The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
Sam Bolton gauged perfectly the spirit in his comrade, but paid it little attention. He knew it as a chemical reaction of a certain phase of forest travel. It argued energy, determination, dogged pluck when the need should arise, and so far it was good. The woods life affects various men in various ways, but all in a manner peculiar to itself. It is a reagent unlike any to be found in other modes of life. The moment its influence reaches the spirit, in that moment does the man change utterly from the person he has been in other and ordinary surroundings; and the instant he emerges from its control he reverts to his accustomed bearing. But in the dwelling of the woods he becomes silent. It may be the silence of a self-contained sufficiency; the silence of an equable mind; the silence variously of awe, even of fear; it may be the silence of sullenness. This, as much as the vast stillness of the wilderness, has earned for the region its designation of the Silent Places.
Nor did the older woodsman fear any direct results from the younger's very real, though baseless, anger. These men were bound together by something stronger than any part of themselves. Over them stood the Company, and to its commands all other things gave way. No matter how rebellious might be Dick Herron's heart, how ruffled the surface of his daily manner, Bolton knew perfectly well he would never for a single instant swerve in his loyalty to the main object of the expedition. Serene in this consciousness, the old woodsman dwelt in a certain sweet and gentle rumination of his own. Among the finer instincts of his being many subtle mysteries of the forest found their correspondences. The feeling of these satisfied him entirely, though of course he was incapable of their intellectualisation.
The days succeeded one another. The camps by the rivers or in the woods were in essential all alike. The shelter, the shape, and size of the tiny clearing, the fire, the cooking utensils scattered about, the little articles of personal belonging were the same. Only certain details of surrounding differed, and they were not of importance,--birch-trees for poplars, cedar for both, a river bend to the northwest instead of the southwest, still water for swift, a low bank for a high; but always trees, water, bank, and the sky brilliant with stars. After a little the day's progress became a myth, to be accepted only by the exercise of faith. The forest was a great treadmill in which men toiled all day, only to be surrounded at night by the same grandeurs and littlenesses they had that morning left. In the face of this apparent futility time blew vast. Years were as nothing measured by the task of breaking through the enchanted web that enmeshed them.
And yet all knew by experience, though no one of them could rise to a realisation of the fact, that some day their canoe would round the bend and they would find themselves somewhere. Then they could say to themselves that they had arrived, and could tell themselves that between here and their starting-point lay so many hundred miles. Yet in their secret hearts they would not believe it. They would know that in reality it lay but just around the corner. Only between were dream-days of the shifting forest heavy with toil.
This is the enchantment the North lays on her children, so that when the toil oppresses them and death seems to win, they may not care greatly to struggle, knowing that the struggle is vain.
In the country of the Kabinikagam they visited thus many hunting districts. The travel neither hastened nor lagged. From time to time it was necessary to kill, and then the meat must be cared for. Berries and wild rice were to be gathered. July drew near its end.
Sam Bolton, knowing now the men with whom he had to deal, found no difficulty in the exercise of his simple diplomacy. The Ojibway defaulter was not to be heard of, but every nook searched without result narrowed the remaining possibilities. Everything went well enough until late one afternoon.
The portage happened to lead above a narrow gorge over a rapids. To accomplish it the travellers had first to scale a steep little hill, then to skirt a huge rounded rock that overhung the gorge. The roughness of the surface and the adhesive power of their moccasins alone held them to the slant. These were well sufficient. Unfortunately, however, Dick, without noticing it, had stepped into a little pool of water on disembarking. Buckskin while dry is very adhesive; when wet very slippery. As he followed Sam out on the curving cheek of the rock his foot slid, he lost his equilibrium, was on the edge of falling, overbalanced by the top-heavy pack he was carrying. Luckily Sam himself was portaging the canoe. Dick, with marvellous quickness, ducked loose from the tump-line. The pack bounded down the slant, fell with a splash, and was whirled away. With the impetus of the same motion the young man twisted himself as violently as possible to regain his footing. He would probably have succeeded had it not been for the Indian girl. She had been following the two, a few steps in the rear. As Dick's foot turned, she slipped her own pack and sprang forward, reaching out her arm in the hope of steadying him. Unfortunately she did this only in time to get in the way of the strong twist Dick made for recovery. The young man tottered for an instant on the very brink of saving himself, then gave it up, and fell as loosely as possible into the current.
May-may-gwan, aghast at what she had done, stood paralyzed, staring into the gorge. Sam swung the canoe from his shoulders and ran on over the hill and down the other side.
The Indian girl saw the inert body of the woodsman dashed down through the moil and water, now showing an arm, now a leg, only once, for a single instant, the head. Twice it hit obstacles, limp as a sack of flour. Then it disappeared.
Immediately she regained the use of her legs, and scrambled over the hill after Sam, her breath strangling her. She found below the rapids a pool, and half in the water at its edge Dick seated, bruised and cut, spitting water, and talking excitedly to his companion. Instantly she understood. The young woods runner, with the rare quickness of expedient peculiar to these people, had allowed himself to be carried through the rapids muscle-loose, as an inanimate object would be carried, without an attempt to help himself in any way. It was a desperate chance, but it was the only chance. The slightest stiffening of the muscles, the least struggle would have thrown him out of the water's natural channel against the bowlders; and then a rigidly held body would have offered only too good a resistance to the shock. By a miracle of fortune he had been carried through, bruised and injured, to be sure, but conscious. Sam had dragged him to the bush-grown bank. There he sat up in the water and cleared his lungs. He was wildly excited.
"She did it!" he burst Out, as soon as he could speak. "She did it a purpose! She reached out and pushed me! By God, there she is now!"
With the instinct of the hunter he had managed to cling to his rifle. He wrenched at the magazine lever, throwing the muzzle forward for a shot, but it had been jammed, and he was unable to move it. "She reached out and pushed me! I felt her do it!" he cried. He attempted to rise, but fell back, groaning with a pain that kept him quiet for several moments.
"Sam!" he muttered, "she's there yet. Kill her. Damn it, didn't you see! I had my balance again, and she pushed me! She had it in for me!" His face whitened for an instant as he moved, then flooded with a red anger. "My God!" he cried, in the anguish of a strong man laid low, "she's busted me all over!" He wrenched loose his shoulders from Sam's support, struggled to his knees, and fell back, a groan of pain seeming fairly to burst from his heart. His head hit sharply against a stone. He lay still.
"May-may-gwan!" called Sam Bolton, sharply.
She came at once, running eagerly, the paralysis of her distress broken by his voice. Sam directed her by nods of the head. With some difficulty they carried the unconscious man to the flat and laid him down, his head on Sam's rolled coat. Then, while May-may-gwan, under his curtly delivered directions, built a fire, heated water, carried down the two remaining packs and opened them, Sam tenderly removed Dick's clothes, and examined him from head to foot. The cuts on the head were nothing to a strong man; the bruises less. Manipulation discovered nothing wrong with the collar-bone and ribs. But at last Sam uttered a quick exclamation of discovery.
Dick's right ankle was twisted strongly outward and back.
An inexperienced man would have pronounced it a dislocation, but Sam knew better. He knew better because just once, nearly fifteen years before, he had assisted Dr. Cockburn at Conjuror's House in the caring for exactly such an accident. Now he stood for some moments in silence recalling painfully each little detail of what he had observed and of what the physician had told him.
Rapidly by means of twigs and a tracing on the wet sand he explained to May-may-gwan what was the matter and what was to be done. The fibula, or outer bone of the leg, had been snapped at its lower end just above the ankle, the foot had been dislocated to one side, and either the inner ligament of the ankle had given way, or--what would be more serious--one of the ankle-bones itself had been torn. Sam Bolton realised fully that it was advisable to work with the utmost rapidity, before the young man should regain consciousness, in order that the reduction of the fracture might be made while the muscles were relaxed. Nevertheless, he took time both to settle his own ideas, and to explain them to the girl. It was the luckiest chance of Dick Herron's life that he happened to be travelling with the one man who had assisted in the skilled treatment of such a case. Otherwise he would most certainly have been crippled.
Sam first of all pried from the inner construction of the canoe two or three of the flat cedar strips used to reinforce the bottom. These he laid in several thicknesses to make a board of some strength. On the board he folded a blanket in wedge form, the thick end terminating abruptly three or four inches from the bottom. He laid aside several buckskin thongs, and set May-may-gwan to ripping bandages of such articles of clothing as might suit.
Then he bent the injured leg at the knee. May-may-gwan held it in that position, while Sam manipulated the foot into what he judged to be the proper position. Especially did he turn the foot strongly inward that the inner ankle-bone might fall to its place. As to the final result he confessed himself almost painfully in doubt, but did the best he knew. He remembered the post-surgeon's cunning comments, and tried to assure himself that the fractured ends of the bones met each other fairly, without the intervention of tendons or muscle-covering, and that there was no obstruction to the movements of the ankle. When he had finished, his brow was wrinkled with anxiety, but he was satisfied that he had done to the limit of his knowledge.
May-may-gwan now held the cedar board, with its pad, against the inside of the leg. Sam bound the thin end of the wedge-shaped blanket to the knee. Thus the thick end of the pad pressed against the calf just above the ankle, leaving the foot and the injured bone free of the board. Sam passed a broad buckskin thong about the ankle and foot in such a manner as to hold the foot from again turning out. Thus the fracture was fixed in place. The bandages were wound smoothly to hold everything secure.
The two then, with the utmost precaution, carried their patient up the bank to a level space suitable for a camp, where he was laid as flat as possible. The main business was done, although still there remained certain cuts and contusions, especially that on the forehead, which had stunned him.
After the reduction of the fracture,--which was actually consummated before Dick regained his consciousness,--and the carrying of the young man to the upper flat, Sam curtly instructed May-may-gwan to gather balsam for the dressing of the various severer bruises. She obtained the gum, a little at a time, from a number of trees. Here and there, where the bark had cracked or been abraded, hard-skinned blisters had exuded. These, when pricked, yielded a liquid gum, potent in healing. While she was collecting this in a quickly fashioned birch-bark receptacle, Sam made camp.
He realised fully that the affair was one of many weeks, if not of months. On the flat tongue overlooking the river he cleared a wide space, and with the back of his axe he knocked the hummocks flat. A score or so of sapling poles he trimmed. Three he tied together tripod-wise, using for the purpose a strip of the inner bark of cedar. The rest he leaned against these three. He postponed, until later, the stripping of birch-bark to cover this frame, and gave his attention to laying a soft couch for Dick's convalescence. The foundation he made of caribou-moss, gathered dry from the heights; the top of balsam boughs cleverly thatched so that the ends curved down and in, away from the recumbent body. Over all he laid what remained of his own half blanket. Above the bed he made a framework from which a sling would be hung to suspend the injured leg.
All this consumed not over twenty minutes. At the end of that time he glanced up to meet Dick's eyes.
"Leg broke," he answered the inquiry in them. "That's all."
"That girl--," began Dick.
"Shut up!" said Sam.
He moved here and there, constructing, by means of flat stones, a trough to be used as a cooking-range. At the edge of the clearing he met the Indian girl returning with her little birch-bark saucer.
"Little Sister," said he.
She raised her eyes to him.
"I want the truth."
"What truth, Little Father?"
He looked searchingly into her eyes.
"It does not matter; I have it," he replied.
She did not ask him further. If she had any curiosity, she did not betray it; if she had any suspicion of what he meant, she did not show it.
Sam returned to where Dick lay.
"Look here, Sam," said he, "this comes of--"
"Shut up!" said Sam again. "Look here, you, you've made trouble enough. Now you're laid up, and you're laid up for a good long while. This ain't any ordinary leg break. It means three months, and it may mean that you'll never walk straight again. It's got to be treated mighty careful, and you've got to do just what I tell you. You just behave yourself. It wasn't anybody's fault. That girl had nothing to do with it. If you weren't a great big fool you'd know it. We both got to take care of you. Now you treat her decent, and you treat me decent. It's time you came off."
He said it as though he meant it. Nevertheless it was with the most elaborate tenderness that he, assisted by May-may-gwan, carried Dick to his new quarters. But in spite of the utmost care, the transportation was painful. The young man was left with no strength. The rest of the afternoon he dozed in a species of torpor.
Sam's energy toward permanent establishment did not relax. He took a long tramp in search of canoe birches, from which at last he brought back huge rolls of thick bark. These he and the girl sewed together in overlapping seams, using white spruce-roots for the purpose. The result was a water-tight covering for the wigwam. A pile of firewood was the fruit of two hours' toil. In the meantime May-may-gwan had caught some fish with the hook and line and had gathered some berries. She made Dick a strong broth of dried meat. At evening the old man and the girl ate their meal together at the edge of the bluff overlooking the broil of the river. They said little, but somehow the meal was peaceful, with a content unknown in the presence of the impatient and terrible young man.