THE MAGNETIC NORTH
By ELIZABETH ROBINS
(C. E. Raimond) Author of "The Open Question," "Below the Salt," etc. With a Map
I. WINTER CAMP IN THE YUKON
III. TWO NEW SPISSIMENS
IV. THE BLOW-OUT
V. THE SHAMAN
VI. A PENITENTIAL JOURNEY
VII. KAVIAK'S CRIME
IX. A CHRISTIAN AGNOSTIC
X. PRINCESS MUCKLUCK
XI. HOLY CROSS
XII. THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE
XIII. THE PIT
XV. THE ESQUIMAUX HORSE
XVII. THE GREAT STAMPEDE
XVIII. A MINERS' MEETING
XIX. THE ICE GOES OUT
XX. THE KLONDYKE
XXII. THE GOING HOME
THE MAGNETIC NORTH
WINTER CAMP ON THE YUKON
"To labour and to be content with that a man hath is a sweet life; but he that findeth a treasure is above them both."—Ecclesiasticus.
Of course they were bound for the Klondyke. Every creature in the North-west was bound for the Klondyke. Men from the South too, and men from the East, had left their ploughs and their pens, their factories, pulpits, and easy-chairs, each man like a magnetic needle suddenly set free and turning sharply to the North; all set pointing the self-same way since that July day in '97, when the Excelsior sailed into San Francisco harbour, bringing from the uttermost regions at the top of the map close upon a million dollars in nuggets and in gold-dust.
Some distance this side of the Arctic Circle, on the right bank of the Yukon, a little detachment of that great army pressing northward, had been wrecked early in the month of September.
They had realised, on leaving the ocean-going ship that landed them at St. Michael's Island (near the mouth of the great river), that they could not hope to reach Dawson that year. But instead of "getting cold feet," as the phrase for discouragement ran, and turning back as thousands did, or putting in the winter on the coast, they determined, with an eye to the spring rush, to cover as many as possible of the seventeen hundred miles of waterway before navigation closed.
They knew, in a vague way, that winter would come early, but they had not counted on the big September storm that dashed their heavy-laden boats against the floe-ice, ultimately drove them ashore, and nearly cost the little party their lives. On that last day of the long struggle up the stream, a stiff north-easter was cutting the middle reach of the mighty river, two miles wide here, into a choppy and dangerous sea.
Day by day, five men in the two little boats, had kept serious eyes on the shore. Then came the morning when, out of the monotonous cold and snow-flurries, something new appeared, a narrow white rim forming on the river margin—the first ice!
"Winter beginning to show his teeth," said one man, with an effort at jocosity.
Day by day, nearer came the menace; narrower and swifter still ran the deep black water strip between the encroaching ice-lines. But the thought that each day's sailing or rowing meant many days nearer the Klondyke, seemed to inspire a superhuman energy. Day by day each man had felt, and no man yet had said, "We must camp to-night for eight months." They had looked landward, shivered, and held on their way.
But on this particular morning, when they took in sail, they realised it was to be that abomination of desolation on the shore or death. And one or other speedily.
Nearer the white teeth gleamed, fiercer the gale, swifter the current, sweeping back the boats. The Mary C. was left behind, fighting for life, while it seemed as if no human power could keep the Tulare from being hurled against the western shore. Twice, in spite of all they could do, she was driven within a few feet of what looked like certain death. With a huge effort, that last time, her little crew had just got her well in mid-stream, when a heavy roller breaking on the starboard side drenched the men and half filled the cockpit. Each rower, still pulling for dear life with one hand, bailed the boat with the other; but for all their promptness a certain amount of the water froze solid before they could get it out.
"Great luck, if we're going to take in water like this," said the cheerful Kentuckian, shipping his oar and knocking off the ice—"great luck that all the stores are so well protected."
"Protected!" snapped out an anxious, cast-iron-looking man at the rudder.
"Yes, protected. How's water to get through the ice-coat that's over everything?"
The cast-iron steersman set his jaw grimly. They seemed to be comparatively safe now, with half a mile of open water between them and the western shore.
But they sat as before, stiff, alert, each man in his ice jacket that cracked and crunched as he bent to his oar. Now right, now left, again they eyed the shore.
Would it be—could it be there they would have to land? And if they did...?
Lord, how it blew!
"Hard a-port!" called out the steersman. There, just ahead, was a great white-capped "roller" coming—coming, the biggest wave they had encountered since leaving open sea.
But MacCann, the steersman, swung the boat straight into the crested roller, and the Tulare took it gamely, "bow on." All was going well when, just in the boiling middle of what they had thought was foaming "white-cap," the boat struck something solid, shivered, and went shooting down, half under water; recovered, up again, and seemed to pause in a second's doubt on the very top of the great wave. In that second that seemed an eternity one man's courage snapped.
Potts threw down his oar and swore by——and by——he wouldn't pull another——stroke on the——Yukon.
While he was pouring out the words, the steersman sprang from the tiller, and seized Potts' oar just in time to save the boat from capsizing. Then he and the big Kentuckian both turned on the distracted Potts.
"You infernal quitter!" shouted the steersman, and choked with fury. But even under the insult of that "meanest word in the language," Potts sat glaring defiantly, with his half-frozen hands in his pockets.
"It ain't a river, anyhow, this ain't," he said. "It's plain, simple Hell and water."
The others had no time to realise that Potts was clean out of his senses for the moment, and the Kentuckian, still pulling like mad, faced the "quitter" with a determination born of terror.
"If you can't row, take the rudder! Damnation! Take that rudder! Quick, or we'll kill you!" And he half rose up, never dropping his oar.
Blindly, Potts obeyed.
The Tulare was free now from the clinging mass at the bow, but they knew they had struck their first floe.
Farther on they could see other white-caps bringing other ice masses down. But there was no time for terrors ahead. The gale was steadily driving them in shore again. Boat and oars alike were growing unwieldy with their coating of ever-increasing ice, and human strength was no match for the storm that was sweeping down from the Pole.
Lord, how it blew!
"There's a cove!" called out the Kentuckian. "Throw her in!" he shouted to Potts. Sullenly the new steersman obeyed.
Rolling in on a great surge, the boat suddenly turned in a boiling eddy, and the first thing anybody knew was that the Tulare was on her side and her crew in the water. Potts was hanging on to the gunwale and damning the others for not helping him to save the boat.
She wasn't much of a boat when finally they got her into quiet water; but the main thing was they had escaped with their lives and rescued a good proportion of their winter provisions. All the while they were doing this last, the Kentuckian kept turning to look anxiously for any sign of the others, in his heart bitterly blaming himself for having agreed to Potts' coming into the Tulare that day in place of the Kentuckian's own "pardner." When they had piled the rescued provisions up on the bank, and just as they were covering the heap of bacon, flour, and bean-bags, boxes, tools, and utensils with a tarpaulin, up went a shout, and the two missing men appeared tramping along the ice-encrusted shore.
Where was the Mary C.? Well, she was at the bottom of the Yukon, and her crew would like some supper.
They set up a tent, and went to bed that first night extremely well pleased at being alive on any terms.
But people get over being glad about almost anything, unless misfortune again puts an edge on the circumstance. The next day, not being in any immediate danger, the boon of mere life seemed less satisfying.
In detachments they went up the river several miles, and down about as far. They looked in vain for any sign of the Mary C.. They prospected the hills. From the heights behind the camp they got a pretty fair idea of the surrounding country. It was not reassuring.
"As to products, there seems to be plenty of undersized timber, plenty of snow and plenty of river, and, as far as I can see, just nothing else."
"Well, there's oodles o' blueberries," said the Boy, his inky-looking mouth bearing witness to veracity; "and there are black and red currants in the snow, and rose-apples—"
"Oh, yes," returned the other, "it's a sort of garden of Eden!"
A little below here it was four miles from bank to bank of the main channel, but at this point the river was only about two miles wide, and white already with floating masses of floe-ice going on a swift current down towards the sea, four hundred miles away.
The right bank presented to the mighty river a low chain of hills, fringed at the base with a scattered growth of scrubby spruce, birch, willow, and cotton-wood. Timber line was only two hundred feet above the river brink; beyond that height, rocks and moss covered with new-fallen snow.
But if their side seemed cheerless, what of the land on the left bank? A swamp stretching endlessly on either hand, and back from the icy flood as far as eye could see, broken only by sloughs and an occasional ice-rimmed tarn.
"We've been travelling just eight weeks to arrive at this," said the Kentuckian, looking at the desolate scene with a homesick eye.
"We're not only pretty far from home," grumbled another, "we're still thirteen hundred miles away from the Klondyke."
These unenlivening calculations were catching.
"We're just about twenty-five hundred miles from the nearest railroad or telegraph, and, now that winter's down on us, exactly eight months from anywhere in the civilised world."
They had seen no sign of even savage life, no white trader, nothing to show that any human foot had ever passed that way before.
In that stillness that was like the stillness of death, they went up the hillside, with footsteps muffled in the clinging snow; and sixty feet above the great river, in a part of the wood where the timber was least unpromising, they marked out a site for their winter quarters.
Then this queer little company—a Denver bank-clerk, an ex-schoolmaster from Nova Scotia, an Irish-American lawyer from San Francisco, a Kentucky "Colonel" who had never smelt powder, and "the Boy" (who was no boy at all, but a man of twenty-two)—these five set to work felling trees, clearing away the snow, and digging foundations for a couple of log-cabins—one for the Trio, as they called themselves, the other for the Colonel and the Boy.
These two had chummed from the hour they met on the steamer that carried them through the Golden Gate of the Pacific till—well, till the end of my story.
The Colonel was a big tanned fellow, nearly forty—eldest of the party—whom the others used to guy discreetly, because you couldn't mention a place anywhere on the known globe, except the far north, which he had not personally inspected. But for this foible, as the untravelled considered it, he was well liked and a little feared—except by the Boy, who liked him "first-rate," and feared him not at all. They had promptly adopted each other before they discovered that it was necessary to have one or more "pardners." It seemed, from all accounts, to be true, that up there at the top of the world a man alone is a man lost, and ultimately the party was added to as aforesaid.
Only two of them knew anything about roughing it. Jimmie O'Flynn of 'Frisco, the Irish-American lawyer, had seen something of frontier life, and fled it, and MacCann, the Nova Scotian schoolmaster, had spent a month in one of the Caribou camps, and on the strength of that, proudly accepted the nickname of "the Miner."
Colonel George Warren and Morris Burnet, the Boy, had the best outfits; but this fact was held to be more than counter-balanced by the value of the schoolmaster's experience at Caribou, and by the extraordinary handiness of Potts, the Denver clerk, who had helped to build the shelter on deck for the disabled sick on the voyage up. This young man with the big mouth and lazy air had been in the office of a bank ever since he left school, and yet, under pressure, he discovered a natural neat-handedness and a manual dexterity justly envied by some of his fellow-pioneers. His outfit was not more conspicuously meagre than O'Flynn's, yet the Irishman was held to be the moneyed man of his party. Just why was never fully developed, but it was always said, "O'Flynn represents capital"; and O'Flynn, whether on that account, or for a subtler and more efficient reason, always got the best of everything that was going without money and without price.
On board ship O'Flynn, with his ready tongue and his golden background—"representing capital"—was a leading spirit. Potts the handy-man was a talker, too, and a good second. But, once in camp, Mac the Miner was cock of the walk, in those first days, quoted "Caribou," and ordered everybody about to everybody's satisfaction.
In a situation like this, the strongest lean on the man who has ever seen "anything like it" before. It was a comfort that anybody even thought he knew what to do under such new conditions. So the others looked on with admiration and a pleasant confidence, while Mac boldly cut a hole in the brand-new tent, and instructed Potts how to make a flange out of a tin plate, with which to protect the canvas from the heat of the stove-pipe. No more cooking now in the bitter open. Everyone admired Mac's foresight when he said:
"We must build rock fireplaces in our cabins, or we'll find our one little Yukon stove burnt out before the winter is over—before we have a chance to use it out prospecting." And when Mac said they must pool their stores, the Colonel and the Boy agreed as readily as O'Flynn, whose stores consisted of a little bacon, some navy beans, and a demijohn of whisky. O'Flynn, however, urged that probably every man had a little "mite o' somethin'" that he had brought specially for himself—somethin' his friends had given him, for instance. There was Potts, now. They all knew how the future Mrs. Potts had brought a plum-cake down to the steamer, when she came to say good-bye, and made Potts promise he wouldn't unseal the packet till Christmas. It wouldn't do to pool Potts' cake—never! There was the Colonel, the only man that had a sack of coffee. He wouldn't listen when they had told him tea was the stuff up here, and—well, perhaps other fellows didn't miss coffee as much as a Kentuckian, though he had heard—Never mind; they wouldn't pool the coffee. The Boy had some preserved fruit that he seemed inclined to be a hog about—
"Oh, look here. I haven't touched it!" "Just what I'm sayin'. You're hoardin' that fruit."
It was known that Mac had a very dacint little medicine-chest. Of course, if any fellow was ill, Mac wasn't the man to refuse him a little cold pizen; but he must be allowed to keep his own medicine chest—and that little pot o' Dundee marmalade. As for O'Flynn, he would look after the "dimmi-john."
But Mac was dead against the whisky clause. Alcohol had been the curse of Caribou, and in this camp spirits were to be for medicinal purposes only. Whereon a cloud descended on Mr. O'Flynn, and his health began to suffer; but the precious demi-john was put away "in stock" along with the single bottles belonging to the others. Mac had taken an inventory, and no one in those early days dared touch anything without his permission.
They had cut into the mountain-side for a level foundation, and were hard at it now hauling logs.
"I wonder," said the Boy, stopping a moment in his work, and looking at the bleak prospect round him—"I wonder if we're going to see anybody all winter."
"Oh, sure to," Mac thought; "Indians, anyhow."
"Well, I begin to wish they'd mosy along," said Potts; and the sociable O'Flynn backed him up.
It was towards noon on the sixth day after landing (they had come to speak of this now as a voluntary affair), when they were electrified by hearing strange voices; looked up from their work, and saw two white men seated on a big cake of ice going down the river with the current. When they recovered sufficiently from their astonishment at the spectacle, they ran down the hillside, and proposed to help the "castaways" to land. Not a bit of it.
"Land in that place! What you take us for? Not much! We're going to St. Michael's."
They had a small boat drawn up by them on the ice, and one man was dressed in magnificent furs, a long sable overcoat and cap, and wearing quite the air of a North Pole Nabob.
"Got any grub?" Mac called out.
"Yes; want some?"
"Oh no; I thought you—"
"You're not going to try to live through the winter there?"
"Lord! you are in a fix!"
"That's we thought about you."
But the travellers on the ice-raft went by laughing and joking at the men safe on shore with their tents and provisions. It made some of them visibly uneasy. Would they win through? Were they crazy to try it? They had looked forward eagerly to the first encounter with their kind, but this vision floating by on the treacherous ice, of men who rather dared the current and the crash of contending floes than land where they were, seemed of evil augury. The little incident left a curiously sinister impression on the camp.
Even Mac was found agreeing with the others of his Trio that, since they had a grand, tough time in front of them, it was advisable to get through the black months ahead with as little wear and tear as possible. In spite of the Trio's superior talents, they built a small ramshackle cabin with a tumble-down fireplace, which served them so ill that they ultimately spent all their waking hours in the more comfortable quarters of the Colonel and the Boy. It had been agreed that these two, with the help, or, at all events, the advice, of the others, should build the bigger, better cabin, where the stores should be kept and the whole party should mess—a cabin with a solid outside chimney of stone and an open fireplace, generous of proportion and ancient of design, "just like down South."
The weather was growing steadily colder; the ice was solid now many feet out from each bank of the river. In the middle of the flood the clotted current still ran with floe-ice, but it was plain the river was settling down for its long sleep.
Not silently, not without stress and thunder. The handful of dwellers on the shore would be waked in the night by the shock and crash of colliding floes, the sound of the great winds rushing by, and—"Hush! What's that?" Tired men would start up out of sleep and sit straight to listen. Down below, among the ice-packs, the noise as of an old-time battle going on—tumult and crashing and a boom! boom! like cannonading.
Then one morning they woke to find all still, the conflict over, the Yukon frozen from bank to bank. No sound from that day on; no more running water for a good seven months.
Winter had come.
While the work went forward they often spoke of the only two people they had thus far seen. Both Potts and O'Flynn had been heard to envy them.
Mac had happened to say that he believed the fellow in furs was an Englishman—a Canadian, at the very least. The Americans chaffed him, and said, "That accounts for it," in a tone not intended to flatter. Mac hadn't thought of it before, but he was prepared to swear now that if an Englishman—they were the hardiest pioneers on earth—or a Canadian was in favour of lighting out, "it must be for some good reason."
"Oh yes; we all know that reason."
The Americans laughed, and Mac, growing hot, was goaded into vaunting the Britisher and running down the Yankee.
"Yankee!" echoed the Kentuckian. "And up in Nova Scotia they let this man teach school! Doesn't know the difference yet between the little corner they call New England and all the rest of America."
"All the rest of America!" shouted Mac. "The cheeky way you people of the States have of gobbling the Continent (in talk), just as though the British part of it wasn't the bigger half!"
"Yes; but when you think which half, you ought to be obliged to any fellow for forgetting it." And then they referred to effete monarchical institutions, and by the time they reached the question of the kind of king the Prince of Wales would make, Mac was hardly a safe man to argue with.
There was one bond between him and the Kentucky Colonel: they were both religious men; and although Mac was blue Presbyterian and an inveterate theologian, somehow, out here in the wilderness, it was more possible to forgive a man for illusions about the Apostolic Succession and mistaken views upon Church government. The Colonel, at all events, was not so lax but what he was ready to back up the Calvinist in an endeavour to keep the Sabbath (with a careful compromise between church and chapel) and help him to conduct a Saturday-night Bible-class.
But if the Boy attended the Bible-class with fervour and aired his heresies with uncommon gusto, if he took with equal geniality Colonel Warren's staid remonstrance and Mac's fiery objurgation, Sunday morning invariably found him more "agnostic" than ever, stoutly declining to recognise the necessity for "service." For this was an occasion when you couldn't argue or floor anybody, or hope to make Mac "hoppin' mad," or have the smallest kind of a shindy. The Colonel read the lessons, Mac prayed, and they all sang, particularly O'Flynn. Now, the Boy couldn't sing a note, so there was no fair division of entertainment, wherefore he would go off into the woods with his gun for company, and the Catholic O'Flynn, and even Potts, were in better odour than he "down in camp" on Sundays. So far you may travel, and yet not escape the tyranny of the "outworn creeds."
The Boy came back a full hour before service on the second Sunday with a couple of grouse and a beaming countenance. Mac, who was cook that week, was the only man left in the tent. He looked agreeably surprised at the apparition.
"Hello!" says he more pleasantly than his Sunday gloom usually permitted. "Back in time for service?"
"I've found a native," says the Boy, speaking as proudly as any Columbus. "He's hurt his foot, and he's only got one eye, but he's splendid. Told me no end of things. He's coming here as fast as his foot will let him—he and three other Indians—Esquimaux, I mean. They haven't had anything to eat but berries and roots for seven days."
The Boy was feverishly overhauling the provisions behind the stove.
"Look here," says Mac, "hold on there. I don't know that we've come all this way to feed a lot o' dirty savages."
"But they're starving." Then, seeing that that fact did not produce the desired impression: "My savage is an awfully good fellow. He—he's a converted savage, seems to be quite a Christian." Then, hastily following up his advantage: "He's been taught English by the Jesuits at the mission forty miles above us, on the river. He can give us a whole heap o' tips."
Mac was slowly bringing out a small panful of cold boiled beans.
"There are four of them," said the Boy—"big fellows, almost as big as our Colonel, and awful hungry."
Mac looked at the handful of beans and then at the small sheet-iron stove.
"There are more cooking," says he not over-cordially.
"The one that talks good English is the son of the chief. You can see he's different from the others. Knows a frightful lot. He's taught me some of his language already. The men with him said 'Kaiomi' to everything I asked, and that means 'No savvy.' Says he'll teach me—he'll teach all of us—how to snow-shoe."
"We know how to snow-shoe."
"Oh, I mean on those long narrow snow-shoes that make you go so fast you always trip up! He'll show us how to steer with a pole, and how to make fish-traps and—and everything."
Mac began measuring out some tea.
"He's got a team of Esquimaux dogs—calls 'em Mahlemeuts, and he's got a birch-bark canoe, and a skin kyak from the coast." Then with an inspiration: "His people are the sort of Royal Family down there," added the Boy, thinking to appeal to the Britisher's monarchical instincts.
Mac had meditatively laid his hand on a side of bacon, the Boy's eyes following.
"He's asked us—all of us, and we're five—up to visit him at Pymeut, the first village above us here." Mac took up a knife to cut the bacon. "And—good gracious! why, I forgot the grouse; they can have the grouse!"
"No, they can't," said Mac firmly; "they're lucky to get bacon."
The Boy's face darkened ominously. When he looked like that the elder men found it was "healthiest to give him his head." But the young face cleared as quickly as it had clouded. After all, the point wasn't worth fighting for, since grouse would take time to cook, and—here were the natives coming painfully along the shore.
The Boy ran out and shouted and waved his cap. The other men of the camp, who had gone in the opposite direction, across the river ice to look at an air-hole, came hurrying back and reached camp about the same time as the visitors.
"Thought you said they were big fellows!" commented Mac, who had come to the door for a glimpse of the Indians as they toiled up the slope.
"Well, so they are!"
"Why, the Colonel would make two of any one of them."
"The Colonel! Oh well, you can't expect anybody else to be quite as big as that. I was in a hurry, but I suppose what I meant was, they could eat as much as the Colonel."
"How do you know?"
"Well, just look how broad they are. It doesn't matter to your stomach whether you're big up and down, or big to and fro."
"It's their furs make 'em look like that. They're the most awful little runts I ever saw!"
"Well, I reckon you'd think they were big, too—big as Nova Scotia—if you'd found 'em—come on 'em suddenly like that in the woods—"
"Which is the...?"
"Oh, the son of the chief is in the middle, the one who is taking off his civilised fur-coat. He says his father's got a heap of pelts (you could get things for your collection, Mac), and he's got two reindeer-skin shirts with hoods—'parkis,' you know, like the others are wearing—"
They were quite near now.
"How do," said the foremost native affably.
"How do." The Boy came forward and shook hands as though he hadn't seen him for a month. "This," says he, turning first to Mac and then to the other white men, "this is Prince Nicholas of Pymeut. Walk right in, all of you, and have something to eat."
The visitors sat on the ground round the stove, as close as they could get without scorching, and the atmosphere was quickly heavy with their presence. When they slipped back their hoods it was seen that two of the men wore the "tartar tonsure," after the fashion of the coast.
"Where do you come from?" inquired the Colonel of the man nearest him, who simply blinked and was dumb.
"This is the one that talks English," said the Boy, indicating Nicholas, "and he lives at Pymeut, and he's been converted."
"How far is Pymeut?"
"We sleep Pymeut to-night," says Nicholas.
The native jerked his head up the river.
"Many people there?"
"White men, too?"
He shook his head.
"How far to the nearest white men?"
Nicholas's mind wandered from the white man's catechism and fixed itself on his race's immemorial problem: how far it was to the nearest thing to eat.
"I thought you said he could speak English."
"So he can, first rate. He and I had a great pow-wow, didn't we, Nicholas?"
Nicholas smiled absently, and fixed his one eye on the bacon that Mac was cutting on the deal box into such delicate slices.
"He'll talk all right," said the Boy, "when he's had some breakfast."
Mac had finished the cutting, and now put the frying-pan on an open hole in the little stove.
"Cook him?" inquired Nicholas.
"Yes. Don't you cook him?"
"Take heap time, cook him."
"You couldn't eat it raw!"
Nicholas nodded emphatically.
Mac said "No," but the Boy was curious to see if they would really eat it uncooked.
"Let them have some of it raw while the rest is frying"; and he beckoned the visitors to the deal box. They made a dart forward, gathered up the fat bacon several slices at a time, and pushed it into their mouths.
"Ugh!" said the Colonel under his breath.
Mac quickly swept what was left into the frying-pan, and began to cut a fresh lot.
The Boy divided the cold beans, got out biscuits, and poured the tea, while silence and a strong smell of ancient fish and rancid seal pervaded the little tent.
O'Flynn put a question or two, but Nicholas had gone stone-deaf. There was no doubt about it, they had been starving.
After a good feed they sat stolidly by the fire, with no sign of consciousness, save the blinking of beady eyes, till the Colonel suggested a smoke. Then they all grinned broadly, and nodded with great vigour. Even those who had no other English understood "tobacco."
When he had puffed awhile, Nicholas took his pipe out of his mouth, and, looking at the Boy, said:
"You no savvy catch fish in winter?"
"Through the ice? No. How you do it?"
"Make hole—put down trap—heap fish all winter."
"You get enough to live on?" asked the Colonel.
"They must have dried fish, too, left over from the summer," said Mac.
Nicholas agreed. "And berries and flour. When snow begin get soft, Pymeuts all go off—" He motioned with his big head towards the hills.
"What do you get there?" Mac was becoming interested.
"Yes; trap ermun, marten—"
"Lynx, too, I suppose, and fox?"
Nicholas nodded. "All kinds. Wolf—muskrat, otter—wolverine—all kinds."
"You got some skins now?" asked the Nova Scotian.
"Y—yes. More when snow get soft. You come Pymeut—me show."
"Where have ye been just now?" asked O'Flynn.
"How long since ye left there?"
"He means thirteen days."
"They couldn't possibly walk that far in—"
"Oh yes," says the Boy; "they don't follow the windings of the river, they cut across the portage, you know."
"Snow come—no trail—big mountains—all get lost."
"What did you go to St. Michael's for?"
"Oh, me pilot. Me go all over. Me leave N. A. T. and T. boat St. Michael's last trip."
"Then you're in the employ of the great North American Trading and Transportation Company?"
Nicholas gave that funny little duck of the head that meant yes.
"That's how you learnt English," says the Colonel.
"No; me learn English at Holy Cross. Me been baptize."
"At that Jesuit mission up yonder?"
"Well," says Potts, "I guess you've had enough walking for one winter."
Nicholas seemed not to follow this observation. The Boy interpreted:
"You heap tired, eh? You no go any more long walk till ice go out, eh?"
"Me go Ikogimeut—all Pymeut go."
"Oh, the Russian mission there gives a feast?"
"No. Big Innuit feast."
"Pretty quick. Every year big feast down to Ikogimeut when Yukon ice get hard, so man go safe with dog-team."
"Do many people go?"
"All Innuit go, plenty Ingalik go."
"How far do they come?"
"All over; come from Koserefsky, come from Anvik—sometime Nulato."
"Why, Nulato's an awful distance from Ikogimeut."
"Three hundred and twenty miles," said the pilot, proud of his general information, and quite ready, since he had got a pipe between his teeth, to be friendly and communicative.
"What do you do at Ikogimeut when you have these—" "Big fire—big feed—tell heap stories—big dance. Oh, heap big time!"
"Once every year, eh, down at Ikogimeut?"
"Three times ev' year. Ev' village, and"—he lowered his voice, not with any hit of reverence or awe, but with an air of making a sly and cheerful confidence—"and when man die."
"You make a feast and have a dance when a friend dies?"
"If no priests. Priests no like. Priests say, 'Man no dead; man gone up.'" Nicholas pondered the strange saying, and slowly shook his head.
"In that the priests are right," said Mac grudgingly.
It was anything but politic, but for the life of him the Boy couldn't help chipping in:
"You think when man dead he stay dead, eh, and you might as well make a feast?"
Nicholas gave his quick nod. "We got heap muskeetah, we cold, we hungry. We here heap long time. Dead man, he done. Why no big feast? Oh yes, heap big feast."
The Boy was enraptured. He would gladly have encouraged these pagan deliverances on the part of the converted Prince, but the Colonel was scandalised, and Mac, although in his heart of hearts not ill-satisfied at the evidence of the skin-deep Christianity of a man delivered over to the corrupt teaching of the Jesuits, found in this last fact all the stronger reason for the instant organisation of a good Protestant prayer-meeting. Nicholas of Pymeut must not be allowed to think it was only Jesuits who remembered the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
And the three "pore benighted heathen" along with him, if they didn't understand English words, they should have an object-lesson, and Mac would himself pray the prayers they couldn't utter for themselves. He jumped up, motioned the Boy to put on more wood, cleared away the granite-ware dishes, filled the bean-pot and set it back to simmer, while the Colonel got out Mac's Bible and his own Prayer-Book.
The Boy did his stoking gloomily, reading aright these portents. Almost eclipsed was joy in this "find" of his (for he regarded the precious Nicholas as his own special property). It was all going to end in his—the Boy's—being hooked in for service. As long as the Esquimaux were there he couldn't, of course, tear himself away. And here was the chance they'd all been waiting for. Here was a native chock-full of knowledge of the natural law and the immemorial gospel of the North, who would be gone soon—oh, very soon, if Mac and the Colonel went on like this—and they were going to choke off Nicholas's communicativeness with—a service!
"It's Sunday, you know," says the Colonel to the Prince, laying open his book, "and we were just going to have church. You are accustomed to going to church at Holy Cross, aren't you?"
"When me kid me go church."
"You haven't gone since you grew up? They still have church there, don't they?"
"Oh, Father Brachet, him have church."
"Why don't you go?"
Nicholas was vaguely conscious of threatened disapproval.
"Me ... me must take up fish-traps."
"Can't you do that another day?"
It seemed not to have occurred to Nicholas before. He sat and considered the matter.
"Isn't Father Brachet," began the Colonel gravely—"he doesn't like it, does he, when you don't come to church?"
"He take care him church; him know me take care me fish-trap."
But Nicholas saw plainly out of his one eye that he was not growing in popularity. Suddenly that solitary organ gleamed with self-justification.
"Me bring fish to Father Brachet and to Mother Aloysius and the Sisters."
Mac and the Colonel exchanged dark glances.
"Do Mother Aloysius and the Sisters live where Father Brachet does?"
"Father Brachet, and Father Wills, and Brother Paul, and Brother Etienne, all here." The native put two fingers on the floor. "Big white cross in middle"—he laid down his pipe to personate the cross—"here"—indicating the other side—"here Mother Aloysius and the Sisters."
"I thought," says Mac, "we'd be hearing of a convent convenient."
"Me help Father Brachet," observed Nicholas proudly. "Me show him boys how make traps, show him girls how make mucklucks." "What!" gasps the horrified Mac, "Father Brachet has got a family?"
"Famly?" inquired Nicholas. "Kaiomi"; and he shook his head uncertainly.
"You say Father Brachet has got boys, and"—as though this were a yet deeper brand of iniquity—"girls?"
Nicholas, though greatly mystified, nodded firmly.
"I suppose he thinks away off up here nobody will ever know. Oh, these Jesuits!"
"How many children has this shameless priest?"
"Father Brachet, him got seventeen boys, and—me no savvy how much girl—twelve girl ... twenty girl ..."
The Boy, who had been splitting with inward laughter, exploded at this juncture.
"He keeps a native school, Mac."
"Yes," says Nicholas, "teach boy make table, chair, potatoes grow—all kinds. Sisters teach girl make dinner, wash—all kinds. Heap good people up at Holy Cross."
"Divil a doubt of it," says O'Flynn.
But this blind belauding of the children of Loyola only fired Mac the more to give the heathen a glimpse of the true light. In what darkness must they grope when a sly, intriguing Jesuit (it was well known they were all like that) was for them a type of the "heap good man"—a priest, forsooth, who winked at Sabbath-breaking because he and his neighbouring nuns shared in the spoil!
Well, they must try to have a truly impressive service. Mac and the Colonel telegraphed agreement on this head. Savages were said to be specially touched by music.
"I suppose when you were a kid the Jesuits taught you chants and so on," said the Colonel, kindly.
"Kaiomi," answered Nicholas after reflection.
"You can sing, can't you?" asks O'Flynn.
"Sing? No, me dance!"
The Boy roared with delight.
"Why, yes, I never thought of that. You fellows do the songs, and Nicholas and I'll do the dances."
Mac glowered angrily. "Look here: if you don't mind being blasphemous for yourself, don't demoralise the natives."
"Well, I like that! Didn't Miriam dance before the Lord? Why shouldn't Nicholas and me?"
The Colonel cleared his throat, and began to read the lessons for the day. The natives sat and watched him closely. They really behaved very well, and the Boy was enormously proud of his new friends. There was a great deal at stake. The Boy felt he must walk warily, and he already regretted those light expressions about dancing before the Lord. All the fun of the winter might depend on a friendly relation between Pymeut and the camp. It was essential that the Esquimaux should not only receive, but make, a good impression.
The singing "From Greenland's icy mountains to India's coral strand" seemed to please them; but when, after the Colonel's "Here endeth the second lesson," Mac said, in sepulchral tones, "Let us pray," the visitors seemed to think it was time to go home.
"No," said Mac sternly, "they mustn't go in the middle of the meeting"; and he proceeded to kneel down.
But Nicholas was putting on his fur coat, and the others only waited to follow him out. The Boy, greatly concerned lest, after all, the visit should end badly, dropped on his knees to add the force of his own example, and through the opening phrases of Mac's prayer the agnostic was heard saying, in a loud stage-whisper, "Do like me—down! Look here! Suppose you ask us come big feast, and in the middle of your dance we all go home—.
"Oh no," remonstrated Nicholas.
"Very well. These friends o' mine no like man go home in the middle. They heap mad at me when I no stay. You savvy?"
"Me savvy," says Nicholas slowly and rather depressed.
"Kneel down, then," says the Boy. And first Nicholas, and then the others, went on their knees.
Alternately they looked in the Boy's corner where the grub was, and then over their shoulders at the droning Mac and back, catching the Boy's eye, and returning his reassuring nods and grins.
Mac, who had had no innings up to this point, was now embarked upon a most congenial occupation. Wrestling with the Lord on behalf of the heathen, he lost count of time. On and on the prayer wound its slow way; involution after involution, coil after coil, like a snake, the Boy thought, lazing in the sun. Unaccustomed knees grew sore.
"Hearken to the cry of them that walk in darkness, misled by wolves in sheep's clothing—wolves, Lord, wearing the sign of the Holy Cross—"
O'Flynn shuffled, and Mac pulled himself up. No light task this of conveying to the Creator, in covert terms, a due sense of the iniquity of the Jesuits, without, at the same time, stirring O'Flynn's bile, and seeing him get up and stalk out of meeting, as had happened once before.
O'Flynn was not deeply concerned about religious questions, but "there were limits." The problem was how to rouse the Lord without rousing O'Flynn—a piece of negotiation so delicate, calling for a skill in pious invective so infinitely absorbing to Mac's particular cast of mind, that he was quickly stone-blind and deaf to all things else.
"Not all the heathen are sunk in iniquity; but they are weak, tempted, and they weary, Lord!"
"Amen," said the Boy, discreetly. "How long?" groaned Mac—"Oh Lord, how long?" But it was much longer than he realised. The Boy saw the visitors shifting from one knee to another, and feared the worst. But he sympathised deeply with their predicament. To ease his own legs, he changed his position, and dragged a corner of the sailcloth down off the little pile of provisions, and doubled it under his knees.
The movement revealed the bag of dried apples within arm's length. Nicholas was surreptitiously reaching for his coat. No doubt about it, he had come to the conclusion that this was the fitting moment to depart. A look over his shoulder showed Mac absorbed, and taking fresh breath at "Sixthly, Oh Lord." The Boy put out a hand, and dragged the apple-bag slowly, softly towards him. The Prince dropped the sleeve of his coat, and fixed his one eye on his friend. The Boy undid the neck of the sack, thrust in his hand, and brought out a fistfull. Another look at Mac—still hard at it, trying to spare O'Flynn's feelings without mincing matters with the Almighty.
The Boy winked at Nicholas, made a gesture, "Catch!" and fired a bit of dried apple at him, at the same time putting a piece in his own mouth to show him it was all right.
Nicholas followed suit, and seemed pleased with the result. He showed all his strong, white teeth, and ecstatically winked his one eye back at the Boy, who threw him another bit and then a piece to each of the others.
The Colonel had "caught on," and was making horrible frowns at the Boy. Potts and O'Flynn looked up, and in dumbshow demanded a share. No? Very well, they'd tell Mac. So the Boy had to feed them, too, to keep them quiet. And still Mac prayed the Lord to catch up this slip he had made here on the Yukon with reference to the natives. In the midst of a powerful peroration, he happened to open his eyes a little, and they fell on the magnificent great sable collar of Prince Nicholas's coat.
Without any of the usual slowing down, without the accustomed warning of a gradual descent from the high themes of heaven to the things of common earth, Mac came down out of the clouds with a bump, and the sudden, business-like "Amen" startled all the apple-chewing congregation.
Mac stood up, and says he to Nicholas:
"Where did you get that coat?"
Nicholas, still on his knees, stared, and seemed in doubt if this were a part of the service.
"Where did you get that coat?" repeated Mac.
The Boy had jumped up nimbly. "I told you his father has a lot of furs."
"No," says Nicholas; "this belong white man."
"Ha," says Mac excitedly, "I thought I'd seen it before. Tell us how you got it."
"Me leave St. Michael; me got ducks, reindeer meat—oh, plenty kow-kow! [Footnote: Food] Two sleeps away St. Michael me meet Indian. Heap hungry. Him got bully coat." Nicholas picked it up off the floor. "Him got no kow-kow. Him say, 'Give me duck, give me back-fat. You take coat, him too heavy.' Me say, 'Yes.'"
"But how did he get the coat?"
"Him say two white men came down river on big ice."
"Men sick." He tapped his forehead. "Man no sick, he no go down with the ice"; and Nicholas shuddered. "Before Ikogimeut, ice jam. Indian see men jump one big ice here, more big ice here, and one... go down. Indian"—Nicholas imitated throwing out a line—"man tie mahout round—but—big ice come—" Nicholas dashed his hands together, and then paused significantly. "Indian sleep there. Next day ice hard. Indian go little way out to see. Man dead. Him heap good coat," he wound up unemotionally, and proceeded to put it on.
"And the other white man—what became of him?"
Nicholas shrugged: "Kaiomi," though it was plain he knew well enough the other lay under the Yukon ice.
"And that—that was the end of the fellows who went by jeering at us!"
"We'd better not crow yet," said Mac. And they bade Prince Nicholas and his heathen retinue good-bye in a mood chastened not by prayer alone.
"There is a sort of moral climate in a household."—JOHN MORLEY.
No idle ceremony this, but the great problem of the dwellers in the country of the Yukon.
The Colonel and the Boy made up their minds that, whatever else they had or had not, they would have a warm house to live in. And when they had got it, they would have a "Blow-out" to celebrate the achievement.
"We'll invite Nicholas," says the Boy. "I'll go to Pymeut myself, and let him know we are going to have 'big fire, big feed. Oh, heap big time!'"
If the truth were told, it had been a difficult enough matter to keep away from Pymeut since the hour Nicholas had vanished in that direction; but until winter quarters were made, and until they were proved to be warm, there was no time for the amenities of life.
The Big Cabin (as it was quite seriously called, in contradistinction to the hut of the Trio) consisted of a single room, measuring on the outside sixteen feet by eighteen feet.
The walls of cotton-wood logs soared upward to a level of six feet, and this height was magnificently increased in the middle by the angle of the mildly gable roof. But before the cabin was breast-high the Boy had begun to long for a window.
"Sorry we forgot the plate-glass," says Mac.
"Wudn't ye like a grrand-piana?" asks O'Flynn.
"What's the use of goin' all the way from Nova Scotia to Caribou," says the Boy to the Schoolmaster-Miner, "if you haven't learned the way to make a window like the Indians, out of transparent skin?"
Mac assumed an air of elevated contempt.
"I went to mine, not to learn Indian tricks."
"When the door's shut it'll be dark as the inside of a cocoa-nut."
"You ought to have thought of that before you left the sunny South," said Potts.
"It'll be dark all winter, window or no window," Mac reminded them.
"Never mind," said the Colonel, "when the candles give out we'll have the fire-light. Keep all the spruce knots, boys!"
But one of the boys was not pleased. The next day, looking for a monkey-wrench under the tarpaulin, he came across the wooden box a California friend had given him at parting, containing a dozen tall glass jars of preserved fruit. The others had growled at the extra bulk and weight, when the Boy put the box into the boat at St. Michael's, but they had now begun to look kindly on it and ask when it was to be opened. He had answered firmly:
"Not before Christmas," modifying this since Nicholas's visit to "Not before the House-Warming." But one morning the Boy was found pouring the fruit out of the jars into some empty cans.
"What you up to?"
"Wait an' see." He went to O'Flynn, who was dish-washer that week, got him to melt a couple of buckets of snow over the open-air campfire and wash the fruit-jars clean.
"Now, Colonel," says the Boy, "bring along that buck-saw o' yours and lend a hand."
They took off the top log from the south wall of the cabin, measured a two-foot space in the middle, and the Colonel sawed out the superfluous spruce intervening. While he went on doing the same for the other logs on that side, the Boy roughly chiselled a moderately flat sill. Then one after another he set up six of the tall glass jars in a row, and showed how, alternating with the other six bottles turned upside down, the thick belly of one accommodating itself to the thin neck of the other, the twelve made a very decent rectangle of glass. When they had hoisted up, and fixed in place, the logs on each side, and the big fellow that went all across on top; when they had filled the inconsiderable cracks between the bottles with some of the mud-mortar with which the logs were to be chinked, behold a double glass window fit for a king!
The Boy was immensely pleased.
"Oh, that's an old dodge," said Mac depreciatingly. "Why, they did that at Caribou!"
"Then, why in—Why didn't you suggest it?"
"You wait till you know more about this kind o' life, and you won't go in for fancy touches."
Nevertheless, the man who had mined at Caribou seemed to feel that some contribution from him was necessary to offset the huge success of that window. He did not feel called upon to help to split logs for the roof of the Big Cabin, but he sat cutting and whittling away at a little shelf which he said was to be nailed up at the right of the Big Cabin door. Its use was not apparent, but no one dared call it a "fancy touch," for Mac was a miner, and had been to Caribou.
When the shelf was nailed up, its maker brought forth out of his medicine-chest a bottle of Perry Davis's Pain-killer.
"Now at Caribou," says he, "they haven't got any more thermometers kicking round than we have here, but they discovered that when Perry Davis congeals you must keep a sharp look-out for frost-bite, and when Perry Davis freezes solid, you'd better mind your eye and stay in your cabin, if you don't want to die on the trail." With which he tied a string round Perry Davis's neck, set the bottle up on the shelf, and secured it firmly in place. They all agreed it was a grand advantage to have been to Caribou!
But Mac knew things that he had probably not learned there, about trees, and rocks, and beasts, and their manners and customs and family names. If there were more than a half-truth in the significant lament of a very different man, "I should be a poet if only I knew the names of things," then, indeed, Samuel MacCann was equipped to make a mark in literature.
From the time he set foot on the volcanic shore of St Michael's Island, Mac had begun his "collection."
Nowadays, when he would spend over "that truck of his" hours that might profitably (considering his talents) be employed in helping to fortify the camp against the Arctic winter, his companions felt it little use to remonstrate.
By themselves they got on rapidly with work on the roof, very much helped by three days' unexpectedly mild weather. When the split logs had been marshalled together on each side of the comb, they covered them with dried moss and spruce boughs.
Over all they laid a thick blanket of the earth which had been dug out to make a level foundation. The cracks in the walls were chinked with moss and mud-mortar. The floor was the naked ground, "to be carpeted with skins by-and-by," so Mac said; but nobody believed Mac would put a skin to any such sensible use.
The unreasonable mildness of three or four days and the little surface thaw, came to an abrupt end in a cold rain that turned to sleet as it fell. Nobody felt like going far afield just then, even after game, but they had set the snare that Nicholas told the Boy about on that first encounter in the wood. Nicholas, it seemed, had given him a noose made of twisted sinew, and showed how it worked in a running loop. He had illustrated the virtue of this noose when attached to a pole balanced in the crotch of a tree, caught over a horizontal stick by means of a small wooden pin tied to the snare. A touch at the light end of the suspended pole (where the baited loop dangles) loosens the pin, and the heavy end of the pole falls, hanging ptarmigan or partridge in the air.
For some time after rigging this contrivance, whenever anyone reported "tracks," Mac and the Boy would hasten to the scene of action, and set a new snare, piling brush on each side of the track that the game had run in, so barring other ways, and presenting a line of least resistance straight through the loop.
In the early days Mac would come away from these preparations saying with dry pleasure:
"Now, with luck, we may get a Xema Sabinii," or some such fearful wildfowl.
"Good to eat?" the Boy would ask, having had his disappointments ere now in moments of hunger for fresh meat, when Mac, with the nearest approach to enthusiasm he permitted himself, had brought in some miserable little hawk-owl or a three-toed woodpecker to add, not to the larder, but to the "collection."
"No, you don't eat Sabine gulls," Mac would answer pityingly.
But those snares never seemed to know what they were there for. The first one was set expressly to catch one of the commonest birds that fly—Mac's Lagopus albus, the beautiful white Arctic grouse, or at the very least a Bonasa umbellus, which, being interpreted, is ruffed ptarmigan. The tracks had been bird tracks, but the creature that swung in the air next day was a baby hare. The Schoolmaster looked upon the incident as being in the nature of a practical joke, and resented it. But the others were enchanted, and professed thereafter a rooted suspicion of the soundness of the Schoolmaster's Natural History, which nobody actually felt. For he had never yet pretended to know anything that he didn't know well; and when Potts would say something disparaging of Mac's learning behind his back (which was against the unwritten rules of the game) the Colonel invariably sat on Potts.
"Knows a darned sight too much? No, he don't, sir; that's just the remarkable thing about Mac. He isn't trying to carry any more than he can swing."
At the same time it is to be feared that none of his companions really appreciated the pedagogue's learning. Nor had anyone but the Boy sympathised with his resolution to make a Collection. What they wanted was eatable game, and they affected no intelligent interest in knowing the manners and customs of the particular species that was sending up appetising odours from the pot.
They even applauded the rudeness of the Boy, who one day responded to Mac's gravely jubilant "Look here! I've got the Parus Hudsonicus!"—
"Poor old man! What do you do for it?"
And when anybody after that was indisposed, they said he might be sickening for an attack of Parus Hudsonicus, and in that case it was a bad look-out.
Well for Mac that he wouldn't have cared a red cent to impress the greatest naturalist alive, let alone a lot of fellows who didn't know a titmouse from a disease.
Meanwhile work on the Big Cabin had gone steadily forward. From the outside it looked finished now, and distinctly imposing. From what were left of the precious planks out of the bottom of the best boat they had made the door—two by four, and opening directly in front of that masterpiece, the rock fireplace. The great stone chimney was the pride of the camp and the talk before the winter was done of all "the Lower River."
Spurred on partly by the increased intensity of the cold, partly by the Colonel's nonsense about the way they did it "down South," Mac roused himself, and turned out a better piece of masonry for the Big Cabin than he had thought necessary for his own. But everybody had a share in the glory of that fireplace. The Colonel, Potts, and the Boy selected the stone, and brought it on a rude litter out of a natural quarry from a place a mile or more away up on the bare mountain-side. O'Flynn mixed and handed up the mud-mortar, while Mac put in some brisk work with it before it stiffened in the increasing cold.
Everybody was looking forward to getting out of the tent and into the warm cabin, and the building of the fireplace stirred enthusiasm. It was two and a half feet deep, three and a half feet high, and four feet wide, and when furnished with ten-inch hack logs, packed in glowing ashes and laid one above another, with a roaring good blaze in front of birch and spruce, that fire would take a lot of beating, as the Boy admitted, "even in the tat-pine Florida country."
But no fire on earth could prevent the cabin from being swept through, the moment the door was opened, by a fierce and icy air-current. The late autumnal gales revealed the fact that the sole means of ventilation had been so nicely contrived that whoever came in or went out admitted a hurricane of draught that nearly knocked him down. Potts said it took a good half-hour, after anyone had opened the door, to heat the place up again.
"What! You cold?" inquired the usual culprit. The Boy had come in to put an edge on his chopper. "It's stopped snowin', an' you better come along with me, Potts. Swing an axe for a couple of hours—that'll warm you."
"I've got rheumatism in my shoulder to-day," says Potts, hugging the huge fire closer.
"And you've got something wrong with your eyes, eh, Mac?"
Potts narrowed his and widened the great mouth; but he had turned his head so Mac couldn't see him.
The Nova Scotian only growled and refilled his pipe. Up in the woods the Boy repeated the conversation to the Colonel, who looked across at O'Flynn several yards away, and said: "Hush!"
"Why must I shut up? Mac's eyes do look rather queer and bloodshot. I should think he'd rather feel we lay it to his eyes than know we're afraid he's peterin' out altogether."
"I never said I was afraid—"
"No, you haven't said much." "I haven't opened my head about it."
"No, but you've tried hard enough for five or six days to get Mac to the point where he would come out and show us how to whip-saw. You haven't said anything, but you've—you've got pretty dignified each time you failed, and we all know what that means."
"We ought to have begun sawing boards for our bunks and swing-shelf a week back, before this heavy snowfall. Besides, there's enough fire-wood now; we're only marking time until—"
"Until Mac's eyes get all right. I understand."
Again the Colonel had made a sound like "Sh!" and went on swinging his axe.
They worked without words till the Boy's tree came down. Then he stopped a moment, and wiped his face.
"It isn't so cold to-day, not by a long shot, for all Potts's howling about his rheumatics."
"It isn't cold that starts that kind of pain."
"No, siree. I'm not much of a doctor, but I can see Potts's rheumatism doesn't depend on the weather."
"Never you mind Potts."
"I don't mind Potts. I only mind Mac. What's the matter with Mac, anyway?"
"Oh, he's just got cold feet. Maybe he'll thaw out by-and-by."
"Did you ever think what Mac's like? With that square-cut jaw and sawed-off nose, everything about him goin' like this"—the Boy described a few quick blunt angles in the air—"well, sir, he's the livin' image of a monkey-wrench. I'm comin' to think he's as much like it inside as he is out. He can screw up for a prayer-meetin', or he can screw down for business—when he's a mind, but, as Jimmie over there says, 'the divil a different pace can you put him through.' I like monkey-wrenches! I'm only sayin' they aren't as limber as willa-trees."
No response from the Colonel, who was making the chips fly. It had cost his great body a good many aches and bruises, but he was a capital axeman now, and not such a bad carpenter, though when the Boy said as much he had answered:
"Carpenter! I'm just a sort of a well-meanin' wood-butcher"; and deeply he regretted that in all his young years on a big place in the country he had learnt so little about anything but horses and cattle.
On the way back to dinner they spoke again of this difficulty of the boards. O'Flynn whistled "Rory O'More" with his pleasant air of detachment.
"You and the others would take more interest in the subject," said the Boy a little hotly, "if we hadn't let you fellows use nearly all the boat-planks for your bunks, and now we haven't got any for our own."
"Let us use 'em! Faith! we had a right to'm."
"To boards out of our boat!"
"And ye can have the loan o' the whip-saw to make more, whenever the fancy takes ye."
"Loan o' the whip-saw! Why, it's mine," says the Colonel.
"Divil a bit of it, man!" says O'Flynn serenely. "Everything we've got belongs to all of us, except a sack o' coffee, a medicine-chest, and a dimmi-john. And it's mesilf that's afraid the dimmi-john—"
"What's the use of my having bought a whip-saw?" interrupted the Colonel, hurriedly. "What's the good of it, if the only man that knows how to use it—"
"Is more taken up wid bein' a guardjin angel to his pardner's dimmi-john—"
The Colonel turned and frowned at the proprietor of the dimmi-john. The Boy had dropped behind to look at some marten tracks in the fresh-fallen snow.
"I'll follow that trail after dinner," says he, catching up the others in time to hear O'Flynn say:
"If it wusn't that ye think only a feller that's been to Caribou can teach ye annything it's Jimmie O'Flynn that 'ud show ye how to play a chune on that same whip-saw."
"Will you show us after dinner?"
"Sure I will."
And he was as good as his word.
This business of turning a tree into boards without the aid of a saw-mill is a thing many placer-miners have to learn; for, even if they are disposed to sleep on the floor, and to do without shelves, they can't do sluicing without sluice-boxes, and they can't make those long, narrow boxes without boards.
So every party that is well fitted out has a whip-saw.
"Furrst ye dig a pit," O'Flynn had said airily, stretched out before the fire after dinner. "Make it about four feet deep, and as long as ye'd like yer boards. When ye've done that I'll come and take a hand."
The little job was not half finished when the light tailed. Two days more of soil-burning and shovelling saw it done.
"Now ye sling a couple o' saplings acrost the durrt ye've chucked out. R-right! Now ye roll yer saw-timber inter the middle. R-right! An' on each side ye want a log to stand on. See? Wid yer 'guide-man' on top sthradlin' yer timberr, watchin' the chalk-line and doin' the pull-up, and the otherr fellerr in the pit lookin' afther the haul-down, ye'll be able to play a chune wid that there whip-saw that'll make the serryphims sick o' plain harps." O'Flynn superintended it all, and even Potts had the curiosity to come out and see what they were up to. Mac was "kind o' dozin'" by the fire.
When the frame was finished O'Flynn helped to put the trial-log in place, having marked it off with charcoal to indicate inch and a quarter planks. Then the Colonel, down in the pit, and O'Flynn on top of the frame, took the great two-handled saw between them, and began laboriously, one drawing the big blade up, and the other down, vertically through the log along the charcoal line.
"An' that's how it's done, wid bits of yer arrums and yer back that have niver been called on to wurruk befure. An' whin ye've been at it an hour ye'll find it goes betther wid a little blasphemin';" and he gave his end of the saw to the reluctant Potts.
Potts was about this time as much of a problem to his pardners as was the ex-schoolmaster. If the bank clerk had surprised them all by his handiness on board ship, and by making a crane to swing the pots over the fire, he surprised them all still more in these days by an apparent eclipse of his talents. It was unaccountable. Potts's carpentering, Potts's all-round cleverness, was, like "payrock in a pocket," as the miners say, speedily worked out, and not a trace of it afterwards to be found.
But less and less was the defection of the Trio felt. The burly Kentucky stock-farmer was getting his hand in at "frontier" work, though he still couldn't get on without his "nigger," as the Boy said, slyly indicating that it was he who occupied this exalted post. These two soon had the bunks made out of the rough planks they had sawed with all a green-horn's pains. They put in a fragrant mattress of spring moss, and on that made up a bed of blankets and furs.
More boards were laboriously turned out to make the great swing-shelf to hang up high in the angle of the roof, where the provisions might be stored out of reach of possible marauders.
The days were very short now, bringing only about five hours of pallid light, so little of which struggled through the famous bottle-window that at all hours they depended chiefly on the blaze from the great fireplace. There was still a good deal of work to be done indoors, shelves to be put up on the left as you entered (whereon the granite-ware tea-service, etc., was kept), a dinner-table to be made, and three-legged stools. While these additions—"fancy touches," as the Trio called them—were being made, Potts and O'Flynn, although occasionally they went out for an hour or two, shot-gun on shoulder, seldom brought home anything, and for the most part were content with doing what they modestly considered their share of the cooking and washing. For the rest, they sat by the fire playing endless games of euchre, seven-up and bean poker, while Mac, more silent than ever, smoked and read Copps's "Mining Laws" and the magazines of the previous August.
Nobody heard much in those days of Caribou. The Colonel had gradually slipped into the position of Boss of the camp. The Trio were still just a trifle afraid of him, and he, on his side, never pressed a dangerous issue too far.
But this is a little to anticipate.
One bitter gray morning, that had reduced Perry Davis to a solid lump of ice, O'Flynn, the Colonel, and the Boy were bringing into the cabin the last of the whip-sawed boards. The Colonel halted and looked steadily up the river.
"Is that a beast or a human?" said he.
"It's a man," the Boy decided after a moment—"no, two men, single file, and—yes—Colonel, it's dogs. Hooray! a dog-team at last!"
They had simultaneously dropped the lumber. The Boy ran on to tell the cook to prepare more grub, and then pelted after O'Flynn and the Colonel, who had gone down to meet the newcomers—an Indian driving five dogs, which were hitched tandem to a low Esquimaux sled, with a pack and two pairs of web-foot snow-shoes lashed on it, and followed by a white man. The Indian was a fine fellow, younger than Prince Nicholas, and better off in the matter of eyes. The white man was a good deal older than either, with grizzled hair, a worn face, bright dark eyes, and a pleasant smile.
"I had heard some white men had camped hereabouts," says he. "I am glad to see we have such substantial neighbours." He was looking up at the stone chimney, conspicuous a long way off.
"We didn't know we had any white neighbours," said the Colonel in his most grand and gracious manner. "How far away are you, sir?"
"About forty miles above."
As he answered he happened to be glancing at the Boy, and observed his eagerness cloud slightly. Hadn't Nicholas said it was "about forty miles above" that the missionaries lived?
"But to be only forty miles away," the stranger went on, misinterpreting the fading gladness, "is to be near neighbours in this country."
"We aren't quite fixed yet," said the Colonel, "but you must come in and have some dinner with us. We can promise you a good fire, anyhow."
"Thank you. You have chosen a fine site." And the bright eyes with the deep crow's-feet raying out from the corners scanned the country in so keen and knowing a fashion that the Boy, with hope reviving, ventured:
"Are—are you a prospector?"
"No. I am Father Wills from Holy Cross."
"Oh!" And the Boy presently caught up with the Indian, and walked on beside him, looking back every now and then to watch the dogs or examine the harness. The driver spoke English, and answered questions with a tolerable intelligence. "Are dogs often driven without reins?"
The Indian nodded.
The Colonel, after the stranger had introduced himself, was just a shade more reserved, but seemed determined not to be lacking in hospitality. O'Flynn was overflowing, or would have been had the Jesuit encouraged him. He told their story, or, more properly, his own, and how they had been wrecked.
"And so ye're the Father Superior up there?" says the Irishman, pausing to take breath.
"No. Our Superior is Father Brachet. That's a well-built cabin!"
The dogs halted, though they had at least five hundred yards still to travel before they would reach the well-built cabin.
"Mush!" shouted the Indian.
The dogs cleared the ice-reef, and went spinning along so briskly over the low hummocks that the driver had to run to keep up with them.
The Boy was flying after when the priest, having caught sight of his face, called out: "Here! Wait! Stop a moment!" and hurried forward.
He kicked through the ice-crust, gathered up a handful of snow, and began to rub it on the Boy's right cheek.
"What in the name of—" The Boy was drawing back angrily.
"Keep still," ordered the priest; "your cheek is frozen"; and he applied more snow and more friction. "You ought to watch one another in such weather as this. When a man turns dead-white like that, he's touched with frost-bite." After he had restored the circulation: "There now, don't go near the fire, or it will begin to hurt."
"Thank you," said the Boy, a little shame-faced. "It's all right now, I suppose?"
"I think so," said the priest. "You'll lose the skin, and you may be a little sore—nothing to speak of," with which he fell back to the Colonel's side.
The dogs had settled down into a jog-trot now, but were still well on in front.
"Is 'mush' their food?" asked the Boy.
"Mush? No, fish."
"Why does your Indian go on like that about mush, then?"
"Oh, that's the only word the dogs know, except—a—certain expressions we try to discourage the Indians from using. In the old days the dog-drivers used to say 'mahsh.' Now you never hear anything but swearing and 'mush,' a corruption of the French-Canadian marche." He turned to the Colonel: "You'll get over trying to wear cheechalko boots here—nothing like mucklucks with a wisp of straw inside for this country."
"I agree wid ye. I got me a pair in St. Michael's," says O'Flynn proudly, turning out his enormous feet. "Never wore anything so comf'table in me life."
"You ought to have drill parkis too, like this of mine, to keep out the wind."
They were going up the slope now, obliquely to the cabin, close behind the dogs, who were pulling spasmodically between their little rests.
Father Wills stooped and gathered up some moss that the wind had swept almost bare of snow. "You see that?" he said to O'Flynn, while the Boy stopped, and the Colonel hurried on. "Wherever you find that growing no man need starve."
The Colonel looked back before entering the cabin and saw that the Boy seemed to have forgotten not alone the Indian, but the dogs, and was walking behind with the Jesuit, face upturned, smiling, as friendly as you please.
Within a different picture.
Potts and Mac were having a row about something, and the Colonel struck in sharply on their growling comments upon each other's character and probable destination.
"Got plenty to eat? Two hungry men coming in. One's an Indian, and you know what that means, and the other's a Catholic priest." It was this bomb that he had hurried on to get exploded and done with before the said priest should appear on the scene.
"A what?" Mac raised his heavy eyes with fight in every wooden feature.
"A Jesuit priest is what I said."
"He won't eat his dinner here."
"That is exactly what he will do."
"Not by—" Whether it was the monstrous proposition that had unstrung Mac, he was obliged to steady himself against the table with a shaking hand. But he set those square features of his like iron, and, says he, "No Jesuit sits down to the same table with me."
"That means, then, that you'll eat alone."
"Not if I know it."
The Colonel slid in place the heavy wooden bar that had never before been requisitioned to secure the door, and he came and stood in the middle of the cabin, where he could let out all his inches. Just clearing the swing-shelf, he pulled his great figure up to its full height, and standing there like a second Goliath, he said quite softly in that lingo of his childhood that always came back to his tongue's tip in times of excitement: "Just as shuah as yo' bohn that priest will eat his dinner to-day in my cabin, sah; and if yo' going t' make any trouble, just say so now, and we'll get it ovah, and the place cleaned up again befoh our visitors arrive."
"Mind what you're about, Mac," growled Potts. "You know he could lick the stuffin' out o' you."
The ex-schoolmaster produced some sort of indignant sound in his throat and turned, as if he meant to go out. The Colonel came a little nearer. Mac flung up his head and squared for battle.
Potts, in a cold sweat, dropped a lot of tinware with a rattle, while the Colonel said, "No, no. We'll settle this after the people go, Mac." Then in a whisper: "Look here: I've been trying to shield you for ten days. Don't give yourself away now—before the first white neighbour that comes to see us. You call yourself a Christian. Just see if you can't behave like one, for an hour or two, to a fellow-creature that's cold and hungry. Come, you're the man we've always counted on! Do the honours, and take it out of me after our guests are gone."
Mac seemed in a haze. He sat down heavily on some beanbags in the corner; and when the newcomers were brought in and introduced, he "did the honours" by glowering at them with red eyes, never breaking his surly silence.
"Well!" says Father Wills, looking about, "I must say you're very comfortable here. If more people made homes like this, there'd be fewer failures." They gave him the best place by the fire, and Potts dished up dinner. There were only two stools made yet. The Boy rolled his section of sawed spruce over near the priest, and prepared to dine at his side.
"No, no," said Father Wills firmly. "You shall sit as far away from this splendid blaze as you can get, or you will have trouble with that cheek." So the Boy had to yield his place to O'Flynn, and join Mac over on the bean-bags.
"Why didn't you get a parki when you were at St. Michael's?" said the priest as this change was being effected.
"We had just as much—more than we could carry. Besides, I thought we could buy furs up river; anyway, I'm warm enough."
"No you are not," returned the priest smiling. "You must get a parki with a hood."
"I've got an Arctic cap; it rolls down over my ears and goes all round my neck—just leaves a little place in front for my eyes."
"Yes; wear that if you go on the trail; but the good of the parki hood is, that it is trimmed all round with long wolf-hair. You see"—he picked his parki up off the floor and showed it to the company—"those long hairs standing out all round the face break the force of the wind. It is wonderful how the Esquimaux hood lessens the chance of frost-bite."
While the only object in the room that he didn't seem to see was Mac, he was most taken up with the fireplace.
The Colonel laid great stress on the enormous services of the delightful, accomplished master-mason over there on the beanbags, who sat looking more than ever like a monkey-wrench incarnate.
But whether that Jesuit was as wily as the Calvinist thought, he had quite wit enough to overlook the great chimney-builder's wrathful silence.
He was not the least "professional," talked about the country and how to live here, saying incidentally that he had spent twelve years at the mission of the Holy Cross. The Yukon wasn't a bad place to live in, he told them, if men only took the trouble to learn how to live here. While teaching the Indians, there was a great deal to learn from them as well.
"You must all come and see our schools," he wound up.
"We'd like to awfully," said the Boy, and all but Mac echoed him. "We were so afraid," he went on, "that we mightn't see anybody all winter long."
"Oh, you'll have more visitors than you want."
"Shall we, though?" Then, with a modified rapture: "Indians, I suppose, and—and missionaries."
"Traders, too, and miners, and this year cheechalkos as well. You are directly on the great highway of winter travel. Now that there's a good hard crust on the snow you will have dog-trains passing every week, and sometimes two or three."
It was good news!
"We've already had one visitor before you," said the Boy, looking wonderfully pleased at the prospect the priest had opened out. "You must know Nicholas of Pymeut, don't you?"
"Oh yes; we all know Nicholas"; and the priest smiled.
"We like him," returned the Boy as if some slighting criticism had been passed upon his friend.
"Of course you do; so do we all"; and still that look of quiet amusement on the worn face and a keener twinkle glinting in the eyes.
"We're afraid he's sick," the Boy began.
Before the priest could answer, "He was educated at Howly Cross, he says," contributed O'Flynn.
"Oh, he's been to Holy Cross, among other places."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Nicholas is a most impartial person. He was born at Pymeut, but his father, who is the richest and most intelligent man in his tribe, took Nicholas to Ikogimeut when the boy was only six. He was brought up in the Russian mission there, as the father had been before him, and was a Greek—in religion—till he was fourteen. There was a famine that year down yonder, so Nicholas turned Catholic and came up to us. He was at Holy Cross some years, when business called him to Anvik, where he turned Episcopalian. At Eagle City, I believe, he is regarded as a pattern Presbyterian. There are those that say, since he has been a pilot, Nicholas makes six changes a trip in his religious convictions."
Father Wills saw that the Colonel, to whom he most frequently addressed himself, took his pleasantry gravely. "Nicholas is not a bad fellow," he added. "He told me you had been kind to him."
"If you believe that about his insincerity," said the Colonel, "are you not afraid the others you spend your life teaching may turn out as little credit to you—to Christianity?"
The priest glanced at the listening Indian. "No," said he gravely; "I do not think all the natives are like Nicholas. Andrew here is a true son of the Church. But even if it were otherwise, we, you know"—the Jesuit rose from the table with that calm smile of his—"we simply do the work without question. The issue is not in our hands." He made the sign of the cross and set back his stool.
"Come, Andrew," he said; "we must push on."
The Indian repeated the priest's action, and went out to see to the dogs.
"Oh, are you going right away?" said the Colonel politely, and O'Flynn volubly protested.
"We thought," said the Boy, "you'd sit awhile and smoke and—at least, of course, I don't mean smoke exactly—but—"
The Father smiled and shook his head.
"Another time I would stay gladly."
"Where are you going now?"
"Andrew and I are on our way to the Oklahoma, the steamship frozen in the ice below here."
"How far?" asked the Boy.
"About seven miles below the Russian mission, and a mile or so up the Kuskoquim Slough."
"Oh no. Gone into winter quarters."
"In a slew?" for it was so Father Wills pronounced s-l-o-u-g-h.
"Oh, that's what they call a blind river up in this country. They come into the big streams every here and there, and cheechalkos are always mistaking them for the main channel. Sometimes they're wider and deeper for a mile or so than the river proper, but before you know it they land you in a marsh. This place I'm going to, a little way up the Kuskoquim, out of danger when the ice breaks up, has been chosen for a new station by the N. A. T. and T. Company—rival, you know, to the old-established Alaska Commercial, that inherited the Russian fur monopoly and controlled the seal and salmon trade so long. Well, the younger company runs the old one hard, and they've sent this steamer into winter quarters loaded with provisions, ready to start for Dawson the instant the ice goes out."
"Why, then, it's the very boat that'll be takin' us to the Klondyke."
"You just goin' down to have a look at her?" asked Potts enviously.
"No. I go to get relief for the Pymeuts."
"What's the matter with 'em?"
"Epidemic all summer, starvation now."
"Guess you won't find anybody's got such a lot he wants to give it away to the Indians."
"Our Father Superior has given much," said the priest gently; "but we are not inexhaustible at Holy Cross. And the long winter is before us. Many of the supply steamers have failed to get in, and the country is flooded with gold-seekers. There'll be wide-spread want this year—terrible suffering all up and down the river."
"The more reason for people to hold on to what they've got. A white man's worth more 'n an Indian."
The priest's face showed no anger, not even coldness.
"White men have got a great deal out of Alaska and as yet done little but harm here. The government ought to help the natives, and we believe the Government will. All we ask of the captain of the Oklahoma is to sell us, on fair terms, a certain supply, we assuming part of the risk, and both of us looking to the Government to make it good."
"Reckon you'll find that steamer-load down in the ice is worth its weight in gold," said Potts.
"One must always try," replied the Father.
He left the doorpost, straightened his bowed back, and laid a hand on the wooden latch.
"But Nicholas—when you left Pymeut was he—" began the Boy.
"Oh, he is all right," the Father smiled and nodded. "Brother Paul has been looking after Nicholas's father. The old chief has enough food, but he has been very ill. By the way, have you any letters you want to send out?"
"Oh, if we'd only known!" was the general chorus; and Potts flew to close and stamp one he had hardly more than begun to the future Mrs. Potts.
The Boy had thoughtlessly opened the door to have a look at the dogs.
"Shut that da—Don't keep the door open!" howled Potts, trying to hold his precious letter down on the table while he added "only two words." The Boy slammed the door behind him.
"With all our trouble, the cabin isn't really warm," said the Colonel apologetically. "In a wind like this, if the door is open, we have to hold fast to things to keep them from running down the Yukon. It's a trial to anybody's temper."
"Why don't you build a false wall?"
"Well, I don't know; we hadn't thought of it."
"You'd find it correct this draught"; and the priest explained his views on the subject while Potts's letter was being addressed. Andrew put his head in.
As the priest was pocketing the letter the Boy dashed in, put on the Arctic cap he set such store by, and a fur coat and mittens.
"Do you mind if I go a little way with you?" he said.
"Of course not," answered the priest. "I will send him back in half an hour," he said low to the Colonel. "It's a hitter day."
It was curious how already he had divined the relation of the elder man to the youngest of that odd household.
The moment they had gone Mac, with an obvious effort, pulled himself up out of his corner, and, coming towards the Colonel at the fireplace, he said thickly:
"You've put an insult upon me, Warren, and that's what I stand from no man. Come outside."
The Colonel looked at him.
"All right, Mac; but we've just eaten a rousing big dinner. Even Sullivan wouldn't accept that as the moment for a round. We'll both have forty winks, hey? and Potts shall call us, and O'Flynn shall be umpire. You can have the Boy's bunk."
Mac was in a haze again, and allowed himself to be insinuated into bed.
The others got rid of the dinner things, and "sat round" for an hour.
"Doubt if he sleeps long," says Potts a little before two; "that's what he's been doing all morning."
"We haven't had any fresh meat for a week," returns the Colonel significantly. "Why don't you and O'Flynn go down to meet the Boy, and come round by the woods? There'll be full moon up by four o'clock; you might get a brace of grouse or a rabbit or two."
O'Flynn was not very keen about it; but the Jesuit's visit had stirred him up, and he offered less opposition to the unusual call to activity than the Colonel expected.
When at last he was left alone with the sleeping man, the Kentuckian put on a couple more logs, and sat down to wait. At three he got up, swung the crane round so that the darting tongues of flame could lick the hot-water pot, and then he measured out some coffee. In a quarter of an hour the cabin was full of the fragrance of good Mocha.
The Colonel sat and waited. Presently he poured out a little coffee, and drank it slowly, blissfully, with half-closed eyes. But when he had set the granite cup down again, he stood up alert, like a man ready for business. Mac had been asleep nearly three hours. The others wouldn't be long now.
Well, if they came prematurely, they must go to the Little Cabin for awhile. The Colonel shot the bar across door and jamb for the second time that day. Mac stirred and lifted himself on his elbow, but he wasn't really awake.
"Potts," he said huskily.
The Colonel made no sound. "Potts, measure me out two fingers, will you? Cabin's damn cold."
Mac roused himself, muttering compliments for Potts. When he had bundled himself out over the side of the bunk, he saw the Colonel seemingly dozing by the fire.
He waited a moment. Then, very softly, he made his way to the farther end of the swing-shelf.
The Colonel opened one eye, shut it, and shuffled in a sleepy sort of way. Mac turned sharply back to the fire.
The Colonel opened his eyes and yawned.
"I made some cawfee a little while back. Have some?"
"Better; it's A 1."
"Gone out for a little. Back soon." He poured out some of the strong, black decoction, and presented it to his companion. "Just try it. Finest cawfee in the world, sir."
Mac poured it down without seeming to bother about tasting it.
They sat quite still after that, till the Colonel said meditatively:
"You and I had a little account to settle, didn't we?"
But neither moved for several moments.
"See here, Mac: you haven't been ill or anything like that, have you?"
"No." There was no uncertain note in the answer; if anything, there was in it more than the usual toneless decision. Mac's voice was machine-made—as innocent of modulation as a buzz-saw, and with the same uncompromising finality as the shooting of a bolt. "I'm ready to stand up against any man."
"Good!" interrupted the Colonel. "Glad o' that, for I'm just longing to see you stand up—"
Mac was on his feet in a flash.
"You had only to say so, if you wanted to see me stand up against any man alive. And when I sit down again it's my opinion one of us two won't be good-lookin' any more."
He pushed back the stools.
"I thought maybe it was only necessary to mention it," said the Colonel slowly. "I've been wanting for a fortnight to see you stand up"—Mac turned fiercely—"against Samuel David MacCann."
"Come on! I'm in no mood for monkeyin'!"
"Nor I. I realise, MacCann, we've come to a kind of a crisis. Things in this camp are either going a lot better, or a lot worse, after to-day."
"There's nothing wrong, if you quit asking dirty Jesuits to sit down with honest men."
"Yes; there's something worse out o' shape than that."
Mac waited warily.
"When we were stranded here, and saw what we'd let ourselves in for, there wasn't one of us that didn't think things looked pretty much like the last o' pea time. There was just one circumstance that kept us from throwing up the sponge; we had a man in camp."
The Colonel paused.
Mac stood as expressionless as the wooden crane.
"A man we all believed in, who was going to help us pull through." "That was you, I s'pose." Mac's hard voice chopped out the sarcasm.
"You know mighty well who it was. The Boy's all right, but he's young for this kind o' thing—young and heady. There isn't much wrong with me that I'm aware of, except that I don't know shucks. Potts's petering out wasn't altogether a surprise, and nobody expected anything from O'Flynn till we got to Dawson, when a lawyer and a fella with capital behind him may come in handy. But there was one man—who had a head on him, who had experience, and who"—he leaned over to emphasise the climax—"who had character. It was on that man's account that I joined this party."
Mac put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the wall. His face began to look a little more natural. The long sleep or the coffee had cleared his eyes.
"Shall I tell you what I heard about that man last night?" asked the Colonel gravely.
Mac looked up, but never opened his lips.
"You remember you wouldn't sit here—"
"The Boy was always in and out. The cabin was cold."
"I left the Boy and O'Flynn at supper-time and went down to the Little Cabin to—"
"To see what I was doin'—to spy on me."
"Well, all right—maybe I was spying, too. Incidentally I wanted to tell you the cabin was hot as blazes, and get you to come to supper. I met Potts hurrying up for his grub, and I said, 'Where's Mac? Isn't he coming?' and your pardner's answer was: 'Oh, let him alone. He's got a flask in his bunk, swillin' and gruntin'; he's just in hog-heaven.'"
"Damn that sneak!"
"The man he was talkin' about, Mac, was the man we had all built our hopes on."
"I'll teach Potts—"
"You can't, Mac. Potts has got to die and go to heaven—perhaps to hell, before he'll learn any good. But you're a different breed. Teach MacCann."
Mac suddenly sat down on the stool with his head in his hands.
"The Boy hasn't caught on," said the Colonel presently, "but he said something this morning to show he was wondering about the change that's come over you."
"That I don't split wood all day, I suppose, when we've got enough for a month. Potts doesn't either. Why don't you go for Potts?"
"As the Boy said, I don't care about Potts. It's Mac that matters."
"Did the Boy say that?" He looked up.
The Colonel nodded.
"After you had made that chimney, you know, you were a kind of hero in his eyes."
Mac looked away. "The cabin's been cold," he muttered.
"We are going to remedy that."
"I didn't bring any liquor into camp. You must admit that I didn't intend—"
"I do admit it."
"And when O'Flynn said that about keeping his big demijohn out of the inventory and apart from the common stores, I sat on him."
"So you did."
"I knew it was safest to act on the 'medicinal purposes' principle."
"So it is."
"But I wasn't thinking so much of O'Flynn. I was thinking of ... things that had happened before ... for ... I'd had experience. Drink was the curse of Caribou. It's something of a scourge up in Nova Scotia ... I'd had experience."
"You did the very best thing possible under the circumstances." Mac was feeling about after his self-respect, and must be helped to get hold of it. "I realise, too, that the temptation is much greater in cold countries," said the Kentuckian unblushingly. "Italians and Greeks don't want fiery drinks half as much as Russians and Scandinavians—haven't the same craving as Nova Scotians and cold-country people generally, I suppose. But that only shows, temperance is of more vital importance in the North."
"That's right! It's not much in my line to shift blame, even when I don't deserve it; but you know so much you might as well know ... it wasn't I who opened that demijohn first."
"But you don't mind being the one to shut it up—do you?"
"Shut it up?"
"Yes; let's get it down and—" The Colonel swung it off the shelf. It was nearly empty, and only the Boy's and the Colonel's single bottles stood unbroached. Even so, Mac's prolonged spree was something of a mystery to the Kentuckian. It must be that a very little was too much for Mac. The Colonel handed the demijohn to his companion, and lit the solitary candle standing on its little block of wood, held in place between three half-driven nails.
"What's that for?"
"Don't you want to seal it up?"
"I haven't got any wax."
"I have an inch or so." The Colonel produced out of his pocket the only piece in camp.
Mac picked up a billet of wood, and drove the cork in flush with the neck. Then, placing upright on the cork the helve of the hammer, he drove the cork down a quarter of an inch farther.
"Give me your wax. What's for a seal?" They looked about. Mac's eye fell on a metal button that hung by a thread from the old militia jacket he was wearing. He put his hand up to it, paused, glanced hurriedly at the Colonel, and let his fingers fall.
"Yes, yes," said the Kentuckian, "that'll make a capital seal."
"No; something of yours, I think, Colonel. The top of that tony pencil-case, hey?"
The Colonel produced his gold pencil, watched Mac heat the wax, drop it into the neck of the demijohn, and apply the initialled end of the Colonel's property. While Mac, without any further waste of words, was swinging the wicker-bound temptation up on the shelf again, they heard voices.
"They're coming back," says the Kentuckian hurriedly. "But we've settled our little account, haven't we, old man?"
Mac jerked his head in that automatic fashion that with him meant genial and whole-hearted agreement.
"And if Potts or O'Flynn want to break that seal—"
"I'll call 'em down," says Mac. And the Colonel knew the seal was safe.
* * * * *
"By-the-by, Colonel," said the Boy, just as he was turning in that night, "I—a—I've asked that Jesuit chap to the House-Warming."
"Oh, you did, did you?"
"Well, you'd just better have a talk with Mac about it."
"Yes. I've been tryin' to think how I'd square Mac. Of course, I know I'll have to go easy on the raw."
"I reckon you just will."
"If Monkey-wrench screws down hard on me, you'll come to the rescue, won't you, Colonel?"
"No I'll side with Mac on that subject. Whatever he says, goes!"
"Humph! that Jesuit's all right."
Not a word out of the Colonel.
TWO NEW SPISSIMENS
Medwjedew (zu Luka). Tag' mal—wer bist du? Ich kenne dich nicht.
Luka. Kennst du denn sonst alle Leute?
Medwjedew. In meinem Revier muss ich jeden kennen und dich kenn'ich nicht....
Luka. Das kommt wohl daher Onkelchen, dass dein Revier nicht die ganze Erde umfasst ... 's ist da noch ein Endchen draussen geblieben....