The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
When next day the band resumed the journey, it became evident that May-may-gwan was to be punished for her demonstration of the night before. Her place in the bow of old Moose Cow's canoe was taken by a little girl, and she was left to follow as best she might on foot.
The travel ashore was exceedingly difficult. A dense forest growth of cedar and tamarack pushed to the very edge of the water, and the rare open beaches were composed of smooth rocks too small to afford secure footing, and too large to be trodden under. The girl either slipped and stumbled on insecure and ankle-twisting shale, or forced a way through the awful tangle of a swamp. As the canoeing at this point was not at all difficult, her utmost efforts could not keep her abreast of the travellers.
Truth to tell May-may-gwan herself did not appear to consider that she was hardly used. Indeed she let her hair down about her face, took off the brilliant bits of color that had adorned her garments, and assumed the regulation downcast attitude of a penitent. But Dick Herron was indignant.
"Look here, Sam," said he, "this thing ain't right at all. She got into all this trouble on our account, and we're riding canoe here slick as carcajou in a pork cache while she pegs along afoot. Let's take her aboard."
"Won't do," replied Sam, briefly, "can't interfere. Let those Injuns run themselves. They're more or less down on us as it is."
"Oh, you're too slow!" objected Dick. "What the hell do we care for a lot of copper-skins from Rupert's House! We ain't got anything to ask from them but a few pairs of moccasins, and if they don't want to make them for us, they can use their buckskin to tie up their sore heads!"
He thrust his paddle in close to the bow and twisted the canoe towards shore.
"Come on, Sam," said he, "show your spunk!"
The older man said nothing. His steady blue eyes rested on his companion's back not unkindly, although a frown knit the brows above them.
"Come here, little sister," cried Dick to the girl.
She picked her way painfully through the scrub to the edge of the bank.
"Get into the canoe," commanded Dick.
She drew back in deprecation.
"Ka'-ka'win!" she objected, in very real terror. "The old-men have commanded that I take the Long Way, and who am I that I should not obey? It cannot be."
"Get in here," ordered Dick, obstinately.
"My brother is good to me, but I cannot, for the head men have ordered. It would go very hard with me, if I should disobey."
"Oh, hell!" exploded petulant Dick in English, slamming his paddle down against the thwarts.
He leaped ashore, picked the girl up bodily, threw her almost with violence into the canoe, thrust the light craft into the stream, and resumed his efforts, scowling savagely.
The girl dropped her face in her hands. When the white men's craft overtook the main band, she crouched still lower, shuddering under the grim scrutiny of her people. Dick's lofty scorn looked neither to right nor left, but paddled fiercely ahead until the Indians were well astern and hidden by the twists of the river. Sam Bolton proceeded serenely on in his accustomed way.
Only, when the tribesmen had been left behind, he leaned forward and began to talk to the girl in low-voiced Ojibway, comforting her with many assurances, as one would comfort a child. After a time she ceased trembling and looked up. But her glance made no account of the steady, old man who had so gently led her from her slough of despond, but rested on the straight, indignant back of the glorious youth who had cast her into it. And Sam Bolton, knowing the ways of a maid, merely sighed, and resumed his methodical paddling.
At the noon stop and on portage it was impossible to gauge the feeling of the savages in regard to the matter, but at night the sentiment was strongly enough marked. May-may-gwan herself, much to her surprise, was no further censured, and was permitted to escape with merely the slights and sneers the women were able to inflict on her. Perhaps her masters, possessed of an accurate sense of justice, realised that the latter affair had not been her fault. Or, what is more likely, their race antagonism, always ready in these fierce men of the Silent Places, seized instinctively on this excuse to burst into a definite unfriendliness. The younger men drew frankly apart. The older made it a point to sit by the white men's fire, but they conversed formally and with many pauses. Day by day the feeling intensified. A strong wind had followed from the north for nearly a week, and so, of course, they had seen no big game, for the wary animals scented them long before they came in sight. Meat began to run low. So large a community could not subsist on the nightly spoils of the net and traps. The continued ill-luck was attributed to the visitors. Finally camp was made for a day while Crooked Nose, the best trailer and hunter of them all, went out to get a caribou. Dick, hoping thus to win a little good will, lent his Winchester for the occasion.
The Indian walked very carefully through the mossy woods until he came upon a caribou trail still comparatively fresh. Nobody but Crooked Nose could have followed the faint indications, but he did so, at first rapidly, then more warily, finally at a very snail's pace. His progress was noiseless. Such a difficult result was accomplished primarily by his quickness of eye in selecting the spots on which to place his feet, and also to a great extent by the fact that he held his muscles so pliantly tense that the weight of his body came down not all at once, but in increasing pressure until the whole was supported ready for the next step. He flowed through the woods.
When the trail became fresh he often paused to scrutinise closely, to smell, even to taste the herbage broken by the animal's hoofs. Once he startled a jay, but froze into immobility before that watchman of the woods had sprung his alarm. For full ten minutes the savage poised motionless. Then the bird flitted away, and he resumed his careful stalk.
It was already nearly noon. The caribou had been feeding slowly forward. Now he would lie down. And Crooked Nose knew very well that the animal would make a little detour to right or left so as to be able to watch his back track.
Crooked Nose redoubled his scrutiny of the broken herbage. Soon he left the trail, moving like a spirit, noiselessly, steadily, but so slowly that it would have required a somewhat extended observation to convince you that he moved at all. His bead-like black eyes roved here and there. He did not look for a caribou--no such fool he--but for a splotch of brown, a deepening of shadow, a contour of surface which long experience had taught him could not be due to the forest's ordinary play of light and shade. After a moment his gaze centred. In the lucent, cool, green shadow of a thick clump of moose maples he felt rather than discerned a certain warmth of tone. You and I would probably have missed the entire shadow. But Crooked Nose knew that the warmth of tone meant the brown of his quarry's summer coat. He cocked his rifle.
But a caribou is a large animal, and only a few spots are fatal. Crooked Nose knew better than to shoot at random. He whistled.
The dark colour dissolved. There were no abrupt movements, no noises, but suddenly the caribou seemed to develop from the green shadow mist, to stand, his ears pricked forward, his lustrous eyes wide, his nostrils quivering toward the unknown something that had uttered the sound. It was like magic. An animal was now where, a moment before, none had been.
Crooked Nose raised the rifle, sighted steadily at the shoulder, low down, and pulled the trigger. A sharp click alone answered his intention. Accustomed only to the old trade-gun, he had neglected to throw down and back the lever which should lift the cartridge from the magazine.
Instantly the caribou snorted aloud and crashed noisily away. A dozen lurking Canada jays jumped to the tops of spruces and began to scream. Red squirrels, in all directions, alternately whirred their rattles and chattered in an ecstasy of rage. The forest was alarmed.
Crooked Nose glanced at the westering sun, and set out swiftly in a direct line for the camp of his companions. Arrived there he marched theatrically to the white men, cast the borrowed rifle at their feet, and returned to the side of the fire, where he squatted impassively on his heels. The hunt had failed.
All the rest of the afternoon the men talked sullenly together. There could be no doubt that trouble was afoot. Toward night some of the younger members grew so bold as to cast fierce looks in the direction of the white visitors.
Finally late in the evening old Haukemah came to them. For some time he sat silent and grave, smoking his pipe, and staring solemnly into the coals.
"Little Father," said he at last, "you and I are old men. Our blood is cool. We do not act quickly. But other men are young. Their blood is hot and swift, and it is quick to bring them spirit-thoughts. They say you have made the wind, kee-way-din, the north wind, to blow so that we can have no game. They say you conjured Crooked Nose so that he brought back no caribou, although he came very near it. They say, too, that you seek a red man to do him a harm, and their hearts are evil toward you on that account. They say you have made the power of the old-men as nothing, for what they commanded you denied when you brought our little sister in your canoe. I know nothing of these things, except the last, which was foolishness in the doing," the old man glanced sharply at Dick, puffed on his nearly extinguished pipe until it was well alight, and went on. "My brothers say they are looking places for winter posts; I believe them. They say their hearts are kind toward my people; I believe them. Kee-way-din, the north wind, has many times before blown up the river, and Crooked Nose is a fool. My heart is good toward you, but it is not the heart of my young men. They murmur and threaten. Here our trails fork. My brothers must go now their own way."
[Footnote 4: Fancies.]
"Good," replied Sam, after a moment. "I am glad my brother's heart is good toward me, and I know what young men are. We will go. Tell your young men."
An expression of relief overspread Haukemah's face. Evidently the crisis had been more grave than he had acknowledged. He thrust his hand inside his loose capote and brought forth a small bundle.
"Moccasins," said he.
Sam looked them over. They were serviceable, strong deerskin, with high tops of white linen cloth procured at the Factory, without decoration save for a slender line of silk about the tongue. Something approaching a smile flickered over old Haukemah's countenance as he fished out of his side pocket another pair.
"For Eagle-eye," he said, handing them to Dick. The young man had gained the sobriquet, not because of any remarkable clarity of vision, but from the peculiar aquiline effect of his narrow gaze.
The body of the moccasins were made of buckskin as soft as silk, smoked to a rich umber. The tops were of fawnskin, tanned to milky white. Where the two parts joined, the edges had been allowed to fall half over the foot in an exaggerated welt, lined brilliantly with scarlet silk. The ornamentation was heavy and elaborate. Such moccasins often consume, in the fashioning, the idle hours of months. The Indian girl carries them with her everywhere, as her more civilised sister carries an embroidery frame. On dress occasions in the Far North a man's standing with his womenkind can be accurately gauged by the magnificence of his foot-gear.
"The gift of May-may-gwan," explained Haukemah.
"Well, I'll be damned!" said Dick, in English.
"Will my brother be paid in tea or in tobacco?" inquired Sam Bolton.
"Let these remind you always that my heart is good," said he. "I may tell my young men that you go?"
"Yes. We are grateful for these."
"Old fellow's a pretty decent sort," remarked Dick, after Haukemah had stalked away.
"There couldn't anything have happened better for us!" cried Sam. "Here I was wondering how we could get away. It wouldn't do to travel with them much longer, and it wouldn't do to quit them without a good reason. I'm mighty relieved to get shut of them. The best way over into the Kabinakagam is by way of a little creek the Injuns call the Mattawishguia, and that ought to be a few hours ahead of us now." He might have added that all these annoyances, which he was so carefully discounting, had sprung from Dick's thoughtlessness; but he was silent, sure of the young man's value when the field of his usefulness should be reached.