One day as the children were out in the clearings back of their home, gathering some of the wild strawberries that grew there and also some of the wildflowers that bloomed during the short brilliant summer, they were delighted to see Souwanas coming along the road with his gun on his shoulder and some ducks and rabbits in his hand.
Very cordial were their greetings, but soon the quick eyes of the kindly Indian noticed that there were several long red scratches and even some drops of partly dried blood on the hands of his little friends. It was hardly necessary for him to ask the cause of the wounds, as the bunches of sweet briers and wild roses, with their sharp needle-like thorns, in the happy children's hands told the tale.
Putting down his gun and game, Souwanas quickly gathered some of the sweet fragrant grass which is there so abundant, and skillfully twisting it into little coils he wound one around each of the bunches of flowers which the children had gathered, and which they were still having trouble to hold on account of the thorns.
The bouquets thus arranged could now be carried without inflicting any more wounds or pain. Amid their chat and laughter, for these white children were taught, like Indian children, not to be afraid of a few scratches or a little pain, Minnehaha, who was industriously wiping the blood from some wounds on her little white hands with her apron, said:
"How is it, Souwanas, that all these rosebushes and briers have such sharp thorns on them?"
"I suppose Mary would say that Nanahboozhoo, the rascal, had something to do with it," put in Sagastao.
At this reference to Mary there was a mischievous twinkle in the eyes of the old Indian.
"Yes," he replied, "Nanahboozhoo had lots to do with it, and yet when you hear the story you will see that he was not such a rascal at the time he did it as Mary would make out, but almost as good as her pet, Wakonda, who gave the bees their stings."
"O tell us all about it now," said Minnehaha. "We have this forenoon as a half holiday, and papa is to join us in about an hour for a walk in the woods."
The kind-hearted old Indian had been pleased with the plucky way in which the children had slighted their wounded hands, and before he began his story he acted the part of the skillful physician. He found some soft juicy leaves which he crushed and spread on the ugly red scratches. The effect was magical, and the children who had so bravely treated their wounds with indifference gratefully acknowledged the sudden cessation of the smart.
Selecting a pretty spot under a clump of balsam trees, where some boulder-like stones afforded them comfortable seats, the children cuddled down with their old friend, to hear how the roses got their thorns.
"Long ago the roses were the most abundant of flowers, but they grew on bushes that were smooth and fragrant, and such delicious eating that all the animals that eat grass or browse were constantly seeking for and devouring not only the rose flowers but also the bushes on which they grew. The result was that the roses of all kinds were in danger of being exterminated. In those days trees and flowers and other things had greater powers of thinking and acting than they have now, and so the roses of different kinds met in council to decide what could be done to preserve those of them that were still left in existence. It was decided that a deputation of them should be sent to Nanahboozhoo to implore his assistance.
"He is such an eccentric fellow, and assumes so many disguises, that they had a good deal of difficulty in finding him. They traveled long distances, and inquired of the various wild animals they met and even consulted the trees and hills. At length they were informed that he was now living in a valley among the mountains and experimenting as a gardener. They hurried away as fast as the fierce wind which they had hired to carry them could blow them along. At first when they reached his abode they were very much frightened, as it was easy to observe from the loud angry tones in which Nanahboozhoo, although afar off, was speaking, that he was in a great rage. However, they had come too far to be easily discouraged. They quietly drew near, and hiding behind some dense balsam trees they carefully listened to find out the cause of his anger. Fortunately, they could not have come at a better time for themselves, for it seems that Nanahboozhoo had become very much interested in his work as a gardener. All the things he had planted had grown so well that in order to protect them from prowling wild animals he had set all around the garden a fine hedge of rosebushes. So many were required that Nanahboozhoo had been obliged to transplant bushes from a great distance around, for they did not grow so abundantly as formerly.
"The morning of the very day on which the deputation of the rosebushes arrived Nanahboozhoo had returned from one of his short adventures. Fancy his indignation at finding that in his absence all sorts of animals, from the rabbit to the mountain elk, had visited his abode, and had not only completely eaten that lovely hedge of rosebushes, but had also greatly injured the beautiful garden, of which he was so proud!
"When the deputation of roses understood the cause of his wrath they at once left their hiding places and, aided by a sudden puff of wind, came before Nanahboozhoo. The sight of them excited his curiosity, as it had seemed to him that every rosebush had been destroyed. Before he could say a word, however, the rosebushes, who were then able to talk, at once presented their petition and pleaded for his powerful assistance to save them from being exterminated by their enemies.
"Nanahboozhoo listened to their petition, and after some consultation with the rose bushes it was decided to cover the stocks and branches, up to the very beautiful flowers, with small thorn-like prickles, so that every animal henceforth would be afraid to either devour or closely approach them, as they had been accustomed to do in the past. With this protection granted them they were more than pleased, and so it now happens that roses of many kinds still exist in various parts of the world."
"Thank you very much for that story," said Minnehaha. "Even if Nanahboozhoo did put prickles on the rosebushes he was not a rascal, for we would not have had any roses at all but for what he did."
For a wonder, Sagastao was silent for a time; but at length he found something to say, and his words were a bit of a confession and promise of amendment:
"Now that I know why it is that the prickles are on the wild roses I'll not get mad even if my fingers bleed when I am gathering a bouquet for mother."
At this moment the two favorite dogs, Jack and Cuffy, came bounding up. By this the children knew that their father was not far behind, and they were not disappointed. At first he looked anxious when he saw the little hands wrapped up in green leaves, but as with merry laughs they told him what the leaves were for everything was bright again.
Souwanas was greeted very cordially, as usual, and assured that at the mission house he would find in the mistress a willing purchaser of his ducks and rabbits. The children were always interested in the game, although Minnehaha strongly declared that it was a pity to kill the pretty creatures. Souwanas and their father were chatting together while the children were turning the ducks and rabbits over.
"See what red eyes some of the ducks have," said Sagastao. "They look as though they had been crying."
"Guess you would have cried too," rather indignantly replied Minnehaha, "if you had been shot as they were."
"Huh!" he replied with a tinge of contempt, "how could they cry after being shot? I don't believe that is it at all. And, look here, Minnehaha, I am going also to ask why it is that, while all the rabbits were so white in winter, they are all now so brown in summer."
Quickly the resolve was carried out, and so, while Minnehaha was telling her father what a beautiful story they had heard about the roses, Sagastao, with his hand on the shoulder of the old Indian, who was seated on a rock, was eagerly firing at him his double-barreled question: "Why have some ducks such red eyes, and why are the rabbits white in winter and brown in summer?"
"Both done by Nanahboozhoo," said the old man with a smile, as he took his pipe out of his mouth.
"Hurrah for Nanahboozhoo!" shouted the lad.
This outburst on the part of Sagastao at once attracted the attention of the others to him and Minnehaha wanted to know what was the matter now.
"Why, did you not hear? Souwanas says that Nanahboozhoo gave the ducks the red eyes and makes the rabbits to be white in winter and brown in summer." Then turning to Souwanas he asked, "How does Nanahboozhoo do it?"
Here the father, while amused at the lad's enthusiasm, interposed, and said:
"You have already kept Souwanas a long time, and perhaps he is busy."
"Busy!" said the irrepressible Sagastao, who was shrewd beyond his years. "Busy! Why Souwanas would rather tell stories than do anything else—unless to smoke his pipe."
Then he glibly told Souwanas in Saulteaux what had passed between him and his father in English, and added, "Is that not so, Souwanas?"
The old Indian smiled, and said kindly:
"How can I help enjoying telling stories when I have such good little listeners?"
"But what about his dinner?" asked the kind-hearted Minnehaha. "If we keep him here telling stories he will be too late to get back to his wigwam for his dinner. I think we had better take him home with us."
This was quickly decided upon, and that there might be no mistake a piece of bark was quickly cut from a birch tree and a few lines written upon it telling the good mother in the home that they had met Souwanas, and that he was entertaining the children with Nanahboozhoo stories and would be with them to dinner. Then Jack, the great dog, was called and sent back with the missive, with orders to give it to his mistress.
As the dog dashed away homeward the mischievous Sagastao said:
"My! don't I wish I was in the kitchen when Mary hears that we are out here with Souwanas listening to stories about Nanahboozhoo! Won't she be hopping mad!"
"It will be better," said his father, "for Souwanas to tell his story than for you to make any further remarks of that kind."
At first Souwanas seemed to show some hesitancy in beginning his story in the presence of his missionary, and he whispered to Sagastao his fears that perhaps his father would not care for such trifles as Indian legends and stories.
With his usual bluntness, the lad declared:
"O, you don't know our father if you think that way about him. He loves nice stories as well as we do, and tells us lots of them; so go ahead, for you are going home to dinner with us."
Thus assured, the old man began:
"I will tell you to-day about how it is that the rabbits are white in winter.
"Long ago they were always brown, just like those that are lying there with the ducks. It is true that they increase very fast, but then it is very true that they have many enemies. They have not many ways to defend themselves against their foes, who are of so many kinds. Almost all the animals that live on flesh are always hunting for rabbits, and so are the foxes of all kinds, the wild cats, wolves, and wolverines, and even the little weasels and ermine. Then there are fierce birds—the eagle, the hawks of all kinds and the owls—that are always on the lookout for rabbits, young or old.
"The result was that with this war continually being waged against them the poor rabbits had a hard time of it, and especially in winter; for they found it very difficult to hide themselves when the leaves were off the trees and the ground covered with snow. In those days in the long ago the animals used to have a great council. There the great fathers or heads of each kind of animal and bird used to meet together and talk about their welfare and the welfare of each other. Then there was peace and friendship among them while at the council.
"They appointed a king, and he presided as a great head chief. All the animals that had troubles or grievances had a right to come and speak about them and, if possible, have them remedied.
"Some queer things were said sometimes. At one council the bear found great fault with the fox, who had deceived him, and had caused him to lose his beautiful tail by telling him to go and catch fish in a big crack in the ice. He sat there so long that the crack froze up solidly and to save his life he had to break off his tail.
"But all the things they talked about were not so funny as that. They had their troubles and dangers, and they discussed various plans for improving their condition and considered how they could best defeat the skill and cleverness of the human hunters.
"When the rabbit's turn came to be heard he had indeed a sorrowful tale to tell. He said that his people were nearly all destroyed. The rest of the world seemed combined against his race, and they were killing them by day and night, in summer and winter, and they had but little power to fight against their many enemies. They were almost discouraged, but had come to the council to see if their brethren could suggest any remedy or plan to save them from complete destruction. While the rabbit was speaking the wolverine winked at the wildcat, while the fox, although he tried to look solemn, could not keep his mouth from watering at the thought of the many rabbits he intended yet to eat.
"Thus it can be seen that the poor, harmless rabbit did not get much sympathy from that part of the crowd that killed his race all the rest of the year.
"Still there were some animals, like the moose, and the reindeer, and the mountain goat, that stood up in the council and spoke out bravely for the rabbit. Indeed they told the animals that had only laughed at the rabbit's sad story that, if nothing was done for the little rabbit and they went on killing as they were doing, they would soon be the greatest sufferers, for if the rabbits were all gone there was nothing else that they could get in sufficient numbers to keep them alive. This, which is a fact, rather sobered some of them at first; but they soon resumed their mocking at the poor little rabbit and his story, and, as they were in the majority, the council refused to do anything in the matter.
"When the moose heard the decision of the council he was very sorry for his poor little brother the rabbit, so after thinking it over he told the rabbit to jump up on one of his flat horns while he was holding them down. Then the moose carried him out some distance from the council meeting, and said:
"There is no hope for you here. The most of the animals live on you, and so they will not do anything that will make it more difficult for you to be caught than it is now. Your only chance is to go to Nanahboozhoo, and see what he can do for you."
"Hurrah!" shouted Sagastao. "I thought it would be to Nanahboozhoo after all."
Continuing, Souwanas said:
"The moose encouraged the rabbit by saying, 'Nanahboozhoo's name was once Manabush, or Keche-Wapoose, Great Rabbit, and so I am sure he will be your friend, as I think he is a distant relation.'
"Not waiting for the council to close, away sped the rabbit along the route described by the moose, who had lately found out where Nanahboozhoo was stopping. The rabbit was such a timid creature that when he came near to Nanahboozhoo he was much afraid that he would not be welcomed. However, his case was desperate, and although his heart was thumping within him with fear he hurried along to have the thing over as soon as possible. To his great joy he found Nanahboozhoo in the best of humor and he was received most kindly.
"Nanahboozhoo saw how wearied and tired the rabbit was after the long journey, and so he made him rest on some fragrant grass in the sunshine while he went out and brought in for him to eat some of the choicest things from his garden. Then afterward he had the rabbit tell of all his troubles and of how he was treated at the council.
"This part of the story, of how they acted at the council, made Nanahboozhoo very angry.
"'And that's the way they treated this little brother at the council we have given them, where it is expected that the smallest and the weakest shall have the same right to have his case heard and attended to as the biggest and strongest! It is high time that somebody was coming to me with council news if things are like this. Look out, Mister Fox, and Wolverine, and Wild Cat, for if I get after you I will so straighten you out that you will be sorry that the rabbit had to go to Nanahboozhoo for the help you ought to have given him!'
"Nanahboozhoo had worked himself up into such a furious temper that the rabbit was almost frightened to death. But when he saw this Nanahboozhoo only laughed at him, and said he was sorry to have scared him.
"'I was so angry,' said Nanahboozhoo, 'at those animals for ill-treating you that I forgot myself; and now, little brother, what do you want me to do for you?'
"They had a long talk about the matter and the decision was that there should be two great changes. The first was that the eyes of the rabbit were to be so increased in power that they should in future be able to see by night as well as by day, and the second was that in all Northlands where much snow falls during many months of the year rabbits shall change into a beautiful white color, like the snow, and thus continue as long as the winter lasts. And the rabbits now have a much better time than they had formerly. They can glide away in the darkness from their enemies when in the woods, and when out in the snow they are not easily seen and often escape notice by remaining perfectly still."
But long ere Souwanas had ended Jack had returned from the home with a note to say that dinner would soon be ready, and that no one could be more welcome than Souwanas.
"But what about the red eyes of the ducks?" said the two children, whose appetites for stories were simply—well, like those of other boys and girls.
Here the father had to interfere and say that there had been quite enough for one day. However, before the walk homeward began, Souwanas was pledged to tell the other story at the first convenient opportunity.