The Trapper's Son, by W.H.G. Kingston.
A very short book, set in North America some time in the nineteenth century, at a time when Indian tribes were still hunting over the land—Crees, Dacotahs, Peigans. An old trapper and his son are preparing for the winter, when their horses are found dead, killed either by wolves or by Indians. So they have to cache most of the skins they were planning to take to a nearby fort, and set off on their journey there.
Michael Moggs, the trapper, had fathered the boy, Laurence, with an Indian woman, who had brought Laurence up to the point where Michael comes to collect him. The boy had never been taught the principles of Christianity, and his father never knew them either. So most of the book deals with the conversion of the boy and his father to true religion, by people they meet at the fort.
THE TRAPPER'S SON, BY W.H.G. KINGSTON.
THE TRAPPER'S CAMP—BEAVERS CAUGHT—THE HORSES KILLED BY WOLVES—TRAPS TO CATCH THE WOLVES.
In the far western wilds of North America, over which the untutored red-skinned savage roams at liberty, engaged throughout life in war or the chase, by the side of a broad stream which made its way towards a distant lake, an old man and a boy reclined at length beneath a wigwam, roughly formed of sheets of birch-bark placed against several poles stuck in the ground in a circular form, and fastened together at the top. The sun was just rising above a wood, composed of maple, birch, poplar, and willow, fringing the opposite bank of the river; while rocky hills of no great elevation formed the sides of the valley, through which the stream made its way. Snow rested on the surrounding heights, and the ground was crisp with frost. The foliage which still clung to the deciduous trees exhibited the most gorgeous colours, the brightest red, pink, yellow, and purple tints contrasting with the sombre hues of the pines covering the lower slopes of the hills.
"It's time to look to the traps, Laurence," said the old man, arousing his young companion, who was still asleep by the side of the smouldering embers of their fire.
The boy sat up, and passed his hand across his eyes. There was a weary expression in his intelligent and not unpleasing countenance.
"Yes, father, I am ready," he answered. "But I did not think the night was over; it seems but just now I lay down to sleep."
"You have had some hard work lately, and are tired; but the season will soon be over, and we will bend our steps to Fort Elton, where you can remain till the winter cold has passed away. If I myself were to spend but a few days shut up within the narrow limits of such a place, I should soon tire of idleness, and wish to be off again among the forests and streams, where I have passed so many years."
"Oh, do not leave me among strangers, father," exclaimed the boy, starting to his feet. "I am rested now, and am ready."
They set out, proceeding along the side of the stream, stopping every now and then to search beneath the overhanging bushes, or in the hollows of the bank, where their traps had been concealed. From the first the old trapper drew forth an animal about three feet in length, of a deep chestnut colour, with fine smooth glossy hair, and a broad flat tail nearly a foot long, covered with scales. Its hind feet were webbed, its small fore-paws armed with claws, and it had large, hard, sharp teeth in its somewhat blunted head. Hanging up the beaver, for such it was, to a tree, they continued the examination of their snares.
"Who would have thought creatures so easily caught could make such a work as this?" observed the old man, as they were passing over a narrow causeway which formed a dam across a smaller stream falling into the main river, and had created a back water or shallow lake of some size. The dam was composed of innumerable small branches and trunks of trees, laid horizontally across the stream, mixed with mud and stones. Several willows and small poplars were sprouting up out of it.
"What! have the beavers made this?" asked Laurence.
"Ay, every bit of it, boy; each stem and branch has been cut down by the creatures, with their paws and teeth. No human builders could have formed the work more skilfully. And observe how they thus have made a pond, ever full of water, above the level of the doorways to their houses, when the main stream is lowered by the heats of summer. See, too, how cleverly they build their houses, with dome roofs so hard and strong that even the cunning wolverine cannot manage to break through them, while they place the doorway so deep down that the ice in winter can never block it up inside. How warm and cozy, too, they are without the aid of fires or blankets."
"How comes it, then, that they have not the sense to keep out of our traps, father?" inquired Laurence.
"If you had ever been to the big cities, away to the east, you would not ask that question, boy," answered the old trapper. "You would there have seen thousands of men who seem wonderfully clever, and yet who get caught over and over again by cunning rogues who know their weak points; just as we bait our traps with bark-stone, [see Note] for which the foolish beaver has such a fancy, so the knaves bait their snares with promises of boundless wealth, to be gained without labour or trouble. To my mind, nothing is to be gained without working for it, and pretty hard work too, if the thing is worth having."
This conversation passed between the old man and his son as they proceeded along the bank of the pond where some of their traps had been set. Some had failed to catch their prey, but after the search was ended, they returned to their camp with a dozen skins as the result of their labour. One of the animals which had been skinned having been preserved for their morning meal, it was soon roasting, supported on two forked sticks, before the freshly made-up fire. This, with some maize flour, and a draught of water from the stream, formed their repast.
"Now, Laurence, go and bring in the horses, while I prepare the skins and do up our bales, and we will away towards the fort," said the old man.
Laurence set off in search of their horses, which had been left feeding during the night in a meadow at some distance from the camp. The well-trained steeds, long accustomed to carry them and their traps and furs, were not likely to have strayed away from the ground. Laurence went on, expecting every moment to find them, but after proceeding some way, they were nowhere visible. Near at hand was a rocky height which overlooked the meadow. He climbed to the top; still he could not see the horses. Becoming somewhat anxious at their disappearance, he made his way across the meadow, hoping to find that they had discovered a richer pasturage farther on. As he looked round, he saw, to his dismay, two horses lying motionless on the ground. He hurried towards them. They were dead, and fearfully torn and mangled.
"The wolves have done this, the savage brutes. We will be revenged on them," he exclaimed as he surveyed the dead steeds. "Father and I must have slept very soundly during the night not to have been awoke by their howling. It will be a sore grief to the old man, and I would that he had found it out himself, rather than I should have to tell him. However, it must be done." Saying this, he set off on his return to the camp.
"The brutes shall pay dearly for it," exclaimed the old trapper, when Laurence brought him the intelligence of what had happened. "Whether Injuns or wolves wrong him, Michael Moggs is not the man to let them go unpunished;" and his eyes lighted up with a fierce expression which made the young boy instinctively shrink back from him. "We have three strong traps which will catch the biggest wolf on the prairies; and if they fail, I'll lie in wait till I can shoot the savage brutes down with my rifle. We shall have to tramp it on foot, boy, with the furs on our backs. That's bad for you, but we can leave the traps hidden away en cache; and as the snow will soon cover the ground, the cunning Injuns are not likely to find them. It's not the first adventure of the sort I have met with; and though I am sorry for your sake, and for the loss of our poor horses, I am not going to be cast down."
Some time was spent in scraping the skins, and in repacking the most valuable of those already obtained in a compass which would enable the old man and his son to carry them. Not wishing to leave such valuable property in the hut, which might be visited during their absence by some wandering Indian, they then strapped the bales on to their backs, the old man carrying his rifle and the steel traps, and set out towards the meadow where their horses had been killed.
Having planted the traps round the carcases of the slaughtered animals, and concealed them carefully, so that they could not be seen by the savage wolves, they returned to their hut.
"The brutes will pay another visit to the poor horses, unless they fall in with other prey in the meantime, and that they are not likely to find about here," observed Moggs, as he sat down and struck a light to rekindle the fire. Laurence had collected a supply of dried branches, of which there was an abundance in the surrounding woods.
"We must keep the fire burning during the night, or the savage creatures may chance to pay us a visit; and if they find us napping, they may treat us as they have our horses," continued the old man. "To-morrow morning, we shall have our revenge, and I shall be vexed indeed if we do not find two or three of the brutes in the traps."
The day was spent, as many before had been passed when they were not travelling or setting their snares, in scraping furs, greasing their traps, and cleaning the old man's highly-prized rifle.
Their conversation related wholly to the occupation in which they were engaged; of other matters young Laurence knew nothing. He was a true child of the desert. His early days had been spent in the wigwam of an Indian squaw, who had taught him the legends and faith of her people. Beyond that period his recollections were very faint. He had remained with her until Michael Moggs, who called himself his father, came for him and took him away. He had almost forgotten his native tongue; but from that time, by constantly associating with the old trapper, he soon again learned to speak it. Of the Christian faith he knew nothing, for Moggs and himself were utterly ignorant of its truths; while they had imbibed many of the superstitions of the savage Indians, the only human beings with whom they had for long years associated. Laurence believed firmly in the Great Spirit who governs the destinies of the Red men of the desert—in the happy hunting-grounds, the future abode of brave warriors who die fighting on the battle-field—in the existence of demons, who wander through the forests in search of victims—and in the occult powers of wizards and medicine men. He had been taught that the only objects in life worthy of the occupation of men were war and the chase—that he should look with contempt on those who, he had heard, spent their time in the peaceful business of agriculture and commerce; that revenge and hatred of foes were the noblest sentiments to be cultivated in the human breast; and that no act was more worthy than to kill a foe, or a feeling more delightful than to witness his suffering under torture. Yet the heart of young Laurence was not hardened, nor altogether debased. Occasionally yearnings for a different life to that he led rose in his bosom. Whence they came he could not tell. Still he could not help thinking that there might be a brighter and better state of existence in those far-off lands away beyond where he saw the glorious sun rise each morning, to run its course through the sky, and to sink again behind the snow-capped range of the Rocky Mountains, to the base of which he and his father had occasionally wandered. Whenever he had ventured even to hint the tenor of his thoughts to the old trapper, the scornful rebuke he had received kept him for many a day afterwards silent.
As evening approached, the old man made a wide circuit round the camp to ascertain that no lurking foes lay hid in the neighbourhood. Having satisfied himself on that score, a large supply of fuel was piled up on the fire, when, after a frugal supper, he and the boy lay down to rest. Although Laurence slept soundly, Michael awoke constantly to put more wood on the fire, and not unfrequently to take a survey around the wigwam, knowing well that their lives might depend on his vigilance.
No sooner did the first faint streaks of dawn appear in the sky than he aroused the boy. A hurried meal was eaten, and then they strapped on their packs and several bundles of furs, which, with their traps, Moggs intended to conceal till he could return for them. The remaining articles, and a few of the least valuable of their furs, were then thrown on the fire, and the wigwam being pulled down on the top of it, the whole mass of combustible material soon burst up into a flame, leaving in a short time no other trace of their abode on the spot than a pile of blackened cinders.
They then made their way by a wide circuit into a neighbouring wood, beyond which a rocky hill afforded, in the old trapper's opinion, a secure place for concealing their goods. The old man stepped cautiously along, avoiding even brushing against any of the branches on either side, Laurence following in his footsteps.
A small cave or hollow, which he had before observed, was soon found. In this the articles were deposited, and the mouth was closed up with stones brought from the hill-side, they again being concealed by a pile of broken branches and leaves, which, to the eye of a passer-by, might appear to have been blown there by the wind.
"It is the best place we can find," exclaimed Moggs. "But if a strange Injun was to come this way before the snow covers the ground, our traps would soon be carried off. Most of the Crees, however, know that they are mine, and would think it wiser to leave them alone. We will hope for the best; and now, Laurence, let us go and see what the wolves have been about." Saying this, he and the boy commenced their retreat from the wood in the same cautious way by which they had approached it.
Note. The bark-stone of which the old trapper spoke is the Castoreum, a substance secreted in two glandular sacs near the root of the beaver's tail, which gives out an extremely powerful odour, and so strangely attracts beavers that the animals, when they scent it at a distance, will sniff about and squeal with eagerness as they make their way towards it. The trapper, therefore, carries a supply in a bottle, and when he arrives at a spot frequented by the animals, he sets his traps, baiting them with some of the substance. This is done with a small twig of wood, the end of which he chews, and, dipping it in the Castoreum, places it just above water, close to the trap, which is beneath the surface, and in such a position that the beaver must pass over it to get at the bait.
PURSUIT AND CAPTURE OF A WHITE WOLF—LAURENCE'S DREAM—JOURNEY TO THE FORT OVER THE SNOW—FRIENDLY RECEPTION AT THE FORT—LAURENCE FALLS SICK.
The old trapper and his son crept cautiously among the rocks and shrubs towards the spot where the traps had been set around their slaughtered steeds. Moggs cocked his rifle as his keen eye fell on a large white wolf, which, caught by the leg in one of the traps, was making desperate efforts to free itself, and appeared every instant on the point of succeeding. As they drew near, the ferocious animal, with its mouth wide open, its teeth broken in its attempts to gnaw the iron trap, and its head covered with blood, sprang forward to reach them, but the trap held it fast.
"Keep behind me, Laurence," said Michael. "If the creature gets loose, it will need a steady aim to bring it to the ground." Not for a moment did the wolf turn round to fly, but again and again it sprang forward as far as the chain would allow it.
Although old Michael knew nothing of the humanity which would avoid allowing any of God's creatures to suffer unnecessary pain, he was preparing to put an end to its agonies, when the creature, by a frantic effort, freeing itself, sprang towards him. Laurence uttered a cry of terror; for he expected the next moment to see its savage jaws fixed in his father's throat; but the old man, standing calm and unmoved, fired, and the animal fell dead at his feet.
"Did ye think, Laurence, that I could not manage a single wolf," he said, half turning round with a reproachful look towards the boy, who had not yet recovered from his alarm. "This is a prize worth having, though. It has not often been my luck to kill a white wolf, and we may barter this skin with the Crees for six of the best mustangs they have got. While I skin the varmint, see what the other traps have been about." Laurence went forward to examine them.
"Here is a foot in one of them," he exclaimed. "The creature must have gnawed it off, and got away. The other trap has been pulled up. I can see the tracks it has left, as the animal dragged it away."
"We will be after it, then," cried Moggs. "If it is another white wolf we shall be well repaid indeed for the loss of our steeds, though we have to carry our packs till we can reach the fort. Come, Laurence, help me to finish off this work."
The skin was added to the already heavy load which old Moggs carried, and the traps hid in a spot which, with his experienced eye, he could without difficulty find.
"Now Laurence," he exclaimed, "we will be after the runaway."
The keen sight of the old man easily distinguished the marks left on the ground by the heavy trap as the animal trailed it behind him. The creature, after going some way along the valley, had taken to the higher ground, where its traces were still more easily distinguished upon the crust of the snow which lay there. The white wolf had got some distance ahead, when at length, to the delight of old Moggs, he discovered it with the trap at its heels. It seemed to know that its pursuers were close behind. Off it scampered at a rapid trot, now over the rugged and broken surface of rocks, now descending into ravines, now going north, now south, making numerous zigzag courses in its efforts to escape and deceive the hunters. Still old Moggs pursued, regardless of fatigue, though Laurence had great difficulty in keeping up with him, and often felt as if he must drop. His father encouraged him to continue the chase, promising soon to overtake the creature. At length, however, Laurence could go no further, and sank down on a hill, over which they had just climbed, and were about to descend to a valley below them.
"Rest there till I come back, then, boy," exclaimed the hardy old trapper, a slight tone of contempt mixed with his expression of pity. "The wolf I must have, even though he leads me a score of miles further. Here, take the tinder-box and axe, and make a fire; by the time I come back we shall need some food, after our chase."
Having given Laurence the articles he mentioned, with a handful of pemmican from his wallet, he hastened down the hill, in the direction the wolf had taken along the valley.
Young Laurence was too much accustomed to those wilds to feel any alarm at being left alone; and as soon as he had somewhat rested, he set to work to cut a supply of dried branches from the surrounding shrubs, with which he quickly formed a blazing fire. The pemmican, or pounded buffalo meat, further restored his strength, and he began to think that he would follow in the direction his father had taken, to save him from having to ascend the hill. When he began to move, however, he felt so weary that he again sank down by the side of the fire, where in a short time he fell asleep. Wild dreams troubled his slumbers, and long-forgotten scenes came back to his mind. He was playing in a garden among flowers in front of a neat and pretty dwelling, with the waters of a tranquil lake shining far below. He heard the gentle voice of one he trusted, whose fair sweet face ever smiled on him as he gambolled near her. The voice was hastily calling him, when suddenly he was lifted up and carried away far from her shrieks and cries. The rattle of musketry echoed in his ears, then he was borne down a rapid stream, the waters hissing and foaming around. Now numberless Indians, in war-paint and feathers, danced frantically before his eyes, and huge fires blazed up, and again shrieks echoed in his ears. Then a monstrous animal, with glaring eyeballs, burst into their midst, putting the Indians to flight, and scattering their fires far and wide, yelling and roaring savagely. He started up, when what was his horror to see the fierce white wolf his father had been pursuing rushing towards him with the chain and trap still trailing at his heels. Spell-bound, he felt unable to rise. In another moment the enraged wolf would be upon him, when a rifle shot rang through the air, and the wolf dropped dead close to where he lay.
"Art safe, Laurence, art unhurt, boy?" exclaimed the old trapper, who came, breathless, hurrying up the side of the hill. "The brute doubled cunningly on me, and thinking, from the way he was leading, that he would pass near where I left you, I took a short cut, in hopes of being before him. I was nearly too late, and twice before I had fired, shouting to you to be on your guard. It's not often my rifle has failed to kill even at that distance."
Laurence relieved his father's anxiety by showing him that he was unhurt; and greatly to the old trapper's satisfaction, on examining the wolf, three bullet holes were found in the skin, showing that his favourite rifle had not missed, although the first shots had failed to kill.
The prized skin having been secured, as it was too heavy to carry, in addition to their previous loads, it was hidden, as the traps had been, in a hollow in the rocks.
"Little chance of its escaping from Indians or wolverines, though I am loath to abandon it," observed the old man, as he placed the last of a large pile of stones in front of the cave. "But the snow will be down, may be this very night, and then it will be safe."
They now proceeded down the valley, and continued on till they reached the edge of a small wood, where they encamped for the night. For several days they journeyed on towards the south and east, not meeting, as they passed over those desert wilds, a single human being.
"Once, when I first knew this region, many thousand warriors, with their squaws and children, were masters here," observed old Moggs. "But they are all gone; the white man's gunpowder, and his still more deadly fire-water, have carried off the greater number. Famine visited them when they themselves had slaughtered most of the creatures which gave them food, without having learned other means for obtaining support. Before that time, neither white nor red trappers had to go more than a few days' journey from the forts to obtain as many skins as they needed."
"I wish those times would come back again," said the boy. "For my legs feel as if they would soon refuse to carry me further."
"Cheer up, lad, we will camp soon, and in a few days more we shall be at the fort, when you shall have the rest I promised you."
"But you will not quit me then, father, will you?" asked Laurence.
"Well, well, I must buy fresh horses to bring in the skins and traps, and to prepare for the next season," answered Michael. "I have no wish to leave you, lad; so don't let that trouble you just now."
The first fall of snow for that winter had now come down, and thickly covered the ground. For several days it compelled the trapper and his son to keep within the shelter of their wigwam. Once more they set out. After travelling severe days, young Laurence, though he had partially recovered, again felt ready to give way. Still he trudged with his load by his father's side. The cold had greatly increased; but though he had hitherto been indifferent to it, he felt that he would rather lie down and die than proceed further. The old man took his arm, and did his utmost to encourage him.
They at length reached a wood of birch and firs. "Oh, father, let us camp here, for I can move on no longer," cried Laurence, in a piteous tone.
"Cheer up, cheer up, boy," said the old trapper, repeating the expression he had frequently of late uttered. "A few steps farther, and we shall see the fort."
The poor lad struggled on. The sun was sinking low in the sky, when, just as they doubled the wood, its beams fell on the stockaded sides of a fort, situated on slightly elevated ground out of the prairie.
"There's our resting place at last," exclaimed the old man, pointing with his hand towards the fort. "Keep up your courage, and we shall reach it before dark. The peltries we bring will ensure us a welcome; and though I trust not to the white men who live in cities, the chief factor there calls me his friend, and has a heart which I doubt not will feel compassion for your youth. He will treat you kindly for my sake, though most of the traders such as he care little for the old trapper who has spent his whole life in toiling for them."
Michael continuing to support the tottering steps of his son, they at last reached the gates of the fort, which were opened to give them admittance, their approach having been observed from the look-out towers on the walls. The stockade surrounded an area of considerable size, within which were the residences of the factor and clerks, several large storehouses, and huts for the accommodation of the garrison and hunters, and casual visitors. Altogether, to Michael's eyes, it appeared a place of great importance. A number of voyageurs and half-breeds, in their picturesque costumes, were strolling about; multitudes of children were playing at the doors of the huts; and women were seen going to and from the stores, or occupied in their daily avocations. Laurence felt somewhat awe-struck on finding himself among so many strangers, and kept close to his father. At their entrance they had been saluted by a pack of savage-looking sleigh-dogs, which came out barking at the new-comers, but were quickly driven back to their quarters by their masters.
"Don't mind them, Laurence," said Michael. "As soon as they find that we are treated as friends, they will cease their yelping, and come humbly to our feet to seek our favour."
Michael inquired for Mr Ramsay, the chief factor.
"There he comes from his house," answered the man to whom he had addressed himself.
"What! old friend! I am right glad to see you again," exclaimed Mr Ramsay, advancing, and with frank cordiality shaking the old trapper by the hand. "I was afraid, from your long absence, that you would never find your way back to the fort. And who is this lad? He seems very young for the life of a trapper."
Michael then introduced Laurence, and narrated how they had lost their horses and been compelled to tramp the whole distance on foot, not having met any Indians from whom they could purchase fresh steeds, or obtain assistance in carrying their bales.
"He looks worn out and ill," said the kind-hearted factor. "Come in to my house, and we will have him seen to. A comfortable bed and a quiet night's rest will, I hope, restore him; and you, friend, will, I suspect, be glad to get that heavy pack off your shoulders."
"The boy has not been much accustomed to beds or houses, and the change may, as you say, do him good," observed Michael. "But my old sinews are too tough to feel the weight of this pack, heavy as it is, I'll allow. However, for the boy's sake, I'll accept your hospitality; and, if you'll look after him till he is recovered, the best peltries I have shall be at your service without any other payment."
"Nay, nay, friend; I come frae the Hielands, and have not so far forgotten the customs of the old country as to receive payment for entertaining a guest, and as such your son is welcome. However, come in, and get rid of your packs; and to-morrow, when you have rested, we will examine their contents and calculate their value."
Poor Laurence tottered on, but scarcely had he reached the entrance of the house than he sank to the ground. His pack was quickly taken off, and kindly hands lifted him to a room, where he was undressed and put to bed—a luxury he had not, as his father had said, for many years enjoyed. Restoratives were applied; but kind Mrs Ramsay and those of her household who watched him, as they observed his pale cheeks and slowly-drawn breath, feared that nature was too far exhausted by the fatigue he had undergone to recover. The old man's alarm and grief, when he heard of the dangerous state of his son, was excessive. Kind Mrs Ramsay did her best to console him, and her young daughter, a fair-haired, blue-eyed little girl, Jeanie, climbed up on his knee, and stroked his rough hair, as he hung down his head, utterly overcome.
"We will pray to our merciful Father in heaven to take care of the young boy, and to make him strong and well again," she whispered. "You know that God hears our prayers; and oh, how good and kind He is, to let us speak to Him, and to do what we ask Him in the name of His dear Son Jesus Christ."
The old man gazed earnestly at the child for a few seconds, and, a look of anguish passing over his countenance, he shook his head; and then turning away from her, he put her gently down, as if he was afraid of being thus again addressed, and answered, "Thank you, thank you, little damsel; I hope my boy will get well. It will go pretty nigh to finish me if he does not," he murmured to himself. "I ought to have known that his strength was not equal to the task I put upon it. If he dies, men will say, and justly, that I am his murderer."
The old man partook but sparingly of the abundant repast spread before him, and declining the luxury of a bed, rolled himself up in a blanket, and took his post in the hall, near the door of the room where Laurence had been placed, that he might hear from those who were attending on his boy how it went with him. At every footstep which passed he started up and made the same inquiry, and then with a groan lay down again, his desire to keep on the watch in vain struggling with his fatigue.
ANXIETY OF THE TRAPPER ABOUT HIS SON—JEANIE TELLS LAURENCE ABOUT THE BIBLE AND GOD'S LOVE TO MAN—LAURENCE OUT OF DANGER—THE TRAPPER LEAVES LAURENCE WITH HIS FRIENDS—JEANIE TRIES TO TEACH LAURENCE TO READ— HISTORY OF MRS. RAMSAY.
The following morning, the old trapper was sitting on the floor, where he had passed the night, with his head bent down on his knees, when Mrs Ramsay came out of his son's room.
"Is he better? Will he live?" he asked in a low, husky voice, gazing up anxiously at her countenance.
"The issues of life and death are in God's hands," she answered. "Your young son is very ill; but our merciful Father in heaven can restore him if He thinks fit; we can but watch over him, and minister to his wants as may seem best to us. Lift up your heart in prayer to that Great Being through Him who died for us, sinning children as we are that we might be reconciled to our loving Parent, and He will assuredly hear your petition, and grant it if He thinks fit."
The old man groaned as she ceased speaking, and again dropping his head on his breast made no reply to her, though he muttered to himself, "She tells me to pray. The Great Spirit would strike me dead in his anger were I to dare to speak to Him." The kind lady, seeing he did not speak, passed on.
Old Michael could with difficulty be persuaded to eat anything, or to quit his post during the day. Little Jeanie was at length sent to him with some food, to try if he would receive it at her hands.
"Here," she said, placing her hand on his arm. "You must take some of this, or you will become weak and ill. God, you know, gives us food to support our bodies, just as He sends His holy spirit to strengthen our souls. It is very wrong not to eat when we require food, and so it is when we refuse to receive the aid of the Holy Spirit, which we so much need every moment of our lives."
"Who told you that, little damsel?" asked the old man, looking up in the child's sweet face.
"Mamma, of course," she answered. "And Mr Martin, the missionary, who came here some time ago, says she is right, and told me never to forget what she says to me. I try not to do so; but when I am playing about, and sometimes when I feel inclined to be naughty, I am apt not to remember as I ought; and then I ask God to help me and to forgive me, through Jesus Christ, and all those things come back again to my memory."
"You naughty!" said the old man, gazing still more intently at the young fair countenance. "I don't think you ever could be naughty."
"Oh yes, yes, I am, though," answered the child. "I feel sometimes vexed and put out, and so do all sorts of naughty things; besides, you know that God says, 'there is none that doeth good, no, not one;' and even if I did not think I was naughty, I know that I must be in His sight, for He is so pure and holy that even to Him the heavens, so bright to us, are not pure."
The old man apparently did not understand what the child was saying to him, but the sound of her soft voice soothed his troubled heart. She little knew how dark and hard that heart had become.
"What is it you want, little damsel?" he asked, in a tone as if he had been lost in thought while she was speaking.
"I came to bring you this food," she said. "I shall be so glad to see you eat some."
The old man, without further remonstrance, almost mechanically, it seemed, consumed the food she offered him.
For several days Laurence hung between life and death, but the constant and watchful care of his new friends was blessed with success; and once more he opened his eyes, and was able to understand and reply to what was said to him. As soon as he was considered out of danger, old Michael regained his usual manner. Though he expressed his gratitude to his hosts in his rough, blunt way, he uttered no expression which showed that he believed that aught of thanks were due to the Giver of all good for his son's recovery. With his ordinary firm tread he stalked into the room where Laurence lay.
"I am glad to see thee coming round, boy," he said. "Food and quiet is all that is now required to fit thee for work again. Dost not long to be once more wandering through the forest, or trapping by the side of the broad stream? I am already weary, as I knew I should, of this dull life, and must away to look after our traps and such of our peltries as may have escaped the claws of the cunning wolverines."
"Stay for me but a few days, and I shall be ready to go with you, father," said the boy, trying to raise himself up.
"Nay, nay, boy; but you're not yet strong enough for travelling. The snow lies thickly on the ground, and the winter's wind whistles keenly through the forest and across the plain. Stay a while with your good friends here, and I'll come back for thee, and then we will hie away to lead the free life we have enjoyed so long." Old Michael spoke in a more subdued tone than usual.
"You speak truth, father, when you say our friends are kind; if it were not for you I should not wish to leave them. Sometimes, when Mrs Ramsay and her little daughter have been tending me, my thoughts have been carried back to the days when I was a young child, or else to some pleasant dreams which have visited me in my sleep."
"Speak not again of those times, Laurence," exclaimed the old trapper in an angry tone. "They are mere foolish fancies of the brain. You are still weak and ill, but you will soon recover," he added in a more gentle voice. "And when I come for you, promise me that you will be ready to go forth once more to be my companion in the free wilds."
"Yes, father, yes; I promise, whenever you come and summon me away, I will go with you."
"Farewell, then, boy," said the old trapper, taking his son's hand. "We will look forward to the time when we may enjoy our free roving life together again."
On the entrance of Mrs Ramsay and Jeanie, who came with some nourishing food for Laurence, the old trapper silently left the room. When, a short time afterwards, Mrs Ramsay inquired for him, she found that he had quitted the fort, leaving behind him his bales of peltries, with the exception of the white wolf-skin.
"He has taken it to trade with the Indians," observed the factor. "He knows that they value it more than we do."
"I am so sorry that your father has gone away, Laurence," said Jeanie, as she sat by the bedside of the young invalid, trying to console him for the grief he showed when he heard of the old trapper's departure. "But remember you are among friends, and we will do all we can to make you happy. Still, it is a great thing to know that your father loves you. I should be miserable if I could suppose that my father and mother did not love me. But do you know, Laurence, I have often thought how much more wretched I should feel if I did not know that our Heavenly Father loves me also even more than they do. Mamma has often told me that His love is so great that we cannot understand it. It always makes me feel so happy when I think of it, and that He is always watching over us, and that His eye is ever upon us."
"Do you speak of the Great Spirit, little girl?" said Laurence, raising himself on his elbow, and gazing inquiringly at her. "I have heard that He is the Friend of brave warriors and those who obey Him, and that He is more powerful than any human being; but still I cannot fancy that He cares for young boys and girls, and women and slaves, or cowards who are afraid to fight."
"Oh, yes, yes; He cares for everybody," exclaimed Jeanie. "He loves all the creatures He has made, to whom He has given souls which will live for ever and ever. He wants them all to live with Him in the glorious heaven He has prepared for all who accept the gracious offer of mercy which He makes to us. You know that we are by nature rebels and disobedient children; and consequently Satan, the great rebel chief, has power to do evil, and to tempt us to sin, and to rebel against God, as he tempted our first parents; but God sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world, to suffer the punishment which, for our disobedience and sin, we ought to suffer, and to tell us that, if we trust Him and believe that He has so suffered for our sins, and thus taken them away, and will love and obey Him, and follow the laws which He established, we shall be received back again into favour, and when our souls quit this world, that they will go and dwell with Him in that glorious and happy land where He will reign for ever and ever."
Laurence continued his fixed gaze at the young girl as she spoke.
"These are very wonderful words you speak. They are so wonderful that I cannot understand them," said Laurence very slowly.
"What I speak of is indeed very wonderful, for even the angels in heaven wonder at it; but if you seek the aid of the Holy Spirit, He will make it clear to your mind, for He it is who alone can teach us what Christ is, and what He has done for us. My mamma often told me about these things, and I did not understand them; but when I prayed that the Holy Spirit would help me to know the love of Jesus, and all He has done for me, then what appeared so dark and mysterious became as clear as the noonday; and, oh, I am sure that there is no joy so great as that of knowing that Jesus Christ loves us."
"I don't think I shall ever understand that," said the boy, sinking back on his couch. "My father has never told me anything about those things and I am sure He is very, very wise, for the Indians say so; and every one owns that he is the best white trapper between the Rocky Mountains and the Red River. When he comes back, I'll talk to him, and learn what he thinks of the matter."
"Oh, but God tells us that He has 'hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes,'" observed Jeanie. "Your father is all you say, I am sure; but does he read the Bible, the book which God has given to us, to tell us about Jesus, and to let us know His will?"
"I never heard of such a book," answered the boy. "But then I know nothing about books; I could not understand its meaning if I had one."
"What! cannot you read?" asked the little girl, in a tone of astonishment.
"No, of course not," answered Laurence. "The only books I have seen are those in the hands of the white traders, when they have been taking notes of the peltries they have bought from us or our Indian friends. Then I have observed that they make marks with the end of a stick in their books, and that is all I know about the matter."
"Oh, then, I must show you some books, and you must learn to read. It is a sad thing not to be able to read the Bible."
"I have no wish to learn, though you are very kind to offer to teach me," answered the boy, in a somewhat weary tone. "When I am well enough, I should like to be following my father, or chasing the buffalo with the brave hunters of the prairie. Still, I should be sorry to go away from you and those who have been so kind to me."
"But it will be a long time before you are able to sit on horseback, or to endure the wild camp-life of a hunter, and until that time comes you must let me teach you."
"My head would ache if I were to try to learn anything so strange as reading," said Laurence, closing his eyes. "Even now I cannot bear to think. But you are very kind, very kind," he added, as if he felt the little girl would consider him ungrateful for refusing her offer.
Mrs Ramsay, who had just then come in unperceived, had heard the last part of the conversation, and understanding better than her daughter did the boy's still weak state, saw that it was not the time to press the point, and that it would be better just then to allow Laurence to fall asleep, as she judged from his heavy eyes he was inclined to do. She, therefore, smoothing his pillow, and bestowing a smile on him, led Jeanie from the room.
Mrs Ramsay had gone through many trials. She had been brought up among all the refinements of civilised society in Scotland, and had been early brought by her pious parents to know and love the Lord Jesus. She had married Mr Ramsay, then employed in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, dining a short visit he paid to his native land; but she had been little aware of the dangers and hardships she would be called on to endure in the wild region to which he was to take her. He had been so accustomed to them from his earliest days that, when describing the life he had led, he unconsciously made light of what might otherwise naturally have appalled her. For his sake she forbore from complaining of the perils and privations to which she had been exposed; and she had ever, by trusting to the aid and protection of God, borne up under them all. Two of her children had been taken from her, and Jeanie alone had been left. Famine, and the small-pox and measles, which has proved so fatal to the inhabitants of those northern wilds, had on several occasions visited the fort, which had also been exposed to the attacks of treacherous and hostile natives; while for years together she had not enjoyed the society of any of her own sex of like cultivated mind and taste. Yet she did not repine; she devoted herself to her husband and child, and to imparting instruction to the native women and children who inhabited the fort. She went further, and endeavoured to spread the blessings of religion and civilisation among the surrounding Indian population. By her influence her husband had been induced to take an interest in the welfare of the Indians, and no longer merely to value them according to the supply of peltries they could bring to trade with at the fort. He endeavoured also to instruct them in the art of agriculture, and already a number of cultivated fields were to be seen in the neighbourhood. He had introduced herds of cattle, which the Indians had been taught to tend and value, and numerous horses fed on the surrounding pastures. His great object now was to obtain a resident missionary, who might instruct the still heathen natives in the truths of Christianity; for when he had learned to value the importance of his own soul, he of necessity felt deeply interested in the salvation of the souls of his surrounding fellow-creatures. He had been warned that, should the natives become Christians and civilised, they would no longer prove useful as hunters and trappers, and that he was acting in opposition to trade.
"When that occurs it will be time enough, if you think fit, to complain, my friends," he answered. "At present I see innumerable immortal souls perishing in their darkness; and am I to be debarred, for fear of future consequences, in offering to them the blessings of the gospel?"
Most of those to whom he spoke were unable to comprehend him, but he persevered; and as the native trappers, certain of being fairly dealt with, resorted in greater numbers than before to the fort, and the amount of peltries he collected not falling off, no objection was taken at headquarters to his proceedings.
DANGERS IN THE FORT—THE WINTER SETS IN—SCARCITY OF FOOD—MR. RAMSAY'S ACCOUNT OF HIS FIRST MEETING WITH THE OLD TRAPPER—HIS JOURNEY ACROSS THE PRAIRIES—ATTACKED BY DACOTAHS—DEATH OF HIS COMPANIONS—RESCUED BY THE OLD TRAPPER—PRAIRIE ON FIRE—RIDE FOR LIFE.
The remote forts, as the trading posts of that region are called, were exposed at that period to numerous vicissitudes. When the buffalo, in large herds, came northward from the wide prairies in the south, and fish could be caught in the neighbouring lakes and rivers, provisions were abundant. But at other times, as all articles of food had to be brought many hundred miles in canoes, along the streams which intersect the country, or overland by carts or sleighs, notwithstanding all the forethought and precaution of the officers in charge, they were occasionally hard pressed for means of supporting life.
At the period we are describing, the frost had set in earlier than usual, and the neighbouring streams and lakes had been frozen over before a supply of fish could be caught for the winter store. Grasshoppers, or locusts, as they should be more properly called, coming in vast hordes from the south, had settled on the fields, and destroyed the crops of maize and barley; while the buffalo had not migrated so far to the northward as in other years. The hunters who had gone forth in chase of the moose, elk, bears, and other animals, had been less successful than usual.
Mr Ramsay, as the winter drew on, dreaded that famine would visit the fort. He had sent for supplies to headquarters, which he was daily expecting to arrive by a train of dog-sleighs, and had again despatched his hunters in all directions, in the hopes that they might bring in a sufficient number of wild animals of the chase to provision the garrison till their arrival.
Laurence slowly recovered his strength. Mrs Ramsay took care that he, at all events, should be well supplied with nourishing food.
"For his father's sake, I wish you to do all you can for the poor lad," said Mr Ramsay to his wife. "I owe him a debt of gratitude I can never repay, though he appears unwilling to be my creditor, by speaking of the matter as an every-day occurrence. I was travelling some years back, with a small party of half-breed hunters and Crees from the Red River to Chesterfield House, when, a fearful storm coming on, we were compelled to encamp in the open prairie. A short time before we had passed a small stream, on the banks of which grew a few birch and willows. The country was in a disturbed state, and we had heard that several war parties of Dacotahs were out, with the intention of attacking the Crees, their hereditary enemies. Thinking it possible we might be attacked, should our trail have been discovered, we arranged our carts in a circle, to enable us to resist a sudden onslaught of the foe. We were, however, without water or fuel. To obtain a supply of both these necessaries, we sent back several of our men to the stream I mentioned, hoping that they would return to the camp before dark.
"The shades of evening were already coming on when we caught sight, in the far distance, of a large party of horsemen scouring over the prairie. We had little doubt that they were Dacotahs, but we hoped that our small encampment, at the distance we were from them, might escape detection. The keen eyes of the red-skin warriors, however, ere long found us out, and we saw them galloping towards us, flourishing their spears and uttering their savage war-cries. Except the plumes in their hair and girdles round their waists, they were destitute of clothing, though their bodies and faces were covered thickly with paint, making them look more like demons than human beings. Had our whole party been together, we might have been able, with our rifles, to drive them back; but divided as we were, had we fired, although we might have shot some of those in advance, the remainder would have dashed forward and speared us before we could have had time to reload.
"The warriors, on getting near the camp, and discovering the preparations we had made for their reception, those in advance waited till the remainder of their party came up. Just then they caught sight of our friends returning across the open plain bringing the wood and water. With wild and fearful shouts the savages dashed forward to cut them off. They had no means of defending themselves, and terror seizing them, they took to flight, hoping to escape to the river and lie concealed under its banks. The horsemen, however, overtook them before they could reach it, and in a short time we saw the Dacotahs returning with the scalps of their victims at the end of their spears. Like savage beasts who have once tasted blood, their rage and fury increased, and they seemed resolved, at all risks, to destroy us, as they had our companions, and to obtain the rich booty they expected to find in our camp. On they came, shrieking and howling more fearfully than before. I called on my few remaining men to fight bravely in defence of our lives, reminding them that should they yield they would be cruelly tortured, and ultimately put to death.
"Although at first driven back by our fire, again and again they rushed forward, surrounding our camp, and breaking through our imperfect fences. Most of my little garrison were speared, and I had received two wounds; but I scarcely felt them, and still retained my strength and energy. The rest of the survivors, although much more hurt, and bleeding at every pore, fought bravely; for all of us knew that we could expect no mercy from our savage foes.
"Night was coming on, and we had little hopes of ever seeing another sun rise.
"Among the stores we were conveying were several casks of gunpowder. As a last resource, I seized one of them which I managed to reach, and placing it before me, shouted out to our enemies that if they approached nearer, I would fire my rifle into it, and blow them and the whole camp into the air. They were well acquainted with its power, and held it, as I knew, in great dread. My example was followed by the rest of my party who had yet strength to move. The Dacotahs retired to a short distance, and held a consultation, after which they galloped round and round us, shrieking and shouting, when one of them advanced somewhat nearer, and, in a derisive tone, told us that we were welcome to remain where we were, for escape was impossible, as they intended to keep near us, and that in a short time we should be starved to death, when they would have our scalps, and take possession of our goods. We knew too well that they spoke the truth; but we replied that we were determined not to yield, and that if they approached, we would carry our threat into execution.
"Darkness had now come on, but we distinguished them still hovering around us in the distance. That was the most dreadful night I ever passed. The groans and cries of the wounded, as they lay on the ground around me, continued without intermission. I could do but little to relieve them; for we had no water to quench our burning thirst, and had I placed them in the carts they might have been speared, should the enemy have made a sudden attack, as they were very likely to do, hoping to catch us unprepared.
"When morning dawned, the Dacotahs again dashed forward, yelling as before, and approached sufficiently near to survey our condition. All day long they continued the same system, hoping apparently to wear us out, which, indeed, there appeared every probability of their doing.
"Several of my unfortunate companions had sunk from loss of blood and thirst, and my sufferings had become so great that I envied them their fate, when, as I cast my eyes around to watch the movements of our foes, I saw them gathering together in a body, while in the far distance appeared a single horseman, who, galloping at full speed, was coming towards the camp. He stopped short as he approached the Dacotahs, as if to ascertain who they were; he then rode boldly forward towards them. I saw that he was a white man, and knew by his gestures that he was haranguing the savages. Several of their chiefs appeared to be replying to him. He then waved his hand, and galloped up to the camp.
"'I know all about it,' he exclaimed in English, and his words sounded pleasantly in my ears. 'I made them promise to give me one of my countrymen instead of a debt they owe me, and I wish that I could save more of your lives. What!' he exclaimed, on seeing me rise to move towards him, 'are you the only one left alive?'
"I had no need to reply, but pointed to the bodies of my companions on the ground; for by that time nearly all were dead, while those who still remained alive were too weak to move, and it was evident that in a short time they also would be numbered with the dead. It grieved me much to leave them in their sad condition; but yet by remaining I could do them no good. The stranger lifted me up on his horse with as much ease as if I had been a child, and bore me off in the direction from whence he had come.
"'We have no time to lose, for I don't trust the red-skins, friends though they are of mine,' he said. 'They may in a few minutes change their minds.'
"We had gone but a short distance when I saw my preserver turn his head to look behind him. There was an expression of anxiety in his countenance.
"'What is the matter?' I asked.
"'The red-skins have set the prairie on fire,' he answered. 'I don't think they did it on purpose, for they will chance to suffer more than we do; but we must push onwards, or the flames will anon be close at our heels.'
"I raised my head as he spoke, and saw dense wreaths of smoke rising up to the southward, below which I could distinguish a broad red line, extending for a mile or more from east to west.
"The hunter, holding me in his firm grasp, put spurs to his horse, and, slackening his rein, galloped at full speed over the ground. The motion caused my wounds to bleed afresh, but it was no time to stop to bind them up. I felt very weak, and the dreadful thought came across me that, should I faint, my new friend would suppose me dead, and naturally leave me to my fate. Might he not even do so, at all events, should the fire come rapidly after us, for the sake of preserving his own life? He seemed to divine my thoughts.
"'I will not desert you, lad,' he said. 'Cheer up; we have but a few leagues to go to reach a river, on the further side of which we shall be safe. My good steed has been well accustomed to carry a heavy weight, and he makes nothing of what he has now on his back.'
"While he was speaking, a loud dull roar like thunder was heard, and a dense column of smoke rose upward from the spot where we had been encamped.
"'Ah! ah! the red-skins have lost the booty they were so eager to secure,' he exclaimed with a peculiar laugh.
"The fire had reached the camp, and the casks of powder had ignited and blown the carts and the rest of their contents into the air.
"'We shall be safe from them, at all events,' observed the stranger; 'for they will not pull rein for many a long league from this, if they should escape the effects of their own carelessness.'
"The raging fire had now extended from east to west as far as the eye could reach, and came on even faster than we could move. Still the dauntless hunter showed no signs of fear or intention of abandoning me, that he might insure his own safety. The love of life was strong within me, but I felt that it was almost unjust to allow him to risk his for the sake of saving mine. Away we went, scouring the prairie, the hunter urging on his steed with slackened rein and spur, and by word of mouth. Already I could hear the ominous crackling and hissing of the flames as they made their way over the long dry grass, and caught the bushes which here and there were scattered over the plain. Every now and then the hunter looked behind him. Nearer and nearer came the long line of fire and smoke; the sky overhead was darkened; the air was hot and stifling. Still he cheered on his steed. Fast as we went, the fire came faster.
"On and on we galloped, the dense smoke surrounding us. I gasped for breath; already it seemed that the flames were close at the horse's heels. The animal appeared to know his danger as well as his rider, and sprang frantically forward. I saw no more. I only felt that the horse had made a desperate plunge, and soon afterwards there was the sound of water in my ears, and instead of the violent movements of the galloping horse I felt myself borne smoothly forward. Then I was lifted in the strong arms of the hunter and placed on the ground. I opened my eyes, and found myself seated on a narrow strand, on the opposite side of a river, with a high bank rising above my head. Across the stream the fire raged furiously, devouring the trees which fringed its shores; while close above our heads hung a black canopy of smoke, though a cool current of air, which blew up the stream, enabled me to breathe freely. The hunter, holding the bridle of his horse, was seated by my side.
"'We have done it, friend,' he said. 'I knew we should. It's not the first time I have had to ride for my life; but I never had a harder gallop, that I'll allow. The Dacotahs will have had a narrow escape if they managed to get clear. Let me look to your hurts. You are hungry, it may be.'
"'Water, water,' were the only words I could utter. He produced a leathern cup from his ample pouch, and, filling it with water, poured the contents down my throat. I felt as if I could have drunk the stream dry, but he would give me no more.
"'Wait a bit; you shall soon have another draught,' he said. 'And now let me see to your hurts.' He brought more water, and having bathed my wounds, bound them skilfully up with a handkerchief which I fortunately had in my pocket. After I had taken another draught of water, I quickly began to revive under his careful treatment. When he thought that I had sufficiently recovered to be removed, he bore me up a bank, and then led his horse round another way up to where I lay. He carried me on till we reached a wood near a stream. Here, finding from my weak state that I was unable to travel further, he built a hut and tended me with the greatest care till I had recovered sufficiently to sit on horseback. He often, I found, deprived himself of food that I might be amply supplied. As soon as I was able to bear the journey he placed me on the horse, and walking by my side, we set out for the fort. We had many weary leagues to go, and frequently we fell in with traces of the savage and treacherous Sioux or Dacotahs, evidently out on expeditions against the Crees. Occasionally, to avoid our foes, we had to remain in concealment for several days together, and at other times it was necessary to halt while my companion went in search of game, and to obtain provisions. Ultimately, after many adventures, when he often exposed his own life to preserve mine, we reached the fort in safety.
"Such was the commencement of my acquaintance with Michael Moggs, the old trapper. We have met occasionally since, but he has always refused to receive any recompense for the service he rendered me, declaring that he was deserving of none, as he would have done the same for any other white man who might have needed his assistance. I have vainly endeavoured to induce him to remain in the fort, or to take service with the company; but he invariably replies that he prefers the life of a free trapper, and that he will not bind himself to serve any master."
"I wish we could induce him to stop with us, both for his own sake, and for that of his young son," observed Mrs Ramsay. "He is an intelligent youth, with a mind capable of cultivation. It is sad to see him so utterly ignorant of religious truth; and I fear that his strength will give way if he continues the hard life he has shared with his eccentric father. I cannot but think that the old man is greatly to blame for bringing him up as he has done."
"We must hope for the best," said Mr Ramsay.
"We have no right to hope unless we pray and strive, dear husband," said Mrs Ramsay. "God will hear our prayers, both for father and son. After the account you have just given me, I feel that we are doubly bound to pray for them. How greatly ought we to value that glorious privilege of prayer, which allows us sinful creatures, trusting to the all-cleansing blood of Jesus, to go boldly to the throne of grace, knowing that our petitions will be heard and granted by the all-pure, all-seeing, and all-just God, who does not look upon us as we are in ourselves, but as clothed with the righteousness of Christ. Let us pray this night that the dark mind of our poor friend may be enlightened, and that the Holy Spirit may bring home the truths of the gospel to that of his young son."
"You are right; you are right, wife," said Mr Ramsay, taking her hand. "I have hitherto thought only how I could benefit his temporal condition. It did not occur to me how much more important it was to seek the good of his soul."
Little did the old hunter think, as he was wandering across the snowy waste, that the hearts of friends were lifted up for him in prayer to that God from whom he had so long obstinately turned away; yet though we must be assured that God overhears the prayers of those who come to Him in His Son's name, He takes His own good time and way to answer the petitions he receives; and we must be prepared to wait patiently for the result, and not expect always to see it brought about in the manner we in our ignorance may have desired.
STOCK OF PROVISIONS AT THE FORT STILL FURTHER DECREASED—REPORTS OF SIOUX BEING IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD—PREPARATIONS FOR DEFENCE—CHILDREN'S AMUSEMENT OF "COASTING"—SIOUX SEEN IN THE DISTANCE—THE HUNTERS CAUGHT BY THEM—CAMP-FIRES OF INDIANS SEEN IN THE DISTANCE—FRESH BANDS JOIN THEM.
The trials to which the inhabitants of the fort were exposed were becoming greater every day. The store of potatoes and other vegetables in the root-house, where they were secured from the frost, deep down below the surface, was rapidly lessening.
Mr Ramsay had lately inspected the meat pit, in which the carcases of the buffaloes and other animals shot during the previous fall were preserved, and found it nearly empty. Meat is preserved in that region in a peculiar manner. A deep pit is dug, and while the frost is still in the air, and the snow covers the ground, all the animals killed are placed in it. The bottom is lined with a coating of snow beaten hard, and then a layer of meat is placed on it. On the top of this more snow is beaten, when an additional layer of meat is placed in the pit, and so on till the whole is full. It is then covered over with snow, and a thickly-thatched roof is erected over it. The meat-cellar, indeed, resembles an English ice-house. The meat thus remains in a fit condition to be eaten throughout the year. Fish is preserved in the same way. During the winter, however, the fish, when caught, become frozen, and can be kept in an open shed.
This year, as we have said, in consequence of the early frost, but a small supply of fish had been caught.
Mr Ramsay was looking out anxiously for the arrival of the expected supplies, but no news of their coming had yet readied him. The hunters had returned unsuccessful from the chase, and had again gone out with the intention of proceeding to a greater distance than before. News came also which caused the small remaining garrison some anxiety. It was reported that, contrary to their usual custom, for they seldom travel during winter, a large body of Sioux had been seen moving northward on a warlike expedition. Although their destination was unknown, it was feared, as they had long threatened to attack the fort, should they discover how small was its present garrison, and how greatly pressed for food, they might put their evil intentions into execution. Mr Ramsay accordingly made every preparation for defence in his power, and few as were the numbers with him, he hoped to repulse the foe. His fears were rather on account of the hunters scattered at a distance from each other, and who, should they fall into the hands of the Sioux, might be cut off in detail. To call them back was now impossible, as, should he send out to search for them, he would have had still further to lessen the number of defenders. Constant watch was kept day and night, and he determined, at all events, not to be taken by surprise.
Meantime Laurence had greatly recovered his strength, and, clad in a warm fur dress, was able to move about, both inside and for a short distance outside the fort.
The chief amusement of the younger portion of the inhabitants was "coasting," or sliding down the steep side of the hill on which the fort stood seated on small boards placed on runners, called "toboggins." Descending from the height, the impetus they gained carried them for a considerable distance over the level plain, till they were finally brought up by a heap of snow at the end of a long path they had thus formed. The toboggin was then drawn up to the top of the hill, when the young coaster again went sliding down, followed in succession by his companions, shouting and cheering with delight, especially when any of the toboggins went off the line, and their companions were half-buried in the heap of snow below.
This amusement Laurence infinitely preferred to learning to read the books which Jeanie brought him, although she offered to be his instructress. He would sit, however, very patiently during the long winter evenings while she read to him. He told her frankly that the only books which interested him were those of adventures and hairbreadth escapes in various parts of the world. He listened attentively, however, when she read the Bible, but seemed far more interested in the narratives it contained than in any other portion. Its Divine truths had as yet, it seemed, made no impression on his mind.
"Now, Jeanie, I have been a good boy, and listened with my ears open to all you have been reading about, and I think it is but fair that you in return should come and coast with me to-morrow," he said one day, after she had read to him for some time. "I have had a beautiful new toboggin made for you, and I am sure it will run faster and straighter than any in the fort."
"I shall be very glad to come, if mamma will let me, though you are so very bad a scholar that you do not deserve to have your way," she answered.
"If I promise to learn better in future, will you ask leave to come?" urged Laurence. "I should like to be able to read about the wonderful things you tell me of in your books."
"If you promise, I'll ask mamma to let me do as you wish," answered Jeanie. "But, remember, God hears every word you say, and knows everything you think, and the promise made to me is really made to God, and it will grieve Him if you break it."
"Oh, but I mean to keep my promise, though I cannot fancy that the Great Spirit cares for what a young boy like me may think or say," answered Lawrence.
"Oh, yes, yes, He cares for young and old alike," exclaimed Jeanie. "He tells us that the very hairs of our head are numbered, and He knows every sparrow that falls to the ground. That is to make us understand that He is interested in all we think about, and in even the very smallest thing we do. It always makes me very happy when I reflect that God cares for me, and loves me even more than my father and mother can do, though they love me a great deal, because He is so much more powerful than they are, and He can help me and keep me out of temptation when I am inclined to be naughty, which they, with all their love and interest in me, cannot do."
"I wish that I could think as you do, Jeanie," said Laurence. "I must try to do so, though; then you will ask your mamma's leave to come and coast on the new sleigh?"
"Yes, I will ask her," said Jeanie. "And you must show that you are in earnest, by trying to say your alphabet this evening. You missed out a great many of the letters yesterday, and I felt ashamed of you."
Laurence had hitherto made but very slow progress in his studies. His head and eyes ached, he said, whenever he looked at a book, though he really was anxious to learn for the sake of pleasing Jeanie.
Mrs Ramsay did not object to allow Jeanie to try the new sleigh, and the next morning, accompanied by several other girls, she set out in high glee with Mrs Ramsay, who went to look on at the sport. Laurence carried the sleigh on his shoulders, a number of other boys being similarly provided.
Proceeding round outside the fort, they soon reached the steep part of the hill. In another minute, a merry laughing party were gliding down the side, one after the other, with headlong speed, the impetus sending them several hundred yards over the smooth hard surface of the snow beyond. Laurence, who sat in front, guiding Jeanie's sleigh, was delighted to find that it went further than any of the others. Up the hill again they soon came, the boys carrying the sleighs, and the girls scrambling up by their sides.
Laurence and Jeanie had coasted down the side of the hill, followed by their companions, and had been carried some distance from the fort, when they heard a shout from the watch-tower nearest them. It was repeated again and again in more urgent tones, calling them back to the fort.
"What can it mean?" asked Jeanie. "We must go, at all events; and, see, there's mamma on the top of the hill beckoning to us."
Laurence proposed to make another trip, saying he was sure there was no necessity to be in a hurry.
"If we are called, we ought to go, we must go," said Jeanie. "It would be very wrong to delay a minute."
Thus urged, Laurence took up the sleigh, and the whole party reached the top of the hill, where they found Mrs Ramsay, who told them to hurry back with her to the fort. On reaching the gate, they were informed that a large party of Indians had been seen in the far distance, and were still hovering just within sight of the fort. At first it was hoped that they were the hunters returning; but from their numbers and the way they were moving it was suspected that they must be a band of Sioux said to be out on a war-path, and that it was very probable they would attack the fort. The gates were accordingly shut, a drawbridge over a deep cutting in front of them was drawn up, arms and ammunition were placed on the platform inside the stockade, ready for use, and every other preparation made for the reception of the foe. Mr Ramsay urged his little garrison to fight bravely in defence of their wives and children, and the property committed to their charge. For some time the Indians had not approached nearer than when they were first seen, and hopes were entertained that they would not venture on an attack. Mr Ramsay had always endeavoured to avoid hostilities with the natives, and had on several occasions succeeded in gaining over and securing the friendship of those who came with the intention of attacking the fort. Under ordinary circumstances he would have felt confident, even should he be unable by diplomacy to pacify the Indians, of easily keeping them at bay, as the fort was sufficiently strong to resist any ordinary attack. Having, however, now but a very small garrison, and being hard pressed for provisions, he felt more anxious than usual as to the result should the fort be attacked; for of the savage character of the Sioux he had already had too much experience not to know the fearful cruelties they would practise should they gain the victory. He examined every part of the fort, and showed his men those points most likely to be assailed, and which it was necessary to guard with the greatest vigilance. It might, however, have damped their spirits had he told them of the scanty supply of provisions which remained. Still he hoped to hold out till the enemy were driven away, when the expected relief might arrive, or the hunters return with a supply of game.
Mrs Ramsay was fully aware of the state of things. She had before been exposed to similar dangers. "We must not faint, dear husband," she said, "but continue to put our trust in God. He will relieve us if he thinks fit. At all events, let us have faith in His protecting love, and know that He does all for the best."
Several hours passed by, and still the strange Indians did not approach.
"There's a man coming towards the fort," shouted the look-out from the tower. "He drags himself but slowly over the snow, and appears to be wounded. He is one of our own people," added the sentinel, in a short time, "and seems to be signing to us to send him assistance."
Mr Ramsay, on hearing this, despatched two of the garrison to bring in the wounded hunter. They lifted him along, looking every now and then behind, as if they expected to be followed. At length they arrived at the gate, but the poor fellow Jaques Venot, was so exhausted from loss of blood that he could not at first speak. On reviving, after his wounds had been bound up, and a cordial given him, he had a sad tale to tell. He and three other hunters were returning to the fort with the flesh of a moose and bear which they had shot, when they were set upon by a band of Sioux. His three companions were shot down, he himself being wounded and taken prisoner by them. Instead of killing him, they led him to their camp, as he supposed, that they might employ him to negotiate with the garrison, and gain their object without the danger of attacking the fort. They knew from experience that in such an exploit many of them would lose their lives.
"I found that I was right in my conjectures," continued Jaques. "I was at once carried before the Sioux leader, who was holding a council of war with several other chiefs, and being placed in their midst, I was asked whether I preferred torture and death to life and liberty. I replied that if they chose to torture me they should see that I could surfer like a man, and that the hunters of the prairies always carried their lives in their hands; but as I had no wish to die, I should be glad to hear on what terms they offered me freedom."
"'You choose wisely,' said the chief. 'Tell us, then, what number of men defend the fort. Are they well armed? Have they a good supply of ammunition? Are there many women and children? And have they an abundance of provisions?'"
"I smiled as the chief spoke. 'You ask many questions,' I said, 'but they are not difficult to answer. The fort is strong, and there are men enough within to defend it against twice the number of warriors I see around me, whose bones will whiten the prairie if they make the attempt. There are great guns which can send their shot nearly as far as this camp, and each man has as many rifles as he can fire, while the women and boys load them. As to provisions, the whites are not like the improvident red-skins, who gorge themselves with food one day and starve for many afterwards. I have spoken. What is it you would have me do?'"
"The chiefs, on hearing my reply, consulted together. 'Listen,' said their leader at length. 'You will go back to the fort and persuade the white-skins within that we are their friends. We want shelter and food while the snow covers the ground; and if they give us that, we will go forth and fish and hunt for them, and bring them more peltries than they have ever before received in one season.'
"'But if I fail to persuade them, I asked, wishing to learn the designs of the Sioux, what am I then to do?'
"'You will try to win some of the people with such promises as you well know how to make. Tell them they will be received among us as friends, and that we will give them all that their hearts desire. Then wait till our warriors collect around the fort, and seek an opportunity at night to open the gates and admit us. You and those who will thus assist us will gain our friendship, and all you ask shall be given you.'
"'The great Sioux chief speaks wise words,' I answered. 'Let me go free, and I'll do your bidding. I have long served the white-skins, and it is time that I should seek new friends.' On hearing my reply the chief seemed satisfied.
"'You shall go, then,' he said; 'but remember, should you fail to carry out our wishes, you will learn that the Sioux know how to punish those who play them false.' On this the chief, bidding me hasten to the fort, ordered some of his braves to conduct me through the camp and let me go free.
"The Sioux are very numerous," continued the hunter, "and there are not only warriors, but women and children among them. They have lately received a severe defeat from the Americans, and have been driven from their hunting-grounds, and have vowed vengeance against all white-skins and their friends. They are expecting the arrival of another large band, and I fear that they will fall in with the trails of the other hunters and cut them off. Even should our friends escape them, they will find it difficult to return to the fort."
Laurence, who was present, listened eagerly to what Jaques said, and made several inquiries about the appearance of the Sioux chief and others of his followers. He said nothing, however, but for some time afterwards appeared lost in thought.
Night came on. The garrison was kept constantly on the alert. In the far distance the camp-fires of the Indians could be seen blazing up near a wood, under shelter of which they had pitched their skin tents, and where, the snow being of less depth than on the open plain, their horses could more easily get at the grass below it. They on that account had probably chosen the spot, instead of camping nearer the fort.
No one during the night was seen to approach, although any object might easily have been distinguished moving across the surrounding white field of snow. It was remarked, however, that the fires had increased in number since they had at first been lighted in the evening, and it was consequently surmised that a fresh body of Sioux had arrived.
Frequently during the day Mr Ramsay anxiously looked out from the watch-tower towards the east, in the hopes of seeing the expected train with provisions. He feared, however, that it might be perceived by the Sioux before it could reach the fort. To prevent this, he sent out a couple of scouts to intercept the train, and lead it by a circuitous route to the north, where it could not be seen from the camp of the Sioux.
The day went slowly by, and another night came on. Again the distant camp-fires were seen blazing up, showing that the savages had not abandoned their designs. What prevented them from at once attacking the fort it was difficult to say, unless they were better informed with regard to its scanty supply of provisions than Jaques had supposed.
Note. In the markets in Canada, not only fish, but animals of all sorts, frozen hard, are brought for sale, and it is curious to see deer and hares and pigs standing in rows, like stuffed animals in a museum, on the market people's stalls; while fish are placed upright on their tails in the baskets, and look as if they were endeavouring to leap out of them.
THE INDIANS BLOCKADE THE FORT—LAURENCE RECOGNISES THE SIOUX AS OLD FRIENDS—OBTAINS LEAVE TO GO OUT AND MEET THEM—INDUCES THE SIOUX CHIEF TO RETIRE—OBTAINS PRESENTS FOR THE INDIANS—ACCOMPANIES THEM—LAURENCE FINDS HIS OLD NURSE—LAURENCE BIDS FAREWELL TO HIS FRIENDS AT THE FORT.
Several days had passed by; the provision sleighs had not arrived; none of the hunters had returned to the fort; and already the garrison were feeling the pangs of hunger. Mr Ramsay had placed the people on the smallest possible allowance of food, and yet, on examining the remaining store, he found to his grief that it could not last many days longer. There were horses and cattle feeding in a sheltered valley some miles away, and had it not been for the besieging bands of Sioux, they might easily have been brought in; and unwilling as he would have been to kill them, they would have afforded an ample supply of food. The fort, however, was narrowly watched, and had any people been sent out to bring in the cattle, they would have been pursued and cut off, or had they succeeded, in getting away, they and the cattle would have been to a still greater certainty captured on their return. Mr Ramsay, therefore, unwilling to risk the lives of any of his people, resolved not to make the attempt till they were reduced to the last extremity. He feared, from the conduct of the Sioux, that they must have become acquainted with the condition of the fort, probably from one of the hunters, who, under torture, might have confessed the state of the case.
The early part of the morning had passed quietly away, when a movement was observed in the camp of the Sioux. The white sheet of snow which intervened was soon clotted over with their dark forms as they advanced towards the fort in a long line, extending from east to west, the extreme ends moving at a more rapid rate than the rest, as if they purposed to surround it. On they came, increasing their speed as they drew near, shrieking, and shouting, and frantically brandishing their weapons. Their cries and gestures were terrific in the extreme. They seemed to be working themselves up into a fury, as if preparing to attack the fort, and to destroy the hapless defenders. Mr Ramsay again urged those under his command to die at their posts rather than yield, or to trust to any terms the savages might offer. Mrs Ramsay and her daughter, though pale from hunger, showed no signs of alarm. Their usual morning avocations having been performed, they sat together with the Bible before them, and then kneeling down, with calm confidence offered up their prayers for protection to that merciful God whom they well knew heard all their petitions.
Laurence, now perfectly recovered, was on the platform, where most of the garrison were stationed. He there stood, with several guns by his side, prepared to fire on the advancing savages. Mr Ramsay had given orders that not a shot should be discharged till the last moment. Although the men had hitherto shown no lack of courage, when they saw the overwhelming numbers of the expected assailants some of them cried out that it would be impossible to defend the fort against their assaults. Mr Ramsay rebuked them severely, and charged them not again to express such an idea. Their courage, was, however, put to a great test; for the savages, rushing on, fired their rifles, sending showers of bullets rattling against the stockades. Happily, none of the defenders were struck. Still, not a shot was discharged in return, and the savages, surprised at this, instead of continuing to rush on, halted.
They had now got so near that even their faces as well as their head-dress, by which the different tribes are distinguished, could clearly be discerned. Mr Ramsay, though unwilling to shed blood, was about to give the order to fire should they again advance, when Laurence exclaimed, "I know them. They are my friends. I am a child of their tribe. They love me; and if I go forth to them, they will listen to what I say." His whole manner seemed changed. As he spoke, his eye brightened. He looked a different being to the careless boy he had hitherto seemed.