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The Wolf Dance - A Wild, Weird Animal Ceremony
Denver Post - July 2, 1905, Page 2

(By an Old Plainsman, 520 High Street)

Has any one of The Post readers ever seen or heard of a wolf dance? I have met a few hunters who say that wolves in packs sometimes go through evolutions without a victim as principal in the strange ceremony, but beyond the simple statement of the fact no one up to the time of our camp on the Grand, in the '60s, has come to the front with a relation of personal experience worthy to substantiate the claim. It rested with Dick Saitiel )Salt Heel, we called him in camp) to enlighten us on this most extraordinary characteristic, which I had always heretofore thought belonged only to the uncivilized human occupants of forest and plain. The latter, as we all know - our plains Indians - and, in fact, the uncivilized races of men in all countries, indulge in uncouth and complicat3ed gyrations in the way of religious ceremony.

The wild orgy designated a wolf dance is a dance in every sense, and the few who have experienced it and lived are confident that the occurrences are rare, and never take place without a victim. It usually results fatally to the man, although such casualty does not seem to be intended by the pack. The dance is one of the conumdrums of animal life, and was at the time of our advent into Colorado the origin of much superstition.

The few men who have witnessed the wolf dance claim that it always occurs in some high altitude. Old-time residents of Denver, especially those who are lovers of nature and students of natural history, will tell you that the wolves in Middle park were in the habit of dancing, and instances are known where such ceremonies have transpired on the higher plateaus of California. Only a few cases, however are known, and only one whose authenticity was beyond question, for, although our party did not actually witness the dance, we went to the rescue of the victim, and wwe were forced to admit that his condition warranted any extravagant proposition, for Dick, when we found him after the experience in question, looked as if he had gone throgh a modern steam thresher. There may be others but Dick Saltiel's experience is better authenticated than any we know of. It happened about a week after our battle with the pack, which besieged us in the deserted shack, and while our hunting camp was still located on the Grand. Dick Saltiel and Otis Jackson, a partner, we had met and joined forces with in gameland. They were both old-time mountaineers and trappers, and our meeting with them was partly responsible for the adoption of plans which, although favored by my own contingent of the consolidated company, we hardly dared avow preference for without other support than the inclination to vagabondism inherent in every so-called civilized man.

For two or three days we had been unable to hunt, owing to freakish weather. I have seen freakish weather in Colorado - especially in the neighborhood of the mountains. At the time in question it snowed! Snow in June! It is an unprecedented incident.

We put in the days in a monotonous way, and the time was supportable owing to the fact that most of our company hasd had considerable range of experience in vagabondism, and they knew how to talk entertainingly of their varied adventures.

When the weather began to improve, Saltiel signified his intention of trying to round up some fresh meat. It was late in the day and we suggested that he forego the expedition until the following morning, but he chose to ignore our advice, and none of the company volunteered to accompany him, as the chances for game in such weather was not considered promising.

The story is best told in Saitiel's own words:

"I had left camp but a short distance, going west up the range, when I struck the trail of a sheep. The footprints were plain in the unmelted snow that everywhere covered the ground, and I had no trouble in following it rapidly. It led directly away from camp, and upward along rough and devious paths toward the higher altitudes of the range. I followed the trail upward for two miles, perhaps, when suddenly darkness began to settle down on the hills and warned me that it was not only useless but might be dangerous to continue onward. Before taking the backward trail I sat down for a few minutes on a boulder to rest. The landscape was all rocks and gullies below, with patches of brushwood and an occasional green slope, where the snow had disappeared. Above it rose abruptly, presenting in places the character almost of precipices. As the rose and purple of the distant peaks took on the somber gray of night, the silence of death seemed to fall on nature. It was the dividing hour between day and night. A sudden chill began to crrep over me - the influence of surroundings rather than the crispness of the high altitude air.

"Somewhat disappointed with my failure to overhaul the game, I was about to start back toward camp when suddenly my attention was called to a noise which originated almost directly above where I sat. A small boulder came coasting down the bluff from some point above. I looked up and saw the sheep looking over a ledge squarely down upon me. I sent a hasty shot in its direction and was directly astonished, when the quarry came tumbling down the rugged declivity and subsided very near to where I stood. It is needless to say that I was elated. I had little expectation of killing the animal, considering the distance and growing darkness.

"I did not wait to dress my game, but shouldered it while it was yet kicking, and started campward, thinking how mightily pleased you boys would be for the timely supply of fresh meat.

"And now comes the tragedy of my story. I had not proceeded far on the homeward tramp, when I became conscious of the fact that I was being followed. A peculiar pattering sound first attracted my notice, but I could neither defined nor locate it. It seemed sometimes to come from the rear; then it shifted to the flanks, and again I imagined that the disturbance was in front of me. Several times I halted, and looked long and carefully in every direction, but nothing unusual appeared in the gathering twilight. Then, when I halted, the noises also suddenly ceased.

"Presently I began to think that my imagination had been doing extra duty, and I once more started on toward camp. But soon as I was in motion the mysterious noises were once more in evidence, this time nearer and on every side of me. When I stopped the noises ceased; when I moved on they recommenced; there could be no mistake about it - they were too palpable and were beginning to grow suggestive.

"I was now within half a mile of camp, when I observed an enormous gray wolf right in front of me, and only a few yards away. I dropped the sheep and tried to get a shot at the brute, but it vanished in the darkness. The soft and incessant pattering continued, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was surrounded and being pursued by wolves, which scented the blood of the young bighorn and were going to improve the opportunity to get a dinner. And it was not likely that they, after tasting of warm flesh would be satisfied to let the human get away. It was with a shudder that I realized this fact. The locality was almost clear of boulders, there was very little underbrush and no trees where it was possible for me to take refuge. There was nothing to do but to make the fight of my life and scoot for camp without the sheep. I was buoyed with the hoe that you fellows would hear the demonstration and come to my assistance.

"Scarcely had I decided how to act, when I heard the pack drawing closer to me, and I now could see a number of dusky forms moving stealthily through the scant herbage. Nearer they ventured each moment, and I commenced emptying my Winchester into their ranks - not with any hope of driving the brutes away, but thinking to notify the camp that I was in trouble. My firing was not without effect, for I could hear yelps of pains or snarls of rage, following almost every discharge of my weapon.

"Presently my path in front was blocked with a writhing, restless mass of wolves, and on all sides I could hear them whining and snarling, but for some unaccountable reason they did not approach to attack me. It was now dark, as the moon, past the full, had not risen above the eastern hills. I began to realize my danger, but for my life could think of no way out of it. I could not kill all the brutes, and to get out of their way seemed impossible. There was no place where I could secure refuge, as the country was open and almost bare of verdure; not even a rock that I could climb and gain a more vantageous position for a 'hand-to-hand' fight with the attacking horde. Despairing of escape, I began shooting fast as I could, determined not to die unavenged, then I was not without hope that you, my friends, would hear and come to my rescue. None of the animals had as yet ventured to molest me, but they kept coming closer every moment, while I pumped lead into their ranks fast as I could manipulate the leaver of my repeater.

"I will never know how many I killed - it must have been one or more with each shot, for so numerous was the pack that to miss doing execution would have been out of the question. But at last, to my dismay, I found both my magazine and my cartridge belt empty. My repeater was useless, so I abandoned it and drew from my belt a sharp hatchet which I carried for various purposes.

"For several moments I stood motionless, surrounded by the britling pack, my arm raised ready to cleave the sharp-edged tool into the brain of the first of the attacking horde. Each moment seemed interminable, but I had been in critical attitudes before, and I did not waste sympathy on myself. I simply waited for the final rush and strugle, resolved to kill as many of the savage brutes as possible before I went down. Of course, I fully believed my last hour was come, but I would live as long as possible and die like a veteran - fighting.

"I turned around slowly, keeping my eyes on the foremost of the pack, ready, strangely enough, even anxious, for the deadly combat to begin, though I knew that it could last only for the briefest possible time. But my calculations were wasted, my demonstration futile. The whole pack sprung upon me at once. I was thrown prostrate and buried below a wriggling, suffocating mass of shaggy fur. I ws rendered powerless at once, the hatchet knocked from my hand without my having been able to even attempt its use. I could only lie passive, wondering why the ravenous-looking brutes did not immediately rend me to pieces. But instead of doing me serious bodily injury they gave way and left me in the middle of a circle. They surrounded me, snapping, growling, bristling, with dangerous-looking fangs bared, but I was not bitten.

"I arose and tried to recover the hatchet, but the action on my part seemed to be the signal for a second attack, and this time I was not only thrown down, but was dragged several rods over the snow. As before, I found myself uninjured when they releeased me and I wondered if design or accident was responsible for the circumstance.

"But worse was coming. Suddenly the pack began to circle around me. Occasionally a member would spring from the group and snap at me, and would generally carry away a mouthful of my clothes, and not infrequently pinched the flesh. In a short time I was clothed very much like original man and the soft, slushy snow thrown over me by the feet of the flying pack ran down my body in icy streams.

"Directly the pack ceased its gyrations and a number of the brutes, with raised heads and necks distended, uttered the most unearthly howls. The shaggy fiends stood still but a moment, then all began to circle around me a second time. I was now on my knees and yelling like a Comanche - for no particular reason, as I see it now, unless to be en rapport with the mood of my tormentors. There are as curious phases in human as in brute nature. Only a line - a very narrow one - separates between reason and its antipode. I remember how I screamed with laughter as amid all the horrors of the situation the ludicrous aspect of the affair appealed to my sense of humor.

"Was I temporarily insane?

"There must have been 100 of the gaunt brutes, and they were now moving without a sound. They passed over the ground like shadowy creatures and the scores of fiery eyes anon appearing and disappearing in the darkness, the bared fangs bursting out in swiftly flitting points of white against the somber background of night, made a fitting representation of the lurid tints of a real inferno.

"Round and round they went, their movements becoming more and more rapid, until nothing could be seen but darting points of fire or zig-zag streaks of milky whie. I was dizzy with the whirl; I felt as thought I were an actual participant in the movement instead of a witness.

"Presently the figure changed. The beasts executed a series of jumps, walking upright on hind legs, but still keeping up their rotary motion. Then came a combination of movements. A small part of the pack walked round in a circle close to me, while the others commenced to jump over one another, presenting a spectacle not unliek a choppy sea on a dark night. How long the weird ceremony was kept up I have no idea. Every moment, of course, seemed like an hour to me. But it ended as it began, with another prolonged how in concert.

"And now those nearest me began to growl and snap at me, this time with the evident intention to do me bodily injury. In a short time I was bleeding from more than a score of insignificant but painful wounds. I tried to fight off the beasts with my naked hands, but I was by this time too nearly exhausted to put forth much of an effort to protect myself. The whole pack voiced a kind of chant or low, continuous howl, and the dance was renewed, the movements varied, indiscriminate, dervish-like, wild - the scene presenting a semblance of pandemonium. They bit and snapped, made feints in my direction - often, alask, nipped my bare quivering flesh and anon returned to the dance. Round and round they went, jumping over one another in a kidn of wild frenzy, faster, until, notwithstanding my peril and agony, I could but wonder at their endurance. They proved tireless and gradually gained speed until they fairly flew over the ground and were at the end running over me as if my poor body was a common clod, or I did not exist.

"I still realized all the horrors of my position. Suffering untold agony in body and mind, I saw nothing before me but death asnd felt impatient at its delay.

"Suddenly above the demonical din I heard the sharp reports of firearms - at the time I thought the sounds were cords snapping in my brain. Then came welcome oblivion. You boys - bless your old hearts - know the rest."

Dr. Garver had Saitiel done up in court plaster and linen. For many days he was a helpless bundle of aches and pains, but fortunately he had suffered no permanent injury. When he recovered sufficiently we told him about his rescue. Of course, we were uneasy when darkness came and he did not appear. Jack Bell several times went beyond the noise of the camp to listen, hoping to hear his footsteps, but hearing instead the howling of the wolves. He called the others. We seized our weapons, turned the dogs loose and went toward the sound, fearful that our missing companion was being devoured by the pack.

Dogs and guns were an element in the play which the cowardly creatures could not face, and they vanished like gray shadows in the darkness. The victim, poor Dick Saltiel, lay in plain sight, unconsious, on the ground. We carried him to camp, with very little expectation that he would ever speak again. But Dr. Garver brought him to, all right, and in a few days he was able to hunt again. But he shivers whenever he thinks of his adventure, and he swears that he will never, if he can help it, be a principal in another wolf dance.

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