Nick Adams, Nick’s father, and Uncle George arrive at the shore of a lake where “two Indians” are waiting with rowboats. Nick and his father board one boat, while Nick’s uncle gets in another. The Indians begin to paddle them across the lake. It’s cold, and Nick sits wrapped in his father’s arms. The Indian rowing the boat is working very hard, while the boat carrying Nick’s uncle speeds ahead into the mist. Nick asks his father where they’re going and his father responds that they are headed to the “Indian camp” to see about an “Indian lady [who is] very sick.”
The opening scene establishes this story as a journey narrative. The Adamses cross a body of water into foreign, native territory, much like European settlers in colonial America. Nick is surrounded by the care of older male figures, his family and the rowing Indian, suggesting that he could be making a journey to join the ranks of the adult men.
When they’re on the other shore, Uncle George is sitting smoking a cigar, and gives one to each of the Indians as well. The Indians lead Nick’s family across a meadow and through the dark woods by lantern light until they reach a logging road where it is bright enough to see without the lantern. Eventually the group arrives at a grouping of “shanties where the Indian bark-peelers lived,” and dogs rush out barking. Then they spot the nearest shanty, where an old woman stands in the door with a lamp.
Uncle George quickly develops a friendly rapport with the Indian men, highlighting a sense of mutual understanding despite their cultural difference. Their sharing cigars and traveling through the woods sets a tone of masculine camaraderie that shifts as the Adamses enter a feminine, domestic space in the shanty.
Inside the shanty, a young Indian woman lies on a wooden bunk. The woman is in her second day of labor. The camp’s older women have been trying to help her birth her child, while the men have moved out of earshot of her screams. Her husband lies on the bunk above, smoking a pipe and nursing an open foot wound he got from an axe. The narrator notes the room smells bad.
The birthing process is in a state of disarray—the conditions seem unsanitary and the labor is difficult. Nevertheless, the women in the camp are able to withstand the gruesome scene, while most of the men avoid the shanty, demonstrating weakness of some of the male characters.
Nick’s father orders water to be boiled. He turns to Nick and explains that the Indian woman is going to have a baby. When Nick replies that he knows, his father argues that he doesn’t. He offers instead a specific description: that she is in labor and all her muscles are trying to get the baby born, causing her to scream. Nick then asks if his father has anything to give the mother to stop her screams. His father replies that he doesn’t have anesthetic, but he doesn’t even hear the screams because “they are not important.”
Nick’s father takes control of the situation, ordering boiling water presumably to use as disinfectant. He also offers Nick a naturalistic description of birth—it’s not a monumental emotional moment, but merely a physical process. In doing so, he tries to teach Nick to react stoically to intense situations at the risk of an empathetic view of the mother’s pain.
The older women signal that the water has boiled. Nick’s father pours half of the water into a basin, using it to scrub his hands with soap. He places several things unwrapped from a handkerchief in the other half. Nick watches his father prepare and observes how “carefully and thoroughly” he washes his hands. While washing, Nick’s father explains that the birth is difficult because the baby is in breech (turned feet-first).
In his cleaning ritual, Nick’s father brings some order to a chaotic situation through care and thoroughness. Again, this is an intended lesson for Nick about how a man can exert control over his surroundings. He also imposes a Western medical standard for birthing over the traditional one underway.
Later, Nick’s father begins a Caesarian section to deliver the baby. Uncle George and three Native American men hold the Indian woman down. During the operation, the mother bites Uncle George, causing him to yell “damn squaw bitch!” at her.
Throughout the surgery, Nick holds the basin of water for his father. After a long procedure, Nick’s father successfully delivers a baby boy. However, Nick is unable to watch the surgery, despite the fact his father is instructing him while performing it.
The mother is exhausted following the surgery; her eyes are closed, she’s pale, and doesn’t know if the baby is alive or not. Meanwhile, Nick’s father is triumphant after the successful delivery. He informs the mother that he will be back with nurses in the morning. Uncle George proudly congratulates Nick’s father for performing a C-section with a jack knife and remarks that he’s a great man.
Uncle George’s congratulations carry some irony. It supports Nick’s father’s intended lesson (that good work is a reflection of good character) but it disregards the poor state the mother is left in post-surgery. The two men are only able to acknowledge the successful birth, not the woman’s suffering.
Nick’s father remarks that they should check the father because “they’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs.” When he reaches for the father’s blanket, his hand gets wet. Upon further inspection, Nick’s father finds that the Indian woman’s husband slit his throat with a razor and the bed is pooling with blood. Nick’s father asks Uncle George to take Nick out of the shanty, but it’s too late: Nick has already seen the father’s head.
Once again, Nick’s father’s statement illustrates that he fails to empathize with the mother, and he belittles her suffering by calling labor a “little affair.” However, he’s strangely correct in his claim that fathers are the “worst sufferers.” Perhaps Nick’s Father’s rash commandeering of the child’s birth left the father feeling helpless and doomed, driving him to take his life.
Now outside the shanty, Nick’s father apologizes to his son for taking him on the trip. Nick, trying to reflect on the events in the shanty, asks his father a series of questions about birth and death. Nick’s father responds with a level of stoicism and calculated remove. Ultimately, he asks his father if dying is hard, to which he guesses that it’s pretty easy.
When Nick witnesses more intense trauma than anticipated, his father is unable to respond to his emotional needs. However, although Nick’s father models an emotionally detached and stereotypically masculine response, his earlier request that Uncle George take Nick out of the shanty, as well as his apology to Nick for taking him on the trip, suggests that Nick’s father does understand that this trauma is too much for his son to bear.
As Nick’s father rows his son back across the lake, away from the camp, the narrator notices beautiful details about natural world in the morning. The story finishes with the narrator observing that Nick, sitting in the boat with his father rowing, felt quite sure that he would never die.