Up the broad, swift current of the Yellow Birch river, in the days before the eyes of a white man had ever looked on its cool, clear waters, there paddled one early morning a lone Indian in a birch-bark canoe. He was a tall, gracefully built man with keen dark eyes, and long black hair that fell in two braids over his shoulders. He was dressed in a suit of fringed buckskin that had been smoked to a rich brown, and altogether he looked a good deal like those Indians you see in pictures, or read about.
His canoe was bright yellow, dyed with the juice of alders to the same colour as the stout, golden-tinted trunks of the yellow birch trees that covered the surrounding hills, and the seams along its sides were sealed with narrow strips of shiny, black spruce-gum, to keep the water out. This canoe had a large eye, like that of some enormous bird, painted on the front of it, and behind, at the very end, was fastened the tail of a fox, which swayed gently back and forth in the breeze. For the Indian liked to feel that his canoe was actually alive, and had a head and a tail like all the other creatures, and was sharp-eyed like a bird, and swift and light like a fox. In it there was a neatly folded tent, a small bag of provisions, an axe, a tea-pail, and a long, old-fashioned rifle.
From the tops of the birches on the hillsides there came a low whispering, a sound of rustling that never seemed to cease, as the wind played amongst the leaves, so that the Indians had named these highlands the Hills of the Whispering Leaves. The river banks were lined by a forest of tall, dark pine trees, and their huge limbs hung out over the water, far above it; and along the shore beneath them robins, blackbirds and canaries flew and fluttered, searching for their breakfast among the new grasses and the budding leaves of the pussy-willows. The air was heavy with the sweet smell of sage and wild roses, and here and there a humming-bird shot like a brilliant purple arrow from one blossom to another. For this was in May, called by the Indians the Month of Flowers.
Gitchie Meegwon, the Big Feather—for such was the Indian's name—belonged to the Ojibway nation. He had paddled against the strong current of the Yellow Birch river for many days, and was now far from his village. Steadily, day after day, he had forged ahead, sometimes moving along easily on smooth water as he was now doing, at other times poling up rough rapids, forcing his frail canoe up the rushing, foaming water and between jagged, dangerous rocks with a skill that few white men and not all Indians learn. This morning his way was barred by a water-fall, wild and beautiful, higher than the tallest pine trees, where the sun made a rainbow in the dashing white spray at the foot of it. Here he landed, just beyond the reach of the angry, hungry-looking whirlpool that tried very hard to pull his canoe in under the thundering falls. Picking up the canoe, he carried it, upside down on his shoulders, over a dim portage trail between the giant whispering trees, a trail hundreds of years old, and on which the sun never shone, so shaded was it. He made a second trip with his light outfit, loaded his canoe, and out in the brightness and the calm water above the falls continued his journey.
He glanced sharply about, as the bends in the river opened up before him, and saw many things that would have escaped the eyes of anyone but a hunter: an exciting glimpse of perhaps a pair of furry ears pointed his way, the rest of the creature hidden, or of bright eyes that gleamed out at him from the shadows; and once he saw a silver-coated lynx fade like a grey ghost into the underbrush. Here and there deer leaped hastily away towards the woods, whistling loudly through their nostrils as they bounded like red rocking-horses through the forest, their tails flashing like white, swaying banners between the trees. Once he came upon a great moose, as big as any horse, who stood chest deep in the river, his head buried under the surface while he dug for lily roots on the bottom. As Big Feather paused to look at the moose, who, busy with his task, had not heard him, the huge creature raised his head with a mighty splurge and stood there staring in surprise, while the water poured in streams from his face and neck. Then he turned and plunged ashore and soon was gone, though the heavy thudding of his hoofs and the sharp crack of breaking limbs and small trees could still be heard for a minute or two as he galloped crashing through the woods.
Even with all this company, Gitchie Meegwon was a little lonely, for back at the village, now so far away, he had left his two young children, a girl and a boy. Their mother had died, and though the women of the village were kind to them, they missed their mother very much, and he knew they must be lonesome too, as he was. The three of them were great friends and were seldom parted, and every place he went their father always took them. But this time he was alone, as this was likely to be a dangerous journey, for he expected to have trouble with some poachers before it was finished. Gitchie Meegwon had built a fine log cabin for his small family, for a summer home, and there they had been happy and comfortable together, resting after the hard winter's hunt, when word had been brought in by a friendly Cree Indian that a band of half-breeds from down near the settled country had invaded the region, and were killing all the beaver as they went through it in large parties. The real bush Indians do not hunt on each other's trapping-grounds, considering such behaviour to be stealing, but these town-bred half-breeds had given up or forgotten the old ways, and were liable to clean out every trapping-ground as they came to it. And without fur with which to buy provisions at the trading post, Big Feather's family would go hungry. So now he was up here, deep into his Winter hunting-ground, to protect it from these strangers. But he had seen none of them nor any sign of them, and the weather being now warm, and fur-animals no longer worth stealing, he felt that his work was done, and to-morrow he intended to turn back for home.
With these pleasant thoughts in mind, he was passing along close to the river bank, watching for any tracks there might be left by the careless half-breeds, when all at once he smelt a strong, sharp scent upon the air—some beast, or perhaps a man, had passed near by and crushed the spicy-smelling leaves of a mint plant. Instantly on the alert, he glanced quickly at the bank, when suddenly a short, dark, heavily-built animal sprang out into the river right in front of his canoe and sank like a stone, out of sight. Almost immediately a black head and a brown, furry back came floating up a short distance away, and the creature swam rapidly round the canoe until, cleverly getting to a spot where the wind was from the Indian to himself, he caught the man-scent, that all the Forest People fear so much. Down came his wide, flat tail on the water with a terrific splash, the water flying in all directions as he dived like a flash, this time for good.
Big Feather shook a few drops from the sleeve of his leather shirt, and smiled; this was very much what he had wanted to see. It had been a beaver. And before the echo of the beaver's alarm signal had died away, there came another from around the next bend, sharp and loud, almost like a gun-shot. There were two of them.
The Indian smiled again, for now he began to feel sure that no one had hunted here. These beaver would have been only too easy to catch; if these careless fellows, who allowed him to get so close to them, right on a main highway so to speak, had not been captured, the rest of them must all be safe. Still, to make certain, he decided to visit their home, where there should be others. Their house would not be hard to find, as beaver, when on their travels, cut small green saplings of alder, poplar and willow here and there, eating the bark off them, and these peeled sticks show white and shiny every place they land, so one has only to follow from one to another of these feeding-places to discover where they live. Very soon the Indian came to where a little stream ran down into the river, and at its mouth he found what he expected—a number of these slim, shining sticks, remains of a beaver's meal. No doubt their house would be somewhere up the little stream, in some quiet spot such as beaver love to be in.
The beavers had eaten at the edge of a nice open point where a few giant pine trees stood about, as though they had wandered out from the forest and could not get back again. Here Gitchie Meegwon made a small fire and had noon meal. Indians drink a good deal of tea on their travels, so, leaning a slim pole over the cheerful blaze, he hung his tea-pail on one end of it to boil, the other end being stuck firmly into the ground to hold it in position; he arranged strips of deer-meat on sharp forked sticks before the hot coals, and under them placed slices of Indian bread, or bannock as it is called, to catch the delicious gravy that fell from the meat as it cooked. After he had eaten he smoked quietly for a little time, listening to the humming of the breeze in the wide, fan-shaped boughs of the pines. Very like music it sounded to him, as he leaned back contentedly and watched the lazy smoke wafting this way and that, as it made strange patterns in the air. For these things were his pictures and his music, all he ever had, and he enjoyed them perhaps as much as you do your movies and your radio.
Soon, after covering his small outfit with the overturned canoe, he took his long-barrelled trade-gun and started up beside the brook, on his way to the beaver pond that he knew must be at the head of it. His moccasins made no sound, and left no track, as he walked softly in the quietness and calm of the sleepy forest, while squirrels shrilled and chattered at him from the boughs, and whisky-jacks, those knowing, cheerful camp birds to be seen nearly everywhere in the woods, followed him from tree to tree, sometimes getting ahead of him to peer wisely and whistle at him as he passed. He enjoyed the company these small creatures gave to him, and took his time and walked quite leisurely along, when suddenly he stopped, listening. His keen ears had caught a strange, unexpected sound, which quickly became louder and louder and was all at once a roar—and then he saw, coming swiftly down the creek-bed towards him, a rush of yellow, muddy water, bringing with it a mass of sticks and litter which filled the banks to the very top and went pouring by in a wild, swirling torrent. Something terrible was happening up at the beaver pond! It could be only one thing: some man or beast, something, must have torn out the beaver dam, and this rushing torrent was the beavers' so carefully saved up water, without which they would be helpless.
In a moment, rifle in hand, Big Feather was leaping and tearing his way through the forest that had but a moment before been so pleasant, and seemed now so dark and threatening. Forward he raced at top speed, running on swift, moccasined feet to save his beaver colony from destruction, springing high over logs, smashing his way through windfalls and branches and tangled under-brush, leaving the squirrels and the camp birds far behind him, bounding like a deer through the shadowy woods towards the pond, hoping he would be in time. Well did he know what had happened.
Negik, the otter, bitter and deadly enemy of all the Beaver People, was on the war-path, and the beaver, their water gone, must even now be fighting for their lives.