The Living Forest
THERE was I, struggling for my life in the middle of the half-mile wide river. Now even if I did reach shore, how could I live? How could I get food? My gun and axe were gone. Besides, no white man, Indian or Eskimo lived in all that country, and I was more than seven hundred miles from the nearest railroad. That afternoon—the 29th of July, 1891—I had come upon a caribou cow and her fawn while they were swimming the river, and being in need of meat had fired and wounded the calf. Paddling up to it, I tried to kill it with my axe. But the caribou mother, in a frantic effort to protect her young, lunged fiercely at me and driving her chisel-like forehoofs through the paper-like craft tore a gaping hole below the water line. Her violent blow nearly eapsized the canoe, and when it recoiled I lost my balance and toppled head foremost into the river. Then down went the canoe, and with it went everything I owned in the world. But though I swam with all my might. I couldn’t reach shore. I knew I was going down, and down I went . . . once twice , . . Then I slowly rose again. I knew the third time would finish me. I was slowly sinking again when something seized me by the hair. The next
thing I knew I was in a great canoe with a lot of strangers about me. Then everything faded away. Later, when I came to, I was so weak and ill I couldn't raise my head. For a while I didn’t care if I died. Then they gave me something that made me hot inside: I fell asleep. After that I felt better but still was half dazed. Then for a time everything seemed queer. Now there was another great canoe. Altogether there must have been twenty Indians and white men. There was also a boy in the first canoe. They called him Lincoln. Of all the strangers crowded about me there were two I cannot forget. One, a black bearded, hairy' man. whom they called O'Brien. I don’t know why, but I disliked him from the first. The other, an old halfbreed with a strong, kindly face that smiled at me: they called him Bill Hill. Forget him? I'll remember him all my life. T COULD now hear the Loar of great rapids. The crews must have landed on that account. Later, when I raised my head to look over the gunwale. I saw three groups of men ashore. Bill Hill and nine Indians—I counted them—were sitting and talking together under the trees. Some distance away four white men—a tough looking gang—were sitting on a log in the sand. Away from the others, but nearer the canoes, sat the boy Lincoln and a young white man that everybody called Mr. Perkins. Both Lincoln and Perkins looked as though they were from some big city. They seemed lonely, too, and their get up appeared strangely out of place in the North Woods; for they were both fairly covered with
guns and revolvers and bowie knives— like the people we nowadays see in the movies: all firearms and cutlery and cartridge belts. But when I looked at the different groups again. I knew some of the others were missing. O’Brien, for instance, wasn’t there. Perkins took some snapshots with a camera and made some entries in a diary. Then I dozed off and slept until angry voices awoke me. O’Brien had returned, axe in hand. He was ordering Bill Hill to get aboard the canoe 1 was in, but the old halfbreed refused. He explained, however, that it was his rule never to pilot a canoe through unknown rapids without first examining them and choosing the safest channel. Though the white man growled again, it had no effect upon the old halfbreed. Finally, O’Brien, flourishing a big Colt revolver that he borrowed from Lincoln, ordered four of the Indians to get aboard. Sullenly they obeyed. Next Perkins and Lincoln entered the canoe of their own free will, without even being told. It was then that O’Brien, revolver in hand, again ordered Bill Hill to enter the bow. But still the old man refused. “Get aboard or I’ll fire!” snarled O’Brien as he raised the muzzle until it covered the old canoeman’s face. “I suppose I’ll have to now . . . but remember, O’Brien, I may settle with you later,” the old man scowled.
Getting aboard he picked up the sevenfoot bow paddle. O’Brien next entered the stern, laid the revolver on a bale before him and taking up the steering paddle growled: “The first man to quit . . . gets a ball in the back.” Presently the paddles dipped and we were under way. Soon the shores changed. The reeky out-croppings grew larger and more numerous, too, and rising higher and higher they at last formed two fortresses that stood, one on either side of the stream. Yet they leaned so close together that they squeezed the river into a perfect fury. Between the upper end of a rocky island and the mainland on our right, a big tree hung horizontally. Beneath the tree glided a gleaming, squirming lane of water that reminded me of a gigantic snake racing into its hole. ^UDDENLY the canoe turned to the right, and into ^that hole we swept with a rush. A moment later everyone ducked his head as we glided under the hanging tree. The canoe now began swerving this way and that—like a ship without a rudder. Hill looked back with anger. I, too, glanced behind. It wasn’t what I saw, but what I didn’t see that startled me. Our steersman had disappeared. Instantly Hill bellowed something in Indian. Quick as a flash an old man grabbed the spare steering paddle and worked with might and main.
Now down a steeper slope we flew like an express train, through a canyon. Trees and rocks went flying by. Spray hit us like buckshot. Perpendicular walls of rock on either side made landing impossible. Ragged boulders appeared above the foam and threatened to sink us. Suddenly we struck a submerged rock that bellied up the bottom of our canoe, cracked her ribs, and ripped her open. Now we were sinking. I looked ahead. Our end was nearer than I thought. A huge “cellar” now opened before us. It must have been caused by a big hole in the bottom of the river-bed. It suggested an enormous, irregular basin of greenish black glass. Although entirely composed of the river’s water, it looked completely dry and empty. It filled me with awe. But into it we had to go. Over the rim went the bow. Then ribs cracked again as the stern upheaved. And down we went in a sickening dive. The tons of water already aboard now lunged forward and smashed against the hooded bow with the force of a battering ram. Thus in one great plunge we struck the cellar's bottom, and the force of the water aboard not only drove the wrecked canoe from under us, but ripped her clean in two. Now we were struggling for our lives in that swiftly moving well: but while we were whirled along the bottom of that horrible hole we didn’t sink any more than we would have sunk in sand. So hard was the water made by the force of the racing river. Then the current dragged us up and out, and plunged us into a smothering swell. Some distance
away I came to the surface, but only long enough to gasp half a breath; yet I saw a moccasined foot whirled above a crest of foam ... I sank again. My lungs were going to burst. Then I was tossed into air.
At that moment I saw Lincoln whirled round in a whirlpool. The next instant he sank like a stone. Now a copper-colored hand shot up out of foam, clutched for something that wasn’t there . . . and sank again. Something was floating near me. I strained toward it, and was able to seize hold. It was a mass of dark brown hair. It was Lincoln’s.
ALTHOUGH I could do no more than • keep afloat I still held his hair.
Presently we were swept close to a big rock. I clutched for it but missed by an inch or two. Then the current rolled us into the boulder’s “backwater” and we were swept up toward the rock again. I now seized hold, crawled up on top and there, with the exhausted Lincoln beside me, I rested upon the boulder.
I was so done out that I didn’t know how long we had been there when I heard a rifle shot. A moment later came another report; then another and another, roaring and re-roaring above the noise of the river. Then came the sound of a man shouting. I looked around and saw old Bill Hill standing on the southern shore, about fifty feet from our boulder.
“Are you all right?” he called above the roar.
I shouted in reply. Then Lincoln raised his head and waved in answer. Bill shouted again:—
“Don’t worry. I’m goin’ to start and make a line!” Then he disappeared among the trees. Later he returned, carrying a bundle of thin poles on his shoulder and a coil of line that hung from his hand. Turning up stream he halted on reaching a rocky point that caused the current to sheer off shore. Then fastening one end of the line to a small stone, he tied the other end to one end of a boom he had made from the poles, suggestive of a wooden chain.
Casting the boom, one pole at a time, into the. current, he threw the stone as far out over the water as the line would allow, and when the line grew taut, it jerked the stone down into the river. The current striking against the anchored line, forced the boom out into the stream, much farther than it otherwise would have gone. As the boom floated down, it dragged its anchor, and thus the force of the current outstretched . the wooden chain against our boulder. And we seized it.
The boom was made of dry spruce poles tied end to end—though about six inches apart—with thongs of green willow bark. The line was made of the same material.
“Take hold th’ end
pole,” Bill called, “but only one at a time. An’ hang on tight.”
Lincoln seized hold and stepping into foam, away he was whirled in a quarter circle through the racing torrent. Then Bill landed him about fifty yards below by carefully hauling him into an eddy. Again the wooden chain was cast adrift; once more I caught it, and except for being tossed topsy-turvy and bruised against stone, I, too, was safely landed ashore. At least I thought we were. But we had no sooner landed than Hill hustled us up into the shade of the trees, as though something might injure us. I couldn’t see or guess what it was.
“I wonder what’s happened to th’ other crew,” said Bill. Then he added: “Keep close behind me an’ don’t make any noise.”
HE LED US through tunnels of leafy shadow on our way up toward the head of the rapids, and we didn’t stop until we were looking down on the hanging tree. Presently we watched the old man work his way down among the bushes and rocks on the face of the cliff and stop to examine the tree. Why he took so long I didn’t know then. All we could see around the stump was a lot
of fresh wooden chips. Evidently the tree had been chopped down with an axe. Yet when Bill climbed back to us, his face was a study. He must have read a startling story from the signs he found down there. But he didn’t tell us anything then.
Now more cautiously than ever he led us up river, keeping well back among the trees, as though someone might see us. Every little while he paused to listen. Once he whispered:
“We’ve got to know what’s happened to th’ other crew. Did you hear firin’ a while ago?”
“Yes,” I whispered, “I thought they were signalling.”
“No, they weren’t signallin’,” he frowned. “We must be mighty careful now. Don’t make a sound.”
When we neared the little bay, where they landed to give O’Brien a chance to inspect the rapids, not a man was to be seen. And the freight canoe had disappeared. I couldn’t make it out. But Bill didn’t explain. Now he led us all round the bay, but of course well under cover of the trees, so we couldn’t be seen. Evidently he wanted to make sure no one was hiding in the surrounding woods.
Motioning us to keep back, he then stepped out into sunlight, and walking across the beach he stopped suddenly and stooped. He was examining something in the sand. Even from where we stood we could see three big red splotches on the beach. He spent quite a time about the place, observing all the marks and signs, even following the three gutter-like impressions that lead down to the water’s edge. When he returned to us he was so agitated that he suddenly demanded:
“Now, boys, out with it . . . Gi’ me th’ facts.”
And turning to me, he impatiently asked:
“What are you doin’ down north? Never mind th’ frills. Tell me straight.”
He fairly took my breath away, but I managed to reply:
“When my father died, Uncle Rod sent an old Indian called The Giblets of a Bird, to meet me at the railroad, and take me to him.”
“Who’s your Uncle Rod?”
“Chief Trader Douglas of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Contentment.”
“Good! Go on,” exclaimed the old man.
‘But on the way, The Giblets of a Bird
fell ill and died, and after that I had an
awful time. I was starving and tried to kill a caribou calf, but its mother upset me into the river. That’s when you pulled me out.”
“What’s your name an’ where’re you from?”
“Gordon Douglas, Toronto,” I replied. “What do you know about this O’Brien gang?”
“Nothing; never saw ’em before in my life.”
“All right, my boy.”
Turning to Lincoln he said:
“Now, Lincoln, tell me everything about your cornin’ down north. About your father an’ Perkins an’ th’ mine . Everything. Remember . . . we’re cornered. But we’ve got to move. An’ I want th’ facts. Every detail. Who was Perkins an’ why’d he come down north?”
“Mr. Perkins was Father’s secretary and ...”
“ JUST a moment,” old Bill interrupted.
“I know a little. But not much. So tell me all, just as if I didn’t know a thing. Then I’ll get the facts I want. First, tell me ’bout your father.”
“My father is Stephen Lee of New York. He’s a millionaire. He owns several mines. One north-east of here, near Golden Lake. They sent out word last winter that they wanted supplies taken in this summer, and that there was a lot of gold ready to send out. Father said about a hundred thousand dollars worth. And he sent his secretary, Perkins, to look after it. And I coaxed Dad to let me go too. That’s why I’m here.”
“Did Perkins talk much about where he was goin’ an’ what he was goin’ for?”
“Oh, yes, he talked all the time. He’d never taken such a trip before, and he talked about it on the train, and everywhere, to everybody he met. If dad had known he would have been wild, because Perkins even talked about it to the hotel bell hops, and the taxi drivers, when we stayed over a day in Chicago to buy our guns. Though I reminded Perkins that Dad had said we no more needed firearms in Canada than we needed firearms in New York City. But on the train folks told Perkins he ought to arm up well if he was going into British America. That’s why he bought so many guns in Chicago.”
“Did he show his maps to anyone there?”
“Oh, yes. To a couple of mining men he met.” “Friends?”
“No. Strangers. But they treated us to a swell luncheon.”
“What happened at Fort Redemption?”
“We were delayed about ten days. Because, though they had two six-fathom canoes, as Dad had ordered, they hadn’t enough men to man them. The old trader had died, and the new one, not knowing anything about Dad’s order, had sent all the canoemen to man a lot of boats to take supplies to other posts. When we arrived the only canoemen we could hire were three old Indians and six mere boys. None of them were what they call ‘white-water-men.’ The trader said we needed sixteen first-class canoemen, and four of them ought to be ‘ white-water-men. ’
“So we had to wait for the return of the boats. But nine or ten days later, along came O’Brien and five white men. They came from the south. They said they were on their way north, prospecting for gold. They said an American mining syndicate was backing them. They told Perkins over and over again how glad they were to meet some of their own folks from ‘God’s Country.’ And because they were so interested in Dad’s mine, Perkins told them a lot about it. When they learned what was delaying us, they all volunteered to act as our canoemen.
“But when Perkins told the trader about their offer, the Hudson's Bay man was against it. Because none of us knew anything about the newcomers. But Perkins went up in the air and said that any men from ‘God's Country’ were good enough for him, and he was
going to hire them anyway.
“The trader then warned Perkins about letting O’Brien and hia men take their guns along. He said the Hudson’s Bay Company never stood for that sort of nonsense. It was against the rules for any of their voyageurs or pavkateers to carry firearms. So Perkins agreed, providing the trader would tell O'Brien that. It made O'Brien mad. But when the trader said he wouldn't let Perkins have the canoes unless they agreed to leave their guns at the Post. O'Brien and his men gave in.
'That gave us fifteen men for the two canoes. We were still one man short. Then, just as we were ready to start, you arrived at the Post. And when the trader told Perkins you were one of the best white-water-men in the country, he decided to have you at any cost. Then you came along as bowsman for our canoe.”
1 Do you know th' way to th’ mine?” old Hill asked.
“No. I've never been there,” Lincoln replied.
“I know you haven't. But you saw Perkins' map, didn’t you?”
“Yes. Several times.”
’’Could you draw a map of th’ route from memory?’’
’■VO. It w as too complicated. There was too much to ^ remember. Father had drawn in portages and lakes and rivers and written a lot of notes all over the printed map. because the lakes and streams on the way to the mine, northeast of here, weren’t shown in print.”
“Did th’ route lay in a fairly straight direction?”
“No. It zig-zagged a lot both east and west as well as north. Didn’t you see the map?” Lincoln asked.
"No. my boy. I wanted to. an’ asked Perkins several times, but he always said O’Brien had it. An’ when I asked O'Brien he pretended he couldn’t find it. If I’d known I was tyin’ up with such a bunch of fools an’ rogues. I'd never ’ave consented to come.”
“But how did O’Brien get control of the whole outfit?” I asked.
"By boastin’ and flatterin’,” Bill replied. “An’ he poured it over Perkins by th’ bucket full. Then a few days later Perkins put th’ devil in charge. But Perkins certainly wasn’t a judge of men. He’s dead now, however, so I won’t say any more. Five were drowned when our canoe was wrecked. An’ three were shot out there.” said the old man, pointing to the red splotches on the sand.
"Murdered? What for?” asked Lincoln in dismay.
“To make it easier for O’Brien an’ his Chicago gang to get th’ gold. They’re goin’ to rob th’ mine. They’re headin’ for th’ mine now. They’ve forced th’ other two Indians to help man th’ freight canoe. They’ve got all th’ supplies an' Perkins' rifle an’ shot gun an’ ammunition. as well as your revolver. Theydon’t know we're alive. They think we’re dead.”
‘‘But they've lost O'Brien!” I exclaimed.
“Not for a moment.
O'Brien’s not dead. He wasn't drowned. He leaped out on th’ hangin' tree.
That's what he chopped it down for. To save himself when he headed us all for death. Yes. he saved himself. Th’ tracks an’ marks at th' tree proved that. Then he hustled back here. That’s when th' firin' began. Thet’s when three of th’ other five Indians were killed. But he saved two because he needed eight to man th' big canoe.
He even has th’ map your father made. I saw O'Brien put it in th’ freight canoe before he shot us into th’ rapids. Yes. they're headin’ for the mine, and they'll get th' gold, as sure as we’re alive. But how long we'll be alive I don’t know. An’ yet it all depends on ourselves.”
“How do you mean?”
“It all depends on our woodsmanship. We're in a
country where no natives live. We’ve lost everything— save my knife. It's as though we were thrown back fifteen or twenty thousand years in th’ history of th’ world —except for th’ fact that we’ve got a steel bladed knife. Now we’ll have to depend on nature to supply our needs. Civilization means mighty little to us now. We’ll have to face everything without its aid.”
"Like Robinson Crusoe?” I asked.
“No, not for a moment like Robinson Crusoe. But I wish to God we were. For Robinson Crusoe had a shipload of supplies. Food an’ clothin’ an’ guns an’ everything he needed to support himself in comfort. While we have nothin’ in th’ world between us an’ death—except my knife.”
“Then a few more days, and that’s the end of us,” I sighed.
“But while there’s life there’s hope, my boy. An’ as
long as we have th’ use of our brains an’ hands we ought to try to live. All our ancestors did, an’ it’s up to us to do th’ same. So from now on, even though you are boys, you must play your parts like men. One man an’ two boys won’t stand much of a chance; but three men can put up a creditable fight for life.”
“Then tell the other two men what to do,” said Lincoln.
“That’s th’ way to talk. Now I’m sure we’ll have a chance. But I’m sorry we can’t warn th’ miners; for even though we knew th’ way, we’d arrive too late. To look for th’ mine without a map’d be like lookin’ for a bullet in a forest— especially when th’ only traffic to an’ fro has been by river an’ lake. Besides, it would prove a great loss of time. Th’ wisest thing for us to do is to turn southward as soon as we can travel by canoe. Then we may be able to tell th’ Mounted Police in time to stop th’ murderers before they cross th’ border. Though just as likely as not, we may run across th’ brutes in a few more days; because they’ll have to go out by way of this river. But we’re wastin’ time. We must be up an’ doin’. From now on, day an’ night, week in an’ week out, for months to come, it will be nothin’ but a continuous battle we’ll have to fight. It’s our only chance. But first I want to have a look at th’ shore below th’ rapids. Let’s go. Some of our friends may’ve landed there.”
AS WE passed among the trees Bill was ever on the alert, looking this way and that, as if expecting attack; and whenever a chance offered he searched the shore line below, in the hope of discovering surviving friends. But though we descended far beyond our landing place, we found no trace of human beings, either alive or . . . dead. Already the sun was setting, and we were tired and hungry.
“Our only chance o’ gettin’ food to-night is to hunt for berries. An’ we better not delay,” remarked the old man.
On our search for fruit, Bill stopped beside a poplar tree, and removing a patch of bark, scraped the trunk with his knife until he had gathered a wad of moist, pulpy fibre. Handing it to me, he said:
“Chew it for a while. But don’t swallow the pulp. Just swallow the sap. It’s a good thing to chew when starvin’. Don’t forget it, boys, you may need it before you hit the railroad,” he cautioned as he gave Lincoln some too.
It tasted like slippery elm.
“Another thing we must do before dark is to make our bed, because we mustn’t make a fire to-night. For if they saw our smoke, they’d know someone was alive an’ they’d come back.”
“Where do you think they are now?” Lincoln asked.
“The chances are they’re in the woods beyond that point on th’ other side o’ the river. That’s the best place to make a portage round these rapids, because round that point the river sweeps in a curve of more than half a circle. I believe they’re portagin’ over there now. But the work’ll take hours. They’ve a lot to carry. Several tons I should judge.” “But if they're bent on robbing the mine, won’t they cache it or leave it behind?” I asked.
“No. They'll have to take it along if they’re goin’ to pose as the crew o’ the freight canoe. No doubt they’ll tell ’em at the mine that they happened to get ahead o’ the rest o' the party. We may escape 'em to-night, but to-morrow we're likely to have a call from the brutes.”
While continuing our search for berries, the old hunter peeled off a sheet of birchbark, and folding in the two ends heiastened the
folds with little wooden skewers, and thus made a rogan or pail for carrying fruit or water. In less than a quarter of an hour our search was rewarded when we came upon a patch of blueberry bushes that were weighted down with fruit.
Some of the berries were as large as marbles, and their light-blue, bloom on their blue-black skins was a sight to behold. So luscious were they that we pitched in, and before we grew tired of picking and eating our birchbark pail was full.
Wandering out upon a tree crowned knoll that overlooked the river, and where in the shadow of a canopy of spreading branchs we were screened from view, we rested awhile.
“My boys, here’s where we better spend the night.
Here, even a little breeze’ll blow the flies away. I’ll cut evergreen twigs an’ you boys carry ’em here, then I’ll make our bed.”
When enough twigs were gathered, old Bill placed a log as the head of the bed; then he began laying along the log the first row of twigs, butts down and tips over the log. Back and forth he worked, one row upon another, shingle fashion, until he had laid enough for our bed. Later, when we lay down upon it I found it so comfortable that I soon fell asleep. Hours later, the howling of wolves awoke me, and hearing Lincoln move I whispered so as not to awaken Bill. The old hunter, however, soon proved he wasn’t asleep, for he and Lincoln began talking about wolves. Presently I began to doze. I don’t know how long I must have slept when I was again awakened with an awful start.
“Lord! What was that?”
“Don’t know. Bill’s gone!” Lincoln breathed hard.
AX/E LISTENED. Now there was nothing to see but ’'V darkness, and nothing to hear but silence; and nothing moved save the minutes that seemed hours. Then suddenly the silence was shattered with an awful hullabaloo that came from the depth of the wood: whoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, whoo, whool it sounded, like the deep bellowing of a bass-voiced man. Again and again it was repeated, sometimes ending in a mocking, bellowing laugh as of a drunken man, and then while we shivered with fright, it rose into a piercing, blood-curdling scream. Spell-bound with awe and dumb with fear, we trembled as we listened. Later, when we once more made use of our tongues, all thought of sleep had left us for the night. With heavily beating hearts we wondered what had become of Bill. Nevertheless it was out of sound sleep that I was awakened when the old hunter called:
“Come, my boys. It’s time we were gettin’ breakfast. First thing you know the sun’ll be up before you.”
“Lordy! I’m glad you’re back, Bill. We heard an awful noise while you were gone,” I exclaimed.
“Like a bellowin’ man?” he asked.
“Yes, a drunken man.”
“Oh, that was a Great Horned Owl. I’ll show you one the first chance I get.
But come, boys, let’s be off.
We better keep what berries we’ve got, an’ pick fresh ones for our breakfast.”
“But, Bill, my tongue’s
so dry, I’d like to have a drink and a wash before I tackle food. Let’s go down to the river,” said Lincoln.
“It’s risky . . . but there’s a heavy mist on the river, so you boys better take advantage of it an’ drink right away. But keep watch down stream, an’ if you see any sign o’ man, make a jump for the trees. I’ll be over at the berry patch.”
How refreshing the water felt. It made me long to take a swim. And when my wet face and arms began to cool on the down river side, I noticed an easterly breeze was blowing the mist away. Presently I caught a glimpse of quite a stretch of the lower river. But what was that? I looked again. It was a six-fathom canoe. Then I saw a sudden puff of something. It looked like smoke. A moment later I heard the vicious crackle of a bullet in the air, then the smack of the bullet ricocheting from the
water near us. A second later I heard the report of a rifle. I leaped for the shelter of the trees. Racing toward the berry patch, we saw Bill running away from it and beckoning us to follow. Cutting the corner we made straight for him at our utmost speed, but strange to say he was running down river, not away from the big canoe, but actually toward it.
“Old fool . . . wrong direction!” I gasped.
“Yes the old
idiot!” puffed Lincoln.
BUT try all our might we couldn’t catch up to Old Bill to stop him going the wrong way, and we didn’t dare shout at him. For a few seconds we could hear bullets crackling through the air and then punking into tree trunks around where we disappeared from the river; presently however they began striking on the far side of that place, then farther up stream. Bill now slowed down and when we caught up to him I breathlessly gasped:
“You ran . . . wrong way we’re nearer
“Wrong way? Use your brains. When dealin’ with ordinary men use common sense. They thought we’d run away. I used common sense an’ ran toward ’em. Now we’re safe. They’re shootin’ w’here we would’ve been if we had run away from them. Listen! There now! That bullet struck even farther up river. There goes another, even farther away than the last. They think we’re still runnin’ away from ’em. God gave us brains to use. An’ if we use ’em, we’ll have a chance o’ livin’. Let’s go down nearer the water. I want to see what they’re goin’ to do . Keep well behind me, an’
next. Don’t make a sound above all don’t let ’em see you.”
So cautiously and silently did the old hunter move toward the river that he made me think of a lynx. Presently he found a little peep-hole among the leaves, and we saw the big canoe heading swiftly toward where they had seen us washing. Securing another view, we saw the bandits land.
“Come. We mustn't be caught between them an’ the river. We’ll go up the hill.”
“Can’t they track us up there?" Link asked.
“I don’t think so. They aren't woodsmen.
Presently we heard seven shots from a rifle.
“Notice? None of those bullets came this way. They think we're runnin’ in the other direction.
A little later we saw them paddling downstream, and soon they disappeared round the river's bend. There were eight men in the canee.
“That's the last we'll see of ‘em for a while. They’re off now to rob the mine. An’ may the Lord save the miners’ lives." sighed old Bill. "Well, boys.” he added, as if he wanted to dismiss the brutes from thought, “let's get something to eat."
Returning to the berry patch, we refreshed ourselves with blueberries, a fruit one may eat as much as he wishes without fear of illness. Later we sat in a patch of early morning sunshine and discussed our great problem of existence. Continued on page 43
Continued from page 9
“Now, my boys, there’s three things we must try to do. First, to live. Second, to travel. An’ third, to notify the Police of what has happened. But whether we can do it ... I don’t know . . . for much depends on you boys. Even with the best o’ luck, winter’ll overtake us on the way. For what with havin’ to hunt an’ fish an’ build a canoe, the freeze-up’ll catch us before we’ve gone half way. Then there’ll be the makin’ o’ winter clothin’ an’ toboggans an’ snowshoes for our overland journey.
THINK of it . . .by river and lake . . . we’re over seven hundred miles from the nearest railroad ... at Winnipeg. We’re over four hundred miles from Port Redemption. Even Fort Vengeance . . . the nearest Hudson’s Bay Post between here an’ the railroad ... is over three hundred miles away . . . but it isn’t on our line of river and lake travel. From here, the only possible way o’ reachin’ it ... is across country. An’ that, at this season o’ the year, is out of the question . . . ”
“But how about Fort Churchill or York Factory?” Lincoln asked.
“True, my boy, they’re nearer still . . . but if we headed in that direction, it would mean bein’ bottled up at either post for a year before you could catch an outgoin’ vessel to England, and from there you would have to take passage to New York. So you see Hudson’s Bay is out o’ the question. Our only way is to make a canoe, paddle back as far as we can before the freeze-up; then make winter clothin’ an’ toboggans an’ snowshoes, in the hope o’ strikin’ across country and reachin’ Fort Vengeance. That’s what we must do.”
Then for an hour or so we sat in an eastern breeze and discussed other things, such as hunting and fishing, especially the way we would have to do it since we no longer had firearms or fishing tackle, and no implements to work with except old Bill’s hunting knife.
“One o’ the first things we must do is to set snares for rabbits. Then we ought to try for fish in the river.”
“How will you manage that?” I asked. “With a wooden spear,” the old hunter replied. Then he asked:
“Have you boys any matches?”
We felt all our pockets over and over again, but the rapids must have emptied them clean of everything. Even my handkerchief and pocket knife were gone. No, we hadn’t a match between us.
“I ran out of ’em just before we struck the rapids, an’ intended askin’ for more,” remarked Bill, “but it doesn’t matter . . . I can make fire without . . .’’he stopped abruptly and began sniffing the air. Anxiously looking about, he exclaimed:
“See the haze over the river. The air seems full of smoke.”
Hurrying down to the beach, we found the northern shore almost obscured from view, and the old woodsman growled: “Those brutes have set the woods ablaze in the hope o’ burnin’ us alive!” Looking toward the east we saw that the smoke was steadily increasing. In a flaming sky of many colors three mock suns were mounted on a great, far-reaching circle of rainbow size and beauty that formed a halo round the real sun. Now we could not only smell smoke, but we could actually taste it too, and the breathing of it affected our throats.
“We’ll have to build a raft an’ get across the river, or we’ll be trapped in a furnace. There’s a pile of driftwood up stream; we’ll make it there . . . quick, boys!” exclaimed the old woodsman.
PRYING free a couple of spruce logs thicker than a man’s thigh and twenty or more feet in length, Bill rolled them partly into water, adjusted them parallel about five feet apart, crossed them at either end with poles as thick as a man’s arm and bound the poles securely into place with thin, rope-like green willow switches. Adding more cross poles, about three feet apart, he also bound them into place, then floating the structure, he shoved two other logs beneath the cross-
bars and secured them with willow switches. Selecting four dry, thin spruces, he hacked them round their butts near the ground, then by rocking them back and forth, aided by us, he broke them off. Three of them were about ten feet in length, while the fourth was about twenty feet long. They were to serve as poles for propelling the raft.
Smoking cinders and dead charcoal were now falling about us, and so dense was the smoke that we were always tasting it.
“It’s mighty close now, but we ought to save our rogan o’ berries. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
Away the old man raced among the trees. Presently big pieces of blazing bark were flying overhead, and occasionally falling into the water with a hiss and a puff of steam. I had often wondered how forest fires could race ahead with such incredible speed, but now I stopped wondering when I saw how the wind would carry blazing embers a quarter or perhaps a half a mile, in advance of the burning woods, and start another fire. Every few minutes the raging flames seemed to jump another quarter of a mile or so. No wonder they overtook and headed off many a fleeing animal and burnt it to a crisp.
Presently a shower of blazing embers fell all about us, and we wondered if we would have to dip ourselves in the river to save our clothes. Seeing and breathing now actually hurt, and my eyes were running water. Already we could hear the roaring and crackling of the great fire. A sudden loud splash not far away made us look along the shore. A bear had plumped into the river and was swimming across. Then we noticed three other animals farther away, but we boys couldn’t make out what they were.
“A caribou cow an’ two calves,” said old Bill as he came up behind us.
Securing the rogan of berries to a cross bar, we shoved our raft into the river. Link and I were stationed toward the bow, each with a ten foot pole at hand, while the old hunter took the stern with both his poles beside him.
Shoving upon the cross-bars before us, we waded toward midstream.
“We’ll find shallow water most o’ the way over,” Bill explained, “but in channels it may be far over our heads. When nearin’ such places gi’ me warnin’, then I’ll push hard enough to carry the raft over. Otherwise the current may catch us an’ sweep us down river into places too deep for polin’.”
AT FIRST the deepest channels were only about ten to thirty feet wide, and it was in such places that the old woodsman made use of his twenty foot pole; nevertheless the river allowed us to do much wading. While we were busy with our poles, I saw the bear walk ashore, but the caribou cow and her calves had disappeared.
The river’s course lay due east for some distance, then sweeping northward it passed out of sight. The wind was coming straight up river from the east. At first the fire was confined to the southern bank, but now it had leaped the river and was racing along the northern shore. The smoke, however, was so dense that it was hard to make sure of anything.
Falling embers again made the river hiss around us, and a blazing piece of birch bark dropped on the raft behind me. A channel now caused us to use our ten foot poles, but presently they became too short and Bill worked his twenty footer; yet even it soon became useless, and the swift current carried us rapidly down river, straight toward the fire. Every once in a while the old hunter would try again with his twenty foot pole, but he couldn’t touch bottom. Meanwhile the wind and the river seemed battling for the possession of our raft. But the river won.
“As there’s fire on both sides now, there’s nothin’ for us to do but try an’ keep in the middle; it’s the safest place,” Bill frowned.
The air had grown intensely hot, and
so dense was the atmosphere that it was only on coming within less than a hundred yards of it that we could see fire. Drifting past a point that was a roaring mass of flame, we found the heat so great that it caused a strong uprising of air that carried smoking and blazing embers far out of sight overhead: the heat reminded me of the fire in a smelting furnace.
Whether drifting or poling, we occasionally had to pass through what might be called islands of smoke, that seemed to be resting upon the river. It was then that we missed the steady east wind and almost smothered for the want of air. For though the fire’s great heat had created a wind of its own, we derived no relief from it as it did nothing but carry flames and smoke and embers high in the air, and increase the roaring and the flaring of the flames.
Occasionally showers of glowing sparks would fall upon us and cling to our clothes, forcing us to lower ourselves into the river and submerge our heads. None but those who have seen, and heard, and smelt, and tasted, and felt, a forest fire, can realize what we went through. But before we had traversed a mile of it, Lincoln and I were thrilled at the number of animals we had seen either swimming in the river, or standing on sand bars or on little islands amid stream. First we saw three wolves going by in a bunch. Then two martens. Next a lynx and a moose calf swimming almost abreast; yet they appeared to pay no attention to each other. Later seven caribou, all swimming close together, crossed ahead of us and went by with such a rush that they created a wake that over-ran our raft.
MEANWHILE a whirling wind arose and made the blazing trees increase their roar. Later iA settled down to a gusty blow that caught the dense clouds of smoke rising from either shore and swirling them together over the centre of the river, tossed them into a great upheaval that resembled an active volcano. Now the only way to safety lay in following a tunnel of fairly clear air that we saw beneath the upwhirling smoke, and as good luck would have it, old Bill was now touching bottom with his longest pole; into that strange, flexible tunnel he guided our raft.
The tunnel-like space, however, did not always keep to the middle of the river, but at times passed so close to jutting treecovered points that their swirling masses of flame almost set us on fire. Yet we had to go through it, and the heat was so intense that one or another of us was always dipping himself in the river. Once the air channel carried us so close ashore that while rounding a point a great mass of flame, apparently detaching itself from the roaring, crackling trees, swept out over us and came so close that the gum on our logs actually ran. Such a great mass of flame sweeping so far from the trees was evidently caused by the combustion of gases that the black smoke contained. And though the smoke from certain sections of the burning woods was tarry black, the river valley was not obscured from light; on the contrary, it was at times strangely illuminated both by sunlight filtering through, and by the great glare of the blazing trees on either side of the river, and the roaring of which, strange to say, never seemed to be near us but always ahead of us or behind us.
Later, we came upon still another group of animals that had taken refuge on a big rocky bar. It was composed of two moose, a bear, a lynx, three wolves and a wolverine, besides a number of smaller animals; and though we passed close to them, they merely looked our way in wonderment.
Poling on, we found the smoke gradually thinning, and presently we were overjoyed to discover several patches of sunlight on the blackened and smoldering shores. After a while a lucky turn in the river carried us out of the burning area, and we once more beheld green trees and breathed clear air. What a relief it was!
Afterwards, in discussing the course of the river, the old hunter explained that we had first traveled east, then north and then east again, until taking a final turn that faced us south. Thus we had been swept round a great bend in the river that left the southern shore in the
shape of a peninsula; and we were now straight east of where we had slept the night before. As we poled down the western shore, Bill cautioned:
“Watch for a place that looks like a dead camp-fire. That’ll be where the brutes stopped for their second breakfast, and where they set the woods ablaze in the hope 0’ burnin’ us to death.”
We couldn’t help finding it, and we even saw where they had hurled burning brands to set the grass aflame, for some of the charred sticks still remained where they had fallen. Boarding the raft again, Bill remarked as we drifted and poled along:
I 'HE first thing we must do is to camp
A in a good game section where we can get food while we build a canoe. Besides we ought to camp far enough away from this river to prevent our bein’ attacked when the beasts return. Suitable birchbark’ll be hard to find for the makin’ of the canoe. Maybe we’ll have to turn south to find bigger birch trees an’ if we do, that may mean a few days’hard travel overland. If the river’s current keeps up, the place where O’Brien an’ his gang will stop for dinner may be twenty miles or so from here. So if we can get away from the river for a couple of days, we needn’t worry much more.”
After two or three hours drifting, we came to the mouth of a stream that apparently flowed from a group of western hills about five miles away.
“There’s our chance. We’ll tackle the creek, then climb the hills an’ look around,” the old man smiled.
It was a charming little stream about fifty feet wide, and we had no trouble in poling up for a couple of miles to where a jam of driftwood made us leave our raft and continue on foot. It was then the old woodsman discovered a well-beaten game trail leading up the valley. The trail was about a foot wide and two inches deep, and was wdrn free of moss and grass. As it wound among the trees and rocks it displayed the tracks of various beasts which the hunter named as caribou, wolf and bear. Finally a little pond marked the rise of the little creek; and then for a mile or so we followed the game trail up a timbered slope until we suddenly saw sky between the trunks of the trees, and a few moments later stood upon the brink of a precipice of solid granite that fell, in one sheer perpendicular drop of about a hundred and fifty feet, into a sparkling lake of remarkable beauty.
It was an enchanting sight. The lake appeared about seven or eight miles in length from north to south, and about a half a mile in width. Near its centre it was almost divided in two by a long slender point that jutted out from the western shore toward the rocky barrier upon which we stood, and which completely walled out the valley of the Eenna Sepe— The River of the Strange People, as the Indians called it. Now we knew a safe camping ground lay over there among the trees on the western shore.
“There’s where we can build our canoe an’ get ready for your homeward journey,” the old woodsman mused.
Descending the cliff by way of the same game trail that now led down a gulch that scarred the precipice’s brink, we zig-zagged back and forth from hollow to ledge or from crevice to slide; thus we descended—just as the big game of that region had been doing for hundreds of years—to a little point that projected itself into the lake, where shallow rapids ran between it and the longer point that jutted out from the western shore, beyond which we wandered through the woods while the old man chose our camping ground.
It was cool and calm among the trees. Treading silently upon rich carpets of moss and soft mats of pine needles, and breathing deeply the delightful aroma of it all, we saw birds flitting among birch branches, squirrels playing among pine boughs and butterflies resting on golden rugs that slanting sunbeams laid upon the soft, undulating floor of the forest. There we drank at a little spring and picked as many blueberries as we pleased, and the charm of it all made me forget the horror of yesterday and our morning’s fight with fire.
To be continued