Here to return to
The Magic Forest
THE rabbit skin was very
light and warm and soft. Jimmy snuggled down in it, and half dreamily
the banks of the river slip past. The tea had made him sleepy. He saw
Forest through a haze, and the great trees and the little trooped by
like an army with banners. Before him the lithe bowsman swung his
The whispering swish swish
of the water lulled him. At this early moment
in a strange adventure little Jimmy might have fallen sound asleep had
diversion aroused him
The leading canoe suddenly stopped short, worked noiselessly sideways, and came to rest against the bank. The other canoes joined it. No word was spoken, and Jimmy was warned by an expressive gesture to keep silent. After a moment Ah-kik, the bowsman, drew from a long greasy case a musket bound in brass. The canoe crept forward around the bend.
Not a drip of water broke the absolute stillness. Makwa, although Jimmy could not see him, was still paddling without raising the paddle from the water, and indeed with a barely perceptible motion of the wrists. To the little boy's imagination the craft seemed suddenly to take the character of a wind vane he had watched from his windows, turning to right, to left, swimming across the cloud-strewn ether as though guided by a will of its own.
Something exciting was going on. He did not know what it was, but his eyes grew large and bright, and he held himself so still as hardly to breathe. Now it became evident that the canoe was quietly but steadily approaching a certain point on the shore where a little sandy beach and a grass plot interposed between the forest and the river. A broad maple tree rose just outside the edge of the woods, under which lay a deep shadow backed by the dusk of the forest. Nearer and nearer the canoe crept. And then suddenly, as though it had been evoked by the wave of a magician's wand, Jimmy saw that the deep maple shadow had a living tenant.
And even then he could not realize that he looked on a deer. This had the graceful shape of the creature, to be sure, but it was so exactly the color of the maple shadow that it seemed to be the unsubstantial ghost of a deer, as though one could see through it as through a clouded glass.
The excitement in Jimmy's little breast was intense. His heart thumped, his breath caught in his throat, and in spite of his best efforts he trembled all over as though with a violent chill. Each moment he expected to see the deer run away. But still the canoe slipped silently forward as idly as a leaf wafted thither by the wind. Then all at once, when the prow was actually within a few feet of the bank, Jimmy was conscious of a violent trembling. Makwa had thrust his paddle down to stop the headway. Ah-kik, still unobtrusively, without abrupt motions, raised the brass-bound musket.
A sudden roar broke forth, a cloud of white smoke enveloped the bow, the canoe leaped backward like a spirited horse.
Makwa dropped the paddle aboard with a clatter and stretched his arms. Ah-kik called back something in his natural voice. From around the bend streamed a flotilla of canoes. The everyday sounds after the period of strained silence and patient endeavor seemed almost profane.
Jimmy leaped ashore with his companions, fully prepared to exult over a dead deer. What was his disappointment to discover only four deep, sharp footprints where the animal had leaped. Evidently the shot had failed.
But Jimmy had still a long way to go before the rudiments of his woodcraft should be complete. He did not know that Ah-kik could tell by the way the deer carried its tail whether or not the animal was wounded, and how badly. And so he was much surprised when two of the young men returned after some minutes carrying the venison.
In the bustle of making camp Jimmy was for some time unnoticed. Certain of the men cut up dry wood. Old women swiftly built little fires of birch, touchwood, bark, and twigs. Even the little children busily collected and carried in the wood chopped by the men. The deer was quickly skinned and cut up. Pots bubbled and steamed over little fires. Dogs yelped with delight as bits of offal were tossed them.
Then when the first tasks were over, he was surrounded. The younger children stared at him wide-eyed, the older teased him; but as he did not understand what they said, this did not worry him in the least. One handsome little fellow slightly older than himself smiled at him, and when Jimmy smiled back, he promptly drove the others away. Then he squatted on his heels at Jimmy's side.
"Minne-qúa-gun," said he, picking up a tin cup. And so Jimmy learned his first Indian word.
In this was a new and delightful occupation. To speak real Indian words was an accomplishment Jimmy would have reverenced in another. And here was a chance to learn for himself. He memorized tschimon, the canoe; and ah-boo-é, the paddle; and ah-gáh-quit, the axe. Then he resolved to find out something useful to himself. He hugged his arms close about his chest, shivered violently, and looked inquiringly toward his companion.
"Kss ina," said the latter at once.
Jimmy immediately ran to old Makwa, who was smoking a pipe on a fallen tree.
"Kss ina," said he, pointing to his thin night-dress and his bare shins. "Kss ina, kss ina!"
Makwa laughed, his fine old face wrinkling in a hundred deep little lines. He called sharply. An old woman came forward. Makwa spoke a few words to her, whereupon she went away for some moments, only to return bearing a bundle wrapped in canvas which she laid at Makwa's feet.
The bundle when opened was found to contain a variety of things. Makwa picked out a little deerskin shirt, a pair of blue leggings made of stroud, two squares of blanketlike material called duffel, and a pair of deerskin moccasins.
The squares he wrapped about Jimmy's feet in place of socks, the leggings he bound with a pair of heavily beaded garters, the deerskin shirt he slipped on deftly, and fastened with a worsted sash. When arrayed in them, the little boy was too happy to sit still.
But now the meal was cooked, Jimmy discovered that he was very hungry. He sat with a group of women and children, and accepted thankfully his share of venison, fish, and tea. A little girl sat next to him, a pretty little brown thing with big, soft eyes. She gazed at him solemnly during the meal.
At last he nodded and smiled at her, whereupon she showed all her teeth in the prettiest fashion in the world. Jimmy, with a full stomach, began to feel very contented. The sun was warm, the people about him looked on him kindly, this open-air meal under the greenwood tree was inexpressibly thrilling to his young imagination.
That afternoon he was given a short paddle and set to work. Nor was the paddling a matter of play merely. When his unaccustomed little wrists and shoulders became very tired, old Makwa sternly forbade him to rest. He was compelled to keep on, although his arms at times seemed ready to drop off, and his efforts could certainly have added little to the speed of the canoe. However, twice the party disembarked on the beach, drew the canoes up, unloaded all they contained, and set off through the forest, carrying packs. Here, too, Jimmy was given his share to carry, and his thin moccasins were slight protection to his feet, which speedily became bruised and wet. However, the life and mystery so filled Jimmy's mind that he only partly noticed these things.
Of course the trees were still bare of leaves, but the spring was awakening. All sorts of noises sounded through the woods. Jimmy did not know what they were, but little by little he learned from Taw-kwo, the young boy.
"Bump! bump! bump! bump! br-br-rr-r!" boomed a hollow wooden note.
"Penáy," said Taw-kwo. Some days later a partridge was flushed into a tree. "Pe-náy," said Taw-kwo again, and so Jimmy knew that penáy was a large bird with a fan-tail whose capture was most desirable, and who made remarkably good eating. But he did not know the English name for it.
In this fashion he acquired much information about the woods which he would have found quite valueless in the towns, for the simple reason that he would have been unable to tell any one about it. The hawk, the rabbit, the squirrel, the muskrat, the jay, and many others he learned thus. Of course he could not always remember, but Taw-kwo was patient in repeating, and Jimmy was just of the age to learn quickly by absorption.
On the way back through the woods for a second load on the second carry, Jimmy saw his first live porcupine. The beast was scornful and lordly, and disinclined to hurry in the least, after the manner of porcupines everywhere, but to Jimmy a wild animal of this size which would permit itself to be approached, was a brand-new experience. Of course he wanted to kill it. That is invariably the first instinct. But May-may-gwan, the soft-eyed little girl, would not allow him to do so. Jimmy learned thus his lesson in woods moderation, for the woods Indian never kills wastefully.
The rest of the afternoon the canoes floated down the river. The shores glided by silently. Jimmy many times forgot the ache of his shoulders in the excitement of a swiftly vanishing wing, the mysterious withdrawal of some brown spot that, in this manner only, proclaimed itself a forest creature. Once a mink bobbed up for a moment on a piece of driftwood, and paused, its forefeet under its chin, to stare malevolently at them as they glided by. Often the muskrats would be seen swimming in arrow-shaped ripples.
Once a slim, graceful animal of some size slipped from a rock ledge ahead. This the Indians thought important enough to discuss, gathering their canoes into one idly drifting bunch. For it was nigig, the otter, and the value of his pelt in the winter won him consideration as a personage. Often squirrels crossed the river, steering themselves with their bushy tails. Makwa, noting the interest of the boy, good-naturedly extended his paddle to one of the little animals, whereupon, to Jimmy's vast delight, it scrambled up the paddle to the gunwale within two feet of his hand, where it sat resting for a moment, and then plunged into the water again.
About the middle of the afternoon the women's canoes were permitted to go ahead for the purpose of making camp, so that by the time the sun was low the men were enabled to draw ashore for the night. A number of little birch-bark shelters were already in place, the tiny fires were winking bravely, the dogs were squatted in a semicircle just at the edge of the brush awaiting their share of the meal.
Jimmy thought he had never seen such funny dogs. Their noses and ears were pointed, their hair long and thick, and their tails as furry as a fox's brush. He tried to make friends with them, but they snarled at him so savagely that he drew back alarmed. In after days he succeeded in knowing them better, but now they were distrustful. They were more than half wolf, with the wolf's fierce instincts.
But now Taw-kwo touched him on the shoulder, smiling and motioning him to follow. He did so. The two boys picked their way through the brush to the mouth of a little creek flowing into the river. There Taw-kwo unrolled a finemeshed net he was carrying, fastened one end to a staff which he braced upright in the bottom, waded across and stuck the other end in a similar manner, so that the mouth of the creek was entirely closed by the net. Taw-kwo did not seem to mind in the least wading in the cold water with his moccasins and leggings on. "Kee-gawns," said he, making with his hand the motion of a fish swimming.
He touched his finger to his lips to enjoin caution. Stealthily he lay on his stomach and crawled to the sharp edge of the bank. Jimmy followed his example and peeped over. Below his eye ran five or six grooves through the thick water-mud which ended in a regular gallery of holes. And just as Jimmy looked, some bright-eyed, solemn, whiskered animal seemed to fade into hiding. "She-shesk,"1 whispered Taw-kwo. He signed to Jimmy to remain, and returned shortly carrying two steel traps. These he set at the mouths of the grooves, covering them craftily with mud, and touching none of the surroundings with his hands.
At camp by this time the evening meal was prepared. Jimmy had never been so hungry, in his life. He ate and ate until he could not cram down another mouthful, and he was almost too lazy to move over to the larger fire, or to hang up before the blaze his moccasins and duffels as did the others. The flames leaped, making shadows on the Magic Forest. Over in its depths a night-bird began to moan whip-poor-will. The dogs sat on their haunches blinking their eyes. Men smoked and laughed and talked. Women conversed in low voices. Little May-may-gwan sat beside him and held his hand.
After a long time Taw-kwo led him to a shelter in which was spread six inches of balsam browse. The Indian boy laid out the rabbit-skin robe. The balsam smelled good to Jimmy. His eyes grew heavier and heavier.
But he was not to sleep yet. Suddenly a tremendous row brought him to his feet. The dogs were clamoring, excited figures were running past the firelight. Jimmy instinctively thrust his feet into his moccasins and followed.
through the tangled
forest the chase went pell-mell, the dogs always in the lead. Some of
had snatched up torches. Stumbling, shouting, clambering, breathless,
multitude streamed through the silent dark. Then it bunched at a slim
about which the dogs were leaping frantically. Jimmy could
fierce-eyed dark animal, about the size of a dog, crouched in the
little boy was still half asleep.
followed was much confused. Something dislodged the
the beast. It fell among the dogs. Immediately there was
a great fight, in which the Indians seemed to be trying desperately to
a telling blow. Then it was all over. Two of the dogs were dead; from
blood was streaming. One of the Indians was tying a bandage
around the calf of
Back through the ancient forest filed the convoy with its prey. At the fireside Jimmy saw that the beast was powerful, blunt nosed, with long claws, "Swingwadge," replied Makwa to his look of inquiry. Many years after Jimmy again saw one of them stuffed at the Sportsman's Show, and so knew that he had assisted at the killing of a carcajou, the fiercest fighting animal for its size in America. And thus closed what he always thought of afterward as his Wonderful Day.
1 Muskrat.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.