the FUR MASTERS
An epic of the heroic days when great companies battled for supremacy in the Wild North, and men loved as fiercely as they fought
ON A SUMMER day in the year 1804, Big Angus, a middle-aged Scot, stood in the guerite, or watch tower of York Factory, chief establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company, staring out over the wrinkled expanse of sea. He had broad sloping shoulders, sandy hair and beard, and steel-grey eyes; his wide mouth was firmly set, his expression one of dour resolution. Beside him, mounted on a squat wooden truck, was a small bull-mouthed cannon, ready-primed and loaded with a blank charge.
From this position he could see over the empty flats where the Nelson and Hayes Rivers met at salt water; on the peninsula between their mouths had been built this fort, many of its buildings set up on stilts to escape the floods that often invaded this desolate region. There was but little timber, and no protection from the wind save the stout palisade. In summer the place was cursed with mosquitoes and in winter assailed by every gale that swept these lonely shores.
Only once in the twelvemonth did anything of real
moment happen, and that was when the yearjv ship arrived from England to bring trade goods and carry back fur; and it was now for the first sieht of The King George, from Gravesend by way of Hudson's Strait, that Big Angus searched the fiat horizon, as he had for days, through an extended telescope. She would touch first at Fort Prince of Wales, with its massive stone bastions, on the Churchill farther north another but less frequented gateway to the West—and then come south to York Factory, disgorge the season’s outfit of supplies, taking in exchange the precious
The New Serial
packs of furs for sorting and sale in faraway London. While Big Angus waited and watched, there came from the central hall in the fort square a droning voice, as the chaplain, the Rev. Colin Macphail, conducted a lengthy service for a mixed congregation in which the principal figure was Mr. John Macnab, the chief factor. Beside him sat John Calder, the surgeon, and behind these two, on wooden benches, were the clerks and tradesmen such as tailors, smiths and carpenters; farther back the home guard of engagés. Knistinaux Crees, sturdily built with impassive faces and uncommunicative eyes, and lastly a mingled assemblage of breeds and Indians. From these huddled groups came the heavy odor of wilderness bodies.
The Rev. Macphail stood stiffly erect on his platform, regarding this motley flock with an understanding eye. For weeks past he had been expounding the lives of Biblical characters, and much to his satisfaction was at the moment dealing with Japheth. He knew that any interest in the subject was confined to himself, but today he could not miss the general atmosphere of excitement that possessed his hearers from Macnab downward. Their thoughts, obviously, were not with Japheth but The King George, and surely she could not be far off. Macnab kept fingering his chin and looking at Calder, while the surgeon pushed out his lips and was patently impatient. As for the rest—Scots, Orkneymen. breeds and Indians—they regarded the minister with that set expression of blankness which infallibly proclaims that one’s mind and vision are completely divorced.
“Japheth,my brethren, had two brothers, Shern and Ham. They were fine lads all of them, and, we are led to believe, clever artificers wi’ tools and the like, so when their father, Noah, the first great shipbuilder of whom there is any record, set about fashioning the ark, they didna complain, just as we, my brethren, must not complain and—”
THE SOUND rolled through the small open windows with electrical effect. A quiver ran along the huddled benches, Macnab tossed up his head with an exclamation, while Calder gave a jerky nod and stared at his chief. There was a sort of murmur and quick indrawing of breath from clerks and home guard. At once the congregation became tense, but Macphail, to whom the signal meant as much as to any other, rose in this trying moment to the very pinnacle of ministerial authority. His stem eyes embraced them all in one commanding sweep, he made a masterful gesture, his jaw set and his voice deepened; foi though The King George's white sails might break the horizon only once a year, there was a proper time for all things, and he had not finished his discourse.
“You will picture to yourselves that wonderful scene when, long before the black clouds gathered and the rain began and the great flood came, Noah put his personal conception to these fine lads of his and ...”
It was a triumph. Not once did the dry voice falter or the thread slacken. On and on it continued, while Macnab, divided between this signal discipline and his own impatience, gnawed at his lip, watching Calder swallow a guffaw and the fort engagés approach their endurance limit. Bang!
Big Angus had reloaded and fired again. This time the effect was irresistible. There came a shuffle of feet; one hunter crawled through the door on hands and knees as though he were stalking a moose. He was followed byseveral more; they would certainly hear of this later but what matter? The signs of dissolution increased. Macnab caught the preacher’s eye and gave him a significant look; whereat the Rev. Macphail, realizing that things were being stretched too far, dismissed Japheth and the congregation with a benediction that suffered but little for a certain celerity. There was a rush, a thud of moccasined feet, the long hall belched its contents, and Macnab with Calder hastened to the guerile.
There was the brig six weeks out, looking just like a gull resting on a hard flat line. It would be hours before she worked into anchorage two miles off shore, but already the boats were being got ready.
Macnab gazed at the ship and yielded to a mood that brought him but small comfort. There had been a time, years previously, when her arrival filled him with pleasure, but latterly the conditions of trade had taken the edge off business, and its former satisfaction was lacking. Now The King George would bring not only the season’s outfit but also letters of a certain type to which he was becoming more or less inured, letters of complaint from the governor and committee. His shipments had fallen off and continued to fall, but there were operating in the Far West causes for this which the committee did not seem able to grasp, and of which rt seemed impossible ever to convince them.
These moved disturbingly in his mind when he turned to Calder.
"Well,” he said, “the same old thing over again, eh?” Calder nodded, for what else could one expect? T here would be loading and unloading by small boats from ship to shore; Captain Turner and his officers would be entertained at the Factory’s table while the exiles hung on their words as they gave news of the outer world. The latter would hear of the man Napoleon, and how Admiral Nelson
was getting on ; fat letters from wives and children would be delivered and answered by candlelight far into the night; then after a few weeks of sweat, The King George would hoist anchor from the sticky mud, fire a farewell salute answered from the Factory, and stand out of the shallows, followed by many a wistful eye. And after that, the long drab days would come.
“Aye,” said Calder, “I know what’s in your mind, but dinna fash y'self without reason. You’re thinking of the yearly yelp from London, while I am thinking that were the governor and the committee to spend a year in the Americas the company might be better for it.”
“The company would, but there is more to it than that. Those Nor’westers of Montreal are more at home in this country than we. It’s in their blood.”
“Hmph ! You’ve had how many years of it now?” “Twenty in the service, and still a servant,” said Macnab bitterly.
“There’s the real rub, and a shortsighted way of doing things. With the Canadians you'd be a partner long ago, you’d have done with wintering, live in a fine house in Montreal and travel in state to New Fort once a year. They tell me that Simon McTavish takes his own cook and his wine with him.”
"Perhaps; but the Nor’westers are not too comfortable either at the present time.”
“Their Montreal rivals, the XT', are cutting deep into thentrade.”
“A mosquito bite to men like McTavish, and ’tis only a family squabble they’ll patch up before long. What’s the last word about that schooner of his down on the James Bay? I have been hearing queer tales.” “You will doubtless hear more.” Macnab was smiling now. “A charter’s a charter so I ordered them out of the country, and this time they went without bloodshed. They were at the mouth of the Moose River when my good men put fear into the French breeds But there’s a greater problem than Mr. McTavish. Fur is getting scarce for us all.”
“I seem to have noticed that,” said Calder dryly. “I put it down to those newfangled steel traps. There’s an end somewhere to most things. At the same time I notice that we are after the Canadians’ trade in regions far beyond our charter’s limits. The Athabasca country is not on Hudson’s Bay waters, and that’s what’s angering the Canadians.”
THE FACTOR turned on him in a sort of desperation.
“They are outpacing us, that is the truth of it. With charges from Montreal by way of New Fort, their goods cost more than ours to deliver in the strong woods, yet they defeat us by sharper trading and freer use of liquor, though we have not spared it. Now the wind is falling and that ship won’t be in for hours yet. Come back to my house. I have an idea to put to you, so lend me your wits.”
“The wits of a surgeon to the fur trade?”
“I’d welcome your independent judgment. Come along.” On the table in Macnab’s log-hewn dining room, he unrolled a great map of the western country and his brown finger followed the long route up the Nelson River across to Athabasca waters.
“That’s where we must be more active, Calder—there and there. The Nor’westers have chopped too many holes in our trade and it’s time we chopped some in theirs. Also I’m for first-hand information to send to London next summer; I'm for dispatching the right man with his party well armed, well supplied with enough liquor and goods for trading. I’d send him all the way to New Caledonia. He would see what the Canadians are doing, so that as often as possible he would put a flea in their shirts, and return with the Athabasca canoes next July. But such a man must be strong and fearless, a crusader if you will. Have we such a one?”
“There’s one occurs to me as silent enough for such work; that’s Big Angus,” said Calder thoughtfully. “But he might lose what’s left of his powers of speech before he got back.”
“I was thinking of him myself.”
“Has he a family?”
“If so he does not mention it or send one single letter, also his wages lie to his credit unspent. It seems he has long since done with Scotland.”
“Well, why not have him in?”
Angus, receiving the summons with his usual calm, stood listening in a silence that had grown more characteristic with every long year he had spent in the North. He knew, as did all in York Factory, the range of Macnab’s district and what it was yielding in fur; he had served in many of the posts that ran in a string from the Great Bay toward the slopes of the Rockies. They had been established in the
face of fierce opjxisition from the Canadians, and all the wiles of those experienced traders had not subdued them. Their factors were cast on their own resources, and small thanks came to them from across the sea. Banished from their own flesh and blood, they withstood the brunt of failure and had but small share in success. On such men lay the weight of the war for the fur, the sharpness of which had been increasing year by year, and it was a disadvantage that in their ranks were so few of the native-born French traders whose restless energy ran through every effort of the Canadians.
Macnab voiced as much of this as he felt necessary, then explained his present purpose.
“Well. Angus, that is what lies in my mind. What is in yours?”
“Not much, sir. as yet; I’d sooner think it over. But maybe I’ve an idea or two.”
“By your leave, sir, I’ll keep them to myself a while.” “As you please.” Macnab’s eyes had begun to twinkle, for here was a man after his own heart. “But you see what I want. The affair will occupy you during most of the coming winter and is not without risk.”
“That would be a bit of a change, sir.”
“I thought perhaps you’d welcome it. Nothing else you’d care to say?”
Angus waited a moment for anything more that might be coming a massive block of a man with long heavy arms and round arching chest, his face devoid of expressionthen turned and went out.
“He’s fair tickled at the thought of being away by himself,” laughed the surgeon. “And never before have I heard him put so many words together.”
On a morning in May of the same year, great
brigade of Canadians was about to depart from Lachine. Here were assembled twenty great canoes—canots du maître—each thirty-five feet long, sheathed with tawny birch bark over ribs and laths of white cedar, their seams sewn with fib.e of tough spruce root and sealed with pitch or gum from the same friendly tree. The sharp, insolent bows and sterns were boldly fashioned, high-riding, proud, and painted in fantastic colors, while a rib of white ran clear along the gunwale from stem to stern. In the bottom of each had been laid slim straight poles, and on these, to distribute the pressure, were now being placed—with skilful care lest they touch the fragile sides--the five tons of burden to be carried to the far end of Lake Superior. This was a matter of a thousand miles.
The company of men, the voyageurs—les mangeurs de lard—attendant on this business were of French or Frenchand-native blood, none of biem past middle age, short of stature, swarthv of sxin, their long dark hair in tight queues, large a chest, lea:; of waisq chanty of leg, the upper parts of their bodies being highly developed in discrepancy with their lower limos. No tall man could be a coureur de DOIS; the canoe off ered ;o room for .ong legs. Each wore a tuque or cap of red vrool a short shirt bound about the waist with a narrow sash, a breech clout which left the sinewy thighs bare, soft rather or skin leggings to above the knee, moccasins, and a bag cr pouch. This dress, with a hooded tunic for winter service, was all they knew till arms grew too old to wield a paddle.
Watching this animated scene were two gentlemen. Simon Fraser and William McGillvray, two of the partners in the Northwest Company, smiling when a voyageur trotted past, knees a little bent, with four pieces or 360 pounds weight on his back. Presently! McGillvray pointed to a youth who stood a few yards away, and sent the other gentleman occasional sidelong glances.
“Who is he, Simon?’’ asked McGillvray.
“A new apprentice, Neil Campbell. He goes north with the brigade.”
“And whither bound?”
“To Archie Macdonald on Buffalo Lake. Macdonald is coming to New Fort this year, and will meet him there.” McGillvray’s eyes widened a shade. “Sending a Campbell to a Macdonald ! Simon, have you lost your wits?”
Mr. Fraser, smiling, shook his head. “I hope not; nor have I forgotten the Yale of Glencoe. But yon was a lang time syne, and a far cry frae here.”
“The men of Argyle have long memories, Simon.” “Perhaps; but there is method in what I am doing, William method. Archie has been taking trade a bit easy for my taste, and I am thinking a Campbell might have a livening effect, considering the Vale of Glencoe.”
“The Northwest Company is not exactly a missionary institution,” shrugged McGillvray, “and nights are long in the North. They are bound to hark back.”
“Who know that better than ourselves? Talk to the youth and satisfy yourself. I am thinking that I see the making of a real trader behind those eyes.”
"XyfCGILLVRAY beckoned. The young man stepped ^ forward, lifting an enormous hand to his forehead, and stood awkwardly silent, his grey eyes blank. He had a thatch of tangled sandy hair, his full neck sprang solidly from thick, sharply-sloping shoulders, while the pendant arms were so long that the thumbs nearly reached the bony hummocks of his knees. The mouth was wide and firm, the thin tips glowing scarlet with hot young blood like streaks of smoldering ember against the sprouting gold of his mustache
McGillvray, measuring this human bullock in a flash, admitted to himself that here indeed might be something
' I VHE two Nor’westers watched this cavalcade, speaking but little. They knew it all, and no doubt while they watched their thoughts journeyed back to days not long past, when the Freetraders of Montreal were engaged in so ruinous a competition that, forced into alliance by the pressure from the great company to the north, their
to compel the attention of any Macdonald that ever lived. At £100 for seven years service, he looked to be grxxl value. “You’re for Buffalo I^ike, Campbell?”
“I am, sir.”
"I have come twenty this March, sir.”
“\ou will serve under a Macdonald—you know that?” "I do, sir.”
“And that whatever Macdonald bids you do, is the law?” “That I am informed, sir.” The voice was quiet, the youth’s gaze cold as ice.
“Y’ou are alone in this country?”
“It may be I have a father, sir. I do not know.”
“You seem poorly informed,” smiled McGillvray. “Did he serve with us?”
“No. sir. But he came out to the Hudson’s Bay fiftee: years ago and more. For a while he was in the interior; from there he was sent to York Factory, where we heard that he was chief clerk. But that was years ago. He writes no letters now, nor does anything for my mother.”
“Then what brought you to Montreal?”
“The times are hard in Argyle, and while my father’s letters came, they did not speak too highly of the service he followed. Also, there being nothing for me at home, I consulted with my mother, then sought another part of the new world.”
McGillvray turned to Fraser with a dry smile. "Is it a diplomat or a prizefighter we have here?”
“Go on, William, go on; do your own investigation.” “Are you aware, young man, that it will be your duty and privilege to see that as little trade as may be shall reach York Factory or any other Hudson’s Bay Post by way of Buffalo Dike? In other words, you will devote yourself to spoiling your father’s business. Also service with us is no better and no worse than with the Hudson’s Bay. It is the same thing, except that we ask more from our men—and we get more.”
The youth drew himself up, expanding an enormous chest, his open shirt revealing a mat of reddish hair that covered his breast like down. Now there was a flicker in his grey eyes.
“Sir, I understand that if you are not satisfied with what I give,
I will shortly be told so. As to my father’s trade, since I was born he has done little for me. I am not beholden there.” McGillvray chuckled, for here was a recruit much to his liking. He put out a hand still strong and sinewy, to have it crushed in a grip that made him wince.
“Campbell, I wish you well, and will doubtless hear of you later. My friends. Mr. Frobisher and M. Chaboillez. go as far as New Fort with the brigade, and I will commend you to them. Nowr resume your duties.”
The young man saluted, turned a broad back, and resumed his checking of trade goods from the storehouse. These bales—and one canot du maître would carry the value of £1.000 sterling--contained blankets, tobacco (Spencer’s Twist and Carrot tobacco) woollen cloth and clothing, silk and cotton handkerchiefs, thread, lines, twine, and lead for bullets. With a multitude of other things, there were kegs of liquor—high wine wherewith to stimulate ■ trade but not to be sold as value —the personal outfits of such officers as would accompany the brigade, a mast and lug sail, ashen setting-poles for pushing up rapids, camp kettles, towing lines, bark for canoe repairs, gum for the seams, and such other rudimentary things as necessity demanded.
rivalries were buried to meet a common opponent. But all that might be said on that score had been said long since. Now they were concentrated on penetrating ever farther and farther into the Far North to tap the furry riches of a country that promised to surpass anything hitherto discovered.
In the next half hour something of a miracle was seen. Out of seeming confusion in which many of the participants were still under the influence of the last liquor they would taste for weeks, the brigade resolved itself by instinct into form and order. The moment of departure was approaching, the great adventure about to be faced once more.
The canoes ranged themselves in a long line, headed by that of the two partners, the bowman in position. Standing in the stern, as he would stand so long as his craft was in motion, was the steersman, Paul Laronde. Ilis Indian mother, silent and motionless, a shawl over her swarthy head, waited and watched close by. In each canoe were twelve paddlersor middlemen, fitting lean thighs to springy thwarts, their brains still swimming from a last hasty potion but already feeling part of the shrewdly-built vessel they knew so well. With paddle-tips grounded, they held against the slow pull of the St. Pierre River as it slid toward the shores of Lachine, shouting farewells to women, children and old voyageurs with bent backs and wrinkled faces, in whose cooling blood still stirred a yearning for the
pays d'en haul which they would p.obably never see again.
Now a rift of wind set the young maple leaves dancing, stimulating the wide sweep of the St. Lawrence so that it appeared to be sprinkled with diamond dust. Mr. Fraser, looking about behind and around, raised his hand in dismissal, whereat Paul Laronde gave one mellow masterful shout, then swept his strong voice into the familiar air of “Roulant ma Boule."
Instantly the tune was caught up by 240 other throats, 240 birchen paddles struck triumphantly into the shining river, the great canoes became living creatures—one with air, sky and water —and the brigade was in motion.
‘VT'OUNG Neil Campbell, sitting on a package of Manehester woollens, was leaning back and, as for many days past, absorbing his surroundings. He was aware of a symposium of swaying backs, lean bent arms, and the swinging dip of wide, thin yellow paddles. The split water gurgled as it moiled against the golden sides of the great canoe, the sun shone and the wild air breathed sweet.
It had been for him a marvellous journey. By the Ottawa River they came, then up the Mattawa, portaging across into Lake Nipissing, where they entered the friendly flood of La Rivière St. François that carried them to Lake Huron. Then on to a stop at Mackinac, where the brigade reprovisioned for the last push to New Fort at the mouth of the Kaministiquia. By Sault Ste. Marie they travelled, using the little masonry lock that the Nor’westers had built to lift the big canoes nine feet out of eighteen that had to be surmounted before entering Lake Superior; so on until
nearer, the shouts of the voyageurs were answered by crowds of men waving their caps in welcome. These were the permanent staff of New Fort and the great yearly assembly of wintering partners with their bales of precious fur.
The heart of young Campbell leaped when he saw them. These were his future comrades; here opened the gateway to the pays d'en haut.
On the evening following, Neil, seated at a table with several strangers, looked about with amazement. He was dining with some sixty other men, very few of whom he had seen before—brown-faced and heavily bearded, most of them, with all the insignia of life in the wilderness. Many of these were wintering partners, among them Mr. Fraser, who had come on by express canoe from Montreal and thereby saved three weeks in time.
This chamber, the great hall of New Fort, was sixty feet long and of proportionate width, solidly built of heavy timber that here grew in abundance, its floors and walls hewn to a remarkable smoothness, the windows of glass and a good size. On the walls hung oil paintings in gilded frames, prominent being a large portrait of Mr. Simon McTavish by a Montreal artist, and those dominant features regarded the gathering with rugged approval.
HERE IN THE wilderness was spread no inconsiderable feast—fresh venison from the thickets of Dog River; trout from the chill depth of Lake Superior; beaver tails in pickle, a delectable dish; pinnated grouse with a flavor like an English pheasant; wild rice from Lac des
Point aux Pins rested like a blue smear on the eastern horizon and only empty space seemed to lie in front. That was the last and most perilous leg of the journey to the great distributing emporium of the Canadians.
For days they coasted under high granite cliffs that rose straight from emerald waters of unknown depths, the coldest water that Neil had ever felt. Be the wind adverse, they were forced to lie up on shore, dégradés, or stormbound, perhaps for days, watching thundering waves that would have crumpled the paper-thickness of the canoes; but when the wind blew light and fair, they made sails of blankets and lay at their ease while the high bows swept over the wrinkled surface. Sometimes when weather favored greatly they voyaged far into the night, making a pretense at rest on shelving ledges where fuel was scarce, with the voyageurs lounging by the fires in their blanket coats, smoking, telling strange tales of what they had seen, combing out their long black hair and plaiting it again to the accustomed pigtail.
Seven weeks after leaving Montreal, two weeks journey from Ste. Marie, smoke was visible on the horizon in the belly of a great bay, La Baie de Tonnerre, guarded by a long island whose form was that of a sleeping giant. Now New Fort was near, and they entered a small river flowing quietly from the West. Then around the first bend lifted the masts of The Otter, the Nor’wester’s schooner. Drawing
Pluies; bowls of blueberries, large, sweet, luscious and purple; wild strawberries, the tiny fruit picked by Indian women; great meat pasties in large round platters; vegetables grown on the spot, and white bread. For liquor—port, sherry, the wine of Madeira, and strong rum from the West Indian Islands. Tall tallow candles guttered on the tables, oil lamps hung in metal frames from the timbered ceiling diffused a yellow light. There was much laughter. Rounds of Jacobite songs alternated with the chansons of the Canadians; innumerable toasts were honored and exchanged. Now the spirit of the Lords of the Lakes and Forests had free rein. Here were the masters of the wilderness, and their hearts beat high. In front of them waited further adventure, and the present joy of feasting and companionship was heightened by the memory of past hardship and peril;
At intervals came the sound of other revelry near by, where the mangeurs de lard were fraternizing with coureurs de bois who had come down from the pays d'en haut. These, the true North men, thought but little of the men from Canada, deeming them but amateurs; a/? inferior breed, they used oars, their camps were dirty and they ate pork, while the North men lived mostly on pemmican brought from the prairie country where the buffalo grazed near the southernly confines of the strong woods. There was a real meat for a real man—pounded, dried in the sun, solidified in hot grease in a distended skin. But tonight all had been served with their régale, with it a loaf of white bread, a pound of butter and a quart of rum. Every distinction was forgotten; they kissed, they embraced, they sang and revelled, for on the morrow would begin the grim duty of carrying tons of provisions over the long rocky nine-mile portage that led from the quiet reaches of the Kaministiquia to upper waters and the Lac des Pluies.
“Tell me who some of these persons are?” said Neil to his neighbor. “I know only a few, and had not expected anything like this. How long have you served the company?”
The individual Neil addressed was a little older than himself, his manner grave for his years. He had a long, rather thin nose, eyes far apart, and a high intelligent brow. It was the face of a student rather than that of a trader, and Neil had noticed his abstemious habit.
“Four years,” said the man, smiling. “And where?”
The young man, whose name was Daniel Harmon, smiled again. “In several places. In Montreal and Lachine; then at Grand Portage before the depot was moved here; then north to Fort Alexander and the Swan Lake country west of Lake Winnipeg. Observe that table—the trader with red hair.”
“He is easy to observe,” said Neil, eyes widening.
“It is Macdonald Grant. I followed him on the Saskatchewan when he went to the Rocky Mountains.”
The man in question was a giant with a huge and powerful body. His flaming hair and whiskers, uncut for years, flowed in untended waves to prodigious shoulders; he looked to be of violent temper, and now after much drinking was ripping out oaths in Gaelic, French and English.
“It is a curious thing,” went on Harmon, “but one cannot swear in the Indian tongue; they cannot frame an oath, nor would they invoke one of their deities in anger. You are from Montreal?”
“Yes; seven weeks with the brigade.”
“Well, as to Montreal I have seen enough. I prefer the strong woods.”
“You will judge for yourself. But the Western savage, when he is not mad with our high wine, is a man of nobility; and for your guidance always remember that in his heart the savage despises us.”
“What!” exclaimed Neil, startled.
“He may not let you see it, but it is so and he has good reason. Though,” he went on bitterly, “at one time the traders were like gods in his eyes. Today the savage is seduced by us all with high wine, of which six parts are water but strong enough for its purpose. Later, being no fool, he sees this for himself. What, then, can he think of us?”
“Does it lead to bloodshed?”
“It has and will again, and on my soul I think he hates us. A few years ago there was but one thing that saved us all.”
Continued on page 37
Continued from page 10—Starts on page 7
"The smallpox killed them in thousands.”
“They had murdered some white man thus afflicted and worn his clothing; then the disease spread like pollen from prairie flowers.”
“That is the truth,” boomed a deep voice from across the table, where an older trader, with tanned face and small bright eyes, was leaning forward, his hand to his ear. “I was with Mr. Duncan McGillvray and saw it myself. It began, we learned afterward, with theOjibways, theSaulteurs of Ste. Marie, and travelled westward over the Grand Portage. We found it in the Eagle Hills on the Saskatchewan. The tents of the tribes were there, aye, and a stench no man could withstand. There they lay, the poor brutes, hundreds of them, such parts of their bodies as the dogs and wolves had not devoured, with the buffalo skins in a heap, and the few that lived earned half a mile away, starving, too weak to go farther. They told us that their friends, when taken with the disease, rushed into the river to wash it away, and perished the more quickly. The plague went on to the Sioux on the plains, who passed it to the Snakes and Mandans on the Missouri. They in turn gave it to the Piegans and Blackfeet. Aye, 'twas a fearful scourge, but it beat down the hot spirit of the savages. Show them a wee bottle after that, tell them there was smallpox in it, and they would crawl at your feet. We have now but one danger left, and that is of our own making.”
“High wine,” said young Harmon promptly.
“Aye, high wine. List to the commotion, will ye?”
The place had filled with uproar. All told, there were that night within the stockade of New Fort not less than a thousand men, of whom most were now enflamed with strong drink. Inside and outside the great hall, babel reached its height and none were more riotous than the masters of this great company. The tables were strewn with broken glass; and on the floor squatted a group chanting “Roulant ma Boule” in tipsy unison. Macdonald of Garth, Bras Croche—he of the crooked arm—was roaring a tale of his ancestor, who, quarrelling with Noah, built an ark of his own with entire success. No semblance of order remained. A few of the bourgeois were reeling away to where they would find different entertainment with another sex, while roaring groups of voyageurs and Northmen with arms linked made for the Indian village, whose conical teepees dotted the banks of Dog River. Here high wine had also circulated, and license prevailed.
Young Neil was dazed. He felt the eyes of Daniel Harmon fixed on him, sober and cool, as though inviting his impressions, but he could not speak. He gazed at the intoxicated partners. A few hours ago he had aspired to be like these men, to be himself a merchant prince of Montreal and yearly visit the pays d'en haut in comfort and state, but now he did not know what to think. Of simple mind, with rigorous upbringing in a Scottish glen, he felt lost.
What he had just learned of the savage of the strong woods put these tribes in another light; his theories were shaken, all the joyous anticipation of days when the brigade toiled westward had vanished, and in their place grew a great doubt. He was servant to this company, and obedience must be implicit. What did that involve?
In this quandary he continued to gaze round the great hall, and observed at one table a trader who looked hard in his direction, a small man with reddish hair, pointed nose and tawny beard. The flushed face was unpleasant, drink had not softened it. The small eyes sharpened. The man made a gesture of summons.
Neil, half rising, turned to Harmon. “Who is it that looks at me so hard?”
“That,” said Harmon, “is one you will know well later on, but I hope not too well It is Archie Macdonald, bourgeois at Buffalo Lake. He is your master; go to him.”
"ID UFFALO LAKE had the shape of an irregular arrowhead, and the post stood on a slight eminence in a clearing some 200 yards from the water; its twelvefoot stockade built of horizontal logs one on the other, with edges shaped so as to iit neatly into a deep channel cut in the opposite faces of vertical timbers spaced evenly apart. At each corner was a guerite, or watch tower. The entire structure measured not less than 100 feet square and had been put together solely with axes. Squares of oiled deerskin, scraped to pajxa thinness, served for windows; fireplaces were of clay and stone. When night came, a tallow dip from animal fat provided what light there was. Within the stockade a well had been sunk for use in time of danger, and a medley of buildings huddled against the outer wall.
One of the houses, the smallest, was Neil’s. His bed was a moosehide stretched over a stout frame; for possessions he had a thumbed Bible given by his mother on his departure from Scotland, four other lxx)ks, a hidebound trunk and a gun. He owned nothing beyond this.
Night frost had plastered the wilderness with golden leaves when the young man arrived. He had seen little of his bourgeois on the way, but his imagination was too
busy to resent this, and the sight of the post filled the new clerk with interest. As the flotilla came in view, there gathered a crowd of men, Indians, breeds, women and children, all sending encouraging shouts to the voyageurs, who at once plied their paddles with utmost vigor, it being a matter of pride to approach each establishment on the long journey at topmost speed, dashing up with no sign of weariness.
Under this urge the canoes leaped forward, splitting the calm water till they pulled up sharp abreast of the fort, where a fusilade from long-barrelled rifles and fowling pieces woke the echoes of Buffalo Lake. Then, rounding the point and hoisting blanket sails to a favoring east wind, they swept on, determined to camp that night thirty miles farther at Methye Portage. There drifted back the strains of “Roulant ma Boule.."
MACDONALD’S outfit of ten canoes had dropped out of line. Now they came gently to land. The bourgeois stepped ashore to be saluted by all, and immediately began to talk to a young white man whom Neil had already noticed. He was very tall, very thin, and clean shaven.
“This,” said Macdonald pleasantly, “is Mr. Stuart, the gentleman whose place you will take.”
Neil put out a hand to be taken in a clawlike grip, and Stuart smiled. He had blue-grey eyes, and so engaging was the smile that Neil already regretted his departure; he felt that he could like this man.
“And this,” continued Macdonald, “is Louis Bouché, assistant clerk and interpreter. He will keep you straight when Mr. Stuart has gone.”
Bouché made a salute. His eyes were black, his face swarthy, his beard neatly trimmed. He was a short man, deep of chest, light of leg, whose father had been a French freetrader in still earlier days, his mother a half-breed Ojibway of Ste. Marie. He was a French quarterbreed who inherited the shrewd honesty and woodland wisdom by which men like himself became the most valuable servants of the company. Twenty years previously he had married a Cree woman from the country farther north.
“All is well here?” asked Macdonald, surveying his isolated kingdom.
Stuart reported that that summer he had taken in trade some ninety hundredweight of pemmican, but beyond this nothing much, and the summer had been hot. A little debt was given to the Athabascans, who promised to bring their early catch after the first snows; one Indian employee had lost his hand through the bursting of a gun; three outfits of the English company had passed through on their way to Lac des Sclaves; there was talk of trouble among the Assiniboines to the south, who contemplated an attack on the Crees in revenge for some of their women being stolen.
This latter news was unwelcome, and Macdonald, frowning, questioned Bouché, who had recently returned from the north branch of the Saskatchewan. These tribal wars, conducted with the utmost savagery, were annoying to the traders. Not only did they upset the trapping but also interfered with the supply of pemmican from the plains, and the most important duty of the bourgeois was to collect this staple and send it east.
“Well, we must be on our guard. Mr. Campbell has a letter for you, Mr. Stuart, but first you and he will check in the outfit, when you will proceed in an express canoe and overtake the brigade. Bouché, I do not see your wife and daughter—are they well?”
“M’sieu, quite well.”
“They are not here?”
“They have gone to fish at the north end of the lake; perhaps they will get some ducks.”
“They return when?”
Bouché lifted his shoulders. “M’sieu, what man can tell what his women will do? They had not expected you so soon.”
He looked a little self-conscious; his tone had a suggestion of evasion, and Neil intercepted a sly glance from young Stuart. Macdonald seemed ruffled.
“Let me know when they arrive. I have some small gifts for them. You gentlemen will now attend to your duties, and when the goods are checked in, Mr. Campbell will go through the stores inventory, giving a receipt for it. Mr. Campbell, from that moment you are responsible. Bouché, send my personal luggage to my house.”
The interpreter went off, and Stuart turned to Neil.
“That biggish bundle is six months issue of the Edinburgh Scotsman from October last. He will read a copy every day, keeping just nine months behind, till the next lot come in by dog train. But we’ll talk of him later. Let’s get on with our work now.”
The servants of the post began to carry the pieces through the great gate, watched by impassive savages to whom this display meant wealth. But darkness came before the young men finished, and Neil was about to report to the bourgeois when Stuart shook his head.
“Better leave him till tomorrow. Come and see for yourself.”
rT'HEY WENT out behind the store. All was silent within the stockade. The small log buildings were quiet as the grave, and there could be heard only the distant howl of a dog that bayed the moon. No light was visible, save at one window that stood half open. Here Stuart put a finger to his lip and beckoned.
“Have a peep at Mr. Archie Macdonald, then come with me.”
Neil, standing on tiptoe, peered in. The bourgeois was sprawled limp in a big wooden chair, head on one side, eyes shut, mouth loosely open. His arms hung slack; on the table beside him was a metal canister, on the floor at his feet a small metal cup and one copy of the Edinburgh Scotsman. The smell of liquor filled the room. Came a whisper in Neil’s ear.
“You see why tomorrow will do?”
Neil’s heart sank. He felt a touch on his shoulder, then the two young men walked silently down to the canoe landing. It was some time before Stuart spoke.
“I thought it better that you should know certain things at once instead of having to discover them for yourself. That is one of them. Now you have seen why Macdonald has been here for years without promotion. This will go on all through the winter. The other matter concerns women.”
“Any bourgeois or clerk is at liberty to take any girl he desires from the neighboring tribes as a country wife, and it is considered an honor by the women, but with Macdonald there is but one girl he desires. That one he cannot have without marriage, and it works poison in his brain.”
“Bouché’s daughter?” said Neil quickly. “Yes. Bouché, who is an honest man on whom you may depend, frowns on anything else. Also, his wife being a Cree, he has many friends in that tribe, and it is through him that fur comes to us from the north instead of going to the English on the Athabasca, so the bourgeois cannot have his way without taking the risk of losing fur. That, then, is the situation with regard to Julie. Also,” he added with a dry smile, “you happen to be a Campbell.” “Does that actually matter out here?” “You have come to a queer country where anything may matter.” Neil put out his great hand in a crushing grip. “What you have said goes deep and will stay there. Do you journey far to the west?”
“I hope to be attached to Mr. Simon Fraser when again he seeks the Pacific. I have had a scientific training that—look there to your left, close to us.”
A small canoe appeared floating like a curled autumn leaf across a shimmering pathway cast by the rising moon; the paddles were laid across the gunwale. The
canoe disturbed the mirror of the lake no more than did the long-legged water spiders that skated on the glossy surface. In the stern was a crouching figure; in the bows knelt another, slighter and more erect. With a stroke or two, the canoe came nearer, resting against a great log that served as landing place where no rocks threatened the delicate bark sheathing. The figure in the stern put out a steadying blade, while the one in the bows stepped lightly ashore and steadied in turn.
"La mère Bouché et sa fille,” said Stuart softly.
The girl heard him. then glanced at them swiftly but did not speak. She lifted up a string of shining fish that glinted silver in the moonlight. Neil had a glimpse of a smooth oval face and large eyes ot sombre beauty. Her skin seemed an olive shade, and when she laid aside her paddle he noticed her extreme ease and grace of movement. Now his pulse gave an unaccustomed beat, for here was something far different from the women he had seen at Mackinac and New Fort.
The girl paused and sent him a long straight questioning look. With no words the two made for the great gate.
He stood gazing at her till Stuart’s voice came with a dry note.
“There, Mr. Campbell, goes the real problem of Buffalo Lake post. Make of it what you can.”
A FEW DAYS passed. Stuart was well 1 on his way to the Athabasca; the weather had turned colder, and every breath of wind brought down a rain of leaves, yellow and gold, that embroidered the fringes of Buffalo Lake with gay fantastic patterns. Overhead winged flights of the smaller birds on their long pilgrimage to the south. Beaver were at work in the swamps laying up store for frozen months; the rabbits already displayed patches of white. All signs pointed to the approach of winter.
It was a week after he had reached the post that Neil was summoned to Macdonald’s house, to find the bourgeois in front of a great fire, his clothing loose, a glass at his elbow. His face was flushed but he was not drunk.
“Mr. Campbell,” he began, “you have not before acted as clerk?”
Macdonald launched into an exordium on the duties of a clerk. Neil must not become intimate with the staff; at Buffalo Lake were some thirty engagés and their rations were seven pounds of pemmican each per day; Neil himself would have two hundredweight of flour, sixty pounds of sugar and twelve of tea each year. He would assist in the trading, see to the defenses of the fort, keep the books, do the correspondence. The list lengthensd until it appeared that he would do everything. It seemed that Macdonald was anxious to talk. He went on for an hour boxing the compass of speech. Then, suddenly: “We would not be here today did we not get pemmican from the south— we need twenty hundredweight a week— but our supply of fur lies to the north. Do you know what makes good hunters in a tribe?”
“High wine,” said the bourgeois with sodden frankness, fondling his glass. “Will you not drink with me?”
Neil colored a little. “I do not take liquor, sir.”
“Well, perhaps so much the better, but high wine makes the hunter. For love of it, in the hope of it, the savage will work hard and bring in fur. Once having the taste, he desires more, much more. We do not trade in it but give it, and a two-gallon keg with ten gallons of Buffalo Lake water is strong enough for our purpose.”
Refilling his glass, he stretched his legs toward the fire and went on.
“Mr. Campbell, you and I stand alone here, and anything you hear, however small, must be reported to me. I charge you with that. You will permit no familiarity from anyone, and especially
Bouché. Doubtless you have talked with him already.”
“I have, sir, a little.”
“He is capable, but in some ways very unreasonable, especially in the matter of women.” Here he paused and sent the young man an enquiring glance as though asking if he was interested in the subject, but Neil made no sign. “Mr. Campbell,” lie added with sudden sharp emphasis, “have you yet visited Bouché’s family?” Neil, not a little startled, shook his head. “Then my instructions are that you do not enter that house. You may take your choice elsewhere, but not there. You understand what I mean?”
“I do not, sir.” blurted the young man. Macdonald looked startled, then put his head on one side, fingered a straggly beard and assumed a manner of friendliness.
“You are young, Campbell, very young, with everything to learn of this country. To begin with, it is wise to earn the goodwill of your bourgeois. When you are older and more experienced in the ways of the interior, you will see it for yourself. But the first rule is obedience. You have signed your indenture?”
A queer look had come into the man’s eyes, and Neil nodded, ill at ease.
“Its wording is quite clear—complete obedience in all matters; all, Campbell, all. So far you have begun well but”—here his voice took on the high ragged pitch of one who is a little mad —“let me tell you that if I find you crossing the threshold of Bouché’s house I will break you. Hands off, young man! Keep your hands off! Now leave me.”
To be Continued