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- Owindia - 4/5 -


lifted into the water, and in less than two hours from the commencement of these operations, the whole work of packing and dislodging was effected, and six good-sized canoes, with three or four smaller ones, were bearing their freight of men, women, and children, to the opposite bank of the river.

In describing the events of that morning but little mention has been made of Michel's children; they were not, however, forgotten. As soon as the first shock of the discovery was over, and the women had a little expended their feelings and emotions in the tears and wail of sorrow, they began to turn their attention to the motherless little ones. And first they gave them food, which would be an Indian's preliminary step under every emergency; then, they folded kind motherly arms around them, and imprinted warm kisses on the terror- stricken faces; and by all such fond endearments they strove to make them forget their sorrow: for an Indian, passive and undemonstrative as he may be under ordinary circumstances, is full of love and tenderest offices of pity when real occasion calls them forth. It was thus, then, that the children were taken and dispersed among the various families in the rapid flight from their recent camping grounds. The canoes had started, and were being paddled at full speed across the river, when suddenly, to the dismay and amazement of every one, the figure of Michel was seen standing by the river brink! Had a spectre at that moment presented itself before them, they could hardly have been more astonished; but the poor man's actions were at all times strange and unaccountable; and that he should have released himself in so short an interval from his bonds, was only consistent with the whole character of the man who had always proved himself equal to every emergency, and defied any attempt to thwart his designs. The language used by the miserable man on the present occasion was bitter and abusive; it related to his children, who he said were being taken away that they might be delivered to the white man; but his words fell idly upon the ears of the Indians, who only shuddered as they gazed upon his dark visage now distorted with passion; and his whole figure, to which portions of the cords which had bound him were still clinging, presenting the appearance of a man possessed, the veritable Nakani--(wild man of the woods,) in whom the Indians believe, and whom they so greatly dread.

It was not until the Indians had reached the other side of the river, which at that part may be a mile and a quarter wide, that they collected together and became aware that _one of the children was missing!_ That this should be so, and that in their terror and haste to depart they had forgotten or overlooked the baby, still a nursling, who must have been crawling about outside the camp during the fatal tragedy of that morning, may seem strange. More strange still, that not one of that party should have thought of going back to seek her. But the female infant occupies an insignificant place among those uncivilized people: the birth of one of them is greeted with but a small fraction of the honours with which a male child would be welcomed.

And into the causes of the death of not a few of these girl-babies it would perhaps be painful to enquire; but many a poor Indian mother will delude herself into the belief that she has done a merciful act when the little infant of a few hours' life is buried deep under the snow, the mother's sin undiscovered, and "my baby saved from starvation."

And so the poor Indians of our story troubled themselves but little about the missing babe, and there was certainly a bare possibility that the father might come upon it and succour it--for Michel had always been a kind father, that he might possibly find and carry the child to one of the camps not far distant, where it would, for a time at least, be cared for. The camps therefore were pitched in the new camping ground; the men of the party were soon off, laying their fish nets; the women, gathering round their camp fires, renewed their wailing and lamentations; the little ones slept, worn out with fatigue and sorrow, and ere nightfall every sound was stilled. The stars shone out on those few clustered tents,--and on that solitary grave the other side of the river. The Aurora spanned the northern sky, and played with bright and flickering light, now tremulous upon the blue ether, then heaving and expanding, spreading itself out with indescribable grace and beauty. Then it would seem to gather itself together, folding its bright rays as an angel might fold its wings: for a time it is motionless, but this is but the prelude to more wondrous movements. Soon it commences to play anew, sending its flaming streamers in new directions, and now contracting now expanding, filling the whole heavens with glory of an ever-changing hue.

But there is yet another wonder connected with this, which of all the phenomena of Nature, nearest approaches to the supernatural: it has uttered a sound--that beautiful sheaf of many tinted flames! Once, twice, we have heard it, or if it were not _that_, it was an angel's whisper! In that great solitude there is no fear of any other sound intruding to deceive our ear. There, is such deep silence over hill and dale that scarcely a leaf would dare to flutter unperceived, and the ear might start to catch the sighing of a breeze. But this faint sound, given on rare occasions by the Aurora, unlike any sound of earth, yet seems in perfect keeping with the marvellous and spiritual beauty of the phenomena, and but increases and deepens the awe with which it must ever be beheld.

But on this memorable night there was yet another sound, which from time to time broke upon the almost unearthly stillness: this was the cry of an infant, coming from the neighbourhood of Michel's camp. The little one, of whom mention has already been made, had, it seemed, been, forgotten by all, or if once thought of, there was yet no effort made to save it from the doom which, to all appearance, now awaited it,--the Indians comforting themselves with the hope that the father would look after it, and the father supposing, not unnaturally, that all his children were together taken off by their indignant friends and relatives. And so the little one, who had been but a few hours previously nestling in her mother's arms, spent that cold night of early spring unsheltered and alone on the high bank of the river whither she had crawled in the early morning hours. One could fancy its plaintive cry increasing in vehemence as the hours wore on, and cold and exhaustion overcame her, with a sense of weariness and desolation unknown, unfelt, before. There must have been a sad feeling of wonder and perplexity at the unwonted silence which reigned around her, at the absence of all familiar sounds and voices. True, her father's dogs were there, faithful watchers through the night, who had helped to keep the family in food and fuel through the long winter months, hauling the sleighs, laden with moose or deer's meat; or with good-sized fir trees, morning by morning, for their camp fires. Strong, faithful creatures they were, patient and enduring, sharing all the hardships and privations of the Indian, with a fortitude and devotion to be met with nowhere else. It would have been hard enough to tell when those four watchers of the little one had had their last good meal; the scraps awarded to most dogs seldom could be spared for them,--the very bones, picked bare by the hungry masters, were grudged them, being carefully kept, and broken and melted down for grease (that most necessary ingredient in Northern diet.) Sometimes indeed their famished nature would assert itself, and they would steal something, it might be a rabbit caught in the snare near the camp (a most tempting bait for a hungry dog) or perchance a choice piece of dried fish hung high, yet not quite high enough to miss the spring of "Capri" or "Muskimo;" or a piece of soap lately purchased of the white man, or even a scrap of moose-skin reserved as shoe leather. All helped to assuage the pangs of hunger, yet these indulgences would be dearly purchased by the inevitable cuffs and blows which followed, till the poor brutes, scarred and bleeding, were fain to creep away and hide in some hole, until the imperative call or whistle made fresh claim for their services.

How little do we know for whom we are pleading, when, morning by morning, we beseech our dear Lord to "comfort and succour all them who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity!" And still less able are we to realize the countless answers to our feeble prayers already winging their way to every portion of the inhabited globe; o'er moor and fen, o'er lake and sea and prairie, in the crowded town and in the vast wilderness. Was it in blessed England, where the sun has long past the meridian; while here in the far North-West, there are but the first faint tints of early dawn:--was it in England, or in some far distant isle of the sea, or on some outward bound ship--where the sailor finds time but for a few hurried words of daily prayer--that that heartfelt petition went up, offered in the Blessed Name, which won for the helpless infant on the river-bank the succour brought her?

A small birch-bark canoe was wending its way up the river on the morning following that on which Michel's wife had met her death. It came from Fort Little Rapids, and was proceeding to Fort Simpson, some 500 miles up the rivet. There were three men in the canoe, a Cree, or Swampy Indian, in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, and two Slaves or Etcha-Ottine of Mackenzie River. They were paddling rapidly, having lately been ashore for breakfast, and being anxious to reach Fort Simpson as soon as possible. La V.'s custom was to take the left bank of the river going up stream; but on this occasion, for no particular reason which he could give, he agreed with his men to take the right side. They had not long past the region of the smoky banks [Footnote: "The region of the smoky banks." These fires, called "Boucanes" by the Canadians, occur in several parts of the Mackenzie and Athabasca district. In the neighbourhood of Lake la Biche, and also along the miry bank, a number of jets of hot steam find vent through the mud, and make the waters of the river bubble. Above Fort Norman, on the Mackenzie, in several spots the banks give out smoke and occasionally flames. These fires have existed for ages, and are regarded with the greatest awe and superstition by the Indians. A little higher up the river there are hot springs and a small Solfaferra, like the larger one near Naples.], when a sound was heard which caused the three men simultaneously to stop their paddling and listen. It occurred again and yet again, at long intervals; one man pronounced it a dog, but La V. shook his head, and declared it to be the cry of an infant, and that he would put ashore and ascertain if it were not so. Very faint was that cry, and waxing, even as they listened, still more feeble; were it dog or infant, the cry was evidently from one in the very last stage of exhaustion. Soon, as they drew closer to the bank, the fir poles of the lately forsaken camp suggested the probability of the spot from whence the moans proceeded. The men drew to shore, and hauled up the canoe, while La V., whose curiosity was much excited, sprang out and proceeded to climb the bank. On the summit of the bank close to the edge lay four dogs; or rather they had lain there, but they all started up, and looked defiance, as soon as steps were heard approaching their charge. Close within the circle they had formed around her, lay a little bundle of rags, wrapping the now nearly lifeless form of a thirteen months old child. Apparently, the moans which had met the ears of the men in the canoe were her last, for on lifting her up in his arms, La V. could detect no signs of life. For how many hours had she lain there, without food or warmth, excepting that afforded by the dogs, who lay closely round her? But there was no time to speculate. Without a moment's delay the men cut down three or four young fir trees, and proceeded to make a fire; and La V., folding the little one in his "capot"--sat down and tried to bring back life and warmth into her. In a short, time, a kettle was boiling on the fire; tea was made, and, with womanly tenderness, a few drops were administered. After a little time the men had the comfort of seeing a favourable result of their efforts. A little natural warmth returned


Owindia - 4/5

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