The Happy Isles
IN MY TIME I’ve seen my share of what they call the picturesque life—fur buyer, boomer telegraph operator in the gold fields, mine promoter and so on—but till this summer I never figured to live with seagoing gypsies. Certainly I never figured to see that kind of a life do what it did to so sensible and handsome a girl as Mary Walsh. It got her——-for keeps. And it came near getting me.
Even now, back in Vancouver these falls days, there’s something in the air that brings it all back and makes you want to keep moving on and on. If you give in to it you feel (hat every hea.’Iand and island has a surprise on its far side.
Of course. I don’t give in. I'm fifty and a hard-headed real estate salesman. Hut away up that British Columbia coast, where the autumn mists lie soft on the side hills and the wild geese honk on the tide Mats at dusk. Mary and the bunch she’s gone with will be feeling it, I know. They'll be on the move again, and most likely there's a lean winter ahead for them, while I’m back in town doing business at the old stand. Yes, I'm sensible and safe. But when I get to thinking up here in my room, nights, sometimes I wish I wasn't.
MARY’S my brother’s only child. He died the year after I located in Vancouver and her mother went when she was a bit of a thing. She’s been like my own daughter, as you might say, since she was twelve. I saw her through school and business college and she helped me in the office till things got so haywire there wasn't enough doing to keep even one jn-rson's mind off his troubles.
Here, round the first of June, Mary came to me with her mind all made up to get out of town for the summer. It was one nx>ming. and I was sweeping the shack I call my office, out here in the east end of town, when she breezed in with a letter in her hand.
"Grandmother wants me to sjx-nd the summer with them." she said. "I'm going unless you really do need me.” That’s Mary no beating alx>ut the bush. I could see she was all lit up over the idea.
“Oh! she does.” was all l said and kept right on sweeping.
I never was keen on her seeing much of her mother’s people, for from what 1 could make out. they were a shiftless lot. There was quite a gang of them, uncles and families and so on. and from all accounts they were a fly-by-night outfit who lived on their gasboats and shifted from place to place hunting and fishing.
“What you plan to make this trip on air?” I asked, standing my brtxmi against the wall and going for the dustpan. When I came Nick w ith it she had the broom, and she took the dustpan out of my hand like I was a kid who’d been fooling with some plaything instead of tending to his lessons. So I had to sit down and hear what she had to-say. Mary had it all work«! out.
"Airnothing.” she told me, “They’re hand-trolling for salmon, and I can have some sport and catch enough to pay for the outing. Anything's Ix-tter than this everlasting round of offices after the job that never comes.”
Well, there was something in that. Being an independent young customer, the worry over not being able to support herself had been showing on her these last months and I had to admit a summer in the open would do her good.
"But selling fish to a cannery is a sort of come-down for a girl like you.” I argued. "Though with things the way they are. doing a little for the fun of it and then just selling them wouldn’t be too bad.” So I told her to go. It hurt me -pride, 1 guess not to be able to help her out with money. but I was pretty near down to bed rock myself, so I couldn't suggest anything better.
A month later she wrote me that if things were still dead in town to rent a skiff and a tent and join her. Reading between the lines. I could see she wanted me. and since I had a hankering to landsomeof those big salmon myself. I went. And an hour after the cannery tender put me ashore at the fish camp I saw' I hadn’t come a day too soon.
Funny how you can be with a person for years and never get to really know them. As soon as I set eyes on the girl I knew she’d changed.
“What do you think of this life, unk?” she asked me.
Mary’s a little above average size, and as she stood there by my tent in a pair of men’s blue overalls and a big Mexican straw hat I just had to stop and look at her.
"You’ve got a fine coat of tan,” I said, noticing how nice and brown her arms were.
“I’m rowing my own boat every day—fishing. Once I was high boat for the camp. It’s great.” Her black eyes sparkled.
"Great fun. all right.” I began, but she stopped me by coming close in front of me and kx>king at me straight and mighty serious. It was then I saw she wasn’t talking about the fun of it.
“Not sport real work.”
“Sure. Everything new and interesting.”
"I mean, after that nightmare of a winter’s job-hunting it feels wonderful to be really pulling my weight. They can say what they like about this life, but out here you don't need to ask yes, and plead for work. The job's always ready and waiting. This is what I want to stay at—for keej«.”
“W hat you plan to be a common fisherwoman?”
I shouldn’t have said that, but when, out of a blue sky, a man gets a jolt like that he doesn’t take time to pick his words.
Saying it like that might easy have queered things between us. for Mary’s a proud little devil. But, bless her, she didn’t take it that way.
"Grandmother’s followed the fishing all her life, and my mother fished when she was young.” she said, looking at me steady like. “You don’t expect me to be ashamed of them?”
“Never. But with your training it seems like a big step down.”
“N'oNxly wants my training. When I think of those long lines at employment desks I still get that awful bleak feeling.”
“Things will pick up.”
"But this life—it sort of welcomes you. I get that sure feeling, if you know w’hat I mean.” Her arms made a little motion as if she would put them around something and hold it to her breast.
I shook my head. You just bet I didn't know what she meant.
From that minute I started planning how to smash this crazy notion.
THE QUEER THING was that, living with these people.
a man might overlook the fact that the notion was as crazy as it sounded. Yet all of them, from the alert old grandmother down to the littlest shaver of a grandchild, lived the year round wherever their fleet of gasboats happened to be a mere hand-to-mouth existence.
Next morning I went out in my rented skiff trolling along with the rest, and hoping all the time to get wise how to cut the props from under this fool plan of Mary's. She and one of her uncles and I got our boats down the beach about the same time and we rowed out of the cove alongside each other. It was a picturesque sort of place, like a stage scene, with the high grey rocks and the arbutus and pencil cedars all twisted by gales. In bad weather it would be a grim hole, but with the sun coming up and the sea smooth it caught your eye.
“Had a good season?” I asked this man, Al, as we rowed along.
He sort of grinned. “The worst in years—so far. But she may pick up.”
“Season’s half over, isn’t it?”
“More than half. But it’s not like working for wages.”
“I’d say not. Nothing sure about it.”
“No.” To hear him you’d think that was in its favor. "You may not make anything for weeks, then a big run comes and you clean up in just a few days. It’s sort of interesting.”
Any ordinary man, with a swarm of kids like this Al’s, would have said it was a lot too interesting. But to look at him you’d say he hadn’t a worry in the world. Most of the ones I met the evening before seemed bitten by the same bug. If the luck was good they were happy, and if it wasn’t they were happy any way because that was something they couldn’t be blamed for. I admit they seemed to be workers, but it burned me up to see them taking things so casual.
“Here goes for the first one,” Mary sang out, and I saw her roll up the sleeves from those strong shapely arms of hers and get her line into the water. Then she rowed to the point where the kelp beds are, looking so eager and full of life I had to watch lier.
“She got the hang of it, right off,” AÍ told me. “Seems like it’s in her blood—which, of course, it is.”
I shot him a look. But no, I’d already made sure none of them were scheming to persuade her to stay.
I put out my line and trolled like the rest, but mostly my mind wasn’t on the fishing. I’d come hoping to make some big catches, but now I was hoping no fish showed up to the end of the season. I’d come to see that arguments would get us nowhere. Mary was a grown woman, as you might say, and since I had nothing in town to offer her, if she liked this life anâ could make a living at it, it was up to me to keep my mouth shut. So all that day I hoped hard the jinx would stay on the luck.
Well, sir, it did. There was only a ample of fish landed all morning, and it was the same when we came out in the afternoon.
“W;hat a hope,” I said, fed-up like, as Mary and I rowed to the cove about sundown.
“Pull up your socks, unk.” she kidded me. “You’ll feel more human after you eat.”
I knewwhat a poor season meant for her and that she w'as just running a bluff. None of the others seemed downhearted and that got my goat.
“I hate to see a man take it lying dowm,” I said. “I’d think more of them if they cursed their luck a bit.”
Mary was just abreast of me. rowing slow’ and easy. She let her oars trail, took off her big Mexican hat and tossed it into the bow of her boat, then smiled as she shook out her wavy black hair.
“Don’t take it as personal.” she laughed.
She looked as fresh and full of life as in the morning, but my back was aching from all those hours at the oars and I was too crusty to joke.
"Some holiday this is,” I snapped, and pretty soon she spurted ahead and left me. But when I got in she had my fire going and the tea pail on.
I felt it was up to me to say something.
“It’s all in w'hat a man’s used to,” I explained. “I guess being dependent on the weather and Nature, like a fisherman or a farmer, makes a man set less store by his own powers.”
“It takes you down a peg or two.” Her face w'as turned away and I couldn’t make out if that w'as a dig at me or not, for sometimes she had an innocent way of getting a rise out of a man.
“Just the same, it would sure bum me up to have to be that helpless,” I told her straight off.
But she must have thought we were getting back to where w'e started, for she changed the subject.
"Grandmother says for you to come to her fire tonight. They’re having a sort of pow-wow over what’s to lx done about the fishing."
"What fishing?” I asked, sarcastically.
But she just took that as a joke and told me supper was ready. My tent was on a little bench, a short way from the rest of the camp, and as we ate I could look down on w here the blue smoke from their cooking fires idled up through the branches. You could hear the youngsters calling each other and somebody was playing a mouth organ. The place and the people somehow made you feel easy and restful.
I w’ish you could have looked on at the gathering that evening. In the a>ve it was black as ink and the cliffs seemed like shadows miles high with only the stars above that jagged hole between the rocks. The light from the big fire shone on the circle of tanned faces, and the old grandmother. sitting higher than the rest on a drift log. made me think of some gypsy queen leading the council of her band. She had that calm and farseeing kind of eyes, and though she didn’t talk much, when she did they all listened. Marysat on the ground beside her, her back against the log and her arms folded around her knees, drinking it all in.
In the pauses of talk, the lazy wash of the ground swell on the rocks outside the cove was like some gruff old giant trying to croon a lullaby.
“Some of us should try Storm Rocks,” the grandmother told them. "I mind, long ago, the run passed that way. If they show up there we can all shift across.”
During the talk enough was said for me to understand how these folk lived, moving north when the salmon run ended, to fish cod and hunt deer and w ild geese for their winter’s meat, then swinging south again around the first of the year to dig clams for the cannery. After that they went to some islands and gathered dulse for the market, then shifted to the spring salmon grounds. Talk about your nomads !
Mary just sat there, her eyes big and eager, like as if the picture of that life had put a spell over her.
“Seems like it’s in her blood," AÍ had said that morning. Just watching her face in the firelight made me uneasy. I began to be scared he was right.
NEXT the ones MORNING going to Storm the camp Rocks was get awake ready. early, While helping I ate breakfast I amid see them starting to carry blankets and so on down to one of the gasboats moored alongside the rocks. I didn't feel very sociable for I’d been awake most of the night, thinking things over, so I got my boat down and rowed out of the cove. As I was rounding the comer I nearly bumped head-on into a big dugout canoe some
fellow was row ing. This young husky he seemed around twenty-five backed water and when we j squared away lie asked how the fishing was.
Continued on page 36
The Happy Isles
Continued from page 19
I let on to be disappointed. “It’s a washout,” I said.
“Same at Storm Rocks. I left there last night.” It was then I noticed he had his camp outfit in the canoe.
Here was interesting news, mighty interesting. After lying awake hours worrying about them finding fish at Storm Rocks and Mary getting her chance to make money enough so she wouldn’t be forced to go back to towm with me, what the young stranger said was right in my mitt.
"You’d better tell this bunch; they’re packing to go over,” I told him, and rowed in with him to see how they swallowed that pill.
We went part way when we met Al and Mary coming out, so our four boats went into a huddle while the newcomer and AÍ compared notes.
“Oh, well, we never starved yet, Pete,” AÍ said after a while. “This depression’s going to be hard on the clams, that’s all.”
And then he introduced this Pete to Mary. She held out her hand and he took it kind of eagerly, I thought.
“I’ve heard about you,” he said.
“Yes, you have.” Mary just thought he was trying to kid her.
“Honest. A power troller told me there was a new girl here making Al step on it to be high boat this season. That right, AÍ?”
“You bet. Where’ll you try your luck
"Here. It’s as good as anywhere. Maybe better.” And I'll be darned if Vie didn’t half glance at Mary when he said that last.
“Luck’s been very poor here lately,” Mary remarked.
"Who is that bird, anyway?” I asked AÍ when the three of us had rowed out and left the newcomer to tell the camp not to try Storm Rocks.
“Everybody knows Big Pete. One of the best. A great man to travel. We’ve met him as far north as the Naas in that canoe. Good fisherman, too.”
STARTING that morning, the boats quit fishing so much at the point and began scouting for miles around, hunting in twos and threes at other islands and reefs farther out. But it was no use. And every night when they came back with next to nothing I had to let on I was disappointed.
Some days this Pete went with us, and if he didn't start with us, it seemed he was always joining up with us soon after. He was a special friend of AI's and it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks before he was acting mighty friendly to Mary. Round the big fire, nights, he'd sit beside her and it seemed they had an awful lot to talk about. He was a good hand with the accordion and we had lots of singing.
There was one thing 1 noticed about these people. They were never in a rush and enjoyed life as it came along. The way I'd lived I'd got into the habit of keeping one eye on the present and the other on the next move, till somehow the next thing got to seem more important than what I was doing. 1 lere they lived one day at a time. They didn't act like anything was driving them, and I admit they got a lot of pleasure out of ordinary things. They all got a real kick out of the singing and the story-tell! ing round the fire.
“It takes Pete to liven things up,” Mary
said to me one day.
"He's a sociable cuss,” I admitted. But 1 knew she didn't mean only that.
In a story like this, I guess about here I should work up some scenes to show how that jxiir was getting fonder and fonder of each other and maybe throw in a lovers’ quarrel to keep the reader guessing. But that's not how it It was all as simple and direct as the life we were living. But I can tell you this, that if before I had just hoped for a bad season to bring Mary to her senses, I was pretty near praying for it now. The older a man gets the clearer he sees that it’s not the complicated situations but the simple, elemental ones that beat him.
But anyway, my streak of luck still held.
"Wouldn’t this get your goat?” I said to AÍ one morning when we were a couple of miles offshore, looking in vain for salmon around a sunken reef.
“Got to take what comes. A man’s up against something bigger than himself in this game.”
The slow way he spoke made me stop and think. Here, away from town, living on a little patch of rocks and trees with the old ocean all around, would take the conceit out of the cockiest of people. Besides, since we were hunting in a pack, as you might say, no man was working just for himself. For a minute I felt that some of the fast deals I’d slipped across when real estate was booming weren’t so hot as I used to think.
“Sounds like you’re slipping,” I told myself, and snapped out of it. But somehow the idea stuck.
Just then we heard the cannery buyer’s boat whistling to us, so we rested on our oars till he came up.
The buyer leaned out of the pilot house window and looked into our boats. He could see we had nothing.
“Saturday’s the finish,” he told us. “Boss got orders to lay up this boat if the fish don’t come.”
That must have been a nasty jolt for AÍ, but he didn’t say much. As the buyer started away I filled my pipe and took a couple of good, deep drags. I felt a huge load had been taken off my back. Saturday. Mary and I would go to the mainland and board the steamer for Vancouver. Her plan was smashed, and though the laws of Nature, and nothing I did, had smashed them, it gave me the feeling I had won. The road I’d picked out for her had seemed lost, but now she was being forced back on to it, and I sure was relieved.
HUMANS ARE perverse animals. I’d won, yet in a way I felt I had been beaten. Week after week I had been hunting the salmon same as the rest. A hunt like that is as old as the human race, I guess, and though I had not realized it, there was a kind of primitive attraction about it that had been working on me.
I was back in camp ahead of Mary that day. She shared her grandmother’s tent but often we had meals together, so I went ahead and made supper for the two of us.
“You heard what the buyer said?” I asked when we were sitting down to the meal. I saw she hadn’t -so I told her.
For about a minute she just looked.
"So Saturday’s the end.” she said at last. You couldn't help feeling sorry for the kid. She was cornered and helpless and she sat there on the bench, gazing far away, like as if she was watching her dream melt into nothing, the way the mists on the water do when the sun gets strong.
“I should have told you before,” she said after a little. “Pete and I want to get married.”
Well ! I hadn’t thought things had got j that far. But neither she nor Pete had j made a stake and their chances to make it j were gone, so there was no call for me to ¡ speak out. Thanks to the failure of the run. that dream was due to fade out like the other. Just then I heard a step on the path -and there was Pete.
“Is that right—what AÍ says?” he wanted to know.
“Thought maybe AÍ didn’t get it straight,” he remarked after I told him.
Then he squatted beside the ike and began poking the ends of the burnt sticks into the coals, one by one, slow and thoughtfui. On the other side of me. I saw Mary smooth her forehead with the back of her hand and toss back her hair with a quick motion of her head the way she does when she’s made up her mind to something.
“Unk knows, f just told him,” she said, her face a little bit lifted up and sort of rosy and solemn.
Pete pushed another little stick on to the lire and then looked at me to see what I had to say.
But it was up to them to do the talking.
1 had a great big ace in the hole and could afford to sit back.
“I built a thirty-six footer last winter,” he said. ‘Tf we had luck this season I’d have the engine and be all ready to go.” He looked at Mary. “But now we’ll have to wait another year.”
“But couldn’t we—” Mary began, but stopped when he shook his head.
“Got to have the power for winter fishing,” he told her.
Pete wasn’t the kind to dodge cold, hard facts.
They both sat there till the stillness began to get on my nerves. Then Mary got up and went over the rocks toward a place where we sometimes sat and watched the sunsets.
"If I’d made the money, it would be all right with you?” Pete asked.
“It would be all right with me,” I told him. Seeing he hadn’t the money or the chance of making it, that seemed safe enough.
Pretty soon he got up and went away, up over the rocks, and I sat there by myself, thinking.
NEXT MORNING Al and Pete and Mary struck out to the sunken reef and 1 trailed along. The tide was running strong against us, and half way out I got so far behind I took the notion to go with it to a string of barren rocks that lay in a half circle a mile or so north. We’d fished around them a few times but there was deep water and no kelp and they always said it was a poor place to fish. However, just to put in the time. I went.
I had no sooner got round into the sort of bay and out of sight of the boats off on the reef, when my line gave a jerk, and thirty feet astern the surface was thrown up as if an explosion had taken place just below it. Then a fine big cohoe shot clear of the water and for the next five minutes I hada fight on my hands. I no more than got the spinner over the side when another one grabbed it. Just as fast as I could handle them I landed four. The water was clear and smooth and, looking down into it, I saw it was alive with small herring, and everywhere I looked there were salmon after them.
I had heard enough stories of big hauls to know the signs. By fool’s luck I’d found the run. As soon as I landed one fish I grabbed the oars and started after another. My hands trembled and my heart was just thumping. Talk about your buck fever! After all these weeks here were salmonhundreds, thousands of themall hungry as wolves !
Suddenly a cold feeling came over me. “Every man for himself,” 1 thought, trying to put down that feeling. "You mind your own business and let them mind theirs.”
But no. I couldn’t keep on like this and go back to camp with my boat filled and never let the others know.
Then I had another idea. “Dump your catch. Row back-and say nothing. It's your only move.”
But hang it all! I knew these people. They’d treated me like a friend.
Just that second a walloping great spring salmon, thirty pounds if he was an ounce, broke water alongside, in hot chase after herring.
“You big son of a gun—no, you don’t!” I yelled, and next thing I knew I was pulling like mad for the comer of the rocks, and when I got sight of the others I hollered and waved an oar above my head for them to come. Then I tore back after that big spring.
I hooked him too. And he was dynamite! His first rush took out all my line. Then he jumped high out of the water, shook himself like a broncho and went thrashing away with my one and only spinner in his mouth. I sat there in the boat with the broken line in my hand, and honest, folks.
I felt like crying tears the size of billiard balls. Salmon! Everywhere you looked, more and more salmon and me with nothing to catch them on. Nobody who’s not been through it can understand the feeling. It was awful. It seemed an age before the three other boats pulled round the comer.
Pete, in his long canoe, killed six between the comer and where I lay.
“Keep after them, old-timer!” he shouted.
I held up my broken line and in a shake he had his tackle box open and passed me all the gear I needed. That’s the sort of bird Pete is.
As soon as Al made one sweep of the bay he came back grinning from ear to ear.
“I’ll hand it to you!” he called out as he ran his boat ashore and climbed to the top of the rocks to signal the others working along the kelp away off by our islands.
I never put in such a day in my life. By noon some of the gasboats were anchored alongside the rocks and all of them, from grandma down, were rowing back and forth in the bay hauling in the salmon. Dinner time came, but it would have been just plain twelve o’clock to me if the old lady hadn’t called me and Mary aboard her boat and passed out grub and tea. I was so stiff I could hardly make it into the skiff, but with the first strike I forgot about being tired and started in again, lacing it right to them.
You should have seen Mary. She was as excited as she used to be as a kid on Christmas morning, and from what she said about me finding the run for the bunch of them, she must have thought I was Santa Claus. She never rested a minute, but kept right on as if every salmon might be her last. One of the gasboats brought our outfits and we all slept on the rocks or the decks of the boats, hardly able to wait for daylight to see if the run had vanished.
But the fishing held all that day and all the next. We loaded the buyer down every night, and when he came with word that the cannery would buy as long as the run lasted we were all right on our toes. The fish were big and the price went to twenty-five cents each, and when I tell you that Pete and AÍ averaged a hundred and twenty a day each for the first three days you can figure it out. Mary got around eighty a day and 1 didn’t do too dusty for an old stiff. After the first three days the run began to thin, but for ten days more it was mighty good fishing.
Toward the last we all moved back to the cove among the islands. Then one night we had our last gathering round the big fire and next morning Mary and I caught the steamer to Vancouver.
I don’t mean we went alone. Pete was with us, and for the next month in town, after he had his new hull towed down, he was busy outfitting and installing the engine. Then when the living quarters were just the way they wanted them, he and Mary got married.
That day, long toward evening, I stood on the end of the wharf and watched them start north. It was one of those hazy autumn evenings when the sun goes down like a big red balloon, and over on the North Vancouver side there was new snow on the mountains. I watched their boat till I couldn’t see it any more.
Then 1 went home.
“THE OTHER MORNING the fellow I who runs the grocery store at our comer was asking about Mary.
“Not much of a future to that,” be said when I told him how things had gone with her.
But I don’t go so much on that. People who are really living, one day at a time, got no call to be anxious over this future stuff. Least that’s how it seems to me.