No noble savage was old Jim. Tattered gossip and panhandler, he was wise in the ways of the wilderness — and of men
Nan Dorland Morenus
EARLY November freeze-up was threatening when Jim Chief and his squaw paddled up to our island on their first official visit. Jim was our nearest neighbor on our northern lake—a tattered, aged Ojibway we were soon to know as a reprobate and a rascal, and so charming that it was impossible not to like him.
It was dinnertime, of course, when the old couple beached their canoe and started up the incline to the cabin. From the window I watched them, Jim in the lead, Mrs. Chief a faithful shadow. If Jim Chief had been the hands of a clock he would perpetually have pointed to 10 minutes past six. “Wa-sha-she-gun,” he was called, the bent or crooked one.
I was busy setting the noon table when they appeared on the porch. They had undoubtedly seen me through the window, but they stood silently and patiently waiting to be noticed. I pretended not to see them at first. Etiquette of such a moment dictated that the dignity and preoccupation of a white woman prevent too great promptness of recognition.
After a respectable delay I opened the door and made my surprised “B’jous.” Mrs. Chief, small and shrunken in her nondescript sweater coat and wrap-around skirt, hovered shyly near the steps, Jim, the articulate one, stood before me, wrapped in a great military coat which trailed over his ankles. His wide ingratiating grin was partly eclipsed by his long oversized nose and trailing fringe of mustache. One eyelid sagged obliquely like a carelessly drawn window shade, tending to emphasize his impish charm.
“B’jou, b’jou,” he declared with frequent jerky hows. This caused his bulky beaver-skin cap to slump forward and blot out the eye completely. Behind him, Mrs. Chief pursed her wrinkled face and tucked an embarrassed smile into her thin shoulder.
I called to Dick, my husband, who was expected to greet them officially. More surprised and profuse “b’jous,” and Dick nodded them in. Dropping their outer garments, caps, mitts in a heap on the floor, they immediately pulled like magnets to the big heater.
This was our first good look at old Jim. No one knew how old he was, and he himself would not
say. Sixty? He might as easily have heen 80. It’s hard to tell age in the bush, especially an Indian’s. Even the origin of his name was lost in time and indifference. A vague rumor whispered that Jim was once the chief of a band of roving Ojibways.
But Jim Chief had been old a long time, and his people are intolerant of the unproductiveness of age. These late years they had ignored him. In his loneliness, shared only by his squaw, Jim found survival in guile.
Jim Chief had personality. The older he became, the more he developed it. He could wheedle and beg with all the dexterity of a Broadway panhandler. His glib tongue and persuasive ways accomplished miracles toward filling an empty kettle or adding another pound of tea or flour to his scanty grub comer. With unerring instinct he could seek out a “soft touch.”
Now he turned his charm on us.
“Nis-ish-in, good,” he said, warming his hands at the stove with elaborate gesture. His eyes strayed with undisguised anticipation to our
waiting dinner table. Jim knew his timing had been perfect, and he was well pleased with himself. He had us. A full hot meal was as good as in his stomach.
There was roast of venison this day and it gave Jim Chief an idea. He hadn’t got around to any serious winter hunting yet. Perhaps he could further delay the arduous business if he could talk us out of a hindquarter to take back to the wigwam. He began the buildup of his sad plight between huge mouthfuls of food. Deer were scarce. He had practically no ammunition. His gun behaved badly. “Tch, tch!” he shook his head, whatever would become of him this winter?
We took up our roles in the play he was enacting. We clucked sympathetically over the dismal outlook. We reacquainted him with good hunting areas near his wigwam. We offered to overhaul his gun. We might even scare up a few shells for his ancient rifle. We knew it would never do to give him outright of our winter meat or he would expect us to support him for
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the rest of his years. Patiently we pointed out that our two legal deer would barely see ourselves through the months ahead.
A new respect shone in old Jim’s eyes. We could see him evaluating us. \Ve didn’t wheedle easily. He liked us. Rehind the double talk we understood each other.
Jim wiped the remnants of the meal from his chin onto his shirt sleeve, belched his appreciation, and launched into bush gossip, a talent in which he was exceedingly gifted. His narration, half in Ojibway, half in English, was punctuated with graphic gestures, so it was relatively simple to follow him. Jim in his stride was better than a local newssheet. Little Mrs. Chief, from her corner seat, never uttered a sound. Her
short bowlegs dangled grotesquely above the floor. She sat listening, staring at her folded hands. Her wrinkled figure was for all the world like a contented raisin atop a warm bun.
All at once Jim stopped dead in the middle of a sentence. A gesture froze in mid-air. He had just noticed our guns on the wall racks. For the next, quarter hour he gurgled and moaned and sighed. Four guns! Ai-ee, whatever could the sha-ga-nashi want with so many? A possible campaign for possession of one of them was undoubtedly formulating in his mind, when Dick took down a small pistol from the shelf and handed it to him.
“Pull the trigger,” Dick told him.
Puzzled, the old Indian took the gun and slowly, ever so cautiously, pointed the muzzle toward the floor. Then, cradling it in his hands, he looked up uncertainly.
“Go on, pull it. It’s all right.”
Again Jim lowered the muzzle. Squinting his eyes and ducking his great head into his chest, he pulled the trigger. There was a mild click and the cigarette lighter burst into flame. Old Jim opened his eyes. He chuckled. He hissed with pleasure. He hopped on one foot and then on the other. The magic delighted him. From then on no visit to the cabin was complete without a thorough survey of the guns, ending with the full routine of firing the pistol lighter.
Later that winter we returned Jim Chief’s call. Not that we hadn’t seen much of the rascal in the interim—his biweekly visits had remained as consistent as his promotional schemes for coming.
We moored the dogs and toboggan a discreet distance from his grounds and climbed the low rise on which the wigwam squatted in a stand of balsam. We had to wade off the trail into deep snow many times to avoid stepping on the winter’s accumulation of carcasses and entrails of’rabbits, beaver, mink and fox which had been skinned and tossed from the wigwam.
Smoke tumbled from the apex of the wigwam, and we heard a steady stream of chatter from within as wc stood before the tightly closed flap. Wc waited five minutes . . . ten. No one appeared. It was impossible that Jim and his squaw had neither seen nor heard our dogs’ noisy arrival. The conversation from within had disintegrated into giggles and prolonged laughter. Dick looked as mad as I felt.
“Enough of this,” he said, and giving the flap doorway a vigorous shake he called sharply, “Jim!” The flap fell away and Dick stepped in, pulling me after him.
At on®e I began to lose interest. It was the smell, a stifling, undiluted smell that defies description. I was
momentarily sightless in the dim interior. I stumbled and fell headlong onto a mound of frozen, very dead rabbits. I picked myself up from the macabre heap and crawled hastily to the comparatively vacant area near the tin stove which stood in the centre of the wigwam.
To the left of the stove Jim Chief lounged on a pile of mangy fur blankets all mixed up with the day’s supply of kindling and firewood. Obviously this half of the wigwam was exclusively his own, housing his personal paraphernalia: his gun, the beloved military coat, now shoved in a heap by his feet, his knives, a few rusty traps, fish nets, parts of old tools, all strewn on the pine-houghed floor
Dick found an unchopped log to sit on near Jim’s littered dais, and handed a snapshot to the Indian. Enough light penetrated the open roof vent to permit Jim’s close scrutiny. It was a snap of him we had taken on his last canoe trip before freeze-up. For once Jim was overcome. He stared in wordless fascination at the first picture of himself he had ever seen. Then came that familiar “Ai-ee” of childlike pleasure.
I turned to look at Mrs. Chief in her half of the-realm. Beyond a shy glance and a murmured “b’jou” she had said nothing, nor had she stopped work on the fox skin she was scraping. The lounge on which she sat and slept, prepared meals, skinned and stretched fur, did what constituted her housework, and lived, was made up mostly of heaps of rags with a well-worn blanket of rabbit skins as covering. Behind her, within easy reach, were makeshift shelves of old packing boxes which held the flour, tea, beans, drinking mugs, and a few dented tin plates. Among all this were odd sorts of leather sewing work; squares of deer and moose hide, a pair or two of unfinished moccasins and a sheet of birchbark to which were pinned her triangular sewing needles.
Between the length of her bed and the side wall was a jumble of stretching boards on which freshly scraped skins were drying. The pile of dead rabbits overflowed along the opposite side of her bed, sprawled in the throes of death agony just as they had frozen in the snares.
Soon we rose to leave. Almost before our backs were turned Mr. and Mrs. Chief had vanished within the wigwam and we heard once more the chattering, the giggling and the laughter.
As we turned the toboggan toward home, Dick said, “We embarrassed them into a state of complete inaction. If we’d waited to be invited in, we’d be standing outside yet. Poor Jim! He and his squaw just couldn’t decide what to do with the first white visitors ever to want to enter their wigwam.”
Johnny on the Spot
n the bush across the channel from our island is a spot where we dumped our discarded tin cans. There, later that same winter, I noticed the tracks of a large timber wolf obviously attracted by the fresh-food smells. A timber wolf skin was worth a bounty of $30, and I decided to try for it. I gave the tin can heap added allure by casually baiting it with chunks of bloody rabbit meat.
Once Jim Chief came trudging past the island, his snowshoes going at a rapid clip. He seemed in a hurry, so much so that he would pause only long enough for one cup of tea. It was merely instinct that caused me to mention the set traps, thereby publicly staking claim. Old Jim nodded vaguely, as though preoccupied with more important matters, and soon he was off down the trail.
Then late in the afternoon three or four days following we heard several bellowing shots from the mainland. It could only mean that Jim Chief had knocked over a deer. Strange, we thought, his hunting so far from home.
Next morning at the can dump we read the real story by the tracks in the snow. Amid many old snowshoe tracks we found a fresh trail of the night before. There was no mistaking the pattern of broken and frayed babiche and the mark of the split frame. The old and new tracks were alike. Jim Chief’s shoes! We also found the spot where he had hidden behind a pile of brush to wait. We picked up the wolf tracks as the big fellow had circled cautiously nearer and nearer my bait. We examined the red flecks in the snow where the animal had received the fire of bullets, little blood at first but growing more and more profuse as we followed his plunging trail through the bush. Shortly, Jim’s snowshoe prints closed in, and there, just ahead, was a crimson mass where the wolf had fallen and had been skinned.
“There’s the end of your wolf . . . and your bounty,” Dick said.
I waited a moment to swallow a little of my disappointment. “To think that old reprobate has been stalking my baited dump heap right under my nose and I never tumbled!”
Dick started to laugh, and despite my indignation I was forced to follow suit.
The Warrior Gay
We hadn’t suspected sentimentality of Jim Chief until the summer day he paddled up to the island with a letter clutched in his bony hand. It was from his only living son, who had gone across the seas to fight in World War II. It was also the first letter Jim had received from him, and he couldn’t read a word of it.
We read the letter aloud many times until Jim knew its contents thoroughly. The boy’s message was brief. He had been in battle; he was recovering from his wounds; the war would soon be over and he would come home to his father with much army pay; all would be well. When the letter had been reread for the last time old Jim looked up with a pathetic smile enveloping his face.
“Nis-ish-in, nis-ish-in, megwitch, good, good, thank you,” he sighed, nodding his head. He told us he had waited a long time for news of his son and had feared him dead. Now everything would be good again.
Sympathy and relief for the old man welled up in us and I hurried to prepare a lunch for him in celebration and set out a dish of my best cookies. Before the food had been consumed Jim set to work to follow up his advantage and put our mellow mood to practical use. Jim leaned forward confidentially, his voice became seductive, persuasive. We had two canoes, yes? Well, his canoe leaked bad, very bad. Could he borrow one of ours, say until fall or freeze-up? The red canoe would do. Ai-ee, he would prefer the shiny red one. I could see Dick stiffen. He knew he’d almost been caught off guard. In Jim’s case, borrowing meant possession nine tenths permanent.
As Jim had dropped abruptly the robe of anguished parenthood, so Dick retreated into cool detachment. He considered silently for a long impressive minute, then he said, “My best red canoe you cannot take. It stays on the island. The green canoe you may take for three weeks only. Three weeks is three times long enough to fix your own canoe, and,” here Dick paused significantly, “you will make me two cedar paddles as payment.”
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Jim Chief blinked. It had never occurred to him the situation could get out of hand and deteriorate into a need for bargaining. Somehow the buildup had failed. Well, lie would make the best of it. He sighed deeply, painfully. “Ai-ee,” he murmured. Then reconciled, and brightening quickly, he stuffed the last remaining cookie into his mouth and disappeared out the door.
Behind a Loaded Gun
Once I had cause to he very grateful to Jim Chief. Business in connection with our fiction and radio writing had taken Dick to New York. I was alone hut not lonely. Jim elected to keep an eye on me. Every day the weather permitted, he would paddle quietly past the island, craning his neck for a glimpse of me. He would wave, call out a cheery “B’jou,” and on he’d go. Never once would he head the canoe to shore and stop for a chat. Obviously he was scared to death of talking to a white woman when her husband was away.
I was picking wild raspberries near the cabin late one afternoon when I was surprised to hear an outboard motor approaching. In a momenta boat grated on shore. The men saw me and called, und I went down to them.
They were strangers. I knew they weren’t bushmen, or even remotely at home in the hush. Duffel and camping equipment were thrown haphazardly amidships. Empty beer and whisky bottles slogged in the wet bottom. One by one the men staggered out, and I realized that all of them were drunk. There was an ugliness to their drunkenness that made me uneasy.
A short heavy-set fellow spoke first. He had a new growth of beard which gave his face a soiled look. “Where’s someone around here who can fix a motor?” he demanded. “Something’s the matter with the damn thing.” His words came thickly, though he strove to sound sober and authoritative.
The third man nodded in agreement, and tilted a half-empty bottle of liquor to his lips, then weaved past me to the cabin. He slouched down on the steps. “C’mon,” he called to the others, “we’ll wait here till someone comes and fixes us up.”
However was i to get rid of them, I thought, without revealing that I was completely alone?
The heavy-set fellow threw back his head and laughed. The movement put him off balance and he reached out for my shoulder to steady himself. Before I could pull away, his arm went around me and drew me so hard against him I was unable to move.
“You’re a cute-looking dish to know anything about motors. Whatcha doing out here anyway, a thousand miles from nowhere? You campin’ too?”
“Let me go! What’s the matter with you?” I said, trying to sound more bored than angry. But the man only held me the tighter.
The second fellow, who had been rummaging in the bow of the boat, now straightened up with a fresh bottle of liquor in his hand. “C’mon, Al,” he said, “you and me and the li’l gal ’ll have a drink. Let’s have a party.”
The man called AÍ reached for the bottle and released me.
Just then I caught a glimpse of Jim Chief paddling serenely down the channel. I walked casually to the edge of the water. There had to be a way to lure Jim to the island, and I tried the one method I thought would work. In the most intelligible Ojibway I could manage, I called, “My husband has sent you a fine present, a pistol like the one in the cabin.”
The effect on Jim Chief was electric. His paddle froze in mid-stroke. He straightened in the stern and stared at me across the water. 1 beckoned, throwing everything into the effort of looking harmless. He sat studying me. I waited. Slowly then he turned the canoe and headed toward the shore. I glanced behind me. All three men were sprawled on the cabin stens and demanding that I join them.
Jim’s canoe slid gently to snore at my feet. I leaned over and said in a low tone, “As soon as those strangers leave I shall get your fine new present from the cabin. You must wait.”
Jim nodded. His eyes fastened on the men whose presence stood between him and possession of the promised gift. Nothing could have induced him to depart. He sat motionless in the stern seat in an attitude of watchful waiting. His jaws clamped hard shut in that stolid, implacable manner of a primitive. With his wide-brimmed, battered old hut jammed low on his brow, the droop of that left eyelid somehow managed a sinister look. And better still, the barrel of his venerable rifle protruded over the how of the canoe. The gun inevitably accompanied Jim on the most routine paddle, for who was to know when a deer might stalk to the edge of the lake and provide a cache of meat for the stewpot? Innocently slung there, it now presented unexpected menace by pointing directly at my three unwelcome guests.
Minutes went by, and then the scene sank in. Gradually the drinking party on my cabin steps dissolved. The men filed by me, keeping a weather eye on the ominous character in the canoe gazing so steadily at them from behind the well-armed how.
In a remarkably short time the
loaded skiff was offshore the faulty motor resumed its half-hearted, intermittent putt-putting up the river, and the men were out of sight.
1 heaved a sigh of relief, and went into the cabin for Jim Chief’s pay-off. A little sadly I took down from the accustomed shelf our favorite cigarette lighter, filled it with fresh lighter fluid, and went out to the canoe to deposit it in Jim’s outstretched, eager hand.
Jim Chief, the Patriarch
One day Jim came by, paddling toward the railroad. He was in a terrific hurry, but he paused at the island long enough to tell us the news. His son had returned from the war at long last. At this very moment he was waiting in town.
“Ai-ee,” Jim sighed, what a great day was this! Before the sun set, he and the boy whom he had not seen in over two years would be paddling the canoe together homeward, after first buying many supplies at the railroad store. For was not his son abundant with wealth? So much money Jim had never seen at one time. No, not even in the trapping heyday of his youth. Now what plans, what changes in the life of Jim Chief! Listen; and here he forgot his hurry to sketch them for us. The boy and he would build a fine shack from big spruce logs. No more wigwam. A fine big shack for winter and summer. With the boy’s money they would buy many wonderful comforts to put in it, also many store-bought clothes for Mrs. Chief—and for himself. A fine new canoe from the Peterborough. In the winter the boy would take up Jim’s old trapping grounds and trap big bundles of furs, while Jim himself would supervise from the warmth of the new shack. Visions of patriarchal
ease stretched tantalizingly before his mind and were now all but a reality. What a day this was to be!
He cleared his throat brusquely, jabbed his mustaches to either side of his cheeks with the aggressive gesture of an important man, picked up his paddle and shoved the canoe off from shore.
At noon the next day Jim’s canoe appeared again in our bay. The old Indian was alone. We came out on the cabin porch and waved. There was no such response from Jim. His head sagged wearily from his hunched shoulders and his paddle blade dragged ineffectually in the wake of the stern.
Jim hardly seemed aware of our approach or our greeting. He sat slouched, staring out over the water. Finally he said, “Better I go now, Mrs. Chief waiting.”
“But what of your son?” Dick asked. “Didn’t you find him?”
Jim roused slowly. “Find him all right. Find him in beer parlor.” There was a despairing moan as he added, “Money all, all gone. My boy say he not coming home to bush any more. He go to city or ... or someplace.”
We could scarcely hear the last words. They were addressed not to us but toward the water, and they trailed off and spent themselves like flat skipping stones. He reached up, fumbling for the brim of his hat, and tugged it low over his brow. Then with no further word he paddled homeward.
Jim Chief Has a Bath
We saw Jim often that summer and fall. He came by the Island regularly, exhibiting a wistful, almost pitiful need to chat. He would sit in a corner of the cabin an hour or more until, having talked himself out, he would rise abruptly and shuffle out the door with a vague backward gesture of farewell.
“Whatever has come over the old boy?” I puzzled aloud. “Even food right in front of him goes begging.”
But after freeze-up the visits stopped. He failed to come by the island, nor did we encounter him on the winter trail. We missed him. To our surprise we missed him greatly. Life in the bush without Jim Chief appearing with his gossip, his schemes, his primordial guile left a hole in our existence as gaping as the loss of one of the seasons.
One day we drove past his winter wigwam. It was deserted. We mushed on to the trading post and there heard the story from Fred, the trader.
Ten days before, Jim Chief had been found by two other Indians, wandering deep in the bush, miles from his camp, his memory temporarily gone. He had been exposed to the bitter subzerocold for two days and nights, with no food and insufficient clothing. One foot had been frozen. The Indians had taken him south to the tiny hospital near the railroad. Not that much could be done, said Fred. Age was eating at his mind and body and old Jim was about through.
The next morning Dick hitched up the dogs.
“I’m going down to the hospital to see Jim,” Dick said. “Want to come along?”
We reached the small two-story hospital in midafternoon. A makeshift ward to handle Indian cases was set up on the winterized porch. Here we found Jim Chief. He was in a halfsitting position on the high hospital bed, his bandaged frozen foot thrust out stiffly before him.
It would be hard to imagine a more forlorn, dejected-looking figure. It is debatable whether Jim had ever before intentionally come to grips with a bath. Now, washed and scrubbed, he wore
the gaunt, woebegone look of a doused cat. At first he seemed unaware of Dick and me standing beside him. He stared down unseeingly at his dark gnarled hands, which roamed like restless spiders over the crisp white sheets. Slowly he lifted his eyes and looked unbelievingly into our faces. Then his long beaked nose seemed to grow even longer and divided the sad grin which began to stretch across his lips.
“Megwitch, megwitch,” he said, “you come to see me. You are only ones to come.”
Dick gave him a cigarette, and he puffed furiously, inwardly enjoying the security of the sha-ga-nashi, his white friends, in this flagrant violation of the sterile surroundings. We stayed until supper, talking about the only subject which interested him, the bush.
At the outer door we met the doctor.
“How is Jim Chief coming along?” we asked.
The doctor hesitated. Then he said, “His foot was badly frozen. However, I think it will heal. Rut he’s a very old man. It’s his mind, you know. The Indian agent will find a place for him here in town, if and when old Jim is able to leave the nospital.”
We pondered that.
“And Mrs. Chief?” I asked.
“She has been taken into a good wigwam and cared for. She will be all right,” he added kindly.
We stepped out into the night.
On the homeward trail Dick stopped the dogs for a breather on the fringe of our lake. The night was bitter in its subzero cold, and I pulled the strings of my parka hood tighter about my face. In the distance we could see the outline of our island dozing under its heavy covering of snow. My thoughts went past it now to the cold and silent wigwam at the head of the lake. Dick’s thoughts had travelled with mine, for he said, “He’ll be back. Old Jim Chief will never dieany place butin the bush.” I nodded. “Yes,” I said, “no matter what they say, he’ll be back. Jim Chief belongs to the bush.”
And that’s the way it should be.
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Editor’s note: Just as this story was going to press we heard from the bush again. It was a hurried note from Nan Morenus, handwritten, blurred, and looking a little sad. “Old Jim,” she wrote, “was found dead in his wigwam some six weeks following my completion of his story. And now the lakes and bush are empty indeed.” iç