There was no obvious reason for the prickle of alarm that raced up Snow Wolf’s spine when he saw the dead horse, but he decided to leave the snowy trail anyway and investigate. The Indian youth had been taught that to survive he must trust his instinct even more than his sharp eyes and keen ears.
The corpse was not that of an Indian pony. There were thick callouses caused by straining against a harness. One foreleg was broken. Mercifully, the suffering animal had been shot. It died about ten days ago, he decided after studying the signs. Deep wagon ruts led eastward. So the settlers could not have gone very far with only one horse to pull such a heavy load.
Snow Wolf looked around and strained to hear above the howling wind. Swirling snow narrowed his dark eyes to slits. Threatening clouds and a sudden drop in temperature had halted his hunt. Sensing that a blizzard was coming, he was loping back toward his village. Now, although he saw no danger, he proceeded more cautiously. Because of past incidents, there was a mutual distrust between his people and the settlers.
The youth picked up the faint scent of wood smoke. He hesitated, then turned aside to follow it. It could be a hunter from his village. But unless a brave were injured, he would not make a fire and camp so close to home in such threatening weather. The coming blizzard would rage for several days.
When he saw the crude shelter and a wagon, Snow Wolf stealthily made his way from one tree to another. It was a white man’s camp! He circled the clearing and saw that only a mud and stone fireplace and three log walls had been thrown up and roofed. It was not enough shelter for the raking blizzards common to this area where snow piled in fifteen-foot drifts. Three walls were nothing more than a windbreak. The settlers will not survive the coming storm! he thought.
A white woman huddled close to a meager fire with two small children wrapped in quilts. The oldest child’s face was red with fever. Both were wracked with constant coughing. There was no cooking pot over the fire. They had no food! Snow Wolf’s conscience felt the weight of the three fat rabbits dangling from his belt. His family had venison, buffalo meat, and fish they had dried in the fall. But will it be enough to outlast the blizzard? he wondered.
A horse plodded into the clearing, dragging a log. It was led by a tall man, who staggered with weariness and whose face was gray with fatigue. Snow Wolf knew that the man could not finish the remaining wall alone before the storm hit with its killing temperatures—not without food, at least. And building the cabin had robbed him of time to hunt.
The youth was deeply troubled about the plight of the little family. He was willing to share his food and to help build the wall, but he was hesitant about approaching them. It could be dangerous if they misunderstood his motives. A series of deep, croupy coughs from one of the children made him decide to risk the danger.
The frightened parents whirled and stared with dread and disbelief as Snow Wolf stepped out from the pine trees. He shouted his tribe’s word for friend and stood, waiting tensely, ready to leap back into the forest if anyone reached for the gun he saw leaning against a wall.
They didn’t understand the word, but their fear vanished when they saw the rabbits Snow Wolf held out toward them. An enemy would not bring food to his victims. The youth smiled as the blond woman took the rabbits and nodded her thanks. He walked to the log and lifted one end, to show his willingness to help.
Snow Wolf led the father to a ravine where floods and erosion had downed many tall trees—trees that would provide logs faster than felling them with an axe. The youth used the horse to drag them to the cabin site, while the white man trimmed them and notched the ends so they could be lifted into place. Chinking the gaps between the logs with moss instead of mud was easier and faster. When the wall was waist high, Snow Wolf motioned the woman and children inside. The wall was closed with canvas and a quilt was hung over the doorway to provide more protection while the men continued working.
The last log was in place, and the father was making a door from one side of the wagon bed, when he realized that both his horse and the Indian youth had vanished! He felt betrayed. Snow Wolf had hauled in a giant pile of firewood and given them food. He had worked hard to help build the wall. Did he help us only for an opportunity to steal our remaining horse? The man sighed in disappointment. Losing the horse was bad, but losing what he had thought was a friend was far worse.
The man nailed the door into place and straightened his aching back. He stood back and looked with pride at the snug cabin. His family could not have survived without it, and he could not have finished it without Snow Wolf’s help. The youth earned the horse, so I won’t begrudge it, he decided.
Smoke curled from the chimney and was snatched away by the wind as the full force of the blizzard struck. The father filled his arms with cut logs outside and came reeling into the warmth of their new home. The smell of rabbit stew was tantalizing. He decided that he would not mention the loss of their horse to his wife, who was already so worried about the children.
After supper, he split logs and made two sleeping platforms for beds. He tried not to hear the choked coughs and labored breathing of the little girls as he worked on benches and made a long table. But fear clutched at his chest nevertheless. The children were restless and feverish as their mother hovered over them, her face white and drawn. She was so worried that she hadn’t even thought to ask about Snow Wolf. How alone they were!
Suddenly there was a loud bump; then snow swirled into the room as the door burst open. The couple stared incredulously as Snow Wolf and an elderly Indian woman entered, bringing food and buffalo hides. How could they have found their way in such a blinding blizzard!
Sarah hesitated only a moment, then moved aside to let the Indian woman bend over the sick children. Expertly the Indian woman crumbled herbs into the water boiling on the hearth, and soon the cabin filled with steam and an aromatic scent. She warmed a pungent salve and rubbed it on the feverish children, then raised their heads to give them sips of the herbal drink to stop their coughing. Soon the children drifted off to sleep.
How quiet the cabin seemed, even with the lashing wind outside. The two women needed no words as they sat together near the hearth, occasionally nodding at each other in perfect understanding.
Snow Wolf and the father carried in more supplies, then stacked cut logs to the ceiling on both sides of the fireplace. Together they made a brush shelter for the horse.
The children slept, no longer struggling for each breath. They were almost cool when their mother walked over and tenderly touched them. Her lips quivered and her eyes were misty as she looked around the cabin, so cozy now in the firelight, and then into the faces of their new friends.