BARRIERS

Being the story of one, Cultus Alec, who dared to defy the taboo of his ancestors, and of the antagonist he encountered in the under-water chieftain of a salmon pool.

HUBERT EVANS July 15 1926

BARRIERS

Being the story of one, Cultus Alec, who dared to defy the taboo of his ancestors, and of the antagonist he encountered in the under-water chieftain of a salmon pool.

HUBERT EVANS July 15 1926

BARRIERS

Being the story of one, Cultus Alec, who dared to defy the taboo of his ancestors, and of the antagonist he encountered in the under-water chieftain of a salmon pool.

HUBERT EVANS

CULTUS ALEC, the Siwash, trudged on up the narrow bottom of the valley. There was no trail for him to follow, for he alone of all his tribe had dared to enter this forbidden country. The carved totem poles of his village, reaching like palsied fingers to clutch at a glorious past, told no history or legend of any of his people with sufficient stubborn courage to ignore the ban which had been on this valley for many, many generations. Now he was in it to stay through the autumn and the winter. In the spring he would come out with a wealth of fur.

Ever since he could remember, old people of the tribe had told of the spirit which brooded here, the spirit that, when disturbed, took the shape of a gigantic animal or bird in order to vent its displeasure on the foolhardy. Once, they said, it had been a wolverine, a monster as large as a grizzly. Again it had swooped as a black eagle, the spread of whose wings was greater than the length of a canoe pole.

But Cultus Alec did not believe that. He knew ether valleys where the old people said no man must ever go. In the old days before the white man came into the many silent inlets of the broken North Pacific coast, no Indian, however brave, ever had dared to enter these forbidden valleys. But he knew of white men who had laughed and gone and returned, with a wealth of gold or fur. The white men did right to laugh at the old people. He was a young man and could go where a white man dared to go.

And already he had seen signs enough to verify his hopes of finding a country rich in fur. Marten in the heavy timber, mink along the creek, and surely at the top of the valley, where the little lake was, there would be flats and beaver meadows.

For centuries the furbearers had bred here unmolested by the trapper. Here was wealth for tne man with courage to stay the winter.

He pushed on. It was early afternoon but in the forest the October air was crisp. On his left, the creek ran noisily down its broken course, from the lake to the big river below. On his right, the sidehill rose sharply.

Where he went slowly, with his bulky pack, the light filtered weakly through the evergreen canopy. The gray trunks stood like lichen-spotted columns in some dim deserted hall of giants. There was a frowning disinterest, a vast aloofness about the valley. But if he thought of that it was not for long. The great thought, which had made him dare come here, was uppermost in his mind. He was thinking again of the big potlatch he would give with the money he would make this winter. Next spring his great ambition would swell to glorious reality.

On under the trees he went. Perhaps he would give a chick-a-min potlatch; two dollars, maybe five, to every man and woman in the village.

Or it might be a muck-a-muck potlatch; a case of dried fruit or a big wooden box of sweet biscuits to every one of them. When it was over he would have nothing and still be rich.

He would make himself a notable of the tribe. As long as he lived he would have an honorable place near the fire of the council house. No longer would he be Cultus Alec, the Worthless One, but a great man with some new grand name.

Next spring he would carry his bales of fur to where his cedar dugout canoe was cached, at the junction of this creek with the big river. Triumphantly he would course down its swirling waters, to where it emptied into the salt-chuck at the head of the inlet, near the split cedar houses of his village. Then at the trading post farther down the inlet, he would stand in the middle of the trade room and point grandly for the trader to take things for him from the shelves.

He would buy until his last dollar was gone. Then would come the potlatch. Wild nights in the great council house, mesah-chie man and zinc men dancing, leaping in the light from the big fire he would keep bright with gallons of precious oulachan oil. When he had given away all he had, his people would talk of that potlatch for many years to come. He would be the envy of them all. They should try in vain to outdo his reckless openhandedness.

Ahead of him now, through the columned trunks of spruce and cedar, a bright patch of sky showed. That was the opening of the lake. He left the high bank and came closer to the creek, down into a little flat of willows, vine maple and clump alder. Here the creek slipped smoothly under over-hanging branches as it gathered speed for the fast descent down the long valley.

Here in this slower water, would be the place for his salmon fence. Of all his preparations for the winter that must be the first, for already the salmon schools were in the big river. This barrier he would build would hold them here while he speared all he needed to smoke and bake for the winter. They, and the deer he should get, would feed him until spring. That night he camped at the creek mouth by the lake. There he would build his cabin.

During the next two days he explored che lake shore, the flat, the lower sidehills and found that his hopes were sure to be realized. For there was much sign of marten and beaver, besides fur of lesser value. But it was disappointing to discover that the deer he had counted on for meat were not here. Perhaps they had already migrated to the coast to escape the wolves which could drag them down when deep snow came. There was no other big game sign. So now he must rely entirely on the salmon.

That week he worked on his barrier in the creek. He had seen how few gravel bars there were in the lake's tributary streams. The salmon would have to spawn along the shallows of the lake where he could not spear them without a canoe. So he must build his barrier well.

He cut hundreds of short poles, sharpened them and drove them in a line into the soft bottom from bank to bank. Below was a shallow pool, where they would rest between their assaults on the fence. He could spear them easily there. He would take many for trap bait, too. When the stakes were all driven, with inch spaces between them, he lashed them with cedar bark to poles he laid along their tops. No sockeye could pass them.

He built his cabin to serve as a smokehouse, with an opening along the low ridge and racks below for fish. He selected a long cedar pole and whittled it to tapering smoothness, then fitted his spear head to it. It was a good spear, wjfth two barbed points which came loose when the fish was pierced and which were held to the pole by short lanyards of halibut line, so that no matter how the salmon floundered they could not twist the points from their flesh.

The fall rains commenced when he had all in readiness. That would bring the salmon up quickly. His fence was high and would never be carried away as long as he kept the stakes free of the fallen leaves the current brought to clog the spaces. He was ready for them now. All was going well. Once he reaped his fish harvest he would be safe until spring.

What fools the old people were tobelieve bad legends of so good a trapping ground as this!

AS THE sockeye ascended the big -TA. river a school of several hundred left it and turned aside into the bend, where the creek came brawling across a riffle of coarse gravel. For two days they hung in the deep water outside its mou th, timid of running the gauntlet of those shallows. Then they started up.

In the creek there were only a few small pools to serve as resting places. The channel was broken by huge boulders worn smooth by the water, which had wrestled unavailingly with them for many centuries, and by the rubble and sand which scoured them in freshet time. The salmon had to nose into the smooth chutes between these boulders, struggle to gain the eddy above, rest; then go stubbornly forward.

Many males headed the school. Already they were taking on their spawning colors of red and livid green. The perfect streamline of their bodies was broken by the narrow hump which comes at mating time. Their jaws were growing longer and showed the sharp hooked teeth, as long and more pointed than a cat’s. Following were the weaker males and most of the females already heavy with eggs.

When they entered che creek the water was at its autumn low level. This made their ascent difficult. What at another season would be smooth slips of water, were narrowed to shallow passages, hardly deep enough to give purchase to the sockeye’s fins and powerful tails. In other places, where last year’s freshets had washed the loose gravel into flat riffles, there was not depth enough co cover their glistening backs. Yet tirelessly they fought on toward the spawning grounds of the lake.

Then, with the rain, came a welcome swelling of the stream. It was not a freshet, for the flat and the mountain sides above were dry, and absorbed most of the rainfall. But there was surplus enough to bring the creek a foot higher in the places where it was constricted between boulders. Even in the shallows they could swim with only the tips of their dorsal fins above the surface.

That rain brought a compelling message to the school. To their searching nostrils the water still had the lake smell, an alluring smell after the long sojourn in salt water. But with it came scents that told of rain soaked earth, of rivulets trickling into the lake that would soon be water courses furrowing the hills. The swollen stream and the excitement of the approaching spawning time urged them to fight quickly onward. Eagerly the advance guard of the school approached the lake. There it was confronted with the barrier of stakes.

IN THE morning Cultus Alec saw them and was pleased. Already there were almost enough for his needs. To-morrow he would have twice as many trapped here. Then, he would start to take all the fish he needed while he worked to make his great dream come true. He watched them battling below his fence. Once more he tested it, made sure there were no holes for them to find, or loose stakes to be crowded aside. He smiled and went back to his new cabin under the trees.

Most of the sockeye were still straggled down the creek when a great fish overtook them. His weight was three times that of any sockeye in the school. He had reached the bend in the river with them, but, because of his size, he could not follow when they entered the shallows. Now, since the rains started, he had been able to recover the distance he had lost. This was a coho salmon, a heavy shouldered male, soon to be in spawning condition and coming up a month before any others of his kind. He was one of those rare giants which unique circumstances occasionally combine to produce in the underwater world. This one weighed twenty pounds, or twice as much as a normal full grown coho. He was close to four feet long, and rangy. Few of the sockeye were half his length. That night he and the remainder of the school reached the barrier of stakes.

In the dark, while the rain beat its monotonous soft tattoo on the dying leaves, there was tremendous struggling at the barrier. The water was churned by the hundreds of fish that milled against its downstream side. They leaped incessantly to scale it. Their bodies thudded solidly against the stakes, were thrown back, and sometimes—so densely did they crowd to find a passage through— a falling fish was held at the surface for an instant by the backs of those below. The males dragged and wrenched at the soft wood with their hooked teeth, shredding its fibrous inner bark to brown ribbons that fluttered and tossed in the beaten water. Others swam hard against the stakes with their noses wedged into the spaces. Often they beat furiously with their tails as they followed the spaces upward until they reared themselves twothirds above the water. Always they fell back defeated. It was a mad, unceasing struggle, long sustained by the insistendi to reach the lake which drove them all to frenzy.

Among them the giant coho ranged. Back and forth behind the forefront of battle he swam, searching for the place of the greatest flow of water. When he found it, he shot ahead until he struck the fence. He dropped back then rammed it again. Then he leaped. The impact of his body sent a tremble along the row of stakes. Again and again he leaped, always at the same place. On his last leap the cross-pole to which the stakes were lashed struck him heavily above the eyes. He fell limply and drifted on his side back into the pool. In the dark, eager sockeye swam over and under him. In the pool were other fish which had been stunned by striking the cross-pole. Two of them lay with their dark bodies showing against the sand of the bottom. Those two would never swim again.

For a time, after the coho righted himself, he swam once more behind the churning line. Then with the full return of strength a fury seized him. He leaped three times in quick succession, hard and full at the stakes through which the water slipped fastest. With his last leap the cedar-bark lashing parted. One stake fell aside, its point remaining in the soft bottom. The point of the other came free. The stake rose lightly, fell softly and lay broadside against the upstream side of the fence.

As if a signal had been flashed to every fish in the school, they crowded to the breach the giant coho had made. Their sensitive sides felt the increased flow there. Below the fence they were a funnelshaped fighting mass. In twos and threes they shot through the hole and in a straggling column went quickly into the lake.

AT MIDNIGHT Cultus Alec came from his cabin. The rain still fell and he wanted to be very sure all was well with his fence. Down through the dripping trees he came slowly. The twisting flame from his cedar bark torch waved eerily, shining on the dull mat of sodden leaves before his feet and on the shining arms and fingers of the alder branches.

He stood on the low bank with the torch held high, shading his eyes and peering into the pool. It was empty! Empty except for the two dead sockeye that lay in a depression on the bottom where the current had rolled them.

He ran up the bank and looked above the fence. A few sockeye were there, only a few, and even they were on their way upstream. Like a black and overhanging wall rose the picture of what this spelled for him. There would be no potlatch in the village in the springtime. He would gain no grand new name, for he could not stay the winter here. The yellow torchlight showed the hole through the fence. But no sockeye could have broken that. Again he looked into the water above and this time he saw in midstream a dark and massive shape. It could not be a sockeye. It could not even be a coho. What was this great thing that had smashed his barrier and snatched from him his one great dream? “Sometimes an animal, sometimes a bird,” the old people said, “but always big, always bigger than birds or animals ever grew.”

He watched the dark form lead the last of the sockeye up stream and with them went his confidence, his disbelief in the old people’s story. The spirit of the forbidden valley was real then, after all, and had showed itself again this time as a monster fishto defeat the plans of men.

On the drooping willows the fingers of the rain stroked down the bedraggled leaves. He would never now be more than Cultus Alec, the Worthless One. For in that soft sound he read his verdict of defeat.

This is the first of a series of four stories of fish life which Mr. Evans has written for MacLean’s. The second will follow in an early issue.