At the head of the plateau, just under the brow of the hill, and facing the half-circle of level land, stood a big tent of skins. Before it was a square pile of boulders about the height of a man’s waist, heaped on the top with brushwood so that it looked like a rude altar. Around this the host had gathered, sitting mostly on the ground with knees drawn to the chin, but some few standing like sentries under arms. I was taken to the middle of the half-circle, and Shalah motioned me to dismount, while a stripling led off the horses. My legs gave under me, for they were still very feeble, and I sat hunkered up on the sward like the others. I looked for Shalah and Onotawah, but they had disappeared, and I was left alone among those lines of dark, unknown faces.
I waited with an awe on my spirits against which I struggled in vain. The silence of so vast a multitude, the sputtering torches, lighting the wild amphitheatre of the hills, the strange clearing with its altar, the mystery of the immense dusky sky, and the memory of what I had already endured—all weighed on me with the sense of impending doom. I summoned all my fortitude to my aid. I told myself that Ringan believed in me, and that I had the assurance that God would not see me cast down. But such courage as I had was now a resolve rather than any exhilaration of spirits. A brooding darkness lay on me like a cloud.
Presently the hush grew deeper, and from the tent a man came. I could not see him clearly, but the flickering light told me that he was very tall, and that, like the Indians, he was naked to the middle. He stood behind the altar, and began some incantation.
It was in the Indian tongue which I could not understand. The voice was harsh and discordant, but powerful enough to fill that whole circle of hill. It seemed to rouse the passion of the hearers, for grave faces around me began to work, and long-drawn sighs came from their lips.
Then at a word from the figure four men advanced, bearing something between them, which they laid on the altar. To my amazement I saw that it was a great yellow panther, so trussed up that it was impotent to hurt. How such a beast had ever been caught alive I know not. I could see its green cat’s eyes glowing in the dark, and the striving of its muscles, and hear the breath hissing from its muzzled jaws.
The figure raised a knife and plunged it into the throat of the great cat. The slow lapping of blood broke in on the stillness. Then the voice shrilled high and wild. I could see that the man had marked his forehead with blood, and that his hands were red and dripping. He seemed to be declaiming some savage chant, to which my neighbours began to keep time with their bodies. Wilder and wilder it grew, till it ended in a scream like a seamew’s. Whoever the madman was, he knew the mystery of Indian souls, for in a little he would have had that host lusting blindly for death. I felt the spell myself, piercing through my awe and hatred of the spell-weaver, and I won’t say but that my weary head kept time with the others to that weird singing.