The Shaman/Chapter 6

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After the household was still that night and we had all retired, I lay for a long time considering the numerous aspects of our situation in the light of my day's experience. Jack had endured a day of suffering and madame had given him a sleeping potion. He moaned in his sleep. I would have given years from my span of life that night to have him restored to sight and strength, for I conceived our predicament to be one of danger. Moreover, I chafed against the peculiar restraints imposed upon me by his helpless condition. I decided that nothing could be gained by telling him of my discoveries, and that much might be lost, in that anxiety could but torture his mind and therefore retard his recovery.

“No,” thought I, “it is futile and harmful to confide in him at this time.”

I weighed the advisability of a frank conversation with madame; but there again was the difficulty of many strange barriers. Her coldness and aloofness, despite her unbending and steadfast courtesy and hospitality, did not encourage unlimited candor. On the contrary, they impelled one to reticence. And then another aspect of my day's venture presented itself with almost terrifying apprehension. Suppose that those runners, who would most certainly on the forthcoming day take the gold trail to reassure themselves of the survival of the mine packers, should discover signs of my having blundered into their great secret? Suppose that my own wood lore and wild craft had overlooked some little point that might lead them to suspect? Suppose that through mere hunter's instinct, or casual curiosity, any of the runners were to leave the narrow passage cut through that primeval forest and there find, within a hundred yards of its border, the trail of my webs upon the snow as I had gone and returned?

Too well I knew how in the deathly, motionless stillness and quietude of the Far North a snow trace remains unaltered as if engraved upon stone for weeks on end; some times until the heat of the late spring suns leaves that compressed snow standing in clear and readable form upon the very brown of the earth itself. Useless to pray for a swift change and raising of temperature that might bring another generous coating of white to conceal the marks of my journey. Nature has her own ways that are so seldom varied. My sole hope lay in the scales of luck. If my discovery were not exposed by an unkind chance, the day might come when we could travel outward unmolested, unsuspected, under the safe passport of this extraordinary woman who ruled this extraordinary domain.

If fortune went against us—— Then I could not conjecture the end.

It is difficult for me to recount the suspense in which I lived for the following forty-eight hours. I expected at any hour to be sternly confronted by Madame Malitka and Peluk, the shaman, accused, proven guilty, asked for my defense, and then given judgment that might perhaps involve execution.

When at the expiration of forty-eight hours nothing inimical had chanced and there was no change in the attitude of madame, I began to breathe more freely. In that time I had not again seen the shaman, but decided that if he had learned anything it would be most difficult for him, a superior savage, to conceal that knowledge from me. Accordingly I made it a point to visit his house. He welcomed me with his fat, friendly grin. The little boy came and mounted trustingly to my lap.

“You get all shootum want, ummh? Pine hen no good when mus' be chase by wolfs, ummh?”

“Never again!”

Squatted rather than seated on a stool, Peluk was carving an ornate button of bone, painstakingly making thereon the head and horns of a caribou, and holding the round disk between his legs on a block of wood. I hoped for some further reference to my adventure, but he got up, crossed to a box on a shelf, and took therefrom one of the crude native drills made to revolve by pulling backward and forward a bowstring fastened to a tiny but sturdy bow, and began drilling the hole for an eyelet. I did not interrupt him and finally he stood up, triumphantly, and then most critically examined the finished specimen of his handicraft.

“Him very good button, ummh?” he asked. “Now got three. Bimeby make three more. Very nice, ummh?”

He had all of a small boy's exultation over achievement. I had no need to flatter him in my commendation. It was to me rather astonishing that those fat yet powerful fingers of his could be so deft and that his sense of form was so highly developed. There was much of the artist in old Peluk and his ways of doing things.

“If some time could catchum gold, make very fine button; but where could catchum so much gold, ummh?” he asked, and suddenly looked me squarely in the eyes. I thought I discerned in his a half-mocking light, but could not be certain.

“I thought you said one time that you went on a big ship to Juneau where you bought that phonograph and paid for it with gold? Couldn't you find more gold where that came from—enough to make a button?” I asked, calmly giving stare for stare.

“Ummh, yes, mebbe did so tell. Sometimes me heap big liar,” he replied with his usual grin and urbane manner. The customary soft, musical guttural of his voice seemed a trifle lacking at this admission of mendacity. He thought for a moment and then added, “But little gold go long way. Sometimes, way up there many, many, many sleeps, native find some pieces of gold.” He pointed northward and turned his head as if looking across long distances to where the gold had been found. Then with a little laugh he remarked, “What poor shaman do with gold? No can use gold for nice button when can get nice music box for same piece gold. Music box heap better than gold button, yes?”

“Of course,” I assented, and stared out of the window and yawned.

“All white mans like gold. Heap like gold, yes?” he persisted, when I showed disinclination to discuss the matter further.

“Not all,” I said.

For a time he pondered and then remarked, “I think that dam lie.”

I scarcely knew whether to take this as an insult or not, but on glancing at his broad grin decided to take it as his only method of expressing disagreement, due either to lack of vocabulary or ignorance of a white man's insult.

“Not all of them,” I insisted. “I have known many who cared more for other things. I know one man who learns much about trees, grass, moss. Another who is an entomologist, who——

“What that mean?” he demanded sharply. “Anty—antyologis—what——

“A man who gathers and saves bugs, flies, mosquitoes—maybe birds,” I explained lamely, trying to make him comprehend.

His answer unwittingly betrayed another secret of the place.

“Ugh! Mebbe so! Mebbe so! One time, when I take sleds, go long way, many, many sleeps, whole moons—place call Kadiak. Great village mos' as big as Juneau. Go there, too, same as Juneau, buy theengs for lady—buy good knives, needles, rifles what you call—ummh!—cloths make clothes, kettles, teapot, all sort theengs. And I see man who catchum bugs, butterfly, takeum stickum on paper with pins. Heaps. Catchum plenty. But thees man say no care for gold. I think mebbe tell lie to find out where I ketchum gold what pay for theengs bring here. I think him not such fool as other white mans who ask many questions. All time ask questions where from come, where go, how come and—I think mebbe bug man smart and want know too much. Anyway, when go, he not one who follow us to try find where from come. Mebbe so bug man not like gold. Like bugs better. Humph! Head go bad mebbe. All same what you say—clazy?”

It came to me as he talked that I had stumbled on to another one of madame's extremely secret methods of purchasing what she wanted. Once it was from Juneau, many hundreds of miles away, and another time from Kadiak, hundreds of miles distant from Juneau. By never sending her emissaries twice to the same place she minimized the chances of discovery. Knowing the nomads and natives of the earth as I did, I yet marveled at this extraordinary old Indian's daring in making journeys that would have appalled many of even the superior men of the white race by their unknown terrors and hardships. The shaman's boast made on that first day when he had gossiped came to mind, “Me go far,” his way of asserting superiority—that he had been a great traveler. Aye, he had gone far! He had perhaps known the very long, hard trails over which Jack and I had painfully suffered and traveled, that trail that he must have taken from Katmai. I sought to induce my garrulous acquaintance to gossip further.

“Kadiak! Kadiak? You don't mean that you have ever been that far away?” I remarked. “It's a very long way—many sleeps—isn't it? Big mountains and——

“And much water! Great waters!” The shaman rose to my bait of adulation. “Take big umiaks.”

The umiak is a monstrous canoe of walrus or other skins that the coast natives of Alaska handle through seas in which even a small schooner might not survive. I have known of one that had twenty paddlers. Swift and sturdy they are, like the Dyak pirate proas of Borneo, and capable of much.

“Take umiak—many umiak to cross bad waters from Katmai to Kadiak. Wait for still day. Go fast. Paddle hard.”

Intent upon another of his bone disks from which he planned to add another button to his collection, the shaman threatened to relapse into silence.

“And so,” I queried, “when you left Kadiak the bug man did not try to follow?”

“No. But other white mans did. Many white mans.”

He chuckled and then stood contemplating the bone disk in his hand. The light through the window, despite the pallor of the arctic day, appeared to slip round him and to touch the interior of his clean cabin, incongruous with its evidences of the two great extremes of barbarism and the latest achievements of science. It lingered over a sheaf of fish spears, bows and arrows hanging on pegs on one side, rifles and cartridge belts on the other, a pair of mukluks on the floor, an alarm clock on the shelf, and phonograph on a table.

“Many nights we wait to start. Many times start. Always white mans, hungry for gold, watch and start when we start. Bimeby when dark night we go. Very dark. Go very quiet. Make no noise. Dip paddle still—so! Get away. Bimeby paddle very hard. Paddle all night. Think all right. Think no white mans follow. Come day. You know place call Shelikoff water? No?”

He stopped and when I evaded his question looked at me sharply, and then made expansive gestures.

“Waters there very bad. Make very rough sometimes. Rough when that day come. Think mebbe not get across. Mebbe get die in water. Then see, mebbe mile behind, other boat. White mans boat. Follow to find where we get gold. But—bug man no there. Nope. Bug man not one of white mans.”

He stopped as if considering the peculiarities of one who had other ambitions than gold and muttered something that sounded to me like, “Mebbe so! Mebbe some white mans no want gold. Mebbe bug man like better——” and then his voice mumbled away in diminuendo to silence.

“How do you know he wasn't one of the white men who followed?” I demanded.

His attention was scarcely distracted from the captivation of carving that crude bone disk into a lasting depiction of animal form when he explained, without bothering himself to look up.

“Oh, me know! Tell other umiaks go ahead to land. Make my umiak mans turn back. Row hard. Row fast. White mans in boat wait. Wait long time. Then think best better turn and go home—back to Kadiak. Mebbe sorry follow. No can tell. They row very hard. What good. Me have strong mans in paddles. Know how. Paddle fast. Too fast for white mans who—yes—very good. But we catchum. Got new rifles. Shoot very good. Shoot far. Bimeby one white mans stops. Falls in bottom. Other white mans stops, shoots back. Killum one man by me. Me shoots again. Shoot very good, me! Very fine shoot. White man go down in boat bottom.

“Two other white mans grab rifles. Shoot. Three other mans my umiak fall down—die. Very good young mans, mine. Make me mad. Me shoot two time. Catchum! Two time. No more!” He held up two fingers to make certain that I appreciated his numerals and his marksmanship. “Both white mans go down. One fall on edge boat. Me go slow. Afraid mebbe white mans still shoot. No. No can shoot not any more. All petituk! Finish! Gone dead! So, sink boat. Put our dead mans in water. No can carry home to put in place where other dead—with bows, arrows, rifles, grubs, paddles by side on top logs. No can do. So put in water. Mebbe find way to Great Spirit without all that, ummh? What think?”

He seemed for the moment more absorbed in this spiritual question of his superstitious savagery than in any remorse for his actions. Inasmuch as I couldn't very well with diplomacy tell him that I regarded him as a callous old murderer of the very first class, I confined myself to the statement that probably the Great Spirit would understand and overlook the fact of their unseemly burial. Also that the Great Spirit could probably find them if he wanted them very badly. The shaman roused himself as from a reverie and lifted both hands with an air of benevolence and religious reverence.

“Yes,” he said in the tone of a fine old missionary addressing a flock of hopeful converts. “Great Spirit see all things. Very good. Love ail mans and mebbe some squaws. Make all mans love all other mans.”

For that old ruffian with his oiled, musical voice to assume a sanctimonious air and dilate upon universal love and benevolence within three minutes of having blandly confessed to deliberate and rather wholesale murder, was a trifle more than I could endure. I gently put my boy friend on the floor, arose and buttoned my Mackinaw, and made for the door. When I left Peluk he was humming, with all the fervor of a zealot, an air that I presume must have been a sort of rude chant to his deity, and chipping, industriously, at his new button.