The White Deer at Onota (North American Folk Tale)

Beside quiet Onota, in the Berkshire Hills, dwelt a band of Indians, and while they lived here a white deer often came to drink. So rare was the appearance of an animal like this that its visits were held as good omens, and no hunter of the tribe ever tried to slay it. A prophet of the race had said, “So long as the white doe drinks at Onota, famine shall not blight the Indian”s harvest, nor pestilence come nigh his lodge, nor foeman lay waste his country.” And this prophecy held true. That summer when the deer came with a fawn as white and graceful as herself, it was a year of great abundance. On the outbreak of the French and Indian War a young officer named Montalbert was despatched to the Berkshire country to persuade the Housatonic Indians to declare hostility to the English, and it was as a guest in the village of Onota that he heard of the white deer. Sundry adventurers had made valuable friendships by returning to the French capital with riches and curiosities from the New World. Even Indians had been abducted as gifts for royalty, and this young ambassador resolved that when he returned to his own country the skin of the white deer should be one of the trophies that would win him a smile from Louis.

He offered a price for it–a price that would have bought all their possessions and miles of the country roundabout, but their deer was sacred, and their refusal to sacrifice it was couched in such indignant terms that he wisely said no more about it in the general hearing. There was in the village a drunken fellow, named Wondo, who had come to that pass when he would almost have sold his soul for liquor, and him the officer led away and plied with rum until he promised to bring the white doe to him. The pretty beast was so familiar with men that she suffered Wondo to catch her and lead her to Montalbert. Making sure that none was near, the officer plunged his sword into her side and the innocent creature fell. The snowy skin, now splashed with red, was quickly stripped off, concealed among the effects in Montalbert”s outfit, and he set out for Canada; but he had not been many days on his road before Wondo, in an access of misery and repentance, confessed to his share of the crime that had been done and was slain on the moment.

With the death of the deer came an end to good fortune. Wars, blights, emigration followed, and in a few years not a wigwam was left standing beside Onota.

There is a pendant to this legend, incident to the survival of the deer”s white fawn. An English hunter, visiting the lake with dog and gun, was surprised to see on its southern bank a white doe. The animal bent to drink and at the same moment the hunter put his gun to his shoulder. Suddenly a howl was heard, so loud, so long, that the woods echoed it, and the deer, taking alarm, fled like the wind. The howl came from the dog, and, as that animal usually showed sagacity in the presence of game, the hunter was seized with a fear that its form was occupied, for the time, by a hag who lived alone in the “north woods,” and who was reputed to have appeared in many shapes–for this was not so long after witch times that their influence was forgotten.

Drawing his ramrod, the man gave his dog such a beating that the poor creature had something worth howling for, because it might be the witch that he was thrashing. Then running to the shanty of the suspected woman he flung open her door and demanded to see her back, for, if she had really changed her shape, every blow that he had given to the dog would have been scored on her skin. When he had made his meaning clear, the crone laid hold on the implement that served her for horse at night, and with the wooden end of it rained blows on him so rapidly that, if the dog had had half the meanness in his nature that some people have, the spectacle would have warmed his heart, for it was a prompt and severe revenge for his sufferings. And to the last the hunter could not decide whether the beating that he received was prompted by indignation or vengeance.

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