I HAD been skating on that part of the lake where there was an overflow, and came home somewhat cold. I cannot say just how cold it was, but it must have been intensely so, for the trees were cracking all about me like pistol shots. I did not mind, because I was wrapped up in my buffalo robe with the hair inside, and a wide leather belt held it about my loins. My skates were nothing more than strips of basswood bark bound upon my feet.
I had taken off my frozen moccasins and put on dry ones in their places.
"Where have you been and what have you been doing?" Uncheedah asked as she placed before me some roast venison in a wooden bowl. "Did you see any tracks of moose or bear ?"
"No, grandmother, I have only been playing at the lower end of the lake. I have something to ask you," I said, eating my dinner and supper together with all the relish of a hungry boy who has been skating in the cold for half a day.
"I found this feather, grandmother, and I could not make out what tribe wear feathers in that shape."
"Ugh, I am not a man; you had better ask your uncle. Besides, you should know it yourself by this time. You are now old enough to think about eagle feathers."
I felt mortified by this reminder of my ignorance. It seemed a reflection on me that I was not ambitious enough to have found all such matters out before.
"Uncle, you will tell me, won't you?" I said, in an appealing tone.
"I am surprised, my boy, that you should fail to recognize this feather. It is a Cree medicine feather, and not a warrior's."
"Then," I said, with much embarrassment, you had better tell me again, uncle, the language of the feathers. I have really forgotten it all."
The day was now gone; the moon had risen; but the cold had not lessened, for the trunks of the trees were still snapping all around our teepee, which was lighted and warmed by the immense logs which Uncheedah's industry had provided. My uncle, White Foot-print, now undertook to explain to me the significance of the eagle's feather.
"The eagle is the most war-like bird," he began, "and the most kingly of all birds; besides, his feathers are unlike any others, and these are the reasons why they are used by our people to signify deeds of bravery.
"It is not true that when a man wears a feather bonnet, each one of the feathers represents the killing of a foe or even a coup. When a man wears an eagle feather upright upon his head, he is supposed to have counted one of four coups upon his enemy."
"Well, then, a coup does not mean the killing of an enemy?"
"No, it is the after-stroke or touching of the body after he falls. It is so ordered, because oftentimes the touching of an enemy is much more difficult to accomplish than the shooting of one from a distance. It requires a strong heart to face the whole body of the enemy, in order to count the coup on the fallen one, who lies under cover of his kinsmen's fire. Many a brave man has been lost in the attempt.
"When a warrior approaches his foe, dead or alive, he calls upon the other warriors to witness by saying: 'I, Fearless Bear, your brave, again perform the brave deed of counting the first (or second or third or fourth) coup upon the body of the bravest of your enemies.' Naturally, those who are present will see the act and be able to testify to it. When they return, the heralds, as you know, announce publicly all such deeds of valor, which then become a part of the man's war record. Any brave who would wear the eagle's feather must give proof of his right to do so.
"When a brave is wounded in the same battle where he counted his coup, he wears the feather hanging downward. When he is wounded, but makes no count, he trims his feather and in that case, it need not be an eagle feather. All other feathers are merely ornaments. When a warrior wears a feather with a round mark, it means that he slew his enemy. When the mark is cut into the feather and painted red, it means that he took the scalp.
"A brave who has been successful in ten battles is entitled to a war-bonnet; and if he is a recognized leader, he is permitted to wear one with long, trailing plumes. Also those who have counted many coups may tip the ends of the feathers with bits of white or colored down. Sometimes the eagle feather is tipped with a strip of weasel skin; that means the wearer had the honor of killing, scalping and counting the first coup upon the enemy all at the same time.
"This feather you have found was worn by a Cree – it is indiscriminately painted. All other feathers worn by the common Indians mean nothing," he added.
"Tell me, uncle, whether it would be proper for me to wear any feathers at all if I have never gone upon the war-path."
"You could wear any other kind of feathers, but not an eagle's," replied my uncle, "although sometimes one is worn on great occasions by the child of a noted man, to indicate the father's dignity and position."
The fire had gone down somewhat, so I pushed the embers together and wrapped my robe more closely about me. Now and then the ice on the lake would burst with a loud report like thunder. Uncheedah was busy re-stringing one of uncle's old snow-shoes. There were two different kinds that he wore; one with a straight toe and long; the other shorter and with an upturned toe. She had one of the shoes fastened toe down, between sticks driven into the ground, while she put in some new strings and tightened the others. Aunt Four Stars was beading a new pair of moccasins.
Wabeda, the dog, the companion of my boyhood days, was in trouble because he insisted upon bringing his extra bone into the teepee, while Uncheedah was determined that he should not. I sympathized with him, because I saw the matter as he did. If he should bury it in the snow outside, I knew Shunktokecha (the coyote) would surely steal it. I knew just how anxious Wabeda was about his bone. It was a fat bone – I mean a bone of a fat deer; and all Indians know how much better they are than the other kind.
Wabeda always hated to see a good thing go to waste. His eyes spoke words to me, for he and I had been friends for a long time. When I was afraid of anything in the woods, he would get in front of me at once and gently wag his tail. He always made it a point to look directly in my face. His kind, large eyes gave me a thousand assurances. When I was perplexed, he would hang about me until he understood the situation. Many times I believed he saved my life by uttering the dog word in time.
Most animals, even the dangerous grizzly, do not care to be seen when the two-legged kind and his dog are about. When I feared a surprise by a bear or a grey wolf, I would say to Wabeda: "Now, my dog, give your war-whoop:" and immediately he would sit up on his haunches and bark "to beat the band" as you white boys say. When a bear or wolf heard the noise, he would be apt to retreat.
Sometimes I helped Wabeda and gave a warwhoop of my own. This drove the deer away as well, but it relieved my mind.
When he appealed to me on this occasion, therefore, I said: "Come, my dog, let us bury your bone so that no Shunktokecha will take it."
He appeared satisfied with my suggestion, so we went out together.
We dug in the snow and buried our bone wrapped up in a piece of old blanket, partly burned; then we covered it up again with snow. We knew that the coyote would not touch anything burnt. I did not put it up a tree because Wabeda always objected to that, and I made it a point to consult his wishes whenever I could.
I came in and Wabeda followed me with two short rib bones in his mouth. Apparently he did not care to risk those delicacies.
"There," exclaimed Uncheedah, "you still insist upon bringing in some sort of bone!" but I begged her to let him gnaw them inside because it was so cold. Having been granted this privilege, he settled himself at my back and I became absorbed in some specially nice arrows that uncle was making.
"O, uncle, you must put on three feathers to all of them so that they can fly straight," I suggested.
"Yes, but if there are only two feathers, they will fly faster," he answered.
"Woow!" Wabeda uttered his suspicions.
"Woow!" he said again, and rushed for the entrance of the teepee. He kicked me over as he went and scattered the burning embers.
"En na he na!" Uncheedah exclaimed, but he was already outside.
"Wow, wow, wow! Wow, Wow, wow!"
A deep guttural voice answered him.
Out I rushed with my bow and arrows in my hand.
"Come, uncle, come! A big cinnamon bear!" I shouted as I emerged from the teepee.
Uncle sprang out and in a moment he had sent a swift arrow through the bear's heart. The animal fell dead. He had just begun to dig up Wabeda's bone, when the dog's quick ear had heard the sound.
"Ah, uncle, Wabeda and I ought to have at least a little eaglet's feather for this. I too sent my small arrow into the bear before he fell," I exclaimed. "But I thought all bears ought to be in their lodges in the winter time. What was this one doing at this time of the year and night?"
"Well," said my uncle, "I will tell you. Among the tribes, some are naturally lazy. The cinnamon bear is the lazy one of his tribe. He alone sleeps out of doors in the winter and because he has not a warm bed, he is soon hungry. Sometimes he lives in the hollow trunk of a tree, where he has made a bed of dry grass; but when the night is very cold, like to-night, he has to move about to keep himself from freezing and as he prowls around, he gets hungry."
We dragged the huge carcass within our lodge. "O, what nice claws he has, uncle!" I exclaimed eagerly. "Can I have them for my necklace?"
"It is only the old medicine men who wear them regularly. The son of a great warrior who has killed a grizzly may wear them upon a public occasion," he explained.
"And you are just like my father and are considered the best hunter among the Santees and Sissetons. You have killed many grizzlies so that no one can object to my bear's-claws necklace," I said appealingly.
White Foot-print smiled. "My boy, you shall have them," he said, "but it is always better to earn them yourself." He cut the claws off carefully for my use.
"Tell me, uncle, whether you could wear these claws all the time?" I asked.
"Yes,I am entitled to wear them, but they are so heavy and uncomfortable," he replied, with a superior air.
At last the bear had been skinned and dressed and we all resumed our usual places. Uncheedah was particularly pleased to have some more fat for her cooking.
"Now, grandmother, tell me the story of the bear's fat. I shall be so happy if you will," I begged.
"It is a good story and it is true. You should know it by heart and gain a lesson from it," she replied. "It was in the forests of Minnesota, in the country that now belongs to the Ojibways. From the Bedawakanton Sioux village a young married couple went into the woods to get fresh venison. The snow was deep; the ice was thick. Far away in the woods they pitched their lonely teepee. The young man was a well-known hunter and his wife a good maiden of the village.
"He hunted entirely on snow-shoes, because the snow was very deep. His wife had to wear snow-shoes too, to get to the spot where they pitched their tent. It was thawing the day they went out, so their path was distinct after the freeze came again.
"The young man killed many deer and bears. His wife was very busy curing the meat and trying out the fat while he was away hunting each day. In the evenings she kept on trying the fat. He sat on one side of the teepee and she on the other.
"One evening, she had just lowered a kettle of fat to cool, and as she looked into the hot fat she saw the face of an Ojibway scout looking down at them through the smoke-hole. She said nothing, nor did she betray herself in any way.
"After a little she said to her husband in a natural voice: 'Marpeetopah, some one is looking at us through the smoke hole, and I think it is an enemy's scout.'
"Then Marpeetopah (Four-skies) took up his bow and arrows and began to straighten and dry them for the next day's hunt, talking and laughing meanwhile. Suddenly he turned and sent an arrow upward, killing the Ojibway, who fell dead at their door.
"'Quick, Wadutah!' he exclaimed; 'you must hurry home upon our trail. I will stay here. When this scout does not return, the warparty may come in a body or send another scout. If only one comes, I can soon dispatch him and then I will follow you. If I do not do that, they will overtake us in our flight.'
"Wadutah (Scarlet) protested and begged to be allowed to stay with her husband, but at last she came away to get reinforcements.
"Then Marpeetopah (Four-skies) put more sticks on the fire so that the teepee might be brightly lit and show him the way. He then took the scalp of the enemy and proceeded on his track, until he came to the upturned root of a great tree. There he spread out his arrows and laid out his tomahawk.
"Soon two more scouts were sent by the Ojibway war-party to see what was the trouble and why the first one failed to come back. He heard them as they approached. They were on snowshoes. When they came close to him, he shot an arrow into the foremost. As for the other, in his effort to turn quickly his snow-shoes stuck in the deep snow and detained him, so Marpeetopah killed them both.
"Quickly he took the scalps and followed Wadutah. He ran hard. But the Ojibways suspected something wrong and came to the lonely teepee, to find all their scouts had been killed. They followed the path of Marpeetopah and Wadutah to the main village, and there a great battle was fought on the ice. Many were killed on both sides. It was after this that the Sioux moved to the Mississippi river."
I was sleepy by this time and I rolled myself up in my buffalo robe and fell asleep.