THE PIONEERS, BY R.M. BALLANTYNE.
Sir Alexander Mackenzie was one of the most energetic and successful of the discoverers who have traversed the vast wilderness of British America. He did his work single-handed, with slender means, and slight encouragement, at a time when discovery was rare and the country almost terra incognita. The long and difficult route, so recently traversed by the Red River Expedition, was, to Sir Alexander, but the small beginning of his far-reaching travels. He traced the great river which bears his name to its outlet in the Polar Sea, and was the first to cross the Rocky Mountains in those latitudes and descend to the Pacific ocean.
Being a man of action, and not particularly enamoured of the pen, his journal [For a sight of which apply to the British Museum, London, or the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh]—full though it be of important and most interesting facts—is a bare and unadorned though valuable record of progress made, of work done, which is unsuited to juvenile minds, besides being bulky and scarce.
Having spent some years in Rupert's Land, and seen something of Red Indian and fur-trading life, I have ventured to weave the incidents of Sir Alexander's narratives into a story which, it is hoped, may prove interesting to the young—perchance, also, to the old.
I take this opportunity of acknowledging myself deeply indebted to Sir Alexander's daughter, Miss Mackenzie, and to his two sons, for kindly placing at my disposal all the information in their possession.
SHOWS HOW IT BEGAN.
"The world is round," said somebody in ancient times to somebody else.
"Not at all; it is flat—flat as a pancake," replied somebody else to somebody; "and if you were to travel far enough you might get to the end of it and tumble over the edge, if so disposed."
Ever since the commencement of this early geographical controversy, men have been labouring with more or less energy and success to ascertain the form and character of the earth; a grand, glorious labour it has been; resulting in blessings innumerable to mankind—blessings both spiritual and temporal.
We have heard some people object to geographical discovery, especially in the inclement parts of the earth, on the ground that it could be of no use, and involved great risk to life and limb. "Of no use!" Who can tell what discoveries shall be useful and what useless? "The works of God are great, sought out of all those that have pleasure therein," saith the Scripture. There is no reference here to usefulness, but the searching out of God's works, without limitation, is authorised; and those who "take pleasure therein," will be content to leave the result of their labours in the hands of Him who sent them forth. As to "risk,"—why, a carpenter cannot ascend to the top of a house to put the rafters thereon without risk; a chemist cannot investigate the properties of certain fumes without risk; you cannot even eat your dinner without risk. Only this are we sure of—that, if man had never undertaken labour except when such was obviously useful and devoid of risk, the world would still be in the darkness of the Middle Ages.
Reuben Guff held these sentiments, or something like them; and Reuben was a man who had seen a great deal of life in his day, although at the time we introduce him to public notice he had not lived more than six-and-thirty summers. He was a bronzed, stalwart Canadian. His father had been Scotch, his mother of French extraction; and Reuben possessed the dogged resolution of the Scot with the vivacity of the Frenchman. In regard to his tastes and occupation we shall let him speak for himself.
Sitting under a pine-tree, in the wild wilderness that lies to the north of Canada with the drumstick of a goose in one hand and a scalping-knife in the other; with a log-fire in front of him, and his son, a stripling of sixteen, by his side, he delivered himself of the following sentiments:—
"I tell 'ee what it is, Lawrence," (the lad was named after the great river on the banks of which he had been reared), "I was born to be a pioneer. Ever since I was the height of a three-fut rule I've had a skunner at the settlements and a love for the wilderness that I couldn't overcome nohow. Moreover, I wouldn't overcome it if I could, for it's my opinion that He who made us knows what He wants us to do, an' has given us sitch feelin's and inclinations as will lead us to do it, if we don't run mad after notions of our own, as the folk in the settlements are raither apt to do."
Here some of the "notions" referred to appeared to tickle the fancy of the backwoodsman, for he paused to indulge in a quiet chuckle which wrinkled up all the lines of good-humour and fun in his rough countenance. After applying himself for a few seconds with much energy to the drumstick,—he resumed his discourse in a slow, deliberate style of speech which was peculiar to him:—
"Yes, Lawrence, my lad, I've made it my business ever since I was fifteen to explore this here wilderness, livin' by my gun and guidin' the fur-traders on their v'yages, or consorting with the Injins, as you know very well; and, now that we've come to the big lake it is needful to tell 'ee that I'm still bent on followin' out my callin'. I'm goin' away to the nor'ard to explore, and you'll have to make up your mind to-night whether you will be my steersman or whether I'm to lay that dooty on Swiftarrow. I needn't say which I'd like best."
The hunter finished the drumstick at this point, threw the bone into the fire, lighted his pipe, and awaited his son's answer in silence.
But the son appeared to be in no hurry to reply; for, after giving his father a glance and nod, which were meant to say, "I hear and I'll consider, but I'm too much engaged just now to speak," he continued his occupation of devouring venison steaks, the sauce to which was evidently hunger.
Having finished his supper and lighted his pipe he became more communicative.
"Father," he said, "you have always advised me to think well before speaking."
"I have, lad; it's the natur' of our forefathers an' a very good natur' too. I'd be sorry to see it go out of the family."
"Well, then; I've thought my best about goin' with 'ee on this trip," returned the youth, "an' I've resolved to go on one condition—that Swiftarrow goes with us."
"Why so, my son? we don't need him."
"Perhaps not, but I like him; for he has taught me all that I know of woodcraft, and I'm certain that if you and I both leave him he'll be sure to return to the new settlement at the south end of Ontario, and you know what the end of that would be."
"Death by drinkin'," replied Reuben Guff shaking his head slowly, while he watched the upward flight of a ring of white smoke that had just issued from his lips.
"Well, I won't leave him to that," continued the youth, with sudden energy of manner and look, "as long as my name is Lawrence. You know that nothin' would please me more than goin' to explore the wilderness with you, father; but if Swiftarrow is to be left behind, there shall be no pioneering for me. Besides, three are better than two on such a trip, and the Injin will be sure to keep the pot full, no matter what sort o' country we may have to pass through, for he's a dead shot wi' the gun as well as wi' the bow."
"I daresay you're right, lad," replied Reuben, in a tone of one who muses. "There's room in the canoe for three, and it's not unlikely that the Injin would go south to the settlement, for he is a lonely man since his poor mother died. I do believe that it was nothin' but his extraor'nar' love for that old 'ooman that kep' him from goin' to the dogs. Leastwise it was that kep' him from goin' to the settlement, which is much the same thing, for Swiftarrow can't resist fire-water. Yes, lad, you're right—so we'll take him with us. As you say, three are better than two on such a v'yage."
Some weeks after the foregoing conversation the pioneers arrived at the northern end of that great inland sea, Lake Superior, which, being upwards of four hundred miles long, and one hundred and seventy-five miles broad, presents many of the features of Ocean itself. This end of the lake was, at the time we write of, and still is, an absolute wilderness, inhabited only by scattered tribes of Indians, and almost untouched by the hand of the white man, save at one spot, where the fur-traders had planted an isolated establishment. At this point in the wild woods the representatives of the fur-traders of Canada were wont to congregate for the settlement of their affairs in the spring of every year, and from this point also trading-parties were despatched in canoes into the still more remote parts of the great northern wilderness, whence they returned with rich cargoes of furs received from the "red men" in exchange for powder and shot, guns, hatchets, knives, cloth, twine, fish-hooks, and such articles as were suited to the tastes and wants of a primitive and wandering people.
Here Reuben Guff and his son found Swiftarrow, as they had expected, and proposed to him that he should accompany them on their voyage north,—a proposal which he accepted with pleasure,—for the strong-boned Indian had an adventurous spirit as well as a healthy frame.
Swiftarrow was a brave and powerful Indian, and was esteemed one of the best hunters of his tribe; but no one seeing him in camp in a quiescent state would have thought him to be possessed of much energy, for he was slow and deliberate in his movements, and withal had a lazy look about his eyes. But the sight of a bear or moose-deer had the effect of waking him up in a way that caused his dark eyes to flash and his large frame to move with cat-like activity.
When Reuben Guff discovered him on the shore of Lake Superior, he was seated at the door of his skin lodge, anointing his hair, which was long and black, with bear's grease—the "genuine article," without even the admixture of a drop of scent!—so pure, in fact, that the Indian basted his steaks and anointed his hair with grease from the same box.
"Hallo! Swiftarrow," exclaimed Reuben, as he sauntered up to the savage, with his gun on his shoulder, "ye seem to be beautifyin' yerself to-day—not goin' to get married, eh?"
Swiftarrow, whose long hair hung over his face like a glossy curtain, tossed aside his locks and gazed earnestly at the hunter. A slight smile and a pleasant gleam lighted up his dark countenance as he wiped his greasy right hand on his legging and extended it, exclaiming, "watchee!" by which he meant, what cheer?
"What cheer? what cheer?" replied Reuben, with a broad but quiet grin, as he shook his friend's hand heartily.
Each man understood the other's language perfectly; but each appeared to prefer to talk in his own tongue; for while Reuben addressed the red man in English, Swiftarrow replied in Indian. This had been an understood arrangement between them ever since the time when, as lads, they had first met and formed a close friendship, on the shores of Lake Huron.
"Is my brother's trail to be through the woods or on the waters? Does he go hunting or trading?" inquired the Indian, after the first salutations were over.
"Well, I may say that I'm neither goin' a-huntin' or tradin'—here, fill yer pipe wi' baccy from my pouch; it's better than yours, I'll be bound. In a manner, too, I'm goin' both to hunt an' trade in a small way; but my main business on this trip is to be diskivery."
The Indian uttered a sound, which meant that he did not understand.
"I'm goin' to sarch out new lands," explained Reuben, "away to the far north. I've heard it said by Injins that have wandered to the nor'ard that they've met in with red-skins, who said that there is a big river flowin' out o' a great lake in the direction o' the north pole, an' that it runs into the sea there. They may be tellin' truth, or they may be tellin' lies; I dun know; anyhow, I'm koorious to know somethin' about it, so I'm goin' north to see for myself, and I've comed to ask if Swiftarrow will go with me."
The hunter paused, but the Indian remained silently smoking his long stone-headed pipe, or calumet, with a countenance so grave and expressionless, that no idea of his sentiments could be gathered from it. After a brief pause, Reuben continued—
"It won't be altogether a trip of diskivery neither, for I've got some bales of goods with me, and as we go in a small birch canoe, we'll travel light; but I hope to come back sunk to the gunwale with furs, for the red-skins of the far north are like enough to have plenty of pelts, and they won't ask much for them. As to grub, you and I could manage to supply ourselves wi' lots o' that anywheres, and I've got plenty of powder and lead. Moreover, my boy Lawrence is goin' with me."
During the foregoing remarks, the Indian's countenance betrayed no sign of feeling until the name of Lawrence was mentioned, when a gleam of satisfaction shot from his eyes. Removing the pipe from his lips, he puffed a volume of smoke through his nostrils, and said:—
"Swiftarrow will go."
Backwoodsmen seldom take long to mature their plans, and are generally prompt to carry them into execution. Two days after the brief conversation above narrated, the three friends pushed off in their little birch-bark canoe and paddled up the stream which leads to the Kakabeka Falls on the Kamenistaquoia River. Surmounting this obstacle by the simple process of carrying the canoe and her lading past the falls by land, and relaunching on the still water above, they continued their voyage day by day, encamping under the trees by night, until they had penetrated far and deep into the heart of the northern wilderness, and had even passed beyond the most distant establishments of the adventurous fur-traders.
The world of forest, swamp, lake, and river, that still, however, lay between them and the land which they sought to reach, was very wide. Weeks, and even months, would certainly elapse before they could hope to approach it; one day, therefore, they buried their goods and stores in a convenient place, intending to dig them up on their return, and meanwhile turned aside into a country which promised to afford them a good supply of fresh provisions for the voyage north.
Here an adventure befell them which brought their voyage of discovery, at that time, to an abrupt close.
TERRIBLE DISCOVERIES AND ALTERED PLANS.
"Ho!" ejaculated Swiftarrow.
"Smoke!" exclaimed Reuben Guff.
Both men spoke at the same moment,—their discovery having been simultaneous. At the same time Lawrence pointed with the blade of his paddle to a thin line of smoke which rose above the tree-tops into the blue sky, and was faithfully mirrored in the lake on which they floated.
"Injins!" said Reuben, resting his steering paddle across the canoe for a few seconds.
Swiftarrow assented with another "Ho," and Lawrence moved his gun into a handy position to be ready for an emergency; but there was no other sign of man's presence than the wreath of smoke. All was perfectly silent. The air too was quite still, and the surface of the lake resembled a sheet of glass.
"Strange," observed Reuben, "red-skins ain't usually so shy. If they mean mischief they don't ever let smoke be seen, an' when they don't mean mischief they generally show themselves. Come, push on, lads; we'll go see what's i' the wind."
"I'll show them the muzzle, father," said Lawrence, laying down his paddle and taking up his gun: "it may be well to let 'em see that we have arms."
"No need for that, boy. If they know anything at all, they know that white men don't go about in the wilderness empty-handed. Put down the piece, and use your paddle."
Thus reproved, Lawrence flushed slightly, but obeyed the order and resumed paddling.
In a few minutes they were on shore. Still all was silent as the grave. Hauling the bow of the canoe on the beach to keep it fast, the three men took their weapons, and, entering the woods in single file, walked cautiously but swiftly in the direction of the smoke. They soon reached the spot, and the scene which met their eyes was one which, while it accounted for the silence that reigned around, filled their minds with sadness and horror.
In an open space, where a number of trees had been cut down, stood about a dozen skin tents or Indian lodges, some with the curtain-doors closed, others open, exposing the interiors, on the floors of which the dead bodies of Indian men, women, and children, lay in every attitude and in all stages of decomposition. Outside of the tents other corpses lay strewn on the ground, and most of these bore evidence of having been more or less torn by wolves. The travellers knew at a glance that these unfortunate people had fallen before that terrible disease, small-pox, which had recently attacked and almost depopulated several districts of the Indian country.
How the disease was introduced among the Indians at the time of which we write, it is impossible to say and useless to conjecture. The fact of its desolating effects is unquestionable. One who dwelt in the country at the time writes: [See Sir Alexander Mackenzie's Voyages, page 14.] "The fatal infection spread around with a baneful rapidity which no flight could escape, and with a fatal effect that nothing could resist. It destroyed with its pestilential breath whole families and tribes; and the horrid scene presented, to those who had the melancholy opportunity of beholding it, a combination of the dead, the dying, and such as, to avoid the fate of their friends around them, prepared to disappoint the plague of its prey by terminating their own existence. To aggravate the picture, if aggravation were possible, the carcases were dragged forth from the huts by the wolves, or were mangled within them by the dogs, which thus sought to satisfy their hunger with the putrid remains of their masters. It was not uncommon at this time for the father of a family, whom the infection had not reached, to call his household around him, represent the terrible sufferings and fate that awaited them, which he believed was owing to the influence of an evil spirit who desired to extirpate the race, and incited them to baffle death with all its horrors by at once killing themselves—at the same time offering to perform the deed of mercy with his own hand if their hearts should fail them."
That some of the dead before our pioneers had acted in this way was evident, for while most of the corpses bore marks of having been smitten with the disease, others were there which showed nothing to account for death save a knife wound over the region of the heart.
It was a sad and sickening sight, and drew forth one or two low-toned sorrowful remarks from Reuben, as he moved slowly towards the tent from which smoke still issued.
The three men paused before it because a sound came from within, and they felt reluctant to disturb the awful silence. The pause, however, was but momentary. Reuben lifted the covering and opened it wide. A small fire still burned on the hearth in the centre of the lodge; around it lay the bodies of dead men, women, and children. Only one figure, that of an old woman, remained in a half-reclining position, but she was motionless, and they thought her dead also. This, however, was not the case. The flood of light which streamed in on her appeared to rouse her, for she raised her grey head, and, gazing anxiously at the figures which darkened the entrance of the lodge, asked in a tremulous voice: "Is that you, my son?"
"No, mother, but it is a friend," said Swiftarrow, who understood her language.
"A friend," repeated the old woman, shaking her head slowly, "I don't want a friend. The Master of Life is my friend. My people said that an evil spirit was slaying them; but I know better. It was the Great Spirit who came to us. We have been very wicked. We needed punishment. But why has He spared me? I was the worst of them all."
There was something terrible in the tone and manner in which this was uttered, as if the breast of the speaker were torn with conflicting feelings.
"She must have met wi' the missionaries some time or other," whispered Reuben.
"Is the old woman the only one of all the tribe left alive?" asked Swiftarrow.
"Ay, the only one—no, not the only one; my son is yet alive. He went to set a bear-trap not very long since; but he should have come back before now. He will be back soon."
The deep sigh which followed proved that the poor old woman was hoping against hope.
"How long is't since he left you, mother?" asked Lawrence eagerly.
"Two suns have risen and set since he left, and he had not far to go."
"Father, I'll go seek for this man," said Lawrence; "something may have befallen him."
Reuben made no objection, and the youth set off immediately in a direction which was pointed out by the old woman.
After he was gone his father and the Indian shifted one of the cleanest looking of the empty tents to a considerable distance from the spot where the terrible work of death had been done, and removing the old woman from the neighbourhood of the pestilential atmosphere, placed her therein, kindled a fire and cooked her a little food, of which she evidently stood much in need.
Meanwhile Lawrence sped through the pathless forest with the light step of a strong youth and the precision of a practised hunter. About four miles from the Indian camp he came upon the track of a bear, the footprints of which proved that it was an unusually large one. He followed it up closely, and was led by it to a spot where some trees had been cut down, and not far from which he saw what appeared to him to be the remains of a trap. Almost at the same moment of his making this discovery he heard a growl, and saw the bear itself—a monster of the brown species, which differs from the ordinary black bear of America in being more carnivorous and much larger, as well as more savage and bold. No sooner did it see the youth than it rushed upon him with great fury. A piece of broken line was drawn tight round its neck, and another piece round its fore-leg, while four arrows stuck in its shoulder and side, showing plainly that it had broken loose from a snare and had been attacked by man. But Lawrence had no time to think on these things. He had barely time to throw forward and cock his gun when the bear was upon him. It rose on its hind-legs, and in doing so towered high above the youth, who, whatever his feelings might have been, looked undismayed. With an unflinching eye he took aim at the monster's heart, and shot it dead. So close was it to him that he singed the hair on its breast and had to leap to one side to avoid being struck as it fell.
Reloading quickly, the young hunter advanced towards the trap, where his worst fears were realised, for near to it he found the body of an Indian torn limb from limb, and mostly eaten, except the head, which remained entire. It was evident that the poor man, having set several snares for bears, had gone to visit them, and found this brown bear caught by the head and leg. He seemed to have tried to kill it with arrows, but must have been afraid to go near enough to use his weapons with effect, and the enraged animal, having broken the snare, flew upon him and tore him to pieces.
Brown bears of this kind are very powerful. One traveller in these regions saw the footprints of a large one, which, having seized a moose-deer in a river, dragged it for a quarter of a mile along the sandy banks, and afterwards devoured it all except part of the hind-quarters; and the moose which had been treated in this unceremonious way, judging from the size and hardness of the bones, must have been upwards of a year old, when it would weigh as much as an ox of the same age.
Collecting the scattered remnants of the unfortunate Indian, who was no other than the old woman's son, Lawrence covered them over with leaves and sticks. He then skinned the bear and cut off its claws, which he carried away as trophies, along with one or two choice steaks cut from the creature's flank. He also collected the weapons and part of the dress of the Indian, with which he returned to the camp.
"Heyday! Lawrence, what have you got there, lad?" said Reuben, as his son came up and threw the bundle on the ground.
"A brown bear, father."
"Well done!" exclaimed Reuben, with a look of pride, for although his son had shot many a black bear in the forest, he had never before stood face to face with such a monster as that whose skin and claws now lay at his feet.
"It would have been well, father," said Lawrence gravely, "if the man who first saw this had owned a gun. His arrows were no better than needles in such a hide. See here!"
He drew from his breast the bloody portions of dress which had belonged to the slaughtered Indian.
"The son of the old woman has gone to the happy hunting-grounds," said Swiftarrow, referring to the heaven of the Indian, as he lifted and examined the dress.
"Ay, ay," said Reuben sadly, "'tis the chances of the wilderness. You'd better tell the poor old creetur', Swiftarrow; you understand her ways and lingo better than me."
Silently the Indian went to the old woman, and laid the bloody garments before her. At first she did not understand what had happened. Suddenly the truth flashed upon her, and she looked quickly up into the grave countenance of the Indian, but death and sorrow appeared to have already done their worst on her, for she neither spoke nor wept for some time. She took up the shreds of cloth and turned them over tenderly; but neither sign nor groan escaped her. Evidently she had been already so stunned by the horrors which had surrounded her for some time, that this additional blow did not tell—at least, not at first—but Reuben observed, while trying to comfort her some time afterwards, that a few tears were coursing slowly down her withered cheeks.
That night, round the camp-fire, the pioneers held earnest counsel, and resolved, sadly but firmly, that their projected journey must be given up for that season.
"It's a hard thing to do," said Reuben, as he lay at full length before the fire after supper, "to give up our plans after comin' so far; but it ain't possible to carry that old 'ooman along with us an' it's not to be thought of to leave her behind to starve, so there's nothin' for it but to go back an' take her wi' us to the settlements. I would feel like a murderer if I was to leave one o' God's creeturs to perish in the wilderness. What think you, Lawrence?"
"I think you are right, father," replied the youth, with a deep sigh.
"An' what says Swiftarrow?"
"Go back," was the Indian's prompt and laconic answer.
"Well, then, we're all agreed, so we'll turn back on our trail to-morrow; but I shall try again next year if I'm above ground. I once know'd a Yankee who had what he called a motto, an' it was this, 'Never give in, 'xcept w'en yer wrong.' I think I'll take to that motto. It seems to me a good 'un."
In proof, we presume, of his sincerity, Reuben Guff rolled himself in his blanket, stretched his feet towards the fire, pillowed his head on a bundle of moss, and at once gave in to the seductive influences of sleep; an example which was so irresistible that his companions followed it without delay.
INTRODUCES THE KING OF PIONEERS.
Discarding space and ignoring time, we seize you by the hand, reader, and bound away with you still deeper into the northern wilderness, away into that remote region which, at the time we write of, was the ultima thule of the fur-traders of Canada,—beyond which lay the great unknown world, stretching to the pole. Here, amid the grand scenery of the Rocky Mountains, lies the Athabasca Lake, also styled the Lake of the Hills. We prefer the latter name, as being more romantic.
This is no pretty pond such as we in England are wont to visit and delight in during our summer holidays. It is a great sheet of water; a grand fresh-water sea, 200 miles long and 15 miles broad—a fitting gem for the bosom of the mighty region on which it glitters.
A year has fled since the period of our last chapter, and here, in a birch-bark canoe on the waters of the Lake of the Hills, we find our pioneers—Reuben Guff, his son Lawrence, and his Indian friend Swiftarrow. There is also a young Indian woman in the canoe— Swiftarrow's wife.
The kind-hearted red man adopted the old woman who had been rescued on their previous trip, but, not finding her a good substitute for his own mother, he bethought him of adding a young squaw to his establishment. While he meditated on this step, the old woman died. About the same time Reuben Guff made proposals to him to join him on a second "v'yage of diskivery." The Indian agreed; got married off-hand, and took his bride along with him. We now find them all four at the Lake of the Hills.
It may be as well to observe, in passing, that Indian brides are usually more robust than those of civilised communities. They are quite competent to follow their lords on the most arduous canoe voyages, and, besides being able to wield the paddle with great dexterity, are exceedingly useful in managing what may be styled the domestic matters of the camp. They also keep up a constant supply of the Indian's indispensable foot-gear—moccasins—which are so slender in their nature that a pair may be completely worn-out in a single day of hard hunting.
The brown bride, therefore, was not a hindrance to the party, but a useful member of it, as well as a pleasant companion. True, her companionship consisted chiefly in answering "yes" and "no" when spoken to, and in smiling pleasantly at all times; but this was sufficient to satisfy the moderate demands of her male friends upon her intellectual resources.
"Fort Chipewyan at last," said Reuben, resting his paddle across the canoe and looking earnestly towards the horizon; "I hope we ain't too late after all our pushin' on. It would be hard to find that Monsieur Mackenzie had started."
"Too much ice in the lake," said Swiftarrow. "He has not gone yet."
"I'm not so sure o' that," observed Lawrence. "If reports be true, Monsieur Mackenzie is not the man to wait until the ice is all off the lakes and nothin' but plain sailin' lies before him."
"That's true, lad," replied Reuben, resuming his paddle. "I wonder," he murmured to himself, as he gazed wistfully towards the unknown north, "I wonder if the big river is really there, an' if it do jine the sea?"
That same question was put to himself that same evening—though not for the first time—by one of the inhabitants of Fort Chipewyan. The fort was a mere group of two or three log-huts. In the largest of these huts sat a man whose strongly-marked handsome countenance gave evidence of a bold enterprising spirit and a resolute will. He pored over a map for some time, carefully tracing a few pencil-lines into the blank spaces on the paper, and then murmured, in words which were almost identical with those of Reuben Guff, "I wonder if it joins the Polar Sea?"
This man was the true pioneer, or, rather, the king of pioneers, to whom Guff gave place without a murmur, for Reuben was a modest man; and the moment he heard that one of the gentlemen of the Canadian fur-trading company had taken up his favourite hobby, and meant to work out the problem, he resolved, as he said, "to play second fiddle," all the more that the man who thus unwittingly supplanted him was a mountaineer of the Scottish Highlands.
"It's of no manner of use, you see," he said to Swiftarrow, when conversing on the subject, "for me to go off on a v'yage o' diskivery w'en a gentleman like Monsieur Mackenzie, with a good edication an' scienteefic knowledge and the wealth of a fur company at his back, is goin' to take it in hand. No; the right thing for Reuben Guff to do in the circumstances is to jine him an' play second fiddle—or third, if need be."
Alexander Mackenzie—while seated in the lowly hut of that solitary outpost poring over his map, trying to penetrate mentally into those mysterious and unknown lands which lay just beyond him—saw, in imagination, a great river winding its course among majestic mountains towards the shores of the ice-laden polar seas. He also saw the lofty peaks and snow-clad ridges of that mighty range which forms the back-bone of the American continent, and—again in imagination—passed beyond it and penetrated the vast wilderness to the Pacific, thus adding new lands to the British Crown, and opening up new sources of wealth to the fur company of which he was one of the most energetic members. He saw all this in imagination, we say, but he did not, at that time, see his name attached to one of the largest American rivers, classed with the names of the most noted discoverers of the world, and himself knighted. Still less, if possible, did he see, even in his wildest flights of fancy, that the book of travels which he was destined to write, would be translated into French by the order of Napoleon the First, for the express purpose of being studied by Marshal Bernadotte, with the view of enabling that warrior to devise a roundabout and unlooked-for attack on Canada—in rear, as it were—from the region of the northern wilderness—a fact which is well worthy of record! [See Appendix for an interesting letter on the subject.]
None of these things loomed on the mind of the modest though romantic and enterprising man, for at that time he was only at the beginning of his career of discovery.
It may not be out of place here to say a word or two as to the early career of the hero whose footsteps we are about to follow.
He was a Highlander, to begin with; and possessed all the fire and determination peculiar to that race. At an early period of life he was led to engage in commercial enterprises in the country north-west of Lake Superior, joined the North-West Fur Company of Canada in 1784, and went into the Indian country the following spring. It is not necessary to say more than that Alexander Mackenzie proved himself to be a first-rate fur-trader at a time when the fur-trade was carried on under great difficulties and amid severe privations. For many years he was in charge of Fort Chipewyan, the remote establishment to which we have just conducted our reader. Seven years before his coming on the scene, the Lake of the Hills had not been visited by white men, and was known only through Indian report. When Mackenzie became ruler of the district, all beyond the lake was terra incognita. His spirit was one which thirsted to explore the unknown. He was eminently fitted both to hold an advanced post and to invade new regions, being robust in constitution, powerful in frame, inquisitive in mind, and enterprising in spirit. Frequently had he arrived at Fort Chipewyan with ninety or a hundred men without any provision for their sustenance for the winter save their fishing-nets and guns. He was therefore accustomed to live from hand to mouth, and to depend on his own exertions and resources in a country where the winter is upwards of eight months long and the severity of the climate extreme.
It was in June 1789 that he made preparations to start on his first voyage of discovery.
Rising from the table at which he had been studying his projected route, Mackenzie turned, with the air of a man who has made up his mind, and said to a clerk who was smoking beside the fireplace—
"Le Roux, if we cannot prevail on these Indians to accompany us, I have determined to start without them. Has the small canoe been gummed?"
"It has," answered Le Roux, "but I would advise delay for a day or two. If we give them time, the Indians may change their minds; besides, the ice has not yet sufficiently cleared away."
Mackenzie paced the room impatiently, and his eyes flashed for one moment with impatience. They were deep blue eyes that could beam with melting tenderness or sparkle with suppressed passion—it is but just to add that passion in his case was usually suppressed, for he was a lover of peace, as most truly great and powerful men usually are:
"Let us see now," he said, sitting down in front of Le Roux, "how our resources stand. In my canoe there will be the four Canadians and the German. Then there's our Indian friend, English Chief and his two wives, who will embark in the second-sized canoe. The two young Indians whom we want to accompany us with their wives must make up their minds to-night, else I will start without them. Your own canoe with goods for trade and provisions, will not be fully loaded; I shall therefore place in it the provisions that we can't carry, and when we come to the place where you are to stop and trade, and where I shall bid you farewell, we shall doubtless have eaten our lading down sufficiently to take the whole on board. See, by the way, that the goods and trinkets to be given in presents as we go along are not placed in the wrong canoe."
"They are already laid with the other goods, and also the nets and ammunition by themselves," said Le Roux, rising and laying down his pipe.
At that moment Reuben Guff entered with his friends. The surprise of Mackenzie was great on beholding them, but greater still was his delight when he learned their errand. The young Indians were forthwith told that their services would not now be required, and our friends— including Swiftarrow's wife, Darkeye—were at once added to the exploring party.
Next day the expedition set forth from Fort Chipewyan and swept over the broad breast of the Lake of the Hills.
We will not trace their course over known ground. Suffice it to say that their troubles began at once. Soon after leaving the lake they came to a rapid part of the river which flows out of it, where they were obliged to land and carry canoes and goods to the still water further down, but here the ice was still unthawed on the banks, rendering the process of reloading difficult. Soon after they came to a place called the Portage d'Embarras, which is occasioned by driftwood filling up the channel of the river. There they entered the Slave River, where there is a portage or carrying-place named the Mountain, the landing at which is very steep and close to the fall. Below this fall there is a mile of dangerous rapids—and here they met with their first disaster.
Reuben and Swiftarrow having landed with part of the cargo of the small canoe, had left it in charge of Darkeye,—so named because of her large and lustrous eyes, which, however, were the only good points about her, for she was ill-favoured and clumsy, though strong of frame and a diligent worker. While she was moving from one point of rock to another that appeared to her more convenient for landing, the canoe was caught by an eddy and swept in a moment out into the strong current, down which it sped with fearful velocity towards the falls. Darkeye was quite collected and cool, but she happened to dip her paddle on the edge of a sunk rock with such vigour that the canoe overturned. Upon the heights above her husband saw the accident, and stood rooted for a moment in helpless dismay to the spot. It chanced that Lawrence Guff was at the time the only man near the unfortunate woman, who, although she swam like an otter, could not gain the bank. Seeing this, the youth sprang towards a jutting rock that almost overhung the fall, and entering the rushing stream so deeply that he could barely retain his foothold, caught the woman by the hair of the head as she was sweeping towards the edge of the fall. The two swayed for a few seconds on the verge of destruction; then Swiftarrow came bounding down the bank like a deer, and, catching Lawrence by the hand, dragged them both out of danger; but before they were fairly landed the canoe was carried over the falls, dashed to pieces, and in a few seconds its shreds were tossed wildly on the surging rapids far down the river.
This accident caused them little loss beyond the canoe, which was soon replaced by another, purchased from a party of Indians, with whom they fell in that same evening.
Passing through Slave River, they swept out on the bright waters of Great Slave Lake. Over these they sped during several days. This lake is one of the largest fresh-water oceans of the continent, about 250 miles long and 50 broad.
And here the work of exploration fairly began. Great Slave Lake was at that time imperfectly known from Indian report; and the river of which they were in search flowed, it was supposed, out of its western extremity. Here also Monsieur Le Roux was to be left behind with a party of men to prosecute the fur-trade.
VICISSITUDES OF THE VOYAGE—INDIANS MET WITH, ETCETERA.
We have passed over the first three weeks of the voyage rapidly, but it must not be supposed that therefore it was all plain sailing. On the contrary, the travellers were delayed by thunderstorms, and heavy rains, and gales, and impeded by ice, which, even in the middle of June lay thick on the waters in some parts. They were also tormented by hosts of mosquitoes, and at times they found difficulty in procuring food— despite the ability of our friends Reuben, Swiftarrow, and Lawrence, who were constituted hunters to the expedition. At other times, however, the supply of food was abundant and varied. On one occasion the hunters brought in seven geese, a beaver, and four ducks, besides which a large supply of excellent trout and other fish was obtained from the nets; and on another occasion they procured two swans, ten beavers, and a goose. But sometimes they returned empty-handed, or with a single bird or so, while the nets produced nothing at all. Deer were also shot occasionally, and they found immense numbers of wild cranberries, strawberries, rasps, and other berries, besides small spring onions; so that, upon the whole, they fared well, and days of abstinence were more than compensated by days of superabundance.
One evening while they were coasting along this great lake, some Indians were discovered on the shore, and the travellers landed to make inquiries of them as to the nature of the country beyond. There were three lodges belonging to the Red-knife Indians, who were so named because their knifes were made of the copper found in that region. To the leading man of these, English Chief, being interpreter, addressed himself.
English Chief, we may remark in passing, was one of the followers of the chief who conducted Hearne on his expedition to the Coppermine River; since which event he had been a principal leader of his countrymen who were in the habit of carrying furs to the English fur-traders at Churchill, on Hudson's Bay, and was much attached to the interest of the Hudson Bay Company, which, at that time, was in opposition to the Canadian or Nor'-West Company. These circumstances procured him the title of the English Chief. An able, active, but self-sufficient and somewhat obstinate chief he was, and caused Mackenzie a good deal of anxiety and much trouble to keep him with the party.
In answer to his queries, the principal man of the Red-knife Indians said that there were many more of his tribe a short distance off, and that he would send a man to fetch them. He also said that the explorers should see no more of them at that time, because the Slave and Beaver Indians, as well as others of the tribe, were about to depart, and would not be in that region again till the time when the swans cast their feathers.
"Ask him," said Mackenzie, "if he and his friends have many furs to dispose of."
To this the Indian replied by at once producing upwards of eight large packs of good beaver and marten skins; and added the information that his friends had plenty more.
"Now, then, Le Roux," said Mackenzie, turning to his clerk, "here you and I shall part. This seems a good spot and a good opportunity for opening up the trade with these Indians. When the rest of them arrive we shall have a palaver, and then you shall remain to look after them, so, open up your packs, and get ready a few small presents without delay."
That day was spent in considerable bustle and excitement; the Indians being overjoyed that the white traders had at last penetrated into their country; and their joy being increased by the distribution of such trifling, but much-prized, gifts as glass beads, knives, small looking-glasses, etcetera. It rained in torrents all the time but this did not damp their spirits; and as for their bodies—they were used to it! In the afternoon Mackenzie assembled the whole tribe, and made them the following speech, which was translated by English Chief in a very pompous manner, for that excellent red-skin was fully alive to the dignity of his position.
"My friends," began our explorer, "I am glad to meet with you. The white man and the Indians are always glad to meet—they can benefit each other mutually. Each has got what the other requires. I have come for the purpose of opening up trade with you. It is true that I myself will take my departure to-morrow, because I am in search of new lands; but some of my people will remain on the spot, and if you bring in a sufficient quantity of furs to make it answer, my men will return to Fort Chipewyan for more goods, and will spend the winter here. They will build a fort and continue to dwell among you as long as you shall be found to deserve it."
At this point the speaker paused, and the dark-skinned audience gave vent to a loud "Ho!" which was equivalent to the British "Hear, hear!"
"In regard to my own work," continued Mackenzie, "I intend to search for, and find the great river, which, it is said, flows out of this lake, and follow its current to the sea—or, as you call it, the great salt lake. Do my brothers know anything about this river? If so, let them speak."
Hereupon an old chief, with hair like small iron wire, and a skin like shoe-leather, got up, and delivered himself as follows—
"We are glad to hear what our white brother says. It encourages us to know that you will make a trading fort in our country, for we have need of one. Hitherto we have had to travel far—very far—with our furs; or if, to save trouble, we intrusted our furs to the Chipewyans, they often pillaged us, or, at most, gave us very little for the fruits of our toil. For a long time we have been so discouraged that we had no motive to pursue the beaver, except to obtain a sufficiency of food and clothing. Now if you come to us, we shall be happy—wauch!"
The last word was equivalent to the expression—"There, think o' that!" The old man paused as if to give his audience time for reflection.
"As to the great river," he continued sententiously, "we know of its existence; but none of our tribe has ever followed its course down to the great salt lake. We earnestly advise our brother not to go there, for it is a dreadful river. It is said that there are two impassable falls in its course; and it is so long that old age will come upon you before the time of your return. You will also encounter monsters of horrid shapes and awful strength on the land and in the water—wauch!"
The old chief began to glare solemnly at this point, and the whole tribe followed his example.
"It is said," he continued, "that there are bears which eat the trees as if they were grass; whose cubs, even at their birth, are strong enough to kill the stoutest man. There are monsters in the river so big that a canoe full of men would be but a mouthful to them. There are so few animals or fish fit for food, that you will all certainly be starved. And, besides all this, evil spirits dwell there, whose chief delight lies in attacking, killing, roasting, and devouring men—wauch!"
Here the Indian sat down with the decision of a man who has given unanswerable arguments for the overturning of foolish plans; nevertheless, Mackenzie's plans remained unaltered. Not so, however, those of a young Indian, who had been engaged to guide the explorers to the other end of the lake, in order to save them from the loss of time which would be occasioned by the necessity of coasting round its numerous bays. The imagination of this youth—Coppernose, as Lawrence Guff facetiously styled him—was so wrought upon by the dreadful description of the great river, that he manifested a strong desire to draw back; but by the timely addition of a small kettle, an axe, a knife, and a few beads to the gifts already bestowed on him, he was eventually persuaded to venture.
Before departing, poor Coppernose took a ceremonious leave of his family. He cut off a lock of his hair, and divided it into three parts. One of these he fastened to the top of his wife's head, and blew on it three times with the utmost violence, at the same time uttering certain cabalistic words. The other two portions he fastened with the same formalities to the heads of his two children.
Even at the last he hesitated, and was finally made to enter the canoe more by force than by persuasion!
A few days later, and our pioneers were fairly embarked on the great river, whose course to the mouth it was their object to explore.
The expedition was now somewhat reduced, owing to Monsieur Le Roux having been left behind. It consisted of three canoes—the large one with Mackenzie and five men; a small one, with English Chief and his two wives, and Coppernose; and another small one, containing Reuben, his son, Swiftarrow, and Darkeye. Two of the Canadians were also attended by their wives; so that the party numbered sixteen souls, five of whom were women. They all kept company as much as possible, but English Chief was frequently left behind by the large canoe; while Reuben and his friends, being the hunters as we have said, were necessarily absent for considerable periods in search of game.
One evening as they were descending a beautiful sweep of the river under sail in grand style, the English Chief—leaning composedly back in his canoe, while his right hand slightly moved the steering paddle, and his teeth grasped his beloved pipe—said quietly to Coppernose, of course in the Indian tongue—
"A pretty guide you are, not to know something more about a river so near to your own wigwam."
Coppernose, who was a humble-minded man, smiled slightly, and shook his head as he said—
"All red men are not so adventurous as the English Chief. I never had occasion to travel in this direction, and do not know the way."
"Boo!" ejaculated English Chief; meaning, no doubt, fiddlededee!
"But I know of a river," continued Coppernose, "which falls into this one from the north, and comes from the Horn Mountain that we passed at the end of Great Slave Lake; it is the country of the Beaver Indians. My relations meet me frequently on that river. There are great plains on both sides of that river, which abound in buffaloes and moose-deer."
"I don't believe it—wauch!" said English Chief. As this was a discouraging reception of his remarks, Coppernose relapsed into silence.
Soon afterwards the large canoe was observed to make for a low grassy point; and as it was about the usual camping time, English Chief made for the same place. The hunters reached it about ten minutes later, and bore into camp two reindeer, four geese, and a swan, besides a large quantity of berries gathered by the fair (or brown) hands of Darkeye.
"There is plenty of game everywhere," said Reuben, in answer to a query from his leader, "we might have killed much more if we'd had more time— but enough is as good as a feast, as the sayin' goes in my country."
"In your country?" said Mackenzie, with a smile.
"Ay, I claim to be a Scotchman—though I was born and raised in Canada— my father hailed from the land o' cakes."
"Does Lawrence claim the same nationality on the same ground, Reuben?"
"He does not!" answered Lawrence for himself, while busy cleaning his father's gun.
"The lad loves the Canadians," replied Reuben, with a chuckle; "besides, he couldn't claim it on the same ground, seein' that I am fully half a Scot, while he is at least three-quarters a Canadian."
"More the better luck for him," said one of the Canadians, who had already kindled a fire, before which one of his comrades was busily engaged setting up juicy venison steaks to roast.
"Oui," observed another; "vraiment, Canada beats Scottish land altogeder."
"Ha! Faderland ees more best, den all ze vorld," said the German, quaffing a can of water with as much zest as if it had been his own native Rhine wine.
"I warrant me," said Mackenzie with a laugh, "that our trusty guide, Coppernose, would not give the wilderness here for Canada, Scotland, and Faderland put together. What say you, lad?"
Coppernose looked gravely at his questioner, but made no reply.
"Boo!" said English Chief; regarding his countryman with a look of contempt; "hims no onerstan' Eengleesh."
"He understands how to eat a rumpsteak of venison, however," said Mackenzie, with a laugh, as Coppernose at that moment coolly appropriated a mass of half-roasted meat, and began to devour it. "You'd better follow his example, lads."
The men were not slow to take this advice. In a short time all were more or less busily engaged with venison steaks, marrow-bones, goose drum-sticks, and fish; and comparative silence prevailed while the cravings of nature were being appeased. After supper, pipes were lighted, and conversation became animated for some time; but they were all too much fatigued to prolong this period, interesting though it was. One after another they spread their blankets under a convenient bush or tree, and, ere long, the whole party was in the land of Nod.
DESCRIBES A LITERAL WILD-GOOSE CHASE AND OTHER MATTERS.
Time sped on its proverbially rapid wing; the summer advanced, and still Mackenzie and his men continued to descend the mighty river of the far north, encountering dangers and vicissitudes enough undoubtedly, but happily escaping those terrified monsters of the forest and the flood, which had been described by the Copper Indians of Great Slave Lake, and the thought of which caused poor Coppernose himself to grow terrified and desperate by turns. Fain would that unhappy son of the forest have bid the party farewell, and returned to his own wigwam alone; but this might not be, for his services were of some importance, and the leader of the expedition kept on him constantly an eye, which excelled in intense watchfulness the glare of the fiercest of those creatures which filled his imagination. He submitted, therefore, with the best grace he could assume; but, what between being watched by Mackenzie, haunted by ghosts, and bullied by English Chief, poor Coppernose had a sad time of it. He possessed, however, a naturally elastic and jovial spirit, which tended greatly to ameliorate his condition; and as time passed by without any serious mishap, or the appearance of any unusually dreadful creature, he became gradually reconciled to his position.
One day—perhaps we should rather say one night, for it was approaching midnight, although the sun was still above the horizon, owing to the high northern latitude to which they had attained, rendering the whole twenty-four hours round a continuous day—one day (or night) as the canoes were sweeping down a reach of the broad river, they saw a few wreaths of smoke rising above the tree-tops. The spot was very beautiful, being thickly wooded and backed by high land, on the slopes of which the trees and bushes hung like delicate fringes of green among masses of silvery grey rock.
"That looks like the smoke of an Indian wigwam, Louis," said Mackenzie to his bowman.
"No, monsieur, it is the wood burning," replied Louis, dipping his vermilion-painted paddle with great vigour.
Louis was right, for soon afterwards they turned a point which disclosed to their view a considerable tract of woodland which had been recently destroyed by fire. Several tracts of this kind had been already passed, some of which had been consumed long before, and forests of young poplars had grown up in their places—a curious circumstance this, which Mackenzie remarks on, namely, "That wherever land covered with spruce, pine, and white birch had been laid waste with fire, there poplars, and nothing else, were found to grow, even though none of that species of tree had existed there before."
Passing this desolated tract they came to a part of the river which was studded with several islands, on one of which reindeer were seen.
"There's your chance," said Mackenzie to his hunters, who happened to range up alongside in their small canoe at that moment.
"We've seed 'em, monsieur," said Reuben, "but we must have some more ammunition afore startin' after them, for the powder-horns of Lawrence and Swiftarrow are both empty."
As soon as the horns were replenished, Reuben and his friends pushed out into the stream and made for the island. The other canoes continued to advance. They seldom waited for the hunters, for the latter being comparatively light, could act as a sort of flying artillery, falling behind, turning aside, or pushing ahead, as the case might require, in pursuit of game, and almost always returning to the main body about the camping hour, or soon after it. On this evening, however, the canoes reached a snug camping-ground before the usual time; they therefore determined to stop there and set the nets, as well as to overhaul the canoes, which stood much in need of repair. The cold of the ice-laden waters, through which they had recently passed, had cracked the gum off the seams, and collisions with the ice itself had made some ugly slits in the birch-bark of which the canoes were made.
That evening the nets, which were set in four fathoms water, produced an abundant supply of carp, whitefish, and trout.
"Now, lads," said Mackenzie, when the canoe brought ashore the welcome provisions, "set the women to work to make pemmican, for we must leave a supply concealed here against our return."
Louis Blanc superintended the making of this pemmican, which consisted of fish dried in the sun and pounded between two stones. Pemmican is also made of meat, in which case the pounded meat is put into a bag made of the raw hide of the animal; the bag is then filled with melted fat and the mouth sewed up with raw sinews. This style of pemmican will keep fresh for years.
"Where did English Chief go when we landed?" asked Mackenzie.
"Don't know, monsieur," replied Louis.
"After game, probably," observed the leader, as he sat down on the stump of a fallen tree and began to make notes in his journal.
Some time thereafter, Reuben's canoe returned laden with two deer, besides two swans, a number of ducks and hares, and several brace of ptarmigan, which latter were quite grey at that season, with the exception of one or two pure white feathers in the tail. They said that wild-fowl were innumerable among the islands; but this, indeed, was obvious to all, for everywhere their plaintive and peculiar cries, and the whirring or flapping of their wings, were heard even when the leafy screen over the encampment hid themselves from view. Darkeye also contributed her share to the general supplies, in the shape of several large birch-baskets full of gooseberries, cranberries, juniper-berries, rasps, and other wild berries, which, she said, grew luxuriantly in many places.
Meanwhile, the night (as regards time) advanced, although the daylight did not disappear, or even much diminish, but English Chief, with Coppernose and his two squaws, did not return, and their prolonged absence became at length a cause of no little anxiety to the leader of the expedition. The fact was that English Chief was fond of a little fun, and despite the dignified position which he held, and the maturity of his years, he could not resist availing himself of any little chance that came in his way of having what is more pithily than elegantly styled "a spree."
It happened to be the particular period at which the wild-fowl of those regions begin to cast their feathers. Knowing this, English Chief quietly slipped off with his canoe when Mackenzie landed, and soon found a colony of swans afflicted with that humiliating lack of natural clothing, which is the cause, doubtless, of their periodically betaking themselves to the uttermost ends of the earth in order to hide in deep solitude their poverty, and there renew their garments. Judge then, reader, if you can, the consternation with which these once graceful creatures discovered that their retreat had been found out by that inquisitive biped, man—that they were actually caught in the act of moulting!
Uttering a terrific "hoozoo!" or some such equally wild Red-Indian hunting cry, English Chief dashed his paddle into the water; squaws and comrade followed suit; the canoe shot in among the rushes, and the whole party leaped on shore. Thus taken by surprise the swans bounced up, extended their miserable wings, uttered a trumpet-blast of alarm, and sought to fly. Of course they failed, but although they could not fly, they fled on the wings of terror, and with straight necks, heads low, legs doing double duty, and remnants of wings doing what they could, they made for the interior of the island at a pace which at first defied pursuit.
The higher part of the island was level and open, with here and there a few stunted bushes.
Arrived here the trumpeting crew scattered, like wise troops when pursued. English Chief set his heart and eyes on a particularly large bird, and dashed after it with upraised paddle. The swan made a desperate detour, apparently bent on gaining the water; it ran round a bush, and was almost caught in the arms of the younger squaw, who, leaving her senior in the canoe, had joined in the pursuit. A shriek from the squaw sent it off at a tangent to the left, pinions aloft, and terror depicted on its visage. English Chief also doubled, but a crooked stump caught his foot and sent him headlong into the bush. At that instant, Coppernose, having foiled a swan with a well-directed sweep of his paddle, came up and gave chase. English Chief, nettled at the interference, sprung up, followed and overtook him just as the hard-pushed swan turned at bay. Both men came upon it at the same moment, stumbled over it, and turned their wrath upon each other. The swan, recovering, ran wildly and blindly back towards the young squaw, who was so much alarmed by its look that she fairly turned and fled; but hearing the shouts of the Indians as they struggled, she turned towards them. Meanwhile, the elder squaw having landed, met the retreating swan just as it gained the rushes. Stooping down she allowed it to approach to within a yard of her—like a true heroine—and then, rising, hit it a neat blow on the back of the head and laid it low for ever.
After this she joined her sister-wife (if we may be allowed the expression) in trying to tear the Indians asunder. This was accomplished after a few seconds, but the two men still glared at each other. Fortunately they could do little more, having left their knives in the canoe. While they were still in a state of indecision, an unfortunate swan, which had taken refuge behind a bush, so far recovered its breath as to think it advisable to get still further away from such company. It was observed and followed as wildly as before by English Chief. This time Coppernose had the sense to confine his attentions to another part of the field, where, while prosecuting the chase, he suddenly came upon a flock of geese in the same helpless circumstances as the swans. Soon the swans were routed out of their places of concealment, and the cries of men, women, and birds again resounded in the air. The way in which those swans behaved was quite marvellous. They dodged the blows aimed at them, and "jinked" round the bushes as if they had been trained to such work in a regular public school for human bipeds, and they struck out with their pinions, too, so deftly and with such force that the pursuers had to become extremely cautious as well as bold in their approaches.
At last, when the Indians were thoroughly exhausted, they gave up the chase. On conveying the fruits of their exertions to the canoe, they found that they had killed five swans and a like number of geese. With these they returned in triumph to camp, to the great relief of Mackenzie, who had began to fear either that an accident had befallen them, or that they had deserted him.
At this place two bags of pemmican were concealed on an island, and here one of their leads was lost in taking soundings. The current of the river also was so violent that Mackenzie concluded they must be approaching the rapids, of which some of the natives had made mention. The strength of the current may be estimated from the fact that, when the lead just referred to caught on the bottom and held on, they attempted to clear it by paddling up stream; yet although they had eight paddles, and were held by the line, the strength of which was equal to four paddles, they were borne down with such force that the line snapped asunder.
Here the weather became very bad. They had frequent thunderstorms accompanied with violent rain, and, although it was at that time the beginning of July, ice lay in great quantities all along the banks of the river. On shore, the earth was thawed only to a depth of about fourteen inches. Indeed, the soil of those regions never thaws completely. At the hottest season of the year, if you were to dig down a few feet, you would come to a subsoil which is locked in the embrace of perpetual frost. Some signs of natives were discovered here, and, from the appearance of the cut trees, it was evident that they possessed no iron tools.
"Push forward," was Mackenzie's watchword more perhaps than it had been of any previous discoverer in Rupert's Land. The Indians began ere long to complain bitterly of his perseverance. They were not accustomed to such constant and severe exertion, and it was with great difficulty that he prevailed on them to continue the voyage.
As they advanced, fresh signs of natives were observed, and at last, one evening, they came in sight of an encampment of them. It was at a place where the current of the great river was so strong that it was in actual ebullition, and produced a hissing noise like a kettle of water in a moderate boiling state. The region was mountainous, and just before them they perceived a high ridge covered with snow.
"They're evidently not much used to visitors," said Mackenzie, on observing that the natives were running about in great confusion, some making for the woods, and others hurrying to the canoes.
"They is used to be 'tacked by inimis," said English Chief, who was rather proud of his knowledge of the English language.
"Hail them in the Chipewyan tongue," said Mackenzie, as the canoes touched the beach. English Chief and the hunters landed first, and addressed the few natives who had ventured to remain, but they were so terrified as to be unable to reply. Seeing this, Mackenzie quietly landed, and gave orders for the pitching of the tents. While this was being done, the natives grew calm; they found that they understood Chipewyan; a few words relieved them of their apprehensions, and soon they not only came down to the tents, but were so gratified with their reception that they sent for those members of their tribe who had fled. Thus friendly relations were established.
There were five families, consisting of about thirty persons of two different tribes—the Slave and the Dog-rib Indians.
INDIANS MET WITH, AND THE MOUTH OF THE GREAT RIVER REACHED.
Heroes are not perfect. We deem it necessary to make this observation, because many modern biographers seem to imagine that their heroes are perfect, and even attempt to prove them to be so. We therefore feel it necessary to disclaim any such imagination or intention in regard to our hero. Alexander Mackenzie was indeed a hero, and a very fine specimen of a man—mentally as well as physically—if we are to credit the report of those who knew him best; but he was not perfect.
For instance, he evidently acted sometimes on the fallacious notion that whatever gave pleasure to himself must necessarily give pleasure to all other men. Acting on this idea in the present instance, he sought to delight the hearts of these Slave and Dog-rib Indians by presenting them with pipes and tobacco, and inducing them to smoke. To the credit of humanity be it recorded that they received the gift with marked dislike, although they were too polite to absolutely refuse it. Slaves though one section of them were in name, they were not slaves to tobacco; and the other section being Dog-ribs, had, we presume, too little of Adam's rib in them to find pleasure in smoke. Of course, they knew something about smoke, but it was chiefly as a nuisance, which was very troublesome to the eyes, and which usually issued from the tops of their wigwams—not from human lips. It must also be recorded that those estimable savages entertained a strong antipathy to grog when it was produced. Their hearts were reached, however, and their souls gladdened, when knives, beads, awls, firesteels, flints, and hatchets were presented to them; and we can fancy how animated and earnest would be their converse over the wigwam fires, for weeks and months, if not for years, afterwards, when they brought out, for the thousandth time, and feasted their wondering eyes on, those delightfully useful implements, which had been left by the mysterious white beings who had dropped upon them so suddenly, as if from the skies, and whom they felt half inclined at first to reverence as gods.
Having won their confidence and esteem, Mackenzie proceeded to question them as to that portion of the great river which yet lay before him. Their account was an exaggerated echo of that previously obtained from the Indians of Great Slave Lake. Being, therefore, of little or no value, our hero was obliged to advance, and solve the question for himself. As before, the effect of the Indian stories on the Indians of his party was very marked and discouraging. With great difficulty Mackenzie overcame their objections to proceed, and even succeeded in persuading one of the Dog-rib Indians to accompany him by the potent influence of a small kettle, an axe, a knife, and a few other gifts. This man was a stout young fellow, in a very dirty deerskin coat and leggings, with a double blue line tattooed on his cheeks from the ears to the nose, on the bridge of which it met in a blue spot. Hence Lawrence, following the natural bent of his mind, which he had already displayed in naming Coppernose, immediately addressed this new recruit as Bluenose.
These poor savages, although exemplary in the matters of grog and tobacco, were, we are constrained to admit, a very filthy set of creatures; very poor also, because utterly destitute of such wealth as the fur-traders had carried to many of the less remote tribes of Indians. Nevertheless they possessed a considerable number of implements of their own manufacture, some of wood and others of bone, etcetera, which proved them to be possessed of much ingenuity and taste. The description of their weapons reminds one of those remains of prehistoric man which we find treasured in our museums, for they had arrows barbed with horn, flint, iron, and copper, spears shod with bone, daggers of horn and bone, and axes made of brown or grey stone. The latter were from six to eight inches long and two thick, having the inside flat and the outside round, and tapering to an edge, and were fastened by the middle to wooden handles with a cord of raw skin. They kindled fires by striking together a piece of white or yellow pyrites and a flint stone over a piece of touch-wood, and boiled water in water-tight baskets, by putting a succession of red-hot stones into them.
From these Indians the explorers learned that they had passed, on their voyage down the river, large bodies of Indians who inhabit the mountains.
"He'll never make up his mind to go," observed Reuben, as, when about to set forth again, he looked at the pale countenance of the Dog-rib who had agreed to join the party.
Mackenzie had already had a severe argument with him in order to induce him to fulfil his engagement, and had left him under the impression that he had been successful; but when the poor man had said farewell to the tribe, and was on the point of entering the canoe, his courage failed, and he drew back. Seeing this, Lawrence suddenly seized him by the nape of the neck, and exclaiming, "Come, look sharp, Bluenose, get in with 'ee," gave him a lift that put the matter at rest by sending him sprawling on board. Next moment they were off, and shooting down the rapid current of the river.
That night they encamped, amid heavy squalls of wind and rain, at the foot of a rocky hill, on the top of which their new guide said that it blew a gale every day of the year! Here the Dog-rib became very unhappy, and pretended to be ill, but a strict watch was kept on him so that he could not escape. The country around them was very wild and rugged, and they were informed by their guide that great numbers of bears and small white buffaloes (musk-oxen?) frequented the mountains; also some tribes of Indians. Here some of the party attempted to ascend a steep hill, but were almost suffocated and fairly driven back by clouds of mosquitoes.
Natives were sometimes seen and spoken with, although their first impulse on beholding the voyagers was almost invariably to flee. On one occasion a whole tribe fled save one old man, who came boldly forward and said that he was too old to run or to care much about the short time that yet remained to him of this life. At the same time he pulled out his grey hair by handfuls, and distributed them among the party, imploring their favour for himself and his relations. His mind was quickly relieved by Swiftarrow, who seemed to have a special desire, as well as talent, for comforting aged persons of both sexes.
Some of these tribes were named the Hare Indians—hares and fish being their principal means of support. While spending a night with these people a storm of thunder and rain came on, in the midst of which the Dog-rib, Bluenose, managed to make his escape. As it was important to have a guide, Mackenzie compelled a Hare Indian to fill his place; and, after carrying him off, took great pains to conciliate him—in which efforts he was happily successful.
Next day they observed natives on the east shore of the river, and directed their course towards them. Their new guide began to call to them in an incomprehensible manner, and said that the natives did not belong to his tribe, but were a very wicked people, who would beat them cruelly, and pull out their hair, and maltreat them in various ways. Despite this warning Mackenzie advanced, and soon found them to be quite as willing to accept of gifts as other tribes. He found that they understood their guide, and that English Chief clearly comprehended one of themselves, although he could not make himself understood. Here the joyful information was obtained that in three days more they should meet with the Esquimaux, and in ten days at furthest reach the great salt lake—or the sea.
These natives were very superior to those whom the travellers had last met with, and one of them was engaged to take the place of Bluenose. This man, who was clad in a shirt made of the skins of the musk-rat, after which he was named, was a very lively individual. He sang the songs not only of his own tribe, but also those of the Esquimaux, with whom his tribe had been formerly at war, but were now at peace. He also undertook to perform an Esquimaux dance in Mackenzie's canoe, and would infallibly have upset that conveyance had he not been violently restrained. He commented on the tribe to which Bluenose belonged with great contempt, calling them by the strong names of cowards and liars.
During these brief visits to the natives our discoverer was not only troubled by the thievish propensities of the natives, but had to guard against the same tendencies in his own men, some of whom were much confused as to the true course of rectitude in regard to "mine and thine"; in addition to which he had to contend with a general propensity on the part of his men to quarrel not only with each other, but with the weather, the journey, and the decrees of fate generally. By a judicious mixture, however, of firmness and suavity, severity and kindness, he managed to keep the several parts of his discordant band together; and, in so doing, proved himself an able general for the highest generalship consists in making the most of existing circumstances and materials.
The river here ran through various channels formed by islands, some of which were without a tree, while others were covered with spruce, fir, and other trees. The banks, which were about six feet above the surface of the river, displayed a face of solid ice intermixed with veins of black earth, and as the heat of the sun melted the ice, the trees frequently fell into the river. The variety of channels in the river rendered it difficult to decide which should be followed. Muskrat, the new guide, recommended that which ran to the east; but his leader, not feeling sure of his wisdom or knowledge, preferred the middle channel.
Here Mackenzie put ashore and proceeded to engage in some cabalistic pursuits which utterly confounded Muskrat.
"What is he doing?" asked the savage of English Chief.
"Taking the sun," replied the interpreter, with immense pomposity.
"What does that mean?" asked the savage.
English Chief tried to explain, but failed for this good reason—that he himself was totally ignorant of the subject beyond the phrase, which he had picked up after the manner of a parrot.
It was found that the latitude was 67 degrees 47 minutes north. This was further north than Mackenzie had expected to make it, but the difference was owing to the variation of the compass. From this it became evident that the river emptied itself into the Polar Sea. Not satisfied, however, with the apparent certainty of this, our pioneer resolved to have ocular demonstration—to push on to the mouth of the river, even although, by so doing, he should risk not being able to return to Fort Chipewyan for want of provisions.
But now his men became so much discouraged that they did their utmost to induce him to turn back, and he felt convinced that if they had had it in their power, some of them would have left him to his fate. As Columbus did of old, in somewhat similar circumstances, he assured them that he would now advance only a specified number of days—seven, adding that if he did not then reach the sea he would return. Indeed the low state of their provisions alone formed a sufficient security for the maintenance of his engagement.
That evening (the 11th July) they pitched their tents near to a spot where there had been three encampments of the Esquimaux, and here Mackenzie sat up all night to observe the sun, being now in that realm of bright unchanging day, which in winter becomes a region of continuous night.
At half-past twelve he called up Reuben Guff and his son and Swiftarrow, who were the most intelligent members of his party, to view a spectacle which they had never before seen. They thought, on observing the sun so high, that it was the signal to embark, and were about to rouse their comrades, when Mackenzie checked them, and it was with difficulty he persuaded them that the sun had not descended nearer to the horizon, and that it was then but a short time past midnight!
It is but justice to Reuben and his party to say that they offered no opposition to their leader during the whole voyage. In regard to this, one speech made by Reuben will suffice to describe the spirit that animated him.
"It don't do, Lawrence," said he, "to go for to interfere wi' them as leads. Be they wise or be they foolish it on'y makes matters wus to interfere wi' leaders, my lad; therefore it's best always to hold your tongue an' do yer dooty. What Monsieur Mackenzie is, it ain't for the likes of you and me to pretend for to judge. He seems to me an able, brave, and wise man, so my colours is nailed to the mast, d'ye see—as was said by the immortal Lord Nelson—an' I've made up my mind to follow him to the end, through thick and thin. It's little right I would have to claim to be a pioneer if I didn't hold them sentiments."
"Them sentiments," we need scarcely add, were heartily echoed by his Indian friend and his son.
The appearance of deserted native encampments still further confirmed Mackenzie in his belief that he had at length reached the land of the Esquimaux. Round their fireplaces were found scattered pieces of whalebone, and spots were observed where train-oil had been spilt. The deserted huts also corresponded in construction with those which were known to be built elsewhere by the denizens of the far north. Several runners of sledges were also found, and the skulls of a large animal, which was conjectured to be the walrus. Here the land was covered with short grass and flowers, though the earth was not thawed above four inches from the surface; beneath that all was frozen hard.
The pioneers had now at last reached the entrance of what appeared to be a lake, which was in the neighbourhood of the Polar Sea, if not that sea itself; but the variety of channels, the strength of currents, the shallowness of the water and quantity of ice with which it was beset, with the ignorance of their guide, rendered it impossible to make any further advance that season. The object of the expedition, however, had been accomplished. The largest northern river of America, estimated at 2000 miles in length, had been traced from its source to its outlet in the Polar Sea; the nature of the country and its inhabitants had been ascertained; coal and copper ore had been discovered; the region had been wrenched from the realms of terra incognita, and the energetic pioneer fixed the position of his most northerly discoveries in 69 degrees 7 minutes north latitude. Another fact which proved that they were within the influence of the sea was the rise and fall of the water, which could be nothing else than the tide.
They caught a fish, also, resembling a herring, which none of the party had ever seen except English Chief who declared it to be of a kind that abounds in Hudson's Bay, and finally they beheld what settled the question, a shoal of white whales, which their Indian guide said was the principal food of the Esquimaux.
It was no wonder that the discoverers found the navigation very intricate, because that great river, now named the Mackenzie, is known to empty its waters into the Polar Sea by innumerable mouths which form a delta of about forty miles in width. Storms, rain, and fogs, threw additional hindrances in their way. There was, therefore, nothing left for it but to erect a post and take possession of the land in the name of the King.
Homeward! after that, was the order of the day. But what a mighty distance off that home was! And, after all, when reached it was but a log-hut or two in a part of the vast wilderness which, regarded from a civilised-land point of view, was itself the very confines of the known world. Our space forbids us to follow Mackenzie and his men on their arduous and interesting return voyage. Suffice it to say that they dragged the canoes by means of lines against the strong current for a large portion of the way; and, after incurring innumerable dangers from natives, rapids, storms, and starvation, they reached the Lake of the Hills and landed at Fort Chipewyan on the 12th of September 1789, having been absent for the long period of one hundred and two days.
That our hero was not content to rest upon the laurels thus gathered in the far north, but longed to act the part of pioneer over the Rocky Mountains into the far west, shall be made plain in our next chapter.
A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY TO THE FAR WEST PLANNED AND BEGUN.
Three years passed away, during which period Mackenzie, being busily occupied with his arduous duties as a fur-trader, could not carry out the more noble purposes of discovery on which his heart was set. But a time at length arrived when circumstances permitted him to turn his eyes once more with a set purpose on the unknown wilderness of the West. Seated one fine morning about the beginning of spring, in his wooden residence at Fort Chipewyan, he observed Reuben Guff passing the window with an axe on his shoulder, that worthy, with his son and Swiftarrow, having engaged in the service of the fur-traders at the end of the late expedition. Opening the door, Mackenzie called him in.
"Where are you bound for just now, Reuben?"
"To dinner, monsieur."
"Reuben," said Mackenzie, with a peculiar look, "has all your pioneering enthusiasm oozed out at your finger ends?"
"No, monsieur," replied the man, with a slight smile, "but Lawrence and I have bin thinkin' of late that as Monsieur Mackenzie seems to have lost heart, we must undertake a v'yage o' diskivery on our own account!"
"Good. Then you are both ready, doubtless, to begin your discoveries with a canoe journey of some extent on short notice?"
"At once, monsieur, if it please you."
"Nay, Reuben, not quite so fast as that," said Mackenzie, with a laugh; "you may have your dinner first. But to-morrow you shall become a genuine pioneer by preceding me towards the far west. You know the position of our most distant settlements on the Peace River?"
"Perfectly," said Reuben, whose eye kindled as he began to see that his master was in earnest.
"Well, I intend to visit these settlements this fall, and push on towards the Rocky Mountains. It will take me to the end of the season to accomplish this, so that our real voyage of discovery will not begin until the following spring. Now, there is a certain locality beyond our most distant outpost, which I shall describe to you afterwards, where I intend to build a fort and spend next winter, so as to be on the spot ready to begin the moment the ice breaks up. Preparations must be made there for the building of the fort. Timber must be felled, cut, and squared for the houses and palisades, and two able and willing, as well as experienced men, must go there to begin this work without delay. It occurs to me that the two best men I have for such work are Reuben Guff and his son. Are they prepared for this duty, think you?"
"Say the word, monsieur," was Reuben's laconic but significant reply.
"Well, then, it is said. Come back here after dinner with Lawrence, and I will give you instructions: you shall start to-morrow at daybreak."
Reuben bowed and left the hall with a light step. Next day he and his son started on their journey in a small birch-bark canoe; on the 10th of October Mackenzie followed in a canoe of larger dimensions. He visited several establishments of the district of which he had charge; ascended the Peace River towards its unknown sources, gave good advice to the several bands of Indians whom he met with by the way, and generally strengthened the hearts and hands of his agents. Passing the last outpost on the river, he pushed on, until, finally, he reached his intended winter-quarters on the 1st of November—not a day too soon, for the river was already being covered with its winter coat of ice.
Here he found Reuben and Lawrence, bronzed and hardened with toil and exposure. They had done good service during the previous summer, for all the timber was prepared, a space marked out for the fort, and a deep trench dug for the palisades. Here also were found a band of natives, amounting to about seventy men, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Chief, as they styled Mackenzie, and thirsting especially for tobacco and rum, both of which—unlike the natives of the far north—they were particularly fond of.
To build a fort in a few weeks, consisting of a dwelling-house and several stores, with palisades eighteen feet high, in the midst of frost so intense that their axes sometimes became as brittle as glass, and living in tents the while, exposed to the storms of wind and snow peculiar to a hyperborean clime, was a feat which, if detailed, would fill a volume. We are constrained to dismiss the subject in a line. Thus curtly, also, must we treat the winter. Yet some points we cannot forbear to touch on, illustrative as they are of some curious experiences of the fur-traders.
The Indians there were unusually ignorant of medical science, and when ill applied to Mackenzie, believing, with childlike simplicity, that he certainly knew everything and could do anything!
One woman came to him with a swelled breast, which her friends had lacerated with flints in order to cure it; this failing, they had blown on it, but with similar want of success. Mackenzie knew not what to do, but, bringing common sense to bear on the case, he made the poor creature keep it clean (she was naturally dirty), poulticed it several times, and anointed it with healing salve. In a short time a perfect cure was effected. After that an Indian while at work in the woods was attacked with a sudden pain near the first joint of his thumb, which disabled him. He appealed to Mackenzie, who, to his surprise, found a narrow red inflamed stripe about an inch wide, extending from the man's thumb to his shoulder. The pain was very violent, and accompanied with chilliness and shivering. Mackenzie admits that the case was quite beyond his skill; but as it was necessary to relieve the Indian's mind, he attempted a cure. He prepared a kind of volatile liniment of rum and soap, with which he ordered the arm to be rubbed. The success of this treatment was doubtful, because at first it drove the man mad, and the red stripe not only increased but extended in the form of several blotches on the body, and was accompanied by pains in the stomach. Seeing this, our amateur doctor fell back on the old plan of bleeding, an operation which he had never before performed. The result was marvellous. The following night the man was much better, and ere long was restored to his former health, and filled with gratitude.
Again, on another occasion, a young Indian's gun burst and maimed his hand so that the thumb hung by a mere strip of flesh. When he came to the fort his wound was in a very offensive state. His friends had done their best for him, but as their panacea for everything consisted in singing or howling, and blowing on the affected part, he was not perceptibly the better for their exertions. The youth's life being in danger, Mackenzie once more tried his skill. He applied to it a poultice of bark stripped from the roots of the spruce fir, having first washed the wound with the juice of the bark. This proved to be a very painful dressing, but it cleaned the wound effectually. He then cut off the pendent thumb, and applied a dressing of salve composed of Canadian balsam, wax, and tallow dropped from a burning candle into the water. As before, the treatment was successful, insomuch that the young red-skin was soon in the hunting-field again, and brought an elk's tongue as a fee to his benefactor.
During the winter he was visited by a few Rocky Mountain Indians, who gave him some important information; namely, that the Peace River in the mountain districts was interrupted by numerous bad rapids and falls, and that, towards the mid-day sun, there was another great river whose current ran in an opposite direction, the distance between the sources of the two rivers being short.
The winter, with its dreary storms and bitter colds, at length passed away, and genial spring returned. As soon as the ice broke up, preparations were made for an immediate start. Their large birch-bark canoe had been overhauled and repaired. Her dimensions were twenty-five feet long inside, two feet two inches deep, and four feet nine inches wide. She carried goods for presents, provisions, arms, ammunition, baggage, etcetera, to the extent of three thousand pounds weight, with a crew of ten men, including their chief; yet she was so light that two men could carry her when empty for three or four miles without resting. They had no small canoe on this voyage. Their hopes, and, it may be truly said, their lives, were dependent on this solitary and frail conveyance.