The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
Camp was made among the trees of an elevated bank above a small brook.
Already the Indian women had pitched the shelters, spreading squares of canvas, strips of birch-bark or tanned skins over roughly improvised lean-to poles. A half dozen tiny fires, too, they had built, over which some were at the moment engaged in hanging as many kettles. Several of the younger women were cleaning fish and threading them on switches. Others brought in the small twigs for fuel. Among them could be seen May-may-gwan, the young Ojibway girl, gliding here and there, eyes downcast, inexpressibly graceful in contrast with the Crees.
At once on landing the men took up their share of the work. Like the birds of the air and the beasts of the wood their first thoughts turned to the assurance of food. Two young fellows stretched a gill-net across the mouth of the creek. Others scattered in search of favourable spots in which to set the musk-rat traps, to hang snares for rabbits and grouse.
Soon the camp took on the air of age, of long establishment, that is so suddenly to be won in the forest. The kettles began to bubble; the impaled fish to turn brown. A delicious odour of open-air cooking permeated the air. Men filled pipes and smoked in contemplation; children warmed themselves as near the tiny fires as they dared. Out of the dense blackness of the forest from time to time staggered what at first looked to be an uncouth and misshapen monster, but which presently resolved itself into an Indian leaning under a burden of spruce-boughs, so smoothly laid along the haft of a long forked stick that the bearer of the burden could sling it across his shoulder like a bale of hay. As he threw it to the ground, a delicate spice-like aroma disengaged itself to mingle with the smell of cooking. Just at the edge of camp sat the wolf-dogs, their yellow eyes gleaming, waiting in patience for their tardy share.
After the meal the women drew apart. Dick's eyes roved in vain, seeking a glimpse of the Ojibway girl. He was too familiar with Indian etiquette to make an advance, and in fact his interest was but languidly aroused.
The men sat about the larger fire smoking. It was the hour of relaxation. In the blaze their handsome or strong-lined brown faces lighted good-humouredly. They talked and laughed in low tones, the long syllables of their language lisping and hissing in strange analogy to the noises of the fire or the forest or the rapids or some other natural thing. Their speech was of the chances of the woods and the approaching visit to their Ojibway brothers in the south. For this they had brought their grand ceremonial robes of deerskin, now stowed securely in bags. The white men were silent. In a little while the pipes were finished. The camp was asleep. Through the ashes and the embers prowled the wolf-dogs, but half-fed, seeking scraps. Soon they took to the beach in search of cast-up fish. There they wandered all night long under the moon voicing their immemorial wrongs to the silenced forest.
Almost at first streak of dawn the women were abroad. Shortly after, the men visited their traps and lifted the nets. In this land and season of plenty the catch had been good. The snares had strangled three hares; the steel traps had caught five muskrats, which are very good eating in spite of their appearance; the net had intercepted a number of pickerel, suckers, and river whitefish. This, with the meat of the caribou, shot by Three Fingers the day before, and the supplies brought from the Post, made ample provision.
Nevertheless, when the camp had been struck and the canoes loaded, the order of march was reversed. Now the men took the lead by a good margin, and the women and children followed. For in the wooded country game drinks early.
Before setting out, however, old Haukemah blazed a fair clean place on a fir-tree, and with hard charcoal from the fire marked on it these characters:
[Illustration: random characters]
"Can you read Injun writin'?" asked Dick. "I can't."
"Yes," replied Sam, "learned her when I was snowed up one winter with Scar-Face down by the Burwash Lake country." He squinted his eyes, reading the syllables slowly.
"'Abichi-ka-menot Moosamik-ka-ja yank. Missowa edookan owasi sek negi--' Why, it's Ojibway, not Cree," he exclaimed. "They're just leaving a record. 'Good journey from Moose Factory. Big game has been seen.' Funny how plumb curious an Injun is. They ain't one could come along here and see th' signs of this camp and rest easy 'till he'd figgered out how many they were, and where they were going, and what they were doing, and all about it. These records are a kind-hearted try to save other Injuns that come along a whole lot of trouble. That's why old Haukemah wrote it in Ojibway 'stead of Cree: this is by rights Ojibway country."
"We'd better pike out, if we don't want to get back with th' squaws," suggested Dick.
About two hours before noon, while the men's squadron was paddling slowly along a flat bank overgrown with grass and bushes, Dick and Sam perceived a sudden excitement in the leading canoes. Haukemah stopped, then cautiously backed until well behind the screen of the point. The other canoes followed his example. In a moment they were all headed down stream, creeping along noiselessly without lifting their paddles from the water.
"They've seen some game beyant the point," whispered Dick. "Wonder what it is?"
But instead of pausing when out of earshot for the purpose of uncasing the guns or landing a stalking party, the Indians crept, gradually from the shore, caught the current, and shot away down stream in the direction from which they had come.
"It's a bear," said Sam, quietly. "They've gone to get their war-paint on."
The men rested the bow of their canoe lightly against the shore, and waited. In a short time the Indian canoes reappeared.
"Say, they've surely got th' dry goods!" commented Dick, amused.
In the short interval that had elapsed, the Indians had intercepted their women, unpacked their baggage, and arrayed themselves in their finest dress of ceremony. Buckskin elaborately embroidered with beads and silks in the flower pattern, ornaments of brass and silver, sacred skins of the beaver, broad dashes of ochre and vermilion on the naked skin, twisted streamers of coloured wool--all added to the barbaric gorgeousness of the old-time savage in his native state. Each bowsman carried a long brass-bound forty-five "trade-gun," warranted to kill up to ten yards.
"It's surely a nifty outfit!" commented Sam, half admiringly.
A half dozen of the younger men were landed. At once they disappeared in the underbrush. Although the two white men strained their keen senses they were unable to distinguish by sight or sound the progress of the party through the bushes.
"I guess they're hunters, all right," conceded Dick.
The other men waited like bronze statues. After a long interval a pine-warbler uttered its lisping note. Immediately the paddles dipped in the silent deer-stalker's stroke, and the cavalcade crept forward around the point.
Dick swept the shore with his eye, but saw nothing. Then all heard plainly a half-smothered grunt of satisfaction, followed by a deep drawn breath. Phantom-like, without apparently the slightest directing motion, the bows of the canoes swung like wind-vanes to point toward a little heap of driftlogs under the shadow of an elder bush. The bear was wallowing in the cool, wet sand, and evidently enjoying it. A moment later he stuck his head over the pile of driftwood, and indulged in a leisurely survey of the river.
His eye was introspective, vacant, his mouth was half open, and his tongue lolled out so comically that Dick almost laughed aloud. No one moved by so much as a hand's breadth. The bear dropped back to his cooling sand with a sigh of voluptuous pleasure. The canoes drew a little nearer.
Now old Haukemah rose to his height in the bow of his canoe, and began to speak rapidly in a low voice. Immediately the animal bobbed into sight again, his wicked little eyes snapping with intelligence. It took him some moments to determine what these motionless, bright-coloured objects might be. Then he turned toward the land, but stopped short as his awakened senses brought him the reek of the young men who had hemmed in his shoreward escape. He was not yet thoroughly alarmed, so stood there swaying uneasily back and forth, after the manner of bears, while Haukemah spoke swiftly in the soft Cree tongue.
"Oh, makwa, our little brother," he said, "we come to you not in anger, nor in disrespect. We come to do you a kindness. Here is hunger and cold and enemies. In the Afterland is only happiness. So if we shoot you, oh makwa, our little brother, be not angry with us."
He raised his trade-gun and pulled the trigger. A scattering volley broke from the other canoes and from the young men concealed in the bushes.
Now a trade-gun is a gun meant to trade. It is a section of what looks to be gas-pipe, bound by brass bands to a long, clumsy, wooden stick that extends within an inch of the end of the barrel. It is supposed to shoot ball or shot. As a matter of fact the marksman's success depends more on his luck than his skill. Were it not for the Woods-Indian's extraordinary powers of still-hunting so that he can generally approach very near to his game, his success would be small indeed.
With the shock of a dozen little bullets the bear went down, snarling and biting and scattering the sand, but was immediately afoot again. A black bear is not a particularly dangerous beast in ordinary circumstances--but occasionally he contributes quite a surprise to the experience of those who encounter him. This bear was badly wounded and cruelly frightened. His keen sense of smell informed him that the bushes contained enemies--how many he did not know, but they were concealed, unknown, and therefore dreadful. In front of him was something definite. Before the astonished Indians could back water, he had dashed into the shallows, and planted his paws on the bow of old Haukemah's canoe.
A simultaneous cry of alarm burst from the other Indians. Some began frantically to recharge their muzzle-loading trade-guns; others dashed toward the spot as rapidly as paddle or moccasin could bring them. Haukemah himself roused valiantly to the defence, but was promptly upset and pounced upon by the enraged animal. A smother of spray enveloped the scene. Dick Herron rose suddenly to his feet and shot. The bear collapsed into the muddied water, his head doubled under, a thin stream of arterial blood stringing away down the current. Haukemah and his steersman rose dripping. A short pause of silence ensued.
"Well, you are a wonder!" ejaculated Sam Bolton at last. "How in thunder did you do that? I couldn't make nothing out of that tangle--at least nothing clear enough to shoot at!"
"Luck," replied Dick, briefly. "I took a snap shot, and happened to make it."
"You ran mighty big chances of winning old Haukemah," objected Sam.
"Sure! But I didn't," answered Dick, conclusively.
The Indians gathered to examine in respectful admiration. Dick's bullet had passed from ear to ear. To them it was wonderful shooting, as indeed it would have been had it indicated anything but the most reckless luck. Haukemah was somewhat disgusted at the wetting of his finery, but the bear is a sacred animal, and even ceremonial dress and an explanation of the motives that demanded his death might not be sufficient to appease his divinity. The women's squadron appeared about the bend, and added their cries of rejoicing to those of their husbands and brothers.
The beautiful buckskin garments were hastily exchanged for ordinary apparel. By dint of much wading, tugging, and rolling the carcass was teased to the dry beach. There the body was securely anchored by the paws to small trees, and the work of skinning and butchering began.
Not a shred was wasted. Whatever flesh would not be consumed within a few days they cut into very thin strips and hung across poles to dry. Scraps went to the dogs, who were for once well fed. Three of the older squaws went to work with bone scrapers to tan the hide. In this season, while the fur was not as long as it would be later, it was fine and new. The other squaws pitched camp. No right-minded Indian would dream of travelling further with such a feast in prospect.
While these things were preparing, the older men cleaned and washed the bear's skull very carefully. Then they cut a tall pole, on the end of which they fastened the skull, and finished by planting the whole affair securely near the running water. When the skull should have remained there for the space of twelve moons, the sacred spirit of the departed beast would be appeased. For that reason Haukemah would not here leave his customary hieroglyphic record when he should break camp. If an enemy should happen along, he could do harm to Haukemah simply by overturning the trophy, whereas an unidentified skull might belong to a friend, and so would be let alone on the chance. For that reason, too, when they broke camp the following day, the expert trailers took pains to obliterate the more characteristic indications of their stay.
Now abruptly the weather changed. The sky became overcast with low, gray clouds hurrying from the northwest. It grew cold. After a few hours of indecision it began to rain, dashing the chill water in savage gusts. Amidships in each canoe the household goods were protected carefully by means of the wigwam covers, but the people themselves sat patiently, exposed to the force of the storm. Water streamed from their hair, over their high cheeks, to drip upon their already sodden clothing. The buckskin of their moccasins sucked water like so many sponges. They stepped indifferently in and out of the river,--for as to their legs, necessarily much exposed, they could get no wetter--and it was very cold. Whenever they landed the grass and bushes completed the soaking. By night each and every member of the band, including the two white men, were as wet as though they had plunged over-head in the stream. Only there was this difference: river-water could have been warmed gradually by the contact of woolen clothes with the body, but the chill of rain-water was constantly renewed.
Nor was there much comfort in the prospect when, weary and cold, they finally drew their canoes ashore for the evening's camp. The forest was dripping, the ground soggy, each separate twig and branch cold and slippery to the hand. The accumulated water of a day showered down at the slightest movement. A damp wind seemed to rise from the earth itself.
Half measures or timid shrinkings would not do. Every one had to plunge boldly into the woods, had to seize and drag forth, at whatever cost of shower-bath the wilderness might levy, all the dead wood he could find. Then the value of the birch-bark envelope about the powdery touch-wood became evident. The fire, at first small and steamy, grew each instant. Soon a dozen little blazes sprang up, only to be extinguished as soon as they had partially dried the site of wigwams. Hot tea was swallowed gratefully, duffel hung before the flames. Nobody dried completely, but everybody steamed, and even in the pouring rain this little warmth was comfort by force of contrast. The sleeping blankets were damp, the clothes were damp, the ground was damp, the air was damp; but, after all, discomfort is a little thing and a temporary, and can be borne. In the retrospect it is nothing at all. Such is the indian's philosophy, and that is why in a rain he generally travels instead of lying in camp.
The storm lasted four days. Then the wind shifted to the north, bringing clearing skies.
Up to now the river had been swift in places, but always by dint of tracking or poling the canoes had been forced against the quick water. Early one forenoon, however, Haukemah lifted carefully the bow of his canoe and slid it up the bank.