A. C. LAUT
TORONTO WILLIAM BRIGGS
Entered according to Act of the Parliament of Canada, in the year one thousand nine hundred, by WILLIAM BRIGGS, at the Department of Agriculture.
Pioneers and their Descendants
HEROISM WON THE LAND,
IS RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED.
The author desires to express thanks to pioneers and fur traders of the West for information, details and anecdotes bearing on the old life, which are herein embodied; and would also acknowledge the assistance of the history of the North-West Company and manuscripts of the Bourgeois, compiled by Senator L. R. Masson; and the value of such early works as those of Dr. George Bryce, Gunn, Hargraves, Ross and others.
THE TRAPPER'S DEFIANCE.
"The adventurous spirits, who haunted the forest and plain, grew fond of their wild life and affected a great contempt for civilization."
You boxed-up, mewed-up artificials, Pent in your piles of mortar and stone, Hugging your finely spun judicials, Adorning externals, externals alone, Vaunting in prideful ostentation Of the Juggernaut car, called Civilization— What know ye of freedom and life and God?
Monkeys, that follow a showman's string, Know more of freedom and less of care, Cage birds, that flutter from perch to ring, Have less of worry and surer fare. Cursing the burdens, yourselves have bound, In a maze of wants, running round and round— Are ye free men, or manniken slaves?
Costly patches, adorning your walls, Are all of earth's beauty ye care to know; But ye strut about in soul-stifled halls To play moth-life by a candle-glow— What soul has space for upward fling, What manhood room for shoulder-swing, Coffined and cramped from the vasts of God?
The Spirit of Life, O atrophied soul, In trappings of ease is not confined; That touch from Infinite Will 'neath the Whole In Nature's temple, not man's, is shrined! From hovel-shed come out and be strong! Be ye free! Be redeemed from the wrong, Of soul-guilt, I charge you as sons of God!
I, Rufus Gillespie, trader and clerk for the North-West Company, which ruled over an empire broader than Europe in the beginning of this century, and with Indian allies and its own riotous Bois-Brules, carried war into the very heart of the vast territory claimed by its rivals, the Honorable Hudson's Bay Company, have briefly related a few stirring events of those boisterous days. Should the account here set down be questioned, I appeal for confirmation to that missionary among northern tribes, the famous priest, who is the son of the ill-fated girl stolen by the wandering Iroquois. Lord Selkirk's narration of lawless conflict with the Nor'-Westers and the verbal testimony of Red River settlers, who are still living, will also substantiate what I have stated; though allowance must be made for the violent partisan leaning of witnesses, and from that, I—as a Nor'-Wester—do not claim to be free.
On the charges and counter-charges of cruelty bandied between white men and red, I have nothing to say. Remembering how white soldiers from eastern cities took the skin of a native chief for a trophy of victory, and recalling the fiendish glee of Mandanes over a victim, I can only conclude that neither race may blamelessly point the finger of reproach at the other.
Any variations in detail from actual occurrences as seen by my own eyes are solely for the purpose of screening living descendants of those whose lives are here portrayed from prying curiosity; but, in truth, many experiences during the thrilling days of the fur companies were far too harrowing for recital. I would fain have tempered some of the incidents herein related to suit the sentiments of a milk-and-water age; but that could be done only at the cost of truth.
There is no French strain in my blood, so I have not that passionate devotion to the wild daring of l'ancien regime, in which many of my rugged companions under Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest gloried; but he would be very sluggish, indeed, who could not look back with some degree of enthusiasm to the days of gentlemen adventurers in no-man's-land, in a word, to the workings of the great fur trading companies. Theirs were the trappers and runners, the Coureurs des Bois and Bois-Brules, who traversed the immense solitudes of the pathless west; theirs, the brigades of gay voyageurs chanting hilarious refrains in unison with the rhythmic sweep of paddle blades and following unknown streams until they had explored from St. Lawrence to MacKenzie River; and theirs, the merry lads of the north, blazing a track through the wilderness and leaving from Atlantic to Pacific lonely stockaded fur posts—footprints for the pioneers' guidance. The whitewashed palisades of many little settlements on the rivers and lakes of the far north are poor relics of the fur companies' ancient grandeur. That broad domain stretching from Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean, reclaimed from savagery for civilization, is the best monument to the unheralded forerunners of empire.
WINNIPEG—ONE TIME FORT GARRY FORMERLY RED RIVER SETTLEMENT, 19th June, 18—
Transcriber's note: Minor typos have been corrected.
PAGE CHAPTER I. WHEREIN A LAD SEES MAKERS OF HISTORY 9
CHAPTER II. A STRONG MAN IS BOWED 23
CHAPTER III. NOVICE AND EXPERT 38
CHAPTER IV. LAUNCHED INTO THE UNKNOWN 55
CHAPTER V. CIVILIZATION'S VENEER RUBS OFF 70
CHAPTER VI. A GIRDLE OF AGATES RECALLED 92
CHAPTER VII. THE LORDS OF THE NORTH IN COUNCIL 99
CHAPTER VIII. THE LITTLE STATUE ANIMATE 118
CHAPTER IX. DECORATING A BIT OF STATUARY 131
CHAPTER X. MORE STUDIES IN STATUARY 144
CHAPTER XI. A SHUFFLING OF ALLEGIANCE 163
CHAPTER XII. HOW A YOUTH BECAME A KING 181
CHAPTER XIII. THE BUFFALO HUNT 200
CHAPTER XIV. IN SLIPPERY PLACES 220
CHAPTER XV. THE GOOD WHITE FATHER 234
CHAPTER XVI. LE GRAND DIABLE SENDS BACK OUR MESSENGER 246
CHAPTER XVII. THE PRICE OF BLOOD 253
CHAPTER XVIII. LAPLANTE AND I RENEW ACQUAINTANCE 266
CHAPTER XIX. WHEREIN LOUIS INTRIGUES 281
CHAPTER XX. PLOTS AND COUNTER-PLOTS 297
CHAPTER XXI. LOUIS PAYS ME BACK 313
CHAPTER XXII. A DAY OF RECKONING 327
CHAPTER XXIII. THE IROQUOIS PLAYS HIS LAST CARD 341
CHAPTER XXIV. FORT DOUGLAS CHANGES MASTERS 350
CHAPTER XXV. HIS LORDSHIP TO THE RESCUE 368
CHAPTER XXVI. FATHER HOLLAND AND I IN THE TOILS 378
CHAPTER XXVII. UNDER ONE ROOF 389
CHAPTER XXVIII. THE LAST OF LOUIS' ADVENTURES 409
CHAPTER XXIX. THE PRIEST JOURNEYS TO A FAR COUNTRY 433
LORDS OF THE NORTH
WHEREIN A LAD SEES MAKERS OF HISTORY
"Has any one seen Eric Hamilton?" I asked.
For an hour, or more, I had been lounging about the sitting-room of a club in Quebec City, waiting for my friend, who had promised to join me at dinner that night. I threw aside a news-sheet, which I had exhausted down to minutest advertisements, stretched myself and strolled across to a group of old fur-traders, retired partners of the North-West Company, who were engaged in heated discussion with some officers from the Citadel.
"Has any one seen Eric Hamilton?" I repeated, indifferent to the merits of their dispute.
"That's the tenth time you've asked that question," said my Uncle Jack MacKenzie, looking up sharply, "the tenth time, Sir, by actual count," and he puckered his brows at the interruption, just as he used to when I was a little lad on his knee and chanced to break into one of his hunting stories with a question at the wrong place.
"Hang it," drawled Colonel Adderly, a squatty man with an over-fed look on his bulging, red cheeks, "hang it, you don't expect Hamilton? The baby must be teething," and he added more chaff at the expense of my friend, who had been the subject of good-natured banter among club members for devotion to his first-born.
I saw Adderly's object was more to get away from the traders' arguments than to answer me; and I returned the insolent challenge of his unconcealed yawn in the faces of the elder men by drawing a chair up to the company of McTavishes and Frobishers and McGillivrays and MacKenzies and other retired veterans of the north country.
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen," said I, "what were you saying to Colonel Adderly?"
"Talk of your military conquests, Sir," my uncle continued, "Why, Sir, our men have transformed a wilderness into an empire. They have blazed a path from Labrador on the Atlantic to that rock on the Pacific, where my esteemed kinsman, Sir Alexander MacKenzie, left his inscription of discovery. Mark my words, Sir, the day will come when the names of David Thompson and Simon Fraser and Sir Alexander MacKenzie will rank higher in English annals than Braddock's and——"
"Egad!" laughed the officer, amused at my uncle, who had been a leading spirit in the North-West Company and whose enthusiasm knew no bounds, "Egad! You gentlemen adventurers wouldn't need to have accomplished much to eclipse Braddock." And he paused with a questioning supercilious smile. "Sir Alexander was a first cousin of yours, was he not?"
My uncle flushed hotly. That slighting reference to gentlemen adventurers, with just a perceptible emphasis of the adventurers, was not to his taste.
"Pardon me, Sir," said he stiffly, "you forget that by the terms of their charter, the Ancient and Honorable Hudson's Bay Company have the privilege of being known as gentlemen adventurers. And by the Lord, Sir, 'tis a gentleman adventurer and nothing else, that stock-jobbing scoundrel of a Selkirk has proved himself! And he, sir, was neither Nor'-Wester, nor Canadian, but an Englishman, like the commander of the Citadel." My uncle puffed out these last words in the nature of a defiance to the English officer, whose cheeks took on a deeper purplish shade; but he returned the charge good-humoredly enough.
"Nonsense, MacKenzie, my good friend," laughed he patronizingly, "if the Right Honorable, the Earl of Selkirk, were such an adventurer, why the deuce did the Beaver Club down at Montreal receive him with open mouths and open arms and——"
"And open hearts, Sir, you may say," interrupted my Uncle MacKenzie. "And I'd thank you not to 'good-friend' me," he added tartly.
Now, the Beaver Club was an organization at Nor'-Westers renowned for its hospitality. Founded in 1785, originally composed of but nineteen members and afterwards extended only to men who had served in the Pays d'En Haut, it soon acquired a reputation for entertaining in regal style. Why the vertebrae of colonial gentlemen should sometimes lose the independent, upright rigidity of self-respect on contact with old world nobility, I know not. But instantly, Colonel Adderly's reference to Lord Selkirk and the Beaver Club called up the picture of a banquet in Montreal, when I was a lad of seven, or thereabouts. I had been tricked out in some Highland costume especially pleasing to the Earl—cap, kilts, dirk and all—and was taken by my Uncle Jack MacKenzie to the Beaver Club. Here, in a room, that glittered with lights, was a table steaming with things, which caught and held my boyish eyes; and all about were crowds of guests, gentlemen, who had been invited in the quaint language of the club, "To discuss the merits of bear, beaver and venison." The great Sir Alexander MacKenzie, with his title fresh from the king, and his feat of exploring the river now known by his name and pushing through the mountain fastnesses to the Pacific on all men's lips—was to my Uncle Jack's right. Simon Fraser and David Thompson and other famous explorers, who were heroes to my imagination, were there too. In these men and what they said of their wonderful voyages I was far more interested than in the young, keen-faced man with a tie, that came up in ruffles to his ears, and with an imperial decoration on his breast, which told me he was Lord Selkirk.
I remember when the huge salvers and platters were cleared away, I was placed on the table to execute the sword dance. I must have acquitted myself with some credit; for the gentlemen set up a prodigious clapping, though I recall nothing but a snapping of my fingers, a wave of my cap and a whirl of lights and faces around my dizzy head. Then my uncle took me between his knees, promising to let me sit up to the end if I were good, and more wine was passed.
"That's enough for you, you young cub," says my kinsman, promptly inverting the wine-glass before me.
"O Uncle MacKenzie," said I with a wry face, "do you measure your own wine so?"
Whereat, the noble Earl shouted, "Bravo! here's for you, Mr. MacKenzie."
And all the gentlemen set up a laugh and my uncle smiled and called to the butler, "Here, Johnson, toddy for one, glass of hot water, pure, for other."
But when Johnson brought back the glasses, I observed Uncle MacKenzie kept the toddy. "There, my boy, there's Adam's ale for you," said he, and into the glass of hot water he popped a peppermint lozenge.
"Fie!" laughed Sir Alexander to my uncle's right, "Fie to cheat the little man!"
"His is the best wine of the cellar," vowed His Lordship; and I drank my peppermint with as much gusto and self-importance as any man of them.
Then followed toasts, such a list of toasts as only men inured to tests of strength could take. Ironical toasts to the North-West Passage, whose myth Sir Alexander had dispelled; toasts to the discoverer of the MacKenzie River, which brought storms of applause that shook the house; toasts to "our distinguished guest," whose suave response disarmed all suspicion; toasts to the "Northern winterers," poor devils, who were serving the cause by undergoing a life-long term of Arctic exile; toasts to "the merry lads of the north," who only served in the ranks without attaining to the honor of partnership; toasts enough, in all conscience, to drown the memory of every man present. Thanks to my Uncle Jack MacKenzie, all my toasts were taken in peppermint, and the picture in my mind of that banquet is as clear to-day as it was when I sat at the table. What would I not give to be back at the Beaver Club, living it all over again and hearing Sir Alexander MacKenzie with his flashing hero-eyes and quick, passionate gestures, recounting that wonderful voyage of his with a sulky crew into a region of hostiles; telling of those long interminable winters of Arctic night, when the great explorer sounded the depths of utter despair in service for the company and knew not whether he faced madness or starvation; and thrilling the whole assembly with a description of his first glimpse of the Pacific! Perhaps it was what I heard that night—who can tell—that drew me to the wild life of after years. But I was too young, then, to recognize fully the greatness of those men. Indeed, my country was then and is yet too young; for if their greatness be recognized, it is forgotten and unhonored.
I think I must have fallen asleep on my uncle's knee; for I next remember sleepily looking about and noticing that many of the gentlemen had slid down in their chairs and with closed eyes were breathing heavily. Others had slipped to the floor and were sound asleep. This shocked me and I was at once wide awake. My uncle was sitting very erect and his arm around my waist had the tight grasp that usually preceded some sharp rebuke. I looked up and found his face grown suddenly so hard and stern, I was all affright lest my sleeping had offended him. His eyes were fastened on Lord Selkirk with a piercing, angry gaze. His Lordship was not nodding, not a bit of it. How brilliant he seemed to my childish fancy! He was leaning forward, questioning those Nor'-Westers, who had received him with open arms, and open hearts. And the wine had mounted to the head of the good Nor'-Westers and they were now also receiving the strange nobleman with open mouths, pouring out to him a full account of their profits, the extent of the vast, unknown game preserve, and how their methods so far surpassed those of the Hudson's Bay, their rival's stock had fallen in value from 250 to 50 per cent.
The more information they gave, the more His Lordship plied them with questions.
"I must say," whispered Uncle Jack to Sir Alexander MacKenzie, "if any Hudson's Bay man asked such pointed questions on North-West business, I'd give myself the pleasure of ejecting him from this room."
Then, I knew his anger was against Lord Selkirk and not against me for sleeping.
"Nonsense," retorted Sir Alexander, who had cut active connection with the Nor'-Westers some years before, "there's no ground for suspicion." But he seemed uneasy at the turn things had taken.
"Has your Lordship some colonization scheme that you ask such pointed questions?" demanded my uncle, addressing the Earl. The nobleman turned quickly to him and said something about the Highlanders and Prince Edward's Island, which I did not understand. The rest of that evening fades from my thoughts; for I was carried home in Mr. Jack MacKenzie's arms.
And all these things happened some ten or twelve years before that wordy sword-play between this same uncle of mine and the English colonel from the Citadel.
"We erred, Sir, through too great hospitality," my uncle was saying to the colonel. "How could we know that Selkirk would purchase controlling interest in Hudson's Bay stock? How could we know he'd secure a land grant in the very heart of our domain?"
"I don't object to his land, nor to his colonists, nor to his dower of ponies and muskets and bayonets to every mother's son of them," broke in another of the retired traders, "but I do object to his drilling those same colonists, to his importing a field battery and bringing out that little ram of a McDonell from the Army to egg the settlers on! It's bad enough to pillage our fort; but this proclamation to expel Nor'-Westers from what is claimed as Hudson's Bay Territory——"
"Just listen to this," cries my uncle pulling out a copy of the obnoxious proclamation and reading aloud an order for the expulsion of all rivals to the Hudson's Bay Company from the northern territory.
"Where can Hamilton be?" said I, losing interest in the traders' quarrel as soon as they went into details.
"Home with his wifie," half sneered the officer in a nagging way, that irritated me, though the remark was, doubtless, true. "Home with his wifie," he repeated in a sing-song, paying no attention to the elucidation of a subject he had raised. "Good old man, Hamilton, but since marriage, utterly gone to the bad!"
"To the what?" I queried, taking him up short. This officer, with the pudding cheeks and patronizing insolence, had a provoking trick of always keeping just inside the bounds of what one might resent. "To the what, did you say Hamilton had gone?"
"To the domestics," says he laughing, then to the others, as if he had listened to every word of the explanations, "and if His Little Excellency, Governor MacDonell, by the grace of Lord Selkirk, ruler over gentlemen adventurers in no-man's-land, expels the good Nor'-Westers from nowhere to somewhere else, what do the good Nor'-Westers intend doing to the Little Tyrant?"
"Charles the First him," responds a wag of the club.
"Where's your Cromwell?" laughs the colonel.
"Our Cromwell's a Cameron, temper of a Lucifer, oaths before action," answers the wag.
"Tuts!" exclaims Uncle Jack testily. "We'll settle His Lordship's little martinet of the plains. Warrant for his arrest! Fetch him out!"
"Warrant 43rd King George III. will do it," added one of the partners who had looked the matter up.
"43rd King George III. doesn't give jurisdiction for trial in Lower Canada, if offense be committed elsewhere," interjects a lawyer with show of importance.
"A Daniel come to judgment," laughs the colonel, winking as my uncle's wrath rose.
"Pah!" says Mr. Jack MacKenzie in disgust, stamping on the floor with both feet. "You lawyers needn't think you'll have your pickings when fur companies quarrel. We'll ship him out, that's all. Neither of the companies wants to advertise its profits—"
"Or its methods—ahem!" interjects the colonel.
"And its private business," adds my uncle, looking daggers at Adderly, "by going to court."
Then they all rose to go to the dining-room; and as I stepped out to have a look down the street for Hamilton, I heard Colonel Adderly's last fling—"Pretty rascals, you gentlemen adventurers are, so shy and coy about law courts."
It was a dark night, with a few lonely stars in mid-heaven, a sickle moon cutting the horizon cloud-rim and a noisy March wind that boded snow from The Labrador, or sleet from the Gulf.
When Eric Hamilton left the Hudson's Bay Company's service at York Factory on Hudson Bay and came to live in Quebec, I was but a student at Laval. It was at my Uncle MacKenzie's that I met the tall, dark, sinewy, taciturn man, whose influence was to play such a strange part in my life; and when these two talked of their adventures in the far, lone land of the north, I could no more conceal my awe-struck admiration than a girl could on first discovering her own charms in a looking-glass. I think he must have noticed my boyish reverence, for once he condescended to ask about the velvet cap and green sash and long blue coat which made up the Laval costume, and in a moment I was talking to him as volubly as if he were the boy and I, the great Hudson's Bay trader.
"It makes me feel quite like a boy again," he had said on resuming conversation with Mr. MacKenzie. "By Jove! Sir, I can hardly realize I went into that country a lad of fifteen, like your nephew, and here I am, out of it, an old man."
"Pah, Eric man," says my uncle, "you'll be finding a wife one of these days and renewing your youth."
"Uncle," I broke out when the Hudson's Bay man had gone home, "how old is Mr. Hamilton?"
"Fifteen years older than you are, boy, and I pray Heaven you may have half as much of the man in you at thirty as he has," returns my uncle mentally measuring me with that stern eye of his. At that information, my heart gave a curious, jubilant thud. Henceforth, I no longer looked upon Mr. Hamilton with the same awe that a choir boy entertains for a bishop. Something of comradeship sprang up between us, and before that year had passed we were as boon companions as man and boy could be. But Hamilton presently spoiled it all by fulfilling my uncle's prediction and finding a wife, a beautiful, fair-haired, frail slip of a girl, near enough the twenties to patronize me and too much of the young lady to find pleasure in an awkward lad. That meant an end to our rides and walks and sails down the St. Lawrence and long evening talks; but I took my revenge by assuming the airs of a man of forty, at which Hamilton quizzed me not a little and his wife, Miriam, laughed. When I surprised them all by jumping suddenly from boyhood to manhood—"like a tadpole into a mosquito," as my Uncle Jack facetiously remarked. Meanwhile, a son and heir came to my friend's home and I had to be thankful for a humble third place.
And so it came that I was waiting for Eric's arrival at the Quebec Club that night, peering from the porch for sight of him and calculating how long it would take to ride from the Chateau Bigot above Charlesbourg, where he was staying. Stepping outside, I was surprised to see the form of a horse beneath the lantern of the arched gateway; and my surprise increased on nearer inspection. As I walked up, the creature gave a whinny and I recognized Hamilton's horse, lathered with sweat, unblanketed and shivering. The possibility of an accident hardly suggested itself before I observed the bridle-rein had been slung over the hitching-post and heard steps hurrying to the side door of the club-house.
"Is that you, Eric?" I called.
There was no answer; so I led the horse to the stable boy and hurried back to see if Hamilton were inside. The sitting room was deserted; but Eric's well-known, tall figure was entering the dining-room. And a curious figure he presented to the questioning looks of the club men. In one hand was his riding whip, in the other, his gloves. He wore the buckskin coat of a trapper and in the belt were two pistols. One sleeve was torn from wrist to elbow and his boots were scratched as if they had been combed by an iron rake. His broad-brimmed hat was still on, slouched down over his eyes like that of a scout.
"Gad! Hamilton," exclaimed Uncle Jack MacKenzie, who was facing Eric as I came up behind, "have you been in a race or a fight?" and he gave him the look of suspicion one might give an intoxicated man.
"Is it a cold night?" asked the colonel punctiliously, gazing hard at the still-strapped hat.
Not a word came from Hamilton.
"How's the cold in your head?" continued Adderly, pompously trying to stare Hamilton's hat off.
"Here I am, old man! What's kept you?" and I rushed forward but quickly checked myself; for Hamilton turned slowly towards me and instead of erect bearing, clear glance, firm mouth, I saw a head that was bowed, eyes that burned like fire, and parched, parted, wordless lips.
If the colonel had not been stuffing himself like the turkey guzzler that he was, he would have seen something unspeakably terrible written on Hamilton's silent face.
"Did the little wifie let him off for a night's play?" sneered Adderly.
Barely were the words out, when Hamilton's teeth clenched behind the open lips, giving him an ugly, furious expression, strange to his face. He took a quick stride towards the officer, raised his whip and brought it down with the full strength of his shoulder in one cutting blow across the baggy, purplish cheeks of the insolent speaker.
A STRONG MAN IS BOWED
The whole thing was so unexpected that for one moment not a man in the room drew breath. Then the colonel sprang up with the bellow of an enraged bull, overturning the table in his rush, and a dozen club members were pulling him back from Eric.
"Eric Hamilton, are you mad?" I cried. "What do you mean?"
But Hamilton stood motionless as if he saw none of us. Except that his breath was labored, he wore precisely the same strange, distracted air he had on entering the club.
"Hold back!" I implored; for Adderly was striking right and left to get free from the men. "Hold back! There's a mistake! Something's wrong!"
"Reptile!" roared the colonel. "Cowardly reptile, you shall pay for this!"
"There's a mistake," I shouted, above the clamor of exclamations.
"Glad the mistake landed where it did, all the same," whispered Uncle Jack MacKenzie in my ear, "but get him out of this. Drunk—or a scandal," says my uncle, who always expressed himself in explosives when excited. "Side room—here—lead him in—drunk—by Jove—drunk!"
"Never," I returned passionately. I knew both Hamilton and his wife too well to tolerate either insinuation. But we led him like a dazed being into a side office, where Mr. Jack MacKenzie promptly turned the key and took up a posture with his back against the door.
"Now, Sir," he broke out sternly, "if it's neither drink, nor a scandal——" There, he stopped; for Hamilton, utterly unconscious of us, moved, rather than walked, automatically across the room. Throwing his hat down, he bowed his head over both arms above the mantel-piece.
My uncle and I looked from the silent man to each other. Raising his brows in question, Mr. Jack MacKenzie touched his forehead and whispered across to me—"Mad?"
At that, though the word was spoken barely above a breath, Eric turned slowly round and faced us with blood-shot, gleaming eyes. He made as though he would speak, sank into the armchair before the grate and pressed both hands against his forehead.
"Mad," he repeated in a voice low as a moan, framing his words slowly and with great effort. "By Jove, men, you should know me better than to mouth such rot under your breath. To-night, I'd sell my soul, sell my soul to be mad, really mad, to know that all I think has happened, hadn't happened at all—" and his speech was broken by a sharp intake of breath.
"Out with it, man, for the Lord's sake," shouted my uncle, now convinced that Eric was not drunk and jumping to conclusions—as he was wont to do when excited—regarding a possible scandal.
"Out with it, man! We'll stand by you! Has that blasted red-faced turkey——"
"Pray, spare your histrionics, for the present," Eric cut in with the icy self-possession bred by a lifetime's danger, dispelling my uncle's second suspicion with a quiet scorn that revealed nothing.
"What the——" began my kinsman, "what did you strike him for?"
"Did I strike somebody?" asked Hamilton absently.
Again my uncle flashed a questioning look at me, but this time his face showed his conviction so plainly no word was needed.
"Did I strike somebody? Wish you'd apologize——"
"Apologize!" thundered my uncle. "I'll do nothing of the kind. Served him right. 'Twas a pretty way, a pretty way, indeed, to speak of any man's wife——" But the word "wife" had not been uttered before Eric threw out his hands in an imploring gesture.
"Don't!" he cried out sharply in the suffering tone of a man under the operating knife. "Don't! It all comes back! It is true! It is true! I can't get away from it! It is no nightmare. My God, men, how can I tell you? There's no way of saying it! It is impossible—preposterous—some monstrous joke—it's quite impossible I tell you—it couldn't have happened—such things don't happen—couldn't happen—to her—of all women! But she's gone—she's gone——"
"See here, Hamilton," cried my uncle, utterly beside himself with excitement, "are we to understand you are talking of your wife, or—or some other woman?"
"See here, Hamilton," I reiterated, quite heedless of the brutality of our questions and with a thousand wild suspicions flashing into my mind. "Is it your wife, Miriam, and your boy?"
But he heard neither of us.
"They were there—they waved to me from the garden at the edge of the woods as I entered the forest. Only this morning, both waving to me as I rode away—and when I returned from the city at noon, they were gone! I looked to the window as I came back. The curtain moved and I thought my boy was hiding, but it was only the wind. We've searched every nook from cellar to attic. His toys were littered about and I fancied I heard his voice everywhere, but no! No—no—and we've been hunting house and garden for hours——"
"And the forest?" questioned Uncle Jack, the trapper instinct of former days suddenly re-awakening.
"The forest is waist-deep with snow! Besides we beat through the bush everywhere, and there wasn't a track, nor broken twig, where they could have passed." His torn clothes bore evidence to the thoroughness of that search.
"Nonsense," my uncle burst out, beginning to bluster. "They've been driven to town without leaving word!"
"No sleigh was at Chateau Bigot this morning," returned Hamilton.
"But the road, Eric?" I questioned, recalling how the old manor-house stood well back in the center of a cleared plateau in the forest. "Couldn't they have gone down the road to those Indian encampments?"
"The road is impassable for sleighs, let alone walking, and their winter wraps are all in the house. For Heaven's sake, men, suggest something! Don't madden me with these useless questions!"
But in spite of Eric's entreaty my excitable kinsman subjected the frenzied man to such a fire of questions as might have sublimated pre-natal knowledge. And I stood back listening and pieced the distracted, broken answers into some sort of coherency till the whole tragic scene at the Chateau on that spring day of the year 1815, became ineffaceably stamped on my memory.
Causeless, with neither warning nor the slightest premonition of danger, the greatest curse which can befall a man came upon my friend Eric Hamilton. However fond a husband may be, there are things worse for his wife than death which he may well dread, and it was one of these tragedies which almost drove poor Hamilton out of his reason and changed the whole course of my own life. In broad daylight, his young wife and infant son disappeared as suddenly and completely as if blotted out of existence.
That morning, Eric light-heartedly kissed wife and child good-by and waved them a farewell that was to be the last. He rode down the winding forest path to Quebec and they stood where the Chateau garden merged into the forest of Charlesbourg Mountain. At noon, when he returned, for him there existed neither wife nor child. For any trace of them that could be found, both might have been supernaturally spirited away. The great house, that had re-echoed to the boy's prattle, was deathly still; and neither wife, nor child, answered his call. The nurse was summoned. She was positive Madame was amusing the boy across the hall, and reassuringly bustled off to find mother and son in the next room, and the next, and yet the next; to discover each in succession empty.
Alarm spread to the Chateau servants. The simple habitant maids were questioned, but their only response was white-faced, blank amazement.
Madame not returned!
Madame not back!
Mon Dieu! What had happened? And all the superstition of hillside lore added to the fear on each anxious face. Shortly after Monsieur went to the city, Madame had taken her little son out as usual for a morning airing, and had been seen walking up and down the paths tracked through the garden snow. Had Monsieur examined the clearing between the house and the forest? Monsieur could see for himself the snow was too deep and crusty among the trees for Madame to go twenty paces into the woods. Besides, foot-marks could be traced from the garden to the bush. He need not fear wild animals. They were receding into the mountains as spring advanced. Let him take another look about the open; and Hamilton tore out-doors, followed by the whole household; but from the Chateau in the center of the glade to the encircling border of snow-laden evergreens there was no trace of wife or child.
Then Eric laughed at his own growing fears. Miriam must be in the house. So the search of the old hall, that had once resounded to the drunken tread of gay French grandees, began again. From hidden chamber in the vaulted cellar to attic rooms above, not a corner of the Chateau was left unexplored. Had any one come and driven her to the city? But that was impossible. The roads were drifted the height of a horse and there were no marks of sleigh runners on either side of the riding path. Could she possibly have ventured a few yards down the main road to an encampment of Indians, whose squaws after Indian custom made much of the white baby? Neither did that suggestion bring relief; for the Indians had broken camp early in the morning and there was only a dirty patch of littered snow, where the wigwams had been.
The alarm now became a panic. Hamilton, half-crazed and unable to believe his own senses, began wondering whether he had nightmare. He thought he might waken up presently and find the dead weight smothering his chest had been the boy snuggling close. He was vaguely conscious it was strange of him to continue sleeping with that noise of shouting men and whining hounds and snapping branches going on in the forest. The child's lightest cry generally broke the spell of a nightmare; but the din of terrified searchers rushing through the woods and of echoes rolling eerily back from the white hills convinced him this was no dream-land. Then, the distinct crackle of trampled brushwood and the scratch of spines across his face called him back to an unendurable reality.
"The thing is utterly impossible, Hamilton," I cried, when in short jerky sentences, as if afraid to give thought rein, he had answered my uncle's questioning. "Impossible! Utterly impossible!"
"I would to God it were!" he moaned.
"It was daylight, Eric?" asked Mr. Jack MacKenzie.
He nodded moodily.
"And she couldn't be lost in Charlesbourg forest?" I added, taking up the interrogations where my uncle left off.
"No trace—not a footprint!"
"And you're quite sure she isn't in the house?" replied my relative.
"Quite!" he answered passionately.
"And there was an Indian encampment a few yards down the road?" continued Mr. MacKenzie, undeterred.
"Oh! What has that to do with it?" he asked petulantly, springing to his feet. "They'd moved off long before I went back. Besides, Indians don't run off with white women. Haven't I spent my life among them? I should know their ways!"
"But my dear fellow!" responded the elder trader, "so do I know their ways. If she isn't in the Chateau and isn't in the woods and isn't in the garden, can't you see, the Indian encampment is the only possible explanation?"
The lines on his face deepened. Fire flashed from his gleaming eyes, and if ever I have seen murder written on the countenance of man, it was on Hamilton's.
"What tribe were they, anyway?" I asked, trying to speak indifferently, for every question was knife-play on a wound.
"Mongrel curs, neither one thing nor the other, Iroquois canoemen, French half-breeds intermarried with Sioux squaws! They're all connected with the North-West Company's crews. The Nor'-Westers leave here for Fort William when the ice breaks up. This riff-raff will follow in their own dug-outs!"
"Know any of them?" persisted my uncle.
"No, I don't think I—Let me see! By Jove! Yes, Gillespie!" he shouted, "Le Grand Diable was among them!"
"What about Diable?" I asked, pinning him down to the subject, for his mind was lost in angry memories.
"What about him? He's my one enemy among the Indians," he answered in tones thick and ominously low. "I thrashed him within an inch of his life at Isle a la Crosse. Being a Nor'-Wester, he thought it fine game to pillage the kit of a Hudson's Bay; so he stole a silver-mounted fowling-piece which my grandfather had at Culloden. By Jove, Gillespie! The Nor'-Westers have a deal of blood to answer for, stirring up those Indians against traders; and if they've brought this on me——"
"Did you get it back?" I interrupted, referring to the fowling-piece, neither my uncle, nor I, offering any defense for the Nor'-Westers. I knew there were two sides to this complaint from a Hudson's Bay man.
"No! That's why I nearly finished him; but the more I clubbed, the more he jabbered impertinence, 'Cooloo! cooloo! qu' importe! It doesn't matter!' By Jove! I made it matter!"
"Is that all about Diable, Eric?" continued my uncle.
He ran his fingers distractedly back through his long, black hair, rose, and, coming over to me, laid a trembling hand on each shoulder.
"Gillespie!" he muttered through hard-set teeth. "It isn't all. I didn't think at the time, but the morning after the row with that red devil I found a dagger stuck on the outside of my hut-door. The point was through a fresh sprouted leaflet. A withered twig hung over the blade."
"Man! Are you mad?" cried Jack MacKenzie. "He must be the very devil himself. You weren't married then—He couldn't mean——"
"I thought it was an Indian threat," interjected Hamilton, "that if I had downed him in the fall, when the branches were bare, he meant to have his revenge in spring when the leaves were green; but you know I left the country that fall."
"You were wrong, Eric!" I blurted out impetuously, the terrible significance of that threat dawning upon me. "That wasn't the meaning at all."
Then I stopped; for Hamilton was like a palsied man, and no one asked what those tokens of a leaflet pierced by a dagger and an old branch hanging to the knife might mean.
Mr. Jack MacKenzie was the first to pull himself together.
"Come," he shouted. "Gather up your wits! To the camping ground!" and he threw open the door.
Thereupon, we three flung through the club-room to the astonishment of the gossips, who had been waiting outside for developments in the quarrel with Colonel Adderly. At the outer porch, Hamilton laid a hand on Mr. MacKenzie's shoulder.
"Don't come," he begged hurriedly. "There's a storm blowing. It's rough weather, and a rough road, full of drifts! Make my peace with the man I struck."
Then Eric and I whisked out into the blackness of a boisterous, windy night. A moment later, our horses were dashing over iced cobble-stones with the clatter of pistol-shots.
"It will snow," said I, feeling a few flakes driven through the darkness against my face; but to this remark Hamilton was heedless.
"It will snow, Eric," I repeated. "The wind's veered north. We must get out to the camp before all traces are covered. How far by the Beauport road?"
"Five miles," said he, and I knew by the sudden scream and plunge of his horse that spurs were dug into raw sides. We turned down that steep, break-neck, tortuous street leading from Upper Town to the valley of the St. Charles. The wet thaw of mid-day had frozen and the road was slippery as a toboggan slide. We reined our horses in tightly, to prevent a perilous stumbling of fore-feet, and by zigzagging from side to side managed to reach the foot of the hill without a single fall. Here, we again gave them the bit; and we were presently thundering across the bridge in a way that brought the keeper out cursing and yelling for his toll. I tossed a coin over my shoulder and we galloped up the elm-lined avenue leading to that Charlesbourg retreat, where French Bacchanalians caroused before the British conquest, passed the thatch-roofed cots of habitants and, turning suddenly to the right, followed a seldom frequented road, where snow was drifted heavily. Here we had to slacken pace, our beasts sinking to their haunches and snorting through the white billows like a modern snow-plow.
Hamilton had spoken not a word.
Clouds were massing on the north. Overhead a few stars glittered against the black, and the angry wind had the most mournful wail I have ever heard. How the weird undertones came like the cries of a tortured child, and the loud gusts with the shriek of demons!
"Gillespie," called Eric's voice tremulous with anguish, "listen—Rufus—listen! Do you hear anything? Do you hear any one calling for help? Is that a child crying?"
"No, Eric, old man," said I, shivering in my saddle. "I hear—I hear nothing at all but the wind."
But my hesitancy belied the truth of that answer; for we both heard sounds, which no one can interpret but he whose well beloved is lost in the storm.
And the wind burst upon us again, catching my empty denial and tossing the words to upper air with eldritch laughter. Then there was a lull, and I felt rather than heard the choking back of stifled moans and knew that the man by my side, who had held iron grip of himself before other eyes, was now giving vent to grief in the blackness of night.
At last a red light gleamed from the window of a low cot. That was the signal for us to turn abruptly to the left, entering the forest by a narrow bridle-path that twisted among the cedars. As if to look down in pity, the moon shone for a moment above the ragged edge of a storm cloud, and all the snow-laden evergreens stood out stately, shadowy and spectral, like mourners for the dead.
Again the road took to right-about at a sharp angle and the broad Chateau, with its noble portico and numerous windows all alight, suddenly loomed up in the center of a forest-clearing on the mountain side. Where the path to the garden crossed a frozen stream was a small open space. Here the Indians had been encamped. We hallooed for servants and by lantern light examined every square inch of the smoked snow and rubbish heaps. Bits of tin in profusion, stones for the fire, tent canvas, ends of ropes and tattered rags lay everywhere over the black patch. Snow was beginning to fall heavily in great flakes that obscured earth and air. Not a thing had we found to indicate any trace of the lost woman and child, until I caught sight of a tiny, blue string beneath a piece of rusty metal. Kicking the tin aside, I caught the ribbon up. When I saw on the lower end a child's finely beaded moccasin, I confess I had rather felt the point of Le Grand Diable's dagger at my own heart than have shown that simple thing to Hamilton.
Then the snow-storm broke upon us in white billows blotting out everything. We spread a sheet on the ground to preserve any marks of the campers, but the drifting wind drove us indoors and we were compelled to cease searching. All night long Eric and I sat before the roaring grate fire of the hunting-room, he leaning forward with chin in his palms and saying few words, I offering futile suggestions and uttering mad threats, but both utterly at a loss what to do. We knew enough of Indian character to know what not to do. That was, raise an outcry, which might hasten the cruelty of Le Grand Diable.
NOVICE AND EXPERT.
Though many years have passed since that dismal storm in the spring of 1815, when Hamilton and I spent a long disconsolate night of enforced waiting, I still hear the roaring of the northern gale, driving round the house-corners as if it would wrench all eaves from the roof. It shrieked across the garden like malignant furies, rushed with the boom of a sea through the cedars and pines, and tore up the mountain slope till all the many voices of the forest were echoing back a thousand tumultuous discords. Again, I see Hamilton gazing at the leaping flames of the log fire, as if their frenzied motion reflected something of his own burning grief. Then, the agony of our utter helplessness, as long as the storm raged, would prove too great for his self-control. Rising, he would pace back and forward the full length of the hunting-room till his eye would be caught by some object with which the boy had played. He would put this carefully away, as one lays aside the belongings of the dead. Afterwards, lanterns, which we had placed on the oak center table on coming in, began to smoke and give out a pungent, burning smell, and each of us involuntarily walked across to a window and drew aside the curtains to see how daylight was coming on. The white glare of early morning flooded the room, but the snow-storm had changed to driving sleet and the panes were iced from corner to corner with frozen rain-drift. How we dragged through two more days, while the gale raved with unabated fury, I do not know. Poor Eric was for rushing into the blinding whirl, that turned earth and air into one white tornado; but he could not see twice the length of his own arm, and we prevailed on him to come back. On the third night, the wind fell like a thing that had fretted out its strength. Morning revealed an ocean of billowy drifts, crusted over by the frozen sleet and reflecting a white dazzle that made one's eyes blink. Great icicles hung from the naked branches of the sheeted pines and snow was wreathed in fantastic forms among the cedars.
We had laid our plans while we waited. After lifting the canvas from the camping-ground and seeking in vain for more trace of the fugitives, we despatched a dozen different search-parties that very morning, Eric leading those who were to go on the river-side of the Chateau, and I some well-trained bushrangers picked from the habitants of the hillside, who could track the forest to every Indian haunt within a week's march of the city. After putting my men on a trail with instructions to send back an Indian courier to report each night, I hunted up an old habitant guide, named Paul Larocque, who had often helped me to thread the woods of Quebec after big game. Now Paul was habitually as silent as a dumb animal, and sportsmen had nicknamed him The Mute; but what he lacked in speech he made up like other wild creatures in a wonderful acuteness of eye and ear. Indeed, it was commonly believed among trappers that Paul possessed some nameless sense by which he could actually feel the presence of an enemy before ordinary men could either see, or hear. For my part, I would be willing to pit that "feel" of Paul's against the nose of any hound that dog-fanciers could back.
"Paul," said I, as the habitant stood before me licking the short stem of an inverted clay pipe, "there's an Indian, a bad Indian, an Iroquois, Paul,"—I was particular in describing the Indian as an Iroquois, for Paul's wife was a Huron from Lorette—"An Iroquois, who stole a white woman and a little boy from the Chateau three days ago, in the morning."
There, I paused to let the facts soak in; for The Mute digested information in small morsels. Grizzled, stunted and chunky, he was not at all the picturesque figure which fancy has painted of his class. Instead of the red toque, which artists place on the heads of habitants, he wore a cloth cap with ear flaps coming down to be tied under his chin. His jacket was an ill-fitting garment, the cast-off coat of some well-to-do man, and his trousers slouched in ample folds above brightly beaded moccasins. When I paused, Paul fixed his eyes on an invisible spot in the snow and ruminated. Then he hitched the baggy trousers up, pulled the red scarf, that held them to his waist, tighter, and, taking his eyes off the snow, looked up for me to go on.
"That Iroquois, who belongs to the North-West trappers——"
"Pays d'En Haut?" asks Paul, speaking for the first time.
"Yes," I answered, "and they all disappeared with the woman and the child the day before the storm."
The Mute's eyes were back on the snow.
"Now," said I, "I'll make you a rich man if you take me straight to the place where he's hiding."
Paul's eyes looked up with the question of how much.
"Five pounds a day." This was four more than we paid for the cariboo hunts.
Again he stood thinking, then darted off into the forest like a hare; but I knew his strange, silent ways, and confidently awaited his return. How he could get two pair of snow-shoes and two poles inside of five minutes, I do not attempt to explain, unless some of his numerous half-breed youngsters were at hand in the woods; but he was back again all equipped for a long tramp, and as soon as I had laced on the racquets, we were skimming over the drift like a boat on billows. In the mazy confusion of snow and underbrush, no one but Paul would have found and kept that tangled, forest path. Where great trunks had fallen across the way, Paul planted his pole and took the barrier at a bound. Then he raced on at a gait which was neither a run nor a walk, but an easy trot common to the coureurs-des-bois. The encased branches snapped like glass when we brushed past, and so heavily were snow and icicles frozen to the trees we might have been in some grotesque crystal-walled cavern. The habitant spoke not a word, but on we pressed over the brushwood, now so packed with snow and crusted ice, our snow-shoes were not once tripped by loose branches, and we glided from drift to drift. In vain I tried to discern a trail by the broken thicket on either side, and I noticed that my guide was keeping his course by following the marks blazed on trees. At one place we came to a steep, clear slope, where the earth had fallen sheer away from the hillside and snow had filled the incline. First prodding forward to feel if the snow-bank were solid, Paul promptly sat down on the rear end of his snow-shoes, and, quicker than I can tell it, tobogganed down to the valley. I came leaping clumsily from point to point with my pole, like a ski-jumping Norwegian, risking my neck at every bound. Then we coursed along the valley, the habitant's eyes still on the trees, and once he stopped to emit a gurgling laugh at a badly hacked trunk, beneath which was a snowed-up sap trough; but I could not divine whether Paul's mirth were over a prospect of sugaring-off in the maple-woods, or at some foolish habitant who had tapped the maple too early. How often had I known my guide to exhaust city athletes in these swift marches of his! But I had been schooled to his pace from boyhood and kept up with him at every step, though we were going so fast I lost all track of my bearings.
"Where to, Paul?" I asked with a vague suspicion that we were heading for the Huron village at Lorette. "To Lorette, Paul?"
But Paul condescended only a grunt and whisked suddenly round a headland up a narrow gorge, which seemed to lead to the very heart of the mountains and might have sheltered any number of fugitives. In the gorge we stopped to take a light meal of gingerbread horses—a cake that is the peculiar glory of the habitant—dried herrings and sea biscuits. By the sun, I knew it was long past noon and that we had been traveling northwest. I also vaguely guessed that Paul's object was to intercept the North-West trappers, if they had planned to slip away from the St. Lawrence through the bush to the Upper Ottawa, where they could meet north-bound boats. But not one syllable had my taciturn guide uttered. Clambering up the steep, snowy banks of the gorge, we found ourselves in the upper reaches of a mountain, where the trees fell away in scraggy clumps and the snow stretched up clear and unbroken to the hill-crest. Paul grunted, licked his pipe-stem significantly and pointed his pole to the hill-top. The dark peak of a solitary wigwam appeared above the snow. He pointed again to the fringe of woods below us. A dozen wigwams were visible among the trees and smoke curled up from a central camp-fire.
"Voila, Monsieur?" said the habitant, which made four words for that day.
The Mute then fell to my rear and we first approached the general camp. The campers were evidently thieves as well as hunters; for frozen pork hung with venison from the branches of several trees. The sap trough might also have belonged to them, which would explain Paul's laugh, as the whole paraphernalia of a sugaring-off was on the outskirts of the encampment.
"Not the Indians we're after," said I, noting the signs of permanency; but Paul Larocque shoved me forward with the end of his pole and a curious, almost intelligent, expression came on the dull, pock-pitted face. Strangely enough, as I looked over my shoulder to the guide, I caught sight of an Indian figure climbing up the bank in our very tracks. The significance of this incident was to reveal itself later.
As usual, a pack of savage dogs flew out to announce our coming with furious barking. But I declare the habitant was so much like any ragged Indian, the creatures recognized him and left off their vicious snarl. Only the shrill-voiced children, who rushed from the wigwams; evinced either surprise or interest in our arrival. Men and women were haunched about the fire, above which simmered several pots with the savory odor of cooking meat. I do not think a soul of the company as much as turned a head on our approach. Though they saw us plainly, they sat stolid and imperturbable, after the manner of their race, waiting for us to announce ourselves. Some of the squaws and half-breed women were heaping bark on the fire. Indians sat straight-backed round the circle. White men, vagabond trappers from anywhere and everywhere, lay in all variety of lazy attitudes on buffalo robes and caribou skins.
I had known, as every one familiar with Quebec's family histories must know, that the sons of old seigneurs sometimes inherited the adventurous spirit, which led their ancestors of three centuries ago to exchange the gayeties of the French court for the wild life of the new world. I was aware this spirit frequently transformed seigneurs into bush-rangers and descendants of the royal blood into coureurs-des-bois. But it is one thing to know a fact, another to see that fact in living embodiment; and in this case, the living embodiment was Louis Laplante, a school-fellow of Laval, whom, to my amazement, I now saw, with a beard of some months' growth and clad in buckskin, lying at full length on his back among that villainous band of nondescript trappers. Something of the surprise I felt must have shown on my face, for as Louis recognized me he uttered a shout of laughter.
"Hullo, Gillespie!" he called with the saucy nonchalance which made him both a favorite and a torment at the seminary. "Are you among the prophets?" and he sat up making room for me on his buffalo robe.
"I'll wager, Louis," said I, shaking his hand heartily and accepting the proffered seat, "I'll wager it's prophets spelt with an 'f' brings you here." For the young rake had been one of the most notorious borrowers at the seminary.
"Good boy!" laughed he, giving my shoulder a clap. "I see your time was not wasted with me. Now, what the devil," he asked as I surveyed the motley throng of fat, coarse-faced squaws and hard-looking men who surrounded him, "now, what the devil's brought you here?"
"What's the same, to yourself, Louis lad?" said I. He laughed the merry, heedless laugh that had been the distraction of the class-room.
"Do you need to ask with such a galaxy of nut-brown maidens?" and Louis looked with the assurance of privileged impudence straight across the fire into the hideous, angry face of a big squaw, who was glaring at me. The creature was one to command attention. She might have been a great, bronze statue, a type of some ancient goddess, a symbol of fury, or cruelty. Her eyes fastened themselves on mine and held me, whether I would or no, while her whole face darkened.
"The lady evidently objects to having her place usurped, Louis," I remarked, for he was watching the silent duel between the native woman's questioning eyes and mine.
"The gentleman wants to know if the lady objects to having her place usurped?" called Louis to the squaw.
At that the woman flinched and looked to Laplante. Of course, she did not understand our words; but I think she was suspicious we were laughing at her. There was a vindictive flash across her face, then the usual impenetrable expression of the Indian came over her features. I noticed that her cheeks and forehead were scarred, and a cut had laid open her upper lip from nose to teeth.
"You must know that the lady is the daughter of a chief and a fighter," whispered Louis in my ear.
I might have known she was above common rank from the extraordinary number of trinkets she wore. Pendants hung from her ears like the pendulum of a clock. She had a double necklace of polished bear's claws and around her waist was a girdle of agates, which to me proclaimed that she was of a far-western tribe. In the girdle was an ivory-handled knife, which had doubtless given as many scars as its owner displayed.
"What tribe, Louis?" I asked.
"I'll be hanged, now, if I'm not jealous," he began. "You'll stare the lady out of countenance——" But at this moment the Indian who had come up the bank behind us came round and interrupted Laplante's merriment by tossing a piece of bethumbed paper between my comrade's knees.
"The deuce!" exclaimed Louis, bulging his tongue into one cheek and glancing at me with a queer, quizzical look as he unfolded and read the paper.
If he had not spoken I might not have turned; but having turned I could not but notice two things. Louis jerked back from me, as if I might try to read the soiled note in his hand, and in raising the paper displayed on the back the stamp of the commissariat department from Quebec Citadel.
Neither Laplante's suppressed surprise, nor my observations of his movement, escaped the big squaw. She came quickly round the fire to us both.
"Give me that," she commanded, holding out her hand to the French youth.
"The deuce I will," he returned, twisting the paper up in his clenched fist. Half in jest, half in earnest, just as Louis used to be punished at the seminary, she gave him a prompt box on the ear. He took it in perfect good-nature. And the whole encampment laughed. The squaw went back to the other side of the fire. Laplante leaned forward and threw the paper towards the flames; but without his knowledge, he overshot the mark; and when the trader was looking elsewhere the big squaw stooped, picked up the coveted note and slipped it into her skirt pocket.
"Now, Louis, nonsense aside," I began.
"With all my soul, if I have one," said he, lying back languidly with a perceptible cooling of the cordiality he had first evinced.
I told him my errand, and that I wished to search every wigwam for trace of the lost woman and child. He listened with shut eyes.
"It isn't," I explained in a low voice, eager to arouse his interest, "it isn't in the least, Laplante, that we suspect these people; but you know the kidnappers might have traded the clothing to your people——"
"Oh! Go ahead!" he interjected impatiently. "Don't beat round the bush! What do you want of me?"
"To go through the tents with me and help me. By Jove! Laplante! I thought at least a spark of the man would suggest that without my speaking," I broke out hotly.
He was on his feet with an alacrity that brought old Paul Larocque round to my side and the squaw to his.
"Curse you," he cried out roughly, shoving the squaw back. For a moment I was uncertain whether he were addressing the woman or myself. "You mind your own business and go to your Indian! Here, Gillespie, I'll do the tents with you. Get off with you," he muttered at the squaw, rumbling out a lingo of persuasive expletives; and he led the way to the first wigwam.
But the squaw was not to be dismissed; for when I followed the Frenchman, she closed in behind looking thunder, not at her abuser, but at me; and The Mute, fearing foul play and pole in hand, loyally brought up the rear of our strange procession. I shall not retail that search through robes and skins and blankets and boxes, in foul-smelling, vermin-infested wigwams. It was fruitless. I only recall the lowering face of the big squaw looking over my shoulder at every turn, with heavy brows contracted and gashed lips grinning an evil, malicious challenge. I thought she kept her hands uncomfortably near the ivory handle in the agate belt; but Larocque, good fellow, never took his beady eyes off those same hands and kept a grip of the leaping pole.
Thus we examined the tents and made a circuit of the people round the fire, but found nothing to reveal the whereabouts of Miriam and the child. Laplante and I were on one side of the robe, Larocque and the squaw on the other.
"And why is that tent apart from the rest and who is in it?" I asked Laplante, pointing to the lone tepee on the crest of the hill.
The fire cracked so loudly I became aware there was ominous silence among the loungers of the camp. They were listening as well as watching. Up to this time I had not thought they were paying the slightest attention to us. Laplante was not answering, and when I faced him suddenly I found the squaw's eyes fastened on his, holding them whether he would or no, just as she had mine.
"Eh! man?" I cried, seizing him fiercely, a nameless suspicion getting possession of me. "Why don't you answer?"
The spell was broken. He turned to me nonchalantly, as he used to face accusers in the school-days of long ago, and spoke almost gently, with downcast eyes, and a quiet, deprecating smile.
"You know, Rufus," he answered, using the schoolboy name. "We should have told you before. But remember we didn't invite you here. We didn't lead you into it."
"Well?" I demanded.
"Well," he replied in a voice too low for any of the listeners but the squaw to hear, "there's a very bad case of smallpox up in that tent and we're keeping the man apart till he gets better. That, in fact, is why we're all here. You must go. It is not safe."
"Thanks, Laplante," said I. "Good-by." But he did not offer me his hand when I made to take leave.
"Come," he said. "I'll go as far as the gorge with you;" and he stood on the embankment and waved as we passed into the lengthening shadows of the valley.
Now, in these days of health officers and vaccination, people can have no idea of the terrors of a smallpox scourge at the beginning of this century. The habitant is as indifferent to smallpox as to measles, and accepts both as dispensations of Providence by exposing his children to the contagion as early as possible; but I was not so minded, and hurried down the gorge as fast as my snow-shoes would carry me. Then I remembered that the Indian population of the north had been reduced to a skeleton of its former numbers by the pestilence in 1780, and recalled that my Uncle Jack had said the native's superstitious dread of this disease knew no bounds. That recollection checked my sudden flight. If the Indians had such fear, why had this band camped within a mile of the pest tent? It would be more like Indian character to reverse Samaritan practises and leave the victim to die. This man might, of course, be a French-Canadian trapper, but I would take no risks of a trick, so I ordered Paul to lead me back to that tepee.
The Mute seemed to understand I had no wish to be seen by the campers. He skirted round the base of the hill till we were on the side remote from the tribe. Then he motioned me to remain in the gorge while he scrambled up the cliff to reconnoitre. I knew he received a surprise as soon as his head was on a level with the top of the bank; for he curled himself up behind a snow-pile and gave a low whistle for me. I was beside him with one bound. We were not twenty pole-lengths from the wigwam. There was no appearance of life. The tent flaps had been laced up and a solitary watch-dog was tied to a stake before the entrance. Down the valley the setting sun shone through the naked trees like a wall of fire, and dyed all the glistening snow-drifts primrose and opal. At one place in the forest the red light burst through and struck against the tent on the hill-top, giving the skins a peculiar appearance of being streaked with blood. The faintest breath of wind, a mere sigh of moving air-currents peculiar to snow-padded areas, came up from the woods with far-away echoes of the trappers' voices. Perhaps this was heard by the watch-dog, or it may have felt the disturbing presence of my half-wild habitant guide; for it sat back on its haunches and throwing up its head, let out the most doleful howlings imaginable.
"Oh! Monsieur," shuddered out the superstitious habitant shivering like an aspen leaf, "sick man moan,—moan,—moan hard! He die, Monsieur, he die, he die now when dog cry lak dat," and full of fear he scrambled down into the gorge, making silent gestures for me to follow.
For a time—but not long, I must acknowledge—I lay there alone, watching and listening. Paul's ears might hear the moans of a sick man, mine could not: nor would I return to the Chateau without ascertaining for a certainty what was in that wigwam. Slipping off the snow-shoes, I rose and tip-toed over the snow with the full intention of silencing the dog with my pole; but I was suddenly arrested by the distinct sound of pain-racked groaning. Then the brute of a dog detected my approach and with a furious leaping that almost hung him with his own rope set up a vicious barking. Suddenly the black head of an Indian, or trapper, popped through the tent flaps and a voice shouted in perfect English—"Go away! Go away! The pest! The pest!"
"Who has smallpox?" I bawled back.
"A trader, a Nor'-Wester," said he. "If you have anything for him lay it on the snow and I'll come for it."
As honor pledged me to serve Hamilton until he found his wife, I was not particularly anxious to exchange civilities at close range with a man from a smallpox tent; so I quickly retraced my way to the gorge and hurried homeward with The Mute. My old school-fellow's sudden change towards me when he received the letter written on Citadel paper, and the big squaw's suspicion of my every movement, now came back to me with a significance I had not felt when I was at the camp. Either intuitions like those of my habitant guide, which instinctively put out feelers with the caution of an insect's antennae for the presence of vague, unknown evil, lay dormant in my own nature and had been aroused by the incidents at the camp, or else the mind, by the mere fact of holding information in solution, widens its own knowledge. For now, in addition to the letter from the Citadel and the squaw's animosity, came the one missing factor—Adderly. I felt, rather than knew, that Louis Laplante had deceived me. Had he lied? A lie is the clumsy invention of the novice. An expert accomplishes his deceit without anything so grossly and tangibly honest as a lie; and Louis was an expert. Though I had not a vestige of proof, I could have sworn that Adderly and the squaw and Louis were leagued against me for some dark purpose. I was indeed learning the first lessons of the trapper's life: never to open my lips on my own affairs to another man, and never to believe another man when he opened his lips to me.
LAUNCHED INTO THE UNKNOWN
"You should have knocked that blasted quarantine's head off," ejaculated Mr. Jack MacKenzie, with ferocious emphasis. I had been relating my experience with the campers; and was recounting how the man put his head out of the tent and warned me of smallpox. But my uncle was a gentleman of the old school and had a fine contempt for quarantine.
"Knocked his head off, knocked his head off, Sir," he continued, explosively. "Make it a point to knock the head off anything that stands in your way, Sir——"
"But you don't suppose," I expostulated, about to voice my own suspicions.
"Suppose!" he roared out. "I make it a point never to suppose anything. I act on facts, Sir! You wanted to go into that wigwam; didn't you? Well then, why the deuce didn't you go, and knock the head off anything that opposed you?"
Being highly successful in all his own dealings, Mr. Jack MacKenzie could not tolerate failure in other people. A month of vigilant searching had yielded not the slightest inkling of Miriam and the child; and this fact ignited all the gunpowder of my uncle's fiery temperament. We had felt so sure Le Grand Diable's band of vagabonds would hang about till the brigades of the North-West Company's tripmen set out for the north, all our efforts were spent in a vain search for some trace of the rascals in the vicinity of Quebec. His gypsy nondescripts would hardly dare to keep the things taken from Miriam and the child. These would be traded to other tribes; so day and night, Mr. MacKenzie, Eric and I, with hired spies, dogged the footsteps of trappers, who were awaiting the breaking up of the ice; shadowed voyageurs, who passed idle days in the dram-shops of Lower Town, and scrutinized every native who crossed our path, ever on the alert for a glimpse of Diable, or his associates. Diligently we tracked all Indian trails through Charlesbourg forest and examined every wigwam within a week's march of the city. Le Grand Diable was not likely to be among his ancestral enemies at Lorette, but his half-breed followers might have traded with the Hurons; and the lodges at Lorette were also searched. Watches were set along the St. Lawrence, so no one could approach an opening before the ice broke up, or launch a canoe after the water had cleared, without our knowledge. But Le Grand Diable and his band had vanished as mysteriously as Miriam. It was as impossible to learn where the Iroquois had gone as to follow the wind. His disappearance was altogether as unaccountable as the lost woman's, and this, of itself, confirmed our suspicions. Had he sold, or slain his captives, he would not have remained in hiding; and the very fruitlessness of the search redoubled our zeal.
The conviction that Louis Laplante had, somehow or other, played me false, stuck in my mind like the depression of a bad dream. Again and again, I related the circumstances to my uncle; but he "pished," and "tushed," and "pooh-poohed," the very idea of any kidnappers remaining so near the city and giving me free run of their wigwams. My reasonless persistence was beginning to irritate him. Indeed, on one occasion, he informed me that I had as many vagaries in my head as a "bed-ridden hag," and with great fervor he "wished to the Lord there was a law in this land for the ham-stringing of such fool idiots, as that habitant Mute, who led me such a wild-goose chase."
In spite of this and many other jeremiades, I once more donned snow-shoes and with Paul for guide paid a second visit to the campers of the gorge. And a second time, I was welcomed by Louis and taken through the wigwams. The smallpox tent was no longer on the crest of the hill; and when I asked after the patient, Louis without a word pointed solemnly to a snow-mound, where the man lay buried. But I did not see the big squaw, nor the face that had emerged from the tent flaps to wave me off; and when I also inquired after these, Louis' face darkened. He told me bluntly I was asking too many questions and began to swear in a mongrel jargon of French and English that my conduct was an insult he would take from no man. But Louis was ever short of temper. I remembered that of old. Presently his little flare-up died down, and he told me that the woman and her husband had gone north through the woods to join some crews on the Upper Ottawa. From the talk of the others, I gathered that, having disposed of their hunt to the commissariat department at the Citadel, they intended to follow the same trail within a few days. I tried without questioning to learn what crews they were to join; but whether with purpose, or by chance, the conversation drifted from my lead and I had to return to the city without satisfaction on that point.
Meanwhile, Hamilton rested neither night nor day. In the morning with a few hurried words he would outline the plan for the day. At night he rode back to the Chateau with such eager questioning in his eyes when they met mine, I knew he had nothing better to report to me, than I to him. After a silent meal, he would ride through the dark forest on a fresh mount. How and where he passed those sleepless nights, I do not know. Thus had a month slipped away; and we had done everything and accomplished nothing. Baffled, I had gone to confer with Mr. Jack MacKenzie and had, as usual, exasperated him with the reiterated conviction that Adderly and the Citadel writing paper and Louis Laplante had some connection with the malign influence that was balking our efforts.
"Fudge!" exclaims my uncle, stamping about his study and puffing with indignation. "You should have knocked that blasted quarantine's head off!"
"You've said that several times already, Mr. MacKenzie," I put in, having a touch of his own peppery temper from my mother's side. "What about Adderly's rage?"
"Adderly's been in Montreal since the night of the row. For the Lord's sake, boy, do you expect to find the woman by believing in that bloated bugaboo?"
"But the Citadel paper?" I persisted.
"Of course you've never been told, Rufus Gillespie," he began, choking down his impatience with the magnitude of my stupidity, "that the commissariat buys supplies from hunters?"
"That doesn't explain the big squaw's suspicions and Louis' own conduct."
"That Louis!" says my uncle. "Pah! That son of an inflated old seigneur! A fig for the buck! Not enough brains in his pate to fill a peanut!"
"But there might be enough evil in his heart to wreck a life," and that was the first argument to pierce my uncle's scepticism. The keen eyes glanced out at me as if there might be some hope for my intelligence, and he took several turns about the room.
"Hm! If you're of that mind, you'd better go out and excavate the smallpox," was his sententious conclusion. "And if it's a hoax, you'd better——" and he puckered his brows in thought.
"What?" I asked eagerly.
"Join the traders' crews and track the villains west," he answered with the promptitude of one who decides quickly and without vacillation. "O Lord! If I were only young! But to think of a man too stout and old to buckle on his own snow-shoes hankering for that life again!" And my uncle heaved a deep sigh.
Now, no one, who has not lived the wild, free life of the northern trader, can understand the strange fascinations which for the moment eclipsed in this courteous and chivalrous old gentleman's mind all thought of the poor woman, with whom my own fate was interwoven. But I, who have lived in the lonely fastnesses of the splendid freedom, know full well what surging recollections of danger and daring, of success and defeat, of action in which one faces and laughs at death, and calm in which one sounds the unutterable depths of very infinity—thronged the old trader's soul. Indeed, when he spoke, it was as if the sentence of my own life had been pronounced; and my whole being rose up to salute destiny. I take it, there is in every one some secret and cherished desire for a chosen vocation to which each looks forward with hope up to the meridian of life, and to which many look back with regret after the meridian. Of prophetic instincts and intuitions and impressions and feelings and much more of the same kind going under a different name, I say nothing, I only set down as a fact, to be explained how it may, that all the way out to the gorge, with Paul, The Mute leading for a third time, I could have sworn there would be no corpse in that snow-covered grave. For was it not written in my inner consciousness that destiny had appointed me to the wild, free life of the north? So I was not surprised when Paul Larocque's spade struck sharply on a box. Indians sleep their last sleep in the skins of the chase. Nor was I in the least amazed when that same spade pried up the lid of cached provisions instead of a coffin. Then I had ocular proof of what I knew before, that Louis in word and conduct—but chiefly in conduct, which is the way of the expert had—lied outrageously to me.
When the ice broke up at the end of April, hunters were off for their summer retreats and voyageurs set out on the annual trip to the Pays d'En Haut. This year the Hudson's Bay Company had organized a strong fleet of canoemen under Mr. Colin Robertson, a former Nor'-Wester, to proceed to Red River settlement by way of the Ottawa and the Sault instead of entering the fur preserve by the usual route of Hudson Bay and York Factory. From Le Grand Diable's former association with the North-West Company it was probable he would be in Robertson's brigade. Among the voyageurs of both companies there was not a more expert canoeman than this treacherous, thievish Iroquois. As steersman, he could take a crew safely through knife-edge rocks with the swift certainty of arrow flight. In spite of a reputation for embodying the vices of white man and red—which gave him his unsavory title—it seemed unlikely that the Hudson's Bay Company, now in the thick of an aggressive campaign against its great rival, and about to despatch an important flotilla from Montreal to Athabasca by way of the Nor'-Westers' route, would dispense with the services of this dexterous voyageur. On the other hand, the Nor'-Westers might bribe the Iroquois to stay with them.
Acting on these alternative possibilities, Hamilton and I determined to track the fugitives north. We could leave hirelings to shadow the movements of Indian bands about Quebec. Eric could re-engage with the Hudson's Bay and get passage north with Colin Robertson's brigade, which was to leave Lachine in a few weeks. My uncle had been a famous Bourgeois of the great North-West Company in his younger days, and could secure me an immediate commission in the North-West Company. Thus we could accompany the voyageurs and runners of both companies.
Hamilton's arrangements were easily made; and my uncle not only obtained the commission for me, but, with a hearty clap on my back and a "Bravo, boy! I knew the fur trader's fever would break out in you yet!" pinned to the breast of my inner waistcoat the showy gold medallion which the Bourgeois wore on festive occasions. In very truth I oft had need of its inspiriting motto: Fortitude in Distress.
Feudal lords of the middle ages never waged more ruthless war on each other than the two great fur trading companies of the north at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Pierre de Raddison and Grosselier, gentlemen adventurers of New France, first followed the waters of the Outawa (Ottawa) northward, and passed from Lake Superior (the kelche gamme of Indian lore) to the great unknown fur preserve between Hudson Bay and the Pacific Ocean; but the fur monopolists of the French court in Quebec jealously obstructed the explorers' efforts to open up the vast territory. De Raddison was compelled to carry his project to the English court, and the English court, with a liberality not unusual in those days, promptly deeded over the whole domain, the extent, locality and wealth of which there was utter ignorance, to a fur trading organization,—the newly formed "Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson's Bay," incorporated in 1670 with Prince Rupert named as first governor. If monopolists of New France, through envy, sacrificed Quebec's first claim to the unknown land, Frontenac made haste to repair the loss. Father Albanel, a Jesuit, and other missionaries led the way westward to the Pays d'En Haut. De Raddison twice changed his allegiance, and when Quebec fell into the hands of the British nearly a century later, the French traders were as active in the northern fur preserve as their great rivals, the Ancient and Honorable Hudson's Bay Company; but the Englishmen kept near the bay and the Frenchmen with their coureurs-des-bois pushed westward along the chain of water-ays leading from Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg to the Saskatchewan and Athabasca. Then came the Conquest, with the downfall of French trade in the north country. But there remained the coureurs-des-bois, or wood-rangers, the Metis, or French half-breeds, the Bois-Brules, or plain runners—so called, it is supposed, from the trapper's custom of blazing his path through the forest. And on the ruins of French barter grew up a thriving English trade, organized for the most part by enterprising citizens of Quebec and Montreal, and absorbing within itself all the cast-off servants of the old French companies. Such was the origin of the X. Y. and North-West Companies towards the beginning of the nineteenth century. Of these the most energetic and powerful—and therefore the most to be feared by the Ancient and Honorable Hudson's Bay Company—was the North-West Company, "Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest," as the partners designated themselves.