The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
The Indian advanced silently to the fireside, where he squatted on his heels. He filled a pipe, scraping the tobacco from the square plug Sam extended to him. While he did this, and while he stuffed it into the bowl, his keen eyes shifted here and there, gathering the material for conclusions.
Sam, watchful but also silent, could almost follow his mental processes. The canoe meant travel, the meagreness of the outfits either rapid or short travel, the two steel traps travel beyond the sources of supply. Then inspection passed lightly over the girl and from her to the younger man. With a flash of illumination Sam Bolton saw how valuable in allaying suspicion this evidence of a peaceful errand might prove to be. Men did not bring their women on important missions involving speed and danger.
Abruptly the Indian spoke, going directly to the heart of the matter, after the Indian fashion.
"Where you from?"
"Winnipeg," replied Sam, naming the headquarters of the Company.
The direction of travel was toward Winnipeg. Sam was perfectly aware of the discrepancy, but he knew better than to offer gratuitous explanation. The Indian smoked.
"Where you come from now?" he inquired, finally.
[Footnote 5: Lake Superior.]
This was understandable. Remained only the object of an expedition of this peculiar character. Sam Bolton knew that the Indian would satisfy himself by surmises,--he would never apply the direct question to a man's affairs,--and surmise might come dangerously near the truth. So he proceeded to impart a little information in his own way.
"You are the hunter of this district?" Sam asked.
"How far do you trap?"
The Indian mentioned creeks and rivers as his boundaries.
"Where do you get your debt?"
"That is a long trail."
"Do many take it each year?"
The Indian mentioned rapidly a dozen names of families.
Sam at once took another tack.
"I do not know this country. Are there large lakes?"
"There is Animiki."
"Has it fish? Good wood?"
"Much wood. Oga, kinoj."
[Footnote 6: Pickerel.]
[Footnote 7: Pike.]
"Could a brigade of canoes reach it easily?" he inquired.
Now a brigade is distinctly an institution of the Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company. It is used for two purposes; to maintain communication with the outside world, and to establish winter camps in the autumn or to break them up in the spring. At once the situation became clear. A gleam of comprehension flashed over the Indian's eyes. With the peculiar attention to detail distinctively the forest runner's he indicated a route. Sam was satisfied to let the matter rest there for the present.
The next evening he visited the Indian's camp. It was made under a spreading tree, the tepee poles partly resting against some of the lower branches. The squaw and her woman child kept to the shadows of the wigwam, but the boy, a youth of perhaps fifteen years, joined the men by the fire.
Sam accepted the hospitality of a pipe of tobacco, and attacked the question in hand from a ground tacitly assumed since the evening before.
"If Hutsonbaycompany make winterpost on Animiki will you get your debt there instead of Missinaibie?" he asked first of all.
Of course the Indian assented.
"How much fur do you get, good year?"
The Indian rapidly ran over a list.
"Lots of fur. Is it going to last? Do you keep district strict here?" inquired Sam.
Under cover of this question Sam was feeling for important information. As has perhaps been mentioned, in a normal Indian community each head of a family is assigned certain hunting districts over which he has exclusive hunting and trapping privileges. This naturally tends toward preservation of the fur. An Indian knows not only where each beaver dam is situated, but he knows also the number of beaver it contains and how many can be taken without diminution of the supply. If, however, the privileges are not strictly guarded, such moderation does not obtain. When an Indian finds a dam, he cleans it out; because if he does not, the next comer will. Sam's question then apparently had reference only to the probability that the fur in a close district would be strictly enough preserved to make the establishment of a winter post worth while. In reality he wanted to measure the possibility of an outsider's gaining a foothold. Logically in a section where the tribal rights were rigidly held to, this would be impossible except through friendship or purchase; while in a more loosely organized community a stranger might readily insinuate himself.
"Good keeping of district," replied the Indian. "I keep head-waters of Kabinikagam down to Sand River. When I find man trapping on my ground, I shoot him. Fur last all right."
This sufficed for the moment. The next morning Sam went over early to the other camp.
"To-day I think we go," he announced. "Now you tell me all the hunters, where I find them, what are their districts, how much fur they kill."
"Ah hah!" assented the Indian. Sam's leisurely and indirect method had convinced him. Easily given information on the other hand would have set him to thinking; and to think, with an Indian, is usually to become suspicious.
The two descended to the shore. There they squatted on their heels before a little patch of wet sand while the Indian explained. He marked roughly, but with almost the accuracy of a survey, the courses of streams and hills, and told of the routes among them. Sam listened, his gnarled mahogany hand across his mouth, his shrewd gray eyes bent attentively on the cabalistic signs and scratches. An Indian will remember, from once traversing it, not only the greater landmarks, but the little incidents of bowlder, current, eddy, strip of woods, bend of trail. It remains clear-cut in his mind forever after. The old woodsman had in his long experience acquired something of this faculty. He comprehended the details, and, what is more, stored them away in his memory where he could turn to them readily. This was no small feat.
With an abrupt movement of the back of his hand the Indian smoothed the sand. Squatting back more on his haunches, he refilled his pipe and began to tell of the trappers. In their description he referred always to the map he had drawn on Bolton's imagination as though it had actually lain spread out before them. Sam referred each name to its district, as you or I would write it across the section of a chart, and kept accurately in mind which squares of the invisible map had been thus assigned and which not. It was an extraordinary effort, but one not unusual among practised woods runners. This peculiarly minute and concrete power of recollection is early developed in the wild life.
The Indian finished. Sam remained a moment in contemplation. The districts were all occupied, and the name of Jingoes did not appear. That was, however, a small matter. The Ojibway might well have changed his name, or he might be paying for the privilege of hunting in another man's territory. A less experienced man would have been strongly tempted to the more direct question. But Sam knew that the faintest hint of ulterior motive would not be lost on the Indian's sharp perceptions. An inquiry, carelessly and indirectly made, might do no harm. But then again it might. And it was better to lose two years of time in the search than a single grain of confidence in those with whom the little party might come in contact.
After all, Sam Bolton was well satisfied. He had, by his simple diplomacy, gained several valuable results. He had firmly convinced one man of a common body, wherein news travels quickly, of his apparent intentions; he had, furthermore, an exact knowledge of where to find each and every district head-man of the whole Kabinikagam country. Whether or not the man he sought would prove to be one of these head-men, or the guest or lessee of one of them, was a question only to be answered by direct search. At least he knew where to search, which was a distinct and valuable advantage.
"Mi-gwetch--thank you," he said to the Indian when he had finished. "I understand. I go now to see the Lake. I go to talk to each of your head-men. I go to see the trapping country with my own eyes. When I have seen all, I go to Winnipeg to tell my head-man what I have seen."
The Indian nodded. It would have been quite inconceivable to him had Sam suggested accepting anything less than the evidence of his eyes.
The three resumed their journey that afternoon. Sam knew exactly where he was going. Dick had fallen into a sullen yet rebellious mood, unaccountable even to himself. In his spirit was the ferment of a resentfulness absolutely without logical object. With such a man ferment demands action. Here, in the accustomed labours of this woods travel, was nothing to bite on save monotony. Dick Herron resented the monotony, resented the deliberation necessary to so delicate a mission, resented the unvarying tug of his tump-line or the unchanging yield of the water to his paddle, resented the placidity of the older man, above all resented the meek and pathetic submissiveness of the girl. His narrow eyes concentrated their gaze ominously. He muttered to himself. The untrained, instinctive strength of the man's spirit fretted against delay. His enthusiasm, the fire of his hope, urged him to earn his self-approval by great exertion. Great exertion was impossible. Always, day by day, night by night, he chafed at the snail-like pace with which things moved, chafed at the delay imposed by the nature of the quest, the policy of the old man, the presence of the girl. Only, in the rudimentary processes of his intelligence, he confused the three in one, and the presence of the girl alone received the brunt of his sullen displeasure. In the splendour of his strength, head down, heart evil, restrained to a bitter obedience only by the knowledge that he could do nothing alone, he broke through the opposing wilderness.