The Christmas holidays were times of innocent festivities and gladness among the Indians and their white friends, both at the mission and at the trading post.
The gifts which it was possible to give to the Indians were not of very great value, but they were articles much needed and were always prized by the recipients even if they were never very profuse in their words of thanks. Minnehaha and Sagastao were wild with delight at these times, and were eager to be the almoners of the mission, and carry the gifts to the Indians whom they loved so well. The fact that the temperature of those bright, cold Northern winters kept steadily many degrees below zero did not chill their ardor nor lessen their enthusiasm. Their dog trains were in almost constant demand, for they kept flying over the various icy trails until in the different wigwams all had been remembered with some useful gift.
Faithful Mary had made for them the warmest of fur and blanket suits. Dressed in these, and tucked in among the robes in the cariole by their careful driver, they sped along the trails. They made the woods echo with their merry shouts and laughter—unless it was so bitterly cold that they had to be completely covered up. It is not to be wondered at that there were times when, on reaching some distant wigwam, there were little hard, white spots on their cheeks or noses which told the watchful Indians that the Frost King had been at work and that speedily those frostbites must be removed. Little cared they for the momentary pain that ensued, when the frozen parts were being thawed out. They were out for a good time, and they had too much grit and courage to let such trifles as a few frostbites disturb their happiness. The bright fires burning in the center of the wigwams, or in the fireplaces at the end or side of the little Indian houses, were of course always welcome after a long run in the bitter cold.
"Tell us, Souwanas," said Sagastao one very cold day, as they were gathered around his wigwam fire, "how it was that Nanahboozhoo stole the fire from those who were guarding it and gave it to the Indians."
"It must not be too long a story," said Minnehaha, "as we have yet to go to the wigwam of Kinnesasis, Little Fish, with his presents, and it would be too bad to be late when they know we are coming."
So Souwanas pledged himself to make the story as short as he could without spoiling it, and then, after a few more whiffs from his beloved calumet, he began:
"It was long ago, when there were fewer people in the forests and on the prairies than now. They did not have as many comforts as they have now, and one of the rarest things among them was fire. Sometimes when the lightning's flash set a tree on fire they would have it for a little while, but they did not seem to be able to keep it going, and they were often very cold and generally had to eat their food without cooking it.
"Nanahboozhoo was then still living with his grandmother, Nokomis, and was sorry to see that she often suffered from the cold and that the food was miserable because it was not cooked. So he set his wits to work and decided that something must be done. As he should now have to deal with the Muche Munedoos, evil spirits, he had to be very careful. He put himself in various disguises and at length he heard all about how the coyote had stolen some of the fire from the watchers in the underground world, who possess enormous quantities of it. It frightened him a little when he heard that there was so much fire in the world under us, but he was not apt to be afraid very long and so as he went on searching, and on the sly listening to the talks of windegoos and others, he found that the fire for which he had been so long searching was in the possession of a fierce old medicine warrior who guarded it with the greatest care. Those who had employed the coyote to get it had intrusted its keeping to him. In those days they had an idea that fire was such a dangerous thing that it would be almost certain destruction to the race if it was given to all. This old warrior had his two daughters, who were great, fierce women, to assist him in guarding the fire.
"Several attempts had been made to steal the fire ere Nanahboozhoo resolved to see what he could do. All of these other efforts had failed, and the parties who tried them were killed. Nokomis heard of these unsuccessful attempts and tried to dissuade her grandson, Nanahboozhoo, from such a dangerous enterprise.
"Nanahboozhoo, however, was a very skillful fellow, and although this was one of his first great undertakings, for it was long ago, he was not to be stopped by her fears, and so away he went. As the ice was not yet on the waters he took his birch canoe and paddled eastward as far as he could. Then he hid his canoe where he could easily find it on his return.
"The next thing he did was to transform himself into a rabbit, and in that shape he hurried on until he saw in the distance the sacred wigwam where dwelt the old guardian of the fire and his two daughters, who were famous for their height and their strength. To excite the pity of these daughters Nanahboozhoo jumped into some water, and then crawling out, wet and cold, he slowly approached the wigwam. Here the two daughters found him, and he looked so miserable that they took pity on him and at once carried him into the wigwam and set him down near the sacred fire, that he might soon get warm and dry."
"How very kind that was of the old man's daughters," said Minnehaha.
"I don't know about that," said the more matter-of-fact Sagastao; "folks sometimes get into trouble by taking up everything that comes along. Remember that old rascal that humbugged father."
But Souwanas, remembering his promise, adroitly shunted off the youngsters and resumed his story.
"The two girls, after seeing how contented and happy the rabbit seemed to be as it warmed itself by the fire, again returned to their duties in different parts of the large wigwam. The rabbit soon after hopped a little nearer to the fire, that he might be able to seize hold of a burning stick or brand, but as he moved the ground shook and trembled under him so that it awoke the old man, who had fallen into a heavy sleep. Thus disturbed, he called out to his daughters in alarm:
"'My daughters, what was it that caused the ground to tremble?'
"The girls replied that they did not know. They had done nothing beyond their usual work except to bring in to warm a poor little shivering half-frozen rabbit that they had found outside. At first the old man was a little suspicious and, rolling over, he took a good look at Nanahboozhoo. But he had made himself into such a poor little wretched half-drowned rabbit that the old man's suspicions were completely dispelled, and he turned over again and went to sleep.
"Nanahboozhoo was pleased to hear the old man snoring again, and he only waited now until the two girls should both be busy in the wigwam on the opposite side from the door; then he suddenly changed himself into a fleet young Indian runner, and quickly seizing hold of a burning stick he dashed out of the wigwam and away he rushed toward the place where he had left his canoe.
"Of course there was instant pursuit. The two daughters, although they were magicians, like their father, well knew that they would be punished by the superior evil spirits if they allowed any of the sacred fire to be stolen, and they were furious at the cunning and deceitful Nanahboozhoo, whom they now recognized, for playing such a trick upon them. Shouting to their father, to arouse him, they immediately ran after the retreating Nanahboozhoo, who with the burning brand in his hand was speeding rapidly over the trail. But, fleet as he was, he soon discovered that the two girls, by their magic, were rapidly gaining upon him. They were the fleetest of runners, even if they were girls, and it was for that reason that they and their father were intrusted with the sacred fire. Great honors were to be theirs if they guarded it to the satisfaction of those who had intrusted it to them, while, on the other hand, great would be their disgrace if they failed in their duty.
"When they found that they were gaining on Nanahboozhoo, and were likely to regain possession of the firebrand, with shouts and threats they declared that severe indeed would be his punishment, when he fell into their hands, for his abuse of their kindness and his trickery.
"Nanahboozhoo felt that he was indeed in a tight place. He did not, however, intend to be overtaken, and he sped on, if possible faster than ever, until there was only a large dried-up, barren meadow between him and the spot where he had tied his canoe on the shore of the lake. The girls were only a few hundred yards behind him, and he resolved to fight them with this sacred fire. So, as he rapidly continued his flight, he plunged the now blazing firebrand into the dry grass, here and there, on each side of the trail. The wind was in his face, and it carried back the fierce blaze and dense black smoke and not only quickly hid him from the sight of his pursuers but also made it very dangerous for them to follow him.
"Nanahboozhoo thus succeeded in reaching his canoe, and fixing the burning brand in one end of the boat he was soon rapidly paddling over the waters toward his distant home. The flying sparks of the torch burnt him badly in several places, but he did not much mind this, and he dared not stop to dress his wounds for fear that his pursuers would yet overtake him.
"Fortunately he succeeded in reaching his distant home. There at the shore to welcome his return was Nokomis, who had been full of anxiety about him. She carefully dressed his burnt face and hands and gladly received the gift of the fire, which has been such a blessing to the Indians ever since.
"At first there was a good deal of trouble among the Indians to keep the fire burning. Sometimes the watchers appointed to look after it, especially in the summer months, would forget to add fresh fuel, or would go to sleep and neglect it. Then they would have to send off to some perhaps distant wigwam, where the people had been more careful, and secure some live coals from them.
"Nanahboozhoo was troubled about this. He feared that if it were allowed to die out at the same time in all of the wigwams he might not be so successful again if he had to try to get a fresh supply from the fierce old man and his now wrathful daughters. So he went out into the woods and at length a good spirit came to him in a dream and told him of various ways in which the fire could be obtained. He showed him how it could be made, by rapid friction, with dry sticks. Another way he revealed to him was by the striking together of a flint stone and a piece of iron; sparks of fire could thus be produced which, caught in punk, would soon become a blaze. So now the Indians do not have to cover up the fires as they were formerly obliged to do; thanks to Nanahboozhoo's dreams, they can make it fresh whenever they want it."
"Hurrah for Nanahboozhoo for his good work this time!" said Sagastao.
"Well, I think he was a mean fellow, to so fool those two nice girls who took him in and warmed him when he was a poor little wet shivering rabbit!" said Minnehaha.
"Took him in?" the lad retorted. "Well, I guess it was well he was able to take them in as he did, by setting fire to that old grass in the meadow, for if he had not done so they would soon have had his scalp."
But here Minnehaha appealed to Souwanas, and said:
"I have been wondering how it was the old man and his daughters got the fire in the first place from out of the underground. Will you not tell us that story some time?"
The old man looked grave and was silent for a minute or two, then he replied:
"I think you had better ask Kinnesasis. He knows the story better than I do, for in his youth he traveled far West, into the land of the high mountains, where the legend is that the fire was stolen out of the center of the earth."
"All right. Thank you, Souwanas. We are going to take Kinnesasis some presents, and while there we will ask him for the story."
Here an Indian lad rushed into the wigwam with the word that Kennedy was coming with their cariole. The children were well wrapped up, and soon with their usual happy, "Wat cheer! Wat cheer!" they were speeding homeward.