All story: Wechah The Provider
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Wechah The Provider

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

“COME, Wechah, come away! the dogs will tease you dreadfully if they find you up a tree. Enakanee (hurry) !" Wasula urged, but the mischievous Wechah still chose to remain upon the projecting lirnb of an oak which made him a comfortable seat. It was apparently a great temptation to him to climb every large, spreading tree that came in his way, and Wasula had had some thrilling experiences with her pet when he had been attacked by the dogs of the camp and even by wild animals, so it was no wonder that she felt some anxiety for him. Wasula was the daughter of a well-known warrior of the Rock Cliff villagers of the Minnesota River. Her father had no son living, therefore she was an only child, and the most sought-after of any maiden in that band. No other girl could boast of Wasula's skill in paddling the birch canoe or running upon snow-shoes, nor could any gather the wild rice faster than she. She could pitch the prettiest teepees, and her nimble, small fingers worked very skilfully with the needle. She had made many embroidered tobacco-pouches and quivers which the young men were eager to get.
More than all this, Wasula loved to roam alone in the woods. She was passionately fond of animals, so it was not strange that, when her father found and brought home a baby raccoon, the maiden took it for her own, kept it in an upright Indian cradle and played mother to it.
Wasula was as pretty and free as a teal-duck, or a mink with its slender, graceful body and small face. She had black, glossy hair, hanging in two plaits on each side of her head, and a calm, childlike face, with a delicate aquiline nose. Wechah, when he was first put into her hands, was nothing more than a tiny ball of striped fur, not un- like a little kitten. His bright eyes already shone with some suggestion of the mischief and cunning of his people. Wasula made a perfect baby of him. She even carved all sorts of playthings out of hoof and bone, and tied them to the bow of the cradle, and he loved to play with them. He apparently understood much that she said to him, but he never made any attempt to speak. He preferred to use what there is of his own language, but that, too, he kept from her as well as he could, for it is a secret belonging only to his tribe.
Wechah had now grown large and hand-some, for he was fat and sleek. They had been constantly together for over a year, and his foster - mother had grown very much attached to him. The young men who courted Wasula had conspired at different times against his life, but upon second thought they realized that if Wasula should suspect the guilt of one of them his chance of winning her would be lost forever.
It is true he tried their patience severely, but he could not help this, for he loved his mistress, and his ambition was to be first in her regard. He was very jealous, and, if any one appeared to divide her attention, he would immediately do something to break up the company. Sometimes he would re- sort to hiding the young man's quiver, bow, or tomahawk, if perchance he put it down. Again he would pull his long hair, but they could never catch him at this. He was quick and sly. Once he tripped a proud warrior so that he fell sprawling at the feet of Wasula. This was embarrassing, and he would never again lay himself open to such a mishap. At another time he pulled the loose blanket off the suitor, and left him naked. Sometimes he would pull the eagle feather from the head of one and run up a tree with it, where he would remain, and no coaxing could induce him to come down until Wasula said :
"Wechah, give him his feather! He de- sires to go home."
Wechah truly thought this was bright and cunning, and Wasula thought so too. While she always reprimanded him, she was inwardly grateful to him for breaking the monotony of courtship or rebuking the presumption of some unwelcome suitor.
"Come down, Wechah!" she called, again and again. He came part way at last, only to take his seat upon another limb, where he formed himself into a veritable muff or nest upon the bough in a most unconcerned way. Any one else would have been so exasperated that all the dogs within hearing would have been called into service to bay him down, but Wasula's love for Wechah was truly strong, and her patience with him was extraordinary. At last she struck the tree a sharp blow with her hatchet. The little fellow picked himself up and hastily descended, for he knew that his mistress was in earnest, and she had a way of punishing him for disobedience. It was simple, but it was sufficient for Wechah.

Wasula had the skin of a buffalo calf's head for a work-bag, beautifully embroidered with porcupine quills about the open mouth, nose, eyes, and ears. She would slip this over Wechah's head and tie his fore-paws together so that he could not pull it off. Then she would take him to the spring under the shadow of the trees and let him look at himself. This was enough punishment for him. Sometimes even the mention of the calf's head was enough to make him submit.
Of course, the little Striped Face could take his leave at any time that he became dissatisfied with his life among the Red people.
Wasttla had made it plain to him that he was free. He could go or stay ; but, apparently, he loved her too well to think of leaving. He would curl himself up into a ball and lie by the hour upon some convenient branch while the girl was cutting wood or sitting under a tree doing her needle - work. He would study her every movement, and very often divine her intentions.
Wasula was a friend to all the little people of the woods, and especially sympathized with the birds in their love-making and home-building. Wechah must learn to respect her wishes. He had once stolen and de- voured some young robins. The parent birds were frantic about their loss, which attracted the girl's attention. The wicked animal was in the midst of his feast.
" Glechu ! glechu (Come down) !" she called, excitedly. He fully understood from the tone that all was not right, but he would not jump from the tree and run for the deep woods, thereby avoiding punishment and gaining his freedom. The rogue came down with all the outward appearance of one who pleads guilty to the charge and throws himself upon the judge's mercy. She at once put him in the calf's head and bound his legs, and he had nothing to eat for a day and a night.
It was a great trial to both of them. Wadetaka, the dog, for whom he had no special love, was made to stand guard over the prisoner so that he could not get away and no other dog could take advantage of his helplessness. Wasula was very sorry for him, but she felt that he must learn his lesson. That night she lay awake for a long time. To be sure, Wechah had been good and quiet all day, but his tricks were many, and she had discovered that his people have danger-calls and calls for help quite different from their hunting and love calls.
After everybody was asleep, even Wade-taka apparently snoring, and the camp-fire was burning low, there was a gentle movement from the calf's - head bag. Wasula uncovered her head and listened. Wechah called softly for help.
"Poor Wechah! I don't want him to be angry with me, but he must let the little birds' homes alone."
Again Wechah gave his doleful call. In a little while she heard a stealthy footfall, Wecha.K the Provider and at the same time Wadetaka awoke and rushed upon something.
It was a large raccoon! He ran up a nearby tree to save himself, for Wadetaka had started all the dogs of the camp. Next the hunters came out. Wasula hurriedly put on her moccasins and ran to keep the men from shooting the rescuer.
Wechah's friend took up his position upon one of the upper limbs of a large oak, from which he looked down with blazing eyes upon a motley crew. Near the root of the tree Wechah lay curled up in a helpless ball. The new - comer scarcely understood how this unfortunate member of his tribe came into such a predicament, for when some one brought a torch he was seen to rise, but immediately fell over again.
Please do not kill him," pleaded Wasula. ' It is a visitor of my pet, whom I am punishing for his misconduct. As you know, he called for help according to the custom of his tribe."
They all laughed heartily, and each Indian tied up his dog for the rest of the night, so that the visitor might get away in safety, while the girl brought her pet to her own bed.
It was the Moon of Falling Leaves, and the band to which Wasula's father belonged were hunting in the deep woods in Minnesota, the Land of Sky-colored Water. The band had divided itself into many small parties for the fall and winter hunt. When this particular party reached Minnetonka, the Big Lake, they found the hunting excellent. Deer were plenty, and the many wooded islands afforded them good feeding - places. The men hunted daily, and the women were busy preparing the skins and curing the meat. Wechah wandered much alone, as Wasula was busy helping her mother.
All went well for many weeks; and even when the snow fell continuously for many a day and the wind began to blow, so that no hunter dared emerge from his teepee, there was dried venison still and all were cheerful. At last the sun appeared.
" Hoye! hoye!" was the cheerful cry of the hunting bonfire - builder, very early in the morning. As it rang musically on the clear, frosty air, each hunter set out, carrying his snow-shoes upon his back, in the pleasant anticipation of a good hunt. After the customary smoke, they all disappeared in the Provider the woods on the north shore of Minnetonka.
Alas! it was a day of evil fortune. There was no warning. In the late afternoon one came back bleeding, singing a death-dirge. "We were attacked by the jib ways! All are dead save myself!"
Thus was the little camp suddenly plunged into deep sorrow and mourning. Doleful wails came forth from every lodge, and the echoes from the many coves answered them with a double sadness.
Again the storm -wind raged. This time the dried meat was gone, and all the women did nothing but bewail their misfortunes. "The evil spirit is upon us!" they cried. "The enemy has taken away our husbands, and now Wazeeyah, the god of storm and winter, is ready to slay us !" So they mourned as those having no hope.
When at last the storm ceased, the snow was very deep. The little ones were famished. There was no meat in the camp and there were no hunters to hunt. They were far from their permanent village upon the Minnesota River. They must have food first, and then try to get back. So, for the children's sake, the brave mothers and elder sisters began to look about them to decide upon some action.
" Wasula, my child, what are you thinking of?" the mother asked.
"Mother, my father taught me to hunt, and he took so much pride in my snow-shoeing ! See, mother, here is one of his quivers full of arrows, and here is a good bow." The girl spoke earnestly. " I can take care of you, mother, until we get back to our relatives. I can shoot as straight as any brave, and my father taught me how to circle a doe or buck to a standstill. Wechah will go with me and guide me, so that I shall not be lost," continued Wasula, with a show of cheerfulness.
' But you must be careful, my child ! The Ojibways are not far away. Some of their warriors will perhaps have a mind to come again, now that they have overcome all the men of our little band," sadly warned the mother.
Meanwhile Wechah sat by watching every motion, as if trying to read their thoughts. He was evidently delighted when Wasula girdled herself and threw her snow-shoes diagonally across her back. He gave one big, Wecha.K the Provider joyous leap and ran out of sight ahead of her as she set out on the hunt. Her poor mother watched her through the pin-holes in the teepee. "Ah, I fear- -I fear the dreadful warriors of the Ojibways!" she muttered.
They went over the snow-clad Minnetonka towards Crane Island, and the famished girl was scarcely able to run upon snow-shoes, although ordinarily it was an easy task for her. Her people had been living upon rose-berries and roots. Wechah, with a light foot, ran ahead of her into the thick woods.
No sooner was he out of sight of home than all his native cunning vividly returned to him, and the desire to find whatever was in his way. Through the frosty air and among the snow-clad multitudinous trees he swiftly ran. His ancient calling thrilled him through and through. Now and then he ran up a tree, leaped far into the soft snow, and away he glided again. Not yet do the wild inhabitants of the woods come out for their guest, at least not upon Crane Island, for Wechah had not crossed a single trail.
Deep in the forest at last the little Striped Face gave his signal-call, according to the custom of his people. Wasula turned in the direction of the sound and peered sharply through the snow-laden boughs. There he stood upon a large limb, anxiously awaiting her coming.
He leaped from his high perch toward her, struck the ground like a pillow, and made the soft snow fly up like loose feathers.
"I see I see your deer-track,"' she laughed at him. 'We shall try to get one! You must now follow me, Wechah. It is Wasula's turn to lead."
The maiden's bow was carefully examined, and she picked out one of her best arrows. Instead of following the trail, like a true hunter she started with the wind and ran along for some distance, then described a circle, coming just inside of her starting-point. Again she made another circle within the first, but no deer had crossed her track. Upon the third round she spied them hiding behind a large, fallen oak, whose dead leaves afforded some shelter. As she described another circle to get within arrow-shot, the doe stretched out at lull length upon the snow, laying her ears back, rabbit-like, to escape detection. Wasula knew the trick of holding her. She did not pause for an instant, but ran along until she gained an opening for a shot. Then she turned quickly upon the quivering doe and let her swift arrow fly.
Instantly the doe and her two full-grown fawns got up and sprang away through the woods and out of sight. Wasula had seen her arrow enter the doe's side. She examined the trail it showed drops of blood and immediately the huntress followed the trail.
In a few moments she heard Wechah give his shrill, weird 'coon - call. Through an alley between rows of trees she saw him standing proudly upon the dead body of Takcha.
"Oh, I thank thee, Great Mystery! I thank you, Wechah, for your kind guid- ance," Wasula spoke, in a trembling voice. She took her hunting-knife from her belt and skinned the legs of the doe up to the knee- joints. Having unjointed them, she drew the fore-legs backward and fastened them securely; then she put her hunting-strap through the under- jaw and attached her carrying-straps. Thus she proceeded to drag the body home.
Wechah was as happy as if he had shot the deer himself. Wasula realized that her people were starving and she ran as fast as she could, but before she was half-way across the lake her companion was in camp. As she approached the shore, the stronger of the women came running to meet and relieve her of her burden. They were overwhelmed with joy. She slipped off her shoulder- straps and ran to her mother, while two of the others hitched themselves to her carrying-lines and ran with the deer. "Wasula, heroine, huntress! The gracious and high- minded!" In such wise the old people sang her praises.
Several of the women had been out hunting, like Wasula, but none were as successful as she and Wechah had been. Some brought back a single rabbit or a grouse to quiet their crying babies. One brought a dead raccoon which she had found in a trap. Wasula was sorry when Wechah saw this and became visibly depressed.
When all the venison had been eaten, the rigor of winter still held in this northern clime. The maiden hunted every day, but without success. One afternoon the sun was the Provider getting low and she was still far from camp, but she could not bear to go back empty-handed. She felt that upon her success de- pended the lives of the others, for they could not yet move on foot toward the village on the Minnesota River the children would suffer cruelly in such an attempt.
She was upon the trail of Shunktokecha, the wolf not that she had any hope of over- taking him, but it is well known that he is a good guide. Wechah, too, was apparently unwilling to leave the trail. Their course was directed toward one of the outlets of the lake.
When they reached this stream, other trails joined the one they were following, making a broad path, and here and there the ice of the creek was scratched by the wolf people as they passed. The huntress quickened her steps in renewed hope. She knew that upon the trail there lies much of joy, of fascination, and catastrophe; but every trailer only keeps the joy in mind --it is enough to realize misfortune when it comes!
Around a sudden bend of the frozen creek another hunter's voice was heard. It was Kangee, the raven. "Surely, there is game there, dead or alive, for Kangee never speaks without a cause," she murmured.
Now Wechah disappeared around the point, and when she came into full view she saw her pet jerk out of the stream something living. As the object fell it curved itself upon the ice and again sprang glittering in the air.
Wasula laughed, in spite of herself, the sing-song laugh of the wild maid of the woods. "Hoya! hoya!" she screamed, and ran forward. Again and again Wechah snatched out of the live water a large fish. When she reached the spring in the creek, her pet had already taken out enough to feed the whole camp.
The girl fell on her knees and peered into the water. It was packed to the ice with the spring exodus of the finny tribes of Minnetonka for the spawning ! Every year, before the spring opens, they crowd upon one an-other in the narrow passes of the streams. There was a spring here where the ice was open, and hence the broad trail and the scratches of wolves, bears, raccoons, crows, ravens, and many more.
"Good Wechah! We shall live now our people cannot starve," said Wasula, feelingly, to her pet. Her responsibility as the main support of the camp was greatly lightened. At last she took her hunting-knife from her belt and stripped the bark from a near-by birch. She shaped it into a rough canoe and threw into it as many fish as it would hold. The sun already hovered among the tree- tops as she hitched herself by means of her carrying-lines to the canoe-shaped tray full of fish and started homeward across an arm of the frozen lake.
Wechah ran playfully in front of her. The wild pet was full of his cunning ways. When they reached a wooded shore he suddenly disappeared, and the girl did not know which way he went. Presently she thought she heard a baby cry away off in the woods ; in a little while there seemed to be a skunk calling, nearer, and still nearer; again she heard the call of an owl. Finally the mimic rushed upon her from behind the shadow of a huge pine, swiftly pursued by a bob-tailed 'coon.
'Ugh, Wechah! are you afraid of Sintay? 'Tis he is wicked and full of cunning! He has broken away from several steel traps, and he always takes the bait of a deadfall without harm to himself. If he ever chases you again I will punish him," declared the huntress.
On seeing Wasula, the animal had disappeared among the shadows almost as mysteriously as he emerged from them. It was now the close of Wechah tawee, the 'coon's month, when the male raccoon leaves his winter quarters and begins to look for company. This particular individual was well known tc the Indian hunters upon Lake Minnetonka. As Wasula had said, he was the cunningest of his tribe, and he was also unusually large and of a savage disposition. True, he fared luxuriously every day upon berries, mice, fish, frogs, eggs from the swamps, and young birds not yet able to fly. Then he sleeps a long and happy sleep through the coldest moons of the year, un- disturbed save when the Red man and his dogs are about he who loves to eat the fat of the 'coon and makes a beautiful robe of his striped skin!
'You must keep away from Sintay, for he is dangerous," said Wasula, who always talked to her pet as if he understood every word she said. Nevertheless, while she struggled on with her load he had once more dis- appeared. Soon a cry from him attracted her attention, and turning a little aside from her path, she beheld Sintay sitting upon a snow-covered log at the root of a large hollow, tree, holding a comb of wild honey in his two paws, listening angrily and growling over his interrupted meal. In a moment something sprang into the air directly over his head and alighted in front of him. It was Wechah.
Sintay screamed and clawed the air with his right paw, at the same time clinging to the comb with the left. The new-comer bravely faced him. Both were desperately in earnest, growling and snapping their sharp teeth. The bee-tree was the bone of contention, and it was well worth a fight.
Striking out with his big right paw, the tame raccoon launched forth to secure the comb, whereupon Sintay struck at him with his disengaged paw, but refused to let go with the other. It was a ludicrous sight, and Wasula could not help laughing, especially when her pet succeeded in tearing away a part of the comb and the contents were generously daubed over their fur. But the fight soon became serious, and Wechah was getting the worst beating he had ever had when his mistress interfered. She struck at Sintay with her drawn bow and he dodged quickly behind the tree, still unwilling to leave it to the intruders, but at last he fled. It was the best thing for him to do!
Wechah stood before Wasula bleeding, his robe of fine fur sadly ruffled and plastered with honey and snow. He looked sorry for himself, yet proud of his discovery, and there was no time now to pity or rejoice. On they ran till, within hailing distance of the camp, the girl gave the wolf-call. The others were already very anxious. "She is coming!" they cried to one another, joyously, and two went forth to meet her, for her call meant a successful hunt.
Thus the maiden and her tame raccoon saved several families from starvation. The run of fish would last for days, and there was much honey in the tree, which they secured on the following day.
"It is my wish," said Wasula, "that you do not trap the 'coon again this season, for the sake of Wechah, who has saved us all. In gratitude to him,withdrawyour deadfalls."
All agreed to this. Yet one spring morning when they were about to set out on the return journey he was not to be found, and no one had seen him. The huntress immediately took down her bow and quiver and searched for his track, which she followed into the woods. Her love for Wechah had never been fully realized by the people or perhaps even by herself. "If Sintay has met and taken revenge upon him, I shall not return without his scalp," she said to herself.
Over the still frozen lake to the nearest island lay Wechah' s well-known track, and he was apparently hunting for company. It was the time of year when his people do so. He had run far and wide, meeting here and there a bachelor 'coon. The tracks told the story of how they merely dared one another and parted.
At last the trail lay over a slope overlooking a little cove, where there stood a large sugar-maple. The upper quarter of it had been torn off by lightning, leaving a very high stump. Wechah's tracks led directly to this tree, and the scratches on its bark plainly told who lived there. It was the home of Wechawee, the 'coon maid.
Wasula took her small hatchet from her belt and struck several quick blows. There was a scrambling inside, and in a moment Wechah poked his quaint striped face from the top. He looked very much abashed. Like a guilty dog he whined, but showed no desire to come down.
'Wechah, you frightened me! I thought you had been killed. I am glad now, my heart is good, that you have found your mate."
At this Wechah' s new wife pushed her cunning head out beside that of her husband. Wasula stood looking at them both for a few minutes with mingled pleasure and sorrow, and ere she left she sang a maiden's serenade to the bridegroom -- the founder of a new clan!


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