Read CHAPTER X of Canadian Crusoes A Tale of The Rice Lake Plains, free online book, by Catherine Parr Traill, on

“Scared by the red and noisy light.” -- COLERIDGE.

Hector and Louis had now little employment, excepting chopping fire-wood, which was no very arduous task for two stout healthy lads, used from childhood to handling the axe. Trapping, and hunting, and snaring hares, were occupations which they pursued more for the excitement and exercise than from hunger, as they had laid by abundance of dried, venison, fish, and birds, besides a plentiful store of rice. They now visited those trees that they had marked in the summer, where they had noticed the bees hiving, and cut them down; in one they got more than a pailful of rich honey-comb, and others yielded some more, some less; this afforded them a delicious addition to their boiled rice, and dried acid fruits. They might have melted the wax, and burned candles of it; but this was a refinement of luxury that never once occurred to our young house-keepers: the dry pine knots that are found in the woods are the settlers’ candles; but Catharine made some very good vinegar with the refuse of the honey and combs, by pouring water on it, and leaving it to ferment in a warm nook of the chimney, in one of the birch-bark vessels, and this was an excellent substitute for salt as a seasoning to the fresh meat and fish. Like the Indians, they were now reconciled to the want of this seasonable article.

Indiana seemed to enjoy the cold weather; the lake, though locked up to every one else, was open to her; with the aid of the tomahawk she patiently made an opening in the ice, and over this she built a little shelter of pine boughs stuck into the ice. Armed with a sharp spear carved out of hardened wood, she would lie upon the ice and patiently await the rising of some large fish to the air-hole, when dexterously plunging it into the unwary creature, she dragged it to the surface. Many a noble fish did the young squaw bring home, and lay at the feet of him whom she had tacitly elected as her lord and master; to him she offered the voluntary service of a faithful and devoted servant I might almost have said, slave.

During the middle of December there were some days of such intense cold, that even our young Crusoes, hardy as they were, preferred the blazing log-fire and warm ingle nook, to the frozen lake and cutting north-west wind which blew the loose snow in blinding drifts over its bleak, unsheltered surface. Clad in the warm tunic and petticoat of Indian blanket with fur-lined mocassins, Catharine and her Indian friend felt little cold excepting to the face when they went abroad, unless the wind was high, and then experience taught them to keep at home. And these cold gloomy days they employed in many useful works. Indiana had succeeded in dyeing the quills of the porcupine that she had captured on Grape Island; with these she worked a pair of beautiful mocassins and an arrow case for Hector, besides making a sheath for Louis’s couteau-du-châsse, of which the young hunter was very proud, bestowing great praise on the workmanship.

Indiana appeared to be deeply engrossed with some work that she was engaged in, but preserved a provoking degree of mystery about it, to the no small annoyance of Louis, who, among his other traits of character, was remarkably inquisitive, wanting to know the why and wherefore of everything he saw.

Indiana first prepared a frame of some tough wood, it might be the inner bark of the oak or elm or hiccory; this was pointed at either end, and wide in the middle not very much unlike the form of some broad, flat fish; over this she wove an open network of narrow thongs of deer-hide, wetted to make it more pliable, and securely fastened to the frame: when dry, it became quite tight, and resembled a sort of coarse bamboo-work such as you see on cane-bottomed chairs and sofas.

“And now, Indiana, tell us what sort of fish you are going to catch in your ingenious little net,” said Louis, who had watched her proceedings with great interest. The girl shook her head, and laughed till she showed all her white teeth, but quietly proceeded to commence a second frame like the first.

Louis put it on his head. No: it could not be meant to be worn there, that was plain. He turned it round and round. It must be intended for some kind of bird-trap: yes, that must be it; and he cast an inquiring glance at Indiana. She blushed, shook her head, and gave another of her silent laughs.

“Some game like battledore and shuttlecock,” and snatching up a light bass-wood chip, he began tossing the chip up and catching it on the netted frame. The little squaw was highly amused, but rapidly went on with her work. Louis was now almost angry at the perverse little savage persevering in keeping him in suspense. She would not tell him till the other was done: then there were to be a pair of these curious articles: and he was forced at last to sit quietly down to watch the proceeding of the work. It was night before the two were completed, and furnished with straps and loops. When the last stroke was put to them, the Indian girl knelt down at Hector’s feet, and binding them on, pointed to them with a joyous laugh, and said, “Snow-shoe for walk on snow good!”

The boys had heard of snow-shoes, but had never seen them, and now seemed to understand little of the benefit to be derived from the use of them. The young Mohawk quickly transferred the snow-shoes to her own feet, and soon proved to them that the broad surface prevented those who wore them from sinking into the deep snow. After many trials Hector began to acknowledge the advantage of walking with the snow-shoes, especially on the frozen snow on the ice-covered lake. Indiana was well pleased with the approbation that her manufactures met with, and very soon manufactured for “Nee-chee,” as they all now called Louis, a similar present As to Catharine, she declared the snow-shoes made her ancles ache, and that she preferred the mocassins that her cousin Louis made for her. During the long bright days of February they made several excursions on the lake, and likewise explored some of the high hills to the eastward. On this ridge there were few large trees; but it was thickly clothed with scrub oaks, slender poplars, and here and there fine pines, and picturesque free-growing oaks of considerable size and great age patriarchs, they might be termed, among the forest growth. Over this romantic range of hill and dale, free as the air they breathed, roamed many a gallant herd of deer, unmolested unless during certain seasons when the Indians came to hunt over these hills. Surprised at the different growth of the oaks on this side the plains, Hector could not help expressing his astonishment to Indiana, who told him that it was caused by the custom that her people had had from time immemorial of setting fire to the bushes in the early part of spring. This practice, she said, promoted the growth of the deer-grass, made good cover for the deer themselves, and effectually prevented the increase of the large timbers. This circumstance gives a singular aspect to this high ridge of hills when contrasted with the more wooded portions to the westward. From the lake these eastern hills look verdant, and as if covered with tall green fern. In the month of October a rich rosy tint is cast upon the leaves of the scrub oaks by the autumnal frosts, and they present a glowing unvaried crimson of the most glorious hue, only variegated in spots by a dark feathery evergreen, or a patch of light waving poplars turned by the same wizard’s wand to golden yellow.

There were many lovely spots, lofty rounded hills, and deep shady dells, with extended tableland, and fine lake views; but on the whole our young folks preferred the oak openings and the beautiful wooded glens of the western side, where they had fixed their home.

There was one amusement that they used greatly to enjoy during the cold bright days and moonlight nights of midwinter. This was gliding down the frozen snow on the steep side of the dell near the spring, seated on small hand-sleighs, which carried them down with great velocity. Wrapped in their warm furs, with caps fastened closely over their ears, what cared they for the cold? Warm and glowing from head to foot, with cheeks brightened by the delightful exercise, they would remain for hours enjoying the amusement of the snow-slide; the bright frost gemming the ground with myriads of diamonds, sparkling in their hair, or whitening it till it rivalled the snow beneath their feet. Then, when tired out with the exercise, they returned to the shanty, stirred up a blazing fire, till the smoked rafters glowed in the red light; spread their simple fare of stewed rice sweetened with honey, or maybe a savoury soup of hare or other game; and then, when warmed and fed, they kneeled together, side by side, and offered up a prayer of gratitude to their Maker, and besought his care over them during the dark and silent hours of night.

Had these young people been idle in their habits and desponding in their tempers, they must have perished with cold and hunger, instead of enjoying many necessaries and even some little luxuries in their lonely forest home. Fortunately they had been brought up in the early practice of every sort of usefulness, to endure every privation with cheerful fortitude; not, indeed, quietly to sit down and wait for better times, but vigorously to create those better times by every possible exertion that could be brought into action to assist and ameliorate their condition.

To be up and doing, is the maxim of a Canadian; and it is this that nerves his arm to do and bear. The Canadian settler, following in the steps of the old Americans, learns to supply all his wants by the exercise of his own energy. He brings up his family to rely upon their own resources, instead of depending upon his neighbours.

The children of the modern emigrant, though enjoying a higher degree of civilization and intelligence, arising from a liberal education, might not have fared so well under similar circumstances as did our Canadian Crusoes, because, unused to battle with the hardships incidental to a life of such privation as they had known, they could not have brought so much experience, or courage, or ingenuity to their aid. It requires courage to yield to circumstances, as well as to overcome them.

Many little useful additions to the interior of their dwelling were made by Hector and Louis during the long winter. They made a smoother and better table than the first rough one that they put together. They also made a rough partition of split cedars, to form a distinct and separate sleeping-room for the two girls; but as this division greatly circumscribed their sitting and cooking apartment, they resolved, as soon as the spring came, to cut and draw in logs for putting up a better and larger room to be used as a summer parlour. Indiana and Louis made a complete set of wooden trenchers out of butter-nut, a fine hard wood of excellent grain, and less liable to warp or crack than many others.

Louis’s skill as a carpenter was much greater than that of his cousin. He not only possessed more judgment and was more handy, but he had a certain taste and neatness in finishing his work, however rough his materials and rude his tools. He inherited some of that skill in mechanism for which the French have always been remarked. With his knife and a nail he would carve a plum-stone into a miniature basket, with handle across it, all delicately wrought with flowers and checker-work. The shell of a butter-nut would be transformed into a boat, with thwarts, and seats, and rudder; with sails of bass-wood or birch-bark. Combs he could cut out of wood or bone, so that Catharine could dress her hair, or confine it in braids or bands at will. This was a source of great comfort to her; and Louis was always pleased when he could in any way contribute to his cousin’s happiness. These little arts Louis had been taught by his father. Indeed, the entire distance that their little, settlement was from any town or village had necessarily forced their families depend on their own ingenuity and invention to supply many of their wants. Once or twice a year they saw a trading fur-merchant, as I before observed; and those were glorious days for Hector and Louis, who were always on the alert to render the strangers any service in their power, as by that means they sometimes received little gifts from them, and gleaned up valuable information as to their craft as hunters and trappers. And then there were wonderful tales of marvellous feats and hair-breadth escapes to listen to, as they sat with eager looks and open ears round the blazing log-fire in the old log-house. Now they would in their turns have tales to tell of strange adventures, and all that had befallen them since the first day of their wanderings on the Rice Lake Plains.

The long winter passed away unmarked by any very stirring event. The Indians had revisited the hunting-grounds; but they confined themselves chiefly to the eastern side of the plains, the lake, and the islands, and did not come near their little dwelling to molest them. The latter end of the month of March presented fine sugar-making weather; and as they had the use of the big iron pot, they resolved to make maple sugar and some molasses. Long Island was decided upon as the most eligible place: it had the advantage over Maple Island of having a shanty ready built for a shelter during the time they might see fit to remain, and a good boiling-place, which would be a comfort to the girls, as they need not be exposed to the weather during the process of sugaring. The two boys soon cut down some small pines and bass-woods, which they hewed out into sugar-troughs; Indiana manufactured some rough pails of birch-bark; and the first favourable day for the work they loaded up a hand-sleigh with their vessels, and marched forth over the ice to the island, and tapped the trees they thought could yield sap for their purpose. And many pleasant days they passed during the sugar-making season. They did not leave the sugar-bush for good till the commencement of April, when the sun and wind beginning to unlock the springs that fed the lake, and to act upon its surface, taught them that it would not long be prudent to remain on the island. The loud booming sounds that were now frequently heard of the pent-up air beneath striving to break forth from its icy prison, were warnings not to be neglected. Openings began to appear, especially at the entrance of the river, and between the islands, and opposite to some of the larger creeks; blue streams that attracted the water-fowl, ducks, and wild geese, that came, guided by that instinct that never errs, from their abiding-places in far-off lands; and Indiana knew the signs of the wild birds coming and going with a certainty that seemed almost marvellous to her simple-minded companions.

How delightful were the first indications of the coming spring! How joyously our young Crusoes heard the first tapping of the redheaded woodpecker, the low, sweet, warbling note of the early song-sparrow, and twittering chirp of the snow-bird, or that neat quakerly-looking bird, that comes to cheer us with the news of sunny days and green buds, the low, tender, whispering note of the chiccadee, flitting among the pines or in the thick branches of the shore-side trees! The chattering note of the little striped chitmunk, as it pursued its fellows over the fallen trees, and the hollow sound of the male partridge heavily striking his wings against his sides to attract the notice of the female birds were among the early spring melodies, for such they seemed to our forest dwellers, and for such they listened with eager ears, for they told them

“That winter, cold winter, was past,
And that spring, lovely spring, was approaching at last.”

They watched for the first song of the robin, and the full melody of the red thrush; the rushing sound of the passenger-pigeon, as flocks of these birds darted above their heads, sometimes pausing to rest on the dry limb of some withered oak, or darting down to feed upon the scarlet berries of the spicy winter-green, the acorns that still lay upon the now uncovered ground, or the berries of hawthorn and dogwood that still hung on the bare bushes. The pines were now putting on their rich, mossy, green spring dresses; the skies were deep blue; nature, weary of her long state of inaction, seemed waking into life and light.

On the Plains the snow soon disappears, for the sun and air has access to the earth much easier than in the close, dense forest; and Hector and Louis were soon able to move about with axe in hand, to cut the logs for the addition to the house which they proposed making. They also set to work as soon as the frost was out of the ground, to prepare their little field for the Indian corn. This kept them quite busy. Catharine attended to the house, and Indiana went out fishing and hunting, bringing in plenty of small game and fish every day. After they had piled and burned up the loose boughs and trunks that encumbered the space which they had marked out, they proceeded to enclose it with a “brush fence”, which was done by felling the trees that stood in the line of the field, and letting them fall so as to form the bottom log of the fence, which they then made of sufficient height by piling up arms of trees and brush-wood. Perhaps in this matter they were too particular, as there was no fear of “breachy cattle,” or any cattle, intruding on the crop; but Hector maintained that deer and bears were as much to be guarded against as oxen and cows.

The little enclosure was made secure from any such depredators, and was as clean as hands could make it, and the two cousins were sitting on a log, contentedly surveying their work, and talking of the time when the grain was to be put in. It was about the beginning of the second week in May, as near as they could guess from the bursting of the forest buds and the blooming of such of the flowers as they were acquainted with. Hector’s eyes had followed the flight of a large eagle that now, turning from the lake, soared away majestically towards the east or Oak-hills. But soon his eye was attracted to another object. The loftiest part of the ridge was enveloped in smoke. At first he thought it must be some mist-wreath hovering over its brow; but soon the dense rolling clouds rapidly spread on each side, and he felt certain that it was from fire, and nothing but fire,__ that those dark volumes arose.

“Louis, look yonder! the hills to the east are on fire.”

“On fire, Hector? you are dreaming!”

“Nay, but look there!”

The hills were now shrouded in one dense, rolling, cloud; it moved on with fearful rapidity down the shrubby side of the hill, supplied by the dry, withered foliage and deer-grass, which was like stubble to the flames.

“It is two miles off, or more,” said Louis; “and the creek will stop its progress long before it comes near us and the swamp there, beyond Bare Hill.”

“The cedars are as dry as tinder; and as to the creek, it is so narrow, a burning tree falling across would convey the fire to this side; besides, when the wind rises, as it always does when the bush is on fire, you know how far the burning leaves will fly. Do you remember when the forest was on fire last spring, how long it continued to burn, and how fiercely it raged! It was lighted by the ashes of your father’s pipe, when he was out in the new fallow; the leaves were dry, and kindled; and before night the woods were burning for miles.” “It was a grand spectacle, those pine-hills, when the fire got in among them,” said Louis.. “See, see how fast the fires kindle; that must be some fallen pine that they have got hold of; now, look at the lighting up of that hill is it not grand?”

“If the wind would but change, and blow in the opposite direction!” said Hector, anxiously.

“The wind, mon ami, seems to have little influence; for as long as the fire finds fuel from the dry bushes and grass, it drives on, even against the wind.”

As they spoke the wind freshened, and they could plainly see a long line of wicked, bright flames, in advance of the dense mass of vapour which hung in its rear. On it came, that rolling sea of flame, with inconceivable rapidity, gathering strength as it advanced. The demon of destruction spread its red wings to the blast, rushing on with fiery speed; and soon hill and valley were wrapped in one sheet of flame.

“It must have been the work of the Indians,” said Louis. “We had better make a retreat to the island, in case of the fire crossing the valley. We must not neglect the canoe; if the fire sweeps round by the swamp, it may come upon us unawares, and then the loss of the canoe would prevent escape by the lake. But here are the girls; let us consult them.

“It is the Indian burning,” said Indiana; “that is the reason there are so few big trees on that hill; they burn it to make the grass better for the deer.”

Hector had often pointed out to Louis the appearance of fire having scorched the bark of the trees, where they were at work, but it seemed to have been many years back; and when they were digging for the site of the root-house below the bank, which they had just finished, they had met with charred wood, at the depth of six feet below the soil, which must have lain there till the earth had accumulated over it; a period of many years must necessarily have passed since the wood had been burned, as it was so much decomposed as to crumble beneath the wooden shovel which they were digging with.

All day they watched the progress of that, fiery sea whose waves were flame red, rolling flame. Onward it came, with resistless speed, overpowering every obstacle, widening its sphere of action, till it formed a perfect semicircle about them. As the night drew on, the splendour of the scene became more apparent, and the path of the fire better defined; but there was no fear of the conflagration spreading as it had done in the daytime. The wind had sunk, and the copious dews of evening effectually put a stop to the progress of the fire. The children could now gaze in security upon the magnificent spectacle before them, without the excitement produced by its rapid spread during the daytime. They lay down to sleep in perfect security that night, but with the consciousness that, as the breeze sprung up in the morning, they must be on the alert to secure their little dwelling and its contents from the devastation that threatened it. They knew that they had no power to stop its onward course, as they possessed no implement better than a rough wood shovel, which would be found very ineffectual in opening a trench or turning the ground up, so as to cut off the communication with the dry grass, leaves, and branches, which are the fuel for supplying the fires on the Plains. The little clearing on one side the house they thought would be its safeguard, but the fire was advancing on three sides of them.

“Let us hold a council, as the Indians do, to consider what is to be done.”

“I propose,” said Louis, “retreating, bag and baggage, to the nearest point of Long Island.” “My French cousin has well spoken,” said Hector, mimicking the Indian mode of speaking; “but listen to the words of the wise. I propose to take all our household stores that are of the most value, to the island, and lodge the rest safely in our new root-house, first removing from its neighbourhood all such light, loose matter as is likely to take fire; the earthen roof will save it from destruction; as to the shanty, it must take its chance to stand or fall.”

“The fence of the little clearing will be burned, no doubt. Well, never mind, better that than our precious selves; and the corn, fortunately, is not yet sown,” said Louis.

Hector’s advice met with general applause, and the girls soon set to work to secure the property they meant to leave.

It was a fortunate thing that the root-house had been finished, as it formed a secure storehouse for their goods, and would also be made available as a hiding-place from the Indians, in time of need. The boys carefully scraped away all the combustible matter from its vicinity, and also from the house; but the rapid increase of the fire now warned them to hurry down to join Catharine and the young Mohawk, who had gone off to the lake shore, with such things as they required to take with them.