7. An Indian Pow-Wow
Nevil Steyne was indifferent to such blessings as a refreshing thunder-shower at sundown on a hot summer's day. It is doubtful if he would have admitted the beneficence of Providence in thus alleviating the parching heat of the day. He had no crops to think of, which made all the difference. Now, as he walked along through the brush on the north bank of the White River, in the direction of the log bridge, with the dripping trees splashing all round him, and his boots clogging with the heavy, wet loam, he openly cursed the half-hour's drenching. His vindictiveness was in no way half-measured. He cursed those who were glad of it, and who, when in direst necessity, occasionally remembered to offer up prayers for it.
This man had no love for the woods; no love even for the prairie, or his life on it. He lived a grudging existence. From his manner nothing in life seemed to give him real joy. But there is no doubt but that he had purpose of a sort which had much to do with his associations with his Indian neighbors. With him purpose served for everything else, and made existence tolerable.
There was purpose in his movements now. He could just as easily have made his way to the bridge through the open, but he chose the woods, and put up with the wet while he railed at it. And there was some haste in his slouching, loose-jointed gait which gave to his journey a suggestion of furtiveness.
At the bridge he paused, gave a quick look round, and then crossed it more rapidly still. For at this point he was in full view of the prairie. Once on the Indian Reservation, which began beyond the bridge, he again took to the cover the park-like land afforded him. Nor did he appear again in the open until he had passed the Mission and the Agency.
Once clear of these, however, he gave no more heed to secrecy, and walked boldly along open paths in the full, bright evening light. He passed in and out among the scattered tepees, speaking a word here and there to the men as he passed, or nodding a greeting. The latter being the more frequent of the two, for the Indian is a silent man.
The life amidst which he was walking was too familiar to cause such a man as he any unusual interest. Perhaps it was because he felt he had a certain underhand power with these people; like a person who loses interest in the thing which he has mastered. Certain it is that the busy homes he beheld were all unnoticed. The smoke-begrimed tepees with their great wooden trailers propped against them; the strings of drying meats stretching along under the boughs of adjacent trees. The bucks huddled, in spite of the warmth of summer, in their parti-colored blankets, gazing indolently at their squaws pounding the early berries into a sort of muddy preserve, or dressing a skin for manufacture into leggings, moccasins, or buckskin shirt. He gave no heed to the swarms of papooses, like so many flies buzzing round the tepees, whooping in imitation of their father braves, or amusing themselves with the pursuit of one of the many currish camp dogs, which, from their earliest years, they love to persecute to the limits of the poor beasts' endurance. The totem poles with their hideous carved heads had no meaning for him, just as the dried scalps which hung from the tepee poles might have been rabbit skins for all he thought of them.
Just now his purpose was to reach the house of Little Black Fox, and this he came to at last. It was a large building; next to the Mission and Agency it was by far the largest house on the Reservation. It was built of logs and thatch and plaster, and backed into a thick clump of shady maple trees. The son was more lavish than the father. Big Wolf had always been content to live in a tepee. He was an older type of chief. The son moved with the times and was given to display.
Nevil raised the latch of the door and walked in, and his manner was that of a privileged visitor. He entered the spacious living-room without word for those he beheld gathered there. He walked to a certain vacant place, and sat down upon the mud floor. It was at once plain that he had been expected. More, it was evident that he belonged by right to that gathering.
Despite the display in the dimensions of Little Black Fox's house the interior revealed the old savage. There was nothing civilized about the council-chamber. There was the central fire of smouldering logs, without which no Indian can exist in summer or winter. The smoke passed out through a square chimney in the middle of the roof.
In a large circle the chief's councilors sat perched upon their haunches and swathed in their blankets. There was not a seat or table there. They sat in their councils as their forefathers had done before them, their leader in their midst with nothing but his youth to distinguish him from those who were his subjects.
The debate proceeded in its spasmodic fashion. There was no haste, no heat like in the debates of civilized folk. Each man was listened to in respectful silence, which might have served as an example to modern legislatures. Nevil spoke like the rest in their low, musical tongue. Whenever he spoke it was noticeable that the great, wild eyes of the chief were turned upon him with interest. But even he seemed a mere unit in the debate, no more and no less, unless it were that Little Black Fox was more influenced by what he said than by what was said by the others.
At length, well on into the night, the meeting drew to a close. The business in hand had been threshed out and a decision arrived at. The warriors and the men of "medicine" filed slowly out. Even in this there was a certain formality and precedence. Each man addressed his chief, shook hands, and passed through the door. And no two went out together.
When the last had gone Nevil and the chief remained alone in the bare room. Little Black Fox rose from his pile of skins and stood erect. He was a mere youth, but of such shape and appearance that one could easily understand the epithet "romantic" Rosebud had applied to him. He stood at least four inches over six feet, and dwarfed even Nevil's height. But it was in the perfect symmetry of his lithe, sinuous body, and the keen, handsome, high-caste face where his attractions lay.
His eyes were the eyes of the untamed savage, but of a man capable of great thought as well as great reckless courage. There was nothing sinister in them, but they were glowing, live eyes which might blaze or soften in two succeeding moments, which exactly expresses the man's character. He was handsome as Indian men go. Not like the women. They are often beautiful in a way that appeals to any artistic eye, but the men are a type for study before they can be appreciated.
This chief was in the first flush of manhood, and had attained nothing of the seared, bloated appearance which comes to the Indian later in life. His face was almost as delicately chiseled as his sister's, but it was strong as well as high caste. The eagle beakishness of his nose matched the flashing black eyes. His mouth was sensitive and clean-cut. His forehead was high and broad, and his cheeks were delicately round.
Nevil became a wretched, unkempt type of manhood in comparison. In form, at least, this chief of twenty-one years was a veritable king.
He smiled on his white councilor when the last of his own people had departed. He thrust out a slim, strong hand, and the two men shook hands heartily.
"It is slow with many in council," the chief said, in his own smooth-flowing tongue. "You, white man, and I can settle matters quickly. Quicker than these wise men of my father."
There was a flash of impatience in his speaking eyes. Nevil nodded approval.
"They think much before they speak," he replied, in the language in which he had been addressed. He, too, smiled; and in their manner toward each other it was plain the excellent understanding they were on.
"Sit, my white brother, we have many things for talk. Even we, like those others, must sit if we would pow-wow well. It is good. Sit." Little Black Fox laughed shortly, conceiving himself superior in thought to the older generation of wise men. He was possessed of all the vanity of his years.
They both returned to the ground, and the chief kicked together the embers of the council-fire.
"Tell me, brother, of Wanaha," this still unproved warrior went on, in an even, indifferent voice; "she who was the light of our father's eyes; she who has the wisdom of the rattlesnake, and the gentle heart of the summer moon."
"She is well." Nevil was not expansive. He knew the man had other things to talk of, and he wanted him to talk.
"Ah. And all the friends of my white brother?"
The face smiled, but the eyes were keenly alight.
"They are well. And Rosebud----"
"She grows fairer every day."
There was a truly Indian pause. The fire sputtered and cast shadows upon the dark, bare walls. The two men gazed thoughtfully into the little flame which vauntingly struggled to rear itself in the dense atmosphere. At last the Indian spoke.
"That man who killed my father is a great brave."
"Yes," nodded Nevil, with a reflective smile in his pale eyes. "And Rosebud is a ripe woman. Beautiful as the flower which is her name."
"Hah!" Then the Indian said slowly with an assumed indifference, "She will be his squaw. This white brave."
"That is how they say." It might have puzzled Nevil to apply names to those represented by "they." "He is a great brave, truly. He fought for her. He killed your father. That is how these things go. She is for him surely."
A frown had settled on the fierce young chief's face.
"My father was old," he said.
Nevil glanced at the speaker out of the corner of his eyes, and then continued his watch on the flame still struggling so ardently to devour the half-green wood. He knew when to hold his tongue.
"Yes," the young man went on. "My father was a wise chief, but he was old--too old. Why did he keep the white girl alive?"
"He took her for you. You only had fifteen summers. The white girl had eleven or thereabouts. He was wise. It was good med'cine."
Then the chief stirred himself. And Nevil, who lost no movement on the other's part, detected the restless action of one who chafes under his thought. Little Black Fox prefixed his next remark with another short laugh.
"My people love peace now. It is good. So good that your people come and teach us. They show our squaws how to make things like the white squaws make. And the papooses forget our tongue, and they make words out of strange drawings which the white med'cine man makes on a board. Tchah! We forget our fathers. We feed when your people give us food, and our young men are made to plough. We only hunt when we are told to hunt. Our life is easy, but it is not a brave's life."
Nevil nodded, and chose his reply carefully.
"So," he said, "it is a life of ease. You choose your life. And naturally you choose a life where you have all you want, and do not have to trouble. After all, what is the old life? A life of much danger, and little ease. You fight, you kill, or you are killed. You risk much and gain little. But you are men, brave men, great warriors, I grant you. And the squaws like brave men--even white squaws. But I say it is wise, though not brave, to live in the tepee. It is so easy. Your braves have their squaws always with them. They grow fat till their sides shake. They no longer care to hunt. Why should they? Many papooses come, and they grow up like their fathers. There are no Sun-Dances to make braves, because none want to be braves. There are no Ghost-Dances, because the white men keep the Evil Spirits away, and there is no need. So. The Indian lies upon his blankets, and he lives with the squaw always. They all become squaw-men. Never was there such peace for the Indian."
Nevil had drawn his peaceful picture with care; also the tail of his eye told him that his companion was listening. And his movements, every now and then, had in them something of the spasmodic movements of a chained wild beast. This lithe youth had certain resemblance to the puma. He seemed to burn with a restless craving spirit. The puma never ceases to seek his prey. This man would be the same were he once to begin.
"Yes. You say well," he observed moodily, "we are all squaw-men. The white squaws love braves, you say. I know all squaws love braves. The squaws of our people will soon spit in our faces."
"You have no squaw to do that," observed Nevil, bending over and pushing the fire together.
"You are chief. You should have many."
"Then give the word to your people and you can have them."
"I do not want them--yet."
Nevil looked round. The chief turned to the fire uncertainly. His fierce eyes were half veiled.
"This Rosebud, she was for me," he went on. "She is fair as the summer sky. Her eyes are like the stars, and her laugh is like the ripple of the waters when the sun and the wind make play with them. She is so fair that no squaw can compare with her. Even Wanaha is as night to day."
"You cannot have her. She is for the man who killed your father."
The young chief leapt to his feet with a cry that told of a spirit which could no longer be restrained. And he towered threateningly over the undisturbed wood-cutter.
"But I will!" he cried vehemently, while his eyes flashed in the dying light of the fire. "You are my white brother, and to you I can say what is in my thoughts. This squaw, I love her. I burn for her! She is with me night and day. I will have her, I tell you! There shall be no peace till my father is avenged. Ha, ha!" And the ferocity of that laugh brought a smile to the hidden lips of the listening man.
He looked up now, and his words came thoughtfully.
"You are a great chief, Little Black Fox," he said. "But, see, there is no need to go on the war-path. Sit, like those wise councilors of yours. It is good to pow-wow."
The headstrong youth sat down again, and the pow-wow went forward. It was daylight again when Nevil returned to Wanaha. For Indian pow-wows are slow moving, ponderous things, and Little Black Fox was no better than the rest of his race when deliberations of grave import were on.