Story type: Literature
THE HALF-BREED TRAPPER LA TOUCHE–HIS WIFE KAMELA–THEIR CHILDREN–THEY ARE SENT ON AN EXPEDITION–THE ENCAMPMENT–ATTACKED BY BLACKFEET, AND THE MEN SLAIN–THE YOUNG WIDOW FLIES–ALMOST CAPTURED–BACK TO THE FORT–THE REFUGE DESTROYED!–WOLVES–FURTHER FLIGHT–REFUGE AT LAST.
Great Britain possesses the sovereignty over a rich extent of country, extending from the Atlantic on the east to the Pacific on the west. Beyond the further shore of Lake Superior is found a region of lakes and rapid rivers, rocks, hills, and dense wood, extending for about 400 miles, nearly up to the Red River or Selkirk settlement. To the west of this, a rich prairie stretches far away up to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, from which the Saskatchewan descends, and, soon becoming a broad river, flows rapidly on to Lake Winnepeg. Other streams descending, find their way into the Polar Sea, or Hudson’s Bay. On the west, the Columbia, the Fraser, and others flow, with very eccentric courses, into the Pacific. Besides this, there are numerous lakes divided from each other, in many instances, by lofty mountains and thick forests.
Over the whole of this extensive region the Hudson’s Bay Company held, for many years, undivided sway, and kept in its employment large numbers of men–voyageurs, or canoe-men, and hunters–both whites of European descent (chiefly French Canadians), and also half-breeds and Red Indians. The country was inhabited by several nations of Indians, some known as Wood Indians, others as Prairie Indians and these again were divided into tribes or clans, frequently at war with each other; and these wars were cruel in the extreme, often exterminatory, neither age nor sex being spared. Their dress was skins, embroidered with beads, feathers, and porcupine quills. They painted their faces and ornamented their hair in a fantastic manner. Their weapons were the bow and arrow, spears, and hatchets. Their canoes were of birch-bark; their habitations, huts, or wigwams, either of a conical shape, or like a basin reversed, and formed of buffalo-skins and birch-bark. The Indians of the prairie possessed horses, and hunted the buffalo. Those of the woods, having few horses, lived chiefly on deer and smaller game, and cultivated potatoes and Indian corn. They believed in one Great and Good Spirit, and in the existence of numerous evil spirits, whom they feared and endeavoured to propitiate. Missionaries, however, went among them, and many have been brought out of darkness to a knowledge of the truth.
Among the most interesting of the tribes in British North America and the west of the Rocky Mountains are the Cootonais. They are handsome, above the middle size, and, compared with other tribes, remarkably fair; in conversation candid, in trade honest, brave in battle, and devotedly attached to each other and to their country. Polygamy is unknown among them. The greatest neatness and cleanliness are observable about their persons and lodges.
It was among this tribe that Pierre La Touche, a brave young half-breed trapper, sought for a wife. He had not long to wait before he found a maiden whose charms captivated his heart; besides which, she was an accomplished manufacturer of mocassins, snow-shoes, and garments of every description; she could also ride a horse and paddle or steer a canoe; she was fearless in danger, and she had, indeed, been greatly tried; once especially, when a party of Blackfeet, the hereditary enemies of her tribe, had made their way over the mountains to recover some horses which her people had captured. The Cootonais claimed the right of hunting the buffalo to the east of the Rocky Mountains, on the prairies which the Blackfeet considered belonged exclusively to themselves. This was naturally a fertile source of dispute.
Kamela, or the “Young Fawn,” the name given to the damsel selected by La Touche, had been well trained to endure all the hardships and privations to which a hunter’s wife is invariably exposed.
The usual ceremonies having been gone through, the young Kamela went to La Touche’s tent, and became his most loving and devoted wife. He treated her, not as the Indians would–as a slave, but as an equal and a friend, except in the presence of her countrymen, when he assumed the stern, indifferent manner with which they treat their wives. La Touche did not long remain idle; but away over the mountains, and down streams and rapids, across lakes, and through dense forests, he had to travel to join a band of the fur-trading company to which he belonged. Here four or five years of his life were spent; and the once-graceful Kamela had become a mother, with two fine children–Moolak, a boy, and a little Kamela.
One day, towards the end of the year, La Touche received orders to join Mr McDonald, a factor, with several other men, to assist in establishing a fort on one of the streams which run into the Fraser River. The spot selected was on a high bluff, with the river flowing at its base. The fort was of a simple construction. It was surrounded by a palisade of stout timbers, fixed deeply in the ground, and united by cross-bars, further strengthened by buttresses, and loop-holed for musketry, with a few light guns to sweep the fort should the enemy break in. The interior consisted of log-huts and storehouses. Such is the style of most of the fur-trading forts. To these forts the Indian hunters bring their furs at periodical seasons, and receive fire-arms and ammunition, tobacco, blankets, hatchets, knives, and other articles in return; and too often, also, the deadly “fire-water.”
The fort being finished, the hunters were sent off in parties in different directions to search for game–either for food, or for the furs of the animals. Mr McDonald, sending for La Touche, told him that he must proceed to a spot at the distance of about five days’ journey, with provisions for six weeks, accompanied by two other men. “We will take care of your wife and children till you return,” he added.
“No, thank you, sir; I prefer having my wife’s society. We have gone through many hardships and dangers together; and she will be happier with me, and safer than in the fort,” answered the hunter.
“How so, La Touche?” asked the factor.
“Why, sir, I mean that we have enemies–that it is possible the fort may be attacked; and that, if you are not very vigilant, it may be captured by treachery, if not by force,” answered La Touche.
“You are plain spoken; but you need not be alarmed about our safety. I have not lived among these Red Skins for eight years or more, without knowing their habits and tricks,” answered Mr McDonald. “However, by all means, take your wife and children with you: you can have horses to convey them.”
La Touche, thanking the good-natured factor, set off with his companions and wife and children. His wife, from habit, marked well the way they took; indeed, from constantly accompanying her husband, she knew the country as well as he did. They met on their way natives of two or three of the neighbouring tribes; but, as they were well mounted and armed, no one molested them. They had rivers to ford, and hills to climb, and there were woods through which, occasionally, to save a long round, they had to hew their way.
At length the party reached the hunting-ground to which the factor had directed them. Wigwams were erected–conical shaped, and covered with birch-bark–in a nook of the dense grove of cedars, where they would be sheltered from the icy winds of the north; one for La Touche and his family, the other for their companions. While the men went out hunting, Kamela remained at home to cook their provisions, and to look after her children; she also set cunningly-devised traps in the neighbourhood of the wigwams, over which she could watch. She never failed to have a good supper prepared for the hunters on their return home in the evening. She was one evening employed as usual, now lulling her little girl to sleep as the infant lay in its hammock in the wigwam, now attending to the simmering caldron, her quick ear ever on the watch for the footstep of her husband. Suddenly she started. “That is not Pierre’s footstep,” she muttered; “it is that of a stranger–no; it is Michel’s. Alas! he is wounded.”
Her fears were not unfounded. In another minute, Michel, one of the hunters, staggered into her hut, fearfully wounded. No sooner had he entered, than he sank on the ground gasping for breath.
“Fly!” he said; “they are both dead–your husband and Thomas. The Blackfleet have done it. Take the horses–ride direct to McDonald’s fort–tell him–Oh! this pain! water, good Kamela!”
Before, however, the water reached his lips, the faithful hunter, who had thus exerted his last remaining strength to save, if possible, the life of his friend’s wife and children, fell back, and died.
Kamela lost not a moment in giving way to unavailing grief. Michel’s condition too fearfully corroborated his account to allow her to doubt it. Hurrying out, she caught with much difficulty two of the horses; putting a pack on one and a saddle on the other, she loaded the first with her blankets and two buffalo-robes, with some dried salmon and beaver-flesh and flour, and on the other she mounted with her boy before her and little Kamela at her back, and set off at a rapid rate in the direction of McDonald’s fort.
She rode as she had never before ridden, scarcely daring to look behind lest she should see some of her dreaded enemies in pursuit. Not for herself did she fear–he that had bound her to earth was gone–but she feared for her beloved little ones, who might fall into the hands of her remorseless foes. Night was rapidly drawing on. The ground was covered with snow. It was bitterly cold; but she was afraid to light a fire, lest it might betray her to those who she was persuaded would be on the search for her. With her axe she quickly cut some boughs and stripped off sufficient bark to form a shelter, and wrapping herself and her children in the blankets she had brought, and tethering the horses close to her, she lay down to wait till morning light should enable her to pursue her journey. Sleep did not visit her eyelids, but anxiously she listened the livelong night for any sounds which might indicate the approach of foes. A wandering pack of wolves might have discovered her; and as she had only a long knife, which she had brought away to defend herself, her prospect of escape was small indeed.
Daylight came at last, and at the first grey streak of light in the eastern sky she was again mounted as before, and on her way towards the fort. She did not draw rein except when necessary to stop and feed the horses. If enemies were following her, she began to hope that she had distanced them. Choosing for her camp at night a sheltered spot in a deep hollow, she ventured to light a small fire, at which she could warm her own and her little one’s benumbed limbs and dress some food. She slept, too; but still so heavy was her heart, that she would have welcomed death but for the little ones at her side.
Kamela, too, had a hope beyond the grave. Confused as her notions probably were, she had learned from her husband that the Great Spirit, who made the world, is a God of love, and holiness and purity; that it is not His will that any should perish; that it was man’s disobedience brought sin, and suffering, and death into the world, and that God’s Own Son came into the world that He might triumph over both. Kamela could, therefore, pray intelligently to that Great Spirit through His Son, who died for the sins of the whole world, for protection and support. Not often has a person been placed in greater peril than was that young Indian woman.
On the evening of the third day, just as she had reached the brow of a hill, she saw galloping towards her a band of warriors. She knew at a glance that they were foes. She trusted that she had not been seen. Rapidly turning her horses round, she galloped down the hill into the thickest part of the wood. Again she watched. The Indians, instead of ascending the hill, as she feared they might do, kept along the valley, and thus did not discover her trail. She emerged from her concealment, and, as long as light lasted, pushed on towards the fort. Once there, she trusted that food and shelter would be found for her little ones. More than once little Moolak asked for his father. Only then did tears start to her eyes. She replied, “He has gone to be with the Great Spirit. We shall go to him some day.”
The neighbourhood of the fort was reached; her loved ones would be in safety. She drew in her rein. Anxiously she looked towards the bluff on which the fort had been built. “Surely, it rose above yonder clump of bushes,” she said to herself.
She approached cautiously. With a sinking heart she gazed at the spot where the fort had stood. It was there no longer, and, in its place, heaps of charred timber and ashes, the smoke from which still ascended to the sky. There could be no doubt that the fort had been destroyed; perhaps even the enemy were yet in the neighbourhood. Still, some of her friends might have escaped. She turned silently away, resolving to visit the spot as soon as the shades of night should veil her approach. At some little distance was a thick cluster of trees. Retreating to it, she carefully concealed the children and the horses. Then, lying down with her little ones, she waited, with her ear close to the ground, for the return of night.
The hours passed slowly. Not a sound broke the stillness of the evening, save that made by the horses as they stirred up the snow to get at the fresh grass and hay and leaves beneath. She fed her children– they were too well trained to cry out–and, kissing them, and offering up a silent prayer that they may be protected, she set out on her perilous expedition. Her only weapon, besides her axe, was a long knife. Gathering her garments tightly round, as she neared the spot where the fort had stood, she crept silently up. The palisades and log huts were still smouldering, but no human voice could she hear. Cautiously at first, and then louder and louder, she called out the names of Mr McDonald and those she had left with him in the fort. Breathlessly she listened–no one answered to the summons. Again and again she called. A strange cry reached her ears: she knew it well. A sudden breeze at that moment fanned up the embers, and by the bright flames which burst forth she beheld, in the farther-off corner of the fort, a band of prairie wolves wrangling and fighting over a banquet, the nature of which she guessed too well. To that part it was evident her friends had retired, with their faces to the foe, and fought till brought down by overwhelming numbers. At that sad moment a new fear seized her–the cry of the prairie wolf reached her from another point: it came from the wood where she had left her children. She panted with agitation, with dread. Maternal love gave wings to her feet: she flew rather than ran back. She sprang over the fallen logs: she dashed aside the boughs in her way, regardless of the wounds they inflicted. She caught sight of two large wolves stealing towards her children. Were they the first, or had others got there before them? She shrieked out– she shouted–she dashed forward with her weapon to meet the savage brutes. In another moment they would have reached her sleeping infants; but, not waiting her approach, they fled, howling, to join the rest of the pack at the fort. Her children were safe: she clasped them to her bosom. They were all, now, that remained to her on earth. For their sake she resolved to struggle on. But she had a fearful prospect before her. Hundreds of miles from any civilised beings, or from any tribe of natives on whose friendship she could rely; without means of procuring food, starvation stared her in the face. Yet she did not despair. She had the two horses: they must die. She might, perhaps, trap some animals; she must also build a habitation to shelter herself and her little ones. There was work enough before her.
She revolved these matters in her mind during the night. By early dawn she mounted her horse, and, leading the other, rode away from the fatal spot. For two days she travelled on, till she reached a range of hills, among which she believed that she should be safe from discovery. She knew too well that, should she encounter any of her husband’s foes, neither her sad history nor her sex could save her from the most cruel treatment–scarcely, indeed, from death. At last she reached the locality she sought, and fixed her abode in a deep hollow in the side of the hill facing the sunny south. She had brought with her some buffalo-robes and deer-skins: with these and a few cedar-branches, and some pine and other bark, she constructed a wigwam by the side of a sparkling stream which burst forth from the mountain-side.
No game was to be found, and she was compelled to kill the horses, and smoke-dry their flesh. Their skins added somewhat to the comfort of her hut. For three weary months the poor widow, with her orphans, dragged on a sad existence. She saw her stock of food decreasing, and she might have to travel far on foot before she could reach a place where more could be obtained. May had arrived, and there was no time to be lost; so, packing the remainder of her horse-flesh, with as many of her blankets, and buffalo-robes, and other articles as she could carry, with her youngest child on her back, while she led the other, she commenced her weary march across that wild region of mountains, forests, and streams now known as British Columbia. To no human being had she spoken since her husband’s dying comrade warned her to fly.
For days she toiled on over the rough ground, often having to carry the little Moolak, in addition to his sister. She had barely food sufficient for another day, when several grey wreaths of smoke ascending from a valley told her that a band of friends or foes were encamped below. She hesitated to approach them. “They may be foes; and if they are, will they spare me, wretched though I am?” she said to herself. She looked at her children. “I have no more food for them; I must venture on.”
Emerging from a thick wood, she saw close before her a large encampment. She staggered forward, and stood trembling amid the camp. A chief stepped forward from his wigwam and listened to her tale, which was soon told.
“You shall be a sister to us,” he answered. “Your people are our friends, and, still more, are your husband’s people. I will be as a father to your children. Fear not, sister. Here you shall find rest, and shelter, and food.”
The chief kept to his word, and the poor widow was treated with the greatest kindness by him and his people. The summer came, and a brigade of the company’s trading canoes passed down the river. The people landed, and spoke to her. She was known to several of them, and they invited her to accompany them. The Indians entreated her to remain with them. She thanked them and said, “No, I will go with my husband’s people. When I wedded him I became one of them. I wish, also, that his children should become like them, and be brought up in the faith to which he held.”
Wishing, therefore, the kind Indians farewell, she accompanied the voyageurs; and in the far-off settlement to the east, where she ultimately took up her abode under a Christian missionary, she herself learned more clearly to comprehend the truths of the Gospel whose gracious offers she had embraced, while by all around she was respected and beloved.