"You can go in an automobile," suggested young Zept, who apparently had secured some information about the country.
But Colonel Howell shook his head. "There are only two automobiles in that service and they're both stuck somewhere in the mud between here and the Landing. Besides, that wouldn't do us much good. I find that my two carloads of oil machinery are yet in Edmonton and then there's the airship crates."
"Can't we carry it all by wagon?" asked Norman.
"Hardly," responded the colonel. "It'd make a caravan. We might get through in good weather but the trail is impassable now. We've got to go by train."
"And can't!" commented Roy.
"Not to-day," laughed Colonel Howell, "but the season's young yet. There'll be another train starting out day after to-morrow. We'll have to turn up something. Meanwhile, let's have breakfast."
This meal over, Norman and Roy accompanied Colonel Howell out into the city. As they well know, Edmonton was the town from which all were forced to take their start into the northern country and, as the colonel had already discovered, they soon confirmed the fact that transportation facilities were in a chaotic condition. A stage was to leave that day, but its passenger facilities were wholly inadequate, and what there were had been engaged for many days.
The first visit of the investigators was to the offices of the Hudson's Bay Company, that great trading institution which is at once the banker and the courier for all travelers in the great Northwest. Although altogether obliging, at the present time the Company was helpless. The agent thought he might arrange for teams, but it would require several days. Then Colonel Howell visited the offices of the railroad contractors, where he ascertained definitely that passage on the construction train was out of the question.
"Maybe we'll have to stay here until the mud dries," laughed Colonel Howell.
The two boys almost groaned.
"But something may turn up," continued Colonel Howell, "and I'll be enough to look after things. You boys had better take a run over town. If I don't see you at noon, I'll see you at dinner this evening."
The boys returned to the hotel, found that Mr. Zept and his son had finally gone out with friends, and they put in the rest of the day inspecting the lively young city.
Colonel Howell's acquaintances were not confined to the Northwest—he also had friends in Winnipeg. After leaving the contractors' offices, he went to the Dominion Telegraph Building and sent this message to a business friend in Winnipeg: "Please see the Canada Northern officials and tell them that I am stranded in Edmonton with a party of friends and would like to get to Athabasca Landing."
In two hours, he was called up at the hotel by the general superintendent of that road, located in Edmonton, who said he had just been ordered by the Winnipeg officials to extend every facility to Colonel Howell and his friends in their advance to Athabasca Landing.
"We're running a mixed train to a little village twenty-five miles out from Edmonton," explained the superintendent, "and when it goes again, Wednesday morning, I'll put an extra car on this train. Meet me that morning at eight thirty, at the depot, and I will escort you personally as far as this train goes. Then I'll arrange to have your car attached to the construction train. There has never been a passenger car in Athabasca Landing. You can have the distinction of finishing your journey in the first passenger car to touch the great rivers of the Mackenzie Basin."
Colonel Howell proceeded at once to the superintendent's office, expressed his gratitude at the courtesy shown, and arranged that the other cars containing his outfit and the airship should be carried through at the same time.
When the members of the party returned to the hotel late in the afternoon, and received the news of the happy solution of their difficulty, congratulations rained on Colonel Howell. The boys had a new respect for the influence of the man with whom they were casting their fortunes and who had so little to say about himself.
The effect was a little bit different on the Count, who had rather persisted all day in a theory of his own that automobiles were the things to be used. He had canvassed liveries and accosted chauffeurs, but he had made no practical advance in securing help of this kind.
"Our own private car!" was one of Norman's outbursts. "That'll be great."
"And the first one into the North!" added Roy. "That's greater yet. And it gives us another day in Edmonton."
"Which isn't very great," commented the Count. "I've seen all I want to of this place. It's nothing but banks and restaurants. What's Athabasca Landing like, Colonel Howell?" he added a little petulantly.
"Oh, the Landing's nothing but saloons and the river, and beyond it," he added significantly, "there's nothing but the river."
At seven o'clock that evening, Mr. Zept and Colonel Howell with the three boys attended a baseball game, leaving it at nine thirty in full daylight.
"To-morrow is vacation," explained Colonel Howell, as they separated for the night, "and Wednesday at eight thirty we'll board our private car."
A TEMPESTUOUS VOYAGE TO ATHABASCA LANDING
During their stay in Edmonton, the two Indian rivermen had been living royally in a lodging house near the depot. Early on the morning of the departure, Colonel Howell rounded up his old employees and when the mixed freight and passenger train backed up to the depot, the party was ready to board it. It was with satisfaction that all saw two Chicago & North Western freight cars, which Colonel Howell identified as those containing his oil outfit, and next to the extra passenger coach, the special baggage car.
A mist was falling and it was not cheerful. It was time for Mr. Zept to take his leave. For some moments he and Colonel Howell spoke apart and then, without any special word of admonition to his son, he grasped the hand of each boy in turn.
"I hope you'll all be friends," was his general good-bye, "and that you'll all stand by each other. Good-bye. Colonel Howell is my friend and I advise all of you to do just as he tells you. Take care of yourselves," and with no further words, the rich ranch owner helped the little party to load its baggage into the express car.
There were many curious people at the depot, among whom, not the least conspicuous, were Moosetooth and La Biche. Men from the frontier and a dapper young mounted policeman all came to speak to the two Indians.
With most of the passengers either hanging out of the car windows or jammed together on the platforms—for at the last moment, Colonel Howell had readily given his consent to the superintendent that he might also throw open the special car to the general public, as far at least as Morineville, the end of the passenger run—the creaking train crawled around a bend, and while the boys and Colonel Howell waved a farewell to Mr. Zept, the journey northward on the new road began.
The privacy of the special car at once disappeared. The unusual jam was due to the impassable condition of the stage trail. Into the special car there came not only hunters and traders, but many women and children who had prevailed upon the railway officials to help them forward on the last stage of their journey into the river land.
As the pitching train made its way slowly beyond the city limits, Norman, Roy and Paul also found themselves on the platform, ready for the first sight of a new country. They were looking for sterile plains. Instead, they found black land freely dotted with clumps of trees, with walls of wild flowers on each side of the track. Magnificent strawberries almost reddened the ground, while, by the fences, the ripening Saskatoon berry gave the first positive sign of the new vegetation of which they were to see so much.
For three hours the train crept forward, stopping now and then at little stations, and at last reached the considerable settlement of Morineville. Here, Colonel Howell expected to meet the construction train to which the special car was to be attached, and from this point they were to make the remainder of their journey of seventy-five miles to Athabasca Landing as the sole passengers of their car.
But bad news awaited the travelers. The construction train had not arrived but it was expected during the afternoon. The superintendent, taking leave of his guests, left orders that their car should be forwarded on the returning construction train and at noon he left on the passenger train for Edmonton. Colonel Howell's car was switched onto a spur and then began a wait for news of the construction train.
An affable telegraph operator did what he could to appease the anxious travelers. By telephone he learned that the expected train had not yet made half the journey between Athabasca Landing and Morineville, and in that distance had been off the track four times. On the operator's suggestion, the adventurers made their way to the village for dinner and then returned to their car and spent the afternoon in hearing from time to time that the construction train was off the track again.
"Promises well for a night ride!" suggested Roy.
"It doesn't mean anything," explained Colonel Howell. "They just slap down an iron frog and run on again. Don't get scared about that."
When time for supper arrived, the agent gave it as his judgment that the train couldn't get in before midnight and, in that event, that it certainly would not go back until the next morning. Being assured by this employee that in case his theory was not correct he would send them word, the party abandoned their car to have supper and sleep in a little French hotel.
The supper was bad and the beds were worse. Norman and Roy longed for their new blankets and the woods, and slept with difficulty. Some time, about the middle of the night, the two boys heard the strident shriek of a locomotive. They at once rushed to Colonel Howell's room, eager to make their way back to the depot, but recalling the operator's promise, the prospector persuaded them to go to bed again and when it was daylight they all awoke to find no train in sight. But the operator was waiting for them and ate breakfast with the party.
"She come in with a busted cylinder," he exclaimed, "and they had to go to Edmonton to get 'er fixed. But she'll be back this morning sometime and you'll have a nice ride to the Landing." Then he laughed. "That is, if you can pull a heavy passenger coach over them tracks."
It was eleven o'clock when the old-fashioned engine reappeared but any motive power seemed good enough and when the little Irish conductor read his orders, he cheerfully busied himself in making the passenger car and the three other cars a part of his train. The spirit of discontent disappeared and once again the northbound expedition was on its way.
Until twelve o'clock that night, the indefatigable little Irishman pushed his heavy train, which included many cars of long-delayed freight, over the new tracks, which alternately seemed to float and sink into the soft sand and muskeg. Four times in that journey some one car of the train slid off the track and just as often the energetic crew pulled it back again. Once the accident was more serious. When the piling-up jarring told that another pair of wheels were in the muskeg and the train came to a crashing stop, it was found that the front axles of the car had jammed themselves so far rearward that the car was out of service. But again there was little delay. With two jack screws, the little Irishman lifted the car sideways and toppled it over. Coupling up the other cars, the train proceeded.
At six o'clock in the evening supper was found in the cook car of a construction camp. It did not grow dark until eleven o'clock, and by this time, Colonel Howell and his friends were beginning to get a little sleep curled up on the seats of their car. An hour later, having creakingly crossed a long trestle, the strange train, still bumping and rattling, made its way along the even newer and worse track which led into Athabasca Landing.
There were neither depot nor light to make cheer for the tired travelers. With the help of Moosetooth and La Biche and a few half-breeds, the considerable baggage of the party was dumped out onto the sand of the new roadway and then, all joining in the task, it was carried across the street to the new Alberta Hotel. For the first time the boys discovered that there was almost a chill of frost in the air; in the office of the hotel a fire was burning in a big stove and from the front door Colonel Howell pointed through the starlight to a bank of mist beyond the railroad track.
"There she is, boys," he remarked.
"You mean the river?" exclaimed Roy.
"Our river now," answered their elder. "There's plenty of room here and good beds. Turn in and don't lose any time in the morning. We've got nothing ahead of us now but work. And remember, too, you're not in the land of condensed milk yet; you'll have the best breakfast to-morrow morning you're going to have for many a day."
Moosetooth and old La Biche had already disappeared toward the misty riverbank.
Dawn came early the next morning and with almost the first sign of it Norman and Roy were awake. From their window they had their first sight of the Athabasca. A light fog still lay over the river and the three-hundred-foot abrupt hills on the far side. Had they been able to make out the tops of these hills, they would have seen a few poplar trees. A steep brown road that started from the end of a ferry and mounted zigzag into the fog, was the beginning of a trail that at once passed into a desolate wilderness. They were within sight of the endless untraveled land that reached, unbroken by civilization, to the far-distant Arctic.
Beneath the fog the wide river slipped southward, a waveless sheet moving silently as oil, and whose brown color was only touched here and there by floating timber and the spume of greasy eddies.
"Not very cheerful looking," was Norman's comment.
"No," answered Roy, "she's no purling trout-brook; she couldn't be and be what she is—one of the biggest rivers in America."
The boys dressed and hurried through the new railroad yards to the muddy banks of a big river. The town of Athabasca Landing lay at their backs. The riverbank itself was as crude and unimproved as if the place had not been a commercial center for Indians and fur men for two hundred years.
To the left there was an exception, where, close on the riverbank, white palisades inclosed the little offices and warehouse of the Northern Transportation Company. Just beyond this, a higher and stronger palisade protected the riverbank from the winter ice jam. To the right and down the river a treeless bank extended, devoid of wharves and buildings. Opposite the main portion of the town, in this open space, a steamboat was approaching completion on crude ways. Near this there were a few ancient log cabins, used for generations by the Hudson's Bay Company as workshops and storehouses.
Three blocks to the west and in the heart of the new city the old historic H. B. Company was then erecting a modern cement and pressed brick store, probably at the time the most northern expression of civilization's thrift. Still farther to the south the river swerved in a bend to the east and lost itself beyond a giant sweep of hills. Not the least suggestive objects that came within the two boys' hasty view were a few Hudson's Bay flatboats, moored to the bank and half full of water to protect their tarred seams. In craft such as these, Norman and Roy, with their friends, were now about to venture forth on the river flowing swiftly by them, and not even the new steamboat was as attractive as these historic "sturgeon heads."
Also, in the far distance, on the riverbank where it curved toward the east, the young adventurers could make out the thin smoke of camp fires where a few tents and bark shacks marked the settlement of the river Indians. Here they knew Moosetooth and La Biche had passed the night.
Colonel Howell's prediction as to the breakfast was fully confirmed. After this, real activity began at once. Norman and Roy knew that they had reached the end of civilization, and had already abandoned city clothes. Both the boys appeared in Stetson hats, flannel shirts, belts, and half-length waterproof shoes.
Colonel Howell made no change other than to put on a blue flannel shirt. The young Count made a more portentous display. When he rejoined the others after breakfast, he wore a soft light hat, the wide brim of which flapped most picturesquely. His boots were those of a Parisian equestrian, high-heeled like those of a cowboy, but of varnished black leather. His clothing was dark, and the belted coat fitted him trimly.
Colonel Howell left at once to give orders about the placing of his cars, and Norman and Roy were dispatched to the Indian camp to find Moosetooth and La Biche, who were to go a short distance up the river and bring the waiting flatboats down to a point opposite the freight cars. This duty appeared to interest young Zept and he cheerfully joined the other boys in their task.
Opposite the new steamboat they passed a larger and noisier hotel, in front of which were collected many curious people of the country, many of whom were lazy-looking, slovenly-garbed half-breeds.
Young Zept was full of animation, spoke jovially to any one who caught his eye and, although it was early in the day, suggested that his young friends stop with him in the bar room. But Norman and Roy's whole interest was in the task before them and when they saw the Count abruptly salute a red-jacketed mounted policeman who was standing in the door of the hotel, they hurried on without even the formality of declining Paul's invitation.
By the time the old steersmen had been found, the Count was out of their minds. Although the riverbank was sticky with mud, there was an exhilarating crispness in the air and the river fog had now disappeared. Led by the two Indians, the boys made their way a half mile up the river. Here, on a high clean bank, stood the big red river warehouse of the H. B. Company. Among the willow bushes opposite it was a fleet of new "sturgeon heads," and just below these, two boats that had been put aside for Colonel Howell.
From among the bushes near the warehouse the two Indians produced a pump and then for two hours took turns in drawing the water from the half submerged boats. Just before noon, Moosetooth taking his place in the stern of the rear boat with a small steering oar, La Biche loosened the craft and Norman and Roy were on their first voyage in the historic flatboat of the Athabasca.
It was curious to note the skill with which the veteran riverman allowed the current to carry his boats on their way, and the ease with which they were finally drawn in to the bank opposite the freight cars.
Roy proposed to secure a shovel for cleaning out the mud, but old La Biche laughed.
"The sun," he said, "he goin' do dat."
Near the landing, as the boys returned to the hotel, they discovered a thing they had not noticed in the morning. A grizzled "Baptiste," as Norman liked to designate each Indian, was busy with a draw knife, a chisel and a maul, finishing steering oars. These enormous objects resembled telegraph poles, being of pine timber, slightly flattened at one end to resemble the blade of an oar, and at the other end cut down into long handles that the user might clasp with his two hands.
When the Indian had roughly trimmed these giant oars, with the help of an assistant, who in the meantime seemed to have no other duty except to puff his charred black pipe, the old "Baptiste" balanced the piece of timber on a rock. Carefully testing the spar, in order to get the exact point of equilibrium, the oar maker then made a rectangular hole through the six inches of timber. The two boys understood.
At the rear of each flatboat a steel pin extended seven or eight inches above the woodwork. When this pin was thrust through the hole in the oar, the great sweep hung almost balanced, and the steersman who used it to guide the unwieldy craft forced the blade of the oar back and forth against the current with the force of his body. The boys found it almost impossible to lift one of the oars.
"I can see now," panted Roy, as he looked over the tree-like sweep, "where experience comes in."
COUNT ZEPT MAKES HIMSELF KNOWN AT THE LANDING
At the noon meal, Count Zept reported that Athabasca Landing was certainly a live town. He explained that he had met the most important man in town, the sergeant of the mounted police, and that he had been introduced to many of the influential merchants. He had examined the store of the Revillon Freres and was somewhat disappointed in his inability to secure a black fox skin which he had promised to send to his sister.
The Revillon Freres being the well-known rival of the Hudson's Bay Company, young Zept in his disappointment had also gone to the Hudson's Bay store, but there he had been equally unsuccessful, although at both places he saw plenty of baled skins. Colonel Howell laughed.
"My dear boy," he explained, "furs do not go looking for buyers in this part of the world. Inexperienced travelers seem to have the idea that Indians stand around on the corners waiting to sell fox skins. Skins are getting to be too rare for that now and, believe me, the fur companies get their eye on them before the traveler can. And the companies pay all they're worth."
"Anyway," remarked the Count, "I can get a small eighteen-foot canoe for a hundred and twenty-five dollars. Don't you think I'd better buy one? The H. B. Company has some fine ones—the kind the mounted police use. I was looking for a bark one."
Even the boys smiled at this and Colonel Howell laughed again.
"Indians don't trouble to make bark canoes any more," he answered. "That is, when they can buy a good cedar boat. And next to his blanket, the Indian prizes his wooden boat above his family. But don't bother about a canoe. Moosetooth has one that we'll carry down the river with us and I've got a good one at the Fort. Don't buy anything. I'm buying enough for all of us."
But the Count could not resist the temptation and later in the day, when the boys saw him, he and the sergeant of police were each wearing a highly embroidered pair of mooseskin gauntlets that Paul had found in a trading store.
Paul had been in the company of this new friend most of the day and it was apparent that they had been to the big hotel more than once.
After dinner, the unloading of the drilling machinery, the engine and the airship crates began. It was a task that Colonel Howell soon assigned to his young assistants, who had under their direction a few paid laborers and many more volunteer laborers who were more curious than useful. When Colonel Howell turned over this task to Norman and Roy, he returned to the outfitting stores and devoted himself anew to the purchase of supplies.
On the morning of the second day the loading of the boats began. Each of these was over thirty feet long and could hold an immense amount of freight. It was generally planned that all of the drilling machinery, the engine, and some lumber were to go in La Biche's boat, and that the provisions and the airship were to be carried in Moosetooth's batteau. In the end of each boat there was a little deck the width of the narrowing end of the boat and about six feet long.
While the boats were moving, the decks in the rear were devoted wholly to the use of the steersmen, who required all the space as they occasionally shifted the position of their giant sweeps. On the forward decks the passengers must sleep and unless they disposed themselves on the cargo, find sitting room during the day. There was neither house nor tent for protection. A charcoal brazier was provided, on which at times on the stern deck some cooking might be done. But in the main, unless the night was clear and good for running, the boats were to be tied up while supper and sleep were had on the shore.
A part of the equipment of each boat was six heavy oars. These were for use by the Indian crew when from time to time it was necessary to cross quickly over the broad river to escape rapids or other obstructions. As these things were revealed to the young aviators, they grew more and more anxious for the hour of departure.
When Colonel Howell's outfit began to reach the riverbank the next morning, Moosetooth and La Biche had part of their men on hand to assist in the loading. It was a motley group, moccasined in mooseskin with their straight black hair showing defiantly beneath their silver-belted black hats. Mostly they wore collarless checked flannel shirts and always from the hip pocket of their worn and baggy trousers hung the gaudy tassels of yarn tobacco pouches. Most of them were half-breeds, young men eager to show the smartness of a veneer of civilized vices. But this did not bother Colonel Howell, for Moosetooth and La Biche were alone responsible and these two men well enacted the roles of foremen. Sitting idly on the bank, cutting new pipes of tobacco or breaking twigs, with slow guttural exclamations they directed the work to be done.
The loading began and proceeded wholly without order. For this reason the prospector suggested that the airship crates be left until the last. Bags of flour, of which there were fifty, were dumped in the bottom of the boat where the mud and water were sure to spoil part of the flour.
"But that's the way they do it," explained Colonel Howell. "It's the method of the river Indians. They're doing the work now and don't make suggestions or try to help them. They'll resent it and think less of you for it."
While this work was going on, young Zept appeared from time to time and seemed to be interested but he as continually absented himself.
Loading went forward slowly. Deliveries of stores were made several times during the day, but there was an entire lack of snap and the Indians took their time in stowing things away. Colonel Howell was absent most of the day and in the middle of the afternoon the two boys took their first opportunity to look over the town.
Reaching the main street, they were not surprised to see the young Count, mounted on a lively looking pony, dash along the main thoroughfare. It was hard to tell whether the ease and surety with which young Zept rode or his flapping Paris hat attracted more attention. As the boys waved their hats to him and he gracefully saluted, they noticed that he must have been riding for some time. The pony was covered with perspiration and its nostrils were dilated. As the rider passed an intersecting street in the heart of the town, the little animal made a turn as if preferring another route. The Count threw it on its haunches and headed it on down the street at renewed speed.
A little later, having visited the post office, Norman and Roy came out just in time to see young Zept whirling his exhausted mount into a livery stable. When the boys reached this, they found the proprietor, who from his sign was a Frenchman, and Paul in a heated argument. It was in vociferous French and in the course of it the boys saw young Zept excitedly tear a bill from a roll of money in his hand and hurl it on the floor of the barn. The proprietor, hurling French epithets at his customer, kicked the money aside.
Norman pushed his way between the spectators and with assumed jocularity demanded to know the cause of dispute. In broken English, the liveryman exclaimed:
"He is no gentleman. He kills my horse. For that he shall pay two dollars more."
"Well, what's the matter?" went on Norman laughing. "Isn't that enough? There's your money," and he picked up a Canadian ten-dollar bill and handed it to the owner of the pony.
"His money is nussing," retorted the pony owner. "He is no gentleman."
The absurdity of this must have appealed to young Zept. Perhaps the presence of his two companions somewhat shamed him.
"Don't have a row," broke in Roy. "The colonel's sure to hear of it."
The Count turned again to the excited Frenchman and began another torrent of apparent explanation, but it was in a different tone. He was now suave and polite. As he talked he held out his hand to the proprietor of the stable and smiled.
"He's been drinking again," whispered Roy to Norman, a fact which was quite apparent to the latter.
Then to the surprise of both boys, with Norman still holding the money in his hand, the excited Frenchman grasped his customer's hand, and he and Paul hurried from the barn. A block away, the disturbed Norman and Roy saw the two men arm in arm disappear behind the swinging door of the big hotel bar room. Ascertaining the amount of their friend's bill from one of the stable employees, Norman paid it and he and his companion left.
That evening, Norman handed Paul five dollars he had received in change and the incident was closed.
For three more days the loading of the scows continued slowly. It finally became apparent that the little flotilla would set out Saturday evening. In these days Count Paul's manner of life was so different from that of the boys that they did not see a great deal of him. Now and then he was on the river front, but more frequently he was a patron of the livery stable, and even in the evening he was frequently not in the hotel when Norman and Roy retired.
His acquaintance with the mounted policeman put him much in that man's company. This officer, always in immaculate uniform, was very English in appearance, and he wore a striking tawny moustache. Being in charge of the local police station, as the sergeant, he was the highest police authority in that district. As the boys noticed him on the street at times, gloved and swishing his light cane, they were surprised at the open signs of his indulgence in drink. But what surprised them even more, knowing as they now did of the arrangement between Paul's father and Colonel Howell, was the colonel's apparent indifference to young Zept's conduct.
"I have a theory," said Norman to his friend at one time. "You know Colonel Howell told us he wasn't taking Paul in hand to act as his guardian. I think he's letting him go the pace until he gets him where he'll have to quit what he's doing. Then it's going to be up to Paul himself. If he doesn't make a man of himself, it'll be his own fault."
"I think a good call-down is what he needs," answered Roy, "and the colonel ought to give it to him."
"I reckon he thinks that isn't his business," commented Norman. "It's certainly not ours. I reckon it'll work out all right."
"Like as not this is Paul's idea of roughing it in the wilds," suggested Roy.
"Then there's hope," answered his chum. "He'll be out of the swing of this in a few days and when he learns what the real thing is, if he likes it and takes to it, he'll forget this kind of life."
Finally the evening for the departure arrived. There was no fixed hour, but Colonel Howell's party had an early supper at the hotel and then a gang of Indians carried their newly packed equipment to the boats. All these articles were dropped indiscriminately as the Indians felt disposed, and soon after six o'clock Norman and Roy were ready for the long voyage. Count Paul had turned his camera over to the young aviators and their first step was to make a number of snaps of the boats and their crews.
Then, piling their rifles and their new blankets in the bow of Moosetooth's boat, the boys took station on the riverbank, prepared to embark at any moment.
In keeping with the methods that they had found common, it was then discovered that parts of the provisions had not yet arrived. Colonel Howell and Paul had not accompanied the boys directly to the boats. Even after a wagon had arrived with the last of the provisions, and these had been distributed by the Indians on the high heaped cargo, there was yet no sign of their patron. Nor was Count Zept anywhere to be seen.
The Indian wives of the crew sat around their little tepee fires, but between them and their husbands passed no sign of emotion or farewell; this, in spite of the fact that no one on the boats might expect to return for several weeks.
It began to grow cooler and finally the night fog began to fall over the swift brown river.
As the sun began to grow less, the barren hills on the far side of the river turned into a dark palisade. Finally Colonel Howell appeared. He had been engaged in settling his accounts and a merchant who came with him spent some time in checking up goods already aboard the scow. But when Colonel Howell learned that the Count was not present he strolled away almost nonchalantly.
"It's the way of the North," almost sighed Roy. "Nothing goes on schedule in this part of the world."
"Why should it?" grunted Norman. "When your journey may mean a year's delay in getting back, what's a few minutes more or less in starting out?"
It was far after nine o'clock and the sun was dropping behind the southern hills—the air chillier and the fog deeper, when Paul finally appeared. His boisterous manner was all the testimony needed to indicate how he had spent the evening.
With him was his friend, the sergeant of police. He had undoubtedly been with his new comrade to celebrate the departure, but the dignified officer, being now in the field of duty, gave few signs of personal indiscretions. For the first time he was formally presented to all and in a courteous and high-bred manner extended to the voyageurs his good wishes for a safe voyage.
Before the representative of the law, each Indian at once sprang to his feet and lifted his hat. And to each of these in turn the uniformed policeman answered in salute. When it seemed to Norman and Roy that there would be no end to the long delay, Colonel Howell also reappeared. With a nod of his head to all, he spoke quickly in the Cree language to his steersmen.
Old Moosetooth grunted a command and the men ran to the hawsers holding the scows against the current. Then Moosetooth and La Biche, without even a look at their unconcerned families sitting stolidly in the gloom on the riverbank, took their places in the stern of each boat. Each began, as he leaned on his oar, to cut himself a new pipe of tobacco and Colonel Howell turned to the policeman.
"Sergeant," he remarked, "I think we are ready. Will you examine the outfit?"
The tall sergeant bowed slightly and with a graceful wave of his hand, stepped to the edge of one of the nearest scows. With a cursory glance at the mixed cargo of boxes, barrels and bags—hardly to be made out in the twilight—he turned and waved his hand again toward Colonel Howell. Then, quite casually, he faced the two steersmen.
"Bon jour, gentlemen," he exclaimed and lifted his big white hat.
Colonel Howell and his friends took the sergeant's hand in turn and then sprang aboard the boat. While the two steersmen lifted their own hats and grunted with the only show of animation that had lit their faces, the ceremony of inspection was over and the long voyage was officially begun.
THE SONG OF THE VOYAGEUR
Hardly seeming to move, the deeply laden scows veered more and more into the current, until at last the swift flow of the river began to push them forward. But even before La Biche's boat, which was ahead and farthest from the shore, was fully in the grasp of a swirling eddy, the bronzed steersman, his pipe firmly set in his teeth, hurled his body on the steering oar and plunged the far end of it against the oily current.
At the same moment Moosetooth dropped his own oar and almost instantly both boats straightened out before the onrushing waters. It was a moment long waited for by Norman and Roy, and at the time no thought was given to any arrangements for comfort. The boys threw themselves on the forward deck, their sweaters close about their throats against the chilling fog and the cool breeze, while Colonel Howell sat muffled in his overcoat on the edge of the deck.
Such events in the history of the Northern rivers were in the old days momentous. Their only ceremony had been the parting "Bon jour" of the policeman.
"In the old days," suggested Norman, "in the days that our friend Paul would have loved, the voyageurs had a song for a time like this."
"The riverman's song of farewell," spoke up young Zept with animation. "I wish I knew one."
Almost instantly, those on the fast-receding shore heard from the boat the soft notes of some one in song. Under the conditions, whatever the words and the air, they floated back as many of those left behind had heard the old voyageur take his leave. But this song came from neither of the weatherworn steersmen, nor from the stolid members of their half-breed crew. Count Zept, his hat in his hand and the cool river wind paling his flushed face, had mounted to the top of the cargo and was singing something he had learned in far away lands. The fascinating tenor of his voice carried far over the river.
Even out of the hidden heights on the far side of the current, the strains of the song came back with a melancholy pathos. Perhaps the young singer himself was moved. But to those who listened, it wafted over the waters as for two centuries the voyageurs into the unknown north had celebrated the setting out of the long voyage that might have no return. None in the boat spoke to him, but as he went on, repeating the lines, and his voice gradually dropping lower and lower, the boats, lost in the fog and darkness, swept into the great bend, and the stragglers on shore turned and left the river.
Although he did not realize it then, Paul Zept's impromptu tribute in farewell marked the great turning point in his life.
Three hundred miles of dangerous water lay before the travelers and their valuable outfit. On this part of the voyage the river ran wide and deep. At the suggestion of the steersmen, it was at once decided to make no landing that night but to take advantage of the easy going, as the cold wind would soon sweep the fog away. Strongly touched by the air of Paul's song, which the singer laughingly explained was a song without words, as he had made it up mainly from snatches of Italian opera, the words of which he could not recall, Norman and Roy got Paul on the rear deck and began to prepare for the night. The assistance of one of the crew was necessary to prepare the blankets in an expert manner. Before midnight Colonel Howell and the three young men, snugly wrapped in their new "four points," found no trouble in losing themselves to the world without.
Long before the sun showed itself above the high poplar-crowned hills that lined each bank of the Athabasca, Norman and Roy had slipped out of their blankets. It was their first view of an absolute wilderness. The boats were still drifting silently forward, with no sign of life except in the erect forms of Moosetooth and old La Biche, who were yet standing against their long steering oars as they had stood through the night. Neither of them gave salutation, Moosetooth's dripping oar following in silence now and then a like sweep of his companion's blade in the water ahead.
Not arousing their companions, the two boys perched themselves where Paul had sung the night before and, shivering in the new day, began to drink in the scene before them.
What they saw at that moment was a picture repeated for nearly two weeks to come. Although drifting at the rate of four miles an hour, much time was lost while the boats made their way back and forth across the river, and although it was but three hundred miles to Fort McMurray, there was constant delay in camps ashore, and at the beginning of the Grand Rapids a week was lost in portaging the entire cargo. Colonel Howell did not welcome another lost outfit and he was quite satisfied when both Moosetooth and La Biche took their empty scows safely through the northern whirlpool.
Rising almost from the water, the hills, little less than mountains in height, ran in terraces. Strata of varicolored rock marked the clifflike heights and where black veins stood out with every suggestion of coal, the young observers got their first impression of the mineral possibilities of the unsettled and unknown land into which they were penetrating.
The first deer which they observed standing plainly in view upon a gravelly reef aroused them to excitement. But when Moosetooth, not speaking, but pointing with a grunt to a dark object scrambling up the rocky shelf on the other side of the river and the boys made out a bear, Roy sprang for his new twenty-two.
"Nothin' doin'," called Norman in a low tone. "That's where we need the .303 and of course that's knocked down."
"Well, what's the use anyway?" retorted Roy, resuming his seat. "I can see there's going to be plenty of this kind of thing. And besides, you can bet our friend here isn't going to stop for a bear, dead or alive."
From that time on, although they did not find animals so close together again, they saw eagles, flocks of wild geese floating ahead of them on the river, and three more deer. And continually the magnificent hills, hanging almost over the river, gave them glimpses of vegetation and objects new to them.
"I'm glad I came," remarked Norman, "but I wonder how this country looks when winter comes."
"You know how this river'll look," answered Roy. "It'll be a great, smooth roadway and a lot of people waitin' now to get back to civilization will make it a path for snowshoes and dog sleds."
"Some trip up here from Fort McMurray," suggested Norman.
"You said it," exclaimed Roy. "But the colonel won't have to make it on foot this winter—not with the old Gitchie Manitou, and this ice road to guide us."
He looked with longing at the crates of the airship, the two smaller ones of which took up one side of their own scow, while the others were lashed diagonally on top of the crate in the forward boat. The two boats had kept their relative positions throughout the night.
Just as the sun began to gild the water in their wake, Paul stuck his nose out of the blankets. All had slept in their clothes during the night, Colonel Howell having promised them a chance at their pajamas on the following evening. There was no dressing to be done and when Paul joined his companions all made preparation to souse their faces over the edge of the boat.
"One minute," exclaimed Norman. He dug among his baggage and in a short time reappeared with the aluminum basin.
"Non! Non!" came from the statuelike figure of old Moosetooth. Then he pointed to the abrupt cut bank of the river a few hundred yards ahead and called something in the Cree language to La Biche. The latter nodded his head and in turn called aloud in the Indian tongue.
Instantly from between the pipes and crates on the forward boat a dozen half-breeds crawled sleepily forth. One of these, with a coil of rope, sprang into the bow of the forward scow, and another similarly equipped took his place in the rear of La Biche, as if ready to spring on the second scow when opportunity presented. Both boats were headed for the cut bank.
The commotion aroused Colonel Howell, and while he gave a nod of approval, the scows drifted in under the sweep of the steersmen's oars where the deep water ate into the tree-covered shore.
As La Biche's boat touched the bank and the second scow ran forward, the two half-breeds scrambled onto the roots of the trees and before the scows could bump away into the stream once more, they had been skillfully snubbed around the trunks of the nearest trees, a third Indian springing from the forward boat onto Moosetooth's craft and making fast a line thrown him from the shore. Then while the two boats bumped and struggled to turn their free ends into the current, the other Indians, with the skill of long experience, swiftly transferred hawsers from the free ends of the scows to other trees.
"Whew!" shouted Paul, after the first excitement was over. "Whatever we're going to do, I hope'll be short and sweet," and he waved his arms violently about his head.
The close vegetation of the shore was alive with mosquitoes.
"Don't worry about these," laughed Roy. "This is the breeding place of the best mosquitoes in the world. Don't fight 'em—forget 'em."
Colonel Howell, near by, exclaimed:
"Don't worry, young men. Mosquito time is about over. You won't see many of them after the end of July."
"By the way," interrupted Norman, "what day is this? Is it July yet?"
"That's another thing you don't need to worry about," went on Colonel Howell with a chuckle. "When the mosquitoes have gone, you'll know that July is gone, and then we won't have anything to trouble us till the ice comes."
"Bum almanac," commented Roy. "Mostly gaps, I should say."
"Not so much," continued the colonel still laughing. "It isn't as much of a gap between the mosquitoes and ice as you might think. But it's breakfast time. We've got two cooks with us, one for the crew and one for the cabin passengers. You'd better take your morning dip and then, if you like, you can take the canoe and pull over to that gravel reef. You won't find so many mosquitoes there and you can stretch your legs."
The boys put off their swimming until they had reached the island, where they had the satisfaction of arousing a young buck from the poplar underbrush, and the mortification of trying to catch it by chasing it toward the mainland in a canoe. An Indian fired at the deer from one of the scows, but it made the river bank in safety and disappeared in the bush.
"There, you see," announced Roy at once. "The twenty-two would have been all right, but you've got to have it with you."
The colonel's prediction was true and the three young men had a dip in the shallow water off the island that was certainly bracing. When they returned to the shore they found both cooks in full operation a few hundred yards from the scows and on the open riverbanks.
The difference in the output of the cooks was considerable, but satisfactory to each party served. The colonel's party was making the best of fresh eggs, fresh butter and new bread and a beefsteak, which would be their only fresh meat for many days. The crew, out of a common pan, helped themselves to boiled potatoes and fried pork, to which each man appeared to add bannock from his own home supplies. The Indians drank tea.
"Gentlemen," remarked Colonel Howell, as he lifted a tin of steaming coffee, "here's to a friend of civilization—delicious coffee. We will know him but a few days longer. He will then give way to the copper kettle and tea."
"How about fresh eggs and beefsteak?" laughed Paul.
"Eggs, my dear sir, have always been a superfluous luxury patronized mostly by the infirm and aged. As for beefsteak, it cannot compare with a luscious cut of moosemeat, the epicurean delight of the Northwest. It is a thing you may not have at the Waldorf, and a delicacy that not even the gold of the gourmet may lure from the land of its origin."
"How about bear meat?" asked Roy, recalling with some concern his lost opportunity in the early dawn.
"Rather than starve, I would eat it," responded Colonel Howell, "and gladly. But to it I prefer rancid salt pork."
In such badinage, the leisurely stop passed while the boys finished their first meal in the wilderness, topping it off with the luscious red raspberries that were just in perfection all around the camp.
That day the boats drifted fifty miles, luncheon being eaten on the rear deck. A night landing was made on a gravelly island to escape as far as possible the many mosquitoes. Tents were not erected but alongside a good fire the blankets were spread on the soft grass beneath the stunted island trees and with mosquito nets wrapped about their heads all slept comfortably enough.
Where the Indians slept no one seemed to know. When the boys and their patron turned in as dark came on, at eleven o'clock, the half-breeds were still eating and smoking about their removed camp fire. In this manner, with no accidents, but with daily diversions in the way of shooting, venison now being one of the daily items of food, the voyageurs at last reached the Grand Rapids.
From this place, for sixty miles, a tumultuous and almost unnavigable stretch of water reached to the vicinity of Fort McMurray, the end of their journey. The greatest drops in the water and the most menacing perils were encountered at the very beginning of the Rapids, where for half a mile an irregular island of rock divided the stream. On one side of this the river rushed in a whirlpool that no craft could attempt. On the other side, and the wider, skilled boatmen had a chance of safely conducting light craft through the many perils. Here it was necessary that both boats should be unloaded and the entire outfit be portaged to the far end of the island.
But travel on the river was so important that those concerned in it had, many years before, constructed a crude wooden tramway which, repaired by every newcomer, was available for use in transporting the heavy freight.
Permanent camp was made at the head of the island when this arduous task began. It had taken four days to load the boats and seven days were spent on the island in getting the cargoes of the two boats to the far end. The sixth day fell on a Sunday, when no Indian does any labor. On the afternoon of the next day Moosetooth and La Biche made their spectacular races down the Rapids. Not a boy of the party that did not entreat Colonel Howell to let him go with the first boat, but in his refusal their patron was adamant. The only man to accompany each boat as it started on its flight was an experienced member of the crew who sat on the bow with a canoe practically in his lap. He was ready to launch this any moment to rescue the steersman, but both attempts were engineered by the veteran river men with no other bad results than the shipping of a great deal of water.
Paul posted himself opposite the most dangerous point and made pictures of the tossing boats and their bareheaded pilots as long as they were in sight.
Then came the laborious task of reloading the boats, but under Colonel Howell's direct attention, this operation now took far less than four days. Within ten hours' travel from the foot of the Rapids, the boats rounded a bend at three o'clock the next afternoon and came in sight of a lone cabin on the bare and rocky shore of the river.
"Look in the trees behind it," exclaimed Colonel Howell.
Like a gallows, almost concealed behind a fringe of poplar trees, stood the familiar lines of an oil derrick.
"I'm sorry they haven't got a flag out," remarked Colonel Howell, "but that's the place. All there is of Fort McMurray is just beyond."
PAUL AWAKENS TO THE SITUATION
At first Colonel Howell's camp appeared to be deserted, but as the boats made in toward the shore and the crew began shouting, two men appeared from the cabin. These were Ewen and Miller—Chandler was not in sight.
The new log cabin with its flat tar-paper roof, glistening with its many tin washers, and with a substantial looking chimney built against one end, had a satisfactory look. In addition, several large ricks of cordwood standing at the edge of the clearing gave sign that the men had not been idle during the spring. At the same time, there were many evidences of a lack of thrift to be seen in the debris left from the cabin building.
No arrangements had been made for a boat landing and Colonel Howell's canoe was lying carelessly against the steep bank. Both Norman and Roy felt somewhat disappointed. While neither was bothered with the romantic ideas usually attached to the woodland cabins of fiction, each had expected a smarter camp. Nor were they very favorably impressed with the two men who appeared on the bank. They were not exactly tidy in appearance and their figures and faces suggested that they had spent a winter of comparative ease among the colonel's stores.
"Where's the Englishman?" was Colonel Howell's salutation, as he and his friends sprang ashore.
"Over at the settlement," answered Ewen, as he jerked his thumb down the river. "There wasn't much doing here and he went over there a few days ago to visit some friends."
"A few days ago," exclaimed the colonel, as his eyes made a survey of the littered-up clearing. "He might have put in a little time clearin' out these stumps."
"We just got through cuttin' the wood," broke in Miller as he and Ewen shook hands with their boss, "and we just got the finishin' touches on the cabin. We didn't know when to expect you."
Colonel Howell, followed by his men and the new arrivals, scrambled up the bank and, with no great show of enthusiasm, began a close examination of the new cabin and its surroundings. Nor were the boys any more impressed with the structure, which, inside, showed very little ingenuity. It had been made for the use of four men—seven were going to crowd it. After Colonel Howell had inspected the derrick, he returned and seated himself on a stump.
"When's Chandler comin' back?" he asked abruptly. Without waiting for a reply, which neither of his men seemed able to give him, he added: "One of you fellows had better take the canoe and go and get him this afternoon—that is, if he wants to come back."
There was some irritation in his tone that showed everyone that things were not exactly to his liking.
"It's only two miles," remarked Ewen showing some alacrity, "and I'll go by the trail."
When he had gone, Colonel Howell turned to Miller, whose unshaven and somewhat bloated face told that he had not lost any flesh during his stay at the camp.
"Miller," he said, "go down and take hold of these scows. We've got to get this stuff up here on the bank and under some protection. I don't want these Indians on my hands any longer than necessary. Keep 'em at it until midnight, if necessary, and then make up an outfit for 'em to-morrow and let 'em hit the trail."
"What are you going to do with the boats?" asked Roy.
"We're going to use 'em to make a cabin big enough for our new family," answered the colonel, smiling perfunctorily. "This one's all right for our cooking and eating, but it doesn't appeal to me as a bunk house. I think we'll add another room. The season's getting away from us and we can't afford to lose any time."
The man Miller had already shown signs of great activity when Colonel Howell suddenly called him back.
"On second thought, Miller," he said, rising and throwing off his coat, "I think you'd better tackle the cabin first. There's a lot of truck in there that ought to be in a storehouse and it's got a kind o' musty smell. Open all the windows and clean out the place. We've got to sleep in there to-night. When you've done that, get that kitchen stuff and use some river water and sand on it. Looks like an Indian shack in the middle o' winter. Young men," he went on, again forcing a smile, "I reckon it's up to us to get this gang busy."
There was nothing in this that discouraged Norman and Roy and even Paul seemed interested in the unloading of the boats. Before this was begun, however, Moosetooth spoke in an undertone to Colonel Howell and, shrugging his shoulders, the prospector waved his hand.
"All right," he exclaimed, "they'll work the better for it. Feed 'em. Four meals a day—that's the least that any half-breed demands."
While Colonel Howell and the crew began getting the two scows broadside along the bank, the Cree cooks unloaded the two cook outfits and the grub boxes. The laborious task of hoisting the crates and boxes of the rest of the cargo up the treacherous bank had hardly begun when the cooks, disdaining the fireplace within the cabin, had their fires going in the open clearing.
Within an hour the Indians were devoting themselves to a filling supper and a little later Colonel Howell and his assistants made a hasty meal of tinned roast mutton, pickles, Indian bannock, and tea. All about was confusion. The personal baggage of the newly arrived had been assembled just without the cabin door and Miller and a couple of the crew were beginning to carry in balsam boughs, on which, in their blankets, the colonel and his friends were to pass the night.
No attempt was made, further than Miller's crude efforts, to make the inside of the cabin more inviting. A big fire of rotten wood had been started near by, as a mosquito smudge, but all were too busy to give these pests much attention.
While the Indians were at supper, Ewen returned with Chandler.
The latter arrived with much effusiveness, but his greeting by Colonel Howell was rather curt.
"Of course you'll remember this," the colonel remarked, "when it comes to settling."
Chandler changed his attitude instantly. His expression and speech showed that he was not sober.
"I'm ready to settle now," he retorted, as his eyes swept over the growing heaps of the many boxes, barrels, bags and crates that littered the shore.
"I think I am too," remarked Colonel Howell, "when it suits me. Meanwhile, you're off the chuck roll. Get out of camp and when you're in a proper condition and can show me what you've earned, come back!"
The tall and emaciated Englishman drew himself up and glared at Colonel Howell.
"Get out!" exclaimed the latter in a tone that was wholly new to the three boys.
"I'll go when I get my money!" mumbled Chandler, half defiantly.
Without more words, Colonel Howell shot out his right arm and caught the man by his shoulder. He whirled Chandler and sent him sprawling on the trail.
The man's defiance was gone. "My pay's comin' to me," he whimpered, "and I've worked hard for it."
"We'll see about that," snapped the oil man, "when the time comes."
As if dismissing the incident from his mind, he turned toward the scows.
"Look out!" exclaimed the three boys, almost together, but their warning was hardly needed. As Colonel Howell turned, the sinewy form of old Moosetooth had thrown itself upon the crouching Englishman. The two men sank to the ground and there was a surge forward by those near by. Then the Indian tore himself from the partly helpless Chandler and struggled to his feet. In his hand he held Chandler's short double-edged knife. With indistinguishable imprecations and his arms waving in the air, the Englishman disappeared within the fringe of poplar trees.
Excited, but with no excuse for asking questions, the boys turned and, with Colonel Howell, resumed the task of getting their cargo ashore. Old Moosetooth looked at the knife, placed it inside his belt and began cutting a fresh pipe of tobacco.
"Life in the wilds!" remarked Colonel Howell, as he and the boys regained the scows. "A lazy man's bad enough, but a booze fighter doesn't belong in this camp."
"Where could he get anything to drink up here?" asked Norman, a little nervously.
"Tell me!" responded Colonel Howell. "That's what we all want to know. Anyway," he went on, "we've done our part towards cutting it out. There isn't a drop of it in this outfit."
When he could do so without attracting attention, Norman glanced at Paul. The latter as quickly averted his eyes and plunged with greater energy into his share of the work.
These events had taken place just before the "cabin passengers" had been called to supper. Efforts were being made to forget the Chandler episode and Colonel Howell especially was talkative and jolly. Paul was just the opposite. At last, when the cook had left them with their tea, the young Austrian seemed to become desperate. Norman and Roy were just about to leave the cabin when Paul stopped them, more and more embarrassed.
"I want to say something, boys," he began. Then he turned to his host and, the perspiration thick on his face, added suddenly: "Colonel Howell, I don't know how to say it, but I've got to tell you. I lied to you the other night in the hotel at Edmonton. You didn't ask me to stop drinking, but you talked to me pretty straight, and that's what I meant to do. Well I didn't stop—I just put it off, a little. I didn't do the right thing back at the Landing. I knew it then, but I knew I was going to stop when I came up here and I just put it off a little longer."
The colonel made a half deprecating motion, as if it embarrassed him to listen to the young man's confession.
"I thought it was all right," he said, as if to somewhat relieve Paul's embarrassment, "and I knew you meant to stop. Of course we knew what you were doing, but you're pretty young," concluded the colonel with a laugh.
Norman and Roy each gave signs of an inclination to relieve Paul's embarrassment and Norman especially showed concern. But he and his friend remained silent.
"We'll let that all be bygones," suggested Colonel Howell, "and here's to the future—we'll drink to what is to come in Canada's national beverage—black tea reeking with the smoke of the camp fire."
A laugh of relief started round, as Paul's three companions hit the table with their heavy tin cups, but in this the young Count did not join.
"That ain't it," he blurted suddenly. "That was bad enough, but I've done worse than that."
The colonel's face sobered and Norman's eyes turned toward the heap of personal belongings just outside the cabin door. Paul's trembling arm motioned toward these boxes and bags.
"I've got a case of brandy out there and I've got to tell you how I've lied to you."
"Hardly that!" protested Colonel Howell. "You hadn't spoken to me of it."
"No, I didn't," confessed Paul, his voice trembling, "but I just heard you say we hadn't anything like that with us and I might as well have lied, because I had it."
"Did that sergeant of police know this?" broke in Roy. "I thought he examined everything. He certainly said we were all right."
"Yes, he knew it," answered Paul, "but he isn't to blame. Don't think I'm making that an excuse."
Colonel Howell sat with downcast eyes and an expression of pain on his face.
"Why did you do it?" he asked in a low tone at last. "Did you mean to hide it from me?"
"No, no," exclaimed his young guest. "I don't know why I did it. I don't want it. I'm going to quit all that. That's why I came up here. You know that, Colonel Howell—don't you believe me?"
But Colonel Howell's face now bore a different expression.
"My friend," he remarked after a few moment's thought, "I may have done wrong to ask your father to let you come with us. I thought you knew all the conditions. If this is a life that is not going to interest you, you'd better go back. The Indians will be returning to-morrow or the next day and you won't find it such a hard trip."
Paul gulped as if choking and then sprang from the table. From the baggage outside he extracted a canvas-bound box, his own name on the side. While his companions sat in silence he hurled it on the floor at their feet and then, with a sweep of his knife, cut the canvas from the package. With a single crush by his heavy boot, he loosened one of the boards of the cover. Carefully packed within were a dozen bottles of expensive brandy. Paul caught one of them and appeared to be about to smash it on the edge of the table. The colonel raised his hand.
"Stop!" ordered his host. "Are you going back or do you want to stay with us?"
"Colonel Howell," almost sobbed the young man, "I'd give anything I have or can do for you if you'll let me stay."
"There's only one condition," answered Colonel Howell, and he no longer attempted to conceal his irritation. "If you're not strong enough to do without that kind of stuff, you're not welcome here. If you are, you are very welcome."
"I'll throw it all in the river," exclaimed Paul, chokingly.
"Which would prove nothing," announced Colonel Howell. "Put that bottle back in the box and nail it up. When you want it again, come and tell me and I'll give you the case and an escort back to the Landing."
The episode had become more than embarrassing for Norman and Roy and they arose and left the room. Paul's face was buried in his hands and his head was low on the table. Fifteen minutes later, the young Count and the oil man made their appearance, both very sober of face.
At midnight when the last of the cargo had been unshipped, when the Indians had been fed again and when the white men had had a late supper of bannock and Nova Scotia butter and fresh tea, and when Colonel Howell and the boys had spread their heavy blankets on the fresh balsam, in Paul's corner of the cabin lay the box that had brought him so much chagrin. Not once during the evening had the humiliating incident been referred to by those who participated in it.
PREPARING CAMP FOR WINTER
Colonel Howell being a far from hard taskmaster, especially in his dealings with the Indians, it was not until the morning of the second day that Moosetooth and La Biche led their men out of camp on the three-hundred mile tramp to Athabasca Landing. But the beginning of work in the camp did not await their departure. Colonel Howell took time to explain his plans so far as they concerned his young friends, and the morning after the arrival of the boats work at once began with the regularity of a factory.
The things to be done included a substantial addition to the present cabin, to be made in the main out of the straight poplar timber. The roof of this was to be of sod and the new bunk house formed a "T" with the old cabin. A clay floor was packed within and on this a board floor was made of some of the inside timber from one of the scows. New timber and poplar posts were used to make the bunks, which, packed heavily with shredded balsam, soon provided clean and fragrant sleeping berths. Colonel Howell had learned of a sheet-iron stove to be had in the McMurray settlement, and this was to be installed before cold weather arrived.
The other cabin was renovated and thoroughly cleaned. A provision storehouse was added in the rear, and the clay fireplace was enlarged and extended into the room. This work under way, Norman and Roy, assisted by Paul, undertook to construct a rough but adequate aerodrome. The open space in front of the cabin was not sufficient for a landing and a large part of the clearing in the rear of the cabin was leveled for the airship shed. To decrease the size of the structure, it was also made in "T" shape, the extension for the tail of the machine reaching back toward the cabin, for the new shelter faced away from the cabin so that there might be no obstacle in starting and landing the machine.
In spite of its simple character, the boys made elaborate sketches for this shed and used in the main small uniform poplar trees easily carried on their shoulders. The entire frame of the building was made of this timber. The front of it was to be made of the colonel's three enormous tarpaulins. The sides and top being of heavy hemlock bark, this feature of the work required many days and it was often tiresome.
In the three weeks that this work went on, Colonel Howell appeared to be in no hurry to resume his prospecting. The boys learned that the old Kansas oil men had not been wholly idle in this respect and that they had located several good signs, all of which Colonel Howell took occasion to examine.
The boys also learned that the best prospects were not those found where the derrick had been erected. From their experience, the men who had been left in camp strongly urged another location in a dip of land farther inland.
"It's as good a surface sign as I ever saw," Colonel Howell explained to the young men. "It's a rock cut, but there's enough tar floating loose to show that there's oil mighty close. But there's no use getting excited about it and tapping a gusher. We'd only have to cap it and wait for the tank cars. Everything around here is prospective, of course. All we can do is to cover the field and establish our claim. And I guess that's a good winter's job."
"Ain't you goin' to work this derrick?" asked Paul, indicating the one erected near the camp.
"Looks like there might be gas around here," was the colonel's laughing response. "We'll sink a shaft here an' maybe we can find a flow of natural gas. That'd help some when she gets down to forty below."
It was surprising how all these preparations consumed time. It was nearly the end of August when these plans had been worked out and with the setting up of the Gitchie Manitou in its novel aerodrome and the storing away of its oil and gasoline in a little bark lean-to, the camp appeared to be ready for serious work.
For a week Ewen and Miller had been setting up the wood boiler and engine for operating the derrick. From the night he unceremoniously left camp, Chandler, the Englishman, had not been heard from.
Each Sunday all labor ceased in camp and Ewen and Miller invariably spent the day, long into the night, in Fort McMurray. The boys also visited this settlement, which had in it little of interest. There was no store and nothing to excite their cupidity in the way of purchases. They heard that Chandler had gone down the river, but the information was not definite and, although Colonel Howell left messages for his discharged employee, the man did not reappear and sent no word.
Colonel Howell's other workmen, Ewen and Miller, were not companionable and did not become comrades of the boys. Now and then, in the month's work, Norman and Roy had heard Colonel Howell freely criticize them for the method of their work or for some newly omitted thing they had failed to do during the winter.
When the stores and supplies had been compactly arranged in the rear of the living room and the new storehouse, the cabin and its surroundings seemed prepared for comfortable occupancy in the coldest weather.
The only man retained out of the river outfit was a Lac la Biche half-breed, a relative of Moosetooth, who was to serve both as a cook and a hunter. At least once a week, the entire party of young men went with Philip Tremble, the half-breed hunter, for deer or moose. This usually meant an early day's start, if they were looking for moose, and a long hike over the wooded hills to the upland.
One moose they secured on the second hunt and to the great joy of the boys Philip brought the skin of the animal back to camp. The antlers, being soft, were useless. This episode not only afforded a welcome change in meat which, as Colonel Howell had predicted, could not be told from tender beef, but it sadly interfered with the work on the aerodrome.
When the Indian had prepared a frame for dressing the skin and lashed the green hide with heavy cord between the four poplar sides and had produced a shaving knife from somewhere among his private possessions, the boys fought for the opportunity to work upon the hide.
For almost two days, Norman, Roy and Paul, by turns, scraped at the muscle, sinews and fat yet adhering to the skins until at last their first trophy shone as tight and clean in the sunshine as a drumhead. Philip had also brought, from the upland, the animal's brains tied up in his shirt. In the tanning process he then took charge of the cleaned skin and buried it until the hair had rotted, and in this condition the outside of the skin was also cleaned. Then came a mysterious process of scouring the skin with the long preserved brains.
At Colonel Howell's suggestion, and with the complete approval of the boys, this part of the process was carried on at some distance from the cabin. Thereafter, when the weather was clear, Philip exposed the skin to the smoke of a smouldering fire, devoting such time as he had to rubbing and twisting the hide while it turned to a soft, odorous yellow.
Before the real winter began, the skin, which is the wealth of the Canadian Indian, began to make its appearance in strong moccasins, which were usually worn around the fireplace and often in bed.
From somewhere in the outfit a calendar had made its appearance, and this had found a lodging place in the front of the fireplace. The morning that Colonel Howell made a mark on September 1, with a bit of charred stick, he remarked:
"Well, boys, the postman seems to have forgotten us. What's the matter with running up to Athabasca and getting our mail? A piece of beef wouldn't go bad, either. How about it?"
So intense had the interest of Norman and Roy been in the hundreds of things to be done in camp that the aeroplane, although not out of mind, was not always foremost in their thoughts. No reply was needed to this suggestion. Instantly, the proposition filled the air with airship talk.
This first trip had been discussed many times. It required no particular planning now.
"I like to travel about fifty miles an hour," exclaimed Norman, "and it's three hundred miles to the Landing. We'll leave to-morrow morning at five o'clock and land on the heights opposite the town at eleven. One of us'll go across in the ferry—"
"Both of us," broke in Roy. "There's no need to watch the machine—everybody's honest in this country."
"Let me go and watch it?" asked Paul, who was now the constant associate of the other boys in their work and pleasures.
"Not this time," answered Norman. "It isn't exactly a bus, you know. We can take care of it all right."
"Then we'll have dinner at the good old Alberta," suggested Roy with his features aglow, "do our errands, and start back about three o'clock. It's a cinch. With the river for our guide, we ought to give you a beefsteak about nine o'clock."
"And don't forget a few magazines," put in Paul.
This flight, which began promptly on time the next morning, after an early breakfast of toasted bannock, bacon and the inevitable tea, which Philip never spoiled with smoke, however, was made with all the ease of the exhibitions at the Stampede.
The Gitchie Manitou was wheeled out of the hangar for a thorough inspection. Then the boys climbed in and the engines were started. With a wave of the hand they were off.
For a short time after the yellow-winged monoplane had mounted and turned south and westward over the vapory river, the boys had a new sensation. The rising fog started air currents which for a time they did not understand. Perhaps Norman's hand was a little out of a practice and at times Roy showed nervousness.
When Norman finally guessed the cause, he mounted higher and took a course over the uplands where, as the sunshine cleared the atmosphere, the Gitchie Manitou became more easily manageable. The line of vapor rising from the river some distance on their left was sufficient guide. This at last disappeared in turn and Norman threw the car back on its old course.
Once again above the river, whose brown, oily surface now shone clearly beneath them, Roy especially busied himself with the many attractions of the stream. Animal life was plentiful and, despite Norman's renewed protests, his companion insisted now and then in fruitlessly discharging his rifle at small game.
They made better time than fifty miles and made a safe landing on the heights opposite Athabasca some time before eleven o'clock. What had seemed to them, from Athabasca, to be an uninhabited bluff, was now found to contain several poor cabins. Afraid to leave the car alone near those who would certainly be curious, Norman decided to stay with the monoplane and Roy undertook to visit the town across the river. But dinner at the Alberta was eliminated and Roy, in addition to his mail and meat and magazines, was to bring back luncheon for both the aviators.
Norman accompanied him to the brow of the hill and saw him scramble down the winding road to the ferry landing below. Here, also, he saw him wait nearly a half hour before the cumbersome gravity flatboat put out from the other shore, and then he devoted himself to picking and eating Saskatoon berries, with which the hills were covered.
It was two o'clock when Roy returned, burdened with packages. For an hour Norman had been asleep in the invigorating hill air. Roy had certainly gone the limit in the matter of meat. He had two roasts and six thick steaks and, what was more to his own taste, he proudly displayed a leg of lamb. His mail, of which there seemed to be a great deal for everyone, he had tied in one end of a flour sack. In the other end he had six loaves of fresh bread. On his back in another bag he had a weight of magazines.
"I thought we'd take what we could," he began, "and I guess it's a good thing we came when we did. Somebody's been pounding telegrams in here for several days for Colonel Howell. I got a half dozen of 'em and I sent all he gave me. I got off some messages to the folks, too, but I wonder what the colonel's so busy about."
"This ain't the only iron he has in the fire," answered Norman drowsily. "But where's our own eats?"
Roy dumped his bags and bundles on the grass and then began to explore his own capacious pockets. From one he took a can of salmon and from another a box of sardines.
"And here's the lemon for 'em," he explained, producing it from his shirt pocket. "Help yourself to the bread."
"Is that all?" complained Norman. "I'll bet a nickel you had dinner at the Alberta!"
"All but this," went on Roy, and he began unbuttoning the front of his flannel shirt. "It feels kind of soft."
While Norman watched him, he extracted a greasy bag, flat and crumpled, and tore it open to expose what was left of an originally fine hot raisin pie.
His companion turned up his nose in disgust.
"I fell down on the hill," explained Roy, "but if you don't want it, don't bother. It's just a little squashed. I'll eat it all right."
Norman began to straighten out the crumpled pieces with his finger, when his chum added, with some exultation: "And these."
Then, from within his unbuttoned shirt, he began to unload a dozen large sugar-coated doughnuts.
As Norman's mouth began to water, and he turned to the bread bag, a new odor caught his nostrils.
"What's this?" he exclaimed, pulling another greasy bag from among the bread loaves.
"Oh, I forgot," sputtered Roy, a part of one of the doughnuts already in his mouth; "that's some baked ham I found at the butcher shop. I guess that's some eats."
"Didn't you get any pop?" was Norman's only answer, a look of added disgust spreading over his face.
Roy turned, with a startled look: "I couldn't carry any more," he answered a little guiltily, "but I drank a couple o' bottles myself."
"I knew I'd get stung if I let you go!" growled his companion.
Norman looked at him with indignation. Then, having already appropriated a doughnut, he mounted quickly on the side of the car and sprang down again with the aluminum basin in his hand.
"Now you go down to the river and get me a drink. You've had it soft enough."
The return trip was almost a duplicate of the morning flight. In this, however, the aviators were able to follow the stream itself, and they flew low, protected from the evening breeze by the river hills. The ride did not seem long, and the boys were particularly interested in another view of the Rapids, which they had been unable to study in the morning flight. Not a single human being, going or coming, had they seen on the long stretch of river.
In Athabasca, Roy had learned that their boat crew had not all returned, but that La Biche and Moosetooth had reached town and that both were already serving as pilots on the new Hudson's Bay Company steamer that had been launched in their absence and was now making its first trip up the river. They were almost passing the oil camp when the sound of a shot attracted their attention and then, guided by Paul's worn and faded hat, they banked and landed in the rear of the aerodrome at ten minutes of nine.
BREASTING A BLIZZARD IN AN AIRSHIP
When Roy turned over his half dozen telegrams to Colonel Howell, the two boys saw that the messages were of some significance. A little later they saw their patron reading them a second time. But when the beefsteak supper was served he seemed to have forgotten business. But that was only his way. When the prospector had reached his after-dinner cigar, he said abruptly:
"So you say everything went all right!"
"Like taking a buggy ride," answered Norman. "Don't you want us to go oftener? If it wasn't for using up the gas, there isn't any reason why we shouldn't meet each mail stage."
"I'm glad o' that," answered Colonel Howell, smiling. "I'd like to have you take a telegram over for me in the morning and wait for an answer."
"Don't you think I can go in this time?" asked Paul at once.
The other boys gave him no heed for a moment.
"We could go to-night," volunteered Norman, "if you like."
"That wouldn't do any good," answered the colonel. "You probably couldn't get the operator. I'll be more than satisfied if you duplicate to-day's trip—except as to the meat," he added. "We've enough of that for some days."
Paul sat in suppressed excitement.
"I don't want to butt in," he urged in the pause that followed; "but I want to help all I can. You don't need to be afraid—"
The boys could not resist a glance toward the bunk house door, where they well knew that Paul's embarrassing box still stood intact. And both Norman and Roy flushed.
"You can go," announced Norman instantly. "You won't be afraid!"
"Only afraid of disappointing Roy," answered the elated Paul.
The latter was disappointed, but he gave no sign of it and when he smiled and waved his hand, the thing was settled.
"I've been holding an option on a fine piece of oil property near Elgin, Kansas," the colonel began in explanation, "and I had forgotten that the limit was about to expire. Several of these telegrams are from my agent, who tells me we must have the property. The telegrams are now over three weeks old and I've just got two days in which to get word to him to buy."
"Write your message to-night," suggested Norman, "for we'll get away a little earlier in the morning, since we've got to wait for an answer."
The second flight to Athabasca Landing was of course Paul's first experience in an airship. For some time he was subdued and Norman could see his tense fingers gripping the edge of the cockpit. But when assurance came to him, he made up for his preliminary apprehension and was soon taking impossible pictures of the far-away hills and trees beneath him.
Reaching the landing place on the Athabasca Hills, Paul at once said:
"I s'pose you'd feel better if you looked after the telegrams yourself. I'll stay with the machine."
This was the program Norman had outlined but when the suggestion came from the young Austrian himself, Norman had not the courage to humiliate his companion with such a plain indication of his fear. Without hesitation, he answered:
"What are you talking about? Nothing like that now! Besides, I want to look over the engine. You go and attend to things—I'll be here when you get back."
A little after twelve o'clock, a boy arrived from the other side of the river, carrying Norman's dinner in a basket. The messenger was from the Alberta Hotel and he also carried a note from Paul announcing that no answer had yet been received to Colonel Howell's telegram.
As the afternoon wore slowly away, Norman became more and more apprehensive. It was nearly six o'clock when Paul came in sight, breathless and exhausted from his rapid climb up the hill. Norman could not resist a sigh of relief when he saw that the delay was not due to any new indiscretion of the young Austrian.
"I don't blame you," panted Paul, "and I bet you've been sweating blood. I don't deserve anything else, but you're going to save a lot of time if you'll just forget what I used to be. I ain't going to make any promises, but I'll show all of you that I'm not what you all thought I was."
Norman only smiled, but he gave his young friend a look of sympathy. Then he announced a little variation in the general plan.
"We're so late now that it's goin' to be dark before we get back and a little further delay won't do any harm. Just back of the new H. B. Company store I remember there's quite an open space on the other side of the town. We're flying pretty light and I think we'll cross the river, make a landing there, and get a couple of tins of gasoline. We want an extra supply on hand."
This flight was easily accomplished but it involved an experience that Norman had not anticipated. Having made a safe landing, while he visited the trading post and arranged to have oil delivered at once, nearly everyone in Athabasca Landing seemed to learn of the arrival of the airship. When he came riding back to the monoplane, in the delivery wagon, the Gitchie Manitou was the center of a mob of curious people. The sergeant of police was there, as well as the people from the hotel. It was impossible to leave at once. Politeness demanded decent replies to many inquiries but Norman almost felt repaid when he noted that this was the first meeting during the day between Paul and his old friend, the Mounted Policeman.
Yet, in the midst of the general greeting, the boys finally took their leave. As they swung over the city and the river, the mist was beginning to rise from the latter. For a part of the return trip at least, Norman knew that he would have to resort to his compass or to the guidance of the varying air currents that marked the river course at night.
For several days in the latter part of August there had been nightly frosts. Then there had been a short spell of warm weather and this night the boys could see that cool weather was rapidly approaching. As the monoplane winged its way into the gathering gloom and the crisp evening passed into dusk, the body of the Gitchie Manitou grew wet with cold dew. After dark, this began to turn into frost. Paul was able to wrap a light blanket about himself, but Norman, with no relief present, stuck to his post, protected only by his gloves and sweater.