By Tim Stoltenburg
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By Tim Stoltenburg
The morning sun peeked over the horizon, illuminating a great expanse of woods. Little birds, brown-flecked sparrows, red woodpeckers, and tiny chickadees flitted about bare trees. Here, snow covered the earth in a soft, white, blanket.
A frozen river snaked its way through this part of the land. Not very far from the water’s edge stood a dozen teepees. From a distance they looked like white upside-down cones, but if you took a closer look you could see the poles spreading apart at the very top.
As the sun rose, its light found an opening in one little teepee and splashed across a girl's face. She rolled over, still asleep. Her long dark hair was braided and neatly tucked under her neck. The sunlight played upon the deep tan of her skin, showing her pretty eyelashes as shadows upon her cheeks.
The young girl’s mother awakened. She started a fire and then made her way over to the little girl.
“Silver Leaf,” she gently called, “time to get up.”
Silver Leaf stirred, stretching out her arms and giving a big yawn.
“Morning already,” Silver Leaf sleepily asked as she sat up. She pulled a deerskin blanket around her, for it was still quite cold!
“Yes, Silver Leaf, it’s morning already.” Mother smiled and then stood up. “Get your outside clothes on and get some wood, ok?”
Silver Leaf slid out of the pile of covers and quickly grabbed her underpants and mukluks. She liked the soft leather of the pants! The mukluks, however, were stiff this morning and very hard to pull over her growing feet. After much pulling she finally had them on. She grabbed her shawl from a basket hanging from the ceiling and slid it over her shoulders, dreading the cold she would soon have to face.
The rest of her family was up now; father had gotten fully dressed and was about to go hunting with Bentnose. Bentnose was her twin brother and was thirteen summers old too. She watched as he struggled to get his mukluks on. A smile pulled at her lips as she looked at his nose—it was sharp, like the peak of a mountain, and twisted a bit to one side. When he was a baby a branch had loosened and had fallen on his face, breaking his nose. Everyone just started calling him Bentnose after that.
Silver Leaf looked from her brother back to Mother. Mother was pretty. Silver Leaf smiled, she knew Father was lucky to have married her! Time to get that wood. She opened the frosty leather flap to the teepee, and stepped out. The cold air made her gasp for breath! All about her the newly fallen snow shimmered in the dawn’s light. Minute crystals of snow floated down through the sharp morning air, making this morning especially magical. The snow crunched under her feet as she made her way to the trail.
A few of the other families were stirring now and sending their children out for wood and water. Some of the men were gathered together and speaking in hushed voices about hunting.
“Hi, Silver Leaf!” A short, chubby girl called out.
“Hi, Pale Rabbit!” Silver Leaf said, smiling all the while. “Are you getting wood too?”
“Yeah, today is my turn,” Pale Rabbit answered. The two girls had known each other their whole lives. Silver Leaf remembered the time when Pale Rabbit had fallen from a tree and broken her leg. Ouch! Silver Leaf cringed at the memory. The girls walked along silently for some time, listening to the chickadees sing and the squirrels chatter back at them as if annoyed. Pale Rabbit broke the silence first and asked, “Silver Leaf, are you ever going to get married?”
“I don’t know yet…” was all Silver Leaf said. Pale Rabbit pushed it, now asking: “You think Beaver Tail is cute though, don’t you?” Silver Leaf laughed; she did think that Beaver Tail was cute, quite handsome actually!
“Yeah,” Silver Leaf giggled, “he’s really cute!” Now both girls giggled, and talked of boys as they made their way down the trail.
Back at camp the men had decided on where to hunt. They would split up this time; each would try his own luck. Bentnose asked his father if he could go with a friend—and his father conceded. Meanwhile the women took car of the little ones, did mending with small bone needles, and worked on softening more animal hides from the last hunt. A few dogs lay about the camp gnawing on what bones they could find.
After we left them, the two girls had walked down the trail quite a ways and by now they each had an armful of wood. As they began to walk back to camp, Silver Leaf stumbled! Automatically she threw out her hand to catch herself, but in doing so she dropped all the wood! She screamed and then hit the pile of sticks, causing several of them to snap!
“Are you ok?” Pale Rabbit timidly asked while peering at her friend, lying on the ground. But Silver Leaf didn’t answer—she just lay there like some poor dead animal. Pale Rabbit’s lips were quivering; a tear rolled down her cheek and fell upon the snow. She knelt by her fallen friend and gently took hold of her arm.
“Come on,” She cried, “get up—” Now sobs began to shake her body. She looked down. The snow by Silver Leaf’s shoulder began to turn red.
“Goodbye, Silver Leaf,” Pale Rabbit sobbed. Her voice became a whisper, “goodbye…” Silver Leaf would go to the Great Spirit; she had been a good girl.
Pale Rabbit knew she had to get the adults, the elders, to bury Silver Leaf. And so with a heavy heart Pale Rabbit left her friend lying in the snow, and began to walk home. Soon she broke into a run, hot tears blinding her.
Unknown to Pale Rabbit, Silver Leaf began to stir. She lifted her head off the ground.
“Ohhh,” She moaned. Her shoulder stung fiercely! Silver Leaf rolled to her side, breaking some more branches in the process. She pulled her hand from her mitten and touched her chest, just a little bit below her left shoulder.
“Ah!” She winced. Oh how it stung! She reached up again, more gently this time, and put her hand over the wound. There was a branch poking into her. What should I do? Ever so carefully Silver Leaf took hold of the branch and pulled at it slightly. Waves of nausea swept over her—and then she fainted.
It so happened that a team of French trappers was in the area. Every summer Silver Leaf and her family would meet at a fort and trade with their kind.
As the team trappers explored for new and better places to trap, they came upon a river that snaked its way through the land…
The leader of these Frenchmen was Jacque. He was a good man at heart, even though he could seem crabby at times. He had a wife and two strapping young boys. Jacque stopped walking for a moment and said a quick prayer for his family. What were they doing right now? He wondered. He could imagine his wife cleaning up after his youngest son. Jacque smiled. Back to trapping though…
“Sean, Louis, Peter” He told his men,” If I’m right that river over there is this one.” Jacque pointed at a blue squiggle on his map. “Yes I’m sure of it! It’s the green River! This will be nearly perfect for trapping!” Jacque’s men looked at each other knowingly and smiled; they remembered other times when Jacque had found a river. And oh they could mane all the rivers he had “found”! Let’s see, there was Ottertail River, the River of Doubt, Muddy River, and nearly a dozen more! The only problem was that they weren’t rivers. Jacque had found streams and mistaken them on the map for rivers.
“Wait a sec—” One of the team began, but was interrupted.
“Jacque, this might not—”
“Be the Green River.” Louis finished. They all looked at Jacque; what would he do now?
“Ok,” Jacque started, “I know I haven’t been right all the other times,” he paused, “but this time I’m right!” His eyes flashed from man to man—he was incredulous. Why did they doubt him? “Ok let’s check it out then. If this is the Green River and if the map is right which it always has been—then the river curves and can be found over there too?” He had them this time! Jacque smiled triumphantly and so the French trappers picked up their packs and headed southwest, their snow shoes the only marks on a perfect layer of snow.
Silver Leaf coughed lightly. Her senses were coming back to her now—she opened her eyes a crack: White blended with green in one big spiral as her world spun. She turned on her side and vomited. Ugh! Where am I? She opened her yes once more. Well, at least the spinning stopped. Her head dropped once more to the ground. Once more, Silver Leaf was unconscious.
But what of her friend, Pale Rabbit? In her haste to reach camp, she had tripped over a root hidden in the snow—her body swung down ward like a pendulum her head violently bumping a tree. Pale Rabbit was knocked out: she would be ok, but it would be quite some time before anyone found her.
The Frenchmen were growing weary, would Jacque be right? Would the river be “over the next hill”? A fat grouse fluttered up from beneath a spruce tree in a whir. One of the men began to whistle. He was quickly told to shut up. Jacque squinted up at the sky: clouds drifted lazily overhead like great billows of smoke. The sun was getting close to setting. Back at home Ma would be getting the boys ready for dinner. He reached up with his rawhide mitten and scratched his beard. It’d feel good to shave. Yuck. He though for a second, remembering the countless times he had run his mitten under his nose to free it of snot. He gazed in disgust at his mitten. It did have a dark streak down one side.
“Jacque,” someone whispered urgently.
“Sean?” Jacque’s curiosity was up. What could be so important, yet had to be whispered? Well, what is it?”
Everyone stopped now, fully alert to their surroundings. Somewhere a twig snapped. The men’s breathing came quicker. Jacque searched the woods, his eyes prodding every bush, catching every detail. To the right a gigantic white pine reared, its long dead bark marked with holes from termites and pine sawyers. Other than that nearly all the trees were healthy spruce—few poplar and birch were the only discrepancies. He was about to dismiss the thought that anything was out of order when a young doe stepped out from a bush. Will you look at that!
“Pssst! Give me my gun!” Jacque had his hands from his mittens, ready to handle his rifle. If one of his clumsy men could get it to him quietly. The deer took a tentative step. Clunk!! Jacque jumped, cursing whomever dropped the rifle. His rifle! Peter cowered, begging his leader not to strike him.
“Fool!” Jacque bellowed. “You’re lucky we didn’t need that meat!”
“Yes sir,” came the meek reply.
Jacque just shook his head. “Let’s go.” As the men picked their way through the forest, it began to snow.
Meanwhile Silver Leaf regained consciousness. Why isn’t anyone coming to help me? Why would they just leave me here? And what of Pale Rabbit? She must have gone to get help. Silver Leaf was comforted by the thought. Yeah, the elders are probably on their way right now; going to sleep must have messed up my head. She looked about herself. It was just about night. The air was sharp and clear and the moon was peeking through the trees like it was shy to come out. Falling snowflakes twinkled in the pale light just like the stars much farther above them. She shivered. What was that? She wondered. It sounded like someone dropped a piece of wood. How very odd—there were strange voices! Spirits! It must be the spirits of the trees! Silver Leaf trembled. She had never heard the spirits like this before! “Yes—Great Spirit?” She asked, her voice quivering all the while. She listened. She was sure of it now! A spirit was moving through the woods! She could hear it snapping the branches off the trees! Her heart beat quickly in her chest. “Oh…” she sighed, “ohhh…” Silver Leaf pursed her lips together. She knew what was happening. The branch had stuck in her far enough for her spirit to leak out. Even if it got out a bit at a time, it was getting out. The spirits were here to take her away.
“Goodbye Father and Mother…” she whispered, “goodbye Pale Rabbit.” And with that Silver Leaf closed her eyes—she was ready to go to the Great Spirit. The sound of shattering sticks and branches grew nearer…..
Sean was whining again. “Jacque, we should go back…” His voice trailed off and then picked up again. “I mean, look. It’s getting to be night, now it’s snowing, and we’ve never been in this area before. What’s more is I still don’t see the river. What was it again? The Blue River? Green River? That was it, the Green River; are you sure it’s going to be up here? Can I see the map?” Sean matched his pace with Jacque’s.
“Shut up!” Louis bitterly shouted. Everyone turned and looked at him. “Well, what are you all looking at,” he challenged.
“Never mind,” said Jacque, “we’ll go only fifty more paces. If it’s not in sight by then we’ll—” he sighed, “turn back.” The men looked at their feet, to ashamed of their own grumbling to look at Jacque.
Peter broke the silence, “well common!” He started walking again and the rest of the group followed. Fallen limbs hidden in the snow snapped under the men’s’ boots. Just to the tip of the rise—then they could go home. The Frenchmen grunted as they strained to climb the rise—their packs were nearly a hundred pounds! What was this…?
“Jacque! Jacque!” Peter, who was still in front, called out.
“Yes? What is it, tell me,” Jacque commanded as he approached Peter.
“Look, over there,” the young man said while using his gun to point towards a rather large spruce tree.
Jacque scrunched up his face, trying to get a glimpse of whatever Peter saw in the fading light. There! A pile of sticks! And next to it? He tried to widen his eyelids so he could see better. An Indian!
Silver Leaf opened her eyes and saw a white man. Instinctively she recoiled. What did they want? Were they real, or was she dead?
“Ahh!” She drew in her breath quickly. Her wound bit into her like a rabid dog. A man with a scruffy beard and deep blue eyes stood up. It seemed like a million thoughts were going through her head at once: Who are they? Will they hurt me? How did they get here? And then the man spoke: “Eeegawk.” He pointed a finger to his heart. But what could he mean? Oh! He’s probably asking about the stick in my chest! Thought Silver Leaf. “I was carrying wood and fell and a branch stabbed me and I need help.” Silver Leaf spoke in one breath; but the man just stood there with a confused expression across his face. Of course! Thought Silver Leaf, he speaks a different language!
“Of course,” Jacque said in his own tongue, “she speaks a different language.” The Frenchman stood there and looked at the Indian girl lying so fragile in the snow while Silver Leaf gazed back at the tall and handsome Frenchman.
Now it was clear that they wouldn’t hurt her…but if something wasn’t done fast, Silver Leaf would die. She decided it would be better to communicate instead of lying in the snow and dying. She put out her arm and motioned with her hand for the man to come nearer. He did. Again she pointed to the stick protruding from her chest. Acknowledgment flashed across the man’s weathered face. He bent down, studying her wound. Then to her dismay, he reached out to touch it. She winced—it hurt a lot, even though he was careful. The other men had gathered around now. One had lit a kerosene lantern that cast flickering shadows about the trees. The Frenchman got up and quietly spoke with his comrades. A small argument broke out among them—Silver Leaf suspected it was over her. At last the man who had looked at her injury, and who was most likely in charge of the other men, walked back to her. What are they going to do? She wondered. The leader knelt beside her and spoke in a language she could not understand. He soon became exasperated and shouted a few words to his friends. The he did something odd. He opened his pack and pulled out some dried meat, bread, some clothes, and tin cook-ware. He motioned for her to get up, and when he saw she couldn’t quite stand, helped her. He took the shirt and put it over her head. She pushed her arm through a sleeve. Then he picked up the shawl Silver Leaf had been lying on and wrapped it around her shoulders. She leaned against a tree while he gave some of the items from his pack to the other men. They grumbled and stuffed food, traps, and a pan, among other things, into their packs.
Silver Leaf was beginning to feel light, as though she could fly. The bark of the tree she was leaning on suddenly seemed to slide upward and blur together. With a grunt she hit the ground. The Frenchmen were alarmed, especially Jacque. He scooped the girl up into his arms and then slung her over his shoulder. She would be much easier to carry that way. Peter picked up he pants Jacque had left on the ground, shook off the snow, and wrapped them around Silver Leaf’s head. Peter saw Sean’s questioning glance.
“It’ll help keep her warm,” was all Peter said.
“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” Louis mused. He looked uneasy.
“What, you have a better idea?” Jacque criticized. “Maybe would should just leave her here to freeze or bleed to death—that’d be better, wouldn’t it?” The men said nothing. How could they argue with Jacque? Besides, he was right. How could they just leave a girl out to die?
And so the trappers, Jacque, Peter, Sean, and Louis began the journey to a little French settlement nestled between two hills, carrying not furs, but a young Indian girl named Silver Leaf.
To be continued...