Maurice’s fingers roughly squeezed and twisted my mouth expecting that it would improve my pronunciation. “No…repeat, it is important… say, mon s’appelle Jacques …je suis un habitant”.
I slapped Maurice’s hand away. “I am not a child!”
Maurice stood still gazing at me with a slight mocking expression the dirty white of his hunting shirt, colorful sash and breeches almost gave him a buffoonish appearance. He repeated “Mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un habitant.” I tried and failed again. Maurice threw his hands up in vexation and glared at me a bit too severe for a friendly lesson, “It is important that you speak without this accent…you sound too English.
“Maurice, I am English” I replied, a slight grin creasing the corners of my mouth.
“You are, but not when you speak French.”
The effort involved with learning a few words in French seemed harder than expected but in order to trade, I needed a firm knowledge of local customs and language; so I agreed to let Maurice teach me. I tried and struggled again, horribly mispronouncing every syllable. Maurice scornfully snorted and strode away mumbling something in French. “What… “, I asked “Was it not a good try?” Maurice dismissively waved his hand. “It’s only French”, I mumbled once he was out of earshot. His insistence left me a bit concerned but soon I dismissed it as one of the curious customs inherent to the frontier folk here.
“No, not good enough” he barked quickly coming back towards me, “You have not been here long enough to know. The French have been here for long time…do things as the French… They do not know you here.” He reached into his pocket a pulled out his clay pipe, filled the bowl with tobacco and lit the pipe. A puff of smoke whirled around his head,” the English have soldiers here but remember, England is very far away.”
“Yes it is. Do we not hold the position here? I replied softly
“Oui, don’t count on soldiers,” he asserted while waving a finger at me, “they can be gone tomorrow…you too if you are not smart.”
His advice left me a bit more unsettled. I took a minute to glance around Michilimackinac trying to ease myself. The trading camp, a collection of lean-tos really, sat before a wooden stockade fort built by the French a few years past; the aggressive roughhewn logs provided only a measure of security from overall sense of foreboding permeating the area. The English garrison had occupied Michilimackinac at the conclusion of the war. The war left frontier remained mired in animosity although Michilimackinac seemed to have reached a tenuous stability. Several French traders, with their bateaux laden with fur, were busily exchanging fur for powder, tools and other trinkets with English traders in the fort. This is why I came; the lure of a quick fortune made from selling fur to colonists back east. About a day ago I landed on shore with a canoes worth of goods and a somewhat imperfect idea of the circumstances in which I found myself. Maurice arrived later that night however we didn’t meet till this morning when I saw him returning to his bateaux; he held a concerned look and when he looked at me his brow furrowed tighter. The reply I received upon inquiring was “English do not listen…but I will help you.” Then my French lesson began.
We didn’t consider ourselves friends; we had only known each other since winter. However I remember our first meeting quite vividly … the cry for help on a snowy evening, my hand helping a man who’d fallen through the ice…Maurice swathed in blankets pledging an oath
“Maurice, you’ve travelled this whole area is this a good spot to stay for a bit?”
“Oui…It is generally good when all are friends. Lac des Hurons is to the east and Lac Michigan is to the west. Good place to trade with the English… also good for Ojibwa, Sauk, Menominee, Ottawa and Potawatomi to come.”
The temperature soared for early June making Michilimackinac unusually oppressive but it didn’t deter a party, numbering several hundred of the local Ojibwa from playing a game with sticks and a small ball right in front of the fort. Looking towards the fort I could plainly see through breaks in the mass of Ojibwas, as it swayed back and forth over the playing field the English garrison standing idly about watching the game. When I asked Maurice about the game, he shrugged and muttered “baaga’adowe” and something about the Ojibwas playing in celebration of the king’s birthday. They had been there for two days. I had never seen the game before but since my success depended on procuring fur to take east, I momentarily forgot the game and the French lesson and concerned myself with trading my goods.
My little trading post consisted only of my canoe, a lean too with a couple of blankets spread in front on which buttons, blankets, and hawks, sat ready for trade. My goods sparked the curiosity of a few idle onlookers but after a few hours I still had nothing to show. I was beginning to be disheartened until a single Ojibwa appeared before me seemingly out of nowhere. The Ojibwas were new to me; their customs and appearance seemed vastly alien. My contacts in Detroit had advised me to deal them much as the father figure but the man before me quieted that notion by striking several cords of awe and fear within me.
He was taller than I expected; garbed in the trappings of the forest warrior. A dirty light shirt barely hid his sinewy torso. A black breech cloth fell from a woven belt covering his waist and his legs were buried under reddish leggings. A tuft of hair on top of his head and sliver hanging from his earlobes and nose enhanced the veiled aggression that seethed from his bearing. The Ojibwa glanced at me with the intensity of the predator; I felt like the prey.
He turned his attention to my wares. Disregarding the trinkets, he quickly snatched one of the hawks and began to wave it about, gaging the balance and weight. I heard stories of the indian and what he could do with a weapon and when he glanced back at me my blood froze, Though hesitant, stepped forward to complete the trade. Before I could utter a word Maurice, who had come up behind me, roughly shoved me aside and greeted the Ojibwa as an old friend. They conversed in French; Maurice motioning at the hawk then back at me. They shook their head as if in agreement and the Ojibwa strode away, hawk in hand.
I looked at the departing Ojibwa and then at Maurice a wave of anger steadily rose within me. “What was that?” I barked, “Is it French custom to give away your goods without a suitable response? I have not the luxury of gifting every savage that comes close.”
“Do not be angry.” he answered seriously,” I give you the fur for the hawk. Listen to me, giving gifts is important for you. No good will come this day… better to not talk to him, he’s” he replied shrugging his shoulders, “not friendly.” The noise from the baaga’adowe game grew louder. He walked closer so I could clearly hear him, “Now back to French…most important.” Before I could reply asking about his urgency, Maurice continued, “now repeat… mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un Québécois.” Giving up on further explanation I shrugged and said the sentence.
“No! Do not say apple, it is s’appelle! Following his example I repeated the phrase.
“Better… still not good enough.”
I tried again, “Maurice why am I doing this?”
“It is important, now say like this, mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un Québécois.”
My frustration with Maurice dodging my question finally exploded. “Why on Gods earth am I doing this? Why are you being so insistent, all I wish is a few words to speak while trading, not some excessive discourse …I am through…I’ll not play games any longer.” I whirled quickly around but stopped dead in my tracks as the background noise of the baaga’adowe game erupted into a fevered roar. Just as I turned, I caught sight of the small ball used in the game arching through the fort’s front gate with the Ojibwa pursuing hotly. The Ojibwa’s roar changed pitch into a hideous screech. I looked closer and to my horror I saw blanketed Ojibwa women throwing off their capes revealing catches of weapons underneath. Like frenzied fiends, the Ojibwas snatched up the weapons and swiftly fell upon the English soldiers. Shouts sounded in English though the soldiers stood little chance of escape. With each swing of a hawk or thrust of a knife the blood flowed that much freer. Within minutes all of the soldiers lie in jumbled bloody heaps either dead or dying. Incited by the slaughter, the Ojibwa systematically scalped the dead and wounded alike; the screaming of the wounded turned sickening as the skin was mercilessly peeled from their skulls. After obtaining the grizzly trophies, the Ojibwa hastily started to ransack the fort, looking for anything of value; and for any survivors who might be hiding.
It was surprising how the French generally seemed unmoved by the violence as they quietly went about their business. As for myself, fear had completely frozen me into numbness. Suddenly my mind started as if waking from a nightmare. I turned towards my canoe to escape but Maurice had grabbed my arm tightly.
“No good to run right now…would not get far. Trust me.”
“Whaa…” the words fell to a mumble as a group of Ojibwa emerged from of the fort and made directly towards me. The shout of fear sounding in my head immediately turned to a screech of panic. Maurice kept hold of my arm…precluding any flight. The Ojibwa came closer; I could see and smell the blood that had splattered over their bodies making them more like devils than men. The intensity of the hatred in their eyes burned a hole through me that seared like hellfire.
Maurice stepped in front of me, and looked me in the eye “it is time you become French…this is why I teach you. Your life depends on it…mine to.”
One of the Ojibwas moved forward of the rest…I instantly recognized him as the one who took the hawk from me earlier. Maurice turned towards the Ojibwa and with a slight smile addressed them in French. The Ojibwa answered quickly in a menacing tone while pointing the bloodied hawk in my direction. Maurice smiled and answered while dismissively waving his hands in the air like someone trying to diminish my importance. The Ojibwa shouted at Maurice who appeared to be convincing them of my innocence. Eventually, his arguments worked because they seemed to believe him, although cautiously.
Maurice twisted towards me and stated something to me in French in a way that seemed like I should understand. After a moment his smile lessened due to my silence. He asked the same thing again; he angled himself more towards me and gave a wink. Suddenly I understood. Summoning all of my courage, I answered, “Mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un habitant.” Surprisingly I did it without any mistakes. I even managed a smile though I was ready to vomit from fear. The Ojibwa glared at me then at Maurice who gestured as if saying ‘I told you so”. Their belligerence lessened and his continence turned almost friendly as Maurice spoke with him further. Finally the Ojibwas turned back towards the fort. I let out a breath and almost collapsed.
As soon as the Ojibwa were out of earshot Maurice sighed heavily. Trying to not draw attention he threw up a nervous smile, came close and in a trembling voice said, “Now we go but like nothing wrong…yes.”
I nodded in agreement as both of us started for our canoes. Maurice had packed his goods earlier and was ready to shove off. He advised me to quickly gather my canoe, some of my belongings and get into the water. This I did expeditiously. I glanced at Maurice who, already away from the shore, was paddling towards me. I shoved the front of my canoe off of the shore, quickly dove in and with two great thrusts of my paddle, was drifting into the straits.
“Quick come with me.” Maurice motioned, “we are not safe yet.”
We pointed our canoes towards the far shore of the straits. I gave a curious look back towards the fort. I could see the Ojibwa huddled at the fort’s gate. I could also recognize the red of soldiers uniforms seated amongst them. They must be survivors, I thought as I watched some of the Ojibwa circle the prisoners while keeping others, who appeared more agitated, away. Poor devils I thought to myself, soon they will be tortured and killed slowly. Maurice and I paddled further and further away from the hostilities and once far enough I asked, “Are we safe?”
“No… once you get to the other side…then maybe. “
Once we were in the middle of the straits and remembering what was said earlier, I asked, “Was the slaughter a surprise to you?
“The Ojibwa had gone to war in Detroit, I did not know about here but I suspect. We tried to warn the soldiers but…” Maurice shrugged, “they did not listen. Just like the English, I do not like them anyway.”
“But you helped me…I’m English” I stated meekly.
“Oui …but I had a debt, a man pays his debts.”
“Well thank you Maurice…My friend.”
“No…I told you, I do not like the English. If did not owe you, you would be back there with your scalp decorating some Ojibwa’s belt.” Maurice stopped paddling and pointed his finger at my face. “My advice to you is to go east and do not come back.”
And with that Maurice turned his canoe west and we parted.