Nekumonta, the strongest and bravest chief of the Mohawks, wandered alone in silence through the primeval forest. The giant pines looked down upon him with frowns ; the moss, dark and sodden on the maples with rain, gave only a gloomy greeting; the low beeches brushed against his anxious face, and as he passed beneath them chilling showers fell from their icy branches. Across his path the snarling panther crept in sullen anger; the frightened rabbit sped away to its nest under the prostrate log; his brother the bear turned aside and looked with sadness upon the troubled face of Nekumonta as he hurried forward in the fast gathering darkness. In all the forest no kindly sight came to comfort the strong and brave chief of the Mohawks, whose footsteps were heavy with fatigue and whose heart was burdened with sorrow.
Through the cheerless, awful moons of snows and frosts the plague had raged in the village of the Mohawks. Many days and nights had the deathsong been chanted for men, and women, and children. Few were untouched by the terrible sickness, and the medicine men of the tribe had long since seen the last of hoarded stores of herbs which they used to put to flight the bad spirits. The strong and brave Nekumonta and the light of his wigwam, Shanewis, had watched the fires of life go out many times. They knew that the Happy Hunting-Grounds rang with the shouts and laughter of their brothers and sisters; they sent them messages by the echoing spirits and told them to watch for their coming; but they were saddened because their brothers and sisters had gone on the long journey. The home of the Mohawks was full of pleasure when the hunters and the women, the young men, the maidens and the children worked together in the fields of growing corn, or gathered at night around the lodge-fire and listened to the legends told by the aged.
At last the soft winds came, and their mellow songs drove the cold and darkness from the valley. With their first notes came hope—hope that when the awful winter had gone to his home in the north the plague would also take its flight from the village.
Then Nekumonta's heart died, for Shanewis, the light of his wigwam, was stricken, and from her couch of furs smiled sadly as she whispered: "Shanewis must fight with the bad spirits. She would not leave Nekumonta, the strong and brave one of the Mohawks, but her brothers and sisters call to her from their long home."
For a moment Nekumonta stood erect, while upon his face came the shadows of despair. As the weary hunter loses control of his canoe and sees below him the rapids that in terrible fury play with their victim ere they hurl it over the precipice of death; or, as the warrior who with rising hopes has long withstood his foes, would see their reinforcements come when his arm has lost its power, so upon Nekumonta came the realization of the struggle yet to come. But his brave heart failed not, and bending over the shivering form of his loved Shanewis, he said:
"Shanewis shall live. Let her fight the bad spirits, and tell her brothers and sisters who call to her that she cannot go to her long home for many moons. Nekumonta has said it. He will find the healing vines of the Great Spirit, and Shanewis shall live."
The robe that covered the entrance of the lodge was pushed aside, and the chief of the Mohawks hurried away into the forest.
In many places the snows were not melted. The roots were locked in their beds by the frost, and the medicine herbs had not yet awakened from their sleep. Running through the open fields, looking anxiously among the rocks, crawling under the fallen trees, hurrying with despair over the barren hills, swimming the swollen streams and rivers, darting along the shores of the half-frozen lakes, penetrating the gloom of the forbidding forests, stopping neither for rest nor for food, Nekumonta searched, repeating again and again, until the woods and fields were burdened with the words : " Shanewis shall live! Nekumonta will find the healing vines of the Great Spirit, and Shanewis shall live!"
Three suns had passed since he left his lodge, and still his weary quest was in vain. Wherever he looked only dead leaves and withered vines were to be found. When darkness came and he could no longer see, the anxious searcher had, on his hands and knees, crept onward all the night, hoping that his keen scent would discover what his sight had failed to disclose during the day. At the decline of the third sun, stumbling forward in the gathering darkness, Nekumonta fell exhausted to the earth and the Great Spirit touched his eyes with sleep.
Then the dream-god came and Nekumonta saw Shanewis lying sleepless on her couch of furs and heard her calling his name gently and with tenderness. He saw that the plague ran through her veins like the fires that swept the forest when the rustling leaves lay thick upon the ground. Then he saw her creep to the door of the lodge and push aside the robe that shut out the cold winds. Long and earnestly she looked into the darkness, calling him to hasten to her side. He reached forward to clasp her in his arms, and the vision faded. Now he was in his canoe, which the taunting spirits of the plague were pushing down the river, and they laughed and shouted in derision as he tried to catch the medicine plants that grew in great abundance along the shores. Again, he was with his loved Shanewis in the cornfields, filling the great baskets with roasting ears to be taken to the fires where danced and sang the red men in honor of the ripening harvest. Then the voices of the singers changed into low and murmuring sounds, which finally grew more distinct until Nekumonta heard the words:
"Strong and brave chief of the Mohawks, we are the healing waters of the Great Spirit. Take us from our prison and thy loved Shanewis shall live."
Starting from his slumbers like an arrow from the bow, Nekumonta cast off the dream-god and stood in the first light of the smiling face of the Great Spirit as he came from his wigwam to open the new day. Swiftly his glance darted from side to side, searching in vain every tree and bush, every rock and stone for evidence of the presence of some one who could have uttered the words that had come so distinctly that they must be more than the echo of a dream. The practiced eye and ear of the hunter could discover nothing unusual in the forest, though every faculty was awake, every nerve strung to its greatest tension. With sadness and loss of hope his attitude relaxed, and with heavy footsteps he turned toward the hills.
And yet he could not go away. Something sent him back to the little opening in the forest, and when he reached the spot where he had fallen in the darkness the night before he bent suddenly and placed his ear to the ground.
What caused Nekumonta to leap to his feet with a cry of triumph that rang over the hills like the shout of many warriors ? What changed in an instant the hopeless, dejected being who bent to the earth, to a creature alert, with his hardened sinews standing out upon his body in eagerness to expend its stifled strength ? Faintly, yet distinctly, he had again heard the murmuring voices:
''Strong and brave chief of the Mohawks, here are the healing waters of the Great Spirit. Take us from our prison and thy loved Shanewis shall live."
With a bound like that of the panther Nekumonta sprang to the hillside, and from the trunk of a hardy ash that had been felled by the lightning's bolt he tore the toughened branches, bearing them in triumph to the valley. Back he ran like the wind and from the yielding soil dug armfuls of sharpedged stones, which he bore with hurrying steps to the place where a promise had been opened to him greater than the one of the Happy Hunting- Grounds. Not a moment did he pause, but the cry of "Shanewis! Shanewis! Shanewis !" was almost constantly on his lips.
The smiling face of the Great Spirit rose higher in the path it followed for the day, and looked down over the hill tops at the toiling Nekumonta. Forcing the toughened limbs of the ash tree deep into the ground he wrested from their beds the huge bowlders that impeded his progress and formed the prison of the healing waters. With the sharp-edged stones he cut the hard earth, and with torn and bleeding hands he hurled the rough soil from the excavation. Like a very god incarnate the dauntless spirit toiled—never resting, never tiring, never stopping except at long intervals, when he bent his ear to the earth. Each time he heard the voices, swelling louder and louder, and repeating over and over again the promise that lent him an energy that could have torn the earth asunder had it refused to yield its life-giving treasure for the light of his wigwam.
When the smiling face of the Great Spirit had reached the middle of its trail and turned once more to the door of his great lodge, the tireless Nekumonta leaped to the edge of the excavation with renewed shouts of joy and triumph, and the woods resounded with the laughter and songs proclaiming that the imprisoning barrier had been broken open. The sparkling, healing waters heard the welcome voices in the woods, and rising from their dark prison filled all the place the toiler had torn open in the earth, and then ran merrily down the valley in the sunlight.
Nekumonta bathed his bruised hands and burning face in the grateful waters and then hurried away in the forest. On and on he ran, with a step so light that the dead leaves scarcely felt its touch, and with a strength that laughed the wind to scorn.
His path was straight through the forest to the clay banks where his people came in the moon of the falling leaves and made the vessels in which they cooked their corn and venison. Here his energy was born anew, and with a skill that was marvelous in its dexterity he fashioned a jar to contain the healing waters. From its hiding place he brought the fire stone, and the store of branches collected by the old men and children at the last moon of falling leaves furnished him a supply of fuel. When the smiling face of the Great Spirit entered the door of his wigwam in the west Nekumonta took from the dying embers the perfected* result*of his h*andiwo*rk.
The warm winds, laden with hope and comfort, stole gently through the forest and sang with gladness of the death of winter. Life came once more to the swaying branches of the trees, and the first notes of the robins and blue birds thrilled the listening air with a sweetness for which it had long hungered. The second day of spring had dawned on the home of the Mohawks—the village where the gaunt figure of the awful plague had reveled in a dance of death throughout the weary moons of winter.
Suddenly a triumphant shout filled the air. The hearts of weary watchers stood still with suspense, fearing that the evil witches had once more returned to taunt them of their helplessness. The plaguestricken woke from their fitful sleep and called piteously to the Manito. Once more the shout arose—louder, clearer, more triumphant—a pealing cry of victory from the strong and brave Nekumonta.
Bearing aloft in his arms the vessel containing the healing waters, Nekumonta burst from the deeper gray of the forest like a flood of sunshine and ran with steps as light as the warm winds themselves to the darkened lodge of his loved Shanewis. With the soft mosses he had caught from the banks of the streams he soothed her fevered form, and with draughts of the grateful healing waters she was lured to returning health.
Thus the loved Shanewis came back from the very borderland of the Happy Hunting-Grounds to her home with the Mohawks.