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mostly of the same tribe, and more or less closely all connected. Pipes were then lighted alike by men and women, and a kettle of tea was soon singing on the fire. Accomba draws out from the recesses of her dog sleigh one or two huge ribs of dried meat, black and unsavoury to look at, but forming very good food for all that.
This is portioned out among the assembled company; a bladder of grease is added, and seized with avidity by one of the party; a portion of this was then melted down and eaten with the dried meat; while the steaming tea, sipped out of small tin cups, and taken without sugar or milk, was the "loving cup" of that dark-visaged company. And far into the morning hours they sat sipping their favourite beverage, and discussing the last tidings from the woods. Every item of news is interesting, whether from hunter's camp, or trapper's wigwam. There are births, marriages, and deaths, to be pondered over and commented upon; the Indian has his chief, to whom he owes deference and vows allegiance; he has his party badge, both in religion and politics; what wonder then that even the long winter night of the North, seemed far too short for all the important knotty points which had to be discussed and settled!
"You have had good times at the little Lake," said Peter, a brother of Michel's, who was deliberately chewing a piece of dried meat held tight between his teeth, while with his pocketknife he severed its connection with the piece in his hand, to the imminent peril of his nose.
"I wish I were a freedman: I should soon be off to the Lake myself! I am sick of working for the Company. I did not mind it when they set me to haul meat from the hunters, or to trap furs for them, but now they make me saw wood, or help the blacksmith at his dirty forge: what has a 'Tene Jua' to do with such things as these?"
"And I am sick of starving!" said another. "This is the third winter that _something_ has failed us,--first the rabbits, then the fish ran short; and now we hear that the deer are gone into a new track, and there is not a sign of one for ten miles round the Fort. And the meat is so low" added the last speaker, "that the 'big Master' says he has but fifty pounds of dried meat in the store, and if Indians don't come in by Sunday, we are to be sent off to hunt for ourselves and the wives and children are to go to Little Lake where they may live on fish."
"We have plenty of fish, it is true," said Accomba; "we dried a good number last Fall, besides having one net in the lake all the winter; but I would not leave the Company, Peter, if I were you,--you are better off here, man, in spite of your 'starving times!' You _do_ get your game every day, come what may, and a taste of flour every week, and a little barley and potatoes. I call that living like a 'big master.'"
"I had rather be a free man and hunt for myself," put in another speaker; "the meat does not taste half so good when another hand than your own has killed it; and as for flour and barley and potatoes, well, our forefathers got on well enough without them before the white man came into our country, I suppose we should learn to do without them again? For my part, I like a roe cake as well as any white man's bread."
"But the times are harder than they used to be for the Tene Jua (Indian men) in the woods," said Accomba with a sigh; "the deer and the moose go off the track more than they used to do; it is only at Fort Rae, on the Big Lake, that meat never seems to fail; for us poor Mackenzie River people there is hardly a winter that we are far from starvation."
"But you can always pick up something at the Forts:" replied a former speaker; "the masters are not such bad men if we are really starving, and then there is the Mission: we are not often turned away from the Mission without a taste of something."
"All very good for you," said Michel's wife; "who like the white man and know how to take him, but my man will have nothing to say to him. The very sight of a pale face makes him feel bad, and sends him into one of his fits of rage and madness. Oh, it has been dreadful, dreadful," continued the poor woman, while her voice melted into a truly Indian wail, "for my children I kept alive, or else I would have thrown myself into the river many a time last year."
"Bah," said Peter, who being the brother of Michel, would, with true Indian pertinacity, take part with him whatever were his offences; and, moreover, looking with his native instinct upon woman as the "creature" of society, whose duty it was to endure uncomplaining, whatever her masters laid upon her. "Bah; you women are always grumbling and bewailing yourselves; for my part, if I have to starve a little, Kulu (the meat) is all the sweeter when it comes. I suppose Michel has killed enough to give you many a merry night, seated round the camp fire with some good fat ribs or a moose nose, and a fine kettle of tea; then you wrap yourself in your blanket, or light your pipe and feel like a 'big master.'"
Peter's picture of comfort and enjoyment pleased the Indians, and they laughed heartily and testified their approval, all but poor Accomba. She hung her head, and sadly fondled the baby at her breast. "You may laugh, boys," she said at length, "and you know what starving is as well as I do, though you are pretty well off now; it is not for myself I speak, I can bear that kind of thing as well as other women, but it comes hard for the children. Before Se Tene, my man, killed his last moose, we were starving for nearly two moons; a little dried fish and a rat or two, and now and then a rabbit, was we got: even the fish failed for some time, and there was hardly a duck or partridge to be seen. We had to eat two of the dogs at last, but, poor things, they had little flesh on their bones."
"Eh! eh! e--h!" exclaimed the Indians, who however undemonstrative under ordinary circumstances, can be full of sympathy where they can realize the affecting points of a story.
"And the children," asked one of the party, "I suppose the neighbours helped you a little with them?"
"One of my cousins took little Tetsi for a while," replied the poor woman, "and did what she could for him, but they were all short of game as we were, only their men went off after the deer, and plenty, of them got to the lakes for duck; but Michel,--"
"Well, what did he do? I suppose he was off with his gun the first of any of them?" said Peter. "I'll venture there shall not be a moose or deer within twenty miles, but Michel the Hunter shall smell him out."
"Yes, he went at last," sighed Accomba; "but my man has had one of his ugly fits upon him for all the winter; he would not hunt anywhere near the Fort, for fear of meeting a white face; and he vowed I was making friends with them, and bidding them welcome to the camp, and so he was afraid to leave it; and then at last, when I begged him to go and get food for his children, he swore at me and called me a bad name, and took up his gun to shoot me."
"Oh, I suppose he only said that in sport," said another of the party; and yet it was plain that Accomba's story had produced a great sensation among her auditors.
"_In sport!_" exclaimed Accomba, now fairly roused to excitement by the apparent incredulity of her listeners; "_In sport_, say you? No, no, Michel knows well what he _says_, though sometimes I think he is hardly responsible for his actions; but look you, boys, my husband vowed to shoot me once, and I stayed his arm and fell on my knees and tried to rouse him to pity; but I will do so no more, and if he threatens me again I will let him accomplish his fell purpose, and not a cry or sound shall ever escape my lips. But you, Tetsi," continued the poor woman, who was now fairly sobbing, "you are his brother, you might speak to him and try to bring him to reason; and if I die, you must take care of my poor children,--promise me that, Tetsi and Antoine, they are your own flesh and blood, do not let them starve. 'Niotsi Cho,' the Great Spirit will give it you back again."
There was a great silence among the Indians when Accomba had finished speaking. An Indian has great discernment, and not only can soon discover where the pathos of a story lies, but he will read as by intuition how much of it is true or false. Moreover, Michel's character was well known among them all, and his eccentricities had often excited their wonder and sometimes their censure. The poor woman's story appealed to each one of them: most of all did it appeal to the heart of Sarcelle her brother, who was another occupant of the room that evening.
"It is shocking, it is monstrous." exclaimed he at full length. "My sister, you shall come with me. I will work for you, I will hunt for you and your children. Michel shall not threaten you again, he is a 'Nakani' man; he does not know what he says or what he does, he is a bad 'Nakani.'"
"I think some one has made medicine on him," said another; "he is possessed, and will get worse till the spell is off him."
This medicine making among the Northern Indians is one of the most firmly rooted of all their superstitions. The term is by no means well chosen or descriptive of the strange ungodly rite; it is in reality a charm or spell which one man is supposed to lay upon another. It is employed for various purposes and by different means of operations. You will hear of one man 'making medicine' to ascertain what time the Company's boats may be expected, or when certain sledges of meat may come to the Fort. Another man is sick and the medicine-man is summoned, and a drum is beaten during the night with solemn monotonous 'tum, tum, tum', and certain confidential communications take place between the Doctor and his patient, during which the sick man is supposed to divulge every secret he may possess, and on the perfect sincerity of his revelation must depend his recovery.
The accompaniments of this strange scene vary according to circumstances. In some cases a basin of blood of some animal is made use of; in most instances a knife or dagger plays an important part. I have seen one of these, which, by-the-by, is most difficult to obtain, and can only be seen by special favour. It is made of bone or ivory, beautifully carved and notched at the edges, with various dots or devices upon it, and all, both dots and notches, arranged in groups of sevens! After some hours the spell may be supposed to work, the sick man feels better, the excitement of the medicine-man increases, all looks promising; yet at this moment should a white face enter the house or tent, still more, should he venture to touch either doctor or patient, the spell would be instantly broken, and the whole process must be commenced anew.
The spell has been wrought upon a poor Cree Woman at Ile la C. She is perfectly convinced as to who did her the injury, and also that it was her hands which it was intended should suffer. Accordingly each Spring, for some years past, her hands are rendered powerless by a foul-looking, scaly eruption, which comes over them. Indians have been known to climb an almost inaccessible rock, and stripping
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