CANOE MATES IN CANADA OR THREE BOYS AFLOAT ON THE SASKATCHEWAN
By ST. GEORGE RATHBORNE
Author of "THE HOUSE BOAT BOYS," "CHUMS IN DIXIE," "THE YOUNG FUR TAKERS," Etc.
M. A. DONOHUE & CO., Chicago
CANOE AND CAMPFIRE SERIES
Four Books of Woodcraft and Adventure in the Forest and on the Water that every Boy Scout should have in his Library
By ST. GEORGE RATHBORNE
CANOEMATES IN CANADA; or, Three Boys Afloat on the Saskatchewan.
THE YOUNG FUR-TAKERS; or, Traps and Trails in the Wilderness.
THE HOUSE-BOAT BOYS; or, Drifting Down to the Sunny South.
CHUMS IN DIXIE; or, The Strange Cruise of a Motor Boat.
CAMP MATES IN MICHIGAN; or, With Pack and Paddle in the Pine Woods.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN BOYS; or, Camping in the Big Game Country.
In these four delightful volumes the author has drawn bountifully from his thirty-five years experience as a true sportsman and lover of nature, to reveal many of the secrets of the woods, such as all Boys Scouts strive to know. And, besides, each book is replete with stirring adventures among the four-footed denizens of the wilderness; so that a feast of useful knowledge is served up, with just that class of stirring incidents so eagerly welcomed by all boys with red blood in their veins. For sale wherever books are sold, or sent prepaid for 50 cents each by the publishers.
Copyright, 1912, M. A. Donohue & Co.
I. A PLUNGE DOWN THE RAPIDS 7 II. THE CAMP UNDER THE HEMLOCKS 17 III. COMRADES 28 IV. THE THREE SMOKE SIGNALS 37 V. THE FALSE CHART OF DUBOIS 47 VI. THE TIMBER-CRUISER 57 VII. OWL AND TIMBER WOLF 67 VIII. THE CALL OF THE WILD 77 IX. TRAPPER LORE 84 X. MAGIC IN THE BERRIES 104 XI. A BREAK IN THE CHAIN 117 XII. ON THE TRACK OF ELI 127 XIII. BIRDS OF A FEATHER 137 XIV. WITHOUT AUTHORITY 152 XV. SCENTS A MYSTERY 160 XVI. A LITTLE WITCH 170 XVII. SEEN THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR 184 XVIII. OWEN FINDS HIMSELF A PRISONER 194 XIX. FOR SO IT WAS WRITTEN 204 XX. THE TENT DWELLERS 214 XXI. AT DEAD OF NIGHT 221 XXII. CONCLUSION 231
CANOE MATES IN CANADA
Afloat on the Saskatchewan
A PLUNGE DOWN THE RAPIDS.
Kneeling in a "bullboat," fashioned from the skin of an animal, and wielding a paddle with the dexterity only to be attained after years of practice in canoeing, a sturdily-built and thoroughly bronzed Canadian lad glanced ever and anon back along the course over which he had so recently passed; and then up at the black storm clouds hurrying out of the mysterious North.
It was far away in the wilderness of the Northwest, where this fierce tributary of the great Saskatchewan came pouring down from the timber-clad hills; and all around the lone voyager lay some of the wildest scenery to be met with on the whole continent.
Here and there in this vast territory one might come across the occasional trading posts of the wide-reaching Hudson Bay Company, at each of which the resident factor ruled with the arbitrary power of a little czar.
It might be he would discover the fire of some Ishmaelite of the forest, a wandering "timber-cruiser," marking out new and promising fields for those he served, and surveying the scene of possible future bustling logging camps.
Otherwise the country at this time was a vast unknown land, seldom penetrated by human kind, save the Indian fur gatherers.
Considering that he was in so vast a wilderness this adventurous lad appeared to have scant luggage in his well battered bullboat—indeed, beyond the buskskin jacket, which he had thrown off because of his exertions, there did not seem to be anything at all aboard the craft, not even a gun, by means of which he might provide himself with food while on the journey downstream.
This singular fact would seem to indicate that he might have had trouble of some sort back yonder.
Indeed, the occasional glances which he cast over his shoulder added strength to this possibility; though the look upon his strong face was more in the line of chagrin and anger than fear.
Now and then he shook his curly head, and muttered something; and once a name passed his lips in anything but a friendly fashion—that of Alexander Gregory.
Swifter grew the current, giving plain warning to one so well versed as this lad must be in the vagaries of these mad rivers of the Silent Land that presently it would be racing furiously down a steep incline, with razoredge rocks on every side, apparently only too eager to rend asunder the frail canoe of the adventurous cruiser.
Still Owen Dugdale continued to ply the nimble paddle, weaving it in and out like a shuttle.
He kept to the middle of the river when it would seem to at least have been the part of wisdom had he edged his craft closer to either shore, so that he might, in time, make a safe landing in preference to trusting himself to the mercy of the wild rapids, in which his frail bullboat would be but as a chip in the swirl of conflicting waters.
Already had the vanguard of the storm swept down upon him.
An inky pall began to shut out the daylight, and when a sudden flash of lightning cleft the low-hanging clouds overhead the effect was perfectly staggering.
The roar of thunder that followed quick upon its heels was like the explosion of a twelve-inch gun as heard in the steel-jacketed turret of a modern battleship.
Again and again was the rushing river, with its grim forest-clad shores lighted up by the rapid-fire electric flashes.
All around crashed the loud-toned thunderclaps, rumbling and roaring until the whole affair became a perfect pandemonium; and brave indeed must be the soul that could gaze upon it without dismay and flinching.
It was just then, before the rain had begun to descend, and while the artillery of heaven flashed and roared with all the fury of a Gettysburg, that Owen Dugdale found himself plunging into the dangerous rapids, ten times more to be feared under such conditions than ordinary.
Possibly he may have regretted his rashness in sticking to the middle of the channel until it was too late to change his course; but apparently the solitary young Canuck was at the time in somewhat of a desperate frame of mind, and recked little what might be the result of his mad act of defiance to the combined powers of tempest and boiling rapids.
At least he showed no signs of shrinking from the consequences.
Beyond shifting his weight a trifle, as if to settle himself better for the desperate work that faced him, he remained just as before, on his knees.
Crouching amidships, lie held his paddle poised as if ready to thrust it into the swirling water at a second's notice, to stay the progress of the canoe as it lunged toward a threatening rock, or glided too near a roaring whirlpool, where disaster was certain to follow.
Owen Dugdale was no novice at shooting rapids, though never before could he have undertaken such a fierce fight as the one in which he was now engaged, for the combination of the elements made it simply appalling.
The stirring scene might have appealed to the instinct of an artist; but so far as the lad was concerned he had only eyes for the perils with which he was surrounded, and his whole soul seemed wrapped up in the prompt meeting of each emergency as it flashed before him.
A dozen times he would have met with sudden disaster but for the instantaneous manner in which his hand followed the promptings of his brain.
Even then it was a mighty close shave more than once, for the boat rubbed up against several snags in whirling past, any one of which would have sunk the frail craft had it been a head-on collision.
Once he had to paddle like a madman to keep from being sucked into the largest whirlpool along the course; which seemed to reach out eager fingers, and strive to the utmost to engulf him in its gluttonous maw.
Thanks to the almost incessant lightning, Owen was enabled to see these perils in time to take action, else he must have been speedily overwhelmed in the fury of the rushing waters.
While the time might have seemed an eternity to the brave lad who battled for his very life, in reality it could not have been more than a couple of minutes at most that he was shooting down that foamy descent, dodging hither and thither as the caprice of the rapids or the impetus of his paddle dictated.
Just below him was the finish of the dangerous fall, and as so often happens, the very last lap proved to be more heavily charged with disaster than any of those above, even though they appeared to be far worse.
Being a son of the wilderness, Owen Dugdale had probably never heard of the kindred terrors that used to lie in wait for the bold mariners of ancient Greece—the rock and the whirlpool known as Scylla and Charybdis—if they missed being impaled upon the one they were apt to be engulfed in the other—and yet here in the rapids of this furious Saskatchewan feeder he was brought face to face with a proposition exactly similar to that of mythology.
He strove valiantly to meet the occasion, and his sturdy sweep of the paddle did send him away from the ugly pointed rock; but the last whirlpool was so close that he was not enabled to fully recover in time to throw his whole power into the second stroke; consequently his canoe was caught in the outer edge of the swirl, and before one could even wink twice it capsized.
This was not the first time Owen had met with such a disaster while shooting rapids and he had his wits about him for all of the confusion that surrounded him there.
His very first act was to clutch hold of the canoe, and throw all his energies into the task of avoiding the deadly suction of the whirlpool, for once he fell into its grip there must be only a question of seconds ere he reached its vortex and went under.
Fortune, aided by his own violent efforts, favored him, and as a result he managed to swim down the balance of the rapid, and reach the smoother waters below, still hanging on with a desperate clutch to his poor old boat, while his other hand gripped the paddle.
The canoe was full of water, but it did not sink, being buoyant enough to keep on the surface; but Owen found it as much as he could do to push the unwieldly thing along when he began to make for the nearest shore.
Exciting as this adventure had been, it was only an episode in a life such as he had spent up in this vast region, where the first lesson a boy learns is to take care of himself, and meet peril in any guise.
There was not the least doubt with regard to his ability to gain the nearby shore with his wrecked canoe, even if left to himself.
Nevertheless, when his ears caught the sound of encouraging shouts, and he realized that his perilous descent of the rapids had been witnessed by sympathetic eyes, it gave Mm a thrill to know that friends were near by, and waiting to assist him, if such were necessary.
But young Dugdale was an independent lad, accustomed to relying altogether upon his own endeavors, as one must always do whose life is spent in the heart of the Great Lone Land of the Far Northwest.
Hence, he kept on swimming with his boat until he could wade, and in this way came out of the river dripping, temporarily held in check by his misfortune, but not in the least dismayed.
Two figures hurried to meet him, though they arrived too late to give him a helping hand in effecting a landing.
Owen looked at them in amazement—he had at the most anticipated that those whose encouraging shouts had reached his ears while in the water must be some timber-cruisers who chanced to be camping at the foot of the rapids for the fishing to be found there; or it might be several of the halfbreed voyageurs employed by the Hudson Bay Company to carry furs from far distant posts to some station on the railroad; but he found himself gazing upon neither.
Two boys confronted him, neither of them much older than himself, and utter strangers at that.
Owen had never had a chum; and indeed, his life had been a lonely one, burdened by responsibilities that had made him much older than his years—his scanty associations had been with hardy lumbermen or voyageurs, so that the presence of this twain struck him as the most mysterious and remarkable thing in all his experience.
And they seemed so solicitous concerning his welfare, insisting upon taking hold of the boat and pulling the same clear of the water, that he almost began to fancy he must be dreaming.
"Now," exclaimed the taller of the two, when this job had been finished, "come right up to our tent, where we have a bully fire that will dry you off in a jiffy. And our coffee is just ready, too—I rather guess that'll warm you up some. Eli, it's lucky you made an extra supply, after all. Looks as if you expected we'd have company drop in on us. I'll carry the paddle—good you hung on to it, for it's a tough job to whittle one out, I know. Here we are, old chap, and believe me, you're a thousand times welcome!"
THE CAMP UNDER THE HEMLOCKS.
Young Owen Dugdale's heart thrilled within him.
In all his life he could not exactly remember a single time when he had been thus warmly welcomed to any camp. Why, it was almost worth shooting the rapids and meeting with disaster to hear such words, and feel that every one was meant.
Who were these lads, and why were they here in this faraway land?
His astonished eyes fell upon the craft that had evidently carried them up the river from some hamlet, scores, perhaps hundreds, of miles away.
Such a dandy canoe Owen Dugdale had never dreamed existed in the whole wide world, for it was of varnished cedar, and with its nickeled trimmings, glistened there under the hemlocks in the flash of the lightning, and the glow of the protected campfire.
He seemed to feel somehow that this apparent calamity upon the river had been the "open sesame" for him to enter upon a new and perhaps delightful experience; rather a rough introduction perhaps, but then he knew only such in the range of his past.
And the delicious odor of that supper was enough to arouse the dormant appetite of one who had foresworn all cookery, one of these modern cranks determined to exist upon nuts and fruit, which our young friend of the bullboat certainly was not.
Both lads bustled about trying to make him comfortable near the cheery blaze, and then filling a pannikin with the canoeist's stew of corn beef, succotash and left-over potatoes, they invited him to set-to, nor wait for them a second.
Owen could not have restrained himself, once his nostrils became saturated with those delicious odors, and he started to eat like a starving chap; as indeed, he came very near being, seeing that he had not partaken of a mouthful of food for almost twenty-four hours, and then but scantily.
Then came a cup of such coffee as he had never before tasted, with condensed milk to mellow the same, and close at his hand was placed a package of crackers into which he was expected to dip as the humor seized him.
Boys never like to talk while hungry, and no matter how strong the curiosity on both sides might be, nothing was said beyond the usual courtesies necessary in passing things, until one and all declared themselves satisfied.
But, although their tongues were silent during this half-hour, their eyes did double duty, and Owen found a thousand things at which to wonder.
The canoe had been enough to excite his curiosity, but everything he saw about the camp was in keeping with such luxury.
The dun-colored tent was a beauty, and doubtless positively waterproof, for the rain that had been beating down ever since they commenced eating had found no inlet; and the fly over the fire sufficed to keep it from being extinguished.
He saw several warbags of the same kind of canvas, evidently used for the storage of clothes and provisions; and in addition there were a couple of guns, rubber ponchos, gray blankets that peeped out of two expensive sleeping bags, and a couple of black japanned boxes the contents of which he could not picture, unless they might be something in the way of surveyors' instruments; for Owen had once seen a party of these gentry running a line through the forest, and hence his vague application now.
These things had been taken in with a few glances around; but the two boys themselves occupied most of his attention, and he found himself trying to study out what they were—the taller one he understood immediately must be in command, for his whole appearance indicated it, while the shorter chap was of the calibre not unlike himself, bronzed from a life in the open, and with a cheery manner that drew the waif toward him from the start.
Both were dressed for business, with no unnecessary frills; and it was evident that if the leader of the mysterious expedition was possessed of unlimited means he also had enough common sense to deny himself luxuries when upon such a long cruise.
When every one declared that not another bite could be taken, Eli pulled out a pipe, being evidently addicted to smoking, and his comrade, finding that the newcomer had dried out pretty thoroughly, hunted up a spare jacket from one of the bags, which he insisted upon Owen donning, since the storm, now a thing of the past, had been followed by a cool wave that made the fire doubly pleasant.
"Now," said the tall lad, with one of his winning smiles, that drew Owen to him so wonderfully, "let's exchange confidences a bit, just as far as you care to go and no further. First of all my name is Cuthbert Reynolds, and I'm from across the border, a Yankee to the backbone; and this is Eli Perkins, also an American boy, a native of the lumber regions of Michigan, and with his fortunes bound up in mine."
"And I'm Owen Dugdale," said the other, knowing the pause was intended for him to break in with the mention of his name; "a native Canuck, and at home in this timber region—my parents were of Scotch descent I believe. And the first thing I want to say is that I'm mighty glad to be here with you just now. I was just about as hungry as a bear, and only for you I don't see what I could have done, after that ducking, for my matches must have been wet, and I would have gone to sleep hungry and cold."
The tall lad hastened to interrupt him, evidently not fancying being thanked for doing what was apparently the greatest pleasure in the world to him.
"Hold on, please; we understand all that. You're a thousand times welcome, and I tell you right now nothing could have happened to please me better than meeting up with you. You can bet there's something besides chance in it. Now, naturally you're wondering what in the dickens two fellows of our stripe are doing wandering about up here in the Far Northwest like a couple of nomads.
"Well, perhaps when you learn the actual truth you'll wonder harder than ever how it is one of us has escaped landing in a lunatic asylum up to this time; but as some of my friends say to me, youthful enthusiasm is responsible for many queer things, and so long as my wonderful ambition is to copy after Stanley in the line of exploring, why, they don't worry.
"They say I have more money than I know what to do with, anyway, and if it must be blown in somehow, why, this is a harmless way of doing it, dangerous only to myself, and any other foolish chap whom I may influence to accompany me on my mad expeditions," and as he spoke he glanced affectionately in the direction of the homely, freckled but good-humored Eli, who returned the look with a grin and an emphatic nod of approval.
"Now, you see, Eli has been with the lumbermen all his life, and is as hardy as they make them. What he doesn't know about the woods isn't worth telling; and so we make a pretty good team, for I've picked up a little knowledge about camp life during my canoeing days in the East, and manage to fill in the gaps in Eli's education, along the line of woodcraft.
"I might as well make a full confession in the start, for you're bound to get on to my weakness if we see much of each other, and I hope we will. Ever, since I was knee-high to a grasshopper I've been inoculated with the exploring bee, read everything ever printed in that line, and pictured myself doing wonderful stunts like Livingstone and Stanley."
It was only to be expected then that when I was left my own master at the death of my father, I would pursue my hobby to the limit; and I rather guess I have been on the jump for two years. Haven't made myself famous yet, and a little of my enthusiasm in that line has dribbled away; but I'm just as determined to work in the field of research as ever; only age is beginning to tone down my earlier wild notions, and after this last and crowning folly I think I shall hitch up with some veteran who knows it all, and be content to work up from the ranks.
"I started out on this expedition with great notions of making such a trip as no man had ever before attempted, passing up a branch of the Saskatchewan, making a portage with the assistance of the Crees or Chippewas to some convenient branch of the Athabasca River, and voyage on to the lake of that name by fall, winter there perhaps at the Hudson Bay Post, and in the spring by means of the chain of lakes and rivers that I understand connect the Athabasca Lake with Hudson Bay, arrive at that vast sheet of water in time to be picked up by some whaler and carried home a winner.
"Makes you smile, I guess—well, it strikes me as funny, now that I've been navigating this country for several months, and only gotten this far; but when I laid out the trip it was a serious business for me, and I couldn't see anything but success ahead of me. I've had my fun, and I'm ready to call the game off. This is a man's work, I understand now, and I'm out of the exploring business for the time, only now that we're up so far Eli and myself want to see all we can of the country; and Eli has some notions in the line of discovering rich copper ledges that he means to work while wandering about this unknown land, eh, old man?"
In this boyish, familiar manner did he address his comrade, and Eli as usual laughed good-naturedly and nodded his head—evidently he had a fund of humor in his make-up that could not be disturbed by any amount of "joshing."
Cuthbert halted in his explanations; he did not hint at such a thing, but evidently it was up to Owen to tell something at least in connection with his presence in the neighborhood, and how he came to be rushing down the dangerous rapids at the time the storm broke, when it would appear the part of wisdom for one who knew the peril involved as well as he did, to land and portage around the troubled water.
The lad acted a little as though confused, not knowing just how much he should tell in connection with himself; but taking a brace he finally spoke up—Eli was adding some wood to the fire from a stock they had laid in dry when the storm was seen approaching, while Cuthbert busied himself in making his seat more comfortable, though in reality it was done in order not to appear to be noticing the coloring-up of the guest, about whom he seemed to realize that there was a bit of a mystery.
"I told you my name was Owen Dugdale, and that I had always lived up in this country. Well, that is hardly so, for when I was a little chap I remember being in Montreal with my parents for a spell; but they came back here and I've never gone out of the woods since.
"My mother taught me all I know, for she was a lady, and had been educated in a convent school in that city. My father was used to the life of the woods, and I learned everything connected with that from him. I lost my mother two years ago, and my father later. That's about all there is in connection with me. I—I had some trouble up the river at the post, and was making my way down with the intention of leaving this country forever when this accident happened. I'm glad it did happen, because it's thrown me in with two such good fellows. You'll be surprised when I tell you that I've never had a boy friend in all my life; and—well, it's mighty fine to be sitting here and talking with you both. I wish I could do something to return the favor, that's what."
"You can—stay with us a while, and let us have some of the benefit of your knowledge of the country. We'd like nothing better; and if you have no other place to go, why make a third member of the crowd. You have a boat, and as for grub and such, why, we're loaded down with it. Don't decide just now, but think it over and tell us in the morning. We won't take no for an answer, remember."
Owen turned his head away as if to look at something he fancied moved along the edge of the camp; but it was to conceal the tears that came unbidden into his eyes—the genuine warmth of this invitation stirred his heart, and as some resolution sprang into life he gripped his hands and set his teeth hard.
The young Canadian sat for a few minutes mute, as though turning over this proposition of Cuthbert's in his mind; then suddenly raising his eyes he looked his new friend straight in the face and said:
"That's awfully white of you, and I'm going to accept your invitation. I'll be only too glad to stay with you, for a time at least, and serve you as guide. And if you still persist in your determination to ascend the river further, to see all you can while in this country, who should know that region better than myself. Let come what will, I am going back!"
The impulsive American, after his kind, was bound to seal the bargain with a hearty handshake; and Eli, not to be outdone in the matter, also thrust out his broad "paw" as he called it, squeezing that of the other with a strength that made Owen wince a bit.
At the same time the observing Cuthbert could not but note the gritting of Owen's teeth when he declared that he was ready to go back into the country from which he had apparently just come; it would appear as though some recent experience up the river did not linger fondly in his memory, and that when he came paddling downstream in his battered old bullboat it might have been with the idea of quitting the country for good.
Naturally this aroused a little curiosity in the other's mind, though he was not addicted to this failing overly much.
What could there be in the depths of the wilderness to bring about this aversion on the part of young Dugdale?
If Cuthbert had allowed himself to ruminate upon this subject all sorts of suspicions might have been aroused; but he was by nature too frank and generous to judge a stranger before he had been given a chance to explain; and the more he looked in the face of the lad, and noted the calm depths of his gray eyes the stronger grew his conviction that Owen Dugdale, as he called himself, could not descend to anything wrong.
Some persons carry their character in their faces, and he was of the number. So Cuthbert made up his mind to chase all suspicion from his mind; if in his own time the Canadian chose to confide in him, well and good; until then he would forget what he had seen of first anxiety and then grim determination, stamped upon that young face.
Both of the would-be explorers were cast in somewhat of a merry mould, and it was impossible to be in their company long without partaking of their happy-go-lucky spirit.
To the sober Owen this was about as fine a thing as could ever have happened, for he found it utterly out of the question to ponder gloomily upon the bitter past while these two chaps were whipping jokes back and forth, and insidiously drawing him into the conversation, until greatly to his astonishment he even burst out into a hearty peal of laughter, the first expression of merriment that had sprung from his heart for many a day.
Perhaps a benign Providence had taken pity upon him, and was now bent on sending sunshine where hitherto there had been little save clouds and storm.
The more he saw of these cousins from over the line the better he liked them.
It was a favorite joke of Cuthbert's to compare himself with that wonderfully humorous character of Spanish literature, who took himself so solemnly even while he furnished merriment for everybody—Don Quixote, the Knight of La Mancha—this wild expedition into the depths of the Northwestern Unknown Land was now, in the originator's mind, about as weird and ridiculous a proposition as any of the adventures of the crazy knight; and he never tired of cracking broad jokes upon the subject.
Of course, as was natural, honest Eli must pose for the faithful squire, Sancho Panza; and long since he had been told the whole story, so that he was now acquainted with most of the peculiarities of that worthy, and even at times managed to tickle his friend and employer by carrying out the idea in some manner.
Owen was not ignorant as to the facts, for it chanced that he had read the book, having found an old copy in his cabin home, the property of his mother; so that he was in a condition to enjoy the joke whenever there happened to be a reference made to the ancient couple.
The storm had long since passed away down the river, growling in the distance for quite a time; but gradually the stars came peeping out in the broad blue dome overhead, and while the woods dripped with the moisture the prospect for a good day on the morrow seemed propitious.
There was room in the tent for three, with a little good-natured crowding; and while Owen protested against intruding he was turned down instantly, and compelled to take his place.
Never in all his life had he been drawn to any one as he was toward these two big-hearted fellows from across the border; and when he lay down finally, after busying himself for half an hour about the fire, he felt like a new boy; such is the confidence generated in the human heart by comradeship.
Owen had intentionally chosen a position near the exit of the tent, for, seeing that he had spent his life under similar conditions, and it was second nature with him to attend to a fire during the night, he would not hear of either of his new friends attempting it.
In spite of his getting up several times between that hour and the breaking of dawn Owen slept sounder than he had done for many a day; he seemed to feel a new confidence in himself, as if matters had taken a turn for the better, and in this accidental meeting with his benefactors his fortunes had begun to assume a less gloomy aspect.
Once, as he was about snuggling down under the extra blanket which had been assigned to him he rested his head upon his hand, his elbow being on the ground, and surveyed the two sleeping lads, for the firelight crept through the opening of the tent, and revealed the interior.
It was difficult for him to believe that he had only known these good fellows a comparatively few hours; so strong a hold had they taken upon his heart that it seemed as though he must have met them in his dreams, for they appeared to be occupying a space in his affections that was theirs by right.
So the morning found them.
When Cuthbert awoke he discovered that the new addition to the exploring party was already busily employed in getting things ready for breakfast; whereupon there arose a friendly argument as to whose duty it was to hustle things for the morning meal.
This was finally settled by arranging matters so that the three of them could take turns about in the daily duties; and Owen chose to begin then.
The others were not adverse to letting him have a whack at the culinary department, for they had been going together for a long time now, and both had about exhausted their repertoire in the line of cookery, so that a change would really be a delightful diversion; for almost every camper has his favorite dishes upon which he prides himself, and when two such come together there is always more or less of a friendly rivalry to see which can outdo the other.
By degrees such a party comes to recognize the particularly strong points of each member, so that in the end they make a fine team, every one being a star in his favorite line.
Breakfast was eaten with more or less good natured chaff, such as boys will always indulge in, and older campers as well; for when in the woods it seems as if being brought close back to Nature makes children of us all, showing that it is only the care and worry of a strenuous battle for wealth or power that forces men to appear aged and serious.
After that came a portage, for the canoes and all the camp duffle had to be transported above the rapids.
Eli now seemed to notice for the first time that their new friend had virtually nothing but his boat and paddle, and loudly he bewailed the wretched misfortune that had caused everything to be swallowed up in the hungry maw of the swift rapids.
At this Owen smiled in a curious manner, and openly confessed that the only damage he had sustained besides getting wet, was the loss of his jacket; and he surely had little regret for that missing garment since Cuthbert had so kindly clothed him with a spare one of his own.
Eli may not have been as able to grasp the true significance of this frank declaration as his comrade; but even he realized that the subject must be a sore one with Owen, and that it was not wise to ask questions or seem curious, so he immediately turned to other matters.
Really, he could not be blamed for this wonder, since it was indeed a strange thing to meet with a wanderer in this vast territory so far from the outposts of civilization entirely destitute of the commonest necessities for comfort or the procuring of food—no blanket, cooking utensils, food, and even a gun missing—well, there surely lay back of this a story of unusual interest; and for one Eli hoped their new friend would soon take them into his confidence, at least so far that they might be able to help him.
After some hard work all the stuff was carried to a point above the rapids, where they could readily launch their craft without being carried down into the hungry maw of the swirling flood.
The river had risen somewhat after the rainstorm of the previous night, and evidently there would be no lack of water above; this is always a welcome fact to those who navigate toward the headwaters of rivers, since it is no sport to track canoes over almost dry beds of streams, making "shoes" for the boats in order to prevent their being torn by sharp rocks during the passage.
Owing to the current, which was particularly swift in the region of the rapids, they had to bend to the paddle with considerable vim when the start was eventually made; but the cruisers were young, and their muscles well seasoned by more or less hard work, so that they gradually drew away from the vicinity of Owen's mad voyage among the rocks and sucking whirls of the drop in the river; and the further they went the easier the paddling became.
The morning was cool and invigorating after the storm, so that it was not to be wondered at that our young friends felt joyous, and presently Eli broke out in a lumberman's "chanty" that he had picked up while in camp—Cuthbert joined in the chorus, and unable to withstand the seductive strains, Owen found himself also lifting his voice and adding volume to the merry sound.
THE THREE SMOKE SIGNALS.
Cuthbert was delighted when he heard the Canadian lad's voice, for he realized that it was one of rare sweetness as well as power; and being fond of singing, and knowing scores of college songs, he promised himself he would in good time teach them to Owen, for their voices would blend admirably, while Eli's had a certain harshness about it that rather swamped his own baritone.
And he was also aware that the voyageurs of the Canadian wilds have numerous French boating songs of their own, that are wonderfully adapted to the rhythm and swing of the paddle; possibly Owen would know some such, and might be induced to sing them on occasion, all of which would add to the delight of their advance over the waters, onward into further depths of the wilderness where mystery brooded and the unknown abounded, for them, at least.
They had managed to make a few miles, but the current was mighty difficult to buck up against, and when finally Cuthbert suggested that they take advantage of an alluring point where the trees hung over the water and the situation seemed especially adapted for a campfire, Eli greeted the proposal with a grunt of unaffected delight, while even the well seasoned Owen felt that something to eat would not come in amiss.
To most of us the time to eat is ever a welcome one, especially when we know there are good things in the larder; and with boys this thing of appetite is an ever present reality, and the point of sufficiency seldom reached.
Soon a cheery fire had been started, and Owen persisted in taking charge of the preparations for lunch, giving them a species of flapjack that neither had ever seen before, and which they pronounced fine.
Owen's eyes alone told that he appreciated their praise, for he uttered no word to betray the fact. He was a singularly quiet lad, and Cuthbert, who made it something of a fad to study human nature wherever he found it, felt certain that his past life had been mixed up with considerable of sorrow.
All that morning they had not met a solitary human being upon the river, and when Eli commented upon this, their new comrade assured them that it was no unusual thing to go for several days thus, especially at this time of year, when the Indians and halfbreeds who trapped for the fur company were hunting back in the forests, laying in venison to be "jerked" or dried for consumption during the winter months, when attending to their traps far up the small branches of the Saskatchewan, or the Athabasca.
In the spring the posts of the Hudson Bay Company are busy places, with these various companies of voyageurs and trappers coming in with their loads, for which they are paid, partly in cash and the balance in store goods. It is then that the resident factor has to exercise his wisdom in handling so varied an assortment of characters, and keeping them from getting into fierce fights, since they are bound to get hold of more or less liquor, and the closing of a successful season, with a period of rest before them, is apt to make them hilarious.
Cuthbert asked many questions along this line, being sincerely desirous of obtaining information at first hands; but while Owen answered readily enough, and explained any point that seemed a bit hazy to his listeners, it might have been noted that he did not offer to launch out into a voluntary description of life as it was to be seen at one of these posts—Cuthbert even fancied that the subject was not wholly pleasing to the lad, and came to the conclusion that whatever of trouble Owen might have met with recently, it must have had some connection with one of these posts.
They were delayed for some time after eating, for Cuthbert was desirous of attending to some little thing that needed fixing about the canoe; and Owen, who had never set eyes on a cedar boat of this delicate character, willingly lent a hand to the accomplishment of the task, satisfied to just handle such a dainty wizard craft, which in his eyes, accustomed to canoes of birch, or even dugouts, and others made of animal skins, assumed the character of something almost too pretty to be touched.
They paddled for just about three hours that afternoon, and met one Indian in a birch bark canoe, shooting downstream.
Both Cuthbert and Eli greeted him heartily; but they noticed that he looked at their new companion in something of a strange manner, though not saying a word to Owen, who seemed to pay no attention to the copper-skinned voyager.
If the scowl upon the face of the lone paddler was any indication of his feelings, there could not possibly be any love lost between them; and noticing that one of the fellow's eyes seemed swollen, the idea thrust itself into Cuthbert's mind, ridiculous as it might seem, that possibly Owen might have had something to do with that catastrophe.
Cuthbert had kept his eyes on the alert for a good spot where they could pass the next night, and it lacked half an hour to sunset when he gave utterance to a shout, and pointed with his paddle at the shore ahead.
"There's the very place, boys, and it's no use going any further. Just an ideal spot to pitch the tent, and the background will make a dandy picture when I get my camera in focus on it in the morning, for the sun must rise, let's see, over across the river, and shine right on the front of the tent. I've been baffled so often in trying for that same effect that I don't mean to miss this opportunity if I can help it. So here's looking at you, and we'll head in, if you please."
Owen opened his mouth as if tempted to say something, but caught himself in time, and silently acquiesced, sending his boat shoreward with vigorous dips of the paddle that told how little his energy had been exhausted by the day's work.
It was a fine spot, too, and Eli was loud in his delight; though, knowing his capacity for stowing away food from long experience, Cuthbert was secretly of the opinion that much of his enthusiasm sprang from the fact that a halt just then brought dinner closer, rather than an artistic appreciation of the surroundings.
That had always been the "fly in the ointment" with those two strangely assorted companions—one of them was of a romantic disposition, and inclined to seeing the elements in a glorious sunset that appealed to his soul, while with Eli, it only meant that the following day would, in all likelihood, be a fine one.
And that was one of the reasons why Cuthbert welcomed the coming of Owen, for somehow he fancied that the young Canadian might be built along his own lines, and able to sympathize with him as the good-hearted but crude Eli never could, since it was not in his nature to go beyond the substantial and matter-of-fact.
Nevertheless, he was a "bully good fellow," as Cuthbert was wont to declare, and in time of stress and difficulty could be depended on to the utmost, being honest, willing and obliging, three necessary elements in a camping comrade that go far to make amends for any little shortage in artistic temperament.
The whole three of the cruisers were soon busily engaged, for there is always plenty for all hands to do when pitching camp, what with the raising of the tent, the making of a fireplace upon which coffee pot and frying pan will rest cozily, the digging of a ditch on the higher ground back of the shelter, if there seems the slightest possible chance of rain before morning—well, every one who has been there knows how the opportunities for doing something open up to a willing campmate, so there is hardly any use in enumerating them here.
When darkness finally fell upon them all these things had been taken care of, and they were in fine fettle for the stay, whether it be of long or short duration, even to a pile of firewood close at hand.
Supper was next in order, but that was a pleasure in which all insisted in taking a share in preparing as well as demolishing; and it was wonderful how speedily things were managed with so many cooks eager to assist the chef.
During their afternoon trip upstream they had trolled with a couple of lines back of the boat, and fortune had smiled upon them sufficiently to provide them with fish for the evening meal, which Owen cooked in the manner most favored in this region, where trout may be looked on as a common, everyday article of food, and not in the line of luxury.
Of course, there is no necessity to tell how perfectly delicious that dinner turned out to be, for every one knows that fish are at their best when eaten in the very spot they are taken from their native element; and that being placed on the ice for hours or days takes their delicate flavor away, and renders the flesh soft and crumbly and next to tasteless.
And Owen confessed that the cup of Ceylon tea which he drank was the first he had tasted for a year; and he also gave his companions to understand that he had been brought up by a Scotch mother to look upon tea as nectar fit for the gods.
After the feast they lay back and took life easy, all of them being actually too surfeited to think of such a thing as cleaning up the pots and pans for the time being, that little task being left until later, when they would possess more energy and ambition.
Eli apparently had something on his mind, and as he filled his pipe, preparatory to enjoying his customary after-dinner smoke, he opened the subject by remarking:
"I say, boys, did either of you notice that line of smoke down the river, just at the time we were heading for the shore? I was going to call your attention to it, but something that was said about the spot for this camp drew my attention, and I clean forgot it till now."
"I didn't notice anything—in fact, I was so much taken up with looking for a jolly place to bunk tonight that I reckon I never once glanced back. How about you, Owen?" asked Cuthbert, turning to the new comrade.
He knew the other had seen the smoke even before Owen spoke, because something like a flash spread over his swarthy face, though his eyes looked straight at Cuthbert without a sign of flinching.
"Yes, I saw it—in fact, I had turned my head a dozen times in the last half-hour, expecting something of the sort," he remarked, composedly.
"It wasn't a forest fire—not near dense enough for that; and yet it looked queer for a campfire—as near as I could make out there were several of 'em, all in a row, and climbing straight up like columns," declared Eli, wagging his head mysteriously.
"Just three," added Owen, gloomily, and yet with a gritting of his teeth that excited Cuthbert's curiosity more than a little.
"Three smokes in a row—I declare, that sounds like a signal; the Indians down in Florida always communicate in that way, and have a regular code, so that they can send long messages across the swamps and pine forests," he remarked.
"That's just what it was, a smoke signal; and the Cree Indian we met on the river sent it to others of his race upstream," observed the young Canadian.
Cuthbert immediately remembered that he had seen the lone paddler turn a look that was a mingling of surprise and displeasure upon Owen when the canoes passed in midstream, and his former thought that these two had met before, and that the husky lad might even have had to do with the mournful black eye of the aborigine, came back with added force just now; still, he was not the one to ask questions, and unless the other chose to take his new friends fully into his confidence, whatever the mystery that lay in his past must always remain so.
"Yes," went on Owen, bitterly, "it was meant to give notice to one who is interested in my movements that I had apparently changed my mind, and did not intend to leave the neighborhood as speedily as had been expected—that's all."
THE FALSE CHART OF DUBOIS.
No more was said just then; but naturally enough both Cuthbert and Eli could not get the matter out of their minds. The duties of the hour had occupied their attention upon first landing—the pitching of the waterproof tent, gathering of fuel, and kindred occupations incident to getting things ready for the coming night, so that now they could take things easy.
Cuthbert had some sort of rude map of the region, which he had purchased from an old French-Canadian voyageur during earlier stages of his trip; he did not know how reliable it might prove to be, though thus far the young explorers had not found it amiss to any very great extent.
When he found a chance he meant to drag this document out from its place of hiding among the various charts of the Hudson Bay country which he carried along, and get Owen's opinion as to its trustworthy character.
This would give him an opportunity to renew his acquaintance with the lay of the land above, and in some way it might cause their strange new friend to open his heart, and take them more fully into his confidence with relation to his previous connections here.
Cuthbert was pretty positive that there was some sort of a Hudson Bay trading post on this same stream, situated in an isolated quarter—most of them went under the name of a fort, and indeed, they were built to resist any attack that might be made upon them by Indians or disorderly half breeds; for there were at times vast quantities of valuable plunder held in these posts, in the shape of rare peltries, and the many things the trappers took in part payment for their winter's catch, so that a clean-out of a distant post would mean a serious loss to the great company that for scores of years had carried on this business of gathering the precious skins of silver foxes, lynx, badger, mink, otter, fisher, marten, opossum, beaver, bear, wolves and muskrats.
The meal was, as we have seen, soon prepared, and partaken of with that keen relish known only to those who live in the open.
As usual the boys had grouped themselves around the fire at the time the question of the smoke signals arose, each bent upon doing some individual task, that had been upon his mind; for it is the natural habit after dining heartily to desire to rest from strenuous exertion, and take up little matters that require possibly only the manipulation of the hands, or the action of the brain.
Eli seemed deeply interested in some specimens he had picked up close to their noon camp, and which held forth alluring promises of copper—it was the chief fad of his life to run across a lode of the valuable metal in this far-North country; and make his everlasting fortune that way; for in secret the Michigan lad hugged certain plans for future worldwide travel to his heart, all of which, while extremely visionary at present, would be easily possible when his "ship came home," and that rich copper deposit cropped up before his eager eyes.
Few boys there be who fail to have a hobby of some sort—with some it is the pretty general craze for stamp collecting, others go in for coins, autographs, birds' eggs, specimens of birds, weapons of worldwide people, rabbits, pigeons—well, the list is almost inexhaustible, when you come to think of it.
Cuthbert's weakness, as has already been seen, lay in the line of travel and exploration, and the chances were that as he grew older he would develop into a bona fide Livingstone or a Stanley, eager to see faraway lands where the feet of a white man had probably never before wandered, and the mystery of which he might be the very first to unearth.
With Eli it was copper, morning, noon and night; he asked a thousand questions about the ore, where it had been found, what the character of the rocks peculiar to the region, and all such things, making copious notes the while, until as his comrade Cuthbert said, he should be about one of the best posted fellows in that line in the country—still, up to this day he had not met with such a measure of success as to turn his head; though Eli was a most determined chap, and bound to hold on after the manner of a bulldog, once he had taken a grip.
Perhaps Owen also had his particular hobby; but if so the others had as yet been granted little opportunity of realizing what it was.
Given time and it would no doubt develop itself.
Cuthbert had a good deal of patience, and prided himself on his waiting qualities, so that he made little effort to hasten matters.
As he had planned, however, while he sat by the glowing fire, which felt very good on this cool night, he drew out the bunch of charts, and began to absorb himself in the maze of lines and figures, anticipating that when Owen saw what he had before him he must evince more or less curiosity concerning the same, and offer to pass upon their genuine value.
The Canadian lad sat for some time staring into the fire, as though lost in self-communion; and Cuthbert could easily imagine that affairs connected with his life in this country were engrossing his attention.
Many a sly look did Cuthbert flash over that way, for somehow there seemed to be a wonderful fascination about Owen's personality that appealed strongly to him, though he found it utterly impossible to analyze this feeling, in order to make out whether it was pure sympathy toward one who had evidently rubbed up against the hard places of life while to him had been given the "snaps;" or on the other hand if it might be the realization that in this waif of the Unknown Land his soul had discovered the mate or chum for which he had looked so long and so far—perhaps it might be a commingling of the two.
Twice had Owen risen, and the other imagined he was about to come around to his side of the fire to glance over his shoulder at the charts; but both times young Dugdale had simply stepped to the pile of wood and, taking up an armful, tossed it upon the dying blaze.
Cuthbert was beginning to fancy he would have to make a move himself to draw the other's attention to what he was doing, so wrapped up did Owen seem in his own personal affairs; when suddenly he discovered that those wonderfully keen gray eyes of the rover were glued upon the papers he held upon his lap.
Then it was that Owen did come around to his side of the fire, and the disturbed look upon his face gave way to a bright smile as he remarked:
"I didn't notice what you had there, before. I was so bound up in my own affairs. I suppose those are maps of this country you have; perhaps I could be useful in telling you whether they are accurate or not, for I rather guess I've picked up considerable information during these years of wandering in the woods here. If you don't mind me looking at them—"
"Why, to tell the truth that's just what I was wishing you would do, old chap, but I hated to break in on your brown study. Here's a supposed-to-be reliable chart of this region, which I paid a man a good sum to get up for me; but already I've found it more or less crooked, and have begun to lose confidence in its accuracy. Perhaps you could show up the faults, and set me right, so that if the time ever comes when I have to depend on the thing I won't get astray; for truth to tell it would be no fun to find oneself lost on these upper reaches of the great Saskatchewan. Sit right down here, and squint your optic over this set of hen-tracks, made by the halfbreed, Dubois."
"Dubois, you say—why, I know the fellow well. He ought to be able to make a decent map of this country, for he's spent many years roaming over it, though I think he was more concerned about stealing some honest trapper's pelts than anything else. Why, see here, he's made an awful botch of this thing right around this quarter, where he certainly knows every foot of ground. I suspect that the greasy old rascal had some object in misleading you—I wouldn't put it past him to plan so that you might be lost up here, when he and some companions just as unscrupulous as himself, would come on the scene and demand a big sum to get you out of the scrape. I know of several things he has done as bad as that," remarked Owen, with indignation in his voice.
So he began to point out the false lines in the map, and at Cuthbert's suggestion he erased the pencil lines and made new ones as he went along, so that at the end of an hour that particular chart was entirely changed, presenting so new an aspect that the explorer was aroused to declare that the miserable deceiver, Dubois, would hear something not to his liking in case they ever met again.
"This Hudson Bay post which you have marked on the river above us—what is the name it is known by—he did not identify it except as a station?" asked Cuthbert, putting a finger on the cross.
"Fort Harmony," replied Owen, with a twitch about the corners of his mouth that seemed to be along the sarcastic order, as if deep down in his heart the lad thought the name might be a misnomer, according to his own experience.
"I suppose it is something of a store, being so far up in the wilderness; and is in charge of—a factor, I believe they call the boss?" pursued Cuthbert.
"Oh, yes. He is a grizzled old Scotchman, Alexander Gregory by name, who has been in the employ of the company most of his life, and is known as their most trusted agent. He is believed to be very rich; but though he is scrupulously honest and knows how to drive those under him to their best abilities, he is a harsh, cold-blooded man, seeking no companionship, making no warm friends, and apparently bent only on accumulating wealth and doing his full duty to the company he has served so long a time."
Cuthbert could easily read the strong tinge of bitterness in the other's voice while he was thus talking, and he knew that whatever Owen's troubles might be, they were connected in some way with this man of iron, who for years had ruled after the manner of a despot in this distant country along the upper branches of the Saskatchewan.
He was glad to know even so much about the man Gregory, whom he found himself beginning to dislike most cordially, even though he had never as yet set eye on his grim face, just because he believed the other had abused Owen in some way.
Owen seemed to remember himself just there, and would say no more along those lines, though quite willing to talk as long as his friend wished in connection with the country, and the best route for them to follow.
Another half-hour passed thus in communion, and Cuthbert picked up considerable information that was apt to prove of benefit to him in the future—just how valuable he did not then suspect.
Eli had some time back given up his studies of the specimens he had found, and joined in the general conversation; and his views were usually as shrewd as they seemed quaint, for he possessed many of the traits generally accredited to the Yankee from Down-East; and a natural keenness had been further sharpened by his constant rubbing up against all manner of men in the great logging camps of the Michigan peninsula.
It was getting near the time for them to fix the fire for the night, and seek the shelter of their blankets, when Owen, whose hearing was phenomenally keen, held up his hand, and remarked, with some show of excitement:
"Somebody coming this way through the woods—not from the direction of the post, but the other way. Perhaps it would be just as well to be prepared, for you never know who to trust up here until he proves himself to be a friend!"
Neither of the boys whom Owen addressed showed any particular signs of alarm at his rather startling words, though Cuthbert quietly reached out and drew his faithful ally, the little Marlin repeater, somewhat closer, as though he felt safer thus; and Eli looked up to where the shotgun, which was his especial charge, leaned against an adjacent tree, within easy reach.
Both of them had been around considerable, and could not be considered green in the ways of the woods; and it is habit as well as disposition that makes men cool in the face of peril.
Plainly now the footfalls could be heard, for evidently the party approaching did not want to arouse suspicion on the part of the campers, and be met by a hostile shot.
His figure loomed up presently in the semi-gloom beyond the range of the firelight, and Cuthbert, when he first saw the tall, bulky form of the pilgrim, was of the opinion that no word could do the newcomer better justice than just the expression "loomed," for he was pretty much of a giant.
He was roughly dressed for the work of the woods, and carried a rifle of necessity, for a man would be several sorts of a fool who wandered about these wild parts without that mainstay to back him up, and lacking which he must of necessity starve in the midst of plenty.
Cuthbert looked keenly at the fellow's face, being, as has been said before, something of a reader of character.
He instantly decided that he did not fancy the man—not that he was on the surface other than a rough woods rover, with a laugh like the roar of a bull alligator, and a heartiness that seemed genuine enough; but something about his eyes caused the explorer to believe him double-faced.
Eli could not see deep enough for that, and was ready to take the fellow for just what he appeared, a big, rough-and-ready woodsman, full of coarse jokes, perhaps, but honest withal, a diamond that had never been chipped.
"Wall, bless my soul if it ain't three boys in camp here! Who'd a suspected sich a thing, away up in this kentry, too. Lots o' pluck to come so fur, fellers; how's the huntin' now, and I hopes as how ye ain't settin' up in business as rivals ter me, ha! ha! In course I seen yer blaze jest a ways back, an' thinks I, what's the use in bunkin' alone ternight, Stackpole, yer old timber-cruiser, when thar's companionable chaps near by who won't object p'raps ter sharin' ther fire with ye? So I tolddled along a little further, an' here I be. Jest say as I'm welcome, an' let me enjoy the hospertality o' the occasion. Thunder! but the blaze is mighty fine tonight, fellers. Guess it won't be far from frost by mornin' the way it is now. Hello! that you, Owen—well, who'd a thought I'd run acrost ye here; ain't set eyes on ye this long spell."
Owen made no reply, but there was a little curl to his upper lip that Cuthbert noticed, and he knew that the young Canadian held no very good opinion of the giant timber-cruiser.
The name Stackpole was not entirely unknown to Cuthbert, since it had been mentioned by several people when speaking of the Far Northwest and those who were to be met with there—and if his recollections were correct he was of the impression that the same Stackpole had been held up as an example of a somewhat lawless character, who made a pretense of cruising about looking for valuable timber in places where the lumbermen, soon to come, could float the logs down a river to a market; but who was suspected of other practices of a less honest character.
At any rate Cuthbert scented trouble of some sort, and was greatly disgusted in that the other had discovered their camp, as he had declared, by accident, for as yet there was no reason to suspect he had any design in joining them.
He hardly knew what to do in the matter, for it would seem to be the height of foolishness to warn Stackpole off, and refuse him the little favor he asked, of spending the night by their fire, to enjoy their company—people who roam the woods have peculiar ideas of hospitality, and it is a serious infraction of the unwritten rules to deny a wanderer the privilege of the camp for a night.
Surely they could stand his unwelcome presence for that short time; and if they maintained their usual custom of standing watch-and-watch alike, there would seem to be little chance of his doing them an evil turn.
Accordingly Cuthbert allowed his face to appear pleasant, as though he might even be delighted to have this wandering timber spy with them for a space, to enliven things a bit.
"Sit down and make yourself quite at home. You're right, it is getting sharp and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see signs of frost, the first of the season, in the morning. We're up here knocking about a little, partly to hunt, but mostly because I've a penchant, that is, a weakness for exploring out-of-the-way places. Stackpole, did you say your name was?—well, mine's Cuthbert Reynolds, this is my friend, Eli Perkins, and, you seem to know Owen, so I won't try to introduce him. Have you had supper—if not there's something in the pot that wouldn't taste bad if warmed up a bit?"
That was the way Cuthbert spoke, for he was naturally genial and generous, ready to divide anything he had with one in distress; only in this case he felt that it was along the line of casting pearls before swine, for that ugly little gleam in the corner of Stackpole's shifty eye warned him against trusting the fellow too far.
"That sounds good, and I'm goin' ter take ye up on the proposition, young feller. I ain't had ary bite since noon, an' then 'twas a snack only. Coffee—why, I've plumb forgot how she tastes, fact, it's been so long since I had a cup. An' stew, my, that smells prime. Say, it was a mighty lucky streak that made me come along the river here, headin' fur the post. Thought I'd keep right along till I got thar, but 'twas tryin' business, an' I'd jest determined ter bunk down till mornin' when I ketched a glimpse o' this yer fire. Guess my old luck ain't petered out yit."
He was evidently something of a talker, and liked to hear the sound of his own voice; but Cuthbert was of the opinion that the presence of Owen had rather upset the big chap, and that some of this patter was intended to hide his confusion, and allow him to figure out his standing there.
The mystery surrounding Owen seemed to be growing deeper all the while, and the more these peculiar things came about the greater the desire on Cuthbert's part to help the Canadian lad by all means in his power.
He awaited his chance to see the other alone, so that he might ask a few pertinent questions concerning Stackpole.
This came in a little while, when, the coffee and stew having been warmed, the giant timber-cruiser was busily employed in disposing of the same.
Owen was down by the river's edge, apparently looking after the two boats, so they would be safe for the night—he never missed an opportunity to handle the wonderful cedar canoe, running his hands over its smooth sides, and admiring its beautiful lines, so that this was not a peculiar occupation for him.
Nevertheless, Cuthbert was rather inclined to believe that Owen wanted him to saunter over that way, in order that he might say something he could not well communicate in the presence of the unwelcome guest.
So he got up, busied himself with a few things for a minute or two, and then walked in the direction of the boats, conscious at the same time that Stackpole had his shrewd eyes fastened upon him; and he could imagine the sneer upon the boarded face of the woodsman, betraying how readily he saw through the little game.
"I imagine you know what sort of fellow he is, Owen. Now, I don't just fancy his looks, and even if you weren't here to tell me about him I'd keep an eye on Mr. Stackpole during his stay in camp," was what Cuthbert said in a low tone, as he sat down on the upturned cedar boat alongside his friend.
"Well, that's the whole thing in a nutshell—it's a wise thing to keep watch of that man when he's near anything valuable, for he's got a reputation for being light-fingered, and I know he's been accused of lots of mean things up in this country. Most men are afraid of him, for he can be an ugly customer in a scrap, and under that jolly laugh he has the temper of a devil. And to tell you the truth, he doesn't like me worth a cent. There's a story connected with it which I'll be glad to tell you at the first chance, that is if you care to hear anything concerning my wretched and unhappy past. I think we'd better act as if we didn't suspect anything, only let him see we are here. Perhaps he'll go away in the morning, but I don't believe that he's heading for the post, because there's been bad blood between him and the old factor for a long while; and I guess Mr. Gregory is the only man in all these parts Stackpole really has respect for."
All of this Owen muttered into the ear of his comrade, meanwhile keeping his eyes fastened upon the burly figure squatted in the camp beside the genial fire, and noting how often Stackpole's glance wandered suspiciously toward them, as if the fellow wondered what he, Owen, might be telling the young fellow, whom he had already decided, if he did not know it before, to be the ruling spirit of the expedition, and who evidently held the purse, a very important consideration in the mind of a man like the said Stackpole.
"Yes, when you get good and ready to tell me I'd consider it a privilege to know something more of your life here, old chap; and if anything I can do will be of benefit, you understand that you're as welcome to it as the sunlight after a week of rain," pursued Cuthbert; at which the other, overcome with emotion (for he had led a lonely life and never knew what it was to have the counsel of a genuine friend) and unable to express his feelings in words, simply allowed his hand to creep along the keel of the cedar canoe until it met that of the generous-hearted Cuthbert, when his fingers were intertwined with those of his new chum; nor were these latter loth to meet him half-way.
There was a whole world of words in that eloquent handgrip, for soul spoke to soul; and the communion of interests that had been slowly drawing them together ever since their strange meeting was cemented then and there.
They busied themselves around the boats for a short time, more to make it appear that they had really sought the spot with the intention of fixing things cozily for the night than because there was need of their labor; and during the minutes that elapsed Cuthbert managed to ask numerous questions about Stackpole, for when he learned from Owen that in times past this fellow and the halfbreed Dubois, from whom he had secured the unreliable chart, had been boon companions, a disturbing thought was born in his mind that possibly there might have been more of design than accident in the coming of the timber-cruiser on this night.
The peace and charm that had up to this period marked the stay of himself and honest Eli in the wilderness seemed in a fair way to be dissipated; and who could say what sort of storm and stress lay before them—for one thing, he was glad that Owen had crossed his path, nor did he mean that the other should ever go out of his life again—come what would, he was bound to look forward to a future shared in common by both, whether in American wilds or some far-distant country where wonderful things were awaiting discovery.
OWL AND TIMBER WOLF.
When the two friends returned to the fire Stackpole was taking his ease and smoking furiously, Eli having possibly supplied him with tobacco of a brand far beyond any to which he may have been accustomed in his wanderings.
Evidently, no matter what his suspicions may have been, the gaunt timber nomad was resolved to seem quite at his ease; indeed, his was a nature not easily disturbed by possible trouble—he found the vicinity of the fire comfortable, and did not mean to forsake it in a hurry unless there was urgent reason for decamping.
Eli, in his wild life among the lumberjacks, had met with too many characters just like Stackpole, not to size the fellow up for just what he must be; and while he carried on in a seemingly friendly way, he was watching the other, with the idea of guessing his business in this particular region; for he judged that Stackpole seldom made a move without some suspicious object back of it.
When a lad is thrown upon his own resources at a very early age he soon learns to analyze people and their motives in a manner equal to a Sherlock Holmes, and Eli had always delighted in trying to read the various types to be met with in the wilderness.
Cuthbert was uneasy.
The presence of this hulking rover took away from all the pleasure of the camp, and he was provoked to think they should be compelled to entertain one who was not only a stranger, but possessed of an unsavory reputation.
Still, he had been in the woods enough to be aware that there is an unwritten law governing hospitality around the campfire; and no matter how unpleasant the presence of this timber-cruiser might be to him, he did not wish to appear in the light of a boor.
They were three to one, and having been forewarned they could keep a jealous eye on the said unwelcome guest so long as he remained; but Cuthbert vowed to himself that with the break of day, and the morning meal over, their paths must lie in opposite directions.
Stackpole was no fool, and it did not take him long to discover that each of the three lads kept his gun within reach of his hand all the time; which fact announced as plain as words could have done that they entertained suspicions concerning him, and did not mean to be caught napping in case he tried to make trouble of any sort.
Now, while Stackpole was a fellow equal to two if not three of the boys, with regard to physical abilities, death and the possession of firearms levels all such distinctions, and a bit of lead would sting just as much from one of their guns as if it had come from the weapon of a six-footer; hence, he made up his mind to walk a straight line while among the possessors of all this hardware.
His avaricious eyes wandered frequently toward the splendid Marlin repeater owned by Cuthbert, and the fact was very evident that he envied him the possession of such a dandy gun, compared with which his battered Winchester looked like "six cents," as Eli remarked to himself when he correctly gauged the meaning of those sly glances.
"He'll steal if he can, the skunk," muttered the young logger, shaking his head in his pet peculiar manner, which he always did when angered or puzzled.
And then and there Eli determined that he would not allow himself a wink of sleep that whole night; and that if Stackpole attempted any "funny business" he would round him up with a sharp turn.
They talked of many things while sitting there around the campfire; and the man managed to make himself fairly agreeable; for he certainly was mighty well posted in everything connected with the country Cuthbert, in his enthusiastic simplicity had come so far to explore; and had he been built upon a different plan, Stackpole might have proven a valuable man to tote along—he had penetrated further in the direction of Hudson Bay and the Arctic shores beyond than any other man in the Northwest Territory, and proved this by describing many of the things encountered by a well known explorer with whose work Cuthbert was quite familiar, and whose sole companion Stackpole claimed to have been.
There is something more than mere knowledge to be desired in a companion on a long tramp, and this is reliance in his fidelity, cheerful disposition, and readiness to shoulder at least half of the labor—without these qualities in a campmate much of the pleasure is missing.
Finally the boys began to find themselves yawning, for the day's toil had been severe, with a strong current in the river to buck against, and they had been up since peep of day.
So they started to make preparations for sleeping.
The giant timber-cruiser watched them get their sleeping-bags ready, that is, Cuthbert and Eli, with more or less curiosity, for evidently he knew little or nothing about such Arctic necessities, even though he had accompanied an explorer for many hundred miles into the great unmapped region beyond Hudson Bay—at least he claimed to have done so.
Perhaps there was also a bit of envy in the looks he bent upon these evidences of comfort, for he could appreciate the value of such contrivances during a Northern winter, especially to a man whose business was apt to take him outdoors, regardless of the weather.
He had an apology for a blanket in his pack, and this he proceeded to spread upon the ground, selecting a spot close to the fire, where he could toast his feet while he slumbered, a favorite attitude with such nomads, as our young friends all knew.
Owen, of course, had his third of the tent, but it had been already arranged between the trio that all through the night one of them should stand guard, not because there appeared to be impending danger from without, but on account of the unwelcome guest they entertained at their fire.
Not one of them grumbled, being built in a manner to meet such emergencies cheerfully, and wrestle with difficulties in the same spirit as they would accept favors, a splendid combination in woods chums.
No doubt Stackpole noticed that Owen, having made his bed ready, showed no disposition to occupy the same; but if he understood just why, he at least made no comment, in which he displayed his good sense.
He turned in "all standing," simply lying down, rolling himself up in his faded blanket, and with his pack-bag for a pillow, losing himself to the world, so far as the boys could tell; though they noticed that he had pulled his slouch hat so far down over his face that it was utterly impossible to see whether his keen eyes were closed or watching every movement of his entertainers.
Inside the tent our friends found a chance to confer, and thus a plan of campaign for the night was laid down.
Then Cuthbert and Eli crawled into their sleeping-bags, for the night was inclined to be frosty, and there is a world of comfort in these modern contrivances, under such conditions; while Owen walked down to the canoes, and with an arm thrown caressingly across the keel of the precious cedar craft began his long and lonely vigil.
He thought nothing of such a little hardship, having been accustomed to the vicissitudes of the woods from childhood—to him the various sounds of the wilderness, after nightfall had come, were as familiar as the cackling of hens to a farmer's lad, and what was more to the point he read these signs so well that they one and all possessed a significance far beyond any surface indications.
But these forests of the Silent Land bear little comparison with the depths of a tropical jungle, or the dense growth of an African wilderness where a multitude of animals make the air vibrate with their roaring during the entire period of darkness.
Sometimes in the daytime not a sound can be heard save the moaning of the wind among the tops of the pines, or the gurgle of some meandering stream, all around being absolute silence, deep and profound.
At night it? is not quite so bad, for then the hooting of a vagrant owl, or it may be the distant howl of a prowling timber wolf, that gray skulker of the pine lands, is apt to break the monotony; but even in the midst of summer there is lacking the hum of insects and the bustle of woods life—at best one hears the weird call of the whip-poor-will, called by the Indians, the "wish-a-wish," or if near a marsh the croaking of gigantic bullfrogs.
Owen apparently had many things to engage his thoughts as he kept watch and ward over the camp of his new-found friends; and judging from his repeated sighs his self-communion was hardly of a cheerful character, for several times the boy gritted his teeth savagely, and clinched his fist as though rebelling against some decree of fate that had temporarily upset his calculations.
Once a name escaped his lips, and it was that of the old factor in charge of the Hudson Bay trading post further up the river; and almost in the same breath he murmured the word "mother," tenderly, as though his thoughts had flown backward to happy scenes so greatly in contrast with his present forlorn conditions.
Nevertheless, Owen did not forget why he was on guard, not for a minute.
He had so placed himself when leaning his back against that adored cedar boat that he could keep watch over the camp, and particularly that portion of it where Stackpole's elongated frame, rolled up like a mummy in his blanket, was to be seen.
So often did the eyes of the lad fall upon the recumbent timber-cruiser that the other could not have moved without attracting his notice.
Stackpole was apparently sleeping like a log, for ever and anon his stentorian breathing arose into something approaching a snore, that sounded tremulously, like a mysterious note from a harsh Eolian harp set in the wind.
Possibly, upon noting that Owen was to have the first watch the shrewd chap had made up his mind there would be nothing doing thus early in the night, his chances being better later on when the "greenhorn," as he erroneously denominated Cuthbert on account of his fine name and genteel appearance, had charge.
Thus time crept along, midnight came and went, with young Dugdale still holding the fort, as if he intended remaining there until dawn.
Once only did he detect a movement on the part of the suspicious party; and then Stackpole twisted about as though desirous of assuming a new position, and at the same time he raised his head and took a sweeping glance around, just as any woodsman might during the night, a habit born of eternal watchfulness; yet under the circumstances it was more or less suspicious to see how the fellow completed his hasty survey by a quick look in the direction of the boats, as if quite conscious of the fact that Owen was still there on guard.
He immediately dropped back, and presently was heard the same pulsating sound of asthmatic breathing, sometimes ending in a snort—if Stackpole was still awake and pretending sleep he knew how to imitate the real article right well, Owen thought, shaking his head dubiously.
If the Canadian lad thought to usurp the privilege of the others in extending his watch, he counted without his host, for Cuthbert came crawling out of the tent shortly after the time he had set.
THE CALL OF THE WILD.
First of all the explorer stopped by the fire and tossed several heavy bits of fuel upon the embers, doing this with the air of one who looked upon such an act as second nature.
Perhaps, if Stackpole were watching from under the shade of his hat brim, he might alter his opinion with regard to the novice act, and begin to understand that a fellow need not necessarily be raw to the ways of the woods because he possesses means, and chooses to supply himself with certain comforts that are apt to come in handy—the best of moccasins, a modern quick-firing rifle that carries a small bullet calculated to spread in mushroom shape upon striking the quarry and do the work of a gun of much larger caliber, a sleeping-bag, a compact kerosene stove for the inevitable wet time in camp when the wood will not burn—a veteran is apt to turn up his nose at such innovations, and growl that the simple life suits him as it did his forebears; but, when the rainy spell arrives he is just as willing to cook upon the little stove he derided as the next one; and of a cold night, with the wind howling around like a fiend, give him an opportunity to snuggle down inside that cozy bag which had excited his contempt, and ten to one you will be hardly able to divorce him from it at dawn.
Cuthbert had tried both ways, and, like the sensible chap he was, decided that a man would be a fool to choose the old method with its lack of comfort when able to afford these modern luxuries.
He stalked over to the boats, trailing his gun along, as Owen saw with grim pleasure, for it told him Cuthbert had not changed his mind with regard to the character of their guest, and would undoubtedly keep a close eye on Stackpole while his watch lasted.
The other dropped down beside him, with a few words of greeting.
Owen thought he detected a slight movement of the recumbent form, and believed Stackpole must be awake—he made no effort to sit up and look around, which in itself was somewhat suspicious, for a veteran of his caliber must have so educated his faculties that not a movement, however slight, could take place in a camp where he was sleeping without his knowing it.
The boys sat there and conversed in low tones for quite a long spell; indeed, Cuthbert had to almost drive Owen to the tent, so contented did the Canadian lad seem to be in his company—lonely enough had his life been since the loss of those he held dear, and there was something infinitely precious to him in the cheery radiance of this optimistic Yankee who had crossed his path at a period when he desperately needed a friend.
Cuthbert settled himself down for a good siege when finally he had seen the other crawl into the tent, for he was not to arouse Eli, who slept like a log, until it was after three by his little silver watch.
He had made up his mind that if this pilgrim to whom they had given shelter and food as become generous campers, showed any disposition to pilfer he would treat him in a summary manner, and chase him into the woods, just as any rascal should be made to decamp; and the fact of Stackpole's gigantic figure made not a particle of difference in his calculations.
Whatever the fellow may have planned to attempt during the silent watches of the night, his nerve evidently failed him, for he did not venture to make the least move; possibly the combination of these three determined-looking lads awed him more than he could care to admit, or it might be he had other schemes up his sleeve whereby the same end could be accomplished without taking so much risk—at any rate Cuthbert sat his watch out, and after fixing the fire again, aroused Eli, who in turn sauntered over to the boats, carrying his patron's cherished gun, which he as dearly loved to fondle as a girl might a kitten.
And if Stackpole saw this, as he evidently must under the shelter of that hat brim, he knew it would be a signal for trouble with a big T if he tried any queer business with these wideawake lads.
Cuthbert was almost positive he heard him give a disgusted grunt as he settled back for another snooze, and they heard nothing farther from him until morning, when he arose, yawning and stretching his huge bulk, as though he had been dead to the world from the moment he lay down.
They treated him decently and gave him an abundance of breakfast, which the big timber-cruiser gulped down with the eagerness of a hungry wolf; for it had been a long day since he tasted such delicious bacon and coffee with flap-jacks to "beat the band," as Eli said, made by Owen, who had proved to be superior as a cook to either of his new friends, the gift being a legacy from his mother, he confessed.
Nevertheless, there was an air of restraint about their associations with the woodsman, which he could not but feel, and therefore he made up his bundle soon after, saying he must be on his way, and while they were engaged in stowing the tent he took his departure, grunting some sort of thanks for the many favors he had received at their hands.
If what Owen told them of the fellow's nature was actually so, this generosity on the part of the young explorer would not count for a row of pins when occasion arose whereby the temptation came to Stackpole to appropriate some of the expensive outfit his envious eyes had gloated over during his stay with them.
Our friends did not hasten their departure, for they wished to let him have a long lead; for he had left the camp going in a direction that, if persisted in, would land him at Fort Harmony in due time.
Owen had not changed his mind since the preceding night, when he asserted so positively that it was his opinion, judging from what he knew of the relations existing between this rover of the mighty woods and the chief factor of the region, Stackpole would hardly turn up at the post, since there had long been bad blood between these men, and the cruiser was too shrewd to put himself in the power of so strenuous an enemy as the grim old Scotch trading master, who ruled affairs in this stretch of country as though he were king.
"I think he only started in that direction to blind us; and that after going a mile or less he will break off the trail and head where he was aiming for last night when he saw our fire, and thought there might be something worth picking up here, or else keep watch of our movements," said Owen, as he pulled the cords tight around the bag that held the waterproof tent, while the others were doing the same duty for the smaller bags in which food and extra clothes had been thrust.
Cuthbert chuckled as though greatly tickled.
"Well, if that was his hope, I'm afraid he was bitterly disappointed in his calculations, that's all. We kept him under cover, all right, and perhaps he's mentally kicking himself now over having wasted so many hours peeping out from under that hat brim when he might just as well have been snoozing."
Eli professed to be greatly disappointed, for he remarked dejectedly:
"Thought I might get a chance to try your gun, and I had just made up my mind like which leg I'd pepper if he tried to sneak anything away. Well, p'raps we may run across the critter again, and I'll just keep it in mind that it was the left leg I chose—he's got somewhat of a limp in the right one now, and you see that'd sort of even things up. I don't like to see a lopsided feller nowadays."
"Yes, I believe you're something of a philanthropist, Eli, always looking out to do somebody good, even if you have to force it into them with a hypodermic syringe or a shotgun. For my part, I don't care if we never set eyes on old Stack again, for I fancy the fellow mighty little. There is something about his eyes that goes against my grain, a shifty look that you see in a wolf. He's welcome to all he stowed away, but I hope he doesn't fancy he has a standing invitation to drop in frequently to supper."
While the other two boys were finishing the packing of their stores Owen had wandered up the bed of a creek that joined the river at a point just above the site of their late camp.
He had evidently noted something that aroused his interest, for the others noticed him peering closely at the banks and examining a number of things.
"Now what in the world do you imagine he sees?" asked Eli, who was possessed of a good lively streak of curiosity in his composition, and could not observe these things without commenting on the same.
"I was wondering somewhat along that vein, myself, and had come to the conclusion that Owen's trapping instinct has been aroused by certain signs of the furry game for which every man in this region is always on the alert. Nothing else I can think of would interest him so," returned Cuthbert.
"Well, here he comes back again, and from the smile on his face I imagine he wants us to take a look, too."
"I'd just like to, for I've heard so much about the fur business since striking this wild country that it seems a shame not to be better posted. I know a lynx from a common everyday bobcat, and can tell an otter when I see it; but there are a thousand or two little things connected with the trade of a trapper that are just so much Greek to me. You notice I've been pumping him every chance I got, and perhaps he sees an opening to make a demonstration. We're in no big hurry today, and I'd be only too willing to hold over a bit if I could add to my pump of practical knowledge."
"Me, too," echoed Eli, who, although a woods dweller all his life, had never made a practice of taking furs; and unless one goes into this business at first hand the result is always disappointing.
One week with an everyday trapper along the lines of his traps will do more toward giving a novice a fair insight into the strange business of outwitting the cunning bearers of fur coats than all the guides ever written.
For once Cuthbert had made a bullseye guess.
When Owen reached them he was holding some little object up for observation.
"Do you know what that is, boys?" he asked.
Both of them took a good look.
"Looks like a bunny's paw," said Eli, dubiously.
At this Cuthbert laughed.
"Down in my section of Old Virginny the coons like to get rabbit's foot for a charm; it is said to keep the evil spirits away, especially if taken from a graveyard rabbit. Can it be possible there are fellows up in this benighted region of the same mind? But that is not a rabbit's foot, I think, Owen," he said.
"What then?" asked the Canadian.
"I don't know for certain, but if I made a guess I should say mink."
"Good enough for a hap-hazard guess. Mink it is, and the little animal just gnawed it off himself, last night, for you can see it is quite fresh."
"Gnawed it off himself, did you say? What in the world would he be fool enough to do that for?" demanded Cuthbert looking closely to see whether the other gave any signs of joking, but failing to find any.
"Well, for one thing, he could not find anybody to do it for him."
"Oh! and was it so very important that Mr. Mink should drop one of his little footsie-tootsies in that way? Is it the habit up here for these animals to go around cm three legs?"