He smiled reassuringly, and with a little gasping sigh she placed her hand in his.
Up from the valley below came the throb of war drums, the faint rattle of shots, and the distant cries of painted horsemen charging. From my vantage-point on the ridge I had an unobstructed view of the encampment, a great circle of tepees and tents three miles in circumference, cradled in a sag of the timberless hills. The sounds came softly through the still Dakota air, and my eye took in every sharp-drawn detail of the scene—ponies grazing along the creek bottom, children playing beneath the blue smoke of camp-fires, the dense crowd ringed about a medicine pole in their center, intent on a war-dance.
Five thousand Sioux were here in all their martial splendor. They were painted and decked and trapped for war, living again their days of plenty, telling anew their tales of might, and repeating on a mimic scale their greatest battles. Five days the feasting had continued; five mornings had I been awakened at dawn to see a thousand ochered, feathered horsemen come thundering down upon the camp, their horses running flat, their rifles popping, while the valley rocked to their battle-cries and to the answering clamor of the army which rode forth to meet them. Five sultry days had I spent wandering unnoticed, ungreeted, and disdained, an alien in a hostile land, tolerated but unwelcome. Five evenings had I witnessed the tents begin to glow and the campfires kindle until the valley became hooped about as if by a million giant fireflies. Five nights had I strayed, like a lost soul, through an unreal wilderness, harkening to the drone of stories told in an unfamiliar tongue, to the minor-keyed dirges of an unknown race, to the thumping of countless moccasined feet in the measures of queer dances. The odors of a savage people had begun to pall on me, and the sound of a strange language to annoy; I longed for another white man, for a word in my own tongue.
It was the annual “Give-away” celebration, when all the tribe assembles to make presents, to race, to tell stories, and to recount the legends of their prowess. They had come from all quarters of the reservation, bringing their trunks, their children, and their dogs. Of the last named more had come, by far, than would go back, for this was a week of feasting, and every day the air was heavy with the smell of singeing hair, and the curs that had been spared gnawed at an ever-increasing pile of bones.
I had seen old hags strangle dogs by pulling on opposite ends of a slip-noose, or choke them by laying a tent-pole on their throats and standing on the ends; I had seen others knock them down with billets of wood, drag them kicking to the fires, and then knock them down again when they crawled out of the flames. All in all, I had acquired much information regarding the carnival appetites of the noble red man, learning that he is poetic only in the abstract.