Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Pernicketty’s Fright.

“Sssssst!“

Dan Golby held up his hand to enjoin silence; in a breath we were as quiet as mice. Then it came again, borne upon the night wind from away somewhere in the darkness toward the mountains, across miles of treeless plain — a low, dismal, sobbing sound, like the wail of a strangling child! It was nothing but the howl of a wolf, and a wolf is about the last thing a man who knows the cowardly beast would be afraid of; but there was something so weird and unearthly in this “cry between the silences”— something so banshee-like in its suggestion of the grave — that, old mountaineers that we were, and long familiar with it, we felt an instinctive dread — a dread which was not fear, but only a sense of utter solitude and desolation. There is no sound known to mortal ear that has in it so strange a power upon the imagination as the night-howl of this wretched beast, heard across the dreary wastes of the desert he disgraces.

Involuntarily we drew nearer together, and some one of the party stirred the fire till it sent up a tall flame, widening the black circle shutting us in on all sides. Again rose the faint far cry, and was answered by one fainter and more far in the opposite quarter. Then another, and yet another, struck in — a dozen, a hundred all at once; and in three minutes the whole invisible outer world seemed to consist mainly of wolves, jangled out of tune by some convulsion of nature.

About this time it was a pleasing study to watch the countenance of Old Nick. This party had joined us at Fort Benton, whither he had come on a steamboat, up the Missouri. This was his maiden venture upon the plains, and his habit of querulous faultfinding had, on the first day out, secured him the sobriquet of Old Pernicketty, which the attrition of time had worn down to Old Nick. He knew no more of wolves and other animals than a naturalist, and he was now a trifle frightened. He was crouching beside his saddle and kit, listening with all his soul, his hands suspended before him with divergent fingers, his face ashy pale, and his jaw hanging unconsidered below.

Suddenly Dan Golby, who had been watching him with an amused smile, assumed a grave aspect, listened a moment very intently, and remarked:

“Boys, if I didn’t know those were wolves, I should say we’d better get out of this.”

“Eh?” exclaimed Nick, eagerly; “if you did not know they were wolves? Why, what else, and what worse, could they be?”

“Well, there’s an innocent!” replied Dan, winking slyly at the rest of us. “Why, they might be Injuns, of course. Don’t you know, you old bummer, that that’s the way the red devils run a surprise party? Don’t you know that when you hear a parcel of wolves letting on like that, at night, it’s a hundred to one they carry bows and arrows?”

Here one or two old hunters on the opposite side of the fire, who had not caught Dan’s precautionary wink, laughed good-humouredly, and made derisive comments. At this Dan seemed much vexed, and getting up, he strode over to them to argue it out. It was surprising how easily they were brought round to his way of thinking!

By this time Old Nick was thoroughly perturbed. He fidgeted about, examining his rifle and pistols, tightened his belt, and looked in the direction of his horse. His anxiety became so painful that he did not attempt to conceal it. Upon our part, we affected to partially share it. One of us finally asked Dan if he was quite sure they were wolves. Then Dan listened a long time with his ear to the ground, after which he said, hesitatingly:

“Well, no; there’s no such thing as absolute certainty, I suppose; but I think they’re wolves. Still, there’s no harm in being ready for anything — always well to be ready, I suppose.”

Nick needed nothing more; he pounced upon his saddle and bridle, slung them upon his mustang, and had everything snug in less time than it takes to tell it. The rest of the party were far too comfortable to co-operate with Dan to any considerable extent; we contented ourselves with making a show of examining our weapons. All this time the wolves, as is their way when attracted by firelight, were closing in, clamouring like a legion of fiends. If Nick had known that a single pistol-shot would have sent them scampering away for dear life, I presume he would have fired one; as it was, he had Indian on the brain, and just stood by his horse, quaking till his teeth rattled like dice in a box.

“No,” pursued the implacable Dan, “these can’t be Injuns; for if they were, we should, perhaps, hear an owl or two among them. The chiefs sometimes hoot, owl-fashion, just to let the rabble know they’re standing up to the work like men, and to show where they are.”

“Too-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooaw!“

It took us all by surprise. Nick made one spring and came down astride his sleepy mustang, with force enough to have crushed a smaller beast. We all rose to our feet, except Jerry Hunker, who was lying flat on his stomach, with his head buried in his arms, and whom we had thought sound asleep. One look at him reassured us as to the “owl” business, and we settled back, each man pretending to his neighbour that he had got up merely for effect upon Nick.

That man was now a sight to see. He sat in his saddle gesticulating wildly, and imploring us to get ready. He trembled like a jelly-fish. He took out his pistols, cocked them, and thrust them so back into the holsters, without knowing what he was about. He cocked his rifle, holding it with the muzzle directed anywhere, but principally our way; grasped his bowie-knife between his teeth, and cut his tongue trying to talk; spurred his nag into the fire, and backed him out across our blankets; and finally sat still, utterly unnerved, while we roared with the laughter we could no longer suppress.

Hwissss! pft! swt! cheew! Bones of Cæsar! The arrows flitted and clipt amongst us like a flight of bats! Dan Golby threw a double-summersault, alighting on his head. Dory Durkee went smashing into the fire. Jerry Hunker was pinned to the sod where he lay fast asleep. Such dodging and ducking, and clawing about for weapons I never saw. And such genuine Indian yelling — it chills my marrow to write of it!

Old Nick vanished like a dream; and long before we could find our tools and get to work we heard the desultory reports of his pistols exploding in his holsters, as his pony measured off the darkness between us and safety.

For some fifteen minutes we had tolerable warm work of it, individually, collectively, and miscellaneously; single-handed, and one against a dozen; struggling with painted savages in the firelight, and with one another in the dark; shooting the living, and stabbing the dead; stampeding our horses, and fighting them; battling with anything that would battle, and smashing our gunstocks on whatever would not!

When all was done — when we had renovated our fire, collected our horses, and got our dead into position — we sat down to talk it over. As we sat there, cutting up our clothing for bandages, digging the poisoned arrow-heads out of our limbs, readjusting our scalps, or swapping them for such vagrant ones as there was nobody to identify, we could not help smiling to think how we had frightened Old Nick. Dan Golby, who was sinking rapidly, whispered that “it was the one sweet memory he had to sustain and cheer him in crossing the dark river into everlasting f ——.” It is uncertain how Dan would have finished that last word; he may have meant “felicity”— he may have meant “fire.” It is nobody’s business.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bierce/ambrose/cobwebs-from-an-empty-skull/chapter3.13.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31