The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
In the selection of paddles early next morning Sam insisted that the Indian rule be observed, measuring carefully that the length of each implement should just equal the height of its wielder. He chose the narrow maple blade, that it might not split when thrust against the bottom to check speed in a rapid. Further the blades were stained a brilliant orange.
Dick Herron had already picked one of a dozen birch-bark canoes laid away under the bridge over the dry coulee. He knew a good canoe as you would know a good horse. Fourteen feet it measured, of the heavy winter-cut of bark, and with a bottom all of one piece, without cracks or large knots.
The canoe and the paddles they laid at the water's edge. Then they went together to the great warehouse, behind the grill of whose upper room MacDonald was writing. Ordinarily the trappers were not allowed inside the grill, but Dick and Sam were told to help themselves freely. The stocking Dick left to his older companion, assuring himself merely of an hundred rounds of ammunition for his new model Winchester rifle, the 44-40 repeater, then just entering the outskirts of its popularity.
In the obscurity of the wide, low room the old woodsman moved to and fro, ducking his head to avoid things hanging, peering into corners, asking an occasional question of MacDonald, who followed him silently about. Two small steel traps, a narrow, small-meshed fish-net, a fish-line and hooks, powder, ball, and caps for the old man's muzzle-loader, a sack of salt were first laid aside. This represented subsistence. Then matches, a flint-and-steel machine, two four-point blankets. These meant warmth. Then ten pounds of plug tobacco and as many of tea. These were necessary luxuries. And finally a small sack of flour and a side of bacon. These were merely a temporary provision; when they should be exhausted, the men would rely wholly on the forest.
Sam Bolton hovered over the pile, after it was completed, his eyes half shut, naming over its items again and again, assuring himself that nothing lacked. At his side MacDonald made suggestions.
"Got a copper pail, Sam? a frying-pan? cups? How about the axe? Better have an extra knife between you. Need any clothes? Compass all right?"
To each of these questions Sam nodded an assent. So MacDonald, having named everything--with the exception of the canvas square to be used as a tarpaulin or a tent, and soap and towel--fell silent, convinced that he could do nothing more.
But Dick, who had been drumming his fingers idly against the window, turned with a suggestion of his own.
"How're we fixed for shoe pacs? I haven't got any."
At once MacDonald looked blank.
"By George, boys, I ain't got but four or five pairs of moccasins in the place! There's plenty of oil tan; I can fix you all right there. But smoke tans! That Abitibi gang mighty near cleaned me out. You'll have to try the Indians."
Accordingly Bolton and Herron took their way in the dusty little foot-trodden path--there were no horses in that frontier--between the Factor's residence and the Clerk's house, down the meandering trail through the high grasses of the meadow to where the Indian lodges lifted their pointed tops against the sky.
The wigwams were scattered apparently at random. Before each a fire burned. Women and girls busied themselves with a variety of camp-work. A tame crow hopped and fluttered here and there just out of reach of the pointed-nosed, shaggy wolf-dogs.
The latter rushed madly forward at the approaching strangers, yelping in a curious, long-drawn bay, more suggestive of their wolf ancestors than of the domestic animal. Dick and Sam laid about them vigorously with short staffs they had brought for the purpose. Immediately the dogs, recognising their dominance, slunk back. Three men sauntered forward, grinning broadly in amiable greeting. Two or three women, more bashful than the rest, scuttled into the depths of wigwams out of sight. A multitude of children concealed themselves craftily, like a covey of quail, and focussed their bright, bead-like eyes on the new-comers. The rest of the camp went its way unmoved.
"Bo' jou', bo' jou'," greeted Sam Bolton.
"Bo' jou', bo' jou'," replied the three.
These Indians were of the far upper country. They spoke no English nor French, and adhered still to their own tribal customs and religious observances. They had lingered several days beyond their time for the purpose of conjuring. In fact at this very moment the big medicine lodge raised itself in the centre of the encampment like a miniature circus tent. Sam Bolton addressed the two in their own language.
"We wish to buy many moccasins of your old women," said Sam.
Immediately one of the Indians glided away. From time to time during the next few minutes he was intermittently visible as he passed from the dark interior of one wigwam, across the sunlight, and into the dark interior of another.
The older of the two still in company of the white men began to ask questions.
"The Little Father is about to make a long journey?"
"Does one buy so many moccasins for a short?"
"He goes to hunt the fur?"
"In what direction does he set the bow of his canoe?"
Suddenly Dick Herron, who had, as usual, been paying attention to almost anything rather than the matter in hand, darted suddenly toward a clump of grass. In a moment he straightened his back to hold at arm's length a struggling little boy. At the instant of his seizure the child uttered a sharp cry of fright, then closed his lips in the stoicism of his race.
That one cry was enough, however. Rescue darted from the nearest wigwam. A flying figure covered the little distance in a dozen graceful leaps, snatched the child from the young man's hands and stood, one foot advanced, breast heaving, a palpitating, wild thing, like a symbol of defiance.
The girl belonged distinctly to the more attractive type; it required but little imagination to endow her with real beauty. Her figure was straight and slim and well-proportioned, her eyes large, her face oval and quite devoid of the broad, high-cheeked stupidity so common in the northern races. At the moment she flashed like a brand with quick-breathed anger and fear.
[Illustration: The child uttered a sharp cry of fright]
Dick looked at her at first with amazement, then with mingled admiration and mischief. He uttered a ferocious growl and lowered his shoulders as though about to charge. Immediately the defiance broke. The girl turned and fled, plunging like a rabbit into the first shelter that offered, pursued by shrieks of delight from the old squaws, a pleased roar from Dick, and the laughter of the Indian men themselves.
"May-may-gwan," said the oldest Indian, naming her, "foster sister to the boy you had caught."
[Footnote 2: The Butterfly.]
"She is Ojibway, then," exclaimed Dick, catching at the Ojibway word.
"Ae," admitted the Cree, indifferently. Such inclusions of another tribe, either by adoption or marriage, are not uncommon.
At this moment the third Indian approached.
"No moccasins," he reported. "Plenty buckskin."
Sam Bolton looked troubled. This meant a delay. However, it could not be avoided.
"Let the old women make some," he decided.
The Cree old-man shook his head.
"That cannot be. There is not time. We turn our canoes to the Missinaibie by next sun."
Sam pondered again, turning over in his mind this fresh complication. But Dick, kicking the earth clods in impatience, broke in.
"Well, we're going by the Missinaibie, too. Let the women make the moccasins. We will accompany you."
"That might be," replied the Indian.
"It is well," said Bolton.
An old woman was summoned. She measured her customers' feet with a buckskin thong. Then they departed without further ceremony. An Indian rarely says farewell. When his business is finished he goes.
"Dick," said Sam, "you ought not to have broke in there."
"What do you mean?" asked the other, puzzled.
"Suggesting our travelling with them."
"Why?" cried Dick in astonishment. "Ain't you never travelled with Injuns before?"
"That ain't th' question. Did you notice that third Injun? the one who didn't do any talking?"
"Sure! What of him?"
"Well, he's an Ojibway. Th' rest are Wood Crees. And I miss my guess if he ain't a bad customer. He watched us mighty close, and his eyes are bad. He's sharp. He's one of that wondering kind. He's wondering now who we are, and where we're going, and why we're hitting so long a trail. And what's more, he belongs to this Jingoss's people in a roundabout sort of way. He's worse than fifty Crees. Maybe he knows all about Jingoss, and if he does, he'll get suspicious the minute we angle down into that country."
"Let's let 'em slide, then," suggested Dick, impatiently. "Let's buy some buckskin and make our own moccasins."
"Too late now," negatived Sam. "To back out would be bad."
"Oh, well, you're just borrowing trouble anyway," laughed Dick.
"Maybe, maybe," acknowledged the other; "but borrowing trouble, and then figuring out how you're going to meet it if it comes to you in good earnest, is mighty good woodcraft."
"Sam," burst out Dick, whose attention had been caught by a word in his companion's first speech, and whose mind had been running on it throughout the ensuing discussion, "did you notice that girl? She's a tearing little beauty!"