RETURN TO FORT WINNEBAGO.
A GREAT part of the command, with the cattle belonging to the officers and soldiers, had a day or two previous to the time of our departure, set out on their march by land to Green Bay, via Fort Winnebago. Lient. Foster, under whose charge they were, had lingered behind that he might have the pleasure of joining our party, and we, in turn, had delayed in order to see the other members of our family safely on board the Napoleon. But now, all things being ready, we set our faces once more homeward.
We took with us a little bound-girl, Josette (a daughter of Ouilmette, a Frenchman who had lived here at the time of the Massacre, and of a Pottowattamie mother), a bright, pretty child of ten years of age. She had been at the St. Joseph's mission-school, under Mr. McCoy, and she was now full of delight at the prospect of a journey all the way to the Portage with Monsieur and Madame John.
We had also a negro boy, Harry, brought a year before from Kentucky, by Mr. Kercheval. In the transfer at that time from a slave State to a free one, Harry's position became somewhat changed -- he could be no more than an indentured servant. He was about to become a member of Dr. Wolcott's household, and it was necessary for him to choose a guardian. All this was explained to him on his being brought into the parlor, where the family were assembled. My husband was then a young man, on a visit to his home. "Now, Harry," it was said to him, "you must choose your guardian;" and the natural expectation was that Harry would select the person of his acquaintance of the greatest age and dignity. But, rolling round his great eyes, and hanging his head on one side, he said,
"I'll have Master John for my guardian."
From that day forward Harry felt as if he belonged, in a measure, to Master John, and at the breaking up of the family in Chicago he was, naturally, transferred to our establishment.
There were three ladies of our travelling party -- our mother, our sister Mrs. Helm, and myself. To guard against the burning effect of the sun and the prairie winds upon our faces, I had, during some of the last days of my visit, prepared for each of us a mask of brown linen, with the eyes, nose, and mouth fitted to accommodate our features; and to enhance the hideousness of each, I had worked eye-brows, lashes, and a circle around the opening for the mouth in black silk. Gathered in plaits under the chin, and with strings to confine them above and below, they furnished a complete protection against the sun and wind, though nothing can be imagined more frightful than the appearance we presented when fully equipped. It was who should be called the ugliest.
We left amid the good wishes and laughter of our few remaining acquaintances, of whom we now took leave. Our wagon had been provided with a pair of excellent travelling horses, and sister Margaret and myself accommodated with the best pacers the country could afford, and we set off in high spirits toward the Aux Plaines -- our old friend, Billy Caidwell (the San-ga-nash), with our brother Robert and Gholson Kercheval accompanying us to that point of our journey.
There was no one at Barney Lawton's when we reached there, but a Frenchman and a small number of Indians. The latter in their eagerness to say "bonjour," and shake hands with Shaw-nee-aw-kee, passed us by, apparently without observation, so my sister and I dismounted and entered the dwelling, the door of which stood open. Two Indians were seated on the floor smoking. They raised their eyes as we appeared, and never shall I forget the expression of wonder and horror depicted on the countenances of both. Their lips relaxed until the pipe of one fell upon the floor. Their eyes seemed starting from their heads, and raising their outspread hands, as if to wave us from them, they slowly ejaculated, "Manitou!" (a spirit).
As we raised our masks, and, smiling, came forward to shake hands with them, they sprang to their feet and fairly uttered a cry of delight at the sight of our familiar faces.
"Bonjour, bonjour, Maman!" was their salutation, and they instantly plunged out of doors to relate to their companions what had happened.
Our afternoon's ride was over a prairie stretching away to the north-east. No living creature was to be seen upon its broad expanse, but flying and circling over our heads were innumerable flocks of curlews,
"Screaming their wild notes to the listening waste."
Their peculiar shrill cry of "crack, crack, crack -- rackety, rackety, rackety," repeated from the throats of dozens as they sometimes stooped quite close to our ears, became at length almost unbearable. It seemed as if they had lost their senses in the excitement of so unusual and splendid a cortége in their hitherto desolate domain.
The accelerated pace of our horses as we approached a beautiful, wooded knoll, warned us that this was to be our place of repose for the night. These animals seem to know by instinct a favorable encamping-ground, and this was one of the most lovely imaginable.
The trees which near the lake had, owing to the coldness and tardiness of the season, presented the pale-yellow appearance of unfledged goslings, were here bursting into full leaf. The ground around was carpeted with flowers -- we could not bear to have them crushed by the felling of a tree and the pitching of our tent among them. The birds sent forth their sweetest notes in the warm, lingering sunshine, and the opening buds of the young hickory and sassafras filled the air with perfume.
Nothing could be more perfect than our enjoyment of this sylvan and beautiful retreat* after our ride in the glowing sun. The children were in ecstacies. They delighted to find ways of making themselves useful -- to pile up the saddles -- to break boughs for the fire -- to fill the little kettles with water for Petaille and Lecuyer, the Frenchmen who were preparing our supper.
Their amusement at the awkward movements of the horses after they were spancelled knew no bounds. To Edwin everything was knew, and Josette, who had already made more than one horseback journey to St. Joseph's, manifested all the pride of an old traveller in explaining to him whatever was novel or unaccountable.
They were not the last to spring up at the call "how! how!" on the following morning.
The fire was replenished, the preparations for breakfast commenced, and the Frenchmen dispatched to bring up the horses in readiness for an early start.
Harry and Josette played their parts, under our direction, in preparing the simple meal, and we soon seated ourselves, each with cup and knife, around the table-mat. The meal was over, but no men, no horses appeared. When another half hour had passed, my husband took Harry and commenced exploring in search of the missing ones.
The day wore on, and first one and then another would make his appearance to report progress. Petaile and Lecuyer at length brought two of the horses, but the others could nowhere be found. In time, Mr. Kinzie and Harry returned, wet to their knees by the dew upon the long prairie-grass, but with no tidings. Again the men were dispatched after having broken their fast, but returned as unsuccessful as before.
The morning had been occupied by our party at the encampment in speculating upon the missing animals. Could they have been stolen by the Indians? Hardly -- these people seldom committed robberies in time of peace -- never upon our family, whom they regarded as their best friends. The horses would doubtless be found. They had probably been carelessly fastened the preceding evening, and therefore been able to stray further than was their wont.
A council was held, at which it was decided to send Grignon back to Chicago to get some fresh horses from Gholson Kercheval, and return as speedily as possible. If on his return our encampment were deserted, he might conclude we had found the horses and proceeded to Fox River, where he would doubtless overtake us.
Upon reflection, it was thought best to send him once more in the direction of Salt Creek, when, if still unsuccessful, the former alternative could be adopted.
He had not been gone more than an hour, before, slowly hopping out of a point of woods to the north of us (a spot which each of the seekers averred he had explored over and over again), and making directly for the place where we were, appeared the vexatious animals. They came up as demurely as if nothing had happened, and seemed rather surprised to be received with a hearty scolding, instead of being patted and caressed as usual.
It was the work of a very short half-hour to strike and pack the tent, stow away the mats and kettles, saddle the horses and mount for our journey.
"Whoever pleases may take my place in the carriage," said our mother. "I have travelled so many years on horseback, that I find any other mode of conveyance too fatiguing."
So, spite of her sixty years, she mounted sister Margaret's pacer with the activity of a girl of sixteen.
Lieut. Foster had left us early in the morning, feeling it necessary to rejoin his command, and now, having seen us ready to set off, with a sererne sky above us, and all things "right and tight" for the journey, our friend, the San-ga-nash took leave of us, and retraced his steps towards Chicago.
We pursued our way through a lovely country of alternate glade and forest, until we reached the Fox river. The current ran clear and rippling along, and as we descended the steep bank to the water, the question, so natural to a traveller in an unknown region, presented itself, "Is it fordable?"
Petaille, to whom the ground was familiar, had not yet made his appearance. Lecuyer was quite ignorant upon the subject. The troops had evidently preceded us by this very trail. True, but they were on horse-back -- the difficulty was, could we get the carriage through? It must be remembered, that the doubt was not about the depth of the water, but about the hardness of the bottom of the stream.
It was agreed that two or three of the equestrians should make the trial first. My mother, Lecuyer and myself, advanced cautiously across to the opposite bank, each choosing a different point for leaving the water, in order to find the firmest spot. The bottom was hard and firm until we came near the shore, then it yielded a little. With one step however, we were each on dry ground.
"Est-il beau?" called my husband, who was driving.
"Yes, John, come just here, it is perfectly good."
"No, no -- go a little further down. See the white gravel just there -- it will be firmer still, there."
Such were the contradictory directions given. He chose the latter, and when it wanted but one step more to the bank, down sunk both horses, until little more than their backs were visible.
The white gravel proved to be a bed of treacherous yellow clay, which gleaming through the water, had caused so unfortunate a deception.
With frantic struggles, for they were nearly suffocated with mud and water, the horses made desperate efforts to free themselves from the harness. My husband sprang out upon the pole. "Some one give me a knife," he cried. I was back in the water, in a moment, and approaching as near as I dared, handed him mine from the scabbard around my neck.
"Whatever you do, do not cut the traces," cried his mother.
He severed some of the side-straps, when just as he had reached the extremity of the pole, and was stretching forward to separate the head-couplings, one of the horses gave a furious plunge, which caused his fellow to rear, and throw himself nearly backwards. My husband was between them. For a moment we thought he was gone -- trampled down by the excited animals, but he presently showed himself nearly obscured by the mud and water. With the agility of a cat, Harry, who was near him, now sprung forward on the pole, and in an instant, with his sharp jack-knife which he had ready, divided the straps that confined their heads.
The horses were at this moment lying floating on the water -- one apparently dead, the other as if gasping out his last breath. But hardly did they become sensible of the release of their heads from bondage than they made simultaneously, another furious effort to free themselves from the pole to which they were still attached by the neck-strap.
Failing in this, they tried another expedient, and by a few judicious twists and turns, succeeded in wrenching the pole asunder, and finally carried it off in triumph across the river again, and up the bank, where they stood waiting to decide what were the next steps to be taken.
Here was a predicament! A few hours before we had thought ourselves uncomfortable enough, because some of our horses were missing. Now, a greater evil had befallen us. The wagon was in the river, the harness cut to pieces, and, what was worse, carried off in the most independent manner, by Tom and his companion; the pole was twisted to pieces, and there was not so much as a stick on that side of the river with which to replace it.
At this moment, a whoop from the opposite bank, echoed by two or three hearty ones from our party, announced the re-appearance of Petaille Grignon. He dismounted and took charge of the horses, who were resting themselves after their fatigues under a shady tree, and by this time Lecuyer had crossed the river and now joined him in bringing back the delinquents.
In the meantime we had been doing our best to minister to our sister Margaret. Both she and her little son Edwin had been in the wagon at the time of the accident, and it had been a work of some difficulty to get them out and bring them on horseback to shore. The effect of the agitation and excitement was to throw her into a fit of the ague, and she now lay blue and trembling among the long grass of the little prairie, which extended along the bank. The tent which had been been packed in the tear of the wagon, was too much saturated with mud and water to admit of its being used as a shelter; it could only be stretched in the sun to dry. We opened an umbrella over our poor sister's head, and now began a discussion of ways and means to repair damages. The first thing was to cut a new pole for the wagon, and for this, the master and men must recross the river and choose an iron-tree out of the forest.
Then, for the harness. With provident care, a little box had been placed under the seat of the wagon, containing an awl, waxed-ends, and various other little conveniences exactly suited to an emergency like the present.
It was question and answer, like Cock Robin:
"Who can mend the harness?"
"I can, for I learned when I was a young girl to make shoes as an accomplishment, and I can surely now, as a matter of usefulness and duty, put all those wet, dirty pieces of leather together."
So, we all seated ourselves on the grass, under the shade of the only two umbrellas we could muster.
I stitched away diligently, blistering my hands, I must own, in no small degree.
A suitable young tree had been brought, and the hatchets, without which one never travels in the woods, were all busy, fashioning it into shape, when a peculiar hissing noise was heard, and instantly the cry,
Un serpent sonnette! A rattlesnake!"
All sprang to their feet, even the poor shaking invalid, just in time to see the reptile glide past within three inches of my mother's feet, while the men assailed the spot it had left with whips, missives, and whatever would help along the commotion.
This little incident proved an excellent remedy for the ague. One excitement drives away another, and by means of this, (upon the hompathic principle), sister Margaret was so much improved that by the time all the mischiefs were repaired, she was ready to take her place in the cavalcade, as bright and cheerful as the rest of us.
So great had been the delay occasioned by all these untoward circumstances, that our afternoons ride was but a short one, bringing us no further than the shores of a beautiful sheet of water, now known as Crystal Lake. Its clear surface was covered with Loons, and Poules d'Eau, a species of Rail, with which, at certain seasons, this region abounds.
The Indians have, universally, the genius of Æsop for depicting animal life and character, and there is, among them, a fable illustrative of every peculiarity in the personal appearance, habits, or dispositions of each variety of the animal creation.
The back of the little Rail is very concave, or hollow. The Indians tell us it became so in the following manner: --
STORY OF THE LITTLE RAIL, OR Poule d'Eau.
There is supposed, by most of the North-western tribes, to exist an invisible being, corresponding to the "Genius" of oriental story. Without being exactly the father of evil, Nan-nee-bo-zho is a mischievous spirit, to whose office it seems to be assigned to punish what is amiss. For his own purposes too, he seems constantly occupied in entrapping and making examples of all the animals that come in his way.
One pleasant evening, as he walked along the banks of a lake, he saw a flock of ducks, sailing and enjoying themselves on the blue waters. He called to them:
"Ho! come with me into my lodge, and I will teach you to dance!" Some of the ducks said among them-selves, "It is Nan-nee-bo-zho, let us not go." Others were of a contrary opinion, and his words being fair, and his voice insinuating, a few turned their faces towards the land -- all the rest soon followed, and with many pleasant quackings, trooped after him, and entered his lodge.
When there, he first took an Indian sack, with a wide mouth, which he tied by the strings around his neck, so that it would hang over his shoulders, having the mouth unclosed. Then placing himself in the centre of the lodge, he ranged the ducks in a circle around him.
"Now," said he, "you must all shut your eyes tight whoever opens his eyes at all, something dreadful will happen to him. I will take my Indian flute and play upon it, and you will, at the word I shall give, open your eyes, and commence dancing, as you see me do."
The ducks obeyed, shutting their eyes tight, and keeping time to the music by stepping from one foot to the other, all impatient for the dancing to begin.
Presently a sound was heard like a smothered "quack," but the ducks did not dare to open their eyes.
Again, and again, the sound of the flute would be interrupted, and a gurgling cry of "qu-a-a-ck" be heard. There was one little duck, much smaller than the rest, who, at this juncture, could not resist the temptation to open one eye, cautiously. She saw Nan-nee-bo-zho, as he played his flute, holding it with one hand, stoop a little at intervals and seize the duck nearest him, which he throttled and stuffed into the bag on his shoulders. So, edging a little out of the circle, and getting nearer the door which had been left partly open to admit the light, she cried out:
"Open your eyes -- Nan-nee-bo-zho is choking you all and putting you into his bag!"
With that she flew, but the Nan-nee-bo-zho pounced upon her. His hand grasped her back, yet, with desperate force, she released herself and gained the open air. Her companions flew, quacking and screaming after her. Some escaped, and some fell victims to the sprite.
The little duck had saved her life, but she had lost her beauty. She ever after retained the attitude she had been forced into, in her moment of danger -- her back pressed down in the centre, and her head and neck unnaturally stretched forward into the air.
* It is now known as Dunkley's Grove.
Mrs. John H. Kenzie, Wau-Bun, the "Early Day" in the Northwest. Chicago : D. B. Cooke & Co., 1857. p. 300-314.
From the Memorial Library Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison.