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A Mountain Woman Elia W. Peattie

Two Pioneers

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But to return to the winter of the smallpox. It was then that the priest and Ninon grew to know each other well. They became acquainted first in the cabin where four of the trappers lay tossing in delirium. The horrible smell of disease weighted the air. Outside wet snow fell continuously and the clouds seemed to rest only a few feet above the sullen bluffs. The room was bare of comforts, and very dirty. Ninon looked about with disgust.

"You pray," said she to the priest, "and I will clean the room."

"Not so," returned the broad-shouldered father, smilingly, "we will both clean the room." Thus it came that they scrubbed the floor together, and made the chimney so that it would not smoke, and washed the blankets on the beds, and kept the wood-pile high. They also devised ventilators, and let in fresh air without exposing the patients. They had no medicine, but they continually rubbed the suffering men with bear's grease.

"It's better than medicine," said Ninon, after the tenth day, as, wan with watching, she held the cool hand of one of the recovering men in her own. "If we had had medicines we should have killed these men."

"You are a woman of remarkable sense," said the holy father, who was eating a dish of corn-meal and milk that Ninon had just prepared, "and a woman also of Christian courage."

"Christian courage?" echoed Ninon; "do you think that is what you call it? I am not afraid, no, not I; but it is not Christian courage. You mistake in calling it that." There were tears in her eyes. The priest saw them.

"God lead you at last into peaceful ways," said he, softly, lifting one hand in blessing. "Your vigil is ended. Go to your home and sleep. You know the value of the temporal life that God has given to man. In the hours of the night, Ninon, think of the value of eternal life, which it is also His to give."

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Ninon stared at him a moment with a dawning horror in her eyes.

Then she pointed to the table.

"Whatever you do," said she, "don't forget the bear's grease." And she went out laughing. The priest did not pause to recommend her soul to further blessing. He obeyed her directions.

March was wearing away tediously. The river was not yet open, and the belated boats with needed supplies were moored far down the river. Many of the reduced settlers were dependent on the meat the Indians brought them for sustenance. The mud made the roads almost impassable; for the frost lay in a solid bed six inches below the surface, and all above that was semi-liquid muck. Snow and rain alternated, and the frightful disease did not cease its ravages.

The priest got little sleep. Now he was at the bed of a little half-breed child, smoothing the straight black locks from the narrow brow; now at the cot of some hulking trapper, who wept at the pain, but died finally with a grin of bravado on his lips; now in a foul tepee, where some grave Pawnee wrapped his mantle about him, and gazed with prophetic and unflinching eyes into the land of the hereafter.

The little school that the priest started had been long since abandoned. It was only the preservation of life that one thought of in these days. And recklessness had made the men desperate. To the ravages of disease were added horrible murders. Moral health is always low when physical health is so.

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A Mountain Woman
Elia W. Peattie

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