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Love at First Sight,

A Tale of the Sioux Indians by Percy B. St John

In the very centre of one of the thickest and heaviest woods of the American continent, where now stands a busy manufacturing town, there was, some forty years ago, an Indian camp occupied by a small band of the wild and warlike Sioux. They were not more than fifty in number, having visited the spot merely for the purpose of hunting, and laying in a store of provisions for the winter. It chanced, however, that, coming unexpectedly upon certain Assineboins, who also were outlying in the woods, following the exciting duty of the chase, a quarrel ensued, ending in a bloody contest, in which the Sioux were victorious. With rude tents pitched, without order or method, in an open glade of the forest, with horses tethered around, and little dusky imps fighting with the lean dogs that lay lolling their tongues lazily about, there was yet a picturesque air about the place and its extraneous features, which would have captivated the eye of one in search of nature's sunshiny spots. Deeply embosomed within the autumnal tinted wood, a purling spring that burst from the green slope of a little mound was the feature which had attracted the Indians to the locality. Rank grass had once covered the whole surface of this forest meadow, but this the cattle had closely cropped, leaving a sward that would have rivalled any European lawn in its velvety beauty, and that, falling away before the eye, became inexpressibly soft as it sunk away in the distance.

The setting sun, gilding and crowning the tree tops in wreathed glory, was gradually paling behind the heavy belt of forest that enclosed the Sioux camp; the animals, both plumed and four-footed, that filled the woods, were seeking their accustomed rest; the squaws were busily engaged in preparing for their expected husbands their evening meal, just as a long line of grim and painted warriors issued from the shelter of the trees. A loud cry from the urchins that squatted round the purlieus of the camp, with a growl of friendly recognition from the ragged dogs, brought the women to the entrance of the camp.

The Indians came in in that silent and solemn manner which they are wont more particularly to assume after the occurrence of important events. To the no little surprise of the squaws, a prisoner accompanied the returning party, and all thoughts were effaced but those in connection with the promised scene of torture and amusement. It was a young man, faultless in form, with features which in any land would have been remarkable for their intellectuality and engaging expression. His round limbs, and his erect figure, well displayed as he trod unshackled and nearly naked, were the admiration even of his enemies. His eye was keen and piercing, his lips curled in an expression of scorn and defiance, while his inflated nostrils no less marked the inward struggle of his mind, as he scowled fiercely on his captors.

In the centre of the camp was a strong but rudely-erected log-house, that served the purpose of a council-chamber, and in this the prisoner, having been so bound as to render escape, unaided, a matter of impossibility, was left, while the warriors dispersed to their wigwams in search of refreshment and repose. A large fire burned in front of the council-hall, which gave forth so bright a glare, that any one leaving or entering its precincts could scarcely avoid being seen by those around. Several maidens, too, having no hungry husbands requiring their ministering hands, were congregated in front, conversing upon the probable fate of the Assineboin, and even in some measure expressing pity for his expected death, so far had his good looks and youth gone to create sympathy in the hearts of the fair Sioux.

'Let us see if the warrior weeps,' at length said one of the girls with a laugh; 'perhaps he will ask for a petticoat, and become a squaw.'

Curiosity induced the whole bevy to agree, and next moment they were all within the walls of the council-chamber, the warriors smiling grimly in their wigwams at this evidence of the universal feminine failing. A dim and fitful glare from the fire served to reveal the form of the luckless Indian youth seated upon a log, his eye fixed upon vacancy. For a moment curiosity kept the whole party silent, and then, education and habit exerting their influence, the group began to put in practice those arts which might be expected to awaken in the prisoner an exhibition of feeling derogatory to his dignity.

'An Assineboin has no eyes; he is a burrowing mole,' said one tauntingly; 'he creeps about the woods like a serpent, and falls into the trap of the hunters: a beaver is wiser than he. He is very cunning, but he cannot deceive a Sioux: he is very brave, but he is a prisoner, and not a wound shows that he struggled. Go; it is a squaw whom my people have brought in by mistake.'

A general laugh was the reward of the speaker's wit, while the Indian moved neither eye, limb, nor muscle. The girl, irritated, opened upon him with all that volubility of tongue which so strongly characterises their race. It was, however, in vain. The sun in the heavens was not more unmoved—a marble statue would have been life behind him—not a look or sound, not a glance, testified that he even heard what was passing. Wearied at length with their vain efforts, the bevy rushed forth into the open air, and, joining hands, commenced, with loud cries and laughter, a dance round the fire.

A deep and heavy respiration was the only sign the Indian gave of consciousness—his quick and practised senses told him he was not alone.

'Son of the Evening Light,' said a low and gentle voice, addressing him by a name which was well known in her tribe as that of their most dreaded enemy, 'the morning will come, and it will find my brothers thirsting for blood.'

'The veins of Ah-kre-nay are very full,' replied the warrior calmly; 'they can all drink.'

'The Son of the Evening Light is very brave,' said the other hurriedly, and in tones which exhibited strong feeling; 'but life is very sweet. Would he hunt again in the forest?—would his hand once more strike the grizzly bear?'

Suspecting some deep and cunning artifice of his enemies beneath this unmistakable offer of escape on the part of the fair Peritana, the Indian was sternly silent; though the tones which truth assumes are so powerful and expressive, that he felt almost convinced at heart she was sincere. The young maiden probably understood his doubts, and therefore spoke no more, but with quick and ready hands placed a knife before him, and, cutting the bonds, left him free.

'My sister is very kind,' said the young warrior warmly, after giving vent to the guttural ugh! the jocund laugh and the romping of the dancers permitting conversation—'and Ah-kre-nay will remember her in his dreams.' With this the Assineboin turned towards the entrance of the wigwam.

The Sioux girl replied not, but, pointing to the throng without, and then passing her hand significantly round her head, folded her arms, and stood resignedly before the youth.

'Would the Sioux maiden leave her tribe and tread the woods with an
Assineboin?' said the warrior curiously.

'Peritana will die if the Assineboin warrior be found to have escaped, and Peritana would rather live in the woods than in the happy hunting-ground.'

The Assineboin now felt sure that his youth, his appearance, or, at all events, his probable fate, had excited the sympathies of his visitor, and gratitude at once created in him a desire to know more of his fair friend.

'Ah-kre-nay will not depart without his sister; her voice is very sweet in his ears, sweeter than the cluck of the wild turkey to the hungry hunter. She is very little; let her hide in the corner of the wigwam.'

'Peritana has a father, tall and straight—an aged hemlock—and two brothers, bounding like the wild deer—Ah-kre-nay will not raise his hand against them?'

'They are safe, when Peritana has folded her white arms round them.'

This point settled, the Indian girl handed the youth his tomahawk and knife, and then obeyed his commands with as much alacrity as if she had been his legal squaw. The warrior then resumed his former position, placing the willow-withes which had bound him in such a manner as readily to appear, by the light of the fire, as if they were still holding him firm.

This arrangement had scarcely been made, when a couple of grim warriors appeared in the doorway, after listening to the report of the girls. Peritana, closing her eyes, held her very breath, lest it should betray her presence to her people, and thus render all her bold efforts for him whose fame, beauty, and unfortunate position had won her heart, of no avail. The young warrior, too, sat motionless as a statue, his keen ear listening for the sound of the girl's breath. To his admiration and infinite surprise, her respiration had apparently ceased. The Sioux at this moment entered, and, glaring curiously at their enemy, as if satisfied with the survey they had taken, turned away and moved towards their wigwams. Silence now gradually took the place of the activity and bustle which had previously reigned. A sense of security lulled the Indians to rest. Every one of their enemies, save the prisoner, had perished in the fight, or rather surprise, by which the victors had mastered their unarmed foes. No thought was given to treachery within the camp.

Still, the young Assineboin knew that each moment he might be missed. He therefore listened with deep attention for the slightest sound; and some quarter of an hour having passed, he rose from his half-recumbent posture, and stood perfectly erect in the very centre of the wigwam. Peritana at the same instant stood at his side, coming from without: she had left the wigwam with so noiseless a step, that even the exquisite organs of the Indian had been eluded. Neither spoke, but the girl placed in the warrior's hands a short rifle, a powder-horn, and a shot-pouch, which he clutched with a delight which a sense of the danger of his position alone prevented him from manifesting openly. Slinging them in their proper places, Ah-kre-nay moved with caution to the door of the wigwam, and next moment was stalking firmly but noiselessly along the camp, followed by Peritana, gazing mournfully at the habitations of her tribe. Suddenly, as they reached the outskirts of the wigwams, and were passing one of the largest and most conspicuous of the whole, a voice from within growled forth a hoarse demand of who was there?

'Peritana,' said the girl, in a voice which was choked with emotion, 'is not well; she seeks the woods, to drive away the bad spirit.'

During this brief colloquy the young brave had stepped within the deep shadow of the tent, his rifle ready cocked. As the girl ceased speaking, the head of an old warrior was protruded from the wigwam door.

'Thy sisters have been asleep since the dance was over,' said the aged Indian; 'why is Peritana awake?'

The girl saw her companion level his rifle—her agitation was intense. Her feelings were deeply moved on both sides.

'Father,' said she, and the rifle was raised instantly, 'Peritana goes to the woods; she will not tarry long. Her head is hot; she cannot sleep now.'

Satisfied with this explanation, the old Sioux retired once more within the tent, leaving the young warrior and his sad companion to reach the forest unmolested. Peritana was deeply moved at parting from her parents, and, but that she knew that death would be her portion on the discovery of her aiding the escape of Ah-kre-nay, would gladly have returned to where, as her father had told her, her sisters slept soundly. The die, however, was cast, and she was now in the woods, the companion of the runaway.

We must pass over a year of time, and take up our narrative at some distance from the spot above described. It was a deep dell on the banks of the upper waters of one of those streams that serve to swell the Ontario. Perhaps a lovelier spot was never discovered by man. At a place where the river made a bend, there rose from its bank, at some distance from the water, a steep but not perpendicular cliff, thickly grown with bushes, and spotted with flowers, while tall trees crowned the crest of the eminence. Of a horseshoe form, the two ends approached the edge of the stream, leaving, however, to the east a narrow ledge, by which the vale could be approached. The space between the water and the bottom of the cliff was occupied by a sward of velvety smoothness, while beneath the rock was a dark and gloomy natural cavern. The most prominent feature of the scene, however, was of human formation. It was an Indian hut, which doubtless rose in this spot for the purpose of concealment. No better place could have been found within many miles, as the portion of the river which flowed in sight, from its proximity to a fall, was navigable only to the smallest canoe, and was therefore never made use of by travelling-parties. The wigwam was of the usual dome-like shape, roofed with skins tastefully and elegantly adjusted, while a mass of creeping and flowering shrubs that entwined themselves around it, showed it to be no erection of a day. It was a model of cleanliness and neatness, while a fireplace at some distance out-of-doors, within the cavern, showed that, at least during the summer months, the inconvenience of smoke was dispensed with within its walls. The whole was wrapped in deep silence, looking as if utterly abandoned by every trace of humanity.

The sun was at its fullest height, proclaiming midday to the tenants of the woods and fields, when a rustling was heard at the entrance of the little dell, and an Indian bounded headlong within its shelter. The wild gleaming of his eye, the fresh wounds which covered his body, the convulsive thick breathing, the fierce clutching of his tomahawk and rifle, showed that he fled for his life, while the sound of many voices below the crag betokened how near his pursuers were to him. Shaking his empty powder-horn with a look of deep grief, the Indian warrior threw aside his rifle, now more useless than a pole of equal length, and, a fire of energy beaming from his eye, raised his tomahawk. It was, however, but for a moment—his wounds were too severe to allow any hope of a successful struggle, and next moment the brave stood unarmed, leaning against the entrance of his wigwam. On came the pursuers, with an eagerness which hatred and the desire of revenge rendered blind, and, as they leaped headlong down through the narrow gap between the water and the cliff, the wounded Indian felt that, with a firm arm and a good supply of powder and lead, he might have driven back his enemies in confusion. No sooner did the Sioux behold their former prisoner, Ah-kre-nay, standing with dignified calmness at the door of his own wigwam, than their self-possession at once returned, and the whole party surrounded him in silence, casting, meanwhile, envious but stealthy looks round his romantic retreat. An aged warrior, after a due period of silence, advanced and addressed the captive.

'Ah-kre-nay is very nimble; twelve moons ago he ran like a woman from the Sioux; to-day he ran again, but his feet forsook him.'

'Twelve moons ago,' replied the captive with exultation flashing in his eyes, 'Ah-kre-nay was in the midst of a nest of vultures—fifty warriors surrounded him; but the manitou blinded all their eyes, and the Assineboin cheated their revenge.'

'But Ah-kre-nay was not alone?' said the old warrior, deeply moved at his own question.

'The flower of the hills fled to the woods with him—her tongue was the tongue of a lying Sioux, but her heart was that of a brave Assineboin.'

'Where is my child?' said the old warrior, in vain endeavouring to penetrate the mystery of the hut's contents, and dropping his figurative language under the influence of excitement—'say, Son of the Evening Light, where is my child?'

The warrior gazed curiously at the old man; but folding his arms, made no reply.

The Sioux warrior paused a moment, and then turning to his young men, ordered them to bind the prisoner, and commence that long list of atrocious cruelties which ever precede the death of a victim among the Indians. The hut was scattered to the winds in a moment, and its wood served to commence the pile which was to play the principal part in the scene of torture. Ah-kre-nay looked on in silence, his lip curling scornfully, until the preparations were all made; he then took his place at the post with sullen composure, and prepared to suffer in silence all the horrors meditated by the Sioux. A grim warrior now stood forward with a keen and glittering tomahawk in his hand, which he began waving and flourishing before the eyes of his victim, in the hope of making him show some sign of apprehension. In vain, however, did the old Sioux try every feint; now he would aim a blow at his feet, and as suddenly change to his face; now he would graze his very ear; and at length, enraged at the stoicism of his victim, he raised the gleaming hatchet, as if about to strike in earnest. The smart crack of a rifle was simultaneous with the attempt, and the tormentor's arm fell useless by his side. With habitual fear of the fatal weapon, the Sioux sought cover, and gazing upward, saw on the summit of the cliff Peritana—a babe slung in a cradle at her back—in the act of loading her rifle.

'Father,' cried she somewhat wildly, and pointing out how completely she commanded the pass of the dell, 'in the green days when Peritana walked not alone, you fed and sheltered me; warm was my wigwam, and sweet the venison: with which my platter was ever filled. Peritana is very grateful, but'—and she pointed to her child—' Peritana is a mother, and she sees her husband, the father of the Little Wolf, in the hands of his enemies. Her eyes grow dim, and her memory departs. She cannot see her father, but she sees the enemy of her husband; she forgets she was ever a Sioux, and remembers only she is now an Assineboin. If his enemies kill her husband, Peritana will use her rifle as long as her powder lasts, and then will leap into the water, and join Ah-kre-nay in the happy hunting-ground of his people. But a Sioux warrior will not forget he has a daughter,' continued she more tenderly; 'give her back the father of her child, and Peritana will bring a great warrior into the Sioux camp.'

The Sioux saw at once the force of her proposition. Certain death awaited many, if not the whole band, should they strive to ascend the pass in the face of an infuriated widow; while, should she prevail upon Ah-kre-nay to forget, for her sake, his hereditary antipathies, and join the Sioux band, a mighty advantage would accrue. When free, and acting with perfect freedom, it was probable that the young Assineboin would show but little resistance to this offer. In ten minutes after the appearance of Peritana on the cliff, her husband, who had been an attentive listener, stood fully armed at the mouth of the pass, free. He was just about to commence the ascent, when, determined to win the admiration of the Sioux at once, he turned towards them once more, and, standing in their midst, laid his arm affectionately on the shoulder of the chief, and cried: 'Come, Peritana; Ah-kre-nay is with his friends; let not his squaw be afraid to join him.'

Placing himself and wife thus completely in the power of the Sioux, without any agreement as to treatment, was a tacit reliance on their honour, which won upon them at once, and a loud shout of applause proclaimed that enmity was at an end; and in a few moments more the old Sioux warrior was gazing, with all the pride of a grandfather, upon the offspring of his favourite daughter. A few hours of rest ensued, during which Ah-kre-nay's wounds were bound up, after which the whole party went on their way rejoicing, and the Sioux numbered one great warrior more within their bosom. Thus, by the exertion of remarkable presence of mind, Peritana preserved herself a husband, saved the babe from orphanship, restored a daughter to her father, and added a brave soldier to the forces of her tribe. Weeping and wailing would have availed her nothing; undaunted courage gave her the victory. The facts of this tale are current still among the wandering Sioux, who often relate to their wives and young men the famous deeds of the lovely Peritana.