The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



The Shadow Trail

A Christmas Story.


    PETER OTTERTAIL was a full-blooded Mohawk Indian, who, notwithstanding his almost eighty years, still had the fine, thin features, the upright shoulders, and the keen, bright eyes of the ancient, warlike tribe to which he belonged. He was a great favorite with Mr. Duncan, the earnest Scotch minister, who had made a personal companion of Peter all through the years he had been a missionary on the Indian Reserve; and as for the two Duncan boys, they had literally been brought up in the hollow of the old Indian’s hands. How those boys had ever acquired the familiar names of “Tom” and “Jerry” no one seemed to remember; they really had been christened Alexander and Stuart by their own father in his own church. Then Peter Ottertail had, after the manner of all Indians, given them nicknames, and they became known throughout the entire copper-colored congregation as “The Pony” and “The Partridge.” Peter had named Alexander, alias “Tom,” “The Pony,” because of his sturdy, muscular back and firm, strong little mouth, that occasionally looked as if it could take the bit right in its teeth and bolt; and Stuart, alias “Jerry,” was named “The Partridge,” because of his truly marvellous habit of disappearing when you tried to drum him up to go errands or carry wood. Fortunately for the boys themselves, they were made of the good stuff that did not mind nicknames and jests; and when, at the ages of ten and twelve, they were packed off to school in a distant city, they were the very first to tell their schoolfellows Peter’s pet names, which, however, never “took root” [Page 230] on the school playground, “Tom” and “Jerry” being far more to the taste of young Canadian football and lacrosse players.
    During the school terms, old Peter Ottertail would come to the parsonage every Sunday after church, would dine seriously with Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, and, when saying good-bye, would always shake his head solemnly, and say, “I’ll come no more until my Pony and Partridge come home.” But the following Sunday saw him back again, and the first day of vacation was not hailed with greater delight by the boys than by their old friend Peter. The nearest railway station was eleven miles distant, but rain or shine, blood-heat or zero, Peter always hitched up his own team and set out hours too early to meet the train. On arriving at the station, he would tie up his horses and sit smoking his black stone pipe for a long time. The distant whistle of the incoming train alone aroused him from rapt thought, and presently his dark old face was beaming on his boys, who always surprised him by having grown greatly during the term, and who made as much fuss and hilarious welcome over him as if Mr. Duncan himself had come to drive them home. So this delightful comradeship went on, year in, year out. The boys spent every day of their holidays in the woods or on the river with Peter. He taught them a thousand things few white boys have the privilege of learning. They could hollow canoes, shape paddles, make arrows and “feather” them, season bows, distinguish poisonous plants from harmless ones, foretell the wind and the weather, the various moons, and the habits of game and fish, and they knew every tale and superstition on the reserve.
    One day, just before the Christmas holidays, old Peter appeared at the parsonage. Mrs. Duncan herself opened the door, smiling, sweet and a little younger-looking than when he had seen her the previous Sunday.
    “Come in! Come in, Peter!” she cried, brightly. “We’re all in a turmoil, but happy as kittens! Tom [Page 231] and Jerry are coming to-morrow, and bringing two friends with them, nice boys from Jamaica, who are too far away from their home to return for Christmas. They’ve never seen snow in their lives until this winter, and we must all try to give the little fellows a good time, Peter. I’m busy already with extra cooking. Boys must eat, mustn’t they?”
    “Yes, Mis’ Duncan,” answered the old man, slowly, “and these snow-seers will eat double in the north country. Yes, I’ll go and fetch them with my big lumber sleigh, and take plenty of buffalo robes and wolf skins to keep these children of the sun warm.”
    Mrs. Duncan smiled. She could already hear Peter nicknaming the little chaps from Jamaica “The Snow-Seer” and “The Sun Child,” in his own beautifully childlike and appropriate fashion. And she was quite right. Peter had hardly shaken hands and tucked the four boys snugly into his big bob-sleigh, before the names slipped off his tongue with the ease of one who had used them for a lifetime.
    Tom and Jerry had fully prepared their Southern friends for everything. They had talked for hours with great pride of their father’s devotion to his Indian congregation, of their mother’s love for the mission, of the Indians’ responsive affection for them, of the wonderful progress the Mohawks had made, of their beautiful church, with its city-like appointments, its stained windows, its full-toned organ and choir of all Indian voices, until the Jamaica boys began to feel they were not to see any “wild” Indians at all. Peter, however, reassured them somewhat, for, although he was not clad in buckskin and feathers, he wore exquisitely beaded moccasins, a scarlet sash about his waist, a small owl feather sticking in his hat band, and his ears were pierced, displaying huge earrings of hammered silver. Yes, they decided that Peter Ottertail was unmistakably a Mohawk Indian.
    Tom and Jerry had never entertained any boys before, [Page 232] and, after the first day at home, they began to fear things would be dull for their friends at Christmas, who always spent such gay city holidays. They need not have worried, however, for the boys found too much novelty even in this forest home ever to feel the lack of city life. They, of course, fell in love with old Peter at once, and not a day passed but all four of them could be seen driving, snowshoeing, tobogganing, skating, with the old Mohawk looming not very far distant; and, as Christmas approached, with all its church interests, they swung into the festivities of the remote mission with all the zest that boys in their early teens possess.
    The young Southerners had never visited at a minister’s house before, and at first they were very sedate, laughed not too loudly, and carried themselves with the dignity of little old gentlemen; but within a day they learned that, because a man was a great, good, noble missionary, it did not necessarily mean that he must look serious and never enjoy any fun with the boys. Mr. Duncan always made it a rule that no house in existence must be more attractive to Tom and Jerry than their own home, and that it depended very largely upon their father as to whether they longed to stay in their own home and bring their young friends in, too, or whether they longed to go outside their father’s house to meet their playfellows. Needless to say that, with such a father, Tom and Jerry had a pretty good time at home, and it was only what they expected when, the day before Christmas, as all four boys were racketing around the kitchen and nearly convulsing Mrs. Duncan with laughter by their antics, while she tried almost vainly to finish cooking the last savory dainties for the morrow, that Mr. Duncan should suddenly appear in the doorway, and say:
    “Now, boys, to-night will be Christmas Eve. You know in the heart of the forest we can’t get much in the way of entertainment, and I don’t want our young [Page 233] Jamaica friends to feel homesick for their beautiful, Southern country to-night of all nights. I’ve racked my brains to think of some amusement after supper this Christmas Eve, but I seem to have failed. Can’t you, Tom and Jerry, help me out?”
    There was a brief silence; then, of course, the sweet busy mother spoke:
    “Peter Ottertail and I have schemed together for that. I have invited him to supper, and we are to have a roaring fire built here in the kitchen, and Peter is to tell the four boys some Indian stories, while you and I, father, finish the Christmas tree in the parlor. What do you think of my idea?”
    She need not have asked, for such a clamor of delight went up that her own words were drowned.
    “Excellent!” cried Mr. Duncan, when finally he could be heard. “Excellent, for we don’t want you young mischiefs in the parlor at all, seeing your presents the day before; and the only one I know who could keep you out is Peter. Splendid idea of yours, Mary. Boys, it’s these mothers who have the real Christmas things in their hearts.”
    “Yes, and in the oven, too!” laughed Mrs. Duncan, extracting therefrom a big pan of deliciously light cake, whose spicy fragrance assailed the boys’ nostrils temptingly. “This,” she continued, “is to be eaten here in the kitchen to-night. It goes with Peter’s stories.”
    “Jolly!” said someone, and the four youthful voices immediately swung into:

“For mother’s a jolly good fellow,
For mother’s a jolly good fellow,
For mother’s a jolly good fellow,
    Which nobody can deny!”

And, joining in the last line, there boomed a fifth voice which sounded suspiciously like Mr. Duncan’s. [Page 234]

*         *         *         *         *         *

    A crackling wood fire was roaring up the chimney from the large stove in the kitchen. On the spotlessly white pine floor were spread soft, gray lynx skins, one or two raccoon skins with their fluffy, ringed tails, and a couple of red fox pelts. On these sprawled the four boys in various and intricate attitudes. In the corner back of the stove lounged Peter Ottertail, on a single brown buffalo robe. With a bit of sharp-edged flint he scraped tiny curls of shavings from a half-formed ashwood arrow, which, from time to time, he lifted even with one eye to look along its glimmering length toward the light, to see that it was straight and flawless, his soft, even voice warbling out the strangely beautiful Indian tradition of

“THE SHADOW TRAIL.”

    “You young palefaces that are within my heart know well what a path through the forest is, or what a track across the valley means, but the Indian calls these footways ‘a trail,’ and some trails are hard to follow. They hide themselves in the wilderness, bury themselves in the swamps and swales, and sometimes a man or a buffalo must beat his own trail where never footstep has fallen before. The Shadow Trail is not of these, and at some time every man must walk it. I was a very small, very young brave when I first heard of it. My grandsire used to tell me, just as I tell you now, of the wonder country through which it led, of the wise and knowing animals that had their lairs and dens beside it, of the royal birds that had their nests and eyries above it, of the white stars that hovered along its windings, of the small, whispering creatures of the night that made music with their cobweb wings. These things all talk with a man as he takes the Shadow Trail; and the oftener they speak and sing to him, the higher climbs the trail; and, if he listens long enough to their voices, he will find the trail has [Page 235] lifted its curving way aloft until it creeps along the summit of the mountains, not at their base. It is here that the stars come close, and the singing is hushed in the great, white silence of the heights; but only he who listens to the wise animals and the eagles and the gauzy-winged insects will ever climb so high. This is the Shadow Trail the wild geese take on their April flight to the north, as, honking through the rain-warm nights, they interweave their wings with the calling wind. They leave no footprints to show whither they go, for the northing bird is wise.
    “This is the Shadow Trail that countless buffaloes thundered through when, hunted by the white men, they journeyed into the great unknown. Wise men who are nearing the height of the trail say they can hear the booming of myriad hoofs, and see the tossing of unnumbered horns as the herds of bison yet travel far ahead. This is the Shadow Trail the Northern Lights dance upon, shimmering and pale and silvery. We Indians call them the ‘Dead Men’s Fingers,’ though sometimes they pour out in great splashes of cold blue, of poisonous-looking purple, of burning crimson and orange. We speak of them then as the ‘Sky Flowers of the North,’ that scatter their deathless masses along the lifting way.
    “And this is the Shadow Trail the red man has followed these many, many moons. His moccasined feet have climbed the heights silently, slowly, firmly. He knows it will lead beyond the canyons, beyond the crests; that behind the mountains it merges into a vast valley of untold beauty. We Indians call it ‘the Happy Hunting Grounds.’
    “Only one person ever returns from the ‘Shadow Trail,’ and he comes once a year on this night—Christmas Eve. The stars wake and sing as he passes, the Sky Flowers of the North surround him on his journey from the summits to this valley where we live. He is a little Child, who was born hundreds of years ago in a manger [Page 236] beneath the Eastern stars, in the Land of Morning. Many times I have met him on the Shadow Trail, for I have travelled towards its heights for nearly eighty years. Perhaps I shall see the little Child again to-night, for Indian eyes can see a long way. Indian ears catch oftenest the singing of the stars, and the Indian heart both sees and hears.”
    Peter Ottertail’s voice ceased. The boys lay very silent, the soft fur rugs half hiding their rapt faces. No one spoke, for each was watching the “Shadow Trail.” Then the deep-toned clock struck one—two—three—four—evenly on to twelve—midnight!
    The door opened from the inner hall.
    “Merry Christmas, dears! Merry Christmas!” came the hearty, loving voices of Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, as they bustled into the kitchen, the boys and Peter all scrambling to their feet to meet them.
    “Merry Christmas! And off to bed with the whole lot of you, or we’ll have a nice pack of sleepy-heads in the morning! Peter, you’re surely not going home to-night!” as the old Indian began to get into his overcoat and scarlet sash.
    “Yes,” he said, “I’ll go.” And, after gay good wishes and handshakes, the old man went out into the night, perhaps to watch for the Christmas Child coming down the Shadow Trail! [Page 237]