23.THE CLIFF OF SINIKIELT
Once long ago there was a chief of the Okanagan Indians called Tserman. He was very brave and very daring, and he stopped at nothing when he wanted to have his own way. The village of the Okanagans lay in a beautiful valley; to the north-west lay the hunting grounds of the Nicolas, who had been enemies of the Okanagans for years. Now the chief of the Nicolas had a lovely daughter, Lalita, and Chief Tserman fell in love with this beautiful maiden. He knew there was no use asking her father to give him Lalita, so he made up his mind to steal her.
One dark night he saddled his black pony, which could run faster than any other horse of the tribe, and, under cover of the darkness, he made his way over the hills and down the valley until he came to the camp of the Nicolas. All was very still in the camp, for it was late and the Indians were all tired, for they had just returned from a long hunting trip. Tserman could see the small, white lodge of Lalita close beside that of her father.
Leaving his horse standing beside a tall pine-tree, he crept cautiously towards Lalita’s wigwam. When he reached the opening, he remained very still and listened. There was not a stir or sound of any one moving in the camp. Throwing aside the curtain, he quickly entered the lodge, snatched Lalita from her couch, and in an instant had her beside him on his horse and was galloping rapidly back to the village of the Okanagans.
The Nicolas, roused by the sound of the horse’s hoofs, jumped up hastily. At once they knew what had happened, for the curtain of Lalita’s lodge was still thrown back. The chief ordered his warriors to mount their ponies and quickly follow in pursuit. And soon, in the darkness, the sound of their ponies could be heard as they raced wildly after the flying chief. But Tserman’s horse could run much faster than any horse in the mountains, and before the Nicolas were halfway to the village, he and Lalita were safe within his lodge. On came the Nicolas, and at last only one hill lay between them and the village of their enemies. To go around this hill would be many miles, so, leaving their horses at the foot, they began to climb its slippery side. At length they reached the top, but they did not know that this was a sheer cliff they had climbed, and that at its foot, between them and the Okanagan village, there flowed a deep river.
One of their warriors, Sinikielt, wanted to go ahead and find out the best way to reach the village and surround it. He crept forward in the darkness, and with a wild cry fell over the steep cliff into the river beneath. His cry rang out through the night and was heard by the Okanagans on the other side of the river. Quickly the camp was aroused, and going forth, the warriors encircled the hill. When the morning came, the Okanagans began to climb the hill to attack their enemies. The Nicolas saw them coming and knew there was nothing for them but certain death. The Okanagans were many and strong and were well armed. The Nicolas were only a few warriors, and if they remained to fight, they were sure of being either killed or taken prisoners. There was only one thing for them to do. Turning their backs on their fast-approaching enemies, they made one running leap from the cliff to the river below and sank forever in its waters.
Many years after, when Tserman had gone to the happy hunting ground and his son Lemichin was made chief in his stead, there came sad days to Lalita. Lemichin was a great warrior and strong and handsome like his father, but he cared nothing for the good of his tribe. His only thought was his own pleasure. Little by little he gambled away all his possessions, until nothing was left but his saddle-horse. Then one night that was lost, too. Lalita begged him to turn from his evil ways, but he made her no reply. Going forth from the lodge, he made his way to the hills and remained there for one moon. At the end of that time he returned to the tribe. Going to his mother, he said:
“Lalita, when I was in the hills, I fasted and then I slept, and in my dreams my father came to me. He told me what to do to make my evil life turn into a good one. First, I must make peace with the Nicolas. After that I must win my way back until I am a great chief, like my father was before me.”
“My son,” said Lalita, “this is indeed a happy thing you have told me, and great indeed is the spirit of your father which has come to you and told you what to do.”
The next day Lemichin sent a messenger of peace to the Nicolas. Their old chief, Lalita’s father, sent back word that there would be no more fighting between the tribes, but that the Nicolas and the Okanagans could never be friends. Lemichin made no answer when this message was brought to him. Going forth, he began gambling again. Lalita followed him and begged him to return with her, to forsake these evil ways. But to her also he made no reply. Day after day he gambled, but now he was not losing his possessions, but was winning them back again. At last they were all won, and then Lemichin called a council of his wisest warriors. He told them he wished to win the friendship of the Nicolas, and that he and Lalita would go to their village and take with them a large number of the herd as a gift. The next morning they set out,—Lemichin and Lalita riding ahead and three herd-boys, driving the greater part of the herd, followed behind. When they reached the village of the Nicolas, Lemichin told his mother to wait with the herd-boys, and dismounting from his pony, he went alone and on foot to the lodge of the old chief. Kneeling before the old warrior, he gave himself up to make reparation for the deed of his father Tserman.
The old chief was very angry at first and called his warriors to bind Lemichin and kill him. But Lemichin asked him to let him speak first. Then he told him how sorry his father had been for what he had done. How much he wished that the two tribes might become friends, and how anxious Lalita was to win the love of her father again. Then he asked him to accept the herd which he had brought with him. The old chief felt his anger fade away when the young man talked, and now, when he saw what a great gift he had brought with him, he felt that he could not kill so generous and manly a warrior. So, taking Lemichin by the hand, he walked with him to where Lalita sat on her pony.
When she saw her father Lalita uttered a cry of joy. The old man fondly embraced his daughter and said:
“My daughter, many moons ago you left your father’s lodge and joined the tribe of our enemies. But this day your son has proven to me that our enemies can be brave and generous. My heart has been lonely all the summers and winters since you went away. Come now, you and your brave son, and live with the old chief so that his heart and his lodge shall no longer be empty.” And weeping for joy, the old man led Lalita and Lemichin to his lodge. Thus friendship between the Nicolas and the Okanagans was established.
That was many years ago, but yet in the night the wild cry of Sinikielt answers the cry of the loon, and is echoed from the cliff far out across the river.