t. He was very calm.

“Do you know, my Wana, it seemed to me that he’d heard my story before, told by some one else, probably told with variations to suit themselves. It seemed to me that well, he was only listening to me because he had to. I swear I’d give ten years of my life to know what he really thinks. Yes, I think I’m right. Once away from here we are safe. Neither he nor any of the braves can follow us. The soldiers will see that none leave the Reservations. Yes, I’m sure it’s best to get away. It can do no harm, and it’s best to be sure. Still an hour and three-quarters,” he finished up, again referring to his watch.

“Yes, it best so,” the woman said in reply. She understood the condition of her husband’s mind. She saw clearly that she must humor him.

Whatever her innermost thoughts may have been she made her replies subservient to his humor. She had listened closely to his account of his interview with her brother, and there is little doubt that she had formed her own opinion, and, being of the blood of the chief, she probably understood him better than this white man did. But whatever she really thought no word of it escaped her.

Another silence fell. Again it was the man who broke it.

“That Jim Crow is very active. He comes and goes all day. He interviews Little Black Fox whenever he pleases. He’s a two-faced rascal. Do you know, it was he who brought the news of relief to the farm. And what’s more, he came in with the soldiers. I always seem to see him about. Once I thought he was watching my movements. I wonder why?”

The man drooped dejectedly as he tried to unravel this fresh tangle. Why was Jim Crow shadowing him? In the interests of the Indians? Again he pulled out his watch. And the woman beside him saw that his hand was shaking as he held it out to the light of the stove.

It was time to hitch up his horses, he said. Yet they were not starting until dawn, and it still wanted a full hour to the time.

Wanaha sat up, and Nevil moved about amongst the litter of their belongings. There was coffee on the stove and food on the table. He helped himself to both, bolting meat and drink in a nervous, hasty manner. Wanaha joined him. She ate sparingly, and then began to gather their goods together.

Nevil turned to her. He was preparing to fetch the horses which were picketed out on the prairie. He was in better mood now. Action restored in him a certain amount of confidence.

“It will be good to get away, my Wana,” he said, for a moment laying one hand upon her shoulder.

The woman looked up into his mean face with a world of love in her profound eyes.

“It good to be with you anywhere, my Nevil,” she said, in her quiet way.

The man turned to the door.

He raised the latch and threw it open. He stood speechless. A panic was upon him; he could not move, he could not think. Little Black Fox was standing in the doorway, and, behind him, two of his war-councilors leaning on their long, old-fashioned rifles.

Without a word, the chief, followed by his two attendants, stepped within. The door was closed again. Then Little Black Fox signed to Wanaha for a light. The squaw took the oil-lamp from a shelf and lit it, and the dull, yellow rays revealed the disorder of the place.

The chief gazed about him. His handsome face was unmoved. Finally he looked into the face of the terror-stricken renegade. Nevil was tall, but he was dwarfed by the magnificent carriage and superb figure of the savage.

It was the chief who was the first to speak. The flowing tongue of the Sioux sounded melodious in the rich tones of the speaker’s voice. He spoke without a touch of the fiery eloquence which had been his when he was yet the untried leader of his race. The man seemed to have suddenly matured. He was no longer the headstrong boy that had conceived an overwhelming passion for a white girl, but a warrior of his race, a warrior and a leader.

“My brother would go from his friends? So?” he said in feigned surprise. “And my sister, Wanaha?”

“Wanaha obeys her lord. Whither he goes she goes. It is good.”

The squaw was alive to the position, but, unlike her white husband, she rose to the occasion. The haughty manner of the chief was no more haughty than hers. She was blood of this man, and no less royal than he. Her deep eyes were alert and shining now. The savage was dominant in her again. She was, indeed, a princess of her race.

“And whither would they go, this white brother and his squaw?” There was a slight irony in the Indian’s voice.

Again the squaw answered.

“We go where white men and Indians live in peace.”

“No white man or Indian lives in peace where he goes.”

Little Black Fox pointed scornfully at the cowering white man. The squaw had no answer ready. But the renegade himself found his tongue and answered.

“We go until the white man’s anger is passed,” he said. “Then we return to the great chief’s camp.”

For a while the young chieftain’s eyes seemed to burn into those of the man before him, so intense was the angry fire of his gaze.

“You go,” he said at last, “because you fear to stay. It is not the white man you fear, but the Indian you have betrayed. Your tongue lies, your heart lies. You are neither brave nor squaw-man. Your heart is the heart of a snake that is filled with venom. Your brain is like the mire of the muskeg which sucks, sucks its victims down to destruction. Your blood is like the water of a mosquito swamp, poisonous even to the air. I have eyes; I have ears. I learn all these things, and I say nothing. The hunter uses a poisoned weapon. It matters not so that he brings down his quarry. But his weapon is for his quarry, and not for himself. He destroys it when there is danger that he shall get hurt by it. You are a poisoned weapon, and you have sought to hurt me. So.”

Wanaha suddenly stepped forward. Her great eyes blazed up into her brother’s.

“The great chief wrongs my man. All he has done he was forced to do. His has been the heart to help you. His has been the hand to help you. His has been the brain to plan for you. So. The others come. They take him prisoner. He must fight for them or die.”

“Then if he fights he is traitor. So he must die.”

Nevil had no word for himself. He was beyond words. Even in his extremity he remembered what Seth had said to him. And he knew now that Seth’s knowledge of the Indians was greater, far deeper, than his. This was his “dog’s chance,” but he had not even the privilege of a run.

The irony of his lot did not strike him. Crimes which he had been guilty of had nothing to do with his present position. Instead, he stood arraigned for a treachery which had not been his, toward the one man to whom he had ever been faithful.

But while his craven heart wilted before his savage judge; while his mind was racked with tortures of suspense, and his scheming brain had lost its power of concentration; while his limbs shook at the presentiment of his doom, his woman stood fearless at his side, ready to serve him to the bitter end, ready to sacrifice herself if need be that his wretched life might be saved.

Now she replied to her brother’s charge, with her beautiful head erect and her bosom heaving.

“No man is coward who serves you as he has served you,” she cried, her eyes confronting her brother’s with all the fearless pride of her race. “The coward is the other. The one who turns upon his friend and helper when misfortune drives.”

The words stung as they were meant to sting. And something of the old headstrong passion leapt into the young chief’s heart. He pointed at his sister.

“Enough!” he cried; and a movement of the head conveyed a command to his attendants. They stepped forward. But Wanaha was quicker. She met them, and, with upraised hand, waved them back in a manner so imperious that they paused.

“Little Black Fox forgets!” she cried, addressing herself to her brother, and ignoring the war-councilors. “No brave may lay hand upon the daughter of my father. Little Black Fox is chief. My blood is his blood. By the laws of our race his is the hand that must strike. The daughter of Big Wolf awaits. Let my brother strike.”

As she finished speaking Wanaha bowed her head in token of submission. But for all his rage the chief was no slayer of his womenfolk. The ready-witted woman understood the lofty Indian spirit of her brother. She saw her advantage and meant to hold it. She did not know what she hoped. She did not pause to think. She had a woman’s desire to gain time only. And as she saw her brother draw back she felt that, for the moment at least, she was mistress of the situation.

“So,” she went on, raising her head again and proudly confronting the angry-eyed youth, “my brother, even in his wrath, remembers the law of our race. Let him think further, and he will also remember other things. Let him say to himself, ’I may not slay this man while my sister, Wanaha, lives. She alone has power to strike. The council of chiefs may condemn, but she must be the executioner.’ So! And my brother will be in the right, for Wanaha is the blood of Big Wolf, and the white man is her husband.”

The headstrong chief was baffled. He knew that the woman was right. The laws of the Sioux race were as she had said. And they were so stringent that it would be dangerous to set them aside, even though this man’s death had been decided upon by the unanimous vote of the council. He stood irresolute, and Wanaha added triumph to her tone as she went on.

“So, great chief, this man’s life is mine. And I, Wanaha, your sister, refuse to take it. For me he is free.”

But Wanaha in her womanish enthusiasm had overshot her mark. The laws were strong, but this wild savage’s nature was as untamed and fearless as any beast of the field. It was her tone of triumph that undid her.

Little Black Fox suddenly whipped out a long hunting-knife from his belt and flung it upon the table with a great clatter. It lay there, its vicious, gleaming blade shining dully in the yellow lamplight.

“See!” he cried, his voice thick with fury. “Have your rights! I go. With the first streak of dawn I come again. Then I slay! Wanaha shall die by my hand, and then she has no right to the life of the white man!”

The first streak of dawn lit the eastern sky. The horses were grazing, tethered to their picket ropes within view of the log hut down by the river. The wagon stood in its place at the side of the building. There was no firelight to be seen within the building, no lamplight.

The circle of silent squatting figures still held their vigil.

As the daylight grew three figures emerged from the woods and moved silently to the door of the hut. They paused, listening, but no sound came from within. One, much taller than his companions, reached out and raised the latch. The door swung open. He paused again. Then he stepped across the threshold.

The new-born day cast a gray twilight over the interior. The man sniffed, like a beast of prey scenting the trail of blood. And that which came to his nostrils seemed to satisfy him, for he passed within and strode to the bedside. He stood for a few moments gazing down at the figures of a man and a woman locked in each other’s arms.

He looked long and earnestly upon the calm features of the faces so closely pressed together. There was no pity, no remorse in his heart, for life and death were matters which touched him not at all. War was as the breath of his nostrils.

Presently he moved away. There was nothing to keep him there. These two had passed together to the shores of the Happy Hunting Ground. They had lived and died together. They would perhaps awake together. But not on the prairies of the West.