MANY YEARS AGO, the Sioux Indians whose head village was at Minnewakan were roused to great excitement by the arrival of a friendly French trader who warned them that their inveterate enemies, the Ojibways of Minnesota, were preparing an immense war party to attack them. Since these Ojibways were known to have accumulated plenty of guns and a great store of ammunition, there was no reason to doubt their intention to descend on their ancient foes.
But details were lacking, so the Sioux decided to send their best scout, Whooping Crane, with two other tried and trusted men, into the Ojibway country to learn more of the enemy’s plan.
In a good canoe, these three paddled rapidly down Red River till they came to Grand Forks, where Red Lake River joins on. Up this they went.
Now they were entering the enemy’s country, so they traveled only by night, never using an ax, much less a gun, and even keeping their conversation down to whispers.
After four days of hiding and four nights of travel, they knew that they were not far from the Ojibway headquarters at Red Lake. Whooping Crane then mounted guard, while the other two carried the canoe far inland and hid it behind a huge pine tree.
They arranged to go scouting, each in a different direction, as far as possible into the enemy’s country, returning the following night at midnight and signaling by a familiar woodland code. If they did not all reassemble on the first night, they were to try on the second. And if that also failed to reunite them, they were to try on the third. If all did not come together then, any that were left were to clear out, for it would mean that the enemy had secured a Sioux scalp.
Whooping Crane struck northward, protecting his eyes with one hand as he groped through the black forest, feeling his way with moccasined feet to avoid the breaking of P, dead stick.
After a mile or so, he heard a faraway thump-a-thump-a, thump thump thump, thump-a-thump-a thump thump thump.
Ha! A council drum! Just what he was hoping for. He moved toward it as fast as he could, avoiding any unnecessary noise.
The drum call grew louder. Then Whooping Crane’s sensitive toes told him that he had struck a forest pathway.
Along this he now strode quickly, and the drum grew ever more clear: Thump-a thump-a. thump thump thump.
After half an hour, he saw the tree-tops far ahead reddened by the light of a fire.
Ha ha ha! Now he was coming near to an Ojibway camp, just as he had hoped.
He came swiftly and silently toward it; and, here in an opening of the forest, he found a great encampment, a hundred lodges at least; and in the middle of it all, a war-lodge, a council lodge, from which came the steady summons of the drum: Thump-a thump-a, thump thump thump.
In the shadow of a huge tree, Whooping Crane approached and saw the assembling councilors. One by one they appeared and passed into the council lodge.
When the last one was in, the drum ceased, and Whooping Crane judged that now they were discussing war plans. He went quickly forward, and stood at the door, hoping to get a glimpse inside, and learn of their numbers, and maybe of their plans.
He was peering in so eagerly that he did not notice a belated councilor who came out of the gloomy woods and almost bumped into him.
Acting on a desperate impulse, knowing he was discovered, Whooping Crane drew his knife and stabbed the councilor to the heart. The victim fell without a sound.
Then Whooping Crane, realizing what he had done, exclaimed to himself: “Oh, what a fool I am! I’ve spoiled our whole game.”
But suddenly another thought came: “Maybe not. Maybe this was just the clever thing to do.”
He took the dead man’s robe, wrapped it around his own shoulders; then the war bonnet, and set it on his own head. Holding a fold of the robe across his face, he strode boldly forward into the lodge, and silently sat down in the vacant place. He did not speak to any one, but there was nothing strange in that.
He listened in on the council. He knew enough of their language and their signs to get the main facts: Yes, the Ojibways were preparing a mighty war party whereby they hoped to extirpate the Sioux nation. They had now plenty of guns and ammunition. They were going to assemble the whole of the Ojibway tribe in one army and strike with all their force at Minnewakan, destroy that, then go on to the next Sioux village with full force, wiping out one at a time. It was a very unusual plan for Indians to conceive, but it seemed certain of success if the Sioux were taken by surprise.
Having learned all he needed to know, Whooping Crane rose and silently left the council.
Soon after this, the meeting broke up. As they left the lodge, some of the warriors stumbled on the body of the dead man. A torch was brought.
“It’s Two Elks! Dead!”
“No, impossible! Wasn’t Two Elks in council with us?”
“But here he is, dead-and stiff too. Killed an hour ago!
“How can that be?” It was the high chief, crafty old Wolverine, who solved the mystery. He remembered that Two Elks had not opened his mouth in council. This must be the work of an enemy spy.
“He killed Two Elks, and, clad in his robe, entered the council.”
Now they know that, at any price, they must get this Sioux spy.
Whooping Crane traveled fast and far. He was a mile away when the pursuit began. He heard them coming through the dark forest, so gladly availed himself of the shelter of a hollow log. The rest of that night he lay there and all the next day.
He watched his enemies about and beyond him. It was fortunate for him that they were numerous, for their myriad tracks hid his trail from the best of trailers. Gradually, the sound showed that the pursuit had taken another direction.
All day, he lay in patient hiding; then, long after sundown, when the woods was black and safe, he set out to find his friends at the canoe.
Within half a mile of the place, he listened for calls;
then, getting none, he began with the first of their arranged signals. He gave the long call of the hoot owl: “Wah wah wa hd wah wah wa ha.”
After a brief wait, he got an answer: “Wah wah wa hd wah wah wa ha.” Exactly the same as he had given it!
It might have been an owl responding; it certainly was not one of his friends, for that was not the right answer.
So he silently glided off into the woods to wait.
After an hour, he ventured back into the neighborhood of the canoe; and, upon a slightly rising ground, halted and gave the call of the she-fox: “Yap Yurrrr
In a little while, the response came back: “Yap Yurrrrr.” Just the same! It was not the reply he had hoped for. It might be a she-fox answering back to a she-fox. But he doubted that very much. It was probably an enemy, and he judged it wisest to hasten away.
The rest of that night and all the next day he hid in a hollow log. Then, when midnight was near, he stole up toward the hidden canoe and listened long for a signal. Not hearing any, he gave one they had agreed on, the growling bark of the dog-fox: “Grrrr-ow-ow.”
Very soon, he heard a reply: “Grrrr-ow-ow” – the very same. A dog-fox answering to a dog-fox? No, no, very unlikely. In any case, it was not the answer arranged with his friends, so he withdrew as silently and quickly as he could.
At first, he was minded to give it up for that night;
but, on toward dawn, he came and made one more attempt. He thought, as he listened, that he caught the faint, far moan of the timber wolf: “Yow-ow-ow-ow.”
So, presently groping his way to the shore of the lake, he gave the rolling call that the loon gives at break of day: “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.” In a few seconds, a voice replied with the same call.
Now he was sure that it was all done by the enemy. They were aware that he was in the country and were trying to decoy him. So he fled silently and afar off, nor rested until he was miles from the ambush.
All day he kept hidden and thought: “Alas, my two brave boys have surely met their fate. Now I must return alone to Dakota with the bad news.”
Then he reconsidered: “No; that is not what we agreed on. We said we would try to meet for three nights before giving it up.”
So, the next night, at the darkest hour, he came crawling, catlike, toward the appointed place-crawling like a man who is going into the very jaws of death, for he knew now for certain that the Ojibways were lying in wait for him and that probably both his friends were killed. Each time he raised his foot and set it down, he wriggled his toes, for fear of sound of dry twigs that might snap. Every branch that barred his way he crawled under or around. Not a sound he made. No lynx could have gone more softly.
He was still far from the canoe, and listening keenly, when he heard the soft howl of the timber wolf: “Yow-ow-ou-ow:,
A wolf, or a friend, or a foe? Which was it?
After due waiting, he gave the squawling call of the she-fox: “Yap Yu”
Very soon, his heart leaped for joy to hear the growling “Grrr-ow-ow” of the dog-fox. It might, indeed, have been a real fox, but it was also the right answer. And, for the first time, a little comfort was his.
He softly withdrew and waited an hour before he came along the lake shore and called the common call of the hoot owl: “Wah wah wah, wah wah wa ha.”
The answer that came back was one that gladdened his heart-merely the long wail that the owl so often gives: “Me-ow-ow-ow.” Maybe it was an owl, but it was the right response.
Twice now he had got the reply that they had arranged, and hope rose again in his heart. But his scalp and life were at stake, and he could take no heedless risks.
He crawled along to a safe distance and waited till the first streak of dawn was in the sky. Then, by the shores of the lake, he gave the loon call: “Hoo-hoohoo-hooo.”
He waited, but heard no reply-which was better than the wrong one. Then he raised his hand to his mouth, and through the cupped palm, he howled the long soft call of the timber wolf: “Yah-ow-ow-ow.”
It was no wolf whose cry came back, but a raven in a distant pine with his morning croak: “Rrrrrrrr.”
Whooping Crane laughed to himself with a little chuckle of joy. Three times the signal had been right, and hope was strong in his breast.
He waited, and soon his ears were greeted by the soft sweet whistling of the white-throated sparrow. Another right signal!
He glided over to a huge pine near the hidden canoe, and with the handle of his ready knife, he tapped on the trunk the ordinary tap, tap, tap of the early woodpecker.
From behind the trunk, there stepped out a dark figure, and another. Then a familiar voice said: “How kola! Washtay, lillie washtay.” (Hail, brother, all is well.)
And he stood once more with his friends and learned, even as he had suspected, that the night before, and the night before that, the Ojibways had been lying in wait for them, had discovered their trail, and had tried to decoy them into a trap. But, realizing the failure of the imitation calls, they had finally assumed that the scouts had fled safely out of the country, and so had abandoned the pursuit.
Thus Whooping Crane and his friends were able to get the information they sought, save their own lives, and warn their people in time, by knowing, and using the voices of the woods at night.