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The Magic Forest
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BUT if that was the Day of Wonder the one that followed was certainly the Day of Despair. It started out well enough. Jimmy was aroused early in the morning, when the dawn's chill was still in the air, so that for a few moments he was very miserable, but the hot tea and food, combined with a good fire, soon put him in spirits. He and Taw-kwo visited the steel traps and took from them three fine muskrats. Then they unfastened one end of the net and hauled it in. This was most exciting. First appeared a gleam of something white under the water; then the gleam slowly defined itself. A breathless moment followed. How big was the fish? What kind was it? And then with a flop it was on the bank, beating the ground to the whoops of two enthusiastic boys. Taw-kwo had even produced a short heavy bow and some blunt-headed arrows, when a summons called them to resume the journey.
About ten o'clock a few drops of rain fell. Jimmy thought, of course, the band would seek shelter. It did not. The rain grew heavier, picking the surface of the river. Water ran down Jimmy's hair, speedily wetting him to the skin. He shivered and looked about with uneasiness on the landscape, rapidly growing sodden. The Indians seemed to mind the downpour no more than did the dogs. But Jimmy suddenly felt very lonely. The romance of the Magic Forest had quite departed, and he began to think of his warm home and his mother and father, and to wonder whether he would ever see them again. After a little he began to cry softly to himself, the tears mingling with the raindrops running down his cheeks. But he was very still about it, for Taw-kwo was in a canoe near him, and little May-may-gwan was paddling solemnly in the bow of another just behind. The raindrops were coursing down her cheeks, too.
All that day Jimmy's heart grew heavier and heavier. He paddled desperately in order to keep warm and so toward night grew tired also. It was a very blue day. In the evening he stood by the fire with the Indians and steamed. To his surprise the night was not so bad. The roofs of the shelters had been so slanted that the heat was reflected from them down upon the ground, which speedily dried. It was a little damp, but not all uncomfortable.
And next morning the sun was shining brightly with true spring warmth. Thus Jimmy passed with credit through his trial by water. Rain and cold weather were always disagreeable to him, but in time he learned that one forgot all about it once it was finished.
Only twice that day was the regular progress down river interrupted by anything exciting. Long stretches of still water were broken by swift little rapids, where Jimmy had to sit very still, and carries through the woods, where he had to work with the others. He was interested all the time. The most trivial incident was an adventure. But a little after noon, in shooting a particularly crooked and turbulent rapid, in spite of the best efforts of Makwa and Ah-kik, the canoe scraped sharply against a pointed stone. Instantly the water began to rush in through a jagged hole. By good fortune this was at the foot of the rapid. The Indians paddled desperately across the pool and grounded just in time. The goods were hastily thrown out and the canoe drawn up on the beach.
Jimmy looked sadly at the rent in the bottom of the canoe. It was too bad. He supposed that now the day's journey would have to be given up.
But Makwa disappeared in the woods while Ah-kik built a little fire. The other Indians continued on down-stream. In a moment Makwa returned with a quantity of spruce pitch on a bit of bark. This he cooked over the fire with a little grease. Then with a stick of wood he smeared the melted gum about the hole, laid over it smoothly a bit of sacking, smeared more gum completely to cover the whole affair, and seared it close with a brand from the fire. In ten minutes the canoe was as good as ever.
About an hour later Makwa whispered "Moos-wa, moos-wa." Jimmy had learned by now that when Makwa whispered, something interesting was afoot, so he looked with all his eyes. There, not two hundred yards away, knee deep in the water, stood a cow moose and her calf. The great animals, so awkward in captivity but so magnificent in their proper surroundings, stared uncertainly at the gliding canoes. The wind was the wrong way for the scent, and a moose is not easily alarmed by mere sight. In a moment they waded rapidly ashore and disappeared with a long swinging trot, but not before Jimmy had seen well the Roman nose, the big eyes, the massive shoulders of the animals. As moose to him had always seemed as remote as goblins, this new phase of the Magic Forest filled him with ecstatic rapture. And he was impressed still further by the lesson of woods moderation, for his companions had made no effort to kill the beautiful creatures. For the present there was meat enough.
That evening after supper Jimmy made friends. He was not so sleepy as the first evening nor so uncomfortable as the second, so he wandered here and there trying his new Indian words. Especially did the cradles for the Indian babies interest him. Everywhere he was smiled upon by the kindly people. Some even made him little presents of ornaments. Taw-kwo's father gave him a sheath-knife on a belt. He became acquainted with the other children and joined in their games, sitting gravely cross-legged in a circle, taking his turn at the knuckle bones with the rest. Even in the three days he had acquired a fair vocabulary, and he understood vaguely much more than he could remember.
The next morning a lad of sixteen led him hunting in the woods. Jimmy was awkward but tried hard, and after a number of futile stalks the two succeeded in getting within sight of one of the drumming partridges. The bird was strutting up and down a smooth log, puffed out like a turkey-cock, and beating his wings rapidly to produce the hollow wooden drumming Jimmy had been hearing for three days. The Indian lad drew the blunt head of his arrow to the bow. Rap! it struck a tree just beyond the partridge's head. The bird flew away.
But now for the first time Jimmy felt the joy of the chase. Here was something to work for. He borrowed the bow and the blunt arrows, and at every pause rap-rap-rapped the trees with his practice shots. By dint of imitation he succeeded after a little in acquiring a fair accuracy, though of course he could not beat his Indian friends. Then he set to work to stalk a partridge. Dozens and dozens he frightened away by a clumsy approach. Four times his arrow went wide. But then at last the bird, alarmed by the twang of the bow, raised its head directly into the flying arrow. Jimmy cast his weapon from him, and fell upon the game with shrieks of delight.
Asádi, the older lad, taught him how to spread a horse-hair loop across a rabbit trail, bending down a sapling in such a manner that it would spring straight when disturbed, thus jerking the rabbit into the air. At the foot of some of the waterfalls great fishing was to be had with the hook and line. A morsel of meat, a bright-colored feather, even a metal button so attached as to whirl was bait enough. There was no waiting. The instant the hook touched the water a dozen swirling fish were after it. Through the long evenings the big fellows could be seen jumping, shooting straight out into the air to fall back with a heavy splash. Once Jimmy hooked one of these, and had not Asádi been at hand to help him, he would have been pulled overboard. And when at last they succeeded in sliding the monster on to a flat rock, how beautiful he was with his iridescent eyes and the bright spots of his body.
Not the least interesting of the many wood's puzzles were the numerous footprints to be seen on the wet sand of the beach. Asádi or Taw-kwo or even little Oginik, who was much younger than any of them, could tell him their names, but only long experience taught him what the animals might be like. "Makwa" they described broad heavy prints. "Me-én-gan" said they when shown others smaller and rounder and not so flat. "Bisíw," they replied when he asked about certain padlike signs. But he did not know from that.
However, one day as the canoes were paddling down a long narrow lake, Ah-kik called his attention to something white a long distance down the shore. The speck of white was moving slowly toward them. In a little while it defined itself as an animal. Everybody sat quite still. The beast was not in a hurry. Sometimes it trotted, sometimes it walked, sometimes it stopped to investigate something on the shore. In the canoes the dogs' backs were all bristling. Soon Jimmy could see that the animal was not white but gray, and that it looked a great deal like the Indian dogs except that it was larger and that it sloped from heavy shoulders to lighter haunches. When just opposite the waiting line of canoes, the Indians raised a mighty yell. Startled, the animal scuddled along the beach like the wind. Point after point it passed, still running, until at last, again as a white speck, it bobbed out of sight. The Indians laughed consumedly.
"Me-én-gan," explained Ah-kik.
But Jimmy knew also the English name now, for he had often watched the wolves in Bronx Park cages.
Makwa he learned in a manner still more exciting. He and Taw-kwo came on a little open space in the woods one morning. The grass was almost knee high. Suddenly out of it, not ten feet away, a great black bear rose to his hind legs and said woof! Now if a human being in a civilized room says woof to you suddenly, you are startled; but when it is a big animal in a wild place, you beat all records on the back jump. At least, that is what Jimmy did, and he started to run away, but Taw-kwo jumped up and down and waved his arms frantically and shouted, until the bear, who was a peaceful beast, dropped to his four feet and ambled away. "Makwa," said Taw-kwo, when he had got his breath.
But the third was the most exciting of all. That particular afternoon the Indians had gone into camp early, and now the whole band, with the exception of Jimmy and the very youngest children, were off in the woods. Jimmy was trying to make himself an arrow, and was absorbed in the work. Suddenly he heard a strange squeaking noise near at hand, and looked up to discover two large gray kittens tumbling about not three feet away. And then, compelled by some strange hypnotic influence, his glance raised until it rested with a start of alarm on the pine shadow at the edge of the woods. A pair of fierce yellow eyes looked into his own. Little by little, he made out a lithe form, pad-like paws, wide whiskers, tasselled ears. And all at once he realized that the beast was angry.
At that moment one of the smaller children discovered the kittens, and immediately toddled forward to investigate such new playmates. A low, rumbling growl broke from the shadow. Like a streak of light the animal sprang. The mere weight of its body knocked the child from its feet. All the others cried out. The beast hesitated, one paw on the pappoose's chest, undecided what to do.
Jimmy was frightened, but he remembered seeing Makwa's gun standing against a log behind him. At his first movement the animal growled again and opened and shut its claws restlessly. Jimmy moved as cautiously as he could. The little Indian lay quite still. Finally, the long trade gun was in the white boy's hands. He had to rest the but on the ground and use both hands to cock it, and even then it was so heavy that he could just lift it to his eyes. The first movement of the muzzle caused the beast to utter a perfect thunder-storm of snarls. Jimmy knew that he had but a moment. He pointed the wavering barrel as well as he could, and pulled the trigger. That was all he knew about it. His next sensation was of water in the face, followed by an increasing ache in the region of his shoulder. The trade gun, unskilfully held, had kicked him about ten feet.
But there was the baby, sound and well; and there was the animal, minus half its head; and there were the kittens, unfortunately killed by the returning dogs; and there was Jimmy with a brand new bit of information, -- that bisíw,1 with the broad, padlike prints, was a huge cat.
And so the days went by. Sometimes they floated all day; sometimes they struggled through woods; sometimes they toiled painfully through swamps. They endured rain, wind, cold. Always the spring advanced and the freshet waters receded. Young ducks began to be seen. The trees of the forest grew smaller.
Caribou took the place of deer. Jimmy could talk with his friends now, and, by dint of much listening could understand most of what was said.
At last, after coursing for many miles down a broad swift stream without rapids, they came to where another river joined theirs, and on the point formed by the junction they went ashore and established a permanent camp. First the women pitched the conical teepees with the many poles. Then they built fire-holes and hung kettles. Then they cut quantities of balsam for the floors and to scatter on the thresholds. And finally they began the construction of a long rectangular lodge of poles and branches and decorated skins.
In the meantime the men were all off hunting, and the boys were conducting an industrious fishery. The spoils were sliced thin, and jerked, or smoked. Then they were laid on scaffolds out of reach of the dogs. In a week the camp was bountifully supplied.
And finally the packs were undone and all the gorgeous beaded and ornamented finery brought out, brushed and aired, after which the entire band settled into what seemed to Jimmy to be an anxious waiting. He asked them about it, and they replied, but the words were of those he had not learned. He only knew that around the lower bend a sentinel always stood. And one morning early that sentinel fired a shot. Instantly the camp swarmed into view. The men, seizing their guns, ran eagerly to the point. Jimmy followed in breathless excitement.
1 Canadian lynx.