Three of Them IV. The Leatherskin Tribe

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Leatherskin Tribe is the 4th episode of the series Three of Them written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Strand Magazine on august 1918.



Three of Them IV. The Leatherskin Tribe

The Strand Magazine (august 1918, p. 112)
The Strand Magazine (august 1918, p. 113)
The Strand Magazine (august 1918, p. 114)
The Strand Magazine (august 1918, p. 115)

"Daddy!" said the elder boy. "Have you seen wild Indians?"

"Yes, boy."

"Have you ever scalped one?"

"Good gracious, no."

"Has one ever scalped you?" asked Dimples.

"Silly!" said Laddie. "If Daddy had been scalped he wouldn't have all that hair on his head unless perhaps it grew again!"

"He has none hair on the very top," said Dimples, hovering over the low chair in which Daddy was sitting.

"They didn't scalp you, did they, Daddy?" asked Laddie, with some anxiety.

"I expect Nature will scalp me some of these days."

Both boys were keenly interested. Nature presented itself as some rival chief.

"When?" asked Dimples, eagerly, with the evident intention of being present.

Daddy passed his fingers ruefully through his thinning locks. "Pretty soon, I expect," said he.

"Oo!" said the three children. Laddie was resentful and defiant, but the two younger ones were obviously delighted.

"But I say, Daddie, you said we should have an Indian game after tea. You said it when you wanted us to be so quiet after breakfast. You promised, you know."

It doesn't do to break a promise to children. Daddy rose somewhat wearily from his comfortable chair and put his pipe on the mantelpiece. First he held a conference in secret with Uncle Pat, the most ingenious of playmates. Then he returned to the children. "Collect the tribe," said he. "There is a Council in a quarter of an hour in the big room. Put on your Indian dresses and arm yourselves. The great Chief will be there!"

Sure enough when he entered the big room a quarter of an hour later the tribe of the Leatherskins had assembled. There were four of them, for little rosy Cousin John from next door always came in for an Indian game. They had all Indian dresses with high feathers and wooden clubs or tomahawks. Daddy was in his usual untidy tweeds, but carried a rifle. He was very serious when he entered the room, for one should be very serious in a real good Indian game. Then he raised his rifle slowly over his head in greeting and the four childish voices rang out in the warcry. It was a prolonged wolfish howl which Dimples had been known to offer to teach elderly ladies in hotel corridors. "You can't be in our tribe without it, you know. There is none body about. Now just try once if you can do it." At this moment there are half-a-dozen elderly people wandering about England who have been made children once more by Laddie and Dimples.

"Hail to the tribe!" cried Daddy.

"Hail, Chief!" answered the voices.

"Red Buffalo!"

"Here!" cried Laddie.

"Black Bear!"

"Here!" cried Dimples.

"White Butterfly!"

"Go on, you silly squaw!" growled Dimples.

"Here," said Baby.

"Prairie Wolf!"

"Here," said little four-year-old John.

"The muster is complete. Make a circle round the camp-fire and we shall drink the fire-water of the Palefaces and smoke the pipe of peace."

That was a fearsome joy. The fire-water was ginger-ale drunk out of the bottle, which was gravely passed from hand to hand. At no other time had they ever drunk like that, and it made an occasion of it which was increased by the owlish gravity of Daddy. Then he lit his pipe and it was passed also from one tiny hand to another, Laddie taking a hearty suck at it, which set him coughing, while Baby only touched the end of the amber with her little pink lips. There was dead silence until it had gone round and returned to its owner.

"Warriors of the Leatherskins, why have we come here?" asked Daddy, fingering his rifle.

"Humpty Dumpty," said little John, and the children all began to laugh, but the portentous gravity of Daddy brought them back to the warrior mood.

"The Prairie Wolf has spoken truly," said Daddy. "A wicked Paleface called Humpty Dumpty has taken the prairies which once belonged to the Leatherskins and is now camped upon them and hunting our buffaloes, What shall be his fate? Let each warrior speak in turn."

"Tell him he has jolly well got to clear out," said Laddie.

"That's not Indian talk," cried Dimples, with all his soul in the game. "Kill him, great Chief him and his squaw, too." The two younger warriors merely laughed and little John repeated "Humpty Dumpty!"

"Quite right! Remember the villain's name!" said Daddy. "Now, then, the whole tribe follows me on the war-trail and we shall teach this Paleface to shoot our buffaloes."

"Look here, we don't want squaws," cried Dimples, as Baby toddled at the rear of the procession. "You stay in the wigwam and cook."

A piteous cry greeted the suggestion.

"The White Butterfly will come with us and bind up the wounds," said Daddy.

"The squaws are jolly good as torturers," remarked Laddie.

"Really, Daddy, this strikes me as a most immoral game," said the Lady, who had been a sympathetic spectator from a corner, doubtful of the ginger-ale, horrified at the pipe, and delighted at the complete absorption of the children.

"Rather!" said the great Chief, with a sad relapse into the normal. "I suppose that is why they love it so. Now, then, warriors, we go forth on the war-trail. One whoop all together before we start. Capital! Follow me, now, one behind the other. Not a sound! If one gets separated from the others let him give the cry of a night owl and the others will answer with the squeak of the prairie lizard."

"What sort of a squeak, please?"

"Oh, any old squeak will do. You don't walk. Indians trot on the war- path. If you see any man hiding in a bush kill him at once, but don't stop to scalp him."

"Really, dear!" from the corner.

"The great Queen would rather that you scalp him. Now, then! All ready! Start!"

Away went the line of figures, Daddy stooping with his rifle at the trail, Laddie and Dimples armed with axes and toy pistols, as tense and serious as any Redskins could be. The other two rather more irresponsible but very much absorbed all the same. The little line of absurd figures wound in and out of the furniture, and out on to the lawn, and round the laurel bushes, and into the yard, and back to the clump of trees. There Daddy stopped and held up his hand with a face that froze the children.

"Are all here?" he asked.

"Yes, yes."

"Hush, warriors! No sound. There is an enemy scout in the bushes ahead. Stay with me, you two. You, Red Buffalo, and you, Black Bear, crawl forward and settle him. See that he makes no sound. What you do must be quick and sudden. When all is clear give the cry of the wood-pigeon, and we will join you."

The two warriors crawled off in most desperate earnest. Daddy leaned on his gun and winked at the Lady, who still hovered fearfully in the background like a dear hen whose chickens were doing wonderful and unaccountable things. The two younger Indians slapped each other and giggled. Presently there came the "coo" of a wood-pigeon from in front. Daddy and the tribe moved forward to where the advance guard were waiting in the bushes.

"Great Chief, we could find no scout," said Laddie.

"There was none person to kill," added Dimples.

The Chief was not surprised, since the scout had been entirely of his own invention. It would not do to admit it, however.

"Have you found his trail?" he asked.

"No, Chief."

"Let me look." Daddy hunted about with a look of preternatural sagacity about him. "Before the snows fell a man passed here with a red head, grey clothes, and a squint in his left eye. His trail shows that his brother has a grocer's shop and his wife smokes cigarettes on the sly."

"Oh, Daddy, how could you read all that?"

"It's easy enough, my son, when you get the knack of it. But look here, we are Indians on the war-trail, and don't you forget it if you value your scalp! Aha, here is Humpty Dumpty's trail!"

Uncle Pat had laid down a paper trail from this point, as Daddy well knew; so now the children were off like a little pack of eager harriers, following in and out among the bushes. Presently they had a rest.

"Great Chief, why does a wicked Paleface leave paper wherever he goes?"

Daddy made a great effort.

"He tears up the wicked letters he has written. Then he writes others even wickeder and tears them up in turn. You can see for yourself that he leaves them wherever he goes. Now, warriors, come along!"

Uncle Pat had dodged all over the limited garden, and the tribe followed his trail. Finally, they stopped at a gap in the hedge which leads into the field. There was a little wooden hut in the field, where Daddy used to go and put up a printed cardboard: "WORKING." He found it a very good dodge when he wanted a quiet smoke and a nap. Usually there was nothing else in the field, but this time the Chief pushed the whole tribe hurriedly behind the hedge, and whispered to them to look carefully out between the branches.

In the middle of the field a tripod of sticks supported a kettle. At each side of it was a hunched-up figure in a coloured blanket. Uncle Pat had done his work skilfully and well.

"You must get them before they can reach their rifles," said the Chief. "What about their horses? Black Bear, move down the hedge and bring back word about their horses. If you see none give three whistles."

The whistles were soon heard, and the warrior returned.

"If the horses had been there, what would you have done?"

"Scalped them!" said Dimples.

"Silly ass!" said Laddie. "Who ever heard of a horse's scalp? You would stampede them."

"Of course," said the Chief. "If ever you see a horse grazing, you crawl up to it, spring on its back and then gallop away with your head looking under its neck and only your foot to be seen. Don't you forget it. But we must scupper these rascals on our hunting-grounds."

"Shall we crawl up to them?"

"Yes, crawl up. Then when I give a whoop rush them. Take them alive. I wish to have a word with them first. Carry them into the hut. Go!"

Away went the eager little figures, the chubby babes and the two lithe, active boys. Daddy stood behind the bush watching them. They kept a line and tip-toed along to the camp of the strangers. Then on the Chief's signal they burst into a cry and rushed wildly with waving weapons into the camp of the Palefaces. A moment later the two pillow-made trappers were being dragged off into the hut by the whooping warriors. They were up-ended in one corner when the Chief entered, and the victorious Indians were dancing about in front of them.

"Anybody wounded?" asked the Chief.

"No, no."

"Have you tied their hands?"

With perfect gravity Red Buffalo made movements behind each of the pillows.

"They are tied, great Chief."

"What shall we do with them?"

"Cut off their heads!" shrieked Dimples, who was always the most bloodthirsty of the tribe, though in private life he had been known to weep bitterly over a squashed caterpillar.

"The proper thing is to tie them to a stake," said Laddie.

"What do you mean by killing our buffaloes?" asked Daddy, severely.

The prisoners preserved a sulky silence.

"Shall I shoot the green one?" asked Dimples, presenting his wooden pistol.

"Wait a bit!" said the Chief. "We had best keep one as a hostage and send the other back to say that unless the Chief of the Palefaces pays a ransom within three days."

But at that moment, as a great romancer used to say, a strange thing happened. There was the sound of a turning key and the whole tribe of the Leatherskins was locked into the hut. A moment later a dreadful face appeared at the window, a face daubed with mud and overhung with grass, which drooped down from under a soft cap. The weird creature danced in triumph, and then stooped to set a light to some paper and shavings near the window.

"Heavens!" cried the Chief. "It is Yellow Snake, the ferocious Chief of the Bottlenoses!"

Flame and smoke were rising outside. It was excellently done and perfectly safe, but too much for the younger warriors. The key turned, the door opened, and two tearful babes were in the arms of the kneeling Lady. Red Buffalo and Black Bear were of sterner stuff.

"I'm not frightened, Daddy," said Laddie, though he looked a little pale.

"Nor me," cried Dimples, hurrying to get out of the hut.

"We'll lock the prisoners up with no food and have a council of war upon them in the morning," said the Chief. "Perhaps we've done enough today."

"I rather think you have," said the Lady, as she soothed the poor little sobbing figures.

"That's the worst of having kids to play," said Dimples. "Fancy having a squaw in a warparty!"

"Never mind, we've had a jolly good Indian game," said Laddie, as the sound of a distant bell called them all to the nursery tea.