By Theodore Goodrich RobertsIllustrated by Hawthorne Howland
The black waves tried to engulf the canoe, but her master's eyes and wrists did not fail her.
WOUNDED MOOSE kept his village at Head-of-tide, on the southern shore of the river, summer and winter. Here were lodges of hides and bark, and cultivated fields, and more than a dozen canoes. Here were the four great wooden bowls, or mortars, in which the dried maize was pounded to coarse meal. A big maple tree had gone to the making of each of those mortars. The trees had been fe1led laboriously with stone axes, and with the driving in of great wedges of stone before the blows of heavy clubs. The sound green stumps had been hollowed roundly by clever applications of fire. The interior surfaces of those primitive mortars were as hard and smooth as water-worn stone, and over each spread a sheltering roof of poles and bark. Here, too, were pits for the storing of the corn, dug deep into the face of the dry bank near its top, drily lined and strongly roofed. It was a fine village, though a small one; and Wounded Moose was its father and its chief.
There were greater chiefs than Wounded Moose on the river, and larger villages than this at Head-of-tide both above and below. But the people of these twenty lodges believed that there was no wiser man in the world than their old chief and no better place in which to live than their village.
One of Wounded Moose's twenty braves was The Otter. He was the best of them all, though he had not yet reached his thirtieth year the wisest and briefest counsellor at the big fire, the most cunning hunter, the swiftest runner and the strongest swimmer. His wife was from the big town up at Meductic. Her name was Willow-in-the-snow. They had no children for whom to hunt and cook, for whom to sew little shirts of doe skin and shape little snowshoes, so at times their hearts were heavy.
One afternoon in April, when the ice was grinding its way down the flooding river in broken fields and swinging rafts of grey and white, and sunshine and shade swept gleaming and darkling from shore to shore as the wind drove the April clouds, and black crows flew rrahing and wheeling and settling over the drift and beating up again on blunt-tipped pinions to wheel and scream again, a young woman pointed out from the high bank at something on the ice. Others of the village came running and peered out under curved bands at the drifting waste. There were a number of objects adrift there on that wide flood that were not of the ice or the river the tops of great trees, ancient cedars dragged away with their protesting roots held high for the crows to perch on, black alders torn up in mighty swaths, a broken canoe, and the bloated carcass of a caribou. These worthless spoils of the upper reaches were carried along by the sullen ice-rafts as if they were precious things. But these did not hold the attention of the people of Head-of-tide.
Halfway across the flood, more than one-third of a mile distant from the high bank, drifted the object which attracted all eyes. It was the body of something alive, or of something that had lived. All who saw it knew this much at a glance, though no one understood how he knew it. Though motionless and shapeless, it had a significance for the eye which no bulk of wood or bark could possess. This quality it shared with the body of the caribou closer inshore, but to a more startling degree. It was much smaller than the caribou, and it seemed to crouch.
"It is alive," said an old man. "Mark how the crows keep away."
At that moment it lifted an arm slowly and let it fall, raised it and lowered it again, and again crouched motionless, black on the grey ice. A thrill of curiosity passed through the crowding villagers.
"It is a woman," said Willow-in-the-snow. "My eyes are keen. I see that she kneels, and stoops far forward, and holds something under her breast with one arm. It may be a child that she holds so close."
THE Otter turned without a word and threw the wet spruce branches aside from his overturned canoe where it still lay in its winter bed. He lifted the canoe to the top of the bank and laid it outthrust among the wet willows. He ran back to his lodge then, and returned in a moment with two strong paddles of seasoned maple in his hands. He ran the paddles beneath the bars of the canoe, lifted the long craft lightly against his thigh and descended the steep bank to the edge of the flooded river. He ran across a stranded pan of ice and launched the canoe beyond it into the race of grinding floes and brown water. No one spoke on the top of the bank, but The Otter's wife turned and glided through the brush abreast of the canoe.
By this time the pan of ice which bore the mysterious, crouched figure was several hundreds of yards below the village of Wounded Moose. Floods of sunshine and drifts of shadow continued to wash across the river under the high clouds driven swiftly by the wind, changing the scene instantly from one of spring excitement to one of perilous desolation, and as quickly flashing it back again.
The Otter's canoe drifted with the masses of ice, sometimes broadside-on, sometimes headed with the stream and sometimes driven down stern first. But always it was alert to the master's wrist, now sliding, now darting to the right or the left, and now being shouldered without protest by a hundred tons of wallowing ice and yet always winning away from the southern shore and toward the crouched figure in midstream. It passed close to the dead caribou, and four crows labored up from the carcass into the wind with startled yet defiant cries; and The Otter glanced aside and saw, by the shafts of three arrows, that the big deer was one that had escaped wounded from the hunters. His lip curled. No beast that felt an arrow of his ever got away to die alone and become carrion for crows and foxes.
The wind strengthened and chopped the patches of open water to crisp waves. It drove the light canoe against submerged ledges of ice. It joined the floe here and opened it there. But The Otter was still master of the canoe, and so master of the wind and the ice and the swollen river. Suddenly the wreck of an old cedar came plunging to the surface from beneath the edge of the floe, close to the canoe. It was a splintered lance of trunk, a mass of stiff branches and a net of clawing roots. The Otter stroked like mad to escape it; and the canoe leapt forward like a frightened deer; and at the end of that terrific stroke the broad blade fouled one of the upsurging branches and the paddle snapt at the lower grip. Without pause, without a glance, without the loss of a second of time, The Otter loosed the useless stick from his fingers, drew the other paddle to him with his left hand, stabbed the blade into the churning water and made the next stroke.
The cedar swayed in the wind and sunshine for a moment, silver with streaming water, then fell with a swooping stroke and smote the river with a resounding splash. One of the wide branches struck The Otter's shoulders and the stern of the canoe behind him. The Otter stooped low and dug deep and strong with his paddle. The canoe staggered and her bow lifted; and then she swam forward, clear of that peril, rocking in the waves of the cedar's fall. The Otter glanced over his shoulder towards the southern shore and swung his paddle high above his head in signal to Willow-in-the-snow. He knew that she was watching from the nearest point of shore.
AT last the canoe reached the raft of ice on which the mysterious figure still crouched motionless. The Otter could see now that it was a human being draped in a robe of wolf skins or the corpse of one. Its strange position, crouched horizontally forward from the hips, puzzled and daunted him. One side of the robe was caught up to the breast as if by a folded arm. The bowed head was covered so that he could not see the face. He steadied the canoe beside the floe and called to the mysterious thing. It did not move or answer. He called again, louder, holding the canoe against the edge of the swinging ice with his paddle. It moved this time as if it tried to lift and turn its head; and then, trembling, it sank flat on the ice. The Otter swung a foot over the gunnel and onto the ice, testing it with a little weight and then more weight all with the extreme of caution and yet swiftly. He placed both feet on the ice, turning at the moment and keeping his hands and a fraction of his weight on the canoe. The ice was solid. He lifted the canoe from the water and ran it over the floe toward the prostrate figure, ready to throw his weight across it in a moment if the ice should fall apart under his feet. But the ice held.
The figure was that of a young woman, thin and bloodless of face. When the Otter turned her over she opened her eyes for a fraction of a second and her arms contracted upon a bundle which she held clasped to her breast. Then she lay still again, with closed eyes; and the man could not see any sign of life in her. But there was life in the thing which she held in her arms. A low, soft cry came from that shapeless bundle of skins and set up a mighty commotion in the Otter's heart. A pappoose!
Stress of emotion did not unnerve the Otter's strong limbs nor befog his clear brain. He did not pause to investigate the living thing in the unconscious woman's arms, but lifted the woman, (who continued to clutch her burden), and placed her in the canoe, forward of the middle bar. She was dead-weight and her joints were stiff; but he managed to straighten her on the bottom of the canoe and fold the robe about her. He lifted the stern of the canoe then and walked it around toward the nearest edge of the pan. Then he went back to the bow, lifted it and walked it around. He and the loaded canoe were close to the edge of the ice now, and that edge began to sink slowly, and the strong water ran over it. He edged the canoe outward, broadside to the hungry water; and still the ice sank and the water deepened over it.
The Otter gripped a gunnel of the canoe with both strong hands. He was crouched with bent knees, and the cold water flooded over his moccasins. The canoe floated, wrenching at his arms. He pushed it outward the full length of his arms, following with cautious feet. The ice rose slowly, relieved of the weight of the loaded canoe. The Otter felt it and was ready for it. He did not hurry and he did not lag. He glanced around at the crowding drift, and down at the water between his feet, timing the run of the river, the lift of the edge of the ice beneath him, and measuring everything. He pushed the canoe clear of the rising edge of ice, then sprang lightly into his place and took up the paddle.
Now the canoe answered less quickly to the paddle than she had on the outward journey. She was not in midriver now, but three-quarters of the way toward the northern shore, for the ice had drifted steadily across the current before the rising wind from the south. The floe was packing. Calves and rafts of ice of a hundred sizes closed in upon the canoe; and now the wind, which had been with her, was against her. But the Otter showed no anxiety. He knew the canoe, and he knew himself, and his knowledge of the river was as great as that of any man in the valley. He slipped through narrow passages, with nothing to spare on either hand. If a bump could not be avoided, he took it at the safest angle. Sometimes he drove straight into and over the "slob-ice" and listened knowingly to the rasping and bumping beneath him. He knew what the bark of his canoe would withstand. No canoe on the river had a finer skin of thick, white winter bark, all in one piece. He knew the strength of her ribs and frame.
SOMETIMES the Otter let the canoe swing around in the wind and went backwards and stern-first at a narrowing channel, so that he could deal hand-to-hand with the crowding floe. He was almost pinched more than once. Twice he had to spring out and, with half his weight still on the canoe, fight the ice off with his feet. Once he sank to his hips, and once to his breast but always he embarked safely again and always the canoe won clear. So, yard by yard, he made his way through the closing floe to the open water.
The wind tore the open water to black, twisted waves with white heads, and among these waves sloshed scattered lumps of ice. The Otter gazed ahead as unwinking as an eagle as he drove the canoe out of the floe and into the leaping tumult of the waves. He squatted very low and sank his paddle deep. He kept the bow of the canoe fair in the wind when that was possible but he had to twist frequently to the right or the left to meet a wave head-on which threatened to strike him abeam and roll him over. The spray flew. The canoe slid and plunged and sidled, twisted and reared and occasionally smote the trough between the waves with a loud report.
The black waves with their flying heads of foam, leapt and clutched and shouldered and twisted and fell sloshing and roaring astern. They tried to engulf the canoe by sinking suddenly away from her, and to roll her over with crooked blows, and to break her with furious head-on charges; they hurled tons of water at her, and tons of low-swimming ice which appeared suddenly out of the welter and swooped at her ponderously. But her master's eyes and wrists did not fail her.
The Otter ran the canoe among flooded bushes in the shelter of a point of close-growing spruce trees and rested the paddle across the wet gunnels. It had been a hard struggle. He was more than four miles below Head-of-tide; and he thought, with a dull sense of relief, of the long walk back to his lodge with Willow-in-the-snow. He knew that she would soon be here even if she were not already waiting for him among the bushes in front. He did not look at his still and silent passenger, nor at the bundle in her arms. It was long since he had heard that faint, pitiful cry. He dared not look.
Willow-in-the-snow put out a hand, seized the bow of the canoe and drew it ashore. The Otter looked at her with interest but did not speak. He laid his hands on the gunnels and raised himself slowly from his knees and straightened his legs slowly and painfully behind him but he did not turn his gaze from Willow-in-the-snow. He saw her lift the bow of the canoe higher on the shore, then stoop and feel the face and breast of the motionless stranger. He saw her undo the stiffened grip of the unconscious arms and raise the bundle and hold it tight in her own arms. He saw her hand busy with the wrappings of the bundle and her dark head bowed intently above it.
Willow-in-the-snow looked up at her husband in the stranded canoe. Her eyes shone and there was an expression of awe and glory on her round, dusky face.
"It is alive," she said in a breathless voice
"It is alive," she said in a breathless voice. "It is asleep."
The Otter ran the length of the canoe with his feet on the wobbling gunnels and sprang ashore as if there was nothing at all the matter with his legs. He stood close to Willow-in-the-snow and peered down over her shoulder at the thing she was gazing at so intently. He saw a small face with closed eyes and a puckered mouth. The cheeks were thin and the lips were pale, but the shine of life was on them like faint sunlight.
"How will it live?" whispered The Otter. "How shall we feed it?"
"It has teeth," replied the woman, whose finger had already been in the small stranger's mouth. "It is older than its size and strength."
The Otter turned and lifted the dead body of the mother from the canoe. He found a small, deep pit among the tall spruces and in it laid the body rolled securely in the great robe of wolf skins. Over it he laid branches of green spruce and fir, and over those great and little stones in a heap. He worked swiftly and was soon done with the task. Then he pulled the canoe up safe out of reach of the hungry river.
The little stranger lay quiet in the warm arms of Willow-in-the-snow. In the journey back to Head-of-tide it did not wake once and whimpered only thrice.
"Did you see the left arm of the woman whose brave spirit has gone to the land of summer?" asked Willow-in-the-snow. The Otter had not seen it.
"Flesh had been bitten from it by sharp teeth," she said.
"Hah!" exclaimed The Otter. "She fought with wolves!"
"No, she fought with hunger. In her belt were a little line and a little fish-hook of bone, and on the hook was a scrap of the bait with which she had fished and it was the flesh of her own arm."
"Hah!" exclaimed The Otter, again. And then, after a moment of thought "He must grow to be a wise and brave man, this small Ice Runner, or his mother will not be happy even in the land of summer."