The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
Dick was afoot after a few hours' sleep. He aroused Sam and went about the preparation of breakfast. May-may-gwan attempted to help, but both she and her efforts were disregarded. She brought wood, but Dick rustled a supply just the same, paying no attention to the girl's little pile; she put on fresh fuel, but Dick, without impatience,--indeed, as though he were merely rearranging the fire,--contrived to undo her work; she brought to hand the utensils, but Dick, in searching for them, always looked where they had originally been placed. His object seemed not so much to thwart the girl as to ignore her. When breakfast was ready he divided it into two portions, one of which he ate. After the meal he washed the few dishes. Once he took a cup from the girl's hand as she was drying it, much as he would have taken it from the top of a stump. He then proceeded to clean it as though it had just been used.
May-may-gwan made no sign that she noticed these things. After a little she helped Sam roll the blankets, strike the shelter, construct the packs. Here her assistance was accepted, though Sam did not address her. After a few moments the start was made.
The first few hours were spent as before, wading the stream. As she could do nothing in the water, May-may-gwan kept to the woods, walking stolidly onward, her face to the front, expressionless, hiding whatever pain she may have felt. This side of noon, however, the travellers came to a cataract falling over a fifty-foot ledge into a long, cliff-bordered pool.
It became necessary to portage. The hill pinched down steep and close. There existed no trails. Dick took the little camp axe to find a way. He clambered up one after the other three ravines--grown with brush and heavy ferns, damp with a trickle of water,--always to be stopped near the summit by a blank wall impossible to scale. At length he found a passage he thought might be practicable. Thereupon he cut a canoe trail back to the water-side.
In clearing this trail his attention turned to making room for a canoe on a man's back. Therefore the footing he bothered with not at all. Saplings he clipped down by bending them with the left hand, and striking at the strained fibres where they bowed. A single blow would thus fell treelets of some size. When he had finished his work there resulted a winding, cylindrical hole in the forest growth some three feet from the ground. Through this cylinder the canoe would be passed while its bearer picked a practised way among slippery rocks, old stubs, new sapling stumps, and undergrowth below. Men who might, in later years, wish to follow this Indian trail, would look not for footprints but for waist-high indications of the axe.
When the canoe had been carried to the top of the bluff that marked the water-fall, it was relaunched in a pool. In the meantime May-may-gwan, who had at last found a use for her willingness, carried the packs. Dick re-embarked. His companion perceived that he intended to shove off as soon as the other should have taken his place. Sam frustrated that, however, by holding fast to the gunwale. May-may-gwan stepped in amidships, with a half-deprecating glance at the young man's inscrutable back. At the end of the brief paddling the upper pool allowed them, she was first ashore.
Late that afternoon the travel for a half mile became exceedingly difficult. The stream took on the character of a mountain brook. It hardly paid to float the canoe in the tiny holes among the rocks, miniature cascades, and tortuous passages. The forest grew to the very banks, and arched over to exclude the sun. Every few feet was to be avoided a tree, half clinging to the bank, leaning at a perilous slant out over the creek. Fortunately the spring freshets in this country of the great snows were powerful enough to sweep out the timber actually fallen, so the course of the stream itself was clear of jams. At length the travellers reached a beaver-dam, and so to a little round lake among the hills. They had come to the head waters of the Mattawishguia.
In the lake stood two moose, old and young. Dick succeeded in killing the yearling, though it took two shots from his Winchester. It was decided to camp here over one day in order that the meat might be saved.
A circle of hills surrounded the little body of water. On them grew maples and birches, among which scattered a few hemlocks and an occasional pine. At the edge of the water were cedars leaning out to look at their reflections. A deep and solemn peace seemed to brood over the miniature lake. Such affairs as bird songs, the slap of a paddle, the shots from Dick's rifle could not break this strange stillness. They spoke hastily, and relapsed to silence, like the rare necessary voices in a room where one lies dead. The hush, calm and primal, with the infinity of the wilderness as its only measure of time, took no account of the shock of a second's interruption. Two loons swam like ghosts. Everywhere and nowhere among the trees, in the hills, over the water, the finer senses were almost uneasily conscious of a vast and awful presence. It was as yet aloof, unheeding, buddhistic, brooding in nirvanic calm, still unawakened to put forth the might of its displeasure. Under its dreaming eyes men might, fearfully and with reverence, carry on their affairs,--fearfully and with reverence, catching the breath, speaking low, growing silent and stern in the presence of the North.
At the little camp under the cedars, Dick Herron and Sam Bolton, assisted by the Ojibway girl, May-may-gwan, cut the moose-meat into thin strips, salted, and dried it in the bright sun. And since the presence of loons argued fish, they set their nets and lines. Several days thus passed.
In their relations the three promptly settled back into a species of routine. Men who travel in the Silent Places speedily take on the colour of their surroundings. They become silent also. A band of voyageurs of sufficient strength may chatter and sing; they have by the very force of numbers created an atmosphere of their own. But two are not enough for this. They have little to say, for their souls are laved by the great natural forces.
Dick Herron, even in ordinary circumstances, withdrew rather grimly into himself. He looked out at things from beneath knit brows; he held his elbows close to his sides, his fists clenched, his whole spiritual being self-contained and apart, watchful for enmity in what he felt but could not understand. But to this, his normal habit, now was added a sullenness almost equally instinctive. In some way he felt himself aggrieved by the girl's presence. At first it was merely the natural revolt of a very young man against assuming responsibility he had not invited. The resulting discomfort of mind, however, he speedily assigned to the girl's account. He continued, as at first, to ignore her. But in the slow rumination of the forest he became more and more irritably sensible of her presence. Sam's taciturnity was contrastedly sunny and open. He looked on things about him with the placid receptivity of an old man, and said nothing because there was nothing to say. The Ojibway girl remained inscrutable, helping where she could, apparently desirous of neither praise nor blame.
At the end of three days the provisions were ready. There had resulted perhaps sixty pounds of "jerky." It now became necessary to leave the water-way, and to strike directly through the forest, over the hills, and into the country of the Kabinikagam.
Dick shouldered a thirty-pound pack and the canoe. Sam Bolton and the girl managed the remainder. Every twenty minutes or so they would rest, sinking back against the trunks of trees, mossy stones, or a bank of new ferns. The forest was open and inexpressibly lofty. Moose maples, young birches, and beeches threw their coolness across the face, then above them the columns of the trunks, then far up in green distance the leaves again, like the gold-set roof of a church. The hill mounted always before them. Ancient rocks hoary with moss, redolent of dampness, stood like abandoned altars given over to decay. A strange, sweet wind freighted with stray bird-notes wandered aimlessly.
Nothing was said. Dick led the way and set the intervals of the carrying. When he swung the canoe from his shoulders the others slipped their tump-lines. Then all rubbed their faces with the broad caribou-leaf to keep off the early flies, and lay back, arms extended, breathing deep, resting like boxers between the rounds. Once at the top of the ridge Dick climbed a tree. He did this, not so much in expectation of seeing the water-courses themselves, as to judge by the general lay of the country where they might be found.
In a bare open space under hemlocks Sam indicated a narrow, high, little pen, perhaps three feet long by six inches wide, made of cut saplings. Dick examined it.
"Marten deadfall," he pronounced. "Made last winter. Somebody's been trapping through here."
After a time a blaze on a tree was similarly remarked. Then the travellers came to a tiny creek, which, being followed, soon debouched into a larger. This in turn became navigable, after the north-country fashion. That is to say, the canoe with its load could much of the time be floated down by the men wading in the bed of the creek. Finally Sam, who was in the lead, jerked his head toward the left bank.
"Their winter camp," said he, briefly.
A dim trail led from the water to a sheltered knoll. There stood the framework of a pointed tepee, the long poles spread like fingers above their crossing point. A little pile of gnawed white skulls of various sizes represented at least a portion of the season's catch. Dick turned them over with his foot, identifying them idly. From the sheltered branches of a near-by spruce hung four pairs of snow-shoes cached there until the next winter. Sam gave his first attention to these.
"A man, a woman, and two well-grown children," he pronounced. He ran his hand over the bulging raquette with the long tail and the slightly up-curved end. "Ojibway pattern," he concluded. "Dick, we're in the first hunting district. Here's where we get down to business."
He went over the ground twice carefully, examining the state of the offal, the indications of the last fire.
"They've been gone about six weeks," he surmised. "If they ain't gone visiting, they must be down-stream somewheres. These fellows don't get in to trade their fur 'till along about August."
Two days subsequent, late in the afternoon, Dick pointed out what looked to be a dark streak beneath a bowlder that lay some distance from the banks on a shale bar.
"What's that animal?" he asked.
"Can't make her out," said Bolton, after inspection.
"Ninny-moosh," said the Indian girl, indifferently. It was the first word she had spoken since her talk with the older man.
"It's a dog, all right," conceded Sam. "She has sharp eyes."
The animal rose and began to bark. Two more crashed toward him through the bushes. A thin stream of smoke disengaged itself from the tops of the forest trees. As they swept around the bend, the travellers saw a man contemplating them stolidly through a screen of leaves.
The canoe floated on. About an hundred yards below the Indians Sam ordered a landing. Camp was made as usual. Supper was cooked. The fire replenished. Then, just before the late sunset of the Far North, the bushes crackled.
"Now let me do the talking," warned Sam.
"All right. I'll just keep my eye on this," Dick nodded toward the girl. "She's Ojibway, too, you know. She may give us away."
"She can't only guess," Sam reminded. "But there ain't any danger, anyway."
The leaves parted. The Indian appeared, sauntering with elaborate carelessness, his beady eyes shifting here and there in an attempt to gather what these people might be about.
"Bo' jou', bo' jou'," he greeted them.