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

“I know a lake where the cool waves break,
And softly fall on the silver sand,
And no stranger intrudes on that solitude,
And no voices but ours disturb the strand.”

The breeze had sprung up, and had already brought the fire down as far as the creek. The swamp had long been on fire, and now the flames were leaping among the decayed timbers, roaring and crackling among the pines, and rushing to the tops of the cedars, springing from heap to heap of the fallen branches, and filling the air with dense volumes of black and suffocating smoke. So quickly did the flames advance that Hector and Louis had only time to push off the canoe before the heights along the shore were wrapped in smoke and fire. Many a giant oak and noble pine fell crashing to the earth, sending up showers of red sparks, as its burning trunk shivered in its fall. Glad to escape from the suffocating vapour, the boys quickly paddled out to the island, enjoying the cool, fresh air of the lake. Reposing on the grass beneath the trees, they passed the day, sheltered from the noonday sun, and watched the progress of the fires upon the shore. At night the girls slept securely under the canoe, which they raised on one side by means of forked sticks stuck in the ground.

It was a grand sight to see the burning plains at night, reflected on the water. A thousand naming torches flickered upon its still surface, to which the glare of a gas-lighted city would have been dim and dull by contrast.

Louis and Hector would speculate on the probable chances of the shanty escaping from the fire, and of the fence remaining untouched. Of the safety of the root-house they entertained no fear, as the grass was already springing green on the earthen roof; and below they had taken every precaution to secure its safely, by scraping up the earth near it.

Catharine lamented for the lovely spring-flowers that would be destroyed by the fire. “We shall have neither huckleberries nor strawberries this summer,” she said, mournfully; “and the pretty roses and bushes will be scorched, and the ground black and dreary.”

“The fire passes so rapidly over that it does not destroy many of the forest trees, only the dead ones are destroyed; and that, you know, leaves more space for the living ones to grow and thrive in,” said Hector. “I have seen, the year after a fire has run in the bush, a new and fresh set of plants spring up, and even some that looked withered recover; the earth is renewed and manured by the ashes; and it is not so great a misfortune as it at first appears.”

“But how black and dismal the burnt pine-woods look for years!” said Louis; “I do not think there is a more melancholy sight in life than one of those burnt pine-woods. There it stands, year after year, the black, branchless trees pointing up to the blue sky, as if crying for vengeance against those that kindled the fires.”

“They do, indeed, look ugly,” said Catharine; “yet the girdled ones look very nearly as ill.”

At the end of two days the fires had ceased to rage, though the dim smoke-wreaths to the westward showed where the work of destruction was still going on.

As there was no appearance of any Indians on the lake, nor yet at the point (Andersen’s Point, as it is now called), on the other side, they concluded the fires had possibly originated by accident, some casual hunter or trapper having left his camp-fire unextinguished; but as they were not very likely to come across the scene of the conflagration, they decided on returning back to their old home without delay; and it was with some feeling of anxiety that they hastened to see what evil had befallen their shanty.

“The shanty is burned!” was the simultaneous exclamation of both Louis and Hector, as they reached the rising ground that should have commanded a view of its roof. “It is well for us that we secured our things in the root-house,” said Hector.

“Well, if that is safe, who cares? we can soon build up a new house, larger and better than the old one,” said Louis. “The chief of our fence is gone, too, I see; but that we can renew at our leisure; no hurry, if we get it done a month hence, say I. Come, ma belle, do not look so sorrowful. There is our little squaw will help us to set up a capital wigwam, while the new house is building.” “But the nice table that you made, Louis, and the benches and shelves!”

“Never mind, Cathy, we will have better tables, and benches, and shelves too. Never fear, ma chère, the same industrious Louis will make things comfortable. I am not sorry the old shanty is down; we shall have a famous one put up, twice as large, for the winter. After the corn is planted we shall have nothing else to do but to think about it.”

The next two or three days was spent in erecting a wigwam, with poles and birch bark; and as the weather was warm and pleasant, they did not feel the inconvenience so much as they would have done had it been earlier in the season. The root-house formed an excellent store-house and pantry; and Indiana contrived, in putting up the wigwam, to leave certain loose folds between the birch-bark lining and outer covering, which formed a series of pouches or bags, in which many articles could be stowed away out of sight.

While the girls were busy contriving the arrangements of the wigwam, the two boys were not idle. The time was come for planting the corn; a succession of heavy thunder-showers had soaked and softened the scorched earth, and rendered the labour of moving it much easier than they had anticipated. They had cut for themselves wooden trowels, with which they raised the hills for the seed. The corn planted, they next turned their attention to cutting house-logs; those which they had prepared had been burned up; so they had their labour to begin again.

The two girls proved good helps at the raising; and in the course of a few weeks they had the comfort of seeing a more commodious dwelling than the former one put up. The finishing of this, with weeding the Indian corn, renewing the fence, and fishing, and trapping, and shooting partridges and ducks and pigeons, fully occupied their time this summer. The fruit season was less abundant this year than the previous one. The fire had done this mischief, and they had to go far a-field to collect fruits during the summer months.

It so happened that Indiana had gone out early one morning with the boys, and Catharine was alone. She had gone down to the spring for water, and on her return was surprised at the sight of a squaw and her family of three half-grown lads, and an innocent little brown papoose. In their turn the strangers seemed equally astonished at Catharine’s appearance.

The smiling aspect and good-natured laugh of the female, however, soon reassured the frightened girl, and she gladly gave her the water which she had in her birch dish, on her signifying her desire for drink. To this Catharine added some berries, and dried venison, and a bit of maple sugar, which was received with grateful looks by the boys; she patted the brown baby, and was glad when the mother released it from its wooden cradle, and fed and nursed it. The squaw seemed to notice the difference between the colour of her young hostess’s fair skin and her own swarthy hue; for she often took her hand, stripped up the sleeve of her dress, and compared her arm with her own, uttering exclamations of astonishment and curiosity; possibly Catharine was the first of a fair-skinned race this poor savage had ever seen. After her meal was finished, she set the birchen dish on the floor, and restrapping the papoose in its cradle prison, she slipped the basswood-bark rope over her forehead, and silently signing to her sons to follow her, she departed. That evening a pair of ducks were found fastened to the wooden latch of the door, a silent offering of gratitude for the refreshment that had been afforded to this Indian woman and her children.

Indiana thought, from Catharine’s description, that these were Indians with whom she was acquainted she spent some days in watching the lake and the ravine, lest a larger and more formidable party should be near. The squaw, she said, was a widow, and went by the name of Mother Snow-storm, from having been lost in the woods, when a little child, during a heavy storm of snow, and nearly starved to death. She was a gentle, kind woman, and, she believed, would not do any of them hurt. Her sons were good hunters; and though so young, helped to support their mother, and were very good to her and the little one.

I must now pass over a considerable interval of time, with merely a brief notice that the crop of corn was carefully harvested, and proved abundant, and a source of great comfort. The rice was gathered and stored, and plenty of game and fish laid by, with an additional store of honey.

The Indians, for some reason, did not pay their accustomed visit to the lake this season. Indiana said they might be engaged with war among some hostile tribes, or had gone to other hunting grounds. The winter was unusually mild, and it was long before it set in. Yet the spring following was tardy, and later than usual. It was the latter end of May before vegetation had made any very decided progress.

The little loghouse presented a neat and comfortable appearance, both within and without. Indiana had woven a handsome mat of bass bark for the floor; Louis and Hector had furnished it with very decent seats and a table, rough, but still very respectably constructed, considering their only tools were a tomahawk, a knife, and wooden wedges for splitting the wood into slabs. These Louis afterwards smoothed with great care and patience. Their bedsteads were furnished with thick, soft mate, woven by Indiana and Catharine, from rushes which they cut and dried; but the little squaw herself preferred lying on a mat or deer-skin on the floor before the fire, as she had been accustomed.

A new field had been enclosed, and a fresh crop of corn planted, and was now green and flourishing. Peace and happiness dwelt within the loghouse; but for the regrets that ever attended the remembrance of all they had left and lost, no cloud would have dimmed the serenity of those who dwelt beneath its humble roof.

The season of flowers had again arrived, the earth, renovated by the fire of the former year, bloomed with fresh beauty, June, with its fragrant store of roses and lilies, was now far advanced, the anniversary of that time when they had left their beloved parents’ roofs, to become sojourners in the lonely wilderness, had returned. Much they felt they had to be grateful for. Many privations, it is true, and much anxiety they had felt; but they had enjoyed blessings above all that they could have expected, and they might, like the Psalmist when recounting the escapes of the people of God, have said, “Oh that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and the wonders that he doeth for the children of men.” And now they declared no greater evil could befal them than to lose one of their little party, for even Indiana had become as a dear and beloved sister; her gentleness, her gratitude and faithful trusting love, seemed each day to increase. Now, indeed, she was bound to them by a yet more sacred tie, for she knelt to the same God, and acknowledged, with fervent love, the mercies of her Redeemer. She had made great progress in learning their language, and had also taught her friends to speak and understand much of her own tongue; so that they were now no longer at a loss to converse with her on any subject. Thus was this Indian girl united to them in bonds of social and Christian love.

Hector, Louis, and Indiana had gone over the hills to follow the track of a deer which had paid a visit to the young corn, now sprouting and showing symptoms of shooting up to blossom. Catharine usually preferred staying at home, and preparing the meals against their return. She had gathered some fine ripe strawberries, which, with plenty of stewed rice, Indian meal cake, and maple sugar, was to make their dinner. She was weary and warm, for the day had been hot and sultry. Seating herself on the threshold of the door, she leaned her tack against the doorpost, and closed her eyes. Perhaps the poor child’s thoughts were wandering back to her far-off, never-to-be-forgotten home, or she might be thinking of the hunters and their game. Suddenly a vague, undefinable feeling of dread stole over her mind: she heard no steps, she felt no breath, she saw no form; but there was a strange consciousness that she was not alone that some unseen being was near, some eye was upon her. I have heard of sleepers starting from sleep the most profound when the noiseless hand of the assassin has been raised to destroy them, as if the power of the human eye could be felt through the closed lid.

Thus fared it with Catharine: she felt as if some unseen enemy was near her; and, springing to her feet, she cast a wild, troubled glance around. No living being met her eye; and, ashamed of her cowardice, she resumed her seat. The tremulous cry of her little grey squirrel, a pet which she had tamed and taught to run to her and nestle in her bosom, attracted her attention.

“What aileth thee, wee dearie?” she said, tenderly, as the timid little creature crept, trembling, to her breast. “Thy mistress has scared thee by her own foolish fears. See now, there is neither cat-a-mount nor weasel here to seize thee, silly one;” and as she spoke she raised her head, and flung back the thick clusters of soft fair hair that shaded her eyes. The deadly glare of a pair of dark eyes fixed upon her met her terrified gaze, gleaming with sullen ferocity from the angle of the door-post, whence the upper part of the face alone was visible, partly concealed by a mat of tangled, shaggy, black hair. Paralysed with fear, the poor girl neither spoke nor moved; she uttered no cry; but pressing her hands tightly across her breast, as if to still the loud beating of her heart, she sat gazing upon that fearful appearance, while, with stealthy step, the savage advanced from his lurking-place, keeping, as he did so, his eyes riveted upon hers, with such a gaze as the wily serpent is said to fascinate his prey. His hapless victim moved not; whither could she flee to escape one whose fleet foot could so easily have overtaken her in the race? where conceal herself from him whose wary eye fixed upon her seemed to deprive her of all vital energy?

Uttering that singular, expressive guttural which seems with the Indian to answer the purpose of every other exclamation, he advanced, and taking the girl’s ice-cold hands in his, tightly bound them with a thong of deer’s hide, and led her unresistingly away. By a circuitous path through the ravine they reached the foot of the mount, where lay a birch canoe, rocking gently on the waters, in which a middle-aged female and a young girl were seated. The females asked no questions, and expressed no word indicative of curiosity or surprise, as the strong arm of the Indian lifted his captive into the canoe, and made signs to the elder squaw to push from the shore. When all had taken their places, the woman, catching up a paddle from the bottom of the little vessel, stood up, and with a few rapid strokes sent it skimming over the lake.

The miserable captive, overpowered with the sense of her calamitous situation, bowed down her head upon her knees, and concealing her agitated face in her garments, wept in silent agony. Visions of horror presented themselves to her bewildered brain all that Indiana had described of the cruelty of this vindictive race, came vividly before her mind. Poor child, what miserable thoughts were thine during that brief voyage!

Had the Indians also captured her friends? or was she alone to be the victim of their vengeance? What would be the feelings of those I beloved ones on returning to their home and finding it desolate! Was there no hope of release? As these ideas chased each other through her agitated mind, she raised her eyes all streaming with tears to the faces of the Indian and his companions with so piteous a look, that any heart but the stoical one of an Indian would have softened at its sad appeal; but no answering glance of sympathy met hers, no eye gave back its silent look of pity not a nerve or a muscle moved the cold apathetic features of the Indians, and the woe-stricken girl again resumed her melancholy attitude, burying her face in her heaving bosom to hide its bitter emotions from the heartless strangers.

She was not folly aware that it is part of the Indian’s education to hide the inward feelings of the heart, to check all those soft and tender emotions which distinguish the civilized man from the savage.

It does indeed need the softening influence of that powerful Spirit, which was shed abroad into the world to turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to break down the strongholds of unrighteousness, and to teach man that he is by nature the child of wrath and victim of sin, and that in his unregenerated nature his whole mind is at enmity with God and his fellow-men, and that in his flesh dwelleth no good thing. And the Indian has acknowledged that power, he has cast his idols of cruelty and revenge, those virtues on which he prided himself in the blindness of his heart, to the moles and the bats; he has bowed and adored at the foot of the Cross; but it was not so in the days whereof I have spoken.