Short Stories » The River People

The River People - Page 2 of 6

Old Chapawee could never sleep after the sun reaches the middle of the western sky in summer. In winter they all sleep pretty much all of the day. Having finished her supper with Hezee one night under the large elm-tree on the east side of the dam, she dove down with a somersault, glided along close to the bottom of the pond, inspecting every pebble and stray chip from their work-room, until she reached the assembly-room, which might almost be called a school-house in the manner of the paleface.

She came scrambling up the slippery bank to the middle entrance. No sooner had she shaken off the extra water from her long hair than Hezee's gray mustache emerged from the water, without exposing his head. He was teasing the old lady, trying to make her believe there was a crab in the landing. Quick as a flash she flopped over in the air and slapped the side of her broad tail upon the water where her spouse was lurking to deceive her. Down he dove to the bottom and lay there motionless as if he expected her to hunt him up ; but after a while he went off and notified all the young people that it was time for their gathering at the old meeting-house.

Here Chapawee occupied the place of honor, while Hezee filled the undignified position of errand-boy. All the young beavers came in, some still carrying a bit of sapling in their mouths, but, on realizing their mistake, each dove back to place it where it belonged. They arranged themselves in a circle, sitting upright on their flat tails for cushions, their hands folded under their chins.

"A long time ago," began Chapawee, the old beaver grandmother, "we lived on the other side of the Muddy Water (the Missouri), upon a stream called Wakpala Shecha (Bad River). Father and mother, with my older brothers and sisters, built a fine dam and had a great pond there. But we led a hard life. There are not many ponds on Bad River and the stream dries up every summer, therefore thousands of buffalo came to our place to drink. They were very bad people. It seems that they do not respect the laws and customs of any other nation. They used to come by the hundred into our pond and trample down our houses and wear holes in the banking of our dam. They are so large and clumsy that they would put their feet right through the walls, and we had to hide in our deepest holes until we were very hungry, waiting for them to go away.

'Then there were the shunktokechas and shungelas (wolves and foxes) , who follow the buffalo. They, too, are a bad and dangerous sort, so that mother and father had to be continually on the watch. We little beaver children played upon the dam only when mother thought it safe. In the night we used to enjoy our swimming, diving, and coasting school. We practised gnawing sticks, and the art of making mud cement that will hold water, how to go to the bottom silently, without effort, and to spank the water for a signal or danger-call with our tails.

"There were many other bad people in that country. There was the ugly old grizzly. He would sometimes come to our place to swim and cool off. We would not mind, only he is so treacherous. He was ready to kill one of us at any moment if we gave him the chance.

"Mother played a trick on him once, because he was such a nuisance. He was wont to crawl out upon one of the logs which projected from the dam and over the deep water. This log was braced by posts in the water. Mother lay on the bottom and loosened the soil and then quickly pulled one of the posts away, and the old grizzly fell in headlong. She dove to one side, and, as the old man struggled to get out, crawled up behind him and gashed one of his hind paws with her sharp wood-choppers. Oh, how the old fellow howled and how he scram- bled for the dam! He groaned long as he sat on the bank and doctored his wounded foot. After that he was never again seen to sit upon one of our logs, but when he came to the river to drink and cool off his hot paws he always took the farthest point from our houses, and then he only put one foot in the water at a time.

'Mother was dreadfully afraid of one wicked animal. That was Igmu, the mountain lion. He does not live in this part of the country, and it is such a relief," said the old beaver woman. ' Whenever one of the Igmus comes to our place, we all hurry to deep water and lie there, for they have been known to dig through the walls of our houses.

' ' There was still another danger that our people had to contend with. Wakpala Shecha has a swift current and a narrow bed, and we had terrible freshets two or three times in a season. "At last there came a great flood. It was after I was two years old and had learned everything how to chop wood, which way to fell the trees, and what to store up for the winter; how to mix mud cement and drive posts in the creek bottom, and all of the other lessons. Early in the spring, while there was still snow on the ground, a heavy rain came. Every dry gulch was a torrent. We had never known such a flood. It carried away all our dams and made our strongest houses cave in. We did not dare to go to shore, for we could hear the wolves calling all along the banks.

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