Meeting Of The Wild Men
( Originally Published 1921 )
WHO IS SON-IN-LAW ?
CHRISTMAS week had arrived and now we were off for the New Year's dance to be held at Fort Consolation. Instead of travelling round three sides of an oblong as we had done to reach Oo-koo-hoo's hunting ground by canoe, we now, traveIIing on snowshoes, cut across country, over hill and valley, lake and river, in a southeasterly direction, until we struck Caribou River and then turned toward White River and finally arrived at God's Lake. Our little party included Oo-koo-hoo, his wife Ojistoh, their granddaughter Neykia, and myself. Our domestic outfit was loaded upon two hunting sleds in the hauling of which we all took turns, as well as in relieving each other in the work of track beating. At night we camped in the woods without any shelter save brush windbreaks over the heads of our beds, our couches being made of balsam-twigs laid shingle fashion in the snow. For the sake of warmth Ojistoh and Neykia slept together, while Oo-koo-hoo and I cuddled up close to one another and fitted together like spoons in a cutlery case, for the cold sometimes dipped to forty below.
The prisoner of the city, however, may think sleeping under such conditions not only a terrible hardship but a very dangerous thing in the way of catching one's death of cold. I can assure him it is nothing of the kind when the bed is properly made. And not only does one never catch cold under such conditions, but it is my experience that there is no easier way to get rid of a bad cold than to sleep out in the snow, wrapped in a Hudson's Bay blanket, a caribou robe, or a rabbit-skin quilt, when the thermometer is about fifty below zero. But rather than delay over a description in detail of the mere novelty of winter travel, let us hurry along to our first destination, and visit the Free Trader Mr. Spear and his family, and find out for our own satisfaction whether or not the mysterious "Son-in-law" had recently been courting the charming Athabasca.
When we reached God's Lake, for a while we snow-shoed down the centre, until at the parting of our ways we said good-bye, for the Indians were heading directly for Fort Consolation. As I neared Spearhead and came in view of its one and only house, the Free Trader's dogs set up a howl, and Mr. Spear came out to greet me and lead me into the sitting room where I was welcomed by his wife and daughter. Now I made a discovery: quartered in a box in the hall behind the front door they had three geese that being quite free to walk up and down the hall, occasionally strolled about for exercise. As good luck would have it, supper was nearly ready, and I had just sufficient time to make use of the tin hand-basin in the kitchen before the tea bell rang. Again, during the first half of the meal we all chatted in a lively strain, all save Athabasca, who, though blushing less than usual, smiled a little more, and murmured an occasional yes or no; all the while looking even more charming. But her composure endured not long, for her mother presently renewed the subject of "Son-in-law":
"Father, don't you think it would be a good idea if you took son-in-law into partnership very soon?"
"Yes, Mother, I do, because business is rapidly growing, and I'll need help in the spring. Besides, it would give me a chance to do my own fur-running in winter, and in that way I believe I could double, if not treble, our income."
Athabasca turned crimson and I followed suit for being a born blusher myself, and mortally hating it, I could never refrain from sympathizing with others similarly afflicted.
"Precisely, Father," replied Mrs. Spear, "that's exactly what. I thought. So you see you wouldn't be making any sacrifice whatever, and such an arrangement would prove an advantage all round. Everybody would be the happier for it, and it seems to me to delay the wedding would be a vital mistake."
From that moment until we left the table Athabasca concentrated her vision on her plate; and I wondered more than ever who "Son-in-law" could be. Then an idea came to me, and I mused: "We'll surely see him at Fort Consolation."
After supper I discovered a new member of the household, a chore-boy, twenty-eight years of age, who had come out from England to learn farming in the Free Trader's stump lot, and who was paying Mr. Spear so many hundred dollars a year for that privilege, and also for the pleasure of daily cleaning out the stable and the pig pen. When I first saw him, I thought : "Why here, at last, is 'Son-in-law:" But on second consideration, I knew he was not the lucky man, for it was evident the Spears did not recognize him as their social equal, since they placed him, at meal time, out in the kitchen at the table with their two half-breed maid-servants.
That. evening, while sitting around the big wood stove, we discussed Shakespeare, Byron, Scott, and even the latest novel that was then in vogue—" Trilby," if I remember right for the Spears not only subscribed to the Illustrated London News and Blackwood's but they took Harper's and Scribner's, too. And by the way, though Athabasca had never been to school, her mother had personally attended to her education. When bedtime arrived, they all peeled off their moccasins and stockings and hung them round the stove to dry, and then pitter-pattered up the cold, bare stairs in their bare feet. I was shown into the spare room and given a candle, and when I bade them good-night and turned to close the door, I discovered that there was no door to close, nor was there even a curtain to screen me from view. The bed, however, was an old-fashioned wooden affair with a big solid footboard, so I concluded that in case of any one passing the doorway, I could crouch behind the foot of the bed. Then, when I blew out my candle, I got a great surprise, for lo and behold! I could see all over the house! I could see "Paw and Maw" getting undressed, Athabasca saying her prayers, and the half-breed maids getting into bed.
How did it happen? The cracks between the upright boards of my partition were so wide that I could have shoved my fingers through. As a matter of fact, Mr. Spear explained next day, the lumber being green, rather than nail the boards tightly into place, he had merely stood them up, and waited for them to season.
During the night the cold grew intense, and several times I was startled out of my sleep by a frosty report from the ice and snow on the roof that reminded one of the firing of a cannon.
In the morning when the geese began screeching in the lower hall, I thought it was time to get up, and was soon in the very act of pulling off a certain garment over my head when one of the half-breed maids the red-headed one whose hair Mr. Spear had cut off with the horse clippers intruded herself into my room to see if I were going to be down in time for breakfast, and I had to drop behind the foot of the bed.
At breakfast, the first course was oatmeal porridge; the second, "Son-in-law"; the third, fried bacon, toast, and tea; after which we all put on our wraps for our five-mile trip across God's Lake to Fort Consolation. Everyone went, maids, chore-boy, and all, and everyone made the trip on snowshoes—all save the trader's wife, who rode in state, in a carriole, hauled by a tandem train of four dogs.
THE NEW YEAR'S DANCE
It was a beautiful sunny day and the air was very still; and though the snow was wind-packed and hard, the footing was very tiresome, for the whole surface of the lake was just one endless mass of hard-packed snowdrifts that represented nothing so much as a great, stormy, white-capped sea that had been instantly congealed. And for us it was just up and down, in and out, up and down, in and out, all the way over. These solid white waves, however, proved one thing, and that was the truth of Oo-koo-hoo's woodcraft; for, just as he had previously told me, if we had been suddenly encompassed by a dense fog or a heavy snowstorm, we could never for a moment have strayed from our true course; as all the drifts pointed one way, south-by-southeast, and therefore must have kept us to our proper direction.
There were many dogs and sleds, and many Indians and half-breeds, too, about the Fort when we arrived; and as the dogs heralded our approach, the Factor came out to greet us and wish us a Happy New Year. At the door Mrs. Mackenzie, the half-breed wife of the Factor, was waiting with a beaming smile and a hearty welcome for us; and after we had removed our outer wraps, she led us over to the storehouse in which a big room had been cleared, and heated, and decorated to answer as a ballroom and banqueting hall. Tables were being laid for the feast, and Indian mothers and maidens and children, too, were already sitting on the floor around the sides of the room, and with sparkling eyes were watching the work in happy expectation. Around the doorway, both out and in, stood the men Indians and half-breeds and a few French and English Canadians. Some wore hairy caribou capotes, others hairless moose-skin jackets trimmed with otter or beaver fur, others again were garbed in duffel capotes of various colours with hoods and turned-back cuffs of another hue; but the majority wore capotes made of Hudson's Bay blanket and trimmed with slashed fringes at the shoulders and skirt; while their legs were encased in trousers gartered below the knee, and their feet rested comfortably in moccasins. Though, when snowshoeing, all the men wore hip-high leggings of duffel or blanket, the former sometimes decorated with a broad strip of another colour, the latter were always befringed the whole way down the outer seam; both kinds were gartered at the knee. Such leggings are always removed when entering a lodge or house or when resting beside a campfire in order to free the legs from the gathered snow and prevent it from thawing and wetting the trousers. The children wore outer garments of either blanket or rabbit skin, while the women gloried in brilliant plaid shawls of two sizes a small one for the head and a large one for the shoulders. The short cloth skirts of the women and girls were made so that the fullness at the waist, instead of being cut away, was merely puckered into place, and beneath the lower hem of the skirt showed a pair of beaded leggings and a pair of silk-worked moccasins.
All the Indians shook hands with us, for in the Canadian Government's treaty with them it is stipulated that : "We expect you to be good friends with everyone, and shake hands with all whom you meet." And I might further add that the Indian when one meets him in the winter bush is more polite than the average white man, for he always removes his mitten, and offers one his bare hand. Further, if his hand happens to be dirty, he will spit on it and rub it on his leggings to try and cleanse it before presenting it to you. But when he did that, I could never decide which was the more acceptable condition before or after.
When the Factor entered, he was greeted with a perfect gale of merriment, as it was the ancient custom of the Great Company that he should kiss every woman and girl at the New Year's feast. After that historical ceremony was over in which Free Trader Spear also had to do his duty and the laughter had subsided, the principal guests were seated at the Factor's table, the company consisting of the three clergymen, the Spears, myself, the two North-West Mounted Policemen who had just; arrived from the south and a few native head-men, including my friend Oo-koo-hoo. Though the feast was served in relays, some of the guests who were too hungry to await their turn were served as they sat about the floor. The dishes included the choice of moose, caribou, bear, lynx, beaver, or muskrat.
Then a couple of picturesque, shock-haired French Canadians got up on a big box that rested upon a table, and tuning up their fiddles, the dance was soon in full swing. In rapid succession the music changed from the Double Jig to the Reel of Four, the Duck Dance, the Double Reel of Four, the Reel of Eight, and the Red River Jig, till the old log storehouse shook from its foundation right up to its very rafters. The breath-less, perspiring, but happy couples kept at it until exhaustion fairly overtook them, and then dropping out now and then, they sat on the floor around the walls till they had rested; and then, with all their might and main, they went at it again. Among other things I noticed that the natives who were smoking were so considerate of their hosts' feelings that they never for a moment forgot themselves enough to soil the freshly scrubbed floor, hut always used their upturned fur caps as cuspidors.
The children, even the little tots, showed great interest in the dancing of their parents, and so delighted did they become that they would sometimes gather in a group in a corner and try to step in time with the music.
Everyone that could dance took a turn even Oo-koo-hoo and old Granny did the "light fantastic" and at one time or another all the principal guests were upon the floor; all save the priest. The scarlet tunics of the corporal and the con-stable of the Royal North-West Mounted Police as well as the sombre black of the English Church and the Presbyterian clergymen, added much to the whirling colour scheme, as well as to the joy of the occasion. But look where I would I could not find "Son-in-law," and though the blushing Athabasca was often in the dance, it was plain to see her lover was not there, for even the handsome policemen, though they paid her marked attention, gave no sign, either of them, of being the lucky one. In the number of partners, Oo-koo-hoo's granddaughter outshone them all, and, moreover, her lover was present. At every chance Shing-wauk The Little Pine was shyly whispering to her and she was looking very happy. Even I rose to the occasion and had for my first partner our host's swarthy wife, a wonderful performer, who, after her husband's retirement from the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, became the most popular dancer in all Winnipeg. Nor must I forget my dance with that merry, muscular, iron-framed lady, Oo-koo-hoo's better half-old Granny who at first crumpled me up in her gorilla-like embrace, and ended by swinging me clean off my feet, much to the merriment of the Indian maidens.
As the afternoon wore on the Rabbit Dance began, and was soon followed by the Hug-Me-Snug, the Drops of Brandy, and the Saskatchewan Circle, and last but not least the Kissing Dance. And when the Kissing Dance was encored for the fifth. time, the company certainly proclaimed it a Happy New Year.
THE BEAUTIFUL ATHABASCA
Again at tea time the guests gathered round the festive board; then, a little later, the music once more signalled the dancers to take their places on the floor. Hour after hour it went on. After midnight another supper was served; but still "the band "—consisting of a violin and a concertina played on, and still the moccasined feet pounded the floor without intermission. At the very height of the fun, when the Free Trader's charming daughter was being whirled about by a scarlet tunic, Mrs. Spear turned to me and beamed:
"Doesn't Athabasca look radiantly beautiful?"
"Indeed she does ! " I blushed.
"And what a delightful party this is . . . but there's just one thing lacking . . . to make it perfect."
"What's that?" I enquired.
"A wedding . . . my dear." Then, after a long pause, during which she seemed to be staring at me but I didn't dare look she impatiently tossed her head and exclaimed:
"My . . . but some men are deathly slow!"
"Indeed they are," I agreed.
About four o'clock in the morning the music died down, then, after much hand-shaking, the company dispersed in various directions over the moonlit snow; some to their near-by lodges, some to the log sharks in the now-deserted Indian village, and others to their distant hunting grounds. It must have been nearly five o'clock before the ladies in the Factor's house went upstairs, and the men lay down upon caribou, bear, and buffalo skins on the otherwise bare floor of the living room. It was late next morning when we arose, yet already the policemen had vanished they had again set out on their long northern patrol.
At breakfast Mr. and Mrs. Spear invited me to return and spend the night with them, and as Oo-koo-hoo and his wife wanted to remain a few days to visit some Indian friends, and as the Factor had told me that the north-bound packet with the winter's mail from the railroad was soon due; and as, moreover, the Fur Brigade would be starting south in a few days, and it would travel for part of the way along our homeward trail, I accepted Mr. Mackenzie's invitation to return to Fort Consolation and depart with the Fur Brigade.
It was a cold trip across the lake as the thermometer had dropped many degrees and a northwest wind was blowing in our faces. As I had frequently had my nose frozen, it now turned white very quickly, and a half-breed, who was crossing with us, turned round every once in a while and exclaimed to me:
"Oh my gud ! your nose all froze ! "
The snow seemed harder than ever, and for long stretches we took off our snowshoes and ran over the drifts, but so wind-packed were they that they received little impression from our feet. Of course, when we arrived at Spearhead, the house was cold and everything in it above the cellar except the cats and geese was frozen solid; but it is surprising how quickly those good old-fashioned box stoves will heat a dwelling; for in twenty or thirty minutes those wood-burning stoves were red-hot and the whole house comfortably warm.
It's strange, but nevertheless true, that "Son-in-law" was never once mentioned at dinner, but later on, when Athabasca and I were sitting one on either side of the room, Mrs. Spear got up and, getting a picture book, asked:
"Mr. Heming, are you fond of pictures? Daughter has a delightful little picture book here that I want her to show you, so now, my dears, both sit over there on the sofa where the light will be better, and look at it together."
Moving over to the old horsehair sofa the pride of all Spearhead and even of Fort Consolation we sat down together, much closer than I had expected, as some of the springs were broken, thus forming a hollow in the centre of the affair, into which we both slid without warning just as though it were a trap set for bashful people. Then Mrs. Spear with a sigh, evidently of satisfaction, withdrew from the room, and we were left alone together. With the book spread out upon our knees we looked it over for perhaps Well, I am not sure how long, but anyway, when I came to, I saw something just in front of me on the floor. Really, it startled me. For in following it up with my eye I discovered that it was the toe of a moccasin, and the worst of it was that it was being worn by Mrs. Spear. There, for ever so long, she must have been standing and watching us. The worst of that household was that all its members wore moccasins, so you could never hear them coining.
That night, when we were sitting around the stove, Mrs. Spear explained to me how she had educated her daughter and added: "But perhaps, after all, if the wedding is not going to take place right away, it might be well to send Daughter to some finishing school for a few months say in Toronto," and then, after a little pause, and still looking at me, she asked: "To which school would you prefer us to send Athabasca?"
When I named the most fashionable girls' school in that city, "Paw and Maw" settled it, there and then, that Daughter would attend it next fall, that is, unless it was decided to celebrate her wedding at an earlier date.
Next morning, at breakfast, Mrs. Spear suggested that Athabasca should take me for a drive through the woods and Mr. Spear remarked:
"You know, Mr. Heming, we haven't any cutter or any suitable sleigh, and besides, one of the horses is working in the stump lot; but I think I can manage."
In a little while he led a horse round to the front door. The animal had a pole attached to either side, the other end of which dragged out behind; across the two poles, just behind the horse's tail, was fastened a rack of cross poles upon which was placed some straw and a buffalo robe_ It was really a travois, the kind of conveyance used by the Plains Indians. Getting aboard the affair, off we went, the old plug rumbling along in a kind of a trotting walk, while Athabasca held the reins. The morning being a fine sunny one, and the trees being draped and festooned with snow, the scene was so beautiful when we got into the thicker woods that it made one think of fairyland. A couple of fluffy little whiskey jacks followed us all the way there and back, just as though they wanted to see and hear everything that was going on; but those little meddlers of the northwoods must have been disappointed, for both Athabasca and I were not only too shy to talk, but too bashful even to sit. upright; in fact, we both leaned so far away from one another that we each hung over our side of the trap, and did nothing but gaze far off into the enchanted wood. We must have been gone nearly two hours when the house again carne into view. Yes, I enjoyed it. It was so romantic. But what I couldn't understand was why her parents allowed her to go with me, when they were already counting on "Son-in-law" marrying her. It was certainly a mystery to me. However, that afternoon I left for Fort Consolation.
BACK TO FORT CONSOLATION
On my way across the lake I noticed that the wind was veering round toward the east and that the temperature was rising. When I arrived in good time for supper Factor Mackenzie seemed relieved, and remarked that the barometer indicated a big storm from the northeast. That night, in front of the big open fire, we talked of the fur trade. Among other books and papers he showed me was a copy of the Company's Deed Poll; not published a century ago, but printed at the time of which I am writing, and thus it read:
"To all whom these presents shall corne, The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay send greeting. Whereas His Majesty King Charles the Second did, by His Royal Charter, constitute the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay in a Body Corporate, with perpetual succession and with power to elect a Governor and Deputy Governor and Committee for the management of their trade and affairs ."
From it I learned that the commissioned officers appointed by the Company to carry on their trade in Canada were: a Commissioner, three Inspecting Chief Factors, eight Chief Factors, fifteen Factors, ten Chief Traders, and twenty-one Junior Chief Traders, all of whom on appointment became shareholders in the Company. While the Governor and Committee had their offices in London, the Commissioner was the Canadian head with his offices in Winnipeg, and to assist him an advisory council, composed of Chief Factors and Chief Traders, was occasionally called. The Company's territory was divided into four departments the Western, the Southern, the Northern, and the Montreal while each department was again sub-divided into many districts, the total number being thirty-four. The non-commissioned employees at the various posts were: clerks, postmasters, and servants. Besides the regular post servants there were others employed such as: voyageurs, among whom were the guides, canoe-men, boatmen, and scowmen; then, again, there were fur-runners, fort hunters, and packeteers.
In the morning a miserable northeaster was blowing a heavy fall of snow over the country, and the Factor offered to show me the fur-Ioft where the clerk and a few half-breed men-servants were folding and packing furs. First they were put into a collapsible mould to hold them in the proper form, then when the desired weight of eighty pounds had been reached, they were passed into a powerful home-made fur-press, and after being pressed down into a solid pack, were corded and covered with burlap, and marked ready for shipment. The room in which the men worked was a big loft with endless bundles of skins of many sizes and colours hanging from the rafters, and with long rows of shelves stacked with folded furs, and with huge piles of pelts and opened bales upon the floor. Also there were moose and caribou horns lying about, and bundles of Indian-made snowshoes hanging by wires from the rafters, and in one corner kegs of dried beaver castors.
THE WINTER MAIL ARRIVES
On the morning of the second day of the storm I happened to be in the Indian shop, where I had gone to see the Factor and the clerk barter for the furs of a recently arrived party of Indian fur-hunters, when presently I was startled by hearing:
" Voyez, voyez, le pacquet !" shouted by Bateese as he floundered into the trading room without a thought of closing the door, though the drifting snow scurried in after him. Vociferously he called to the others to come and see, and instantly trade was stopped. The Factor, the clerk, and the Indians, rushed to the doorway to obtain a glimpse of the long-expected packet. For two days the storm had raged, and the snow was still blowing in clouds that blotted out the neighbouring forest.
"Come awa', Bateese, ye auld fule! Come awa' ben, an steek yon door! Ye dinna see ony packet!" roared the Factor, who could distinguish nothing through the flying snow.
"Bien, m'sieu, mebbe she not very clear jus' now; but w'en.
I pass from de Mad Wolf's Hill, w'en de storm she a leetle,
I see two men an' dog-train on de lac below de islan's," replied the half-breed fort-hunter, who had returned from a caribou cache, and whose duty it was to keep the fort supplied with meat.
"Wed, fetch me the gless, ma mon; fetch me the gless an' aiblins we may catch a glint o' them through this smoorin' snaw; though I doot it's the packet, as ye say." And the Factor stood shading his eyes and gazing anxiously in the direction of the invisible islands. But before the fort-hunter had returned with the telescope, the snowy veil suddenly thinned and revealed the gray figure of a tripper coming up the bank.
"Quay, quay! Ke-e-e-pling!" sang out one of the Indians. He had recognized the tripper to be Kipling, the famous snow-shoe runner. Immediately all save the Factor rushed for-ward to meet the little half-breed who was in charge of the storm-bound packet., and to welcome him with a fusilade of gunshots.
Everyone was happy now, for last year's news of the " Grand Pays "—the habitant's significant term for the outer world had at last arrived. The monotonous routine of the Post was forgotten. To-day the long, dreary silence of the winter would he again broken in upon by hearty feasting, merry music, and joyous dancing in honour of the arrival of the half-yearly mail.
All crowded round the voyageur, who, though scarcely more than five feet in height, was famed as a snowshoe runner throughout the wilderness stretching from the Canadian Pacific Railroad to the Arctic Ocean. While they were eagerly plying him with questions, the crack of a dog-whip was heard. Soon the faint tinkling of bells came through the storm. In a moment all the dogs of the settlement were in an uproar, for the packet had arrived.
With a final rush the gaunt, travel-worn dogs galloped through the driving snow, and, eager for the shelter of the trading room, bolted pell-mell through the gathering at the doorway, upsetting several spectators before the driver could halt the runaways by falling headlong upon the foregoer's back and flattening him to the floor.
All was excitement. Every dog at the post dashed in with bristling hair and clamping jaws to overawe the strangers. Amid the hubbub of shouting men, women, and children, the cracking of whips, and the yelping of dogs, the packet was removed from the overturned sled and hustled into the Factor's office, where it was opened, and the mail quickly overhauled. While the Factor and his clerk were busily writing despatches, a relay of dogs was being harnessed, and two fresh runners were making ready to speed the mail upon its northward way.
Before long the Factor's letters were sealed and carefully deposited in the packet box, which was lashed on the tail of the sled, the forepart of which was packed with blankets, flour, tea, and pork for the packeteers, and frozen whitefish for the dogs. Then amid the usual handshaking the word "Marche!" was given, and to the tune of cracking whips, whining dogs, and crunching snow, the northern packet glided out upon the lake with the Indian track-beater hurrying far ahead while the half-breed dog-driver loped behind the sled. Thus for over two centuries the Hudson's Bay Company had been sending its mails through the great wilderness of Northern Canada.
THE DOG BRIGADE
That afternoon five dog-trains arrived from outlying posts. They had come to join the Dog Brigade that was to leave Fort Consolation first thing in the morning on its southern way to the far-off railroad. As I wished to accompany the brigade, I had arranged with Oo-koo-hoo that we should do so, as far as we could without going out of our way, in returning to his hunting grounds. So to bed that night we all went very early, and at four o'clock in the morning we were astir again. Break-fast was soon over, then followed the packing of the sleds, the harnessing of the dogs, the slipping of moccasined feet into snowshoe thongs, the shaking of hands, and the wishing of farewells_ Already the tracker, or track-beater, had gone ahead to break the trail.
" M-a-r-r-che!" (start) shouted the guide as the head dog-driver is called. Every driver repeated the word; whips cracked; dogs howled, and the brigade moved forward in single file. At the head went the Factor's train of four powerful-looking and handsomely harnessed dogs hauling a decorated carriole in which the Factor rode and behind which trotted a picturesque half-breed driver. Next in order went the teams of the Church of England clergyman and the Roman Catholic priest, both of whom happened to be going out to the railroad. Behind these followed twelve sleds or toboggans, laden with furs, which the Hudson's Bay Company was shipping to its Department Headquarters. When one remembers that black or silver fox skins are frequently sold for over a thousand dollars each, one may surmise the great value of a cargo of furs weighing nearly four thousand pounds, such as the Dog Brigade was hauling. No wonder the Company was using all haste to place those furs on the London market before the then high prices fell.
The brigade formed an interesting sight, as the Indians, half-breeds, and white men were garbed most curiously; and in strong contrast to the brilliant colours worn by the members of the brigade, the clergymen trotted along in their sombre black the priest's cassock flowing to his snowshoes, and his crucifix thrust, daggerlike, in his girdle.
The four dogs comprising each of the fur-trains hauled three hundred pounds of fur besides the camp outfit and grub for both driver and dogs in all, about five hundred pounds to the sled. When the sleighing grew heavy, the drivers used long pushing-poles against the ends of the sleds to help the dogs.
TRAVELLING WITH DOG-TRAINS
While the march always started in a stately way the Factor's carriole in advance it was not long before the trains abandoned their formal order; for whenever one train was delayed through any one of many reasons, the train behind invariably strove to steal ahead so that after a few hours' run the best dogs were usually leading.
For several hours we followed the lake and the river, and just before daylight appeared in the southeastern sky the Aurora Borealis vanished from view. Lam., a golden glow tipping the tops of the tallest trees, heralded the rising of the sun. Coming out upon a little lake for we were now short-cutting across the country we saw that the light over the distant hills had broken into a glorious flood of sunshine. Half over the far-off trees, along the horizon, the sun was shining, and the whole southeastern sky seemed aflame with bands and balls of lire. A. vertical ribbon of gradually diminishing lustre, scarcely wider than the sun, was rising into the heavens to meet a vast semi-circle of rainbow beauty arched above the natural sun. Where the strange halo cut the vertical flame and the horizon on either side three mock suns marked the intersection. Above the natural sun and beneath the halo, four other mock suns studded the vertical band of light. It was a wonderful sight and lasted fully twenty minutes the sky was just as I have shown it in my picture of the York Factory Packet.
Now the brigade was halted, in voyageur parlance, "to spell the dogs one smoke," which, being translated, meant that the dogs could rest as long as it took their masters to smoke a pipeful of tobacco. The drivers, conversing in little groups or sitting upon sleds as they puffed at their pipes, watched the beautiful phenomenon, and the talk turned to the many remarkable sun-dogs that they had seen. Presently the mock suns grew dim; the arch faded away; the hand lost its colour; the true sun rose above the trees and then, as ashes were knocked from pipes, we resumed our journey.
After leaving the lake we entered a muskeg that extended for miles. Its uneven surface was studded with countless grassy hummocks, many of them crowned with willow and alder bushes or gnarled and stunted spruces or jack pines.
It made hard hauling for the dogs. From a distance, the closely following trains reminded one of a great serpent passing over the country, that when it encountered a hummocky section requiring the trains to turn from side to side, and to glide up and down seemed to be writhing in pain. Near the end of the swamp an open hillside rose before us, and upon its snowy slopes the sun showed thousands of rabbit-runs intersecting one another in a maze of tracks that made one think of a vast. gray net cast over the hill.
Passing into a "bent-pole" district we encountered an endless number of little spruce trees, the tops of which had become so laden with snow that their slender stems, no longer able to sustain the weight, had bent almost. double as they let their white-capped heads rest in the snow upon the ground. Later, we entered a park-like forest where pine trees stood apart with seldom any brushwood between. Fresh marten tracks were noticed in the snow. A little farther on, two timber-wolves were seen slinking along like shadows among the distant trees as they paralleled our trail on the right. The dogs noticed them, too, but they, like their masters, were too busy to pay much attention. The wolves were big handsome creatures with thick fluffy coats that waved like tall grasses in a strong breeze as they bounded along.
Corning to a steep hill everyone helped the dogs in their climb. When at last the brigade, puffing and panting, reached the summit, pipes were at once in evidence and then another rest followed. When the descent began, the drivers most of them having removed their snowshoes that their feet might sink deeper into the snow seized their trail-lines, and, acting as anchors behind the sleds, allowed themselves to he hauled stiff legged through the deep snow in their effort to keep the sleds from over-running the dogs. It was exciting work. The men throwing their utmost weight upon the lines sought every obstruction, swerving against trees, bracing against roots, grasping at branches, and floundering through bushes. Often they fell, and occasionally, when they failed to regain their footing, were mercilessly dragged downhill ; the heavy sleds, gathering momentum, overtook the fleeing dogs, and their unfortunate masters were ploughed head-first through the snow. At the foot. of the steepest incline a tumult arose as men and (logs struggled together in an effort to free themselves from overturned sleds. Above the cursing in French and English but not in Indian rose the howling of the dogs as lead-loaded lashes whistled through the frosty air. One wondered how such a tangle could ever be unravelled, but soon all was set straight again.
About eight o'clock we had our second breakfast and by twelve we stopped again for the noon-day meal, both of which consisted of Bannock, pork, and tea. While we ate, the dogs, still harnessed, lay curled up in the snow.
Again the guide shouted " Ma-r-r-che!"and again the brigade moved forward. Some of the trains were handsomely harnessed, especially the Factor's. The loin-cloths of the dogs, called lapis, were richly embroidered and edged with fringe. Above the collars projected pompons of broken colours and clusters of streaming ribbons, while beneath hung a number of bells. All the dogs were hitched tandem, and every train was made up of four units. Except the dogs of the Factor's train, there were few real "huskies," as Eskimo dogs are called, for most of the brutes were the usual sharp-nosed, heavy-coated mongrels that in the Strong Woods Country go by the name of giddes; some, however, had been sired by wolves.
The track-beater's snowshoes, which were the largest used by any of the brigade, were Wood Cree "hunting shoes" and measured nearly six feet in length. The other men wore Chipewyan "tripping shoes" about three feet long the only style of Canadian snowshoes that are made in "rights and lefts."
For a number of miles we passed through heavily timbered forest where shafts of sunlight threw patches of brilliant white upon the woodland's winter carpet, and where gentle breezes had played fantastically with the falling snow, for it was heaped in all manner of remarkable forms. Here and there long, soft festoons of white were draped about groups of trees where the living stood interlocked with the dead. Among the branches huge "snow-bosses" were seen, and "snow-mushrooms" of wondrous shape and bulk were perched upon logs and stumps. "Snow-caps" of almost unbelievable size were mounted upon the smallest of trees, the slender trunks of which seemed ready to break at any moment. It was all so strangely picturesque that it suggested an enchanted forest.
Early that afternoon we came upon an Indian lodge hiding in the woods, and' from within came three little children. It was then fully twenty below zero, yet the little tots, wishing to watch the passing brigade, stood in the most unconcerned way, holding each other by the hand, their merry eyes shining from their wistful faces while their bare legs and feet were buried in the snow. Though they wore nothing but little blanket shirts, what healthy, happy children they appeared to be!
Then out upon a lake we swung where the wind-packed snow made easy going. Here the heavy sleds slid along as if loadless, and we broke into a run. On rounding a point we saw a band of woodland caribou trot off the lake and enter the distant forest. By the time we reached the end of the lake, and had taken to the shelter of the trees, dusk was creeping through the eastern woods and the rabbits had come out to play. They were as white as the snow upon which they ran helter-skelter after one another. Forward and backward they bounded across the trail without apparently noticing the dogs. Sometimes they passed within ten feet of us. The woodland seemed to swarm with them, and no wonder, for it was the seventh year, the year of Northland game abundance, when not only rabbits are most numerous, but also all the other dwellers of the wilderness that prey upon them. Al-ready, however, the periodical plague had arrived. When I stopped to adjust a snowshoe thong I counted five dead hares within sight; next year starvation would be stalking the forest creatures.
CAMPING IN THE SNOW
While the sunset glow was rapidly fading, the brigade halted to make camp for the night. All were to sleep in the open, for dog brigades never carry tents but bivouac on the snow with nothing but a blanket between the sleeper and the Aurora Borealis though the thermometer may fall to sixty below zero. Some of the men moved off with axes in their hands, and the sound of chopping began to echo through the forest. On every side big dry trees came crashing down. Then the huge "long fires ", driving darkness farther away, began to leap and roar. Then, too, could be seen the building of stages ou which to place the valuable fur-laden sleds out of reach of the destructive dogs; the gathering of evergreen brush; the unhitching of dogs and the hanging up of their harness in the surrounding trees; the unloading of sleds; the placing of frozen whitefish to thaw for the dogs; the baking of bannocks, the frying of pork, and the infusing of tea. Then, in silence, the men ate ravenously, while the hungry dogs watched them.
When pipes had been filled and lighted each driver took his allotment of fish, called his dogs aside, and gave them a couple each. Some of the brutes bolted their food in a few gulps and rushed to seize the share of others, but a few blows from the drivers' whips drove them back.
When the dogs had devoured their day's rations for they are fed only once every twenty-four hours their masters sought out sheltered spots for them and cut a few branches of brush for their beds. Some of the men cooked a supply of bannock to be eaten the following day. Others hung their moccasins, mittens, and leggings on little sticks before the fires to dry. It was an animated scene. The "long fires" were huge structures, twelve or fifteen feet in length, so that each man might bask in the heat without crowding his neighbour. A number stood with their back to the blaze while the rest sat or lounged on their blankets and, puffing away at their pipes, joined in the conversation that before long became general.
Just then the dogs began to blow and then to growl, as a strange Indian strode out. of the gloom into the brilliant glare of the fires.
"Wat-che! wat-che?" (What cheer, what cheer?) sang out the men. The stranger replied in Cree, and then began a lively interchange of gossip. The Indian was the track-beater of the south-bound packet from the Far North that was now approaching. All were keenly interested. The cracking of whips and the howling of dogs were heard, and a little later the tinkling of bells. Then came a train of long-legged, handsomely harnessed dogs hauling a highly decorated carriole behind which trotted a strikingly dressed half-breed dog-driver. When the train had drawn abreast of our fire an elderly white man, who proved to be Chief Factor Thompson, of a still more northerly district of the Hudson's Bay Company, got out from beneath the carriole robes, cheerfully returned our greeting, and accepted a seat on the dunnage beside Factor Mackenzie's fire. Two other trains and two other dog-drivers immediately followed the arrival of the Chief Factor, for they were the packeteers in charge of the packet. Now the woods seemed to be full of talking and laughing men and snarling, snapping dogs. Twenty-two men were now crowding round the fires, and seventy-two dogs and eighteen sleds were blocking the spaces between the trees.
NORTHERN MAIL SERVICE
Chief Factor Thompson was the "real thing," and therefore not at all the kind of Hudson's Bay officer that one ever meets in fiction. For instead of being a big, burly, "red-blooded brute," of the "he-man" type of factor the kind that springs from nowhere save the wild imaginations of the authors who have never lived in the wilderness . . . he was just a real man . . . just a fine type of Hudson's Bay factor, who was not only brother to both man and beast, but who knew every bird by its flight or song; who loved children with all his heart flowers, too and whose kindly spirit often rose in song. Yes, he was just a real man, like some of the men you know hut after all, perhaps he was even finer for the wilderness does nothing to a man save make him healthier in body and in soul; while the cities are the world's cesspools. He was rather a small, slender man, with fatherly eyes set in an intelligent face that was framed with gray hair and gray beard.
After the Chief Factor and his men had been refreshed with bannock, pork, and tea, pipes were filled and lighted and for a time we talked of all sorts of subjects. Later, when we were alone for a little while, I found Mr. Thompson a man richly informed on northern travel, for he had spent his whole life in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, and at one time or another had been in charge of the principal posts on Hudson Bay, Great Slave Lake, and the Peace, the Churchill, the Athabasca, and the Mackenzie rivers. Among other subjects discussed were dogs and dog-driving; and when I questioned him as to the loading of sleds, he answered :
"Usually, in extremely cold weather, the Company allots dogs not more than seventy-five pounds each, but in milder weather they can handily haul a hundred pounds, and toward spring, when sleds slide easily, they often manage more than that." Then dreamily puffing at his pipe he added : "I remember when six dog-trains of four dogs each hauled from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca to Fort Vermillion on the Peace River loads that averaged six hundred and fifty pounds per sled not including the grub for the men and dogs and the men's dunnage. Then, again, William Irving with Chief Factor Camsell's dogs brought to Fort Simpson a load of nine hundred pounds. The greatest load hauled by four dogs that I know of was brought to Fort Good Hope by Gaudet. When it arrived it weighed a trifle over one thousand pounds. But Factor Gaudet is one of the best dog-drivers in the country." Then, re-settling himself more comfortably before the fire, he continued:
"And while I think of it we have had some pretty fine dogs in the service of the Company. The most famous of all were certainly those belonging to my good friend Chief Factor Wm. Clark. Ile bred them from Scotch stag hounds and "huskies" the latter, of course, he procured from the Eskimos. His dogs, however, showed more hound than husky. Their hair was so short that they had to be blanketed at night. Once they made a trip from Oak Point on Lake Manitoba to Winnipeg, starting at four o'clock in the morning, stopping for a second breakfast by the way, and reaching Winnipeg by one o'clock at noon, the distance being sixty miles. They were splendid dogs and great pets of his. They used to love playing tricks and romping with him. Frequently, when nearing a post, they would purposely dump him out of his carriole and leaving him behind, go on to the post., where, of course, on their arrival with the empty sled, they were promptly sent back for Mr. Clark. Understanding the command, they would at once wheel about and, without a driver, return on the full gallop to get their master. When coming upon him they would rush around and bark at him, showing all the while the greatest glee over the trick they had played him. He never used a whip upon them. No snowshoer could be found who was swift enough to break a trail for those dogs and no horse ever over-took them. Once, while going from Oak Point to Winnipeg, Factor Clark's train ran down six wolves, allowing him to shoot the brutes as he rode in his carriole. Another time they over-hauled and threw a wolf which Mr. Clark afterward stunned, and then bound its jaws together. When the brute came to, it found itself harnessed in the train in place of one of the dogs, and thus Chief Factor Clark drove a wild timber-wolf into the city of Winnipeg."
"They must have been wonderful dogs," remarked Father Jois, "but it's too had they don't breed such dogs nowadays."
"That's so," returned the Chief Factor. "Twenty or thirty years ago at each of the big posts the district depots they used to keep from forty to fifty dogs, and at the outposts, from twenty to thirty were always on hand. At each of the district depots a man was engaged as keeper of the dogs and it was his duty to attend to their breeding, training, and feeding."
"Speaking of feeding, what do you consider the best food for dogs?" I asked.
"By all means pemmican," replied the Chief Factor, "and give each dog a pound a day. The next hest rations for dogs come in the following order: two pounds of dried fish, four pounds of fresh (leer meat, two rabbits or two ptarmigan, one pound of flour or meal mixed with two ounces of talIow. That reminds me of the way the old half-breed dog-drivers used to do. In such districts as Pelly and Swan River, where fish and other food for dogs was scarce, we had frequently to feed both men and (logs on rations of flour. Some of the half-breeds would leave their ration of flour with their family, and count on eating the dog's ration while on the trip and letting the poor brutes go hungry, just because the dogs be-longed to the Company. So we put a stop to that by mixing coal oil with the dog's rations and having them baked into cakes before the trip was begun. Such a mixture made the men sick when they tried to eat it, but the dogs didn't seem to mind it at all."
"Then kerosene is not included in the regular rations the Company supplies for its trippers and voyageurs?" I ventured, laughingly.
"Hardly, for in the Northland that would be rather an expensive condiment." The old gentleman smiled as he continued: "In outfitting our people for a voyage, we supply what is known as a full ration for a man, a half ration for a woman or a dog, and a quarter ration for a child. For instance, we give a man eight pounds of fresh deer meat. per day while we give a woman or a dog only four pounds and a child two pounds. A man's ration of fish is four pounds per day, of pemmican two pounds, of flour or meal two pounds, of rabbits or ptarmigan four of each," said he, as he knocked the ashes from his pipe. I was afraid he was going to turn in, so I quickly asked:
"Which is the longest of the Company's packet routes at the present day?"
"That of the Mackenzie River packet from Edmonton to Fort Macpherson. In winter it is hauled two thousand and twelve miles by dog-train; and in summer it is carried by the Company's steamers on the Athabasca, the Slave, and the Mackenzie rivers. Next comes the Peace River packet from Edmonton to Hudson's Hope, a distance of over a thousand miles. In summer it goes by steamer, and in winter by dog-train. There's the York Factory packet from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay by way of Norway House, a distance of seven hundred miles. In winter it is hauled by dogs from Selkirk as far as Oxford house, and from there to York Factory by men with toboggans. In summer it is carried by canoe on Hay River and by steamboat on Lake Winnipeg. Then there's the Liard River packet and the Reindeer Lake packet. Each travels about five hundred miles by dogs in winter and by canoe in summer. The Moose Factory packet from Temiscamingue to James Bay goes by canoe in summer, but by men in winter. All mails in and out from Hudson Bay or James Bay to or from the next post in the interior, are hauled by men. Dogs are seldom used on those routes, on account of the depth of the snow and the scarcity of dog feed."
Though I well knew that packeteers did not carry firearms, I asked Chief Factor Thompson just for the sake of getting the truth from him and giving it to the public:
"How does the Hudson's Bay Company arm their packeteers?"
"Ann them?" the Chief Factor laughed outright, "why, we always provide them with an axe."
"Firearms, I mean."
"Firearms! Why, they aren't allowed to carry firearms at all. It's against the rules and regulations of the Company. In the first place, packeteers are supplied with plenty of grub for the trip; in the next place, if they had a gun they might go hunting and fooling around with it instead of attending to their business; and, moreover, it doesn't matter whether the mail travels two hundred or two thousand miles, there is no occasion for packeteers to carry firearms, for there are no highwaymen and no animals in this country that would make an offensive attack upon them."
And in truth, in all that wild brigade there were no fire-arms save Oo-koo-boo's old muzzle-loader; but then The Owl was a hunter by profession, and he carried a gun only as a matter of business. Now for the last twenty-five years that is exactly what I have wanted to tell the public. When one reads a story, or sees a play or a moving picture, in which characters bristling with firearms are set forth as veritable representatives of life in the Canadian wilderness, he may rest assured that the work is nothing but a travesty on life in Canada. Any author, any illustrator, any playwright, any scenario writer, any actor or any director who depicts Canadian wilderness life in that way is either an ignoramus or a shameless humbug. And to add strength to my statement I shall quote the experience of a gentleman who was the first City Clerk, Treasurer, Assessor, and Tax Collector of Dawson City Mr. E. Ward Smith:
POLICE AND GUNMEN
"The Mounted Police generally received word in advance when any particularly had character was headed for the Yukon, and in all such cases he was met when he slipped off the boat. I remember particularly one case of the kind, as I happened to be on hand when the American gunman landed. He was a quiet enough looking individual and had no weapons of any kind in sight, but a close scrutiny revealed the fact that he had a particularly evil eye in his sandy-freckled face. One of the Mounties picked him out unerringly and tapped him on the shoulder.
"'Gat Gardiner?' he asked.
"'No,' said the newcomer. 'My name is Davidson.'
" 'I happen to know you as Gat Gardiner,' insisted the policeman. 'Got any weapons on you?'
" 'Leave go of me,' flared the so-called Davidson, all the veneer of civility gone. 'You got nothing on me. Let go, I say!'
"'I've got something on you,' declared the policeman, hauling a revolver from the hip pocket of the man. 'Carrying concealed weapons is against the law on this side the line. Back on the boat, you, and don't. you dare put foot ashore or I'll have you in jail. You go back the way you came.'
"And Gardiner went. I saw him leaning over the rail when the boat started on the return trip and he shook his fist at the policeman on the wharf and emitted a string of vile oaths. But he never came back.
"When the notorious 'Soapy' Smith was killed at Skagway, Alaska, his gang of desperadoes was promptly broken up and word came to Dawson that some of them were headed for the Canadian side. They were gathered in as soon as they crossed the line, denuded of weapons, and sent back. Not one of the gang eluded the vigilance of the police.
"The law against carrying concealed weapons was a big factor in keeping the peace. Comparatively few men took advantage of their legal right to carry a revolver in sight. I remember seeing an open box in a pawnshop containing the most amazing collection of weapons I had ever set eyes on revolvers with silver handles, pistols of carved ivory, antiquated breech-loaders, weapons of fantastic design, and, probably, of equally fantastic history, strange implements of death that had come from all climes and bespoke adventures on all the seven seas.
"'Where (lid you get the lot?' I asked the proprietor.
"'They all sell their shooting irons. No use for them here. I get 'em for practically nothing. Help yourself if you have any fancy that way. I'll make you a present of anything you want.'
"So much for the wild Yukon of the novelists! Instead of lurching into the dance hall and blazing away at the ceiling, picture the 'old-timer', the hardened miner of a hundred camps, planking down his pistols on the counter of the pawnshop and asking 'How much?' That's the truer picture."
As part of my boyhood education was derived from the study of American illustrated magazines, I was led by those periodicals to believe that the North American wilderness was inhabited by wild and woolly men bedecked with firearms, and ever since I have been on the lookout for just such characters. Now while I cannot speak for the Western States, I can at least speak for Canada; and I must now admit that, during my thirty-three years of contact with wilderness life, on one occasion but on one only I found that there was justification for de-scribing the men of the northern wilderness as carrying firearms for protection. But does not the one exception prove the rule?
It happened near Stewart, on the borderline of Alaska, several years ago. I encountered a prospector who wanted to cross Portland Canal from Alaska to Canada, and as I was rowing over; I offered to take him across. When, however, he turned to pick up his pack I caught sight of something that fairly made me burst out laughing; for it was as funny a sight as though I had witnessed it on Piccadilly or Broadway. At first I thought he was a movie actor who, in some unaccountable way, had strayed from Los Angeles and become lost in the northern wilderness before he had had time to remove his ridiculous "make-up"; but a moment later he proved beyond doubt that he was not an actor, for he blushed scarlet when he observed that I was focussing a regular Mutt-and-Jeff dotted-line stare at a revolver that hung from his belt, and he faltered:
"But . . . Why the mirth?"
"Well, old man," I laughed again, "for over twenty-five years I have been roaming the Canadian wilderness from the borderline of Maine right up here to Alaska, and in all that time---with the exception of the Constables of the North-West Mounted Police you are the first man, woman, or child, I have seen carrying a revolver. And 1 swear, old dear, that that's the truth. So now, do you wonder that I laugh?"
But to return to the Hudson's Bay Company's packet system, I asked Chief Factor Thompson:
"Which is the more important, the summer or the winter mail?"
"Oh, the winter; for, when inward bound, it bears the Commissioner's instructions to the district chief factors; and, when outward bound, it contains information regarding the results and the progress of the fur-trade, and orders for additional supplies."
"How many miles a day do the packeteers average on their winter trips? "
"Well," replied the Chief Factor, "I think the rate of speed maintained by our packeteers is remarkable; especially when one considers the roughness of the country, the hardships of winter travel, the fact that the men must make their bread, cook their meals, care for their dogs, and, when on the trail, cannot even quench their thirst without halting to build a fire and melt snow. Yet the packeteers of the Mackenzie River mail cover their two thousand miles on snowshoes at an average rate of twenty-seven and a half miles a day, including all stoppages."
"That is certainly splendid travelling. Some of the packeteers, I should judge, have made great records; haven't they?"
"Yes, that's true," acknowledged the trader, "the packeteers do make great efforts to break records between posts. But, though they may have succeeded in cutting down the time, their achievement is never mentioned on the way-bill, nor does it affect the time allowed for the completion of the trip; for, though the mail be brought in ahead of time, it is never handed over to the relay until the appointed hour has struck. Otherwise, the whole system would he thrown out of gear. Exceptionally fast runs are not shown upon the way-bills, because they would eventually affect the average time allowed for the trip; and in stormy weather that would be hard upon the packeteers. The time allowed for the transmission of a packet is calculated on a ten-years' average. No excuse for delay, except death, is tolerated. At each post on certain fixed dates relays of men and dogs are kept in readiness to forward the mail without delay. A through way-bill ac-companies every packet from point of departure to point of delivery. At each post along the route the time of arrival and the time of departure of the mail must be entered upon the way-bill, as well as the names of the packeteers and of the officers in charge."
"I understand that packets contain not only the despatches of the Company, but the private mail of the employees, that of missionaries of all denominations, that of chance 'explorers' or travellers, and even that of opposition fur-traders. Is that a fact?"
"Yes, sir, and moreover, no charge is made by the Company." "Do the Company's officers experience much trouble in procuring men to act as packeteers?"
"Oh, no; none whatever. As a rule, when men enter the Company's service, they stipulate that they shall be given a place on the packet; for that affords them an opportunity to pay a visit to the next post, and to join in the dance which is always held on the arrival of the mail. Trippers consider themselves greatly honoured on being given charge of a packet; for it means that they are held to be trustworthy, and thoroughly familiar with the topography of the district."
"Before the advent of the railroad and the steamboat, which was the longest of the Company's packet routes?"
"By all odds that of the Yukon packet. It made the journey from Montreal to Fort Yukon, which was then situated at the junction of the Porcupine and Yukon rivers. It was routed by way of the Ottawa River, Lake Huron, Lake Superior, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, the Athabasca River, the Slave River, and the Mackenzie River. It was forwarded in summer by canoe, in winter by dog-train, for the enormous distance of four thousand five hundred miles. And let me tell you, it is to-day, as it was two hundred years ago, the pride of the Company's people that not one packet was ever lost beyond recovery. Packeteers have been drowned, frozen, burned, shot, smothered, and even eaten; but the packet has always reached its destination somehow."
BEAR HOLDS UP MAIL
A sudden burst of laughter from the men at a neighbouring fire attracted the attention of Chief Factor Thompson, and glancing over, he remarked to me:
"Telling yarns, eh ! Let's go over and listen."
Twelve or fifteen men were crowded round that fire including Factor Mackenzie, the Rev. Mr. Wilson, Father Jois, and Oo-koo-hoo and they were now coaxing "Old Billy Brass" to tell the next story. He was a wiry little white man of about sixty who had seen much service in the Hudson's Bay Company. He hesitated. They clamoured again, and he began:
"But talkie' 'bout bears reminds me of a little affair I once had on the Peace River," said the old man, glancing slyly from the corner of his eye to see what effect his statement made upon his campfire companions. Billy was sitting cross-legged upon his caribou robe; arid, as he turned the browning bannocks before the fire, he continued:
"Well, as I was sayin', me an' Old-pot-head's son once had a go with a great big black bear away up on the Peace River. But, don't you forget it, Billy Brass didn't lose the packet."
"Come, Billy, tell us all about it," coaxed the Chief Factor, well knowing that if he were once started there would be on his part little need of urging in order to extract from the old tripper all he knew, or could invent to suit the occasion.
"Well, gentlemen, if you ain't too sleepy, an' if some o' you boys'll watch the bannock, I don't mind tellin'," replied Billy as he leaned toward the fire, picked up a red-hot coal, and palmed it into his pipe.
"But I can't give a funny bear story, the same as you've been tellin', because all my experiences with bears have been mighty serious. However, I'll try and tell you 'bout me an Old-pot-head's son; an' to my mind it's the most serious of 'em all.
"As I was sayin', we was in charge of the Peace River packet; an' if it hadn't been for the charm Father La Mille blessed for me at Fort Good Hope, I don't know 's I'd be here to tell about it.
"Anyway, me an' Old-pot-head's son was carryin' the packet and headin' for Hudson's Hope. It was the fall packet, an' as winter was just about due we was hustlin' 'long for all we was worth, an' jabbin' holes in the river with our paddles as fast as we could, in fear o' the freeze up
"As bad luck would have it, that very night the ice over-took us, an' we had to Ieave the canoe ashore an' finish the voyage afoot. Lucky for us, we was only about three-days' travel from the Fort, so we leaves our axe an' whatever we don't particular need with the canoe.
"Mile after mile we walks along the river hank; an' as we don't have no extra moccasins, our bare skin was soon upon the sand. What with havin' our duds torn by bushes, an' our fallin' in the mud once or twice, and several times a-wadin' creeks, we was a pretty sight when we stops to camp that night. When the sun went down, we was so tired that we just stopped dead in our tracks. We had been packin' our blankets, our grub, an' cookin' gear to say nothin' o' the packet; so, of course, we didn't give much thought to the campin' ground. But after supper I looks round an' sees that we'd made our fire down in a little hollow, an' that the place was hare o' trees 'ception three that stood in a row 'bout four lengths of a three-fathom canoe from our fire. The middle one was a birch with a long bare trunk, an' on each side stood a pine. Now, I want you gentlemen to pay perticler 'tention to just how they stood; for them three trees is goin' to do a mighty lot o' fib germ' in this here story.
"As I was sayin', there was two pines with a birch in between, an' all standin' in a row, with the upper branches o' pines rennin' square in among the branches o' the birch. 'Bout half ways between the birch and the east pine, but a trifle off the line, was a pool o' water. Before I turns in for the night, I takes the packet an' sticks it on the end of a long pole, an' shoves it up against the birch tree, for fear o' the fire spreadin' an' burnin' up the mail.
"Me an' Old-pot-bead's son turns in an' sleeps as sound as any trippers could. Some time in the night I wakes up with a mighty start that almost busts me heart. Somethin' was maulin' me. So, with me head still under the blanket, for I dassn't peep out, I sings out to the Injun an' asks him what in creation he's kickin' me for; an' if he couldn't wake me without killin' me. Old-pot-head's son yells back that he hasn't touched me. Then you bet I was scared; for the thing hauls off agen an' gives me a clout that knocks the wind plum' out o' me.
"Just then I heard Old-pot-head's son shout, 'Keep still, Bill, it's a big black hear.' I grabs the edges o' me blanket an' pulls 'em in under me so hard I thinks I've bust it. But the bear keeps on maulin' me, an' givin' me such hard swats that I began to fear it'd cave in me ribs."
"But, Billy, why didn't you shoot it?" asked the Reverend Mr. Wilson.
"Shoot? Why, your reverence, don't you know, packeteers never carries a gun?" the old man exclaimed with disgust, and then continued his story:
"Not content with that, the brute starts to roll me over an' over. An' all the time I'm doin' me best to play dead. Now you needn't lair. I'd like to see any o' youse pretendin' you was dead while a big bear was poundin' you that hard that you begin to believe you ain't shammin'. An' when that ugly brute hauls off an' hits me agen, I decides then an' there that there's no occasion to sham it. But just as soon as I makes up my mind I'm dead, the bear leaves me; an' when I can no longer hear him breathin', I peeps out of a tiny little hole, and sees the big brute maulin' me old friend the Injun. Then I takes another peep roun', an' don't see no escape 'cept: by way o' them three trees, so I just jumps up, an' lights out like greased lightnin' for the nearest tree. After me comes the hear galIopin'. I guess that was the quickest runnin' I ever done in all me life. I just managed to climb into the lower branches o' the west pine as the bear struck the trunk below me.
"When I stops for breath in the upper branches, I sees the old bear canterin' back agen to have another go with me pardner.
"Just as soon as I was safe, the whole performance struck me as bein' pretty funny, an' I couldn't help roarin' out and alaffin' when I saw the beast maulin' Old-pot-head's son, an' him tryin' for all he was worth to play dead.
"Thinks I, I'll make me old friend laff. So I starts in to guy him, an' he begins to snicker, an' that makes the hear mad, an' he begins to roll the Injun. Then, you bet, I couldn't make him laff no more; for, what with shammin' dead, an' hein' frightened to death into the bargain, I don't think there was much laff left in him.
"You know how bears will act when they sometimes comes across a handy log? Well, that's just what the beast was doin' with Old-pot-head's son it was rollin' him over an' over. The very next second it rolls his feet into the fire. Down the tree I slid, like snow down a mountain, an' stood at the foot of it an' pelted the bear with stones. The Injun's blanket began to smoke. It was no Iaffin' matter, for I knowed if I didn't drive the brute off in a jiffy Old-pot-head's son would be a comin out of his trance mighty sudden an' that. meant a catch-as-catch-can with a great, big, crazy black bear.
"As good luck would have it, the next time I threw a stone, it landed on the tip- of the bear's snout, an' with a snarl he comes for me. I waits as long as I dares, then up the tree I skips, with the brute follerin' me. About half ways up I thinks I hears a human bein' laffin' in the east pine. So I looks over, an' sure muff, I sees me old pardner settin' on a limb an' fairly rearm'. All the same, I was feelin' mighty squeemish, for the bear was comin' up lickety splinter after me.
"Just then I spies a good stout branch that reaches out close against a big limb of the birch, an' I crawls over. As the bear follers me, I slides down the trunk o' the birch, an' lights out for the east pine where me pardner was doin' the laflin'. On its way down the bear rammed itself right smack against the mail-bag; and when the beast struck ground, it smelt the man smell on the packet, an' began to gnaw it.
"Now me an' Old-pot-head's son knowed well muff we had to save the mail sack, so I slips down the east pine a ways, an' breaks off dead branches, an' pelts them at the bear while the Injun crosses over into the top o' the west pine. Then we both at once slides down as low as we dares, an' I begins to lamm the brute with a shower o' sticks. Up the tree it comes for me, while me pardner slips down, grabs the mail-sack, an' sails up the west pine again.
"That was a mighty clever move, thinks I, but a bag is an orkad thing to portage when you're meanderin' up an' down a tree with a bear after you. But the tump-line was on it, just as we carried it the day before, so it wasn't as bad as it might 'a' been.
"Well, when I went up the east. pine, the bear follered, an', as there wasn't any too much room between me an' the bear, I crosses over into the birch an' slides down its slippery trunk as tho' it was greased. I hits the ground a little harder than I wanted to, but didn't waste no time in lightin' out for the west pine, where the Injun was restin' ; an' all the time the bear was try in' to grab me coat-tails.
" It was just a case of up to the west pine, cross over and down the birch; then up the east pine. cross over an' down the birch; then up the west pine, cross over an' down the birch, till we got so dizzy we could a hardly keep from fallin'. If you could just 'a' seen the way we tore roun' through them trees, I'll bet you would 'a' done a heap o' laffin'.
"The bear was mighty spry in goin' up, but when it carne to goin' down he'd just do the drop-an'-clutch, drop-an'-clutch act. That's just where me an' me pardner had the advantage on the brute; for we just swung our arms an' legs roun' that birch an' did the drop act, too; but, somehow, we hadn't time to do the clutch, so our coat-tails got badly crushed every time we landed.
It was a kind of go-as-you-please until about the tenth roun', when I accidentally drops the mail-bag on the bear's head, an' that makes him boilin' mad; so he lights out after us as tho' he had swallered a hornet's nest.
"Then away we goes up an' down, up an' down, an' roun' an' roun' that perpendicular race track, until we made such a blur in the scen'ry that any fool with half an eye an' standin' half a mile away could 'a' seen a great big figger eight layin' on its side in the middle o' the landscape. We took turns at carryin' the packet, but sometimes I noticed Old-pot-head's son was havin' a good deal of trouble with it. It didn't seem to bother him much when he was climbin' up; for he just swung it on his back with the loop o' the tump-line over his head, an' so he had his hands free. But it was when he was comin' down the slippery birch that the weight of the bag made him rather more rapid than he wanted to be; an' so, when he an' the bag struck groun', they nearly always bounced apart; an' if the Injun failed to get his feet in time to ketch the sack on the first bounce,
I ketched it on the second bounce as I glode by. So between the two of us we managed to hang on to the packet.
"By-an'-by, we was gettin' terribly tuckered out. It was a good thing for us that the bear was gettin' winded an' dizzy as well; because, at about the sixty-seventh roun', the brute had no sooner gone down the birch than he bounded up agen just when Old-pot-head's son was a-climbin' thro' the upper branches o' the birch. So he slips over into the top o' the east pine, while I stays in the top o' the west pine, an' the bear sits down in a upper crotch o' the birch.
"Well, we puts in a good many heats of anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five laps roun' that track by the time daylight comes, an' sunrise finds us all ketching our wind in the upper branches. I noticed that whenever the brute wanted to stop the whirligig it always climbed up the birch just in time to separate me an' me pardner; an' there we would sit, me in the west pine, me pardner in the east pine, an' the black brute right in between.
"About breakfast time me an' the Injun was feelin' mighty hungry. There we sat cussin' our luck an' castin' longin' glances down at the grub bag. By the time I'd caught me wind a great idea strikes me. Durin' the next heat I would rush out. So I sings out my intentions to me pardner; an' he says he thinks we can do it. So while he was carryin' Her Majesty's mail I was to try an' grab the grub bag.
"We got ready, an' dropped down them pines so fast that we both hits groun' before the bear knows what's doin'. Then I leaves that tree like as if all the animals in the woods was after me. I got on so much speed that by the time I grabs the grub bag I was goin' so fast that I couldn't turn roun' without slackin' down. That's where I loses a terrible amount o' time, an' I was beginnin' to think it was all up with me. By the time I got headed roun' agen for the tree, I sees that the bear is comin' down with his back to me. When he hits groun' he sees the Injun dancin' roun' the foot o' the west pine; so he makes for the redskin, an' chases him up while I climbs the east pine.
"Then we all went roun' an' roun' for maybe fifty laps, an' the way we wore the bark off them trees an' trod down the grass between 'em was a caution. By-an'-by the bear gets so dizzy that he bucks up the birch agen, an' sure enuff that stops the performance.
"I didn't need any breakfast bell to remind me to open the grub bag. I just readies in an' pulls out some busted bannock an' throws a chunk over to Old-pot-head's son, an' without even sayin' grace, we starts in. Every little while I'd toss another chunk of bread over to me pardner an' just out o' sheer spite I'd chuck it so that it would go sailin' thro' the air right in front o' the bear's snout. That makes him mad. So he tried to catch the stuff as it flies by; but I just puts on a little more curve, an' that makes him madder still, an' he ups an' comes for me.
"Then we all knocks off breakfast an' goes for another canter. But it don't do no good, 'ceptin' that we all gets puffed out agen. After a bit, the bear stops to ketch his breath, an' then me an' me pardner goes on with our breakfast.
"With the bear exercisin' us the way he did, we had to take our breakfast in a good many courses. That makes it so long drawn out that we gets mighty thirsty. The Injun asks me if the cups is in the grub bag. I puts me ban' in an' feels, but they ain't there. Then I remembers that we left them down by the fire. We didn't either of us care to risk snakin' a cup, so I tells me pardner that the next time we goes roun' we'd best try an' grab a handful o' water. We didn't have long to wait, for the bear soon gets another move on; an' then away we all goes sailin' roun' agen. Every time me an' the Injun canters past the pool, we just makes a sudden dip an' grabs up a handful o' water an' throws it in.
"It took so much exercise to get so little water that I thought I'd die of thirst while I was tryin' to drink me fill. When the bear caught on to what we was doin', it just made him madder an' madder; an' he lights out after us at such a breathless clip that we had to fairly gallop up them pines, an' slide down the birch faster than ever. It wasn't long before nearly every button was wore off, an' our clothes was so ripped up an' torn down that I'd blush every time I'd ketch the bear lookin' at me. An' every time we ran 'long the groun' from one tree to another, me an' me pardner had to use both hands on our garments in order to keep up our—er—respectability. However, the bear didn't have the laff on us altogether, for he had gone up an' down them trees so often an' so fast that he had worn all the hair off his stomach_
"After a while we all gets tuckered out agen; an' while we rests in the trees me an' me pardner talks about the weather, lettin' on that there ain't no bear anywheres nigh. So the time passed. As we didn't recollect just how much grub we had at the start, or how much water there was in the pool first off, we couldn't for the life of us reckon just how long we'd been there. Neither me nor Old-pot-head's son would care to take our oaths whether we'd been there a night an' half a day, or half a dozen nights an' days; the night time an' the day time was so mixed up together that we hadn't time to separate 'em. We were sure, tho', that our grub was givin' out, the water was dryin' up, an' death was gettin' good an' ready for us.
"We was in such a terrible tight place that I begins to think o' takin' off me shirt an' flyin' it from the top o' the tallest pine as a signal o' distress; for we was worse off than if we'd been shipwrecked. Talk about Lein' cast adrift on a raft! Why, it wasn't in it with bein' fixed the way we was. We just stayed in one spot with no chance of ever driftin' to'rds help. As long as the bear kept tab on us there wasn't no sign of our ever gettin' a wink o' sleep. And more, besides starvin' to death, we had to face hein' frozen; for our clothes was all wore off, an' winter was comin' on mighty fast.
"At last, when me an' Old-pot-head's son had about given up hope, an' was just pickin' out which would be the easiest death, what should we see but somethin' bobbin' in an' out among the bushes. Say, it was another bear! When it comes a little closer, we makes out it was a little lady bear. No sooner does our old stern-chaser spy her than he slides down to the groun', an' risin' up on his hind legs, throws out his chest, an' cocks his eye at her, for all the world like a man when he sees a pretty girl comin' his way. But when her dainty little lady-ship ketches sight of his bald-headed stomach, she just tosses up her nose with disgust, an' wheels roun' an' makes for the tall timbers with our affectionate friend limpin' the best he can after her.
"An' that's the last we sees o' the bear that tried to hold up the Company's packet."
After the laughter had died down, Chief Factor Thompson yawned :
"Well, gentlemen, it's getting on. I must be turning in or my men will be late in getting under way in the morning."
GOD AND THE WILD MEN
Drowsiness had indeed overtaken the camp. But. now I must digress a moment to tell you something that the public at least the public that has derived its knowledge of northern wilderness life from fiction may find it hard to believe. And this is what I want to say: that every one in that whole brigade of wild men of the wilderness, from the lowest dog-driver right up to the Chief Factor when each had fixed his bed in readiness for the night knelt down, and with bowed head, said his evening prayer to The Master of' Life. Moreover, the fact that two clergymen were present had nothing whatever to do with it, for the "barbarians" of the forest would have done just the same had no priest been there just as I have seen them do scores and scores of times. In fact, in some sections of the forest the native wilderness man red, white, or half-breed who does not, is not the rule, but the exception. Then, too unless one's ears are closed to such sounds one may occasionally hear the voyageurs of the "North canoe" and the "York boat" brigades, while straining on the tracking line, singing, among other hymns:
Onward, Christian soldiers,
And, furthermore, I wonder if the fiction-reading public will believe that the majority of the men in the fur brigades always partake of the holy sacrament before departing upon their voyages? Nevertheless, it is the truth though of course truth does not agree with the orgies of gun-play that spring from the weird imaginations of the stay-at-home authors, who, in their wild fancy, people the wilderness with characters from the putrescence of civilization. It is time these authors were enlightened, for a man, native to the wilderness, is a better man . . . more honest, more chivalrous, more generous, and at heart, though he talks less about it more God-respecting . . . than the man born in the city. That is something the public should never forget; for if the public re-members that, then the authors of wilderness stories will soon have to change their discordant tune.
Yes, it is true, every one of those wild men said his evening prayer and then, with his blanket wrapped about him, lay down upon his thick, springy mattress of fir-brush, with his feet toward the fire, and slumbered as only a decent, hard-working man can. Out among the dancing shadows that flitted among the snow-mantled bushes and heavily laden trees a hundred and fifty eyes glared in the brooding darkness as though all the wolves in the forest were gathering there. Later, when the sound of heavy breathing was heard round the fires, a fierce, wolfish-looking dog, bolder than the rest, left its snowy bed to hunt for more sheltered quarters. There was a whine, a snarl, then the sound of clashing teeth. In a moment every dog leaped up with bristling hair. Instantly bedlam reigned. Over seventy dogs waged the wildest kind of war and the distant woods reechoed the horrible din. A dozen blanketed mounds rose up, and many long lashes whistled through the air. The seething mass broke away and flew howling and yelping into outer darkness followed by a roar of curses but only in civilized tongues.
Presently all was still again. The men lay down, and the dogs, one by one, came slinking back to their resting places. But in a couple of hours one of the half-frozen brutes silently rose up, cautiously stepped among the sleeping men, and lay couched close to a smouldering fire. Another followed and then another until most of the dogs had left their beds_ Growing bolder, a couple of the beasts fought for a warmer spot. In their tussle they sprawled over one of the men, but a few lusty blows from a handy frying-pan restored calm. As the night wore on some of the dogs, not contented with sleeping beside the men, curled up on top of their unconscious masters. Then for hours nothing but the heavy breathing and snoring in camp and the howling of distant wolves was heard. Slumber had at last overtaken the wild men of the wilderness who always made it a rule to kneel down every night, and ask God to bless their little children at home.
Now, though time still sped on, silence possessed the forest until:
"Hurrah, mes bons hommes ! Levey, levey, levey! Up, up up, up, up!" ending in a shrill yell from the guide startled the drowsy crew. It was three o'clock in the morning. Had it not been for the brilliancy of the Northern Lights all would have been in darkness. An obscure form bent over an ash-bed and fumbled something. A tiny blaze appeared and rapidly grew until the surrounding forest was aflare. Over the fires frying-pans sizzled, while tea-pails heaped with snow began to steam. A hurried breakfast followed. The sleds were packed. The dogs, still curled up in the snow, pretended to be asleep.
" Caesar! Tigre! Cabri! Whiskey! Tęte Noire! Pilot! Michinass ! Coffee ! Bull ! Brandie ! Caribou!" shouted the men. A few of the dogs answered to their names and came to harness while some holding back were tugged forward by the scruff of the neck. Others were still in hiding. The men searched among the mounds and bushes. Every now and then the crack of a whip and the yelp of a dog announced the finding of a truant. Two trackers on large snowshoes had already gone ahead to break the trail. It was easy to follow their tracks though the woods were still in darkness and remained so for several hours. At dawn Oo-koo-hoo and our little outfit parted company with the Dog Brigade. Already the packet was many miles ahead. As I turned on my western way, I thought of the work of these postmen of the wilderness, of the hardships they endured, and the perils they braved; and the Chief Factor's assertion that no packet had ever been lost beyond recovery, recalled to mind other stories that were worth remembering: For instance, a canoe express was descending the Mackenzie River; the canoe was smashed in an ice jam, and the packeteers were drowned. A few weeks later passing Indians caught sight of a stick bobbing in the surface of the stream. Though the water was deep and the current was running at the rate of three miles an hour, the stick remained in the same place. So the Indians paddled over to investigate. They found that to the floating stick was fastened a long thong, which on being pulled up brought the missing packet to light.
Again, while making camp near the Athabasca River, the packeteers had slung the packet in a tree, the usual place for it while in camp. During the night their fire spread and burned up the whole equipment except the tree, which, being green, received little more than a scorching. The packet was unharmed.
On Great Slave Lake during a fierce snowstorm the packeteers became separated from their dogs, and were frozen to death. But the packet was recovered.
In one autumn two packeteers journeying from George's River Post to Ungava Post drew up their canoe on a sandy beach, and camped beneath a high, overhanging bank. During the night the bank gave way and buried them as they slept. When the ice formed, the trader at Ungava sent out two men to search for the missing packet. They found the canoe on the beach; and from the appearance of the bank, conjectured what had happened. Next spring the landslide was dug into, and the packeteers were found both lying under the same blanket, their heads resting upon the packet.