Indian Camp – Intermediate Level

At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.

Nick and his father got in the back of the boat and the Indians pushed it off and one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the back of the camp rowboat. The young Indian pushed the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.

The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oars of the other boat quite a way ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with fast, short strokes that did not cut deeply in the water. Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the mist all the time.

“Where are we going, Dad?” Nick asked.

“Over to the Indian camp. There is an Indian lady very sick.”

“Oh,” said Nick.

Across the lake they found the other boat on the beach. Uncle George was smoking a cigar in the dark. The young Indian pulled their boat way up on the beach. Uncle George gave both the Indians cigars.

They walked up from the beach through a grassy field that was wet with dew. The young Indian went first, carrying a lantern to light the way. Then they went into the woods and followed a path that led to the logging road that ran back into the hills. It was much lighter on the logging road as the trees were cut away on both sides. The young Indian stopped and blew out his lantern and they all walked on along the road.

They came around a bend and a dog came out barking. Ahead were the lights of the shanties where the Indians lived. Most of them made their living by taking the bark off trees as they were cut down. More dogs ran out at them. The two Indians sent them back to the shanties. In the shanty nearest the road there was a light in the window. An old woman stood at the door holding a lamp.

Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke out of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty. She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a heavy blanket. Her head was turned to one side. In the upper bunk was her husband. He had cut his foot very badly with an ax three days before. He was smoking a pipe. The room smelled very bad.

Nick’s father ordered some water to be put on the stove, and while it was heating he spoke to Nick.

“This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” he said.

“I know,” said Nick.

“You don’t know,” said his father. “Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.”

“I see,” Nick said.

Just then the woman cried out.

“Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” asked Nick.

“No. I haven’t anything to stop the pain with me,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.”

The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.

The woman in the kitchen motioned to the doctor that the water was hot. Nick’s father went into the kitchen and poured about half of the water out of the big kettle into a basin. Into the water left in the kettle he put several things he unwrapped from a handkerchief.

“Those must boil,” he said, and began to wash his hands in the basin of hot water with a cake of soap he had brought from the camp. Nick watched his father’s hands cleaning each other with the soap. While his father washed every part of his hands very carefully, he talked.

“You see, Nick, babies are supposed to be born head first but sometimes they’re not. When they’re not they make a lot of trouble for everybody. Maybe I’ll have to operate on this lady. We’ll know in a little while.”

When he was satisfied with his hands he went in and went to work.

“Pull back that blanket, will you, George?” he said. “I’d rather not touch it.”

Later when he started to operate Uncle George and three Indian men held the woman still. She bit Uncle George on the arm and Uncle George said some rude words to her. The young Indian who had rowed Uncle George over laughed at him. Nick held the basin for his father. It all took a long time.

His father picked the baby up, hit it on the bottom it to make it breathe, and handed it to the old woman.

“See, it’s a boy, Nick,” he said. “How do you like being an assistant doctor?”

“All right, Nick said.” He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing.

“There. That gets it,” said his father and put something into the basin.

Nick didn’t look at it.

“Now,” his father said, “there’s some stitches to put in. You can watch this or not, Nick, just as you like. I’m going to sew up the cut I made.”

Nick did not watch. His interest in looking on had been gone for a long time.

His father finished and stood up. Uncle George and the three Indian men stood up. Nick put the basin out in the kitchen.

Uncle George looked at his arm. The young Indian smiled as he thought back on what had happened.

“I’ll put something on that, George,” the doctor said.

He bent over the Indian woman. She was quiet now and her eyes were closed. She looked very pale. She did not know what had become of the baby or anything.

“I’ll be back in the morning.” the doctor said, standing up.

“The nurse should be here from St. Ignace by midday and she’ll bring everything we need.”

He was feeling as excited and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game.

“That’s one for the medical books, George,” he said. “Delivering a baby by cutting a woman open with a pocket-knife and sewing her up with fishing line.”

Uncle George was standing against the wall, looking at his arm.

“Oh, you’re a great man, all right,” he said.

“Ought to have a look at the proud father. They’re usually the worst sufferers when their wives are giving birth,” the doctor said. “I must say he took it all pretty quietly.”

He pulled back the blanket from the Indian’s head. His hand came away wet. He stood on the edge of the lower bunk with the lamp in one hand and looked in. The Indian lay with his face toward the wall. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood had flowed down into a pool where his body pressed down into the bunk. His head rested on his left arm. A sharp knife lay, edge up, in the blankets.

“Take Nick outside, George,” the doctor said.

There was no need of that. Nick was standing in the door of the kitchen. He had a good view of the upper bunk when his father, the lamp in one hand, tipped the Indian’s head back.

It was just beginning to be daylight when they walked along the logging road back toward the lake.

“I’m terribly sorry I brought you along, Nickie,” said his father. All his excitement following the successful had operation gone. “It was an awful mess to put you through.”

“Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?” Nick asked.

“No, that was very, very unusual.”

“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”

“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”

“Not very many, Nick.”

“Do many women?”

“Hardly ever.”

“Don’t they ever?”

“Oh, yes. They do sometimes.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“Where did Uncle George go?”

“He’ll turn up all right.”

“Is dying hard, Daddy?”

“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”

They were seated in the boat. Nick in the back, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A large fish jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick put his hand in the water. It felt warm in the cold air of the morning.

In the early morning on the lake sitting in the back of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.