The Kneeling Deer

The following true story is from Egerton R. Young’s book The Camp Doctor. Pastor Young was a missionary to Native Canadians (Indians) in the last part of the Nineteenth Century. His experiences were used as source material by the author Jack London.

The Camp Doctor will be re-published later this month by The Lutheran Library.

Kneeling Deer

The Kneeling Deer by Egerton R. Young

From a point of vantage, wrapped in his great blanket, Mustagan, an Indian, was intently watching the movements of some deer. Before him in a gently sloping valley, where the trees were smaller and of a second growth, there v/as an immense deer-yard. The heavy-colored pines and spruces around Mustagan had their boughs weighted down with snow and icicles, which shone like emeralds and mother-of-pearl in the clear silvery moonlight. Scores of deer were moving about, chiefly trying to find a warm place in which to lie down, for the cold was many degrees below zero.

Mustagan had been watching the deer for some hours, and it was now nearly midnight. He was roused by the crunching sound of a man walking on snowshoes. Away through the spruces he saw a young white man swinging along at a good rate. His head was held high, and he was careless of the noise he was making, and ignorant of the fact that he was near a deer-yard.

‘Hush!’ said Mustagan, putting his fingers to his lips, and then pointing to the white man’s snowshoes.

‘Tom Morgan will hush when he likes,’ replied the young white man.

Tom was a young hunter and fur-trader. He had run away from his home in Toronto, and was now in the woods of northern Ontario trying to find his fortune. Like most young traders he had mastered the Indian tongue. Just now, however, he was cutting across the country to find a bar and indulge in a Christmas spree. He was in a reckless mood, and seeing the Indian, determined to find out what he was doing.

‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded brusquely.

‘This is Christmas Eve, I am told,’ said Mustagan, quietly. ‘Mustagan is watching to see the wild deer kneeling to’

‘Ha, ha!’ laughed Morgan, ‘where’d you get that fool’s yarn? You’ll see the deer kneeling when you put a bullet in their neck – not before!’

Many of the deer plucked up their ears and started at the strange sound. Fire flashed in Mustagan’s eyes.

‘Hush!’ he repeated in a more commanding tone, and rose from his kneeling posture. As he stood up, his blanket fell from his shoulders, revealing a tall, well-built Indian of perhaps thirty years of age. His features were strong and swarthy, but not unhandsome.

Unheeding the Indian’s word and action, Tom stalked on until he came in view of the deer. Then he suddenly dropped on the ground and hid behind a tree.

‘Great place you got here,’ he whispered, as he crawled up behind Mustagan.’ How many deer have you bagged?’

‘Christmas Eve, this is. Indian no kill deer this night. Mustagan watch to see the wild deer kneel to the Prince of Peace.’

‘You’ve killed no deer! You fool, and a score of deer within fifty yards! I’ll have one, quick as Jack Robinson.’

Tom rose to his feet, swung his gun from his back, and was taking sight, when the rifle was wrenched quickly out of his hands and thrown into the snow.

‘How dare you touch my gun?’ he demanded, furious with rage.

‘This is the night of the Peace-Child. Mustagan has not seen Him, but he must see Him soon.’

Tom moved to pick up his gun, but Mustagan stepped in front of him. ‘Get out of my way!’

‘You not shoot tonight’

‘I’ll show you!’ shouted Tom, in anger, and moved quickly to strike the Indian. Mustagan rose to his full height, towering head and neck over young Tom, and quietly awaited the assault. Tom, in his fury, made a misstep, one snowshoe caught the other, and he fell ignominiously into the snow at Mustagan’s feet. He expected the Indian, whom he considered little better than a savage, to seize his advantage and bury his tomahawk in his brains. But no such evil befell him. He was permitted to rise uninjured,

‘Where did you get that fool yarn of the kneeling deer?’ queried Tom, rising to his feet and looking sheepishly at the Indian.

‘From Baptiste.’

‘When did he say they would kneel?’

‘This night, Christmas Eve, at midnight.’

‘That hour will soon be here, so we’ll watch together.’

‘Good,’ said Mustagan.

He picked up his blanket, wrapped it around his shoulders, and resumed his place of watch, spreading out a corner of the blanket for Tom. Tom thought that he could have no better fun than to watch the deer with this strangely earnest and superstitious Indian. So he recovered his rifle, re-slung it, and accepted the offered seat on the blanket.

The two men had not been seated more than ten minutes when an arrow whizzed by Mustagan’s head and struck the tree in front of them, burying its flint head deep in the wood. Tom sprang to his feet, seized his gun, and looked around. Mustagan also arose. He coolly walked to the tree and, with his tomahawk, liberated the arrow.

‘Ugh!’ he exclaimed, after carefully examining it, and handed the arrow to Tom.

‘Whose arrow is it?’

‘Jakoos, the conjurer, his arrow.’

‘You mean –––’

‘Jakoos; he would kill me for watching the kneeling deer and for the Prince of Peace.’

Tom looked at Mustagan a moment, trying to comprehend.

‘You mean that you are trying to find light and that you are persecuted by a murderous conjurer.’

‘Jakoos likes not Mustagan,’ said he, with a smile.’ He cheat and steal, beats drum and is no good. He promises peace, but I have tried his way. It is no good. No peace here.’ (He tapped his breast.) ‘Baptiste says Prince of Peace come tonight, and the wild deer kneel to Him.’

‘How long have you been seeking peace?’ asked Tom, with growing interest.

‘Since so high,’ said Mustagan, indicating the size of a boy. ‘Try bear dance. No good. See marks on my breast’ (He opened his shirt, and showed great scars down his chest.) ‘ Put sticks in there, hung on horse-hair ropes from a pole for two days. Then was rolled in vinegar and had convulsions. All to be a brave and find peace. But no good, no braver and no peace in heart. Then I fasted in the woods four times. One day, two days, three days, four days, but it was no good. Indian’s mind is dark, his heart is dark too, and full of fear, fear, fear. Mustagan got a wife and had children. Two got sick. Called in conjurers. They dress in skins of snakes, shake rattles and beat drums. Ugh! no good, children die.’

Mustagan turned his head, and swept his hand behind him to emphasize his loathing and disgust of the conjurers and their ways.

‘Last summer,’ continued Mustagan, ‘ I go on long trip for H.B.C.1 I heard Baptiste sing a song and tell a story. Mustagan became all ears. I heard him again, one moon ago. I speak to Baptiste and ask him more. He tell me, Christmas Eve one moon hence, and at midnight, the Prince of Peace, He come and all the wild deer kneel to Him.’

Mustagan told his story with suppressed eagerness and passion. Tom listened intently, and when Mustagan finished he hung his head in perplexity. He now felt himself not in the presence of a superstitious Indian, but before a sincere soul struggling for the light – the most subduing of all experiences. Dissatisfied with the old pagan religion which gave him no peace of soul, Mustagan was grasping, like a drowning man at a straw, at a fantastic figment, a weird distortion of the truth. In his earnest search for truth he had incurred the displeasure of the upholders of the pagan religion, who now persecuted him and would even kill him. Tom also felt that Mustagan would sooner die than give up his search for the truth.

While Tom felt his admiration and awe of Mustagan grow, he also became ashamed of his own light-hearted indifference to the treasures of truth that had been his from his mother’s knee, but which he had hastily thrown aside. Indifferent to Jesus Christ, he had soon become indifferent to his mother and father, home and other sacred ties, and had run away to indulge the wildest of passions. And now, here in the wild woods, to meet a poor ignorant Indian, who had caught but a ray of truth, and that distorted, and to see him following it with a zeal that was stronger than the love of life. He felt himself reproved and humbled.

‘Would you like to hear more of the Prince of Peace from me?’ said Tom, timidly.

‘Do you know Him?’ asked Mustagan, eagerly, looking at Tom almost fiercely.

‘My mother knows Him, and I know something of Him.’

‘Speak, man, quickly. I want to hear.’

It was long since Tom had allowed his thoughts to dwell on the coming of our Lord Christ to the world. Still, the story of the Christ-child is never forgotten by those who hear it from infancy to boyhood. As he heard it then, he remembered it best, and, in that form, it was most suitable to the mind of Mustagan. Tom took little for granted, and with straightforward simplicity he told the great story, ever new and always wonderful in its mystery – God coming in the form of a child. The humble parents, the birth in the stable, the wise men and their brilliant star and munificent gifts, the shepherds, the angels and their song were all described. Mustagan drank in the story eagerly, almost breathlessly.

Only when Tom was through did Mustagan open his mouth to speak. Then it was to endeavor to reconcile what he had heard from Baptiste with this wonderful story of Tom’s, for Mustagan’s mind was still childlike and tenacious of the fantastic.

‘And the deer kneel to the Son of God when He was born?’ said Mustagan.

Tom was at a loss how to answer. He did not like to incorporate any such fancy into the story of Christ, and yet he did not think that it would hurt Mustagan to believe that the wild deer know enough to adore their Creator. He, however, told him again about the birth in the stable with the cattle, no doubt, quite near. While men could not find a place for the Lord of earth and heaven, the dumb animals made room for Him.

A new idea flashed upon Tom’s mind. He had heard somebody say, he did not know how true it was, that some translators, knowing that northern Indians knew nothing of sheep and shepherds, described the shepherds of Bethlehem as Laplanders, and sheep as reindeer. Because the shepherds were watching on the hillside at night the Indians conceived that the deer must have been wild. The legend had confused the ‘deerkeepers,’ or ‘deer-watchers,’ kneeling to Christ on that Christmas morning, with the wild deer themselves. So Tom tried to explain it.

‘Baptiste, he sang, “The wild deer kneeling.”

‘Well,’ said Tom in desperation, ‘no doubt the deer of the woods and the hunters and the Indians are as welcomed by Him as are the shepherds of tame animals like sheep.’

Mustagan was deeply touched.

‘He thought of Indians too, did He?’

‘He certainly thought of us all, Mustagan,’ said Tom, emphatically.’ He loves the Indian as much as the white man, and came to bless the one as much as the other.’

‘Can I see Him tonight?’ asked Mustagan.

‘With the eye of the heart, not with the eye of the head. He says that He is nigh unto all them that call upon Him.’

‘Will He hear me? ‘asked Mustagan in some surprise.

Tom’s feelings had been deeply wrought upon during his recital and conversation. Memories of his mother, his home, and, above all, thoughts of the mercies of God who had followed him into that wild land, crowded into his mind. He felt himself a foolish, wicked, ungrateful prodigal. He could hardly wait to answer Mustagan’s last question, for he was on his feet and wanted to be away.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said in anguish of soul, ‘He’ll hear you, Mustagan. May He hear me too.’

Then he rushed away into the woods and threw himself down in the snow, crying to God to forgive him and to speak peace to his heart.

Mustagan was greatly perplexed by what he saw. Here was a young man who knew about the Prince of Peace and yet seemed to be troubled in his heart the same as himself. He was tempted to go near the penitent and listen to his cries, but, remembering his own heart-struggles, he respected Tom’s attempt to be alone. He feared, however, for the young white man in the cold; so he took his blanket and threw it over him. This left him with little else, for he had few other clothes. However, he quietly left the young man and hastened towards his wigwam.

Tom spent the rest of the night in deep agony of soul, but ere the morning sun filled that day with his glory he had surrendered to Christ, and arose a new man.

‘That blessed Indian,’ he exclaimed, when he felt the blanket and realized what Mustagan had done.

With his heart beating with new love he hastily wrapped up the blanket and strapped it on his back with his rifle. Then he found the Indian’s trail and followed it through the woods and over the hills for about ten miles, when it brought him to a small Indian village. After some search he was shown Mustagan’s wigwam. When Tom saw him he hastened to him.

‘You must have talked with the Peace-child, Mustagan.’

‘Me!’ exclaimed Mustagan.

‘Yes, you, Mustagan. For it must have been He who told you to put your blanket over me and to walk home in the cold.’

‘My heart has peace,’ said Mustagan, quietly.

‘May He soon give you joy such as I have,’ said the happy white man.

‘Tell me,’ said Mustagan.

Tom told him of his early life, his wayward spirit, and God’s goodness in pardoning him. By the grace of the Holy Spirit Mustagan saw God’s forgiving love and how it was to be received.

‘The wild deer kneels with the tame,’ he said.

‘Pray for me.’

The two men knelt in that wigwam, and the Father heard them and sent the spirit of the Peace-child to each.

One week later, on a bright New Year’s morning, Tom walked into his father’s home, to the joy and surprise of all, and as he told the story of Mustagan, of the legend of the kneeling deer, and of his conversion, his mother drew him close to her breast.

The Camp Doctor will be re-published later this month by The Lutheran Library.

  1. Hudson Bay Company. ↩︎


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