Two Little Savages
By Ernest Thompson Seton
Public Domain Books
Beginnings of Woodlore
During this time Yan had so concentrated all his powers on the shanty that he had scarcely noticed the birds and wild things. Such was his temperament–one idea only, and that with all his strength.
His heart was more and more in his kingdom now he longed to come and live here. But he only dared to dream that some day he might be allowed to pass a night in the shanty. This was where he would lead his ideal life–the life of an Indian with all that is bad and cruel left out. Here he would show men how to live without cutting down all the trees, spoiling all the streams, and killing every living thing. He would learn how to get the fullest pleasure out of the woods himself and then teach others how to do the same. Though the birds and Fourfoots fascinated him, he would not have hesitated to shoot one had he been able, but to see a tree cut down always caused him great distress. Possibly he realized that the bird might be quickly replaced, but the tree, never.
To carry out his plan he must work hard at school, for books had much that he needed. Perhaps some day he might get a chance to see Audubon’s drawings, and so have all his bird worries settled by a single book.
That summer a new boy at school added to Yan’s savage equipment. This boy was neither good nor bright; he was a dunce, and had been expelled from a boarding school for misconduct, but he had a number of schoolboy accomplishments that gave him a tinge of passing glory. He could tie a lot of curious knots in a string. He could make a wonderful birdy warble, and he spoke a language that he called Tutnee. Yan was interested in all, but especially the last. He teased and bribed till he was admitted to the secret. It consisted in spelling every word, leaving the five vowels as they are, but doubling each consonant and putting a “u” between. Thus “b” became “bub,” “d” “dud," “m” “mum,” and so forth, except that “c” was “suk,” “h” “hash,” “x" “zux,” and “w” “wak.”
The sample given by the new boy, “sus-hash-u-tut u-pup yak-o-u-rur mum-o-u-tut-hash,” was said to be a mode of enjoining silence.
This language was “awful useful,” the new boy said, to keep the other fellows from knowing what you were saying, which it certainly did. Yan practised hard at it and within a few weeks was an adept. He could handle the uncouth sentences better than his teacher, and he was singularly successful in throwing in accents and guttural tones that imparted a delightfully savage flavour, and he rejoiced in jabbering away to the new boy in the presence of others so that he might bask in the mystified look on the faces of those who were not skilled in the tongue of the Tutnees.
He made himself a bow and arrows. They were badly made and he could hit nothing with them, but he felt so like an Indian when he drew the arrow to its head, that it was another pleasure.
He made a number of arrows with hoop-iron heads, these he could file at home in the woodshed. The heads were jagged and barbed and double-barbed. These arrows were frightful-looking things. They seemed positively devilish in their ferocity, and were proportionately gratifying. These he called his “war arrows,” and would send one into a tree and watch it shiver, then grunt “Ugh, heap good,” and rejoice in the squirming of the imaginary foe he had pierced.
He found a piece of sheepskin and made of it a pair of very poor moccasins. He ground an old castaway putty knife into a scalping knife; the notch in it for breaking glass was an annoying defect until he remembered that some Indians decorate their weapons with a notch for each enemy it has killed, and this, therefore, might do duty as a kill-tally. He made a sheath for the knife out of scraps of leather left off the moccasins. Some water-colours, acquired by a school swap, and a bit of broken mirror held in a split stick, were necessary parts of his Indian toilet. His face during the process of make-up was always a battle-ground between the horriblest Indian scowl and a grin of delight at his success in diabolizing his visage with the paints. Then with painted face and a feather in his hair he would proudly range the woods in his little kingdom and store up every scrap of woodlore he could find, invent or learn from his schoolmates.
[Illustration: Yan’s toilet]
Odd things that he found in the woods he would bring to his shanty: curled sticks, feathers, bones, skulls, fungus, shells, an old cowhorn–things that interested him, he did not know why. He made Indian necklaces of the shells, strung together alternately with the backbone of a fish. He let his hair grow as long as possible, employing various stratagems, even the unpalatable one of combing it to avoid the monthly trim of the maternal scissors. He lay for hours with the sun beating on his face to correct his colour to standard, and the only semblance of personal vanity that he ever had was pleasure in hearing disparaging remarks about the darkness of his complexion. He tried to do everything as an Indian would do it, striking Indian poses, walking carefully with his toes turned in, breaking off twigs to mark a place, guessing at the time by the sun, and grunting “Ugh” or “Wagh” when anything surprised him. Disparaging remarks about White-men, delivered in supposed Indian dialect, were an important part of his pastime. “Ugh, White-men heap no good” and “Wagh, paleface–pale fool in woods,” were among his favourites.
He was much influenced by phrases that caught his ear. “The brown sinewy arm of the Indian,” was one of them. It discovered to him that his own arms were white as milk. There was, however, a simple remedy. He rolled up his sleeves to the shoulder and exposed them to the full glare of the sun. Then later, under the spell of the familiar phrase, “The warrior was naked to the waist,” he went a step further–he determined to be brown to the waist–so discarded his shirt during the whole of one holiday. He always went to extremes. He remembered now that certain Indians put their young warriors through an initiation called the Sun-dance, so he danced naked round the fire in the blazing sun and sat around naked all one day.
He noticed a general warmness before evening, but it was at night that he really felt the punishment of his indiscretion. He was in a burning heat. He scarcely slept all night. Next day he was worse, and his arm and shoulder were blistered. He bore it bravely, fearing only that the Home Government might find it out, in which case he would have fared worse. He had read that the Indians grease the skin for sunburn, so he went to the bathroom and there used goose grease for lack of Buffalo fat. This did give some relief, and in a few days he was better and had the satisfaction of peeling the dead skin from his shoulders and arms.
Yan made a number of vessels out of Birch bark, stitching the edges with root fibers, filling the bottom with a round wooden disc, and cementing the joints with pine gum so that they would hold water.
In the distant river he caught some Catfish and brought them home–that, is, to his shanty. There he made a fire and broiled them–very badly–but he ate them as a great delicacy. The sharp bone in each of their side fins he saved, bored a hole through its thick end, smoothed it, and so had needles to stitch his Birch bark. He kept them in a bark box with some lumps of resin, along with some bark fiber, an Indian flint arrow-head given him by a schoolmate, and the claws of a large Owl, found in the garbage heap back of the taxidermist’s shop.
One day on the ash heap in their own yard in town he saw a new, strange bird. He was always seeing new birds, but this was of unusual interest. He drew its picture as it tamely fed near him. A dull, ashy gray, with bronzy yellow spots on crown and rump, and white bars on its wings. His “Birds of Canada” gave no light; he searched through all the books he could find, but found no clew to its name. It was years afterward before he learned that this was the young male Pine Grosbeak.
Another day, under the bushes not far from his shanty, he found a small Hawk lying dead. He clutched it as a wonderful prize, spent an hour in looking at its toes, its beak, its wings, its every feather; then he set to work to make a drawing of it. A very bad drawing it proved, although it was the labour of days, and the bird was crawling with maggots before he had finished. But every feather and every spot was faithfully copied, was duly set down on paper. One of his friends said it was a Chicken-hawk. That name stuck in Yan’s memory. Thenceforth the Chicken-hawk and its every marking were familiar to him. Even in after years, when he had learned that this must have been a young “Sharp-shin,” the name “Chicken-hawk” was always readier on his lips.
But he met with another and a different Hawk soon afterward. This one was alive and flitting about in the branches of a tree over his head. It was very small–less than a foot in length. Its beak was very short, its legs, wings and tail long; its head was bluish and its back coppery red; on the tail was a broad, black crossbar. As the bird flew about and balanced on the boughs, it pumped its tail. This told him it was a Hawk, and the colours he remembered were those of the male Sparrow-hawk, for here his bird book helped with its rude travesty of “Wilson’s” drawing of this bird. Yet two other birds he saw close at hand and drew partly from memory. The drawings were like this, and from the picture on a calendar he learned that one was a Rail; from a drawing in the bird book that the other was a Bobolink. And these names he never forgot. He had his doubts about the sketching at first–it seemed an un-Indian thing to do, until he remembered that the Indians painted pictures on their shields and on their teepees. It was really the best of all ways for him to make reliable observation.
The bookseller of the town had some new books in his window about this time. One, a marvellous work called “Poisonous Plants,” Yan was eager to see. It was exposed in the window for a time. Two of the large plates were visible from the street; one was Henbane, the other Stramonium. Yan gazed at them as often as he could. In a week they were gone; but the names and looks were forever engraved on his memory. Had he made bold to go in and ask permission to see the work, his memory would have seized most of it in an hour.