The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



Little Wolf-Willow


    OLD Beaver-Tail hated many things, but most of all he hated the North-West Mounted Police. Not that they had ever molested or worried him in his far corner of the Crooked Lakes Indian Reserve, but they stood for the enforcing of the white man’s laws, and old Beaver-Tail hated the white man. He would sit for hours together in his big tepee counting his piles of furs, smoking, grumbling and storming at the inroads of the palefaces on to his lands and hunting grounds. Consequently it was an amazing surprise to everybody when he consented to let his eldest son, Little Wolf-Willow, go away to attend the Indian School in far-off Manitoba. But old Beaver-Tail explained with rare appreciation his reasons for this consent. He said he wished the boy to learn English, so that he would grow up to be a keen, sharp trader, like the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the white men who were so apt to outwit the redskins in a fur-trading bargain. Thus we see that poor old Beaver-Tail had suffered and been cheated at the hands of the cunning paleface. Little Wolf-Willow was not little, by any means; he was tall, thin, wiry, and quick, a boy of marked intelligence and much ability. He was called Little Wolf-Willow to distinguish him from his grandsire, Big Wolf-Willow by name, whose career as a warrior made him famed throughout half of the great Canadian North-West. Little Wolf-Willow’s one idea of life was to grow up and be like his grandfather, the hero of fifty battles against both hostile Indian tribes and invading white settlers; to have nine scalps at his belt, and scars on his face; to wear a crimson-tipped eagle feather in his hair, and to give a war-whoop that would echo [Page 247] from lake to lake and plant fear in the hearts of his enemies. But instead of all this splendid life the boy was sent away to the school taught by paleface men and women; to a terrible, far-away, strange school, where he would have to learn a new language and perhaps wear clothes like the white men wore. The superintendent of the school, who had persuaded old Beaver-Tail to let the boy come, brought him out from the Crooked lakes with several other boys. Most of them could speak a few words of English, but not so Little Wolf-Willow, who arrived from his prairie tepee dressed in buckskin and moccasins, a pretty string of white elks’ teeth about his throat, and his long, straight, black hair braided in two plaits, interwoven with bits of rabbit skin. A dull green blanket served as an overcoat, and he wore no hat at all. His face was small, and beautifully tinted a rich, reddish copper color, and his eyes were black, alert, and very shining.
    The teachers greeted him very kindly, and he shook hands with them gravely, like a very old man. And from that day onward Little Wolf-Willow shut his heart within himself, and suffered.
    In the first place, the white people all looked sick to him—unhealthy, bleached. Then, try as he would, he could not accustom his feet to the stiff leather shoes he was induced to wear. One morning his buckskin coat was missing, and in its place was a nice blue cloth one with gleaming golden buttons. He hated it, but he had to wear it. Then his green blanket disappeared; a warm, heavy overcoat in its place. Then his fringed buckskin “chaps” went; in their place a pair of dreadful grey cloth trousers. Little Wolf-Willow made no comment, but he kept his eyes and ears open, and mastered a few important words of English, which, however, he kept to himself—as yet. And then, one day, when he had worn these hated clothes for a whole month, the superintendent who had brought him away from his [Page 248] father’s tepee sent for him to come to his little office. The boy went. The superintendent was so kind and so gentle, and his smile was so true, that the boy had grown somewhat attached to him, so, without fear of anything in the world, the little Cree scholar slipped noiselessly into the room.
    “Ah, Little Wolf-Willow,” said the superintendent, kindly, “I notice that you are beginning to understand a little English already.” The boy smiled, and nodded slightly. “You are very quick and smart, my boy—quick as a lynx, smart as a fox. Now tell me, are you happy here? Do you like the school?” continued Mr. Enderby.
    There was a brief silence, then a direct, straight look from the small Cree eyes, and the words, “I like you—me.”
    Mr. Enderby smiled. “That’s good; I like you, too, Little Wolf-Willow. Now tell me, do you like your new clothes?”
    “No good,” said the boy.
    Mr. Enderby looked grave. “But, my boy, that is what you must wear if you are to be educated. Do you know what the word ‘education’ means? Have you ever heard the teachers or boys here use it?”
    “White man, English,” came the quick reply.
    “That’s it; you have described it exactly. To become educated you must try and wear and do what the white people do—like the English, as you say,” Mr. Enderby went on. “Now what about your hair? White men don’t wear long hair, and you see all the Cree boys in the school have let me cut their hair. Wouldn’t you like to be like them?”
    “No; hair good,” said the boy.
    “Well, how about a ‘white’ name?” asked Mr. Enderby. “The other boys have taken them. Wouldn’t you like me to call you John? I’d like to?” [Page 249]
    “Me Wolf-Willow, same grandfather,” came in tones of pronounced decision.
    “Very well, Little Wolf-Willow, you must do as you like, you know; but you said when you came in that you liked me, and I like you very much. Perhaps some day you will do these things to please me.” Then Mr. Enderby added softly to himself, “It will all come in time. It is pretty hard to ask any boy to give up his language, his clothes, his customs, his old-time way of living, his name, even the church of his fathers. I must have patience, patience.”
    “You speak?” asked the boy.
    “Just to myself,” said Mr. Enderby.
    “I speak,” said the little Indian, standing up and looking fearlessly into the superintendent’s face. “I speak. I keep hair, good. I keep name Wolf-Willow, good. I keep skin Indian color. I not white man’s skin. English skin no good. My skin best, good.”
    Mr. Enderby laughed. “No, no, Little Wolf-Willow, we won’t try to change the color of your skin,” he said.
    “No good try. I keep skin, better skin than white man. I keep skin, me.” And the next instant he was gone.
    Miss Watson, the matron, appeared at the door. “What have you done to Little Wolf-Willow?” she asked in surprise. “Why, he is careering down the hall at break-neck speed.”
    “I believe the child thought I was going to skin him, to make a white boy out of him,” laughed Mr. Enderby.
    “Poor little chap! I expect you wanted to cut off his hair,” said Miss Watson, “and perhaps call him Tom, Dick, Harry, or some such name.”
    “I did,” answered the superintendent. “The other boys have all come to it.”
    “Yes, I know they have,” agreed Miss Watson, “but there is something about that boy that makes me think that you’ll never get his hair or his name away from him.” [Page 250]
    And she was right. They never did.
    It was six years before Little Wolf-Willow again entered the door of his father’s tepee. He returned to the Crooked Lakes speaking English fluently, and with the excellent appointment of interpreter for the Government Indian Agent. The instant his father saw him, the alert Cree eye noted the uncut hair. Nothing could have so pleased Beaver-Tail. He had held for years a fear in his heart that the school would utterly rob him of his boy. Little Wolf-Willow’s mother arose from preparing an antelope stew for supper. She looked up into her son’s face. When he left he had not been as high as her ear tips. With the wonderful intuition of mothers the world over, she knew at the first glance that they had not made him into a white man. Years seemed to roll from her face. She had been so fearful lest he should not come back to their old prairie life.
    “Rest here,” she said, in the gentle Cree tongue. “Rest here, Little Wolf-Willow; it is your home.”
    The boy himself had been almost afraid to come. He had grown accustomed to sleeping in a house, in a bed, to wearing shoes, to eating the white man’s food; but the blood of the prairies leaped in his veins at the sight of the great tepee, with its dry sod floor spread with wolf-skins and ancient buffalo hides. He flung himself on to the furs and the grass, his fingers threading themselves through the buckskin fringes that adorned old Beaver-Tail’s leggings.
    “Father,” he cried out, in the quaint Cree tongue, “father, sire of my own, I have learned the best the white man had to give, but they have not changed me, or my heart, any more than they could change the copper tint of my skin.”
    Old Beaver-Tail fairly chuckled, then replied, between pipe puffs, “Some of our Cree boys go to school. They learn the white man’s ways, and they are of no more [Page 251] use to their people. They cannot trap for furs, nor scout, nor hunt, nor find a prairie trail. You are wiser than that, Little Wolf-Willow. You are smarter than when you left us, but you return to us, the old people of your tribe, just the same—just the same as your father and grandfather.”
    “Not quite the same,” replied the boy, cautiously, “for, father, I do not now hate the North-West Mounted Police.”
    For answer, old Beaver-Tail snarled like a husky dog. “You’ll hate them again when you live here long enough!” he muttered. “And if you have any friends among them, keep those friends distant, beyond the rim of the horizon. I will not have their scarlet coats showing here.”
    Wisely, the boy did not reply, and that night, rolled in the coyote skins, he slept like a little child once more on the floor of his father’s tepee.
    For many months after that he travelled about the great prairies, visiting with the Government Indian Agent many distant camps and Cree lodges. He always rode astride a sturdy little buckskin-colored cayuse. Like most Indian boys, he was a splendid horseman, steady in his seat, swift of eye, and sure of every prairie trail in all Saskatchewan. He always wore a strange mixture of civilized and savage clothes—fringed buckskin “chaps,” beaded moccasins, a blue flannel shirt, a scarlet silk handkerchief knotted around his throat, a wide-brimmed cowboy hat with a rattlesnake skin as a hatband, and two magnificent bracelets of ivory elks’ teeth. His braided hair , his young, clean, thin, dark face, his fearless riding, began to be known far and wide. The men of the Hudson’s Bay Company trusted him. The North-West Mounted Police loved him. The white traders admired him. But, most of all, he stood fast in the affection of his own Indian people. They never forgot the fact that, had he wished, he could have stayed with the white people altogether, that he was equal to them in English education, [Page 252] but he did not choose to do so—he was one of their own for all time.
    But one dreadful night Corporal Manan of the North-West Mounted Police rode into barracks at Regina, with a serious, worried face. He reported immediately to his captain. “A bad business, captain,” he said, coming to attention, “a very bad business, sir. I have reports from old ‘Scotty’ McIntyre’s ranch up north that young Wolf-Willow, that we all know so well, has been caught rustling cattle—cut out two calves, sir, and—well, he’s stolen them, sir, and old Scotty is after him with a shot-gun.”
    “Too bad, too bad!” said the captain, with genuine concern. “Young Wolf-Willow gone wrong! I can hardly believe it. How old is he, Corporal?”
    “About sixteen or seventeen, I should say, sir.”
    “Too bad!” again said the captain. “Well educated; fine boy, too. What good has it done him? It seems these Indians will cut up. Education seems to only make them worse, Corporal. He’ll feel arrest less from you than most of us. You’ll have to go. Start early, at daylight, and bring him in to prison when you return.”
    “I?” fairly shouted Corporal Manan. “I arrest young Wolf-Willow? No, sir! You’ll have to get another policeman.”
    “You’ll do as you receive orders,” blurted the captain, then added more graciously, “Why, Manan, don’t you see how much better it is to arrest him? Scotty is after him with a shotgun, and he’ll kill the boy on sight. Wolf-Willow is safest here. You leave at daylight, and bring him in, if you have to handcuff him to do it.”
    Corporal Manan spent a miserable night. Never had a task been so odious to him. He loved the bright, handsome Cree boy, and his heart was sore that he had gone wrong, after giving such promise of a fine, useful manhood. But the white settlers’ cattle must be protected, and orders were orders—a soldier must obey his superior [Page 253] officer. So, at daybreak, the fastest horse in the service was saddled, and Corporal Manan was hard on the trail of the young Cree thief.
    But Little Wolf-Willow knew nothing of all this. Far away up the northern plains a terrible bit of news had come to him. At the Hudson’s Bay post he had been told that his old grandfather had been caught stealing cattle, that the North-West Mounted Police were after him, that they would surely capture him and put him in Regina jail. The boy was horrified. His own old grandfather a thief! He knew that old warrior well enough—knew that he was innocent of intentional crime; knew that, should the scarlet-coated police give chase, the old Indian would never understand, but would probably fire and kill the man who attempted to arrest him. The boy knew that, with his own perfect knowledge of English, he could explain everything away if only he could be at his grandfather’s in time, or else intercept the police before they should arrest him. His grandfather would shoot; the boy knew it. Then there would be bloodshed added to theft. But Big Wolf-Willow’s lodge was ninety miles distant, and it was the middle of a long, severe winter. What was to be done? One thing only—he, Little Wolf-Willow, must ride, ride, ride! He must not waste an hour, or the prison at Regina would have his grandfather, and perhaps a gallant soldier of the king would meet his death doing his duty.
    Thrusting a pouch of pemmican into his shirt front, and fastening his buckskin coat tightly across his chest, he flung himself on to his wiry little cayuse, faced about to the north-east, and struck the trail for the lodges of his own people. Then began the longest, most terrible ride of his life. Afterwards, when he became a man, he often felt that he lived through years and years during that ninety-mile journey. On all sides of him stretched the blinding white, snow-covered prairie. Not a tree, not an object to mark the trail. The wind blew straight and [Page 254] level directly down from the Arctic zone, icy, cutting, numbing. It whistled past his ears, pricking and stinging his face like a whiplash. The cold, yellow sunlight on the snow blinded him, like a light flashed from a mirror. Not a human habitation, not a living thing, lay in his path. Night came, with countless stars and a joyous crescent of Northern Lights hanging low in the sky, and the intense, still cold that haunts the prairie country. He grudged the hours of rest he must give his horse, pitying the poor beast for its lack of food and water, but compelled to urge it on and on. After what seemed a lifetime of hardship, both boy and beast began to weaken. The irresistible sleepiness that forebodes freezing began to overcome Little Wolf-Willow. Utter exhaustion was sapping the strength of the cayuse. But they blundered on, mile after mile, both with the pluck of the prairies in their red blood; colder, slower, wearier, they became. Little Wolf-Willow’s head was whirling, his brain thickening, his fingers clutching aimlessly. The bridle reins slipped from his hands. Hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion, overpowered both horse and rider. The animal stumbled once, twice, then fell like a dead weight.

*     *     *     *     *     *

    At daybreak, Corporal Manan, hot on the pursuit of the supposed young cattle thief, rode up the freezing trail, headed for the north-east. A mile ahead of him saw what he though was a dead steer which the coyotes had probably killed and were eating. As he galloped nearer he saw it was a horse. An exclamation escaped his lips. Then, slipping from his own mount, stiff and half frozen himself, he bent pityingly above the dead animal that lay with the slender body of an Indian hugging up to it for warmth.
    “Poor little chap!” choked the Corporal. “Poor Little Wolf-Willow! Death’s got him now, I’m afraid, and that’s worse than the Mounted Police.” [Page 255]
    Then the soldier knelt down, and for two long hours rubbed with snow and his own fur cap the thin, frozen face and hands of the almost lifeless boy. He rolled the lithe young body about, pounding it and beating it, until consciousness returned, and the boy opened his eyes dully.
    “That’s better,” said the Corporal. “Now, my lad, it’s for home!” Then he stripped himself of his own great-coat, wrapped it snugly about the young Indian, and, placing the boy on his own horse, he trudged ahead on foot—five, ten, fifteen miles of it, the boy but half conscious and freezing, the man tramping ahead, footsore, chilled through, and troubled, the horse with hanging head and lagging step—a strange trio to enter the Indian camp.
    From far off old Beaver-Tail had seen the approaching bit of hated scarlet—the tunic worn by the North-West Mounted Police—but he made no comment as Corporal Manan lifted in his strong arms the still figure from the saddle, and, carrying it into the tepee, laid it beside the fire on the warm wolf skins and buffalo hides. It took much heat and nourishment before Little Wolf-Willow was able to interpret the story from the Cree tongue into English, then back again into Cree, and so be the go-between for the Corporal and old Beaver-Tail. “Yes, my grandfather, Big Wolf-Willow, is here,” said the boy, his dark eyes looking fearlessly into the Corporal’s blue ones. “He’s here, as you see, and I suppose you will have to arrest him. H acknowledges he took the cattle. He was poor, hungry, starving. You see, Corporal, he cannot speak English, and he does not understand the white men or their laws. He says for me to tell you that the white men came and stole all our buffaloes, the millions of beautiful animals that supplied us with hides to make our tepees, furs to dress in, meat to eat, fat to keep us warm; so he thought it no harm to take two small calves when he was hungry. He asks if anyone arrested and punished the white men who took [Page 256] all his buffaloes, and, if not, why should he be arrested and punished for doing far less wrong than the wrong done by the white man?”
    “But—but—” stammered Corporal Manan. “I’m not after him. It is you I was told to arrest.”
    “Oh, why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I know it was I you were after?” cried the boy. “I would have let you take me, handcuff me, anything, for I understand, but he does not.”
    Corporal Manan stood up, shaking his shoulders as a big dog shakes after a plunge. Then he spoke: “Little Wolf-Willow, can you ever forgive us all for thinking you were a cattle-thief? When I think of your grandfather’s story of the millions of buffaloes he has lost, and those two paltry calves he took for food, I make no arrests here. My captain must do what he thinks best.”
    “And you saved me from freezing to death, and brought me home on your own horse, when you were sent out to take me to prison!” muttered the boy, turning to his soldier friend with admiration.
    But old Beaver-Tail interrupted. He arose, held out his hand towards the once hated scarlet-coated figure, and spoke the first words he had ever voiced in English. They were, “North-West Mounted Police, good man, he. Beaver-Tail’s friend.” [Page 257]