So Romance Is Dead !
The North took both Tom Cowan's legs, but it had given him that which makes a Man
COURTNEY RYLEY COOPER
THE intelligentsia, being worldly-wise, has a habit of saying that Romance, as it was known in the olden, golden days, is dead. That habit is shared in widespread fashion; this is a machine age; all is concrete and steel and gas power; frontiers are gone, characters are gone; adventure and all that goes with it has departed.
The truth is that Romance is dead only for those who wish it dead. But it has always been dead for such persons. Their forebears sat in London taverns smug with their mugs of ale, and said there was no adventure to the sailing of the Mayflower. Or they dallied their perfumed handkerchiefs in the Tuileries, and spoke slightingly of the fools who talked of strange things to be seen in the New Acadia. But we know now that there was something more than a mere voyage about the sailing of the Mayflower, and a poet will live forever because he sang of Evangeline. And in years to come there will be sagas of these days, these present days of airplanes and radios—and such men as Tom Cowan.
For Tom Cowan, whose other name is Two Bits, and who counts himself as being a very small part of the tremendous foundations of Romance, might have lived in ’49, when footsore men walked all the way from the Missouri River to the bleak, sandy banks of the Platte in Colorado, following a will-o’-the-wisp called Gold.
He might have worn a coonskin cap, and carried a muzzle-loading rifle—for he is as much of an argonaut as those who built the West—or, to travel even farther into the past, he might have formed a part of the conquistadorial invasions when armor shone and swords flashed.
Then he might have been a part of story and of song that would have lived, for romantic events, strangely enough, happened in smaller equation in the olden days. Outstanding things stood forth, to be sung about by minstrels, to be carried by word of mouth from generation to generation. The only difference between the Romance of yesterday and the Romance of today is that so much more happens now than it did in olden times, that there is little time in which to commemorate a historic event. Perhaps, now that we’re on the subject, you can tell off-hand the exact date that Lindbergh flew the Atlantic?
So Tom Cowan occupied only his brief space in the newspapers, and Tom Cowan passed from view, except for the interest of those who dig a little deeper than the surface, and find in such men the knowledge that Romance is something that will never die, and that the spirit of the pioneer is perhaps as vibrant and full-blooded today as ever it was in the times when men led the way for struggling teams of oxen and their covered wagons. There are still trails to blaze and frontiers to cross.
But now they lie to the north instead of the west; yet the beckoning power is the same, the power of Gold.
It was on an afternoon in the early spring that I dropped in to see Tom Cowan, at his home on Queen Street, Toronto.
There was an early softness to the air, indicative of flowers and budding trees soon to come; a softness which made the man of my visit strangely restive and lonely. But he drank the air only from his window, his scope of
action the chair in which
he sat, for Tom Cowan is legless; one was cut off at the base of the thigh, one below the knee. It irks a man who has ridden steeplechase horses, who has trained steeds for the track, and who has put in better than twenty years pounding the bush with a pack on his back; it galls him to be confined to a chair, with only a folded blanket where his legs have been.
“Spring’s in the air, all right,” said Tom. “I guess the airplanes will be putting forth pretty soon now. Still,” he added quietly, “I guess it’s pretty cold yet—up where I had to leave Joe.”
It was then that he came to talk about it, about how Tom lost his legs, and about Joe whom he left behind— the luck of the trail, as prospectors call it. For Tom Cowan is a prospector, and Joe Rutherford was a prospector, two men of the ten thousand who, without theatrics, without much idea that they are doing anything except a workaday task, take their turn with the dice against almost every fate that may befall a man-—with fortune, loss, privation, loneliness, hunger and even death, the numbers with which they must gamble.
Couriers of the Air
TOM COWAN and Joe Rutherford worked for Jack Hammell as prospectors of the Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration Company. They had seen Canadian mining grow from the days of Cobalt—Tom had left horseracing in New York State to follow the rush up to the new Ontario camp, and it was there that he had met Jack Hammell. Naturally, when Flin Flon had become a certainty and Red Lake proved something more than a flash in the pan—thus giving opportunity for Hammell to proceed with plans which had been more or less formulated in his brain ever since he had witnessed the balloon ascensions of Ivy Baldwin at the St. Louis World’s Fair— Tom and Joe became two of his couriers of the air, by which method he hoped to crack open the mineral storehouses of the North a generation before their time.
They were pioneers, Tom and Joe. The first flights of Jack Hammell’s airplanes carried them into territory of possible wealth. They crossed the dense bush of Northern Ontario and Manitoba; they came to know such places as The Pas, Fort McMurray and Fort Simpson as something else than historic posts; now they were fueling stations upon a line of endeavor which had as its object the ultimate subjection of the Arctic Circle. And so, late in 1928, when there came rumors of great placer beds on the Thelon River, far up the coast of Hudson Bay, Tom and Joe were chosen to investigate.
It was late August when they took off from The Pas and flew to Thicket Portage, where they gassed and proceeded on to Churchill. Again, after a few days, the airplane engine roared and they were off again, this time for Chesterfield Inlet.
Look at a map of Canada, particularly that portion gouged out by the pan-shaped outline of Hudson Bay. Far above Churchill, that terminus toward which heroic men have been pushing the Hudson Bay Railway for years, and a place commonly associated with thoughts of Eskimo, of fur parkas and sweeping cold in the winter, of Northern Lights and the stony bleakness of the Barren Lands, hundreds of miles north of Churchill, in the very shadow of the Arctic Circle, lies Chesterfield Inlet, elevated within the last year from a mere estuary of the Bay into a fueling post for exploring airplanes. And two hundred miles north and west of Chesterfield Inlet lies Baker Lake, another fueling post, where Jack Hammell has established a radio station, and where Revillon Frères for years has bargained for the furs brought in by the Eskimo.
This was a primary objective; from there the airplane, loaded with a sectional canoe and a kicker, together with supplies, set off for the Thelon, a rushing stream of the North, and the gold that was supp csed to line its shores.
But the Thelon is a grudging stream. The men found a vicious task before them, once the airplane had left them and they had established their camp in the bleak country, of the Barrens. A prospector must take everything he needs into the Barrens. There is no vegetation except a scrubby willow which grows for some six inches above the ground, and then, as if tired of its task, spreads along the rocks. There are a few Alpine flowers, a sort of heather and lichens; beyond that there is nothing save the rolling monotony of rock. Even the birds and animals which make their home there provide against the viciousness of the obstacles they face. Birds are feathered to their very toes; there is the Arctic hare and the Arctic fox, the Siberian wolf and the lone grey wolf, all heavily furred, all lonely in their existence, as if the land were too poor to support more than one at a time.
In the Barrens there is no fuel f or the prospector, save that which he brings. There is no shelter. In this lonely land, the men set up their camp, and prepared to investigate the Thelon. But the current was swift; they could make no more than three or four miles an hour against it, even with their kicker. And they found no gold—at least, no quantities such as they had expected. The men returned to a Hudson Bay Post on Baker Lake, where at last the airplane, returning from the wreck of Jack Hammell’s supply boat, the Patrick and Michael, picked them up for a new trip of exploration.
This time it was to be an investigation of the rocky country between the Thelon and the Prince which leads into Baker Lake. Again was a camp established, again the airplane left, with instructions to “put out the flag” on September 17. “Putting out the flag” is meaningful parlance to present day prospectors. It means that an airplane will appear out of the sky, and that on the ground two men, hungry for civilization, will run forth to the unfurling of a large, orange-colored flag, to proclaim to the searchers of the sky that they have found their mark. But on the night of September 16, the wind rose, and after a time, one of the men returning from a trip of inspection outside the tent, made a prophetic comment.
“Afraid we’ll have to stay awake tonight.”
» For there was dampness in the air, that ominous dampness which a man of the North comes to know and fear when autumn comes. In other lands, Indian summer just begun, with its hot, hazy days, and pleasantly crisp nights; fodder was barely in the shock, the frost yet missing from the pumpkin. But up here at the edgeof the Arctic Circle, there was dampness in the air and danger. About eight o’clock the first flakes of snow struck the cheeks of watchful men. A new howl made itself apparent in the wind. Then, down*out of the northwest, sweeping and shrieking, a million demons descending to grip a land into the imprisonment of winter, came the freeze-up.
The prediction had been right; there was no sleep that night. The men remained awake, watchful, taking their turns at knocking the snow from the tent, or refueling their small fire. Neither spoke much about tomorrow. But the same thought was in the minds of each. There would be no airplane to take them to civilization.
Lakes and bays had scummed over the next day, dirty white beneath the deepening layers of snow. They slept by turns, and the wakeful one at times walked out of the tent into the swirl of white, that he might stand and listen—hope rising against the dictates of common sense. But there was only the swish of snow, beating against the freezing fur of his parka where the breath crystallized; only the shriek of the wind and the sodden noise of a barren country being steadily more subdued into the clutch of winter. This meant the end of movement and life in this weird land, save for the momentary white of the weasel, scurrying in its winter ermine from one drift to another; winter camouflage would come to the hare, the fox and the ptarmigan, as if to create invisibility, that the illusion of utter bondage be carried out even to the denizens of a stricken land.
A Lone Chance
A CERTAIN sodden attitude had come to the men by the next day. There was little to do, nothing to talk about; one can say only so much about snow that still drives on, white and remorseless, or an airplane that cannot arrive. And one needs to think about other things than the grimness of his surroundings; the nineteenth was a repetition of other days. On the twentieth, with little to say other than monosyllabic predictions, the men made bannock and cooked up their remaining pork. Only one gallon of gasoline was left for cooking, beans, flour and sugar were growing short; there were four pieces of pork apiece. On the twenty-first, their packs on their backs, bent, stolid forms against the white-laden gale, two men stepped forth from their frost-caked tent, and did not look back. Nor did they speak. Their decision had been made; this might mean death—but there was a lone chance. Men of the North like to take death on their feet; it galls them to sit and wait, sit and wait, hour after hour, day after day, and do nothing but count the moments until the end.
Swamps and lakes were crusted, but not heavily enough; they broke through, time after time—all the world was white, and there was no way to tell which was solid ground, and where water lay fc -neath the snow. Soon, they were wet to the knees, and there the ice formed, crusting their furs, and adding weight to drag at their limbs. There were snowdrifts, eight and ten feet deep some of them, through which they must wallow; in this country where there was never a tree, never a shrub, never a landmark by which to guide themselves, it was impossible to tell which was rounded rock and which was drift. Sometimes they crawled. Sometimes they halted, and bringing forth their compasses, strove to find some means by which they could overcome the variations between the two. Beneath the snow lay great areas of magnetic iron; there are districts in the Barrens, hundreds of miles in extent, where a compass tells only lies.
How many miles lay between them and the Revillon Frères station at the head of Baker Lake, they did not know; they could only hope to reach the Prince River, follow that down to its mouth, and then work from there fifteen miles to the fur post. But when compasses are awry, when there are no landmarks, when after hours of tramping, men find that they have walked only in circles, miles become incomputable things. Night began to close in at what was only four o’clock in softer climates. Miserable, wet, dog-tired, they crawled into their eiderdowns and slept like dead men. The next day was only a repetition of the one that had gone before, struggling against drifts, sloshing through swamp after the crust had broken, bending against the wind and snow. Tom Cowan threw away his compass; he said brusquely that it was useless. But Joe clung to his; it was their only hope. And it lied.
It was the next afternoon, early in the afternoon even for the shortness of Arctic day, that Joe Rutherford hung back. They had just finished the crossing of a small river, fifty yards of rapids in which the icy water cut at their cringing flesh like cold daggers.
“I’m tired, Tom,” Joe said. “I can’t mush much farther.”
They had been throwing things away that day, first the cover of their eiderdowns, then a haversack; Joe had cached a revolver and shells, and left a rifle at the banks of a river. The snow had ceased now, and the weather was turning milder —if a few degrees on the upper side of zero can be called mildness. Together, numbed, silent men, they cut snow blocks and reared them to form a windbreak.
Then they slept again. When they awoke, in the greyness of what would be late morning farther south, their eiderdowns were wet and soggy. A pound felt like a ton now. That morning of September 24, they started their journey without their bedding; desperation sends men on regardless when a thread of life is all that is left.
The End of Joe Rutherford
SOON other things had been thrown away camera, films, mackinaw jumper; even a knife which one man carried. Muscles were protesting, Joe Rutherford weaved as he struggled to keep the pace. For a new impediment had arisen; a gale was sweeping across the Barrens, lifting the powdery snow from the hummocked drifts until the drive of white reached the proportions of a blizzard; the men staggered against it, often reeling backward from the force of it. only to renew their strength and fight onward anew. But at last it grew to the strength of a hurricane; Tom Cowan, in the lead, sought the shelter of a ledge of rock and crouched there, motionin to Joe, some fifty yards in the rear, to do likewise. Joe sank to a sitting position, his pack on his back; a half hour passed; three quarters. Then with the lessening of the wind, Tom Cowan rose.
“Come on, Joe,” he shouted.
There was no answer. He shouted again and for a third time. Then, begrudging his steps since strength was so precious, he moved back to where Joe sat slouched in the protection of the rocks.
“Come on, Joe,” he said gently. “We’ve got to keep moving.”
There was no answer. Tom Cowan caught at the shoulder of his partner, as if to raise him to his feet. The form rocked and sagged. Then it sloughed eerily; for long moments afterward, Tom Cowan merely stood there, his jaw sagging, his heavy arms hanging limp at his sides. The eyes that looked up at him were glazed; Joe Rutherford was dead, with his pack on his back. The luck of the trail, the prospectors say. After awhile, a lonely man went on, and once looked back to where a dull grey form showed against the white of the Barrens. Then stumbling, his shoulders moving with rhythmic swaying, as slow step followed slow step against the barrier of ice and snow, Tom Cowan rounded the edge of the ridge, to carry on where Joe had left off, to beat the Barrens or die.
But after a time he realized that he was not truly alone. Joe was gone, it is true. But a new companion had come to take the place of a fallen partner, an eerie companion like a mocking ghost. It stalked, far over to the left, dully visible against the endless white; step for step it walked with Tom Cowan until darkness. Siberian wolves, so say the men of the North, often stalk a man thus; they will not attack; they are more willing to wait until a stricken being falls upon the trail. It makes the job easier.
A Staggering Figure
DARKNESS and a bed in the snow.
Daylight and the trudging journey again, and once more a wolf. Then from deep in the sky, there came a sound—the humming of motors. Tom Cowan halted and searched frantically. But there was grey fog and heavy clouds, fainter and fainter became the sound of the airplane; at last it was gone altogether, and a lonely, dogged man trudged on anew.
He was following lakes and streams now; often he broke through, even to the waist. It was growing colder; his furred clothing was frozen upon him, crusted heavy. Long ago, the pain of cold, however, had ceased in his limbs; first his toes had grown numb, then the balls of his feet and his heels; now the deadness was creeping-up to his ankles. He did not sleep that night; the temperature was dropping. Minute after minute he forced himself to stay awake until at last the grey dawn should come. Men die in their sleep when they are exhausted and the freeze-up is on in the North Country. The next morning as he reeled along upon what were more like stumps than legs, the clouds lifted for a moment and he saw a ridge against the sky, far in the distance. It was the mountains of Baker Lake; it gave him new hope. That night, by the light of the Northern Lights, a dulled, staggering thing that once had been an alert human being still fought onward, onward, one more step before he halted, just one more step—one more step—lips caked and cracked, legs dead from the knees down, back aching from the incessant breaking of trail through drift and pan ice, onward he went—one more step —one more step—
And when at last he came to a river, his mind could not react sufficient for him even to cry out. He could only mumble and follow it; the next afternoon he reached the mouth of the Prince, and knew that the Revillon Frères post was some fifteen miles away. But fifteen miles are fifteen leagues when legs and feet are frozen, when one has not slept, when one has not seen a fire for days, and food is gone, and when one’s partner lies back on the trail, humped over in the snow, his pack still on his back. But Tom did summon the strength to run forth and shout vainly along toward sunset—that airplane had sounded again; at last he sighted it, and waved his arms until his shoulders ached. But the pilots could not see him; onward it went and at last it disappeared. Tom Cowan found a windswept ledge that night, and ate the caribou moss therefrom; it has a certain, food value. And at dawn he went on.
Mirages began to appear now; they are frequent in the Hudson Bay district. He saw a ship riding at anchor, high in the sky. He saw the bay, time after time, only to find it more snow and hummocked rock. And at last, he saw a flag flying, all by itself, high above the earth—fluttering there as if stanchioned to the clouds—
And after a time, two aviators, who stood beside their ship beneath the flag of the Revillon Frères post, caught sight of a tumbling form and ran forward. Tom Cowan staggered nearer, mouthed something about a rock he had picked up— it might have mineral in it, the cracked lips said—and fell unconscious into their arms.
An Incurable Romanticist
TZ) AKER LAKE is a long way from
civilization, especially at freeze-up time. It was eleven days later that they took Tom Cowan’s legs off in the General Hospital at Toronto; it was months later that I sat with him in his home, that day with the hint of spring in it. But strangely enough, we were not talking in retrospect.
“Jack’s putting out a lot more men this year,” I said. “I understand he’s going into that country up by Coronation Gulf.”
“Oh, he’ll go into a lot of places before he quits,” said Tom Cowan. “Great fellow, Jack Hammell. Been mighty kind to me. Seen those new artificial legs he bought me? I’m practising with them at night when the women folks aren’t around. Getting along fine, too. Oh, I’ll be back in the harness before you know it.”
“Harness?” I asked. “What kind of harness?”
“Why, the same old kind I’ve always known,” answered Tom Cowan innocently. “Jack says I can have my job back. And listen—”he turned in his chair, a strange fire in his eyes—the fire that must have burned in the eyes of Radisson and Groseillers, “Do you know the most remote place in Canada? It isn’t up North. It’s over in the Patricia District of Ontario. Why, the Indians have got fables over there about a real volcano, where all the country is mineralized, and where fire shoots from the ground in a hundred places, and where there are geysers and steam jets and running streams of copper. Cap Oaks is going in there, and I’m going with him. I guess it’ll mean something to be one of the first white men ever to go into that country!”
It’s a machine age, this age of ours. There is no more adventure, and Romance is dead !