Chapter Fifteen
 

Whether it was that the prospect of getting about, or the diversion of the dog was responsible for the change, Dick's cheerfulness markedly increased in the next few days. For hours he would fool with the animal, whom he had named Billy, after a hunting companion, teaching him to shake hands, to speak, to wrinkle his nose in a doggy grin, to lie down at command, and all the other tricks useful and ornamental that go to make up the fanciest kind of a dog education. The mistakes and successes of his new friend seemed to amuse him hugely. Often from the tent burst the sounds of inextinguishable mirth. May-may-gwan, peeping, saw the young man as she had first seen him, clear-eyed, laughing, the wrinkles of humour deepening about his eyes, his white teeth flashing, his brow untroubled. Three days she hovered thus on the outer edge of the renewed good feeling, then timidly essayed an advance.

Unobtrusive, she slipped inside the teepee's flap. The dog sat on his haunches, his head to one side in expectation.

"The dog is a good dog," she said, her breath choking her.

Apparently the young man had not heard.

"It will be well to name the dog that he may answer to his name," she ventured again.

Dick, abruptly gripped by the incomprehensible obsession, uneasy as at something of which he only waited the passing, resentful because of the discomfort this caused him, unable to break through the artificial restraint that enveloped his spirit, lifted his eyes suddenly, dead and lifeless, to hers.

"It is time to lift the net," he said.

The girl made no more advances. She moved almost automatically about her accustomed tasks, preparing the materials for what remained to be done.

Promptly on the seventh day, with much preparation and precaution, Dick moved. He had now to suffer the girl's assistance. When he first stood upright, he was at once attacked by a severe dizziness, which would have caused a fall had not May-may-gwan steadied him. With difficulty he hobbled to a seat outside. Even his arms seemed to him pithless. He sank to his place hard-breathed, exhausted. It was some minutes before he could look about him calmly.

The first object to catch his eye was the cardinal red of a moose-maple, like a spot of blood on velvet-green. And thus he knew that September, or the Many-caribou-in-the-woods Moon, was close at hand.

"Hi!" he called.

May-may-gwan came as before, but without the look of expectation in her eyes.

"Bring me wood of mashkigiwateg, wood of tamarack," he commanded; "bring me mokamon, the knife, and tschi-mokamon, the large knife; bring the hide of ah-tek, the caribou."

"These things are ready, at hand," she replied.

With the couteau croche, the crooked knife of the North, Dick laboured slowly, fashioning with care the long tamarack strips. He was exceedingly particular as to the selection of the wood, as to the taper of the pieces. At last one was finished to his satisfaction. Slowly then he fashioned it, moulding the green wood, steaming it to make it more plastic, until at last the ends lay side by side, and the loop of wood bowed above in the shape of a snow-shoe raquette. The exact shape Dick still further assured by means of two cross-pieces. These were bound in place by the strips of the caribou-skin rawhide wet in warm water, which was also used to bind together the two ends. The whole was then laid aside to dry.

Thus in the next few days Dick fashioned the frame of six snow-shoes. He adhered closely to the Ojibway pattern. In these woods it was not necessary to have recourse to the round, broad shape of the rough bowlder-hills, nor was it possible to use the long, swift shoe of the open plains. After a while he heated red the steel end of his rifle cleaning-rod and bored holes for the webbing. This also he made of caribou rawhide, for caribou shrinks when wet, thus tightening the lacing where other materials would stretch. Above and below the cross-pieces he put in a very fine weaving; between them a coarser, that the loose snow might readily sift through. Each strand he tested again and again; each knot he made doubly sure.

Nor must it be imagined that he did these things alone. May-may-gwan helped him, not only by fetching for him the tools and materials, of which he stood in need, but also in the bending, binding, and webbing itself. Under the soft light of the trees, bathed in the aroma of fresh shavings and the hundred natural odours of the forest, it was exceedingly pleasant accurately to accomplish the light skilled labour. But between these human beings, alone in a vast wilderness, was no communication outside the necessities of the moment. Thus in a little the three pairs of snow-shoes, complete even to the buckskin foot-loops, hung from the sheltered branch of a spruce.

"Bring now to me," said the young man, "poles of the hickory, logs of gijik, the cedar; bring me wigwass, the birch-bark, and the rawhide of mooswa, the moose."

"These things are at hand," repeated May-may-gwan.

Then ensued days of severe toil. Dick was, of course, unable to handle the axe, so the girl had to do it under his direction. The affair was of wedges with which to split along the grain; of repeated attempts until the resulting strips were true and without warp; of steaming and tying to the proper curve, and, finally, of binding together strongly with the tough babiche into the shape of the dog-sledge. This, too, was suspended at last beneath the sheltering spruce.

"Bring me now," said Dick, "rawhide of mooswa, the moose, rawhide of ah-tek, the caribou, watab, the root for sewing."

Seated opposite each other, heads bent over the task, they made the dog-harness, strong, serviceable, not to be worn out, with the collar, the broad buckskin strap over the back, the heavy traces. Four of them they made, for Sam would undoubtedly complete the team, and these, too, they hung out of reach in the spruce-tree.

Now Sam returned from his longest trip, empty of information, but light of spirit, for he had succeeded by his simple shrewdness in avoiding all suspicion. He brought with him another "husky" dog, and a strong animal like a Newfoundland; also some tea and tobacco, and an axe-blade. This latter would be especially valuable. In the extreme cold steel becomes like glass. The work done earned his approval, but he paused only a day, and was off again.

From the inside of the teepee hung many skins of the northern hare which May-may-gwan had captured and tanned while Dick was still on his back. The woven blanket was finished. Now she lined the woollen blankets with these hare-skins, over an hundred to each. Nothing warmer could be imagined. Of caribou skin, tanned with the hair on, she and Dick fashioned jackets with peaked hoods, which, when not in use, would hang down behind. The opening about the face was sewn with bushy fox's tails, and a puckering-string threaded through so that the wearer could completely protect his features. Mittens they made from pelts of the muskrat. Moccasins were cut extra large and high, and lined with fur of the hare. Heavy rawhide dog-whips and buckskin gun-cases completed the simple winter outfit.

But still there remained the question of sustenance. Game would be scarce and uncertain in the cold months.

It was now seven weeks since Dick's accident. Cautiously, with many pauses, he began to rest weight on the injured foot. Thanks to the treatment of massage and manipulation, the joint was but little stiffened. Each day it gained in strength. Shortly Dick was able to hobble some little distance, always with the aid of a staff, always heedfully. As yet he was far from the enjoyment of full freedom of movement, but by expenditure of time and perseverance he was able to hunt in a slow, patient manner. The runways where the caribou came to drink late in the evening, a cautious float down-stream as far as the first rapids, or even a plain sitting on a log in the hope that game would chance to feed within range--these methods persisted in day after day brought in a fair quantity of meat.

Of the meat they made some jerky for present consumption by the dogs, and, of course, they ate fresh as much as they needed. But most went into pemmican. The fat was all cut away, the lean sliced thin and dried in the sun. The result they pounded fine, and mixed with melted fat and the marrow, which, in turn, was compressed while warm into air-tight little bags. A quantity of meat went into surprisingly little pemmican. The bags were piled on a long-legged scaffolding out of the reach of the dogs and wild animals.

The new husky and Billy had promptly come to teeth, but Billy had held his own, much to Dick Herron's satisfaction. The larger animal was a bitch, so now all dwelt together in amity. During the still hunt they were kept tied in camp, but the rest of the time they prowled about. Never, however, were they permitted to leave the clearing, for that would frighten the game. At evening they sat in an expectant row, awaiting the orderly distribution of their evening meal. Somehow they added much to the man-feel of the camp. With their coming the atmosphere of men as opposed to the atmosphere of the wilderness had strengthened. On this side was the human habitation, busy at its own affairs, creating about itself a definite something in the forest, unknown before, preparing quietly and efficiently its weapons of offence and defence, all complete in its fires and shelters and industries and domestic animals. On the other, formidable, mysterious, vast, were slowly crystallising, without disturbance, without display, the mighty opposing forces. In the clarified air of the first autumn frosts this antagonism seemed fairly to saturate the stately moving days. It was as yet only potential, but the potentialities were swelling, ever swelling toward the break of an actual conflict.