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A Mountain Woman Elia W. Peattie

Two Pioneers

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Give a nation two winters of grippe, and it will have an epidemic of suicide. Give it starvation and small-pox, and it will have a contagion of murders. There are subtle laws underlying these things, -- laws which the physicians think they can explain; but they are mistaken. The reason is not so material as it seems.

But spring was near in spite of falling snow and the dirty ice in the river. There was not even a flushing of the willow twigs to tell it by, nor a clearing of the leaden sky, -- only the almanac. Yet all men were looking forward to it The trappers put in the feeble days of convalescence, making long rafts on which to pile the skins dried over winter, -- a fine variety, worth all but their weight in gold. Money was easily got in those days; but there are circumstances under which money is valueless.

Father de Smet thought of this the day before Easter, as he plunged through the mud of the winding street in his bearskin gaiters. Stout were his legs, firm his lungs, as he turned to breathe in the west wind; clear his sharp and humorous eyes. He was going to the little chapel where the mission school had previously been held. Here was a rude pulpit, and back of it a much-disfigured virgin, dressed in turkey-red calico. Two cheap candles in their tin sticks guarded this figure, and beneath, on the floor, was spread an otter-skin of perfect beauty. The seats were of pine, without backs, and the wind whistled through the chinks between the logs. Moreover, the place was dirty. Lenten service had been out of the question. The living had neither time nor strength to come to worship; and the dead were not given the honor of a burial from church in these times of terror. The priest looked about him in dismay, the place was so utterly forsaken; yet to let Easter go by without recognition was not to his liking. He had been the night before to every house in the settlement, bidding the people to come to devotions on Sunday morning. He knew that not one of them would refuse his invitation. There was no hero larger in the eyes of these unfortunates than the simple priest who walked among them with his unpretentious piety. The promises were given with whispered blessings, and there were voices that broke in making them, and hands that shook with honest gratitude. The priest, remembering these things, and all the awful suffering of the winter, determined to make the service symbolic, indeed, of the resurrection and the life, -- the annual resurrection and life that comes each year, a palpable miracle, to teach the dullest that God reigns.

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"How are you going to trim the altar?" cried a voice behind him.

He turned, startled, and in the doorway stood Mademoiselle Ninon, her short skirt belted with a red silk scarf, -- the token of some trapper, -- her ankles protected with fringed leggins, her head covered with a beribboned hat of felt, such as the voyageurs wore.

"Our devotions will be the only decorations we can hang on it. But gratitude is better than blossoms, and humanity more beautiful than green wreaths," said the father, gently.

It was a curious thing, and one that he had often noticed himself; he gave this woman -- unworthy as she was -- the best of his simple thoughts.

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A Mountain Woman
Elia W. Peattie

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