The Battle of the Long Sault, Ch. 12: Who are the “Savages?”

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The second night out was almost as bad at first. But then, around eleven p.m., after they had been up and moving for five hours, they saw the full moon appear from behind an enormous cluster of clouds. A hopeful sign.

There were no clouds behind the moon so the travelers knew they would have light for a while. But if the moon gave them eyes, it could do the same for the Iroquois. They had to pay more attention to the river banks.

The canoes were silent but the inexperience of the paddlers, the swiftly moving water slithering around the crafts, the crisp striking of a paddle on drift ice, combined to give a sound of work. The grunts and low curses of the men as they pushed upstream, trying to keep on-course and in reach of, or at least in sight of, the other canoes, punctuated the forest and river sounds.

It was not the quietest group to go on a canoe voyage in Canada.

April sun burned through the cloud and loosened drift-ice, and broken tree branches that had been wrenched off by the wind or heavy snow, and these pieces floated free and fast.

Traveling in darkness avoided that noise but the river was not silent at night. The roar of the rapids and the swirling, rushing sound of water whirling over large rocks and falling into turbulent whirlpools did not cease. The late winter wind, low on the water, would have bitten into the canoeists’ faces had they paddled by day. At night the wind was higher; it crashed through the tree tops, bending them, slicing through the branches and keeping up a continuous racket. Forty and sixty feet above the canoeists the wind whooped and whipped the trees that replied, creaking and groaning.

Sometimes in the night, a chill would descend, and the wind would stop. It was always a surprise. There would be a deep stillness and silence. Suddenly there would be a short, fast bluster and then the sharp crack of a tree. The tree would not fall or rock, merely crack as if a bone had been subject to too much pressure. It sounded as if the frozen ribs of a man were being crunched in the shell of his body. None of the men heard this sound without feeling the power of the winter.

It was the twenty-second of April 1660. Winter had arrived ahead of schedule in early November and was now, finally, almost over. Instead of more snowstorms or cold spells, April brought a promise of spring. The days became longer, persuading the winter to give up its claim on the land. On the south side of the river-bank the snow had melted; some plants were seen poking up through the damp earth.

On the north side, some snow still sat under the protective arms of trees. In the forest away from the water, the depth of the snow depended on the trees. If many evergreens clustered together the ground might be bare beneath them; if the area was full of maples, ash or oak the snow would have a grainy texture, and be a foot or more deep. If the area was treeless and unprotected maybe several feet of snow would be on the ground, more, in places where drifting snow had piled up.

Water, not cold, was the main problem now. The river showed its greatest turbulence and power at a rapid. The drift-ice came crashing down on the rocks, air-borne to disintegrate on a rock further downstream. In the forest, the winter ended silently, gently, as the snow evaporated, and the buds broke through, but at the rapids it died kicking and screaming.

***

April 24th

It took them three days to negotiate the rough water. The fourth day, April 24th, they rested and repaired canoes. The scouting details went out. This time Jean Lecompte and Nicholas Josselin worked their way up the river, walking along the bank, climbing over rocks.

“We’d better go into the forest here,” said Josselin.

“It’s harder walking in there,” replied Lecompte.

“You’d rather the savages killed you?”

“What’s the difference where we walk?”

“The difference is that we’re coming to a little clearing and if we just walk across it an Indian could see us easily,” Josselin said. He put on his snowshoes and walked into the woods.

“It’s still hard to keep your fingers warm even though it’s April. It’s fine when we’re paddling but just standing or walking…” said Lecompte, struggling with the gut ties on his shoes.

“Radisson tells of an explorer with Champlain,” said Josselin. “He said it was so cold that if you said something in December the words froze in mid-air. You had to return in the spring when the words thawed, and you could hear what you had said.”

“I believe it!” Lecompte laughed.

“A Jesuit, Father de Noue, left Trois-Rivieres in 1646 to go the mission at Fort Richelieu, continued Josselin. It wasn’t far. A blizzard came up. Father de Noue left his party to get help, but he got lost crossing Lac St. Pierre. He was found three days later, frozen on his knees in the snow like a statue.”

Lecompte looked at him with disbelief and horror. Josselin shrugged and said: “Quick and painless: the blood congeals, you get a heart attack and then the whole body freezes. Preserved. It The remains in its final position until the thaw. If we don’t find the body, wolves or bears ate it.”

Lecompte shivered and pulled his coat tighter.

***

Deeper in the forest Jacques Brassier and Alonie Delestre were cautiously moving west.

“No fresh tracks, no signs of Indians at all,” said Delestre.

“No. I hope we’re this lucky for the rest of this journey.”

“I think we will be. The savages don’t expect us in their forest.”

“You can’t blame them for attacking us,” said Brassier, sitting on a fallen tree.

“What?”

“You said yourself people have never come in their forest,” said Brassier.

“People have been here since Cartier …that’s a hundred and twenty-five years!”

“It’s all the same to the Indians. Nobody came here before the French. How long we’ve been here doesn’t matter. One hundred years…it’s nothing for them.”

“That’s too damn bad about them,” said Delestre.

“… ‘their forest’ you said…” shrugged Brassier.

“They live in it, that’s all I mean,” replied Delestre. “They think it’s theirs because..”.

“Because it’s always been theirs,” finished Brassier.

“Sure.”

“So I understand them attacking us to protect it. We’d do the same in France.”

“But this isn’t France. Surely you can’t think the situations are the same? These are savages!” said Delestre.

“What do you mean?” said Brassier.

“It’s plain! Look at the way they live…forty or fifty to a longhouse and the filth and the smoke and they go months without bathing… everything stinks! It’s a savage life!”

“We do not bathe either for a long time in the winter or when we are fighting,” Brassier shrugged.. “When some of the Indians went to France for a year and then returned they found some of our customs savage.”

“What! They called us ‘savage’? What on earth can you mean?” said Delestre.

“The Indians are more charitable than we are, more Christian. If they have food they share, if they have something, and you need it they give it to you.”

“Ha! Small things…a meal, a cloak!” said Delestre.

“Jesus did not call them small,” replied Brassier. “When you are cold or hungry they are not small. In France, beggars in the streets shocked them. That is unimaginable here. They think we are savage to leave people in this state.”

“They don’t understand the real world…trade…” said Delestre.

“Don’t understand trade? They have been trading for hundreds of years! They trade as we do except they do not exceed what they need. They get angry with us when we give them only a few articles when they see we have so many. If they had more every man, every family could use copper kettles and pots and steel knives. We dole them out carefully to get them to give us more furs. They would not do this.”

“Yes, of course, that’s trade!” exclaimed Delestre. “That’s what I mean they don’t understand how it is supposed to work.”

“They think we hoard them. They think we are not charitable. That we are savages.” said Brassier. “That we don’t understand anything but commerce.”

“Then they don’t understand what savagery is,” said Delestre.

“In France they couldn’t understand the public beatings the civil guard administered. They don’t do that. And they cannot understand how we hit children. They never hit their children to punish them as we do.”

“God, it’s just discipline,” said Delestre. “To instruct them.”

“They don’t seem to require it. They say we have no sense,” said Brassier.”

“And I suppose they don’t torture their captives? Beat them and slash them and burn them and kill them!” Said Delestre. “Tell me that is not savage behavior!”

“That’s true,” said Brassier. “They do burn them and kill them. Exactly as the Jesuits do in the Inquisition.”

“Well, even the Jesuits don’t eat human beings like these people do,” scowled Delestre.

“No, they don’t. They are not civilized the way we are. They need Christianity, and then they wouldn’t eat people anymore.” He paused and then said, “Except, of course, when they received communion at Mass.”

Delestre looked at Brassier and gave a huge sigh. “Maybe you should have stayed in the seminary.”

Brassier just smiled wickedly.

“Then what are you doing out here shooting them?” said Delestre.

Brassier shrugged. “At the fort you see people dying around you, and you can’t do anything about it. You can’t fight back. Out here I think it is natural to shoot Iroquois else they would kill us.”

“Then what the hell do you mean defending the Iroquois for shooting at us?”

Jacques Brassier looked up from his seated position on the fallen tree.

“I’m not defending them…I’m saying I understand it.”

“It’s the same thing,” said Delestre.

Brassier rose.

“Come on, Alonie, we should check further before we go back to camp. And don’t worry,” he grinned, “if we see an Iroquois, I promise to shoot him.”

“All right,” said Delestre, laughing, moving on.

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