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   Chapter 19 NETAWIS.

Fort Amity By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 19970

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The encampment stood under the lee of a tall sandhill, a few paces back from the brink of a frozen river. Here the forest ended in a ragged fringe of pines; and, below, the river spread into a lagoon, with a sandy bar between it and the lake, and a narrow outlet which shifted with every storm. The summer winds drove up the sand between the pine-stems and piled it in hummocks, gaining a few yards annually upon the forest as the old trees fell. The winter winds brought down the snow and whirled it among the hummocks until these too were covered.

For three weeks the encampment had been pitched here; and for two weeks snow had fallen almost incessantly, banking up the lodges and freezing as it fell. At length wind and snow had ceased and given place to a hard black frost, still and aching, and a sky of steel, and a red, rayless sun.

A man came down the river-bank, moving clumsily in his snow-shoes over the hummocks; a man dressed as an Indian, in blanket-cloak and scarlet mitases. His head was shaven to the crown around a top-knot skewered with heron's feathers; his face painted with black, vermilion, and a single streak of white between the eyebrows. He carried a gun under his left arm, and over his shoulder a pole to which he had slung the bodies of five beavers. Two dogs ran ahead of him straight for the encampment, which he had not discerned until they began to salute it with glad barking.

Five lodges formed the encampment-four of them grouped in a rough semicircle among the main lodge, which stood back close under the sand-bank where an eddy of wind had scooped it comparatively clear of snow.

The hunter followed his dogs to the door of the main lodge and lifted its frozen tent-flap.

"Is it well done, Menehwehna?" he asked, and casting his pole with its load upon the floor he clapped his mittened hands together for warmth. "Ough!" He began to pull the mittens off cautiously.

Menehwehna, seated with his back against the roof-pole (he had lain sick and fasting there all day), looked triumphantly towards his wife, who crouched with her two daughters by the lodge fire.

"Said I not that he would bring us luck? And, being bitten, did they bite, my brother?" he asked mischievously.

"A little. It did not hurt at the time." One of the two girls rose from beside the fire.

"Show me your hands, Netawis," she said.

Netawis-that is to say, John à Cleeve-stretched out his lacerated hands to the firelight. As he did so his blanket-cloak fell back, showing a necklace of wampum about his throat and another looser string dangling against the stained skin of his breast. On his outstretched wrists two silver bangles twinkled, and two broad bands of silver on the upper arms.

The girl fetched a bladder of beaver-fat and anointed his hands, her own trembling a little. Azoka was husband-high, and had been conscious for some weeks of a bird in her breast, which stirred and began to flutter whenever she and Netawis drew close. At first, when he had been fit for little but to make kites for the children, she had despised him and wondered at her father's liking. But Netawis did not seem to care whether folks despised him or not; and this piqued her. Whatever had to be learnt he learned humbly, and now the young men had ceased to speak of him as a good-for-nothing, Azoka began to think that his differing from them was not wholly against him; and all the women acknowledged him to be slim and handsome.

"Many thanks, cousin," said Netawis as she bound up the wounds. Then he began to talk cheerfully over his shoulder to Menehwehna. "Five washes I tried, and all were empty; but by the sixth the water bubbled. Then I wished that I had you with me, for I knew that my hands would suffer." He smiled; this was one of his un-Indian tricks.

"It was well done, brother," said Menehwehna, and his eyes sought those of his wife Meshu-kwa who, still crouching by the fire, gazed across it at the youth and the girl.

"But that is not all. While I was at work the dogs left me. At first I did not miss them; and then, finding them gone, I made sure they had run home in scorn of my hunting. But no; their tracks led me to a tree, not far up the stream, and there I found them. They were not barking, but sometimes they would nose around the trunk and sometimes fall back to a little distance and sit whining and trembling while they stared up at it."

"And the tracks around the tree?"

"I could find none but what the dogs themselves had made. I tapped the tree, and it was hollow. Then I saw on the north side, a little above my head, many deep scratches with moss hanging in strips from them. The trunk ran up straight, and was so stout that my two arms would not span more than a tenth of it; but the scratches went up to the first fork, and there must be the opening, as I guess."

"Said I not that Netawis would become a hunter and bring us luck?" asked Menehwehna again. "He has found bear."

"Bear! Bear! Our Netawis has found bear!" cried two small urchins who had been rolling and tumbling with the dogs and almost burning their toes at the edges of the fire. They were the children of Azoka's elder sister Seeu-kwa, Muskingon's widow. Scrambling past Menehwehna, who never spoke harshly to them, and paying no heed to their mother's scolding, they ran out into the snow to carry the news to the other lodges.

"Our Netawis has found bear!"

"What news is this?" asked some of the young men who lived in a lodge apart-the bachelors' lodge-gathering round the doorway. "Seeu-kwa, look to it that your children do not grow up to be little liars."

Now John, surprised to find his news so important, had turned to Azoka with a puzzled smile. The firelight which danced on his face danced also on the long bead necklace heaving like a snake with the rise and fall of her bosom. He stared down at it, and Azoka-poor girl-felt his wrist trembling under her touch; but it was with the thought of another woman. She caught her hand away; and John, looking up, saw a young Indian, Ononwe by name, watching him gloomily from the doorway.

"Ask Netawis to tell the story," said Menehwehna. So John told it again, and added that it had been difficult to call the dogs away from the tree.

"But about the bear I say nothing; that is Menehwehna's talk. I only tell you what I saw."

"The wind has fallen," said one, "and soon the moon will be up. Let us go and prove this tale of Netawis."

Meshu-kwa opposed this, calling it folly. "We have no axes heavy enough for tree-cutting," she said; not giving her real reason, which was that she came of a family which claimed descent from a bear. When they mocked at her she said, "Also-why should I hide it?-there came to me an evil dream last night."

"This is the first that I have heard of your evil dream," answered Menehwehna, and gave order that after supper Netawis should lead the party to the tree, promising that he himself would follow as soon as the sickness left him.

At moonrise, therefore, they set out-men and women together, and even the small children. But Menehwehna called Azoka back from the door of the lodge.

"My daughter," he asked, they two being left alone, "has Ononwe a cause of quarrel against Netawis?"

"They are good friends," Azoka answered innocently. "Ononwe never speaks of Netawis but to praise. Surely my father has heard him?"

"That is returning a ball I never flung," her father said, fixing grave eyes on her, under which she flinched. "I am thinking that the face of Netawis troubles the clear water that once was between you and Ononwe. Yet you tell me that Ononwe praises him. Sit down, therefore, and hear this tale."

Azoka looked rebellious; but no one in his own household disobeyed Menehwehna-or out of it, except at peril.

"There was a man of our nation once, a young man, and good-looking as Ononwe; so handsome that all the village called him the Beau-man. This Beau-man fell deeply in love with a maiden called Mamondago-kwa, who also was passably handsome; but she had no right to scorn him as she did, both in private and openly, so that all the village talked of his ill-success. This talk so preyed on his mind that he fell ill, and when his friends broke up their camp after a winter's hunting to return to the village, he lay on his bed and would not stir, but declared he would remain and die in the snow rather than look again on the face of her who scorned him. So at length they took down the lodge about him and went their ways, leaving him to die.

"But when the last of them was out of sight this Beau-man arose and, wandering over the ground where the camp had been, he gathered up all kinds of waste that his comrades had left behind-scraps of cloth, beads, feathers, bones and offal of meat, with odds and ends of chalk, soot, grease, everything that he could pick out of the trodden snow. Then, having heaped them together, he called on his guardian manitou, and together they set to work to make a man. They stitched the rags into coat, mitoses and mocassins, and garnished them with beads and fringes; of the feathers they made a head-dress, with a frontlet; and then, taking mud, they plastered the offal and bones together and stuffed them tightly into the garments. The manitou breathed once, and to the eye all their patchwork became fresh and fine clothing. The manitou breathed twice, and life came into the figure, which the Beau-man had been kneading into the shape of a handsome youth. 'Your name,' said he, 'is Moowis, or the Muck-man, and by you I shall take my revenge.'

"So he commanded the Muck-man to follow, and together they went after the tracks of the tribe and came to the village. All wondered at the Beau-man's friend and his fine new clothes; and, indeed, this Moowis had a frank appearance that won all hearts. The chief invited him to his lodge, and begged the Beau-man to come too; he deserved no less for bringing so distinguished a gue

st. The Beau-man accepted, but by and by began to repent of his deception when he saw the Muck-man fed with deer tongue and the moose's hump while he himself had to be content with inferior portions, and when he observed further that Mamondago-kwa had no eyes for anyone but the Muck-man, who began to prove himself a clever rogue. The chief would have promoted Moowis to the first place by the fire; but this (for it would have melted him) he modestly refused. He kept shifting his place while he talked, and the girl thought him no less vivacious than modest, and no more modest than brave, since he seemed even to prefer the cold to the cheerful warmth of the hearth. The Beau-man attempted to talk; but the Muck-man had always a retort at which the whole company laughed, until the poor fellow ran out of the lodge in a fury of shame and rage. As he rose he saw the Muck-man rise, with the assent of all, and cross over to the bridegroom's seat beside Mamondago-kwa, who welcomed him as a modest maiden should when her heart has been fairly won.

"So it happened-attend to me well, my daughter-that Mamondago-kwa married a thing of rags and bones, put together with mud. But when the dawn broke her husband rose up and took a bow and spear, saying, 'I must go on a journey.' 'Then I will go with you,' said his bride. 'My journey is too long for you,' said the Muck-man. 'Not so,' answered she; 'there is no journey that I could not take beside you, no toil that I could not share for love of you.' He strode forth, and she followed him at a distance; and the Beau-man, who had kept watch all night outside their lodge, followed also at a distance, unseen. All the way along the rough road Mamondago-kwa called to her husband; but he went forward rapidly, not turning his head, and she could not overtake him. Soon, as the sun rose, he began to melt. Mamondago-kwa did not see the gloss go out of his clothes, nor his handsome features change back again into mud and snow and filth. But still as she followed she came on rags and feathers and scraps of clothing, fluttering on bushes or caught in the crevices of the rocks. She passed his mittens, his mocassins, his mitases, his coat, his plume of feathers. At length, as he melted, his footprints grew fainter, until she lost even his track on the snow. 'Moowis! Moowis!' she cried; but now there was none to answer her, for the Muck-man had returned to that out of which he was made."

Menehwehna ceased and looked at his daughter steadily.

"And did the Beau-man find her and fetch her back?" asked Azoka.

"The story does not say, to my knowledge; but it may be that Ononwe could tell you."

Azoka stepped to the moonlit doorway and gazed out over the snow.

"And yet you love Netawis?" she asked, turning her head.

"So much that I keep him in trust for his good, against a day when he will go and never return. But that is not a maiden's way of loving, unless maidens have changed since I went a-courting them."

Netawis having led them to the tree, the young men fell to work upon it at once. It measured well over ten fathoms in girth; and by daybreak, their axes being light, they had hewed it less than half-way through. After a short rest they attacked it again, but the sun was close upon setting when the tree fell-with a rending scream which swelled into a roar so human-like that the children ran with one accord and caught hold of their elders' hands.

John, with Seeu-kwa's small boys clinging to him, stood about thirty paces from the fallen trunk. Two or three minutes passed, and he wondered why the men did not begin to jeer at him for having found them a mare's nest. For all was quiet. He wondered also why none of them approached the tree to examine it.

"I shall be the mock of the camp from this moment," he thought, and said aloud, "Let go of my hands, little ones; there is no more danger."

But they clung to him more tightly than ever; for a great cry went up. From the opening by the fork of the trunk a dark body rolled lazily out upon the snow-an enormous she-bear. She uncurled and gathered herself up on all fours, blinking and shaking her head as though the fall had left her ears buzzing, and so began to waddle off. Either she had not seen the crowd of men and women, or perhaps she despised it.

"Ononwe! Ononwe!" shouted the Indians; for Ononwe, gun in hand, had been posted close to the opening.

He half-raised his gun, but lowered it again.

"Netawis found her," he said quietly. "Let Netawis shoot her."

He stepped back towards John who, almost before he knew, found the gun thrust into his hands; for the children had let go their clasp.

Amid silence he lifted it and took aim, wondering all the while why Ononwe had done this. The light was fading. To be sure he could not miss the bear's haunches, now turned obliquely to him; but to hit her without killing would be scarcely less dishonouring than to miss outright, and might be far more dangerous. His hand and forearm trembled too-with the exertion of hewing, or perhaps from the strain of holding the children. Why had he been fool enough to take the gun? He foretasted his disgrace even as he pulled the trigger.

It seemed to him that as the smoke cleared the bear still walked forward slowly. But a moment later she turned her head with one loud snap of the jaws and lurched over on her side. Her great fore-pads smote twice on the powdery snow, then were still.

He had killed her, then; and, as he learned from the applause, by an expert's shot, through the spine at the base of the skull. John had aimed at this merely at a guess, knowing nothing of bears or their vulnerable points, and in this ignorance neglecting a far easier mark behind the pin of the shoulder.

But more remained to wonder at; for the beast being certified for dead, Meshu-kwa ran forward and kneeling in the snow beside it began to fondle and smooth the head, calling it by many endearing names. She seated herself presently, drew the great jaws on to her lap and spoke into its ear, beseeching its forgiveness. "O bear!" she cried for all to hear, "O respected grandmother! You yourself saw that this was a stranger's doing. Believe not that Meshu-kwa is guilty of your death, or any of her tribe! It was a stranger that disturbed your sleep, a stranger who fired upon you with this unhappy result!"

The men stood around patiently until this propitiation was ended; and then fell to work to skin the bear, while Meshu-kwa went off with her daughters to the lodges, to prepare the cooking pots. In passing John she gave him a glance of no good will.

That night, as Azoka stood by a cauldron in which the bear's fat bubbled, and the young men idled around the blaze, she saw Netawis draw Ononwe aside into the darkness. Being a quick-witted girl she promptly let slip her ladle into the fat, as if by mischance, and ran to her father's lodge for another, followed by Meshu-kwa's scolding voice. The lodge had a back-exit towards the wall of the sandhill, where the wind's eddy had swept a lane almost clear of snow; and Azoka pushed her pretty head through the flap-way here in time to spy the dark shadows of the pair before they disappeared behind the bachelor's lodge. Quietly as a pantheress she stole after them, smoothing out her footprints behind her until she reached the trampled snow; and so, coming to the angle of the bachelors' lodge, cowered listening.

"But suppose that I had missed my shot?" said the voice of Netawis. "I tell you that my heart was as wax; and when the lock fell, I saw nothing. Why, what is the matter with you, Ononwe?"

"I thought you had led me here to quarrel with me," Ononwe answered slowly, and Azoka held her breath.

"Quarrel, brother? Why should I quarrel with you? It was a risk, as I am telling you; but you trusted me, and I brought you here to thank you that in your good heart you gave the shot up to me."

"But it was not my good heart." Ononwe's voice had grown hoarse. "It was an evil thought in my head, and you will have to quarrel with me, Netawis."

"That Ononwe is a good man," said Azoka to herself.

"I do not understand. Did you expect me, then, to miss? Do not say, brother, that you gave me the gun wishing me to miss and be the mock of the camp!"

"Yes, and no. I thought, if you took the gun, it would not matter whether you hit or missed."

"Why?"

"Are you so simple, Netawis? Or is it in revenge that you force me to tell?… Yes, I have played you an evil trick, and by an evil tempting. I saw you with Azoka.… I gave you the gun, thinking, 'If he misses, the whole camp will mock him, and a maid turns from a man whom others mock. But if he should kill the bear, he will have to reckon with Meshu-kwa. Meshu-kwa fears ill-luck, and she will think more than twice before receiving a son-in-law who has killed her grandmother the bear.'"

"I will marry Netawis," said Azoka to herself, shutting her teeth hard. And yet she could not feel angry with Ononwe as she ought. But it seemed that neither was Netawis angry; for he answered with one of those strange laughs of his. She had never been able to understand them, but she had never heard one that sounded so unhappy as did this.

"My brother," said Netawis-and his voice was gentle and bitterly sorrowful-"if you did this in guile, I have shot better indeed than you to-day. As for Meshu-kwa, I must try to be on good terms with her again; and as for Azoka, she is a good girl, and thinks as little of me as I of her. Last night when you saw us… I remember that I looked down on her and something reminded me… of one…" He leaned a hand against a pole of the lodge and gripped it as the anguish came on him and shook him in the darkness. "Damn!" cried John à Cleeve, with a sob.

"Was that her name?" asked Ononwe gravely, hardly concealing the relief in his voice.

But Azoka did not hear Netawis' answer as she crept back, smoothing the snow over her traces.

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