Council Of Fire – Snippet 20

Chapter 14

Hates men, hates the light


They had been streaming into the low town for a few days: traders, couriers de bois, even missionaries, finding their way from Upper Canada and the wild lands of the Far Indians, seeking the safety of Québec.

The rivers and lakes had become dangerous. It didn’t make much sense to Montcalm, but after the event that had drawn him onto the Heights of Abraham–the strange confusion that had drawn him back to the battle at Piacenza a dozen years earlier–he was not sure what made sense.

A few weeks after that incident, he received a message from François de Lévis, requesting his presence in the low town. It was a chilly, overcast day; there had been a cold rain the night before, leading to the sort of damp that creeps into the bones–the sort that makes you feel old, he thought as he made his way down from the promontory.

Lévis was at the wharf with a native that he did not know. The dock was strewn with some sort of wreckage, and the two men were examining it closely. When Montcalm approached, Lévis stood and saluted. The Indian remained crouched, holding a long, jagged sliver of what might have once been the keel of a bateau, a flat-bottomed boat common on the St. Lawrence. He looked up at Montcalm with some emotion that was difficult to read but seemed mildly hostile.

“Monsieur,” Lévis said. “This is Red Vest. He is a Seneca–a warrior and guide, well-known among his people.”

The native offered a slight nod, but his expression did not change.

“What is all this?”

“A bateau–or what was once a bateau, at least. It floated downstream this morning. Something attacked it.”

“Something or someone? It looks as if it has been torn apart.”

“Red Vest has a possible explanation,” Lévis said, gesturing to the native. “He thinks that it was attacked by a . . .”

Maneto,” the native said. It was the first word he had spoken, and it came in a deep, resonant voice that carried along the dock; several other people stopped and looked at him as he stood upright, still holding the jagged piece of wood in his hands.

“What, or who, is Maneto?”

“What,” the man answered. “Maneto is a snake, a great serpent that lives at the bottom of the lake. Some call it Kichimanetowa. It waits for boat to pass over and then–” He snapped the wood fragment in two and tossed the pieces to the dock. “Hates men, hates the light.”

Montcalm looked from Lévis to Red Vest. “Why have we never heard of this before? We have traveled across many lakes and rivers here without being attacked.”

“Servant of Onontio knows the answer to this,” Red Vest said, folding his arms in front of him. “Maneto sleeps for many years, but now has woken up. Maneto hates all men but has most hate for white men.”

“How can it tell?”

“The smell,” Red Vest said. He turned his head and spat. “Maneto can smell white flesh.”

“You will show courtesy to the Marquis,” Lévis said, taking a step toward Red Vest. “What do you mean, the smell?”

“Whites have no medicine,” Red Vest answered. “Red men have medicine, and Maneto is careful with them. Among my people, when we fish from lake we always give one back to Maneto so he is satisfied, so he sleeps. But white men fish and take every one.

“But there is more. The wind has changed, and Maneto feels the change. He knows that white men have taken all the fish, and he is angry and hungry.” Red Vest gestured toward the remains of the boat scattered on the dock. “White men should stay off the rivers.”

“That’s not practical,” Montcalm said. “Tell me, Red Vest, why don’t the red men–or the white men–just kill all the Maneto?”

“Kill Maneto?” Red Vest spat again. “They are at the bottom of the lake–”

“Not when they come up and attack.”

“Their hides are as tough as old trees, and they have great horns and teeth, Marquis,” the Indian said. He gave the title an angry intonation. “They are hard to kill, and even if you could, another would grow in their place. Maneto only fear one thing.”

“And what is that?”

Ciinkwia,” he said. “The spirits of thunder and storm. If they choose, they take the forms of men and stride across land and water and put the Maneto to sleep.”

“That’s what he told me, Monsieur,” Lévis said. “The Miami shamans are calling on the Ciinkwia to come and put down the Maneto. Meanwhile . . .” he gestured toward the scattered remains of the bateau.

“Please give Red Vest his reward, and then attend me,” Montcalm said to Lévis, and turned away from the Indian without another word.

By the time Lévis caught up with Montcalm, he had walked into the lower town. Most of the recent arrivals did not trouble the marquis as he passed; they had their own concerns.

“Tell me about Red Vest.”

“He is as he seems, Monsieur,” Lévis said. “A trader and guide. He thinks very little–” A group of roughly-dressed traders stepped around Montcalm with scarce courtesy. “He thinks very little of whites.”

“And these are the savages we consider to be our friends,” Montcalm said. “What do our enemies say about us?”

“They do not stop to converse, Monsieur,” Lévis said. “They use other means to communicate.”

“Then why am I inclined to believe that this wise, white-hating trader and guide is not spouting nonsense about man-eating snakes and thunder spirits that walk on water? I think our Far Indians may have gone to the warpath, François, and driven our people from the lakes and rivers, and the Miamis and our other friends among the natives may be too weak, or too afraid, to do anything about it.”

“So you do not believe his story,” Lévis said.

Montcalm took Lévis by the elbow and led him out of the street to an alley overhung by the eaves of a small warehouse. “I do not completely discount it,” he said, lowering his voice. “There are strange things afoot. But I am not inclined to give credence to rumors that will frighten large numbers of people.”

“That seems to have already happened.” Lévis gestured to the nearby street. “Many of these people were travelers or settlers some distance from Québec. They are afraid of something, Monsieur, and I don’t think it’s just Far Indians.”

“I grant that. But I will not feed the fears of the habitants, François.”

“Then what do you propose to do, Monsieur?”

“I need you to pick a few dozen men–brave men, François, not just time-servers. They should be good marksmen, and if possible, they should be tolerant of the savages. Find me a priest who will be willing to accompany them. We are going to travel upriver and see just what there is to this Maneto story.

“And if they exist, for some reason, we are going to kill one and bring it home and plant His Christian Majesty’s flag in the middle of its ugly, scaly back. That should show the people–and the savages as well–what sort of power the Onontio possesses.”