"The Wolf-Brothers" by E. Pauline Johnson [Tekahionwake] (1862-1913)
LELOO'S father and mother were both of the great Lillooet tribe of British Columbia Indians, splendid people of a stalwart race of red men, who had named the boy Leloo because, from the time he could toddle about on his little, brown, bare feet, he had always listened with delight to the wolves howling across the canyons and down the steeps of the wonderful mountain country where he was born. In the Chinook language Leloo means wolf, and before the little fellow could talk he would stand nightly at the lodge door and imitate the long, weird barking and calling of his namesakes, while his father would smile knowingly and say, "He will some day make a great hunter, will our little Leloo," and his mother would answer proudly, "Yes, he has no fear of wild things. No wolf in the mountains will be mighty enough to scare him–our little Leloo."
So he grew from babyhood into boyhood with a love for the furry-coated wild creatures that prowled along the timber line, and their voices were to him the voices of friends who had sung him to sleep ever since he could remember anything.
But the night of his famous ride up the Cariboo Trail where it skirts the Bonaparte Hills proved to him how wise a thing it was that he had long ago made friends, instead of foes, of the wolves, for if he had feared them, it would have been a ride of terror instead of triumph, as it was his love for them that helped him to do a great, heroic thing which made the very name "Leloo" beloved by every [Page 111] man, both white and Indian, in all the Lillooet country.
It was one day early in the autumn that Leloo's father sent him down the trail some ten or fifteen miles with a message to the "boss" of the great railway construction camp that the Lillooet Indians would supply fifty men to work on the Company's roadway. So the boy mounted his pet cayuse and started off early, swinging down the mountain trails into the canyons, then climbing again across the summit, with its dense growth of timber. His little legs were almost too short to grip his horse's middle as his father could have done, so he went more slowly and carefully over the dangerous places, marking every one in his mind, in case he was late in returning. When he reached the camp the "boss" was absent, and, Indian-like, he would deliver his message to no one else except the man it was intended for, and when the "boss" returned at supper time from far down the grade, he insisted upon Leloo sharing his pork and beans and drinking great quantities of tea.
"Better stay all night, youngster," said the boss kindly; "It's a long ride back, and it's going to be dark."
"No stay to-night," answered Leloo. "Maybe some time I stay, but no to-night."
"Well, you know best, kid," replied the boss. "There's one thing–no harm will ever come to an Indian boy on a mountain trail. But be careful; the canyons are deep, and the trail is bad in spots."
"Me know, me careful," smiled Leloo, and mounting his cayuse, trotted off gayly, just as the [Page 112] sun was lost behind a grim, rocky peak in the west. But the "boss" was right: night comes quickly in the mountains, and this night was unusually dark. Leloo had to ride very slowly, for the narrow trail was a mere ledge carved out from the perpendicular walls of the cliffs, which arose on the left, a sheer precipice hundreds of feet above him, and fell away to the right in a yawning chasm, black, and deep and unexplored. But the sure-footed cayuse stepped gingerly and knowingly, neither halting nor stumbling, and his wise little rider let the animal pick its own way, knowing well that a horse's senses in the dark are more acute than a human's. Presently from far across the canyon arose a weird, prolonged howl. Then from the heights above came an answering one.
"Ah, my brothers !" called Leloo aloud. "You have come to greet me through the night," and his eyes lighted like twin black fires, for he loved these wolves that made their dens and lairs along the Cariboo Trail, and to-night they were to serve him in the oddest fashion that a wild animal was ever called upon to do. As he rode on, he would–just for company's sake–call back to the wolves, answering their cries with such a perfect imitation of their wild voices that they would reply to him, from far below, then again from far above, and Leloo would smile to himself and say, "That is right, O great and fierce Leloos; answer me, for you are my kin and my cousins."
But the trail was growing steeper, narrower every moment, and after a time Leloo forgot to reply to his forest friends, and just rode on, peering [Page 113] through the shadows to avoid the dangers on all sides. Presently a sound that belonged to neither crag nor canyon fell across his quick, Indian ears. It was a man's voice, hushed, subdued, speaking very low, and speaking in English. It said:
"I hear a horse coming."
"Shut up! Don't talk so loud," replied another voice.
"I tell you I hear horses," answered the first voice irritably. "It must be the stage coming. Get ready!"
"You're clean crazy," said the other voice. "The stage makes more noise than that, and I know for sure there's no horseman up the trail to-night. It's some wild animal you hear."
Leloo pulled his cayuse stock still. He did not understand English readily, he was not versed in the ways of the white man, but his wonderful native wit and instinct told him at once that there was something wrong–the wrong things that white men were sent to jail for sometimes. He asked himself, "Why should they hide and whisper?" Only hunters hid and refused to speak aloud. Then he remembered–the stage.
How often his father had talked of the great lumps of gold the white men were digging up, two hundred miles north, up the Frozen River–"Cariboo gold," his father had called it, and said that it was sent down in numberless bags to "the front," and the stage brought it. And his father would always finish the tale with, "The white men will risk their lives and kill each other for this gold."
Leloo could never understand it, for he would [Page 114] much rather have a soft wolf skin to lie on, a string of blue Hudson's Bay beads around his dark throat, and fine, beaded moccasins, than all the gold in the world. But while he sat stock still, the voices continued:
"There, it's stopped. I knew it was an animal. The stage won't be along for an hour yet."
"They are white men, but the gold does not belong to them," Leloo told himself. "It belongs to the white men on the stage, or up in the Barkerville gold ledges. These white men here are 'bad medicine.' They shall not find that stage."
But even as he thought it out, the voices began afresh.
"There's something wrong with my gun," said one, "it won't work."
"There's nothing wrong with mine," came the sneering reply. "Mine will work all right. I'm going to have that gold."
"How much did Jim Orton say there was a-coming down on the stage?" whispered the other.
"Some twenty thousand dollars' worth of nuggets," was the answer. "And you'll use your gun, too, to get it, if you don't turn coward."
Then there was silence. So his father was right. These white men would kill each other for gold–gold that belonged to another, to the men who were working day and night for it up at the ledges, two hundred miles north. Instantly Leloo's plan was formed. He would save the gold for the men who owned it; save the good stage driver from the bullets of these hiding, whispering sneaks and robbers. But how was he to do it? How could he [Page 115] dare to move a step unless to turn backward? Twenty yards ahead of him the two men crouched. Even by their lowered voices he could locate them as hiding behind a giant boulder, some ten feet above the trail. If he was to advance to meet the stage and warn the driver, he needs must pass under their very feet. Was it quite impossible to daringly gallop under their guns and be lost in the darkness before they could recover from their surprise? Leloo could trust his cayuse, he knew. The honest little creature was at this moment standing still as the silence about them. Then acutely across that silence cut the long wail of a lonely wolf wandering across the heights. A very inspiration seized Leloo. In a second he had flung back his head, and from his thin, Indian boyish lips there issued a weird, prolonged howl. He was answering the wolf in his own language.
"Great guns !" ejaculated one of the highwaymen, "that wolf's right under our feet. There he goes now. I hear him prowling past." For with the howl, Leloo had started his cayuse gently, and the wise creature was slipping beneath the dreaded boulder almost noiselessly. The boy fairly held his breath. Suppose they should peer through the dark, and see that it was a horse and rider, and no wild animal padding up the trail? Then his wolf friend from the heights answered him, and Leloo once more lifted his head, and the strange half-barking, half-sobbing cry again broke the silence. He was well past the boulder now, ten, twenty, thirty yards, when his innocent little cayuse gave that peculiar snort which a horse [Page 116] always gives when some sudden fear or danger threatens. The animal's instinct had evidently detected the presence of enemies.
"It's a horseman, not a wolf," fairly yelled a voice behind him; but Leloo had already struck the cayuse a smart blow on the flank, at which the animal bunched its four hoofs together, shivered, snorted again, then plunged, galloping like mad down the trail, down, blindly down into the darkness ahead. One, two, three sharp revolver shots rang out behind him, the bullets falling wide of their mark in the blackness of the night, rapidly running feet that seemed to gain upon him, the crash of a falling man, then terrible language–all rang in his ears in quick succession, but the boy never drew rein, never halted. On plunged the horse, heedlessly, wildly, but Leloo stuck to his back, scorning the fear of a horrible death in the canyon below, thinking only of the danger of the treasure-laden stage and of the safety of Big Bill, the driver, whom his father loved, and whom every Indian of the Lillooet tribe respected.
The stones were now rattling from the rush of his horse's hoofs, and once or twice the boy held his breath, as they swung round a boulder in the dark, and the sturdy animal almost lost its balance. Sometimes he heard the robbers scrambling down the trail far above him, the trail he had already covered, and twice they fired on him; but the kindly darkness saved him. He was nearing the foot of the mountain now, and the cayuse was beginning to heave badly, but Leloo still struck the sweating flanks, and the creature still plunged [Page 117] on, until, finally, in fear and exhaustion, it stumbled. Instantly it recovered itself, but Leloo knew that this was the first sign of the coming end. Then only did he stop. In his mad ride Leloo had been so intently listening for sounds from behind that he never once thought of sounds ahead, and in this pause of the rattling hoofs and flying stones, his ears caught the rumble of wheels coming towards him, the gentle beat of six horses trotting slowly, and the cheery whistle of the big Canadian who drove the Cariboo stage. As Leloo came slowly upon them, the big driver called, "Who's there–ahead in the trail? Who's shooting around here?"
"Go back, you !" cried the boy. "Two bad men's up trail. They shoot you. They get gold."
"Gee whiz!" yelled Big Bill, bringing his six-in-hand to a standstill. "Holdup, eh? I declare, but that's a narrow escape. I guess Big Bill won't cross the divide to-night."
"No, you go back," reiterated the boy.
"Well, I'll be blowed if it isn't just a kid!" exclaimed the driver, as Leloo rode up close beside him. "And look at the horse of him, clean played out. I say, boy, no wonder you rode hard, with all that gunning behind you. I'm rather handy with a gun myself, and I never drive the 'gold' stage without these two here," tapping the revolvers in his big belt, "but if our friends up there had got the drop on me first, there'd have been a dead driver, and no gold for the boys in the bank, I'm thinking. What is your name, anyway, boy?"
"Me? I'm Leloo," the little Indian replied. "My father, he Chief Buckskin, Lillooet tribe." [Page 118]
"Whew!" gasped Big Bill. "Old Buckskin's son, eh? Then you're all right, for Buckskin is 'white' –all but his skin. You climb up beside me here, and give that poor, busted horse of yours a rest. This outfit is a-goin' to turn back, and we'll all sleep at Pete's place to-night. But how did you get past those sneaking gunners up there? That's what I want to know."
And later when Leloo, safely seated beside the big driver, related how he had tricked the scoundrels, Big Bill was as proud as if he had been the boy's father. "The whole Cariboo trail from end to end shall know of this," he declared, "know just how you saved me and the miners' gold."
"Me no save," said Leloo, shaking his head with denial. "Not me save, just save by big wolf-brother. He teach me to make his cry, he answer me when I talk his talk to him."
And it must have been this speech that the big driver told far and wide, for at the next great "potlatch" (feast) given by the Lillooets, the entire tribe conferred the great honor of a new name upon Leloo, the name he had won for himself–"Wolf-Brother."