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The Settlers in Canada
Chapter XXXII An Indian Letter

As Henry had predicted, during the autumn the whole family were fully employed. The stock had increased very much; they had a large number of young calves and heifers, and the sheep had lambed down very favourably. Many of the stock were now turned into the bush, to save the feed on the prairie. The sheep with their lambs, the cows which were in milk, and the young calves only were retained. This gave them more leisure to attend to the corn harvest, which was now ready, and it required all their united exertions from daylight to sunset to get it in, for they had a very large quantity of ground to clear. It was, however, got in very successfully, and all stacked in good order. Then came the thrashing of the wheat, which gave them ample employment; and as soon as it could be thrashed out, it was taken to the mill in the waggon, and ground down, for Mr Campbell had engaged to supply a certain quantity of flour to the fort before the winter set in. They occasionally received a visit from Captain Sinclair and the Colonel, and some other officers, for now they had gradually become intimate with many of them. Captain Sinclair had confided to the Colonel his engagement to Mary Percival, and in consequence the Colonel allowed him to visit at the farm as often as he could, consistently with his duty. The other officers who came to see them, perceiving how much Captain Sinclair engrossed the company of Mary Percival, were very assiduous in their attentions to Emma, who laughed with and at them, and generally contrived to give them something to do for her during their visit, as well as to render their attentions serviceable to the household. On condition that Emma accompanied them, they were content to go into the punt and fish for hours; and, indeed, all the lake-fish which were caught this year were taken by the officers. There were several very pleasant young men among them, and they were always well received, as they added very much to the society at the farm. Before the winter set in the flour was all ready, and sent to the fort, as were the cattle which the Colonel requested, and it was very evident that the Colonel was right when he said that the arrangement would be advantageous to both parties. Mr Campbell, instead of drawing money to pay, this year, for the first time, received a bill on the Government to a considerable amount for the flour and cattle furnished to the troops; and Mrs Campbell’s account for fowls, pork, etcetera, furnished to the garrison, was by no means to be despised.

Thus, by the kindness of others, his own exertions, and a judicious employment of his small capital, Mr Campbell promised to be in a few years a wealthy and independent man.

As soon as the harvest set in, Malachi and John, who were of no use in thrashing out the corn, renewed their hunting expeditions, and seldom returned without venison. The Indians had not been seen by Malachi during his excursions, nor any trace of their having been in the neighbourhood.

All alarm, therefore, on that account was now over, and the family prepared to meet the coming winter with all the additional precautions which the foregoing had advised them of. But during the Indian summer they received letters from England, detailing, as usual, the news relative to friends with whom they had been intimate; also one from Quebec, informing Mr Campbell that his application for the extra grant of land was consented to; and another from Montreal, from Mr Emmerson, stating that he had offered terms to two families of settlers who bore very good characters, and if they were accepted by Mr Campbell, the parties would join them at the commencement of the ensuing spring.

This was highly gratifying to Mr Campbell, and as the terms were, with a slight variation, such as he had proposed, he immediately wrote to Mr Emmerson, agreeing to the terms, and requesting that the bargain might be concluded. At the same time that the Colonel forwarded the above letters, he wrote to Mr Campbell to say that the interior of the fort required a large quantity of plank for repairs, that he was authorised to take them from Mr Campbell, at a certain price, if he could afford to supply them on those terms, and have them ready by the following spring. This was another act of kindness on the part of the Colonel, as it would now give employment to the saw-mill for the winter, and it was during the winter, and at the time that the snow was on the ground, that they could easily drag the timber after it was felled to the saw-mill. Mr Campbell wrote an answer, thanking the Colonel for his offer, which he accepted, and promised to have the planks ready by the time the lake was again open.

At last the winter set in, with its usual fall of snow. Captain Sinclair took his leave for a long time, much to the sorrow of all the family, who were warmly attached to him. It was now arranged that the only parties who were to go on the hunting excursions should be Malachi and John, as Henry had ample employment in the barns; and Martin and Alfred, in felling timber and dragging up the stems to the saw-mill, would, with attending to the mill as well, have their whole time taken up. Such were the arrangements out of doors, and now that they had lost the services of poor Percival, and the duties to attend to indoors were so much increased, Mrs Campbell and the girls were obliged to call in the assistance of Mr Campbell whenever he could be spared from the garden, which was his usual occupation. Thus glided on the third winter in quiet and security; but in full employment, and with so much to do and to attend to, that it passed very rapidly.

It was in the month of February, when the snow was very heavy on the ground, that one day Malachi went up to the mill to Alfred, whom he found alone attending the saws, which were in full activity; for Martin was squaring out the timber ready to be sawed at about one hundred yards’ distance.

“I am glad to find you alone, sir,” said Malachi, “for I have something of importance to tell you of, and I don’t like at present that anybody else should know anything about it.”

“What is it, Malachi?” inquired Alfred.

“Why, sir, when I was out hunting yesterday I went round to a spot where I had left a couple of deer-hides last week that I might bring them home, and I found a letter stuck to them with a couple of thorns.”

“A letter, Malachi!”

“Yes, sir, an Indian letter. Here it is.” Malachi then produced a piece of birch-bark, of which the underneath drawing is a fac-simile.

“Well,” said Alfred, “it may be a letter, but I confess it is all Greek to me. I certainly do not see why you wish to keep it a secret. Tell me.”

“Well, sir, I could not read one of your letters half so well as I can this; and it contains news of the greatest importance. It’s the Indian way of writing, and I know also whom it comes from. A good action is never lost, they say, and I am glad to find that there is some gratitude in an Indian.”

“You make me very impatient, Malachi, to know what it means; tell me from whom do you think the letter comes?”

“Why, sir, do you see this mark here?” said Malachi, pointing to the one lowest down on the piece of bark.

“Yes; it is a foot, is it not?”

“Exactly, sir; now, do you know whom it comes from?”

“I can’t say I do.”

“Do you remember two winters back our picking up the Indian woman, and carrying her to the house, and your father curing her sprained ankle?”

“Certainly; is it from her?”

“Yes, sir; and you recollect she said that she belonged to the band which followed the Angry Snake.”

“I remember it very well; but now, Malachi, read me the letter at once, for I am very impatient to know what she can have to say.”

“I will, Mr Alfred; now, sir, there is the sun more than half up, which with them points out it is the setting and not the rising sun; the setting sun therefore means to the westward.”

“Very good, that is plain, I think.”

“There are twelve wigwams, that is, twelve days’ journey for a warrior, which the Indians reckon at about fifteen miles a day. How much does fifteen times twelve make, sir?”

“One hundred and eighty, Malachi.”

“Well, sir, then that is to say that it is one hundred and eighty miles off, or thereabouts. Now, this first figure is a chief, for it has an eagle’s feather on the head of it, and the snake before it is his totem, ‘the Angry Snake,’ and the other six are the number of the band; and you observe, that the chief and the first figure of the six have a gun in their hands, which is to inform us that they have only two rifles among them.”

“Very true; but what is that little figure following the chief with his arms behind him?”

“There is the whole mystery of the letter, sir, without which it were worth nothing. You perceive that the little figure has a pair of snow-shoes over it.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, that little figure is your brother Percival, whom we supposed to be dead.”

“Merciful heavens! is it possible?” exclaimed Alfred; “then he is alive!”

“There is no doubt of it, sir,” replied Malachi; “and now I will put the whole letter together. Your brother Percival has been carried off by the Angry Snake and his band, and has been taken to some place one hundred and eighty miles to the westward, and this information comes from the Indian woman who belongs to the band, and whose life was preserved by your kindness. I don’t think, Mr Alfred, that any white person could have written a letter more plain and more to the purpose.”

“I agree with you, Malachi; but the news has so overpowered me, I am so agitated with joy and anxiety of mind, that I hardly know what I say. Percival alive! we’ll have him if we have to go one thousand miles and beat two thousand Indians. Oh, how happy it will make my mother! But what are we to do, Malachi? tell me, I beseech you.”

“We must do nothing, sir,” replied Malachi.

“Nothing, Malachi!” replied Alfred, with surprise.

“No, sir; nothing at present, at all events. We have the information that the boy is alive, at least it is presumed so; but of course the Indians do not know that we have received such information; if they did, the woman would be killed immediately. Now, sir, the first question we must ask ourselves is, why they have carried off the boy; for it would be no use carrying off a little boy in that manner without some object.”

“It is the very question that I was going to put to you, Malachi.”

“Then, sir, I’ll answer it to the best of my knowledge and belief. It is this: the Angry Snake came to the settlement, and saw our stores of powder and shot, and everything else. He would have attacked us last winter if he had found an opportunity and a chance of success. One of his band was killed, which taught him that we were on the watch, and he failed in that attempt; he managed, however, to pick up the boy when he was lagging behind us, at the time that you were wounded by the painter, and carried him off, and he intends to drive a bargain for his being restored to us. That is my conviction.”

“I have no doubt but that you are right, Malachi,” said Alfred, after a pause. “Well, we must make a virtue of a necessity, and give him what he asks.”

“Not so, sir; if we did, it would encourage him to steal again.”

“What must we do then?”

“Punish him, if we can; at all events, we must wait at present, and do nothing. Depend upon it we shall have some communication made to us through him that the boy is in their possession, and will be restored upon certain conditions—probably this spring. It will then be time to consider what is to be done.”

“I believe you are right, Malachi.”

“I hope to circumvent him yet, sir,” replied Malachi; “but we shall see.”

“Well; but Malachi, are we to let this be known to anybody, or keep it a secret?”

“Well, sir, I’ve thought of that; we must only let Martin and the Strawberry into the secret; and I would tell them, because they are almost Indians, as it were; they may have someone coming to them, and there’s no fear of their telling. Martin knows better, and as for the Strawberry, she is as safe as if she didn’t know it.”

“I believe you are right; and still what delight it would give my father and mother!”

“Yes, sir, and all the family too, I have no doubt, for the first hour or two after you have told them; but what pain it would give them for months afterwards! ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,’ as my father used to read out of the Bible, and that’s the truth, sir. Only consider how your father, and particularly your mother, would fret and pine during the whole time, and what a state of anxiety they would be in! they would not eat or sleep. No, no, sir, it would be a cruelty to tell them, and it must not be. Nothing can be done till the spring at all events, and we must wait till the messenger comes to us.”

“You are right, Malachi; then do as you say, make the communication to Martin and his wife, and I will keep the secret as faithfully as they will.”

“It’s a great point our knowing whereabouts the boy is,” observed Malachi, “for if it is necessary to make a party to go for him, we know what direction to go in. And it is also a great point to know the strength of the enemy, as now we shall know what force we must take with us in case it is necessary to recover the lad by force or stratagem. All this we gained from the letter, and shall not learn from any messenger sent to us by the Angry Snake, whose head I hope to bruise before I’ve done with him.”

“If I meet him, one of us shall fall,” observed Alfred.

“No doubt, sir, no doubt,” replied Malachi; “but if we can retake the boy by other means, so much the better. A man, bad or good, has but one life, and God gave it to him. It is not for his fellow-creature to take it away unless from necessity. I hope to have the boy without shedding of blood.”

“I am willing to have him back upon any terms, Malachi; and, as you say, if we can do it without shedding of blood, all the better; but have him I will, if I have to kill a hundred Indians.”

“That’s right, sir, that’s right, only let it be the last resort; recollect that the Indian seeks the powder and ball, not the life of the boy; and recollect that if we had not been so careless as to tempt him with the sight of what he values so much, he would never have annoyed us thus.”

“That is true; well then, Malachi, it shall be as you propose in everything.”

The conversation was here finished; Alfred and all those who were possessed of the secret never allowed the slightest hint to drop of their knowledge. The winter passed away without interruption of any kind. Before the snow had disappeared the seed was all prepared ready for sowing; the planks had been sawed out, and all the wheat not required for seed had been ground down and put into flower barrels, ready for any further demand from the fort. And thus terminated the third winter in Canada.

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