The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
The portage struck promptly to the right through a tall, leafy woods, swam neck-high in the foliage of small growth, mounted a steep hill, and meandered over a bowlder-strewn, moss-grown plateau, to dip again, a quarter of a mile away, to the banks of the river. But you must not imagine one of your easy portages of Maine or lower Canada. This trail was faint and dim,--here an excoriation on the surface of a fallen and half-rotted tree, there a withered limb hanging, again a mere sense in the forest's growth that others had passed that way. Only an expert could have followed it.
The canoe loads were dumped out on the beach. One after another, even to the little children, the people shouldered their packs. The long sash was knotted into a loop, which was passed around the pack and the bearer's forehead. Some of the stronger men carried thus upward of two hundred pounds.
Unlike a party of white men, the Indians put no system into their work. They rested when they pleased, chatted, shouted, squatted on their heels conversing. Yet somehow the task was accomplished, and quickly. To one on an elevation dominating the scene it would have been most picturesque. Especially noticeable were those who for the moment stood idle, generally on heights, where their muscle-loose attitudes and fluttering draperies added a strangely decorative note to the landscape; while below plodded, bending forward under their enormous loads, an unending procession of patient toilers. In five minutes the portage was alive from one end to the other.
To Dick and Sam Bolton the traverse was a simple matter. Sam, by the aid of his voyager's sash, easily carried the supplies and blankets; Dick fastened the two paddles across the thwarts to form a neck-yoke, and swung off with the canoe. Then they returned to the plateau until their savage friends should have finished the crossing.
Ordinarily white men of this class are welcome enough to travel with the Indian tribes. Their presence is hardly considered extraordinary enough for comment. Sam Bolton, however, knew that in the present instance he and Dick aroused an unusual interest of some sort.
He was not able to place it to his own satisfaction. It might be because of Bolton's reputation as a woodsman; it might be because of Dick Herron's spectacular service to Haukemah in the instance of the bear; it might be that careful talk had not had its due effect in convincing the Indians that the journey looked merely to the establishment of new winter posts; Sam was not disinclined to attribute it to pernicious activity on the part of the Ojibway. It might spring from any one of these. Nor could he quite decide its quality;--whether friendly or inimical. Merely persisted the fact that he and his companion were watched curiously by the men and fearfully by the women; that they brought a certain constraint to the camp fire.
Finally an incident, though it did not decide these points, brought their ambiguity nearer to the surface.
One evening old Haukemah received from the women the bear's robe fully tanned. Its inner surface had been whitened and then painted rudely with a symbolical representation of the hunt. Haukemah spoke as follows, holding the robe in his hand:
"This is the robe of makwa, our little brother. His flesh we all ate of. But you who killed him should have his coat. Therefore my women have painted it because you saved their head man."
He laid the robe at Dick's feet. Dick glanced toward his companion with the strange cast flickering quizzically in his narrow eyes. "Fine thing to carry along on a trip like ours," he said in English. "I don't know what to do with it. They've worked on it mighty near a week. I wish to hell they'd keep their old robe." However, he stooped and touched it in sign of acceptance. "I thank my brother," he said in Cree.
"You'll have to bring it along," Sam answered in English. "We'll have to carry it while we're with them, anyway."
The Indian men were squatted on their heels about the fire, waiting gravely and courteously for this conference, in an unknown tongue, to come to an end. The women, naturally interested in the disposal of their handiwork, had drawn just within the circle of light.
Suddenly Dick, inspired, darted to this group of women, whence he returned presently half dragging, half-coaxing a young girl. She came reluctantly, hanging back a little, dropping her head, or with an embarrassed giggle glancing shyly over her shoulder at her companions. When near the centre of the men's group, Dick dropped her hand.
Promptly she made as though to escape, but stopped at a word from Haukemah. It was May-may-gwan, the Ojibway girl.
Obediently she paused. Her eyes were dancing with the excitement of the adventure, an almost roguish smile curved her mouth and dimpled her cheek, her lower lip was tightly clasped between her teeth as she stood contemplating her heavily beaded little moccasin, awaiting the explanation of this, to her, extraordinary performance.
"What is your name, little sister?" asked Dick in Cree.
She dropped her head lower, but glanced from the corner of her eye at the questioner.
"Answer!" commanded Haukemah.
"May-may-gwan," she replied in a low voice.
"Oh, yes," said Dick, in English. "You're an Ojibway," he went on in Cree.
"That explains why you're such a tearing little beauty," muttered the young man, again in English.
"The old-men," he resumed, in Cree, "have given me this robe. Because I hold it very dear I wish to give it to that people whom I hold dearest. That people is the Crees of Rupert's House. And because you are the fairest, I give you this robe so that there may be peace between your people and me."
Ill-expressed as this little speech was, from the flowery standpoint of Indian etiquette, nevertheless its subtlety gained applause. The Indians grunted deep ejaculations of pleasure. "Good boy!" muttered Sam Bolton, pleased.
Dick lifted the robe and touched it to the girl's hand. She gasped in surprise, then slowly raised her eyes to his.
"Damn if you ain't pretty enough to kiss!" cried Dick.
[Illustration: "Pretty enough to kiss!" cried Dick]
He stepped across the robe, which had fallen between them, circled the girl's upturned face with the flat of his hands, and kissed her full on the lips.
The kiss of ceremony is not unknown to the northern Indians, and even the kiss of affection sometimes to be observed among the more demonstrative, but such a caress as Dick bestowed on May-may-gwan filled them with astonishment. The girl herself, though she cried out, and ran to hide among those of her own sex, was not displeased; she rather liked it, and could not mis-read the admiration that had prompted it. Nor did the other Indians really object. It was a strange thing to do, but perhaps it was a white man's custom. The affair might have blown away like a puff of gunpowder.
But at the moment of Dick's salute, Sam Bolton cried out sharply behind him. The young woodsman instantly whirled to confront the Chippewa.
"He reached for his knife," explained Sam.
The ejaculation had also called the attention of every member of the band to the tableau. There could be absolutely no doubt as to its meaning,--the evident anger of the red, his attitude, his hand on the haft of his knife. The Chippewa was fairly caught.
He realised the fact, but his quick mind instantly turned the situation to his profit. Without attempting to alter the malice of his expression, he nevertheless dropped his hand from his knife-hilt, and straightened his figure to the grandiose attitude of the Indian orator.
"This man speaks crooked words. I know the language of the saganash. He tells my brothers that he gives this robe to May-may-gwan because he holds it the dearest of his possessions, and because his heart is good towards my brother's people. But to the other saganash he said these words: 'It is a little thing, and I do not wish to carry it. What shall I do with it?'"
He folded his arms theatrically. Dick Herron, his narrow eyes blazing, struck him full on the mouth a shoulder blow that sent him sprawling into the ashes by the fire.
The Chippewa was immediately on his feet, his knife in his hand. Instinctively the younger Crees drew near to him. The old race antagonism flashed forth, naturally, without the intervention of reason. A murmur went up from the other bystanders.
Sam Bolton arose quietly to take his place at Dick's elbow. As yet there was no danger of violence, except from the outraged Chippewa. The Crees were startled, but they had not yet taken sides. All depended on an intrepid front. For a moment they stared at one another, the Indians uncertain, the Anglo-Saxons, as always, fiercely dominant in spirit, no matter what the odds against them, as long as they are opposed to what they consider the inferior race.
Then a flying figure glided to the two. May-may-gwan, palpitating with fear, thrust their rifles into the white men's hands, then took her stand behind them.
But Haukemah interfered with all the weight of his authority.
"Stop!" he commanded, sharply. "There is no need that friends should bear weapons. What are you doing, my young men? Do you judge these saganash without hearing what they have to say? Ask of them if what the Chippewa says is true."
"The robe is fine. I gave it for the reason I said," replied Dick.
The Cree young men, shaken from their instinctive opposition, sank back. It was none of their affair, after all, but a question of veracity between Dick and his enemy. And the Chippewa enjoyed none too good a reputation. The swift crisis had passed.
Dick laughed his boyish, reckless laugh.
"Damn if I didn't pick out the old idiot's best girl!" he cried to his companion; but the latter doubtfully shook his head.