Short Stories » The Gray Chieftain
The Gray Chieftain - Page 1 of 5
ON the westernmost verge of Cedar Butte stood Haykinshkah and his mate. They looked steadily toward the setting sun, over a landscape which up to that time had scarcely been viewed by man -the inner circle of the Bad Lands.
Cedar Butte guards the southernmost entrance to that wonderland, standing fully a thousand feet above the surrounding country, and nearly half a mile long by a quarter of a mile wide. The summit is a level, grassy plain, its edges heavily fringed with venerable cedars. To attempt the ascent of this butte is like trying to scale the walls of Babylon, for its sides are high and all but inaccessible. Near the top there are hanging lands or terraces and innumerable precipitous points, with here and there deep chimneys or abysses in the solid rock. There are many hidden recesses and more than one secret entrance to this ancient castle of the gray chieftain and his ancestors, but to assail it successfully requires more than common skill and spirit.
Many a coyote had gone up as high as the second leaping-bridge and there abandoned the attempt. Old grizzly had once or twice begun the ascent with doubt and misgiving, but soon discovered his mistake, and made clumsy haste to descend before he should tumble into an abyss from which no one ever returns. Only Igmutanka, the mountain- lion, had achieved the summit, and at every ascent he had been well repaid ; yet even he seldom chose to risk such a climb, when there were many fine hunting - grounds in safer neighborhoods.
So it was that Cedar Butte had been the peaceful home of the big spoonhorns for un-told ages. To be sure, some of the younger and more adventurous members of the clan would depart from time to time to found a new family, but the wiser and more conservative were content to remain in their stronghold. There stood the two patriarchs, looking down complacently upon the herds of buffalo, antelope, and elk that peopled the lower plains. While the sun hovered over the western hills, a coyote upon a near-by eminence gave his accustomed call to his mate. This served as a signal to all the wild hunters of the plains to set up their inharmonious evening serenade, to which the herbivorous kindred paid but little attention. The phlegmatic spoonhorn pair listened to it all with a fine air of indifference, like that of one who sits upon his own balcony, superior to the passing noises of the street.
It was a charming moonlight night upon the cedar-fringed plain, and there the old chief presently joined the others in feast and play. His mate sought out a secret resting- place. She followed the next gulch, which was a perfect labyrinth of caves and pockets, and after leaping two chasms she reached her favorite spot. Here the gulch made a square turn, affording a fine view of the country through a window-like opening. Above and below this were perpendicular walls, and at the bottom a small cavity, left by the root of a pine which had long since fallen and crumbled into dust. To this led a narrow terrace so narrow that man or beast would stop and hesitate long before venturing upon it. The place was her own by right of daring and discovery, and the mother's instinct had brought her here to-night, for the pangs of deadly sickness were upon her.
In a little while relief came, and the ewe stood over a new-born lamb, licking tenderly the damp, silky hair, and trimming the little hoofs of their cartilaginous points. The world was quiet now, and those whose business it is to hunt or feed at night must do so in silence, for such is the law of the plains. The wearied mother slept in peace.