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The Magic Forest
Jimmy ran as hard as he could in the direction of the firing. When he arrived out of breath at the point, he saw in the middle distance a flotilla of canoes working its way slowly against the current. His own friends were busily reloading, and as he watched, another volley rang out, which was immediately answered by the approaching strangers. The disappointing part, however, was that the muskets were all pointed skyward. And in a few minutes, when the new canoes has reached the point, their occupants stepped ashore and were greeted solemnly with much hand-shaking.
The band consisted of fifty or sixty grown people and a sprinkling of children. They were shorter and broader faced than Jimmy's friends, and, as he soon discovered, talked a different language. The men were immediately conducted to the clearing, while the women began unloading the canoes. In a few hours another camp had been established a hundred feet or so from the old one, and then began an interchange of stately visits between the men, of giggling gossipy meetings by the women, of fights and final reconciliations among the dogs. With the children it was very much the same. At first they circled warily about one another, then they quarrelled, then they became fast friends.
The Ojibways gave the Crees food from the stores they had accumulated; the Crees in return presented various seaside luxuries, such as smoked geese and dried salt-water fish. Jimmy was delighted to receive from a little Cree boy a pair of stiff moccasins made out of seal-skin, with the fur on the inside; and to be able to give in return two blunt-headed arrows of maple -- a wood unknown so far north.
Then followed the long lazy days of the permanent camp. Jimmy and his companions found the pools where there was no current, and there they spent every day in and out of the water. Jimmy was tanned almost to the color of his Indian friends by the hot, north-country sun. They fished in the riffles. They explored the woods roundabout until they knew every inch of it for five miles, and by an infinite patience and many trials, they managed to kill a respectable number of the cock partridges, the spruce-grouse, and the brown ptarmigan. They set their traps for muskrats, and looked with longing eyes on the trails of mink and a certain beaver colony, but the elders sternly forbade them to disturb the fur-bearing animals at this time of year. But best fun of all was the game of War Party.
Asádi and one of the Cree boys would choose sides. Each boy would be armed with two or three blunt arrows whose points had been padded with moss, bound securely with buckskin. One party would disappear in the woods, and after an interval the other would follow. Then were ambushes, surprises, crafty retreats. The children glided through the forest with all the stealth of the wild animals themselves. They lurked behind logs, watching with keen bright eyes. They tracked the enemy, or covered their own trails in order that they might not be tracked in turn. And at any moment you were likely to be startled by the sharp twang! of a bow and bruised severely by the heavy blow of an arrow. For although the missiles were padded to prevent actual injury, they hurt enough to make it a real object not to be "killed"; for when you were killed, you had to return to camp and play with the little girls.
Of course, Jimmy had neither the inherited nor the acquired skill, so much of his time he spent in camp. But he improved rapidly, and the certainty of being black and blue in a fresh place added excitement to the game. And, oh, glorious thought! twice he "killed" members of the opposing party. Besides which he liked the little girls. When they were not helping their mothers they were very kind to him, and showed him their rag dolls and taught him divers interesting, quiet camp games. Some of them he liked very much.
"The children glided through the forest."
And in the camp life itself there was always much to attract his attention. The women were making buckskin, were ornamenting with beads various articles of clothing, and the men were conducting, inside the big lodge made of poles and branches, some mysterious and noisy ceremony.
Jimmy never got a glimpse of what was going on inside, but he was content to sit by the hour in the hot sun, listening to the modulated rise and fall of weird minor songs, the clatter of bones, the boom of drums, the shuffle of hands and feet. Every once in a while one of the men would appear for a moment at the doorway, his gaze exalted, his features painted in brilliant stripes or dots, his form dressed all in fringed buckskin lavishly ornamented with beads. And it was a pure delight at last, when the conjuring was over, to see the strangely clad men come forth into the gathering dusk and file silently to their teepees. Jimmy's little heart always sensed a thrill at what he somehow dimly felt to be a reincarnation of a glorious past.
Now the days were very long. The sun did not set until nearly nine o'clock. And at night Jimmy was astonished and filled with awe by the brilliant aurora that shot its many-colored flames far over the zenith.
Among the older men of the Cree band Jimmy made no friends. This was natural, for a brave had little time for a child. But of course his presence was remarked by them, and received much discussion.
Now it happened that in the Cree band was a French half-breed, Antoine Laviolette, who in winter was a post-keeper for the Hudson Bay Company, but who in summer preferred to travel with his savage kinsmen. One evening Jimmy was vastly astonished to be addressed by this man. It was the first English the little boy had heard since old Makwa had questioned him.
"'Ullo!" he said; "how you do?"
"Hullo! " replied Jimmy.
In ten minutes they were chatting together familiarly. And from that time on, Jimmy had a new interest in the long twilights after the evening meal had been eaten. For Antoine Laviolette was inclined by race to talk, and by nature to talk well, and he liked an appreciative audience.
"Jeemy!" he would call. "Com' here! You evaire hear 'bout dose salt water, how she is come to be no good for drink?"
And then Jimmy, wide-eyed, would hear of the Animal Council and its plottings against Si-kak, the great skunk, and how the carcajou helped to kill him, but was defiled with the oil, and how the carcajou in washing himself tainted the sea-water so that it is unfit to drink. Or he learned why the great Manitou twisted some of the trees so their wood does not split straight, or why the ermine's fur changes from red to white in winter. Or he heard all about Hiawatha, just as you can read about him in Longfellow to this day, the same legends with the same names. It was all very wonderful to him, and it brought very close to him the animals of the woods. He came to look on them as the Indian does, not as inferior to himself, but merely as different; or, to put it the other way, he grew to consider himself and his companions as animals of another sort, speaking a different language, and living a different life, but not essentially of different race.
So he understood why when a beaver was killed for the Moon Feast, a fillet braided of worsted and doeskin thongs was tied around the animal's tail, and why Ta-wap, the hunter, dressed in his best clothes before going out to kill a bear, and why the cleaned skulls of some beasts were placed on stakes near running water. For though it was necessary that these creatures die, the Indians did such honors to their spirits.
And now in the Berry Moon a sad event sobered the camp. For little Si-gwan ate of a poisonous mushroom, and in spite of the conjuring and the herbs and the charms, she grew sicker and weaker until she died. Then in the teepee of her people was the sound of wailing. The women let loose their hair and scattered ashes on their heads and raised their voices in lamentations, while Au-mick, the little girl's father, painted his face to represent mourning.
The burial services took place in the evening between two great fires. The Indians squatted soberly cross-legged in a circle, all dressed in their finest garments. In the centre was a raised platform of boughs on which lay a birch-bark coffin. Below it sat the bereaved family, their hair and garments in disorder, their eyes downcast. Jimmy huddled near his friend, Antoine Laviolette. In the stillness, the awe of dark and of firelight and of dancing shadows and of a grave, silent people overflowed his little heart.
After a long interval old Makwa advanced to the centre of the circle.
"Oh, Wábisi, my little sister," said he, addressing the mother, "it is not well that you grieve. For if our daughter had grown, she would many times have been hungry and cold and weary. But now where she has gone there is no hunger nor cold, and there is no weariness. Therefore you should be glad." He stooped and slashed his knife twice through the birch bark of the coffin. "Oh, Kitche manito!" he cried, "these places do I cut that our daughter's spirit may come and go as she wills it, that she may visit us sometimes, that she may see our little sister, Wábisi, when she is very sad." Again he turned to the mother. "Our daughter is gone, oh, my little sister," he continued, "but on the day when Pau-guk1 takes you, then you shall see her again. But she will be all changed, and you will not know her, but when you enter that Land of the Hereafter, then you must sing always this little song, and so she shall know you." In a surprisingly clear and true tenor old Makwa chanted a weird minor air with tearful falling cadences. "And when she hears that song," he went on, "then she will answer it with this." He sang through another little song. The long-drawn plaintive chords gripped Jimmy's throat so that he sobbed aloud. " And in that way you shall know one another."
"Old Makwa advanced to the centre of the circle."
The young men bore the coffin to a grave that had already been dug a short distance away in the pine groves. After the earth had been filled in, three of the women knelt and deftly put together a miniature wigwam of birch bark, complete in every detail. Then old Makwa began again to speak, addressing the grave in a low tone of confidence.
"Oh, Si-gwan, our little daughter," said he, "I place this bow and these arrows in your lodge that you may be armed on the Long Journey.
"Oh, Si-gwan, our little daughter, I place this knife in your lodge that you may be armed on the Long journey.
"Oh, Si-gwan, our little daughter, I place these snow-shoes in your lodge that you may be fleet on the Long Journey."
And in like manner he deposited in the little wigwam extra moccasins, a model canoe and paddle, food, and a miniature robe.
Then quietly they all returned to camp, -- all but Wábisi, the bereaved mother. She huddled on the ground by the grave, her blanket over her head. Jimmy dreamed that night of the silent, motionless figure of desolation.
For three whole days and nights the Indian woman mourned her child, then arose and went about her ordinary duties with unmoved countenance. And the little grave was left to the sun and snow and rain and the mercy of an all-explaining, all-forgetting Nature.
And now the time had come, at the latter end of the Berry Moon and just before the Many-Caribou-in-the-Woods Moon, to break up the permanent camp. The Crees had to return to Moose Factory at the Hudson Bay, thence to set out for their winter trapping grounds; the Ojibways were now to retrace their steps to Chapleau for the purpose of receiving their treaty money from the Canadian government. Jimmy was not aware of the meaning of this, nor that when once the canoes should breast the current, he would be headed toward the railroad again. He only knew that a move was imminent, and was glad of it. The home camp was fun, but the adventures of travelling were better. He never knew how close he came to being taken by the Crees many, many miles farther north to his supposed home at York Factory on the shores of the Hudson Bay. Antoine Laviolette was the lucky element in that. He it was who told the headmen that the child was not a saganash,2 as they had supposed, but a kitch-mokamen,3 who lived far south of the Ojibway country. So when the time came to part, Jimmy remained with his old friends.
The Ojibways broke camp first, as they had the longer journey to go. When the canoes were all loaded, the Crees came down to wish them a good journey. And then, after the little craft were actually afloat, a dozen young boys dashed into the water for the purpose of dropping presents of fish, game, and ornamented work into the boats of the departing tribe. They waited thus until the latest possible moment in order that the recipients of the gifts might not feel called on to return something of equal value. A volley of musketry was answered by another from the canoes. The flotilla moved slowly forward against the current.
1 The Death Spirit.
3 Big knife, i.e. American.
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