The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XVIII. Man Who Walks by Moonlight.
We had been joined on the River by friends. "Doug," who never fished more than forty rods from camp, and was always inventing water-gauges, patent indicators, and other things, and who wore in his soft slouch hat so many brilliant trout flies that he irresistibly reminded you of flower-decked Ophelia; "Dinnis," who was large and good-natured, and bubbling and popular; Johnny, whose wide eyes looked for the first time on the woods-life, and whose awe-struck soul concealed itself behind assumptions; "Jim," six feet tall and three feet broad, with whom the season before I had penetrated to Hudson Bay; and finally, "Doc," tall, granite, experienced, the best fisherman that ever hit the river. With these were Indians. Buckshot, a little Indian with a good knowledge of English; Johnnie Challan, a half-breed Indian, ugly, furtive, an efficient man about camp; and Tawabinisay himself. This was an honour due to the presence of Doc. Tawabinisay approved of Doc. That was all there was to say about it.
After a few days, inevitably the question of Kawagama came up. Billy, Johnnie Challan, and Buckshot squatted in a semi-circle, and drew diagrams in the soft dirt with a stick. Tawabinisay sat on a log and overlooked the proceedings. Finally he spoke.
"Tawabinisay" (they always gave him his full title; we called him Tawab) "tell me lake you find he no Kawagama," translated Buckshot. "He called Black Beaver Lake."
"Ask him if he'll take us to Kawagama," I requested.
Tawabinisay looked very doubtful.
"Come on, Tawab," urged Doc, nodding at him vigorously. "Don't be a clam. We won't take anybody else up there."
The Indian probably did not comprehend the words, but he liked Doc.
"A'-right," he pronounced laboriously.
Buckshot explained to us his plans.
"Tawabinisay tell me," said he, "he don' been to Kawagama seven year. To-morrow he go blaze trail. Nex' day we go."
"How would it be if one or two of us went with him to-morrow to see how he does it?" asked Jim.
Buckshot looked at us strangely.
"I don't want to follow him," he replied, with a significant simplicity. "He run like a deer."
"Buckshot," said I, pursuing the inevitable linguistics, "what does Kawagama mean?"
Buckshot thought for quite two minutes. Then he drew a semicircle.
"W'at you call dat?" he asked.
"Crescent, like moon? half-circle? horseshoe? bow?" we proposed.
Buckshot shook his head at each suggestion. He made a wriggling mark, then a wide sweep, then a loop.
"All dose," said he, "w'at you call him?"
"Curve!" we cried.
"Ah hah," assented Buckshot, satisfied.
"Buckshot," we went on, "what does Tawabinisay mean?"
"Man-who-travels-by-moonlight," he replied promptly.
The following morning Tawabinisay departed, carrying a lunch and a hand-axe. At four o'clock he was back, sitting on a log and smoking a pipe. In the meantime we had made up our party.
Tawabinisay himself had decided that the two half-breeds must stay at home. He wished to share his secret only with his own tribesmen. The fiat grieved Billy, for behold he had already put in much time on this very search, and naturally desired to be in at the finish. Dick, too, wanted to go, but him we decided too young and light for a fast march. Dinnis had to leave the River in a day or so; Johnnie was a little doubtful as to the tramp, although he concealed his doubt--at least to his own satisfaction--under a variety of excuses. Jim and Doc would go, of course. There remained Doug.
We found that individual erecting a rack of many projecting arms--like a Greek warrior's trophy--at the precise spot where the first rays of the morning sun would strike it. On the projecting arms he purposed hanging his wet clothes.
"Doug," said we, "do you want to go to Kawagama to-morrow?"
Doug turned on us a sardonic eye. He made no direct answer, but told the following story:--
"Once upon a time Judge Carter was riding through a rural district in Virginia. He stopped at a negro's cabin to get his direction.
"'Uncle,' said he, 'can you direct me to Colonel Thompson's?'
"'Yes, sah,' replied the negro; 'yo' goes down this yah road 'bout two mile till yo' comes to an ol' ailm tree, and then yo' tu'us sha'p to th' right down a lane fo' 'bout a qua'ter of a mile. Thah you sees a big white house. Yo' wants to go through th' ya'd, to a paf that takes you a spell to a gate. Yo' follows that road to th' lef till yo' comes to three roads goin' up a hill; and, jedge, it don' mattah which one of them thah roads yo' take, yo' gets lost surer 'n hell anyway!'"
Then Doug turned placidly back to the construction of his trophy.
We interpreted this as an answer, and made up an outfit for five.
The following morning at six o'clock we were under way. Johnnie Challan ferried us across the river in two instalments. We waved our hands and plunged through the brush screen.
Thenceforth it was walk half an hour, rest five minutes, with almost the regularity of clockwork. We timed the Indians secretly, and found they varied by hardly a minute from absolute fidelity to this schedule. We had at first, of course, to gain the higher level of the hills, but Tawabinisay had the day before picked out a route that mounted as easily as the country would allow, and through a hardwood forest free of underbrush. Briefly indicated, our way led first through the big trees and up the hills, then behind a great cliff knob into a creek valley, through a quarter-mile of bottom-land thicket, then by an open strip to the first little lake. This we ferried by means of the bark canoe carried on the shoulders of Tawabinisay.
In the course of the morning we thus passed four lakes. Throughout the entire distance to Kawagama were the fresh axe-blazes the Indian had made the day before. These were neither so frequent nor as plainly cut as a white man's trail, but each represented a pause long enough for the clip of an axe. In addition the trail had been made passable for a canoe. That meant the cutting out of overhanging branches wherever they might catch the bow of the craft. In the thicket a little road had been cleared, and the brush had been piled on either side. To an unaccustomed eye it seemed the work of two days at least. Yet Tawabinisay had picked out his route, cleared and marked it thus, skirted the shores of the lakes we were able to traverse in the canoe, and had returned to the River in less time than we consumed in merely reaching the Lake itself! Truly, as Buckshot said, he must have "run like a deer."
Tawabinisay has a delightful grin which he displays when pleased or good-humoured or puzzled or interested or comprehending, just as a dog sneezes and wrinkles up his nose in like case. He is essentially kind-hearted. If he likes you and approves of you, he tries to teach you, to help you, to show you things. But he never offers to do any part of your work, and on the march he never looks back to see if you are keeping up. You can shout at him until you are black in the face, but never will he pause until rest-time. Then he squats on his heels, lights his pipe, and grins.
Buckshot adored him. This opportunity of travelling with him was an epoch. He drank in eagerly the brief remarks of his "old man," and detailed them to us with solemnity, prefaced always by his "Tawabinisay tell me." Buckshot is of the better class of Indian himself, but occasionally he is puzzled by the woods-noises. Tawabinisay never. As we cooked lunch, we heard the sound of steady footsteps in the forest--pat; then a pause; then pat; just like a deer browsing. To make sure I inquired of Buckshot.
"What is it?"
Buckshot listened a moment.
"Deer," said he decisively; then, not because he doubted his own judgment, but from habitual deference, he turned to where Tawabinisay was frying things.
"Qwaw?" he inquired.
Tawabinisay never even looked up.
"Adji-domo" (squirrel), said he.
We looked at each other incredulously. It sounded like a deer. It did not sound in the least like a squirrel. An experienced Indian had pronounced it a deer. Nevertheless it was a squirrel.
We approached Kawagama by way of a gradual slope clothed with a beautiful beech and maple forest whose trees were the tallest of those species I have ever seen. Ten minutes brought us to the shore. There was no abrupt bursting in on Kawagama through screens of leaves; we entered leisurely to her presence by way of an ante-chamber whose spaciousness permitted no vulgar surprises. After a time we launched our canoe from a natural dock afforded by a cedar root, and so stood ready to cross to our permanent camp. But first we drew our knives and erased from a giant birch the half-grown-over name of the banker Clement.
There seems to me little use in telling you that Kawagama is about four miles long by a mile wide, is shaped like a crescent, and lies in a valley surrounded by high hills; nor that its water is so transparent that the bottom is visible until it fades into the sheer blackness of depth; nor that it is alive with trout; nor that its silence is the silence of a vast solitude, so that always, even at daybreak or at high midday, it seems to be late afternoon. That would convey little to you. I will inform you quite simply that Kawagama is a very beautiful specimen of the wilderness lake; that it is as the Lord made it; and that we had a good time.
Did you ever fish with the fly from a birch-bark canoe on absolutely still water? You do not seem to move. But far below you, gliding, silent, ghostlike, the bottom slips beneath. Like a weather-vane in an imperceptible current of air, your bow turns to right or left in apparent obedience to the mere will of your companion. And the flies drop softly like down. Then the silence becomes sacred. You whisper-- although there is no reason for your whispering; you move cautiously, lest your reel scrape the gunwale. An inadvertent click of the paddle is a profanation. The only creatures in all God's world possessing the right to utter aloud a single syllable are the loon, far away, and the winter wren, near at hand. Even the trout fight grimly, without noise, their white bodies flashing far down in the dimness.
Hour after hour we stole here and there like conspirators. Where showed the circles of a fish's rise, thither crept we to drop a fly on their centre as in the bull's-eye of a target. The trout seemed to linger near their latest capture, so often we would catch one exactly where we had seen him break water some little time before. In this was the charm of the still hunt. Shoal water, deep water, it seemed all the same to our fortunes. The lake was full of fish, and beautiful fish they were, with deep, glowing bronze bellies, and all of from a pound to a pound and a half in weight. The lake had not been fished. Probably somewhere in those black depths over one of the bubbling spring-holes that must feed so cold and clear a body of water, are big fellows lying, and probably the crafty minnow or spoon might lure them out. But we were satisfied with our game.
At other times we paddled here and there in exploration of coves, inlets, and a tiny little brook that flowed westward from a reed marsh to join another river running parallel to our own.
The Indians had erected a huge lean-to of birch bark, from the ribs of which hung clothes and the little bags of food. The cooking-fire was made in front of it between two giant birch trees. At evening the light and heat reflected strongly beneath the shelter, leaving the forest in impenetrable darkness. To the very edge of mystery crowded the strange woods noises, the eerie influences of the night, like wolves afraid of the blaze. We felt them hovering, vague, huge, dreadful, just outside the circle of safety our fire had traced about us. The cheerful flames were dancing familiars who cherished for us the home feeling in the middle of a wilderness.
Two days we lingered, then took the back track. A little after noon we arrived at the camp, empty save for Johnnie Challan. Towards dark the fishermen straggled in. Time had been paid them in familiar coinage. They had demanded only accustomed toll of the days, but we had returned laden with strange and glittering memories.