So time went on, cheerfully and even rapidly for all concerned—the Mission developing its labour-saving devices as the work increased, and the help of its friends made it possible. A water-supply system soon partially obviated the need for hauling barrels in the summer from our spring and puncheons on the dog sledges in the winter. A roadway and narrow-gauge railway track relieved us of the necessity of so much portage on men's backs; and a circular saw, run by a small gasoline engine, cut up our firewood with less waste and with more satisfactory results.
As with the basket market, so with the chore market, the ground was once more falling away from beneath our poor friends' feet. Only the indefatigable Jeanie held the household together, for in the heyday of the dual alliance's prosperity, the little daughter had been permitted to return to her parents from the Children's Home.
With the lapse of years, however, even if Emile could see no better with his eyes, his other faculties had developed so largely as to surrender to him again the joy of independence of outside help, and with characteristic self-reliance and optimism he once more tackled his own difficulties.
I was recently visiting a small cottage, built on a tiny ledge under the shadow of gloomy, high cliffs. It was far from any pathway and only approachable by stumbling over huge rocks—the debris of the crags behind. The hut had been built by a lonely old fellow who resorted to it in summer because it was right on the fishing-grounds, and he was getting unable any longer to face the long row to and from his house in the harbour. Nowhere in the world is the old adage concerning the birds of a feather truer than on this coast. The poorer and lonelier a man is, the greater is the certainty that some other poor and lonely person will seek the shelter of their poverty. Thus it had been with old man Martin.
One day there had appeared at the cottage door from twenty miles farther down the coast one-legged Ike, an irregular, angular youth, who, stumbling over the hillside, and magnified into portentous proportions by one of our Promethean fogs, had nearly scared the wits out of even my trusty dog team. Quite without invitation from old man Martin, one-legged Ike had come to stay. The proximity to the fishing-grounds suited this seafarer, who shared in every particular the limpet-like characteristics of Sinbad's Old Man of the Sea.
Anyhow, old Martin had never shaken him off, and had been heard to excuse himself by saying, "After all, he can sit in a boat as well as any of them with two legs." "Where there's room for one, there's room for two," is almost an axiom of life on these shores. In the lapse of time the old man had taken his last voyage, and Ike had come into full possession of the estate, living almost like Robinson Crusoe, cut off from his fellows by to him impassable barriers.
It was a reported lapse in some other portion of Ike's anatomy that had led me to scramble along the landwash to the cottage. The ice having broken up and gone out of the harbour, I should have considered longer the advisability of the trip,—for the morning frosts left the jagged rock masses at the foot of the cliff harbingers of ill omen to the traveller,—had it not been that his isolation might possibly make even trivial trouble serious. For he had come safely through so many scrapes, not a few being of his own making, that I had nicknamed him in my mind "indestructible Ike."
At last, congratulating myself that I had arrived without any untoward happenings, I rapped loudly on his door, expecting to hear his squeaky, perpetually broken voice bid me enter. Much to my surprise, therefore, the door opened itself, and smiling in the doorway stood our blind friend.
"Good Heavens! Emile, how on earth did you get here? And why did you ever want to come, anyhow?"
"Why, I thought it was a good plan for me to go fishing," he replied, addressing apparently a huge rock, so accurately poised over the hut that it suggested any moment an annihilating assault upon it. "Ike's going to be pilot and I'm to do t' rowing. We're to be partners for t' summer, and Karlek's going to look after t' family and help out when he can. It feels like being young again to be on t' water with a fishing-line. And, mind you, Ike knows a few tricks with a line that's worth more'n another leg to we, once we be on t' grounds. They all 'lows he be as good as t' next man for hauling in fish, so be as there's any around."
Ike's indisposition, as I had surmised, was not of a serious nature, and I learned subsequently that it was the proper ratification of the terms of the new triple alliance that had more to do with the sick call than any undue foreboding of impending dissolution on Ike's part. There had been some hitch in coming to terms, and Emile had put the only one point in them to his credit, when he saw through the trick, and "plumped for a magistrate," feeling also that he could trust me for more than mere legal technicalities.
It was obviously an offensive campaign on which I found them bent. Ike had himself carefully repaired the boat's structure, having always a keen eye to comfort and safety; while from Emile's hands I could see that the task of tarring their warship, owing to Ike's temporary indisposition and the need for immediate preparedness, had fallen to him. His only method for finding out where he had applied that hot and adhesive liquid had left very apparent evidences of both his energy and his zeal. To Emile also had fallen the rearrangement of the big rocks, so as to form as level a surface as possible on which to dry the fish. It was a Sisyphean task, and poor Emile had spent much sweat and not a little blood in his efforts. But, as Ike told him, "lifting rocks weren't no work for a man with one leg." So he had offset against it getting the meals ready, and what he called "tidying things up." But as Karlek was, unrewarded, to bring the bread, Ike's household labours did not promise to be onerous.
In one sense the entente campaign proved victorious, for they had a goodly catch; but in the division of the spoils it apparently turned out that it had been so arranged that Emile's share was to catch the fish, Karlek's to dry it, and Ike's to exchange it piecemeal for tobacco or "things for t' house," as he called them.
Ever since Stevenson wrote of the one-legged rascal Silver, one associates with that handicap a tendency to try to outwit others; while the dependence of blind men presupposes simplicity and trustfulness.
Emile worked like a tiger, with the single-mindedness of the Verdun spirit of France, blissfully supposing that Ike did the same in his end of the boat. Fishing in sixty fathoms of icy water, Emile would haul his lines up and down, re-bait and tend them, till his hands were blue with cold, and the skin "fair wore off t' bones." One day, however, a harbour trap boat happened to pass close by their rodney while they were anchored on the fishing-grounds, and the owner called out, "Wake up, Ike! Price of dream fish is down." Ike had somewhat loudly and not too politely responded to the salutation, but all the same it awoke a first suspicion in Emile's mind. While not slacking himself, he "kept an eye" on his partner as best he could.
He knew that a one-legged man must sit down for work, while for his part he stood, but he had not realized that Ike considered any more restful posture essential. "A blind man sees more'n most folk" is a common claim of Emile's. It is tedious pegging away when fish are scarce, yet fishing is a trade where "'tis dogged as does it." He suspected that Ike took it easy in the stern while he worked in the bow; and his doubts were confirmed when one day, from a passing boat, some one called out: "'Tain't safe for you to be out alone, Emile. You'll be running some one down one of these days." It was obvious that Ike was not visible over the gunwale.
From that day on, Emile began to count his catch and to put a cross-thwait in the middle of the boat to keep them separate—"Something to push my feet against when I rows, I called 'un," he told me. Still Ike was almost too much for him, for Karlek remembered seeing him sorting out the fish as he landed them, and the big ones, somehow or other, all found their way into Ike's yaffles. Ike also discovered that it was good economy constantly to change the location of such things as the tobacco box, butter tub, and molasses jar, for it often meant that the good-natured Emile went without.
The cold weather set in early, and though the contract was not up, Ike's hereditary instinct that hardship was bad for his constitution made him decide to stop if he could. But Emile went steadily on, having learned from Karlek that there were occasional leakages from the fish pile. He ventured to remonstrate with his partner, but as fish were plentiful, he refused to cancel the contract before the proper date.
It was Ike who finally forced the issue. Emile being bowman, it was their custom always to come in to the ladder leading to the stage platform head on, when Emile, grabbing the cross-bars with one hand and holding the painter in the other, climbed up and "made her fast." Projecting from the stage head is a long pole used for preventing boats that are made fast from bumping against the stage. Coming in a day or so later, Ike drove the punt in parallel with the stage head, and the pole coming into Emile's hands deceived him into thinking that the stage was above him as usual. He promptly stepped off the boat, and naturally fell into the water. Naturally also, it shook Emile up a good deal, for he was in the water quite a while. After the incident Ike's tender heart had made him absolutely refuse the responsibility of a blind man in a small boat in fall weather. As we walked up the wharf together Emile told me many more such details of the transactions of our only "triple alliance." All he wanted me to do was to add up his own tally of the fish he had caught, multiplying it by a reasonable average fish, and for the sake of the family help him to get from his ally a return for his labour which would enable him to buy food for the winter for Jeanie and the little girl.
Fortunately it proved to be not too late. You cannot "get the breeks off a Highlander," and after a week or two not a cod tail or a cent would have been available from Ike. As it was, my coming to the assistance of my poor friend happened to save the "entente" from being a tragedy, and enabled us to relegate the whole incident to our comedy group.
A peremptory order to Ike to wait for me at midday at the room we call the court-house would, I knew, impress him with the necessity of obedience, far more than a second visit to his cabin. The effort which the journey would cost him and the time allowed for reflection would, moreover, punctuate the importance of the occasion.
Emile's calculation of the amount of fish caught, corrected by Karlek by the simple process of multiplying the sum by two, and with a bit more added by myself to be sure not to underestimate it, formed all the legal data I needed. The lean, scrawny figure of Ike, twisting and squirming with evident uneasiness, awaited my arrival at the appointed time. Ike's fear of "t' Law" was the superstition of a child. It was to him a great big man waiting to pounce upon you and "lug youse away." Indeed, I learned afterwards that he had stayed in bed for fear of being carried off surreptitiously. "'T is a lonesome spot I lives in," he had explained.
"To steal from a blind man, Ike," I began, "is bad. Moreover, it doesn't bring any one any luck ever. Where have you put those sixty quintals of fish which belong to Emile?"
"It took more'n half t' voyage, believe me, Doctor, to meet t' summer's expenses. There wasn't more'n thirty quintals all told, and half of that was mine. Samuels only allowed we four dollars a quintal, and his flour was eight, and molasses seventy cents. He said he'd land Emile's share when he comes in on his home trip."
"The Law will have to send down and search your house and all around it, and carry off things while you wait here, and you won't get any credit for it either. I told you there was no luck for those who rob a blind man, unless they confess in time. I'll come back in half an hour for your decision." And, having an unfair advantage of a one-legged man, I locked the door and was well down the road before Ike had made a move.
Our little rickety court-house, in order to be in the centre of the village, stands on a rocky hill-crest away by itself. When the wind blows high, awesome noises with much creaking and groaning help to suggest to the guilty conscience that supernatural agencies are at work. The half-hour was purposely a long one, and had the desired effect. Ike made a full confession of his delinquencies and promised reparation. An immediate search while he was in this frame of mind revealed that Emile's winter food could only be obtained by leaving Ike to a diet of hope and charity. The lesson being necessary, however, the whole of his supplies were loaded into the boat, and Ike condemned to row it to Emile's house and land it at once. It was late and dark, but the fear of what might happen to him alone on his point, now that it was known that he had robbed a blind man, held more terrors even than hunger for Ike. So the judgment of the court was carried out that very night.
Partly moved by curiosity, Christmas found me once again visiting the mansion under the cliff. A shortage in the commissariat was, I knew, no new experience to the poor fellow, and even the wiles of a "one-legger" cannot convert stones into bread. Ike, radiant with smiles and fat as a spring seal, was out to meet me on my arrival—which circumstance was a little difficult at first to understand. Then he explained:
"You'm right, Doctor. It drives away t' bad luck when you pays up a blind man. I hasn't wanted ne'er a t'ing since."
It had been a good voyage that year, and, as a matter of fact, every one had a warm spot somewhere in his heart for "that rascal Ike." For though he was admittedly a rogue, he was always such an amusing, hail-fellow-well-met rogue, and not the really mean type which every one dislikes. All the shore had heard of his dilemma, and, isolation not allowing one man to know what another is doing, indiscriminate charity had poured in upon poor Ike, without possibly doing him much harm, for he attributed it absolutely to that oftentimes useful mentor of the feeble-minded, the great god of good luck.
To my surprise it was Emile who really suffered most, though he would not admit it, but by actual computation of the supplies in his very give-away storeroom, I learned that he had secretly carried back to Ike's beach in the dark just one half of those goods which "t' Law" had recovered for him; and which Ike to this day believes were deposited for his benefit by the good-luck fairy.
"It must be nigh sixty years ago, but I remembers it as if it was yesterday, when a new settler come to live in our harbour," said Skipper Life Flynn, at whose house I was spending the night with my driver and dogs.
"Life" was short for Eliphoreth—the "given" names being mostly out of the Bible down North. "It were a wonderful thing them days, for Father were the only Liveyer then—that is, as stayed all the year round. He didn't mind being alone, and t' moving in t' schooner every spring and fall were bad for Mother. Fish were plenty every season one side or t'other of Deadman's Cape, and there was lots of fur and swiles t' winter. So he built a house in Sleepy Cove, and there us grew up!
"No, Doctor, I'm not able now to read and write. None of us is, for us had no teachers. But we was all big, strong men, and handy at that, and there wasn't a thing to be done wi' axe or saw about boats and timber us couldn't do. We made a good deal at furring, too, and many's and many's t' night in winter I've laid down under t' trees and slept—with ne'er a greatcoat neither. An' if us wasn't brought up scholars, Father taught us to be honest, and to fear God and nothing and nobody else.
"It were our way them days to greet every stranger as a friend, and so when Bill started his cabin,—for that was all it ever were,—us lads all went in and helped him chop and saw t' logs for studding.
"In winter Father minded t' big French Room; but he were away hunting most of t' time, there being no need to watch much, being as there was no one besides ourselves anywhere near. But early spring and late fall when t' fleets were passing, it were day and night watch, and not without a gun neither.
"But it would have paid us better to have watched that winter; for when t' Frenchmen come in t' spring there was a number of little things missing that Father had to stand to—and, somehow, us never suspected t' newcomer.
"It was only long afterwards us learned how t' new settler come by his name—which was 'Skipper Bill Portland.' Seems that's where the big English convict prison is. So after Bill escaped, he not being good at letters, and not wanting exactly to use his own name, he just twisted her round, and to this day no one's ever found out really who he was before.
"Hundreds of schooners anchored in the Bight in our harbour that spring, t' whitecoats having come right in on t' floe, just t' other side of t' Deadman's Cape. One day a schooner captain read we a piece in t' papers about a man what had been a pirate, what had escaped to Newfoundland; and a hundred dollars was being offered for his head. Reading about that man made us all think of Skipper Portland. It were his build and his kind, too. But us folk never mixed with that kind of work; and all us did was to keep a good lookout for t' future. But a poor neighbour he proved to be, for he were as cute as a fox, and he had no fear o' nothing.
"He weren't no idle man, though, Skipper Bill weren't. That second winter he set to and built a ten-tonner all by hisself—that is, t' hull. He had galvanized fastenings for her, such as he never bought fair in Newfoundland. But o' course he had no gear to fit her out, and he couldn't get any more than he'd got already off our room. We lads saw to that, and he knew it, too—and that it weren't safe playing no games, neither.
"He were away t' following winter, 'furring,' so he told we, but no fox could ever get fooled by a trap Skipper Bill set. It weren't in his line, getting round animals. Beyond which he had ne'er a trap. He 'lowed he just set deadfalls—a good name for his work, I'm thinking now. Anyhow, he came back with enough gear, stolen off French Rooms to t' south, I reckon, to get his boat afloat by t' time t' owners got back.
"She were an odd craft, built for a crew of one man only. For Skipper Bill hadn't much trust in any man 'cept hisself. Once when he were full o' French brandy he told me that when he were working on t' cliffs in England, he found out that his mate were going to 'squeal,' as he called it, about his leaving, so he'd given him such a kick behind when he weren't expecting it that no one had ever heard from him since. He meant, we reckoned, that t' poor fellow had fell off t' bill into t' sea.
"When he built that boat he were thinking already that he might have to leave sudden, and perhaps a crew wouldn't be willing to, even if he got one. So he trimmed his teller lanyards to run forrard, so as he could steer before t' foremast, and handle t' headsheets hisself going to windward, and at t' same time keep a lookout for ice and slob.
"Many's t' time I've seen him sailing along with ne'er a watch on deck at all, he being below aft steering by compass from t' locker, with t' tiller lines leading down the companion hatch.
"I minds one fall that he brought in a big cask o' rum and a lot o' brandy, which he were going to sell to us folk. But Father wouldn't stand for that. He said that he'd seen too much of it when he were young to want any more lying round. We lads found it only fun to go over and knock t' heads in, and hear what old Portland had to say about we.
"One day, however, a fellow all dressed in blue came down from St. John's to take he along, and before Bill knew it t' boat were alongside his craft and t' man calling he to come ashore. Bill knowed what he were at once. He'd had experience. 'All right, Officer,' he said, 'I'll just get my coat and come along,' But when he come up on deck he had a barrel of gunpowder all open and a box of matches in his hand. 'Come on, now,' he shouted with an oath, 'let's all go to hell together.' But just as soon as ever t' small boat backed off, he runs forrard and slips his cable, and was off before t' wind before youse could say 'Jack Robinson.'
"He always left his mainsail up, Skipper Bill did. 'Better be sure than sorry' was a rule he always told us were his religion.
"T' policeman seemed in two minds about following t' boat, but when she rounded Deadman's Cape, he rows back ashore. I minds running up t' hill to watch where Skipper Bill would go, but he stood right on across for t' Larbadore. T' policeman said that that weren't his beat; and he looked glad enough that it weren't neither. Old Portland never came back to Sleepy Cove to live. He just left everything standing—which were mostly only what he couldn't take away with him anyhow.
"That fall one of t' Frenchmen stowed away in t' woods when their ship was getting ready for home. His name was Louis Marteau; and his vessel had no sooner gone than in he goes and lives in Bill's house across t' cove. Things got missing again that winter, and though Father had to feed him, seeing that he hadn't been able to steal a diet, we lads give him notice to quit in t' spring. As he didn't show no signs of moving, us just put a couple of big trees for shoes under t' house, and ran it and Louis, too, out onto t' ice as far as t' cape—a matter of two miles or more.
"So us thought us had done with both of them, and a good riddance too; but when t' spring opened t' Frenchman wrote up to t' English man-o'-war captain to come in and find out about t' things what they'd lost. So one day in comes t' big ship and anchors right alongside in our bay. T' very first man to come rowing across and go aboard to see what he could get, I reckon, was Louis Marteau. When t' captain asked him what he wanted, he said that he had come over to ask him to send a boat to t' cape to search his rooms, as t' neighbours blamed he for having taken their things.
"Well, it were a long way to go and there were no motor boats them days; and t' captain must have thought if Louis had taken anything he had it hid away where no one would find it. So they just didn't take t' trouble to send out a crew and look. At the same time Louis had stolen fish drying on his flakes, and stolen twine right in his open fish stage to go and catch more with.
"Another steamer came in t' fall, and Louis, thinking that t' trouble had blown over, went aboard as usual. One of t' officers, thinking that the man was just a fisherman, and as simple as most o' we, asked him if he didn't know where a man called Louis Marteau was. 'Yes," said Louis, 'I knows he well. He be here to-day, and gone to-morrow'—and with that he slips away, and was far enough in the woods for safety long before the searching party landed.
"Louis, like old Bill, was as fond o' liquor as a cat is o' milk; and when he got French brandy in him, he didn't care what he did. There be only one law here which every one keeps, as you knows, Doctor, on this coast. Whatever else you does, you must never touch t' property of another settler, whether he be good or bad, or whether he be away fishing, or whether he be in America. Because any time he may need to come back, and that many are away summers fishing, if they can't leave their homes locked and feel 'em safe, they can't live at all. So everybody minds that law, whether it be written in St. John's or not. There are new stages, yes, and houses, too, and plenty of 'em, and boats hauled up, that men has left and gone to Canada years ago. They're tumbling down right alongside folk as needs 'em as bad as gold just for firewood, but ne'er a stick is touched come year, go year—not till they rots or t' sea comes and carries 'em away.
"Well, Louis and a man called Tom Marling got some liquor aboard that day, and started scrapping, Marling saying that Louis must be a crook or he wouldn't steal another man's house. T' end of that was that Louis shot Marling through the shoulder and nearly blew his arm off.
"Next spring a large bully sailed across t' Straits and four men landed in my cove. It chanced that old Skipper Sam Brewer caught sight of 'em, and he recognized Bill Portland from t' old days. T' other three was Tom Marling's brothers. All t' men had guns, and old Skipper Sam guessed they was after Louis. So he sent off his lad Mose to run out to t' cape and give he warning. Though why he should I can't say. Louis just said, 'All right, I'll be ready for 'em, boy,' and started right in loading his two big guns and his rifle. Then he fixed up t' windows and barred t' door, and when Mose come away he could see Louis moving round inside and swearing enough to frighten t' fish off t' coast for t' whole summer. Mose waited round out of sight all day to see what would happen. But nothing did, only before dark he saw the four men making their campfire on the edge of the woods near Louis's house. I reckon they knew he'd be ready and wanted to keep him waiting. Anyway, they was there all next day.
"T' third morning I caught sight of some men loading a boat at Louis's stage, so, being only a hobbledehoy then, I guessed they'd not take much notice of me, and no more they did. They told me Louis had tried to break away t' second night in t' dark, but they caught him and carried his pack back for him, and what else they did to he I don't rightly know. Anyhow, they loaded up their own boat and then Louis's two boats with fish and twine, and everything else that were worth taking and they could stow, not forgetting t' barrel of flour and t' keg of molasses.
"Skipper Bill told me that t' Governor offered to make him t' captain of a man-o'-war, just to stop t' law-breaking on the coast. But he were a policeman instead because he felt ashamed to see t' laws broken and villains like Louis go free. 'It's to teach you people on t' coast to be good boys what brings us away from our homes so far in t' fishing season.'
"They never stopped loading a minute all t' time, and as soon as ever they were ready, and that wasn't long after it were light, away they goes towing t' two boats behind, and giving it to her straight for t' Labrador. 'Skipper Life,' Bill shouted, just after the anchor was up, 'if you sees Louis be sure and tell him to be good and say his prayers, and when he is ready, not to forget his uncles in Labrador and come over and settle down peaceful like.'
"No, Doctor, Louis never got so much as a match back, though he wrote and wrote about it—and Louis were a good scholar, being well learnt in France. All t' Government did was to offer Captain Fordland, who fished t' big Jersey rooms across near Isle au Loup on Labrador, another hundred dollars to bring back Skipper Bill with him in t' fall. T' captain told his men that they could divide t' money if they liked to catch old Portland out of hours.
"I 'lows it was more t' fun of hunting than anything else that started 'em, though two hundred dollars cash meant a nice bit in them times. Soon there were half a dozen small crowds keeping an eye out for Bill. There were no wires or mail steamers to carry news them days, and it so happened that Bill fell right into t' trap. For Captain Fordland did a bit o' trade, and Bill, being out of flour, come along to buy a barrel. Half a dozen men soon had him and his boat as well. T' trouble was where to keep him till they went home in t' fall, which was a full two months anyhow.
"The crowd what took him got leave from Skipper Fordland to lock Bill up in t' top storey of t' old Jersey brick store on the Island; and 'em fixed it like sailors so that not even Bill should get away. They had to share t' expense of feeding and looking after he between 'em, and though they didn't give he none too much it took quite a bit of their wages—only a hundred dollars for the whole summer.
"Bill had been there nearly six weeks and all hands were thinking of going home, when one day he told t' cook who brought up his food that he was fair dying of doing nothing, and couldn't he give him some work. Being an old sailor, he set Bill to making bread bags, and for a few days he made a whole lot, and t' cook took it easy. All he gave Bill was some canvas, a pocket-knife, and some needles and thread. Bill, however, saved a lot of canvas out of them bags and made himself a long rope of it. Then he just worked on, waiting for a real dark night and an offshore wind, when he let hisself down through t' window, swam off to t' best fishing bully Captain Fordland had, and was out of sight before daylight.
"You may bet they was all mad, more especially t' captain, who swore that t' crowd would have to pay for his good boat. What they said and did to t' cook be scarcely fit for ears to hear. Anyhow, no one knowed where Bill had gone, and none of that crowd ever saw him again. He weren't very dear to memory either.
"T' next place us heard of him was on the West Coast. He brought with him an Eskimo wife he called Nancy, who was very good at doctoring. She could make poultices out of herbs and medicines out of t' woods, and she would charm toothache and warts and such like, and could stop bleeding by just tying green worsted round your left arm. She had a haddock's fin-bone that never touched any boat that she used to lend out for rheumatism. She did a lot o' good, they says, Doctor, and she made a nice bit of money, too, so that old Bill had an easy time. But he spent most of t' cash in liquor, and at last she wouldn't work any more for he and he got beating her. One, day he come rowing down right into Port Warfield, with she tied up in t' bottom of t' boat, and a stone tied round her neck as well! It so happened that big Skipper Weymouth came alongside and seed her.
"'What be you going to do wi' she?' he asked, he not being afraid as most were. 'Why drown her, to be sure,' said Bill. 'I towed her behind t' boat for a mile a week ago come Sunday to drive t' devil out of her. But she ain't no good to me now, and so I reckon I'll get another.'
"The skipper saw that Bill had liquor in him and was quarrelsome, and feared that he'd just as likely as not upset t' boat—and drowned t' woman would be sure enough with that stone round her neck. So he says, 'Drown her! Not on this coast and lobsters just setting in. She'd spoil the catch all summer just to spite you.' Bill looked puzzled. 'You're right, sure enough, Skipper Alf. I'll have to do for she some other way'—and round he goes and rows her home again.
"The people, howsomever, was real afraid, and letters went up to the Government. No doubt Bill heard about it. But there were no place left now for him to go safely, so he just drank and drank where he was, all he could lay hands on; and when he couldn't get no more I guess he must have gone mad. For he were found dead on t' floor of his house, with a great big knife he had for hunting deer in his hand.
"Yes, his wife's alive to this day so far as us knows. Her son Bill found a box of old silver dollars, Spanish and French, buried under t' house Bill had on Labrador, the time he were trapped by Captain Fordland's men. They were mostly about a hundred years old. I saw many of them, but where they come from, or how he come by 'em, no one ever knew. We heard, however, that they helped poor Nancy to get back to her people again all right."
The brief summer of Northern Labrador had passed, and the Eskimos around the Hudson's Bay Post at Katatallik were busy preparing for the approaching winter. The season previous, according to the accurate notes of the Moravians, kept for over a hundred years, had been the worst on record; and now again, as the long, cold, icy grip of winter drew near, the prospect of supplies was menacingly poor. So the Innuits, that cheerful and resourceful little race of the North who wrest their living from so reluctant an environment, were putting forth all their energies in a "preparedness" from whose example many a civilized community might well have profited.
Their chief Kaiachououk, of upright character, and the courage born of simplicity, was a familiar figure at the Hudson's Bay Post where my friend Barlow was facteur for so many years. His acquaintance with the chieftain dated from an afternoon many years before, when he had first seen him, steering his large oomiavik, or flat-bottomed boat, up to the station, while his four lusty wives cheerily worked at the sweeps with his eldest son—an almost regal procession. It was on that same evening that he had told the facteur, after watching Mrs. Barlow prepare the evening meal, "Ananaudlualakuk" ("She is much too good for you"), and the frankness of his speech, far from seeming to disparage his host, endeared the speaker all the more to that hospitable and discerning person.
Kaiachououk possessed qualities which evoked the respect and admiration of all with whom he came in contact. Very noticeable among these was his affection for his family. To this day on the coast there is a story told of him and his youngest wife. He had been camping on their outside walrus-hunting station, and as was customary, he was sometimes away two or three days at a time, having to take refuge on one of the off-lying islands, if bad weather or the fickleness of fortune involved longer distances to travel than he was able to accomplish in a short winter's day. It was on his return from one of these temporary absences that he was greeted with the news that his youngest wife, Kajue, was very ill. One might have supposed that having so generous a complement of that nature, the news would not have afflicted him in the same degree as one less gifted. But exactly the reverse proved to be the case. Kaiachououk was completely prostrated; and when the girl died two days later, having failed to make any rally in spite of all her husband's generous presents to Angelok, he literally went out of his mind.
The Eskimo custom, still observed in the North, is to lay out the dead in all their clothing, but with no other covering, on the rocky summit of some projecting headland. The body thus placed on the surface of the rocks is walled in with tall, flat stones standing on end, long, narrow slits being left between them, so that air and light may freely circulate, and the spirit of the departed may come and go at will and keep watch on passing animals, whose spirits must serve the person in the spirit land just as, when embodied, they paid tribute to the needs and prowess of the dead. The top of the grave is also covered with large, flat slabs; and in a small separate cache of similar construction are stored all the personal belongings likely to be of use. The spirits of these latter are set free, either by having holes bored in them or some part of them broken or removed, so that thus being rendered useless to the living, they suffer what in the Eskimo mind corresponds to the death of inanimate objects.
Kaiachououk was so convinced of the reality of the spirit world, and so heart-broken at his utter inability to bring back to life the one he had loved so well, that now nothing would satisfy his mind but that in order to continue the communion which had been so sweet to him on earth, he should be treated exactly as his lost wife, and be immediately buried alongside her on some point of vantage.
At first his followers were inclined to treat his injunctions as mere vapourings, but they finally realized that the man was in deadly earnest, and were eventually compelled to comply with his wishes. The day being set, he was accordingly dressed in his finest garments, and, his dead wife being duly caparisoned and walled in in the customary manner, Kaiachououk, laid out on the rock beside her, was treated in an exactly similar fashion. There was no apparent alteration of the chief's attitude of mind as they proceeded with the walling up, and the heavy slabs were already being laid over him when two of the largest happened to become lodged on his chest. For a short time he made no sign and offered no kind of resistance; but it was gradually forced upon him that this method of translation into other worlds was far from being as easy as he had been inclined to suppose. Consequently, before the cortege had broken up and his last friends departed, he was loudly appealing to them to return and release him.
He was never known afterwards to refer to the incident; but on the whole it had an excellent effect on the Innuits; and they realized, so far as their unimpressionable natures are capable of doing, the strong domestic affection for his wife which was one of their chief's pre-eminent sources of greatness.
On this particular fall, when the last drama in Kaiachououk's life was played, when the northern lights sent their many-coloured banners floating over the heavens, and the stars looked so large and shining that it seemed one must surely touch them from the tops of the high hills, he was camping with his family and two or three others on a small ledge at the foot of the mighty Kiglapeit (shining top) Mountains, hunting walrus. This year the hunt was doubly important to them, and they delayed longer than was their wont. Here the great cape with which the spur ends marks the division of the whole trend of the land north from that which runs more directly south toward Katatallik. There the whole force of the south-going polar streams, focused on the ice, keeps open water long after all the rest of the coast is locked in the grim grip of winter. The walrus herds seem, in the evolution of ages, to have got an appreciation of this fact through their adamantine skulls. Therefore, from time immemorial, it has been chosen as a rendezvous of the Innuits in spring and fall. The chaos of ancient walrus bones which strews the stony beach reminds one of nothing so forcibly as the stacks of bleaching buffalo bones which disgrace the prairies.
On several occasions during the year previous, Kalleligak (the Capelin) had been guilty of the worst crime in the Eskimo calendar—on several occasions he had failed to extend that hospitality to strangers without which life on the coast is scarcely possible. It had been brought to Kaiachououk's notice, and he had lost no time in seeking out the man and taxing him with his remissness. A mixture of traits like the colours in a variegated skein of worsted formed the spectrum of Kalleligak's character; and selfishness, which fortunately is rarer among the Eskimos than among those in keener competition with civilization, was too often the prevailing colour. After the interview, at which he had promised to mend his ways, he apparently always lived in fear that sooner or later Kaiachououk would have him punished, and even deprive him of some of his possessions. The obsession haunted him as the thought of the crime does the murderer, and at last impelled him to the act which, though it went unpunished by men, blasted the remainder of his days.
Among the others who camped around Kaiachououk's igloo this year was as usual the sub-chief Kalleligak. He had been more than usually successful in his hunt, and was able to face the prospect of the oncoming winter with optimism. On the other hand, his supposed enemy, Kaiachououk, had been singularly unfortunate, largely owing to the fact that his kayak had been left farther to the north. He showed no signs of either impatience or jealousy, however, and never by word or act gave evidence that he so much as remembered the rebuke he had been forced to administer to the sub-chief. Finally he dispatched his eldest sons, Bakshuak and Kommak, with a big team of dogs, to hurry down north and bring the belated and forgotten boat back with all speed.
Kalleligak, obsessed by his jealousy and chagrin, was able from his camp to watch every movement of the chief's. He positively brooded so much over the incident that he came to believe that his life was in danger at Kaiachououk's hands. The next steps were easy, for he was favoured both by the innocence of his superior and the weather. Days are short in the late fall in the North, and darkness falls before work is finished.
In the late afternoon, two days after Bakshuak and Kommak's departure, while Kaiachououk was still out of his igloo and the darkness was rapidly coming on, Kalleligak stole inside and took the chief's gun. This he unloaded and then reloaded with two balls. Early next morning, before the dawn, he crept out, carrying his own and the stolen weapon, to watch his chance. Kaiachououk, emerging soon after from his snow house, turned his back on Kalleligak's igloo while he stooped to make a trifling repair on his own. Without a second's hesitation, Kalleligak seized Kaiachououk's own gun, and crawling and crouching up behind the five-foot snow ramparts which the Eskimos invariably build around their winter houses, he fired two bullets through the unsuspecting man's back and body. The chief fell head foremost, having received two fatal wounds; but Kalleligak, throwing down one gun had instantly grabbed the other, in order if necessary to finish the deed before the mortally wounded man could tell who was responsible. But Kaiachououk never moved, and his enemy slunk inside, believing that he had been unobserved.
As fate would have it, Anatalik, another of the hunters, appeared at the entrance of his igloo just in time to see the smoking gun-barrel over the edge of the snow wall. Running to his fallen chief, he begged him to tell him what had occurred. The dying man had only strength left to whisper "Kiapevunga?" ("Who has killed me?"), and Anatalik could barely discern from his eye that he understood the answer, "Kalleligamut" ("It was Kalleligak who did it").
It was probably this, to us, unimportant item which caused a confession ever to be made. Kalleligak, now convinced that the spirit of his dead chief knew he was the murderer, believed it would haunt him without mercy, and that his own life might be immediately forfeit unless he could appease it. He therefore at once set about preparations for a funeral befitting the dignity of the deceased; which, in the absence of Kaiachououk's eldest son, he himself personally supervised. When all was over he went to the igloo carrying gifts, and offered to support the entire family till the sons should be of an age to assume it. His overtures were as unwelcome as they were importunate; but the poor women were forced to listen in silence. Helpless as they were, with their young men away, they dared not anger the man, whose character was only too well known. Kalleligak, in order further to allay the anger of the spirit, with all speed set out on the trail to meet the dead man's returning sons, and apprize them personally of his version of the story.
Bakshuak, the eldest, listened in silence while Kalleligak first recounted the long list of imaginary wrongs which he had suffered at the hands of his father, then made his plea of self-defence, and lastly recited the hateful overtures which he had made to the helpless family, who were now, in spite of themselves, under very definite obligations to the murderer.
Angrily the lad repudiated any parleying. The family would far rather starve than be beholden to such infamy as was suggested. He was only a boy now, he declared, but he said fearlessly that if no one else killed him, he would do the deed himself as soon as he was big enough; and he raced on with his dogs, to reach home and comfort his poor mother. Had he but known it, he was really indebted for his life to the supposed wrath of his father's spirit and the restraining effect which it had on Kalleligak.
Eskimos never refer to painful events if they can help it. They go even farther than certain modern "scientists," for if a person who dies happens to have had the same name as one still living in the vicinity, the latter incontinently changes his. As a result, confusion not infrequently arises, for a man whom you have known all his life as "John" is "William" the next time you meet him. Thus they avoid the mention of the word the memory of which might bring pain to the relatives. Much less would they bring bad news to a white man.
They took good care, however, that the local Innuits should know that Kaiachououk was dead, hoping that they might give the great white man at the post the sad news of the loss of his friend. Barlow, as soon as he was certain of the main facts, at once dispatched messengers to summon to him Kalleligak, and Anatalik, who had seen the deed. The murderer had already expressed his willingness to surrender to the white man, and he at once packed up and accompanied the couriers back to Katatallik.
Meanwhile the news had also reached Ekkoulak, the sister of Kaiachououk, and her husband, Semijak, immediately summoned his council to discuss matters. All were agreed that the tribal custom must be observed. "A life for a life" was the only law they recognized, and the two elder sons of Semijak were selected to carry the sentence into effect. Well armed and equipped, they started the very next morning for the North. The following day they walked into the Hudson's Bay Post to apprize the white man of their errand, so that there might be no suspicion of their blood-guiltiness, not knowing that by a strange whim of fortune Kalleligak and Anatalik were already there and were seated in one room while they were being received in another.
In the room with Kalleligak and Anatalik was Mr. Barlow's daughter, a little child of six, who was amusing herself with a picture book of the life of Christ. The little girl began to show the pictures to the two men, telling them the story in their own tongue as she went along. She at last came to the picture of Christ upon the Cross between the two thieves. Mr. Barlow in the adjoining room heard Kalleligak ask the child if she thought Jesus would forgive any one who had killed another man, to which the little one replied, "Why, yes, if he were really sorry and tried to be better."
The house of friends is neutral ground, and to start a quarrel in the great white man's house would be about as likely as that we should begin one on the steps of the altar. Thus, when Kalleligak and Anatalik were summoned to dinner, both parties proceeded as if nothing unusual were in the air and all refreshed themselves at the same board.
Bidding them to keep the peace, Mr. Barlow made an effort to get to the bottom of the affair; but he found it very hard to know what to advise. The sister of Kaiachououk had begged and prayed her sons, now chosen as avengers, to have nothing to do with the slaying, saying, "It will only make more trouble. It will be Kalleligak's family who will suffer. They will surely starve to death." She had even sent a special messenger to the agent with an earnest plea that he would use all his influence to save her lads from the shedding of blood.
Having decided that the matter should be settled in open court and to abide by the decision of the great white man, all concerned now adjourned to the kitchen, and not for the first time that humble room was transformed into a court of justice. Kalleligak first gave his version of the story without the slightest attempt to conceal anything. He said he had lived in constant terror of what Kaiachououk might inflict upon him; and then, turning to the two men, who were fully armed with loaded guns, he said:—
"I know you have come to kill me. I shall never know good fortune again, anyhow. I have many skins and goods. With those I will pay for Kaiachououk. I can say no more."
As he ceased speaking, Semijak's eldest son burst out angrily:—
"Yes, we have come to kill you. Our law is a life for a life. We will not take any bribe."
But Oggak, the second avenger, thought differently:—
"We will hurt those who are not guilty. It would be different if he had no family. What offer does he make?"
"You know that Kalleligak is the second best hunter in the North," the agent spoke up. "And your mother, the wife of Semijak, has also sent me a letter. She says nothing but evil will come from killing the head of another family. Cannot the spirit be satisfied in some other way?"
Mr. Barlow said he would go out and return when they had talked over the matter among themselves. He always felt great pity for these far-off outcasts of humanity. To kill another could only make matters worse. It was quite probable that even a blood feud would be started and more valuable lives be sacrificed. The struggle for existence was hard enough in any case, and if he suggested their taking the law into their own hands, there was no telling where it would end.
So it turned out that the matter was settled by simple word of mouth. That was absolutely sufficient for Kalleligak. If the avengers appointed by the tribe were satisfied, not only would the spirit of the murdered chief rest quietly, but the guilty one's life would be safe.
The agreement, duly drawn up by the agent, read as follows:—
"We will not kill you. You are to pay— Two white bears. Twelve white foxes. Three live dogs."
That was the value set on a really great man's life. It makes one wonder at what rate ours would be appraised in Eskimo land.
It was Christmas Eve, and Malcolm McCrea, just back from the woods, was throwing down some frozen seal meat from the scaffold for his hungry dogs after their long day's hauling. Malcolm was only eighteen, and in winter still lived with his father in their home below the falls of Pike's River. However, now that he had been away for two summers in his uncle's schooner fishing "down North," his eyes were already turned to some long-untenanted fjords in the mouths of which the craft had anchored.
Pike's Falls was a lonely place, and the sound of a human voice calling to a dog team kept Malcolm standing with a fine forkful of meat in his hands long enough so greatly to tantalize the team below as to start a serious fight. This woke him from his reverie. "Ah, Ah!" he shouted, and, jumping down right into the middle of the fracas, soon had his dogs busy again with the frozen blocks which constituted their food for the day.
"Is that you, Mr. Norman?" he exclaimed heartily. "Why, who would ever have thought of seeing you here, and alone, this evening of all days in t' year?"—as a middle-aged man jumped from an empty sledge and began unharnessing a half-starved-looking team. "Shall I give you a hand? They seem spun out."
"Better not touch 'em, I reckon," was the gruff answer. "They're a bit surly with strangers." And indeed already the animals were snarling and showing their teeth at the other dogs finishing their meal near by.
Malcolm, who at once proceeded to throw down a liberal allowance of seal meat for the newcomers' suppers, attributed the savage way in which their master whipped off his host's team from trying to get a second helping, to the weariness of a long journey. For to beat another man's dogs, especially with the long and heavy lash of our Northern whips, is a breach of the unwritten law of the Labrador.
It was not until he had shared the steaming supper prepared for Malcolm that the strings of the visitor's tongue began to be unloosed. For it is not etiquette to ask a stranger's reasons for visiting a well-stocked house, in a country where the komatik trail is the only resource for the destitute.
"It's to t' post I'm bound. We be short of grub south. T' fishery have been bad this three years, and there's six of us now," he began. "There wasn't more than a couple of bakings of flour in t' barrel when I left. I couldn't get no credit south at Deep-Water Creek; and so I just had to try north or starve."
"'T is a long bit yet to t' post," replied Malcolm. "There is t' Monkey to cross if you goes inside; and us allows it a good hundred miles to go round t' cape. It'll take you a week to haul a barrel of flour from there here."
Roderick, sitting back in his chair, was dejectedly surveying the comfortable-looking room. Malcolm caught his gaze, and realized what was passing in the poor fellow's mind.
"Draw up, draw up, and light your pipe, Mr. Norman," he interposed. "'Tis only Home Rule tobacco, but it serves us down here."
Eagerly enough Norman accepted the proffered plug, and then relapsed into a silence which Malcolm found it hard to break. So, excusing himself for a minute, he beckoned the old folk to come into their bedroom that they might talk over the situation in private.
"He has four youngsters, and I knows they be hard up," he began. "They hasn't a chance where they are. T' neighbours blames Roderick for several little troubles which happened to t' southard, and t' traders won't advance more'n he can pay for. If it was any one else, and to-morrow wasn't Christmas, it would be just good fun to go down North with him and help haul back a barrel or so—that is, if they lets him have it."
"That's not like you, Malcolm. You can't make a man good that way, any more'n you can a dog by beatin' him," chimed in his old mother. "I guess you'll go along with him, even to-morrow, if so be he wishes it."
"S'pose I will, Mother, but—"
"Course you would," said his father proudly. "They've never known a McCrea yet on this coast that would let even a dog starve. But there's a barrel of flour in our cellar which we can live without. Maybe it's t' kind of Christmas greeting t' poor fellow needs."
"If you says so, it's all right, Father," said Malcolm, "and, seeing it's a good hundred miles to Mr. Norman's house, I guess I'll go along, anyhow, in t' morning and let my beauties help them half-fed pups of his, or it'll be Old Christmas Day before his kids get a bite out of it."
Only the joy of the first tobacco for weeks was keeping the worn-out man from being fast asleep when Malcolm again took a chair beside him.
"I've got to make a round south to-morrow, Mr. Norman," he began, "and it would be a pity if you had to be going t' other way. Father says he has a barrel of flour in t' cellar you can have and pay for it when youse can. So if that'll suit, I'd like to give you a hand some part of t' way, especially as there'll be a few gallons of molasses to carry also if you'll take 'em."
Gratitude is a rare grace. The lack of it was one of the costly defects in Roderick's character. No longer hungry, sitting before a good fire with a well-filled pipe, even the cunning which usually supplies the vacancy failed him; and Malcolm had to force himself to put down to exhaustion the ungracious way in which his real sacrifice was accepted.
In spite of hard work, they had only made thirty miles by sunset the next day, and, there being no shelter, they were obliged to camp early as light snow was falling. Yet it was a good Christmas night around the blazing fire with the special cheer the old mother had packed into the bread-boxes on their komatik. The following morning they did better, reaching the landwash of a big inlet forty miles farther south by noon. Here Malcolm had decided to turn back, for the remainder of the trail to Long Point lay practically over level ice. Just as they were saying good-bye, however, his quick eye detected something black moving out on the bay.
"A fox, Mr. Norman. Look! A fox! And a black one too. You may be able to pay for that barrel of flour before t' day's out."
They were both good furriers, and their plans were soon laid. The dogs were quickly hitched up to stumps, and, glad of a rest, were easily made to lie down. Alas, the men had only Malcolm's gun; but it was arranged that he should go out and turn the fox, and Norman, hiding at the third corner of the triangle, should try and shoot it passing or lure it in range down wind.
Things went admirably. Malcolm by a long detour was able to turn the fox from far out without frightening it. Roderick, well hidden, and squeaking like a mouse, tolled it into easy range; and within an hour the two men held in their hands a skin worth at least four hundred dollars. It was agreed, at Roderick's suggestion, that he should carry it home, as he was nearer the fur-buyers, take the first offer over that sum, and then send the half due by the law of the woods to Malcolm north by the earliest mail-carrier.
Malcolm added as he said good-bye, "I reckon maybe Father will want to let t' barrel go as good luck on t' bargain."
Summer came, and open water with it, but the half value of that skin never arrived. Later, in reply to Malcolm's enquiry by letter, a note came to say that it was being held for a better price in the fall; and with that he had to be content.
Winter followed summer, and when once again the "going was good," Malcolm, "running light" with his dogs, made the journey to Long Point easily in two days. Yes, the skin was sold, but the agent had not yet sent the cash. It had brought $430 and the half would come along as soon as ever Monsieur Baillot forwarded the notes. But the winter again went by and no notes, no letters, or other news ever reached Malcolm McCrea. Six years passed, and still they never came, and the McCreas supposed the debt was time-barred. Indeed, they had almost forgotten the whole incident.
Malcolm was still nominally at his father's house, but for three winters he had trapped on the Grand River, which flowed out into one of the bays he had discovered "down North." Here with the help of a hired man he had built up quite a fine little house, and made every preparation for that momentous life experience which usually comes early in life to every Labrador man. With characteristic caution he had waited for a good winter hunt to buy furnishings and traps. This had also given Nancy Grahame, who lived close to his home, time to get ready the needed linen and other requisites. "Clewing up" his salmon fishery in good time, Malcolm had cruised North in his own small sailboat, and till the first ice made had been very busy cutting wood, hauling food into the country for the winter tilts along his fur-path on the Grand River, completing his cellar, and safely storing his winter house supplies.
His first hunt being mostly for foxes along the landwash of the bay, he had waited until the snow came to tail his traps, judging that although it would take a week with his dogs to fetch his wife to their new home, he might safely chance that length of time away without losing anything which might be snared in the meanwhile. This was the third winter he had furred this path without interruption, and by all the custom of the coast no one would now interfere with his claim. So Malcolm started south at a stretch gallop with a light heart.
The two hundred and odd miles to the rendezvous at his father-in-law's winter home in the woods were covered with only two nights out, and that when the trails were as yet hardly broken and the young ice on the rivers would surely have delayed any man with less determination.
The wedding was in real Labrador style. Every one from far and near was present, quite without the formality of an invitation. It would, indeed, be an ill omen for the future if any one were omitted through the miscarriage of an invitation. So the danger is averted by the grapevine telegraph, which simply signals the event in sufficient time to make it a man's own fault if he is not present. Malcolm had many friends and there had been great preparations in Capelin Bay. Every scrap of room was needed to accommodate the guests, and at night hardly an inch of floor space but lodged some sleeping form wrapped in a four-point blanket, while the hardier ones with sleeping-bags contentedly crawled into them out in the snow, as their fashion is when nothing better offers.
The cooking had to be done in two large net-barking cauldrons over open fires under the trees; and as the fall deer hunt had been successful, and pork had not in those days assumed the present impossible prices, there were all kinds of joints, and no limit to proteids and carbohydrates. The great plum puddings which served for wedding cakes were pulled out of the same boiling froth, tightly wrapped in their cloth jackets, with long fish "pews" or forks. Unlimited spruce beer, brewed with molasses and fortified with "Old Jamaica," flowed from a large barrel during the two days that the celebration lasted.
At twenty below zero a slight increase in the calories consumed or even in the excess of alcohol over the normal two per cent of spruce beer leaves little trace on hardy folk; and when on the third morning, McCrea and his bride fared forth behind their splendid dog-team, every guest was gathered at the starting-point to "whoop up" the departing couple.
"'T is early I'll be starting in t' morning, Nancy, for it's nigh a fortnight since I tailed my traps, and there were good signs, too, by t' boiling brooks," said Malcolm the first evening they arrived home. "A fox following t' landwash from t' rattle must surely take t' path there, for t' cliff fair shoulders him off t' land, and t' ice isn't fast more'n a foot or so from t' bluff. 'T would be a pity to lose a good skin, and us just starting in housekeeping."
"What's right's right, Malcolm," answered his wife, pouting just perceptibly. "Us must end our honeymoon with the journey down. I'll not be lonely, I reckon, getting t' house to rights." And she laughed gayly as she noticed the results of Malcolm's sincere but unique attempts at furnishing.
"It'll be a ration of pork I'll be needing boiled, and a bun or two for my nonny-bag. I can cover t' path in two days so be t' going's good; but there's nothing like being prepared."
"Get a few more splits, then, boy," she replied, "and I'll be cutting t' pork t' while." For she knew that Malcolm's estimate of the supply necessary for a possible delay was not the preparedness which would satisfy her ideas.
Days are short in November in the North, and the moon was still up to see Malcolm picking his way along the unmade trail which led to the spot where the sea ice joined the "ballicaters" or heaped-up shore ice. In the late fall this is the happy hunting-ground of foxes, for a much-needed dinner is often to be picked up in the shape of some enfeebled auk or other sea-bird, while even a dead shark or smaller fish may be discovered.
This was only a brief fall hunt. Malcolm had some fifty traps over ten miles of country, all of which he would take up the following month when the sea ice froze on permanently to the shore, re-tailing them along his real fur-path up the Grand River along the bank of which he had no less than three small shacks some thirty miles apart. Here he made his long winter hunt for sables, otters, and lynxes, using nearly three hundred traps.
It was with keen expectation and brisk step that he now strode along over the open; only the unwritten law of silence for a trapper on his path prevented his whistling as he went. When passing through the long belt of woods which marks the edge of the river delta, he found numerous windfalls blocking his narrow trail; but, keyed up as he was, he managed to get by them without so much as rustling a twig. "I'm fending for two now," he said to himself, and the very thought was sweet, lending zest to the matching of his capacities against those of the wild.
There was nothing in his first two traps. He hadn't expected anything. They were only a sort of outliers in case something went wrong with those in the sure places. But now he was nearing the Narrows, and already his fence running from the steep bluff to the river edge was visible. But there was no fox in number three. The trap had not been sprung. The bait was as he had left it. "Maybe there'll be more to t' eastward," he thought, "though there were signs on this side of t' river." And, resetting the trap, he plodded along farther on his round.
Midday came. He had passed no less than fifteen of his best traps, and not only had no fox been found, but not one trap was sprung or one bait taken.
Malcolm stood meditatively scratching his head by trap twenty. "Something's wrong," he said to himself,—"but what? Better boil t' kettle and think it over. Perhaps better luck after lunch."
Unstringing his tomahawk, he started to find some dry wood with which to kindle a fire. None being close to the beach, he walked a few yards into the forest, and had just commenced on a tree when he noticed by the white scar that a branch had been broken quite recently from the very same trunk. "Wind and t' weight of t' silver thaw," he supposed, for there was no one living within fifty miles, and no other fur-path at that time, anyhow, in the bay. The northern komatik trail crossed twenty miles seaward, where the calm, wide expanse made the ice much safer in the early winter than near the swift current at the river mouth. But as he stooped to clear the trunk for his own axe, he noticed that, though disguised as a break, a cut had been first made to weaken the bough. "Some one's been here, that's sure," he said to himself. "Who can it be?" So much snow had fallen since Malcolm had gone after his wife that it was no easy matter to guess an answer—much less to read it from the trails around.
His frugal meal finished, he sat meditatively smoking his pipe by the glowing embers of his generous fire. But no light came to him. Practically no one lived near. The few who did were as honest as daylight. He had not an enemy on earth so far as he knew; and yet he realized now that the good condition of his traps, and especially his baits, after a fortnight of the blusterous Labrador fall weather needed accounting for. Well, anyhow, there was only one thing to do—go and finish his round, and when he got back he could talk the trouble over with his wife.
Slipping on his snow racquets and once more shouldering his nonny-bag, he strode off toward his next trap. It was new to him to suspect men. It was his business as a trapper to suspect Nature. It was, however, from this new viewpoint that he must approach his next task. For therein lies the intense interest of the trapper's life—every moment affords a keen problem. The gambler has the excitement of a possible big return, a sudden acquisition of gain. The trapper has all that, and the added satisfaction of knowing that it is his ability and not merely his luck which has won out.
At first sight there seemed nothing amiss with trap twenty-one. It had been tailed on the top of a specially felled tree. There it was still—a little mound of snow above the great expanse of whiteness, only recognizable because a trapper knows every inch of his path as a priest does his breviary. True, as the surface snow was only two days old, many marks could not be expected upon it. All the same, it struck Malcolm as odd that not a single fox-footing had he sighted since leaving home. "Something must have been cleaning 'em up," he reasoned. "There were two broods on Whale Island and one at least on t' Isle of Hope. That's some twenty all told—and ne'er a wolf or lynx track out to t' landward t' year." Musing to himself, he knelt down by the trap to examine it more closely. Lifting it up, he blew off the loose snow and inspected the stump carefully. No, nothing to indicate that it had been moved. If it had been, it must have been replaced with consummate care; for the rain had fallen once since Malcolm had tailed it, and the trap lay exactly in the icy trough, its handle and chain lying in the same groove. But the very fact suggested an idea. Possibly, if he cleared the snow there might be a frozen footmark in the hard surface beneath. Carefully, handful by handful, he removed over a foot of snow from around the bottom of the old tree, till he felt with his fingers the frozen crust. It took him over an hour's cold, tedious work, for he feared to use a mitten to protect his hand lest he should destroy the very traces of which he was in search. Though it froze his fingers and meant a long delay, it was well worth while, for he had undeniable evidence of a man's footmark, without any racquet, made since the rain previous to the last snowfall. It was probably at least a week old.
Again he examined the trap carefully. Not a hair, not a blood mark, not a sign to show that any fox had been in it. If it had been robbed, an expert had done it. There was another chance, however. Using his racquet as a spade, Malcolm was soon at work clearing the snow away right around the roots. The chain was a long one, and driven into one of the leaders was a steel fastener. It was as he expected. Not only had the chain been obviously gnawed, but there was considerable chafing of the bark as well. "He's been in it, sure enough, but the question is, Who's got t' skin?" Dark was coming on. There was no use going back; so, cutting down a few boughs and making a small lean-to under a big spruce, Malcolm kindled a blazing fire, "cooked the kettle," and turned in for the night.
Nancy had seen her husband as soon as he crossed the shoulder of the hill on his home-coming the third morning. To tell the truth, it was her first experience of being quite alone in the forest, and she had been doing but little "furnishing" after the first night. Now she was sure he had made a fine haul, and hurried out to meet him and hear the news. Malcolm, with the canniness of his kind, at once told her he had had no luck.
Now the actual amount of money lost may not have been great, but it had the irritating feature of being an unknown quantity and the additional vague risk of making all his winter work fruitless. It is useless to set traps if some one else is to follow around and rob them. So that night he told his wife the whole story. Discuss it as they would, there was no clue of any kind to follow; so like wise folk they decided to go on their way as if nothing had happened, keeping their mouths shut and their eyes and ears open.
No one visited their bay before Malcolm went on his first long fur round, which he did earlier than was his wont in order to be back in time for the first of the two winter mails. This trip he made a much better hunt, setting his traps as he went into the country. He took good care to make long marches, and even one day to double back on his tracks, making a long detour to see if he might not possibly pick up some unexpected signs of another man on his path. His, because, although there is no law on the subject, custom is law on Labrador, and the man who first finds a new trail for trapping has a conceded right of at least a mile in width for just as far as he cares to go.
The whole round was made in ten days, and, coming back with six sables, two otter, and a few mink and ermine, he was fortunate enough to reach home some hours before the southern mail team.
"What's t' news, Pat?" he asked, when at last supper was over, and the final pipe was being discussed by the fire.
"Nothing to boast of," was the answer. "T' same old story, with some a feast and with some a famine. They do say Roderick Norman's luck seems to have turned at last. T' Company gave he over four hundred dollars for a dark silver he got, and as much more, some say, for a batch o' reds and patches. 'T is more than good luck that half-breed must have had, for he hasn't had a dozen traps to his name this five years."
Before he had finished speaking, Malcolm was watching him narrowly, wondering if some sprite had whispered abroad the robbing of his traps. But Pat was evidently unconscious of any possible connection between his news and his audience. As absolute silence was the only possible road ever to learning the truth, Pat left the next day on his journey north, not a whit the wiser for his night at the new homestead.
"It do sound strange, Nancy, don't it?" said her husband, after their guest had gone. "Roderick Norman can't have any grudge against me. Why, sure, it should be all t' other way." And he got up, stretched his splendid muscular limbs, and, picking up his axe, took out any excess of feeling there might be in his heart by a good two hours' work at the woodpile.
Meanwhile his mind had not been idle. Whoever it was that robbed his traps could not have come along the usual trail. The ice outside had not been safe for travelling. He certainly must have come out from the country. It had never occurred to Malcolm to spend time exploring the land which lay south of his fur-path. But now it seemed to him that he must at all costs set out the following morning and verify his suspicions if he were to retain his hope of a livelihood in that locality.
"I'm minded to try it right away, Nancy," said Malcolm. "If I could only get a good view from one of t' hilltops, I'd have no trouble, for there is still plenty of food in my tilts."
"But, Malcolm, 't is only two days till Christmas and this is our first together. Surely no one ever goes on the fur-path Christmastime."
"That's just it, lass. No one is on t' path as ought to be, and I reckon for that very reason there be more chance of seeing those as ought not."
There was no escaping the logic of the Scotchman, and his wife acquiesced without further argument. He was well into the country before daylight next day.
It was a glorious morning, as away there in utter solitude the evergreen trees, the red-faced cliffs, the startling whiteness of the snow, and exquisite blue overhead fading into the purple distance of the winding valley met his keen view from a mountain-top. It was Labrador at its best—clear, dry, cold, and not a sound to break the absolute silence, even the trickling of the rapids and the splashing of distant falls being muffled by then-heavy cloaks of ice.
Suddenly Malcolm's face grew rigid and his eyes unconsciously fixed themselves on a moving object—a tiny whiff of blue smoke was curling up from the woods on the other side of the valley. Gentle though he was, his big muscles set and his jaw tightened as the idea of revenge flashed across his mind.
A man does not learn to outwit successfully the keen senses of the denizens of the woods without finding it easy to solve a problem such as the one which Malcolm now faced. For all that, he decided not to approach too close till dark what he was now sure was a hut, for the way the smoke rose was quite unlike that from an open fire. Having, therefore, plenty of time, he made a long and cautious detour till he had at last completely encircled the spot. There were the marks of one pair of snow racquets only on the snow. The trail was possibly three days old. No snow had fallen for several days. "Reckon he is taking a good spell with that catch of his."
This much he knew. He knew the stranger was in or close to the tilt. He was not trapping, though he had been inside the circle for several days, and he had no dogs.
As it fell dark, Malcolm fully expected to see a light in the hut, but not a twinkle showed through the single-pane window light, which he had located from his hiding-place.
Now he was crawling nearer. There was no chance of his being seen, as the moon had not yet risen and it was very dark among the trees. A light wind had risen, rustling the firs and spruces above his head. The fire worried him. Why had it almost died out? Heaven knows it was cold enough to need one, for with all his warm blood Malcolm himself was shivering. What could it mean?
Suddenly he heard some one move inside. Then came the noise of sticks hitting a tin camp-stove and a sudden blaze flared up, burnt for a minute or two, and apparently went out again. Whoever it was must be ill, or hurt. He had no big billets or he wouldn't be firing with twigs.
It could not do any harm now to enter, and Malcolm strode noisily to the door and peered inside.
A man's weak voice greeted him. "Who's there? For God's sake, come in."
"My name's Malcolm McCrea. Where's your light?"
"Haven't got one. I've no candle either," came the answer. "Had an accident three days ago with my gun, and nearly blew my foot off. My leg's swelled up something wonderful."
The voice, feeble almost to a whisper, conveyed no information as to the man's identity, except that the Scotchman's quick ear detected that there was resentment somehow mixed with satisfaction that a rescuer had come.
"I've a drop of kerosene in my nonny-bag," was all Malcolm said, "but it's scarce, and I 'low I'll cut up some wood and get t' fire going before lighting up. You lie quiet for a minute or two and I'll get you a drop of tea."
"Lie quiet!" snarled the other. "I've lain quiet for three days, and expected to stay till doomsday. It's no virtue keeps me lying quiet. I had no business to be here, anyhow, seeing there was no need of it."
"Well, do as you please," answered McCrea. And without much delay he soon had a roaring fire in the camp-stove which turned the chimney red-hot and made it possible to see dimly stretched out on a bed of fir boughs the long, thin form of a man whose drawn, unshaven face showed that he was suffering much pain. His right foot was swaddled in an ominously stained bundle of rags—evidently some torn-up garment.
Methodically lighting the bit of wick which he had placed in the kerosene bottle, Malcolm knelt down by the side of the injured man and, peering into the semi-darkness of the gloomy corner, found himself looking right into the eyes of Roderick Norman.
Having made some hot tea and shared it with the sick man, he offered him part of the pork and hard biscuit, all that he had with him for his own supper. But Roderick was too feeble to touch more than a bit of it soaked in hot tea, and that seemed a small strength-giver for such a time of need.
"If you'd a bit o' wire or line, I'd tail a snare for a rabbit when the moon rises and try if we couldn't get a drop o' hot stew to help out. But I haven't a bit in my bag."
"There's a couple o' traps," growled the sick man, and then stopped suddenly, shutting his jaws with a snap.
Malcolm looked around, but was unable to see any signs of them. "Where did you say they were?" he enquired; but no response came from the bunk.
McCrea finished his supper, lit his pipe, and suggested trying to wash the wounded foot. But fearing to start the bleeding again, they decided to leave it till morning.
"Where are those traps you spoke of, sir? The moon is beginning to show and I'll be needing to get 'em put out, if we're to have any chance." But still the other man made no answer. Malcolm went up close to the bed and knelt down by him again. "Mr. Norman," he said, "we're in a bad hole here. We're fifty miles from help, anyhow. We've no dogs and only one of us can walk. Moreover, there's almost no food. If you've got any traps, why not tell me where they are. I'm not going to steal 'em."
Roderick Norman opened his eyes and looked at him. The dim rays of the little wick in the kerosene bottle gave scarcely enough light to show the ordinary eye where the lamp itself was. But when their glances met, it was enough to show Roderick that it was no longer a child with whom he was dealing. For a second neither spoke, then Malcolm, putting his hand on the man's shoulder, gripped it perhaps more roughly than he intended. "The traps," he repeated.
Roderick winced. He saw that his secret was out. He was at the Scotchman's mercy, and he knew it. "They're stowed in t' hollow of t' old trunk, fifty yards back of t' tilt, damn you," he snarled, and tried to roll over, groaning bitterly with pain of both body and soul.
The pity of it appealed straight to Malcolm's generous heart, and his grip relaxed instantly. He strove to make the other more comfortable, moving him gently in his great arms.
"Forget it, Mr. Norman," he said. "No one shall ever know unless you tell 'em. I'll give you my word for that." The sick man said nothing. His deep breathing, painfully drawn, was, however, enough in that dead silence to warn Malcolm of the struggle going on so close to him—a struggle so much more momentous than one of tooth and claw. He slipped his hand into that of the other and held it gently.
"You're very hot, sir," he remarked, just for something to say. "Shall I get you some cold water?"
But still there was no answer. Evidently the man's mind was engrossed with other thoughts. A long pause followed.
"Mr. Norman, for God's sake, forget it. No one's been hurt but yourself. If there's been any wrong, it's all forgiven and forgotten long ago. Let's just begin again. Remember 't is Christmas Eve night."
Still there was no reply, but McCrea's intuition saved him from the mistake of saying more. The stillness became uncanny. Then an almost imperceptible pressure of the sick man's hand sent a thrill vibrating through the Scotchman's soul. Yes, and he had himself returned the pressure before he knew it. A shiver passed over the sick man's frame and the silence was broken by a sob.
With an innate sense of fellow-feeling, Malcolm laid down the other's hand, rose, and went out without a word. The night was perfect with the glorious light of the waning moon. His mind was at once made up. He would be home by daylight and back again with his dogs by midday, with stimulants and blankets, and could have Roderick in Nancy's skilled hands before night.
Noiselessly opening the door, he filled the stove once more, piled up spare billets close to the bedside, laid out what food was left, placed his kettle full of water on the ground within reach of the sick man, and, just whispering, "I'll be back soon, sir," disappeared into the night.
How fast he sped only the stars and moon shall say. But joy lent him wings which brought him home before daylight. His faithful dogs, keeping their watch and ward out in the snow around his house, first brought the news to Nancy that her man was back so soon.
A few minutes served to explain how matters stood, and in a few more everything was ready. The coach-box was strapped on the komatik. The bearskin rug and a feather bed were lashed inside it, with all the restoratives loving care could think of, and with the music of the wild barking of the dogs echoing from the mountain and valley, the sledge went whirling back over the crisp snow—the team no less excited than Malcolm himself at this unexpected call for their services.
Everything was silent as once more they approached the scene of trouble. The dogs, panting and tired, having had no spell since they started, no longer broke the stillness with their barking. Malcolm hitched them up a hundred yards or so from the tilt, preferring to approach it on foot. He had long ago noticed that no smoke was coming from the funnel and it made his heart sink, for even in the woods the cold was intense.
Malcolm always says that he knew the meaning of it before he opened the door. Roderick Norman had gone to spend his first Christmas in happier hunting-grounds.
THE LEADING LIGHT
It was getting late in the year. The steep cliffs that everywhere flank the sides of the great bay were already hoary with snow. The big ponds were all "fast," and the fall deer hunt which follows the fishery was over. Most of the boats were hauled up, well out of reach of the "ballicater" ice. The stage fronts had been taken down till the next spring, to save them from being torn to pieces by the rising and falling floe. Everywhere "young slob," as we call the endless round pans growing from the centre and covering the sea like the scales of a salmon, was making. But the people at the head of the bay were still waiting for those necessities of life, such as flour, molasses, and pork, which have to be imported as they are unable to provide them for themselves, and for which they must wait till the summer's voyage has been sent to market and sold to pay for them.
The responsibility of getting these supplies to them rested heavily on the shoulders of my good friend John Bourne, the only trader in the district. Women, children, whole families, were looking to him for those "things" which if he failed to furnish would mean such woeful consequences that he could not face the winter without at least a serious attempt to provide them.
In the harbour lay his schooner, a saucy little craft which he had purchased only a short while before. He knew her sea qualities; and as the ship tugged at her chains, moving to and fro on the swell, she kept a fine "swatch" of open water round her. Like some tethered animal, she seemed to be begging him to give her another run before Jack Frost gripped her in his chilly arms for months to come. The fact that he was a married man with hostages to fortune round his knees might have justified his conscience in not tempting the open sea at a time when frozen sheets and blocks choked with ice made it an open question if even a youngster ought to take the chances. But it happened that his "better half," like himself, had that "right stuff" in her which thinks of itself last, and her permission for the venture was never in question.
So Trader Bourne, being, like all our men, a sailor first and a landsman after, with his crew of the mate and a boy, and the handicap of a passenger, put to sea one fine afternoon in late November, his vessel loaded with good things for his necessitous friends "up along." He was encouraged by a light breeze which, though blowing out of the bay and there ahead for him, gave smooth water and a clear sky.
To those who would have persuaded him to linger for a fair wind he had cheerfully countered that the schooner had "two sides," meaning that she could hold her own in adversity, and could claw well to windward; besides, "'t will help to hold the Northern slob back"—that threatening spectre of our winters.
When darkness fell, however, very little progress had been made. The wind kept shifting against the schooner, and all hands could still make out the distant lights of home twinkling like tiny stars, apparently not more than a couple of miles under their lee.
"Shall us 'hard up,' and try it again at day light?" suggested the mate. "If anything happens 't is a poor time of year to be out all night in a small craft."
But the skipper only shrugged his shoulders, aware that the mate was never a "snapper" seaman, being too much interested in gardens for his liking.
"It's only a mile or two to Beach Rock Cove. We'll make it on the next tack if the wind holds. 'T is a long leg and a short one, and we'll have a good chance then to make the Boiling Brooks to-morrow."
"Lee oh!" and, putting the helm up, the Leading Light was soon racing off into the increasing darkness towards the cliffs away on the opposite side of the bay.
The wind freshened as the evening advanced—the usual experience of our late fall nights. An hour went by, and as the wind was still rising, the flying jib was taken in. After this the captain sent the crew below for a "mug o' tea" while he took the first trick at the wheel.
Still the wind rose. The sea too was beginning to make, and the little craft started to fall to leeward too much to please the skipper. The men were again called, and together they reset all the head canvas. The Leading Light now answered better to her helm, and, heading up a point, reached well into the bay.
"Smooth water again before dawn," said the skipper in his endeavour to cheer the despondent mate, when once more they had gone aft. "Looks like clearing overhead. I reckon she'll be well along by daylight."
But the mate seemed "stun," and only grunted in return.
"You go down and finish supper, and then you can give me a spell at the wheel while I get my pipe lighted," continued the captain. Thereupon the other, nothing loath to have something to keep his mind diverted, was soon below, searching for consolation in a steaming mug, but failing to find it, in spite of the welcome contrast between the cosy warm cabin, and the darkness and driving spume on deck, lacking as he did, alas, the sea genius of our race.
"Watch on deck!" at length called Bourne; and a few minutes later, having entrusted the helm to the mate, he was lighting his pipe at the cabin fire. All of a sudden down, down, down went the lee floor of the cabin, and up, up, up went the weather, till it felt as if the little ship were really going over.