The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
In a day or two Dick was attacked by the fearful mal de raquette, which tortures into knots the muscles of the leg below the knee; and by cramps that doubled him up in his blankets. This was the direct result of his previous inaction. He moved only with pain; and yet, by the stern north-country code, he made no complaint and moved as rapidly as possible. Each time he raised his knee a sharp pain stabbed his groin, as though he had been stuck by a penknife; each time he bent his ankle in the recover the mal de raquette twisted his calves, and stretched his ankle tendons until he felt that his very feet were insecurely attached and would drop off. During the evening he sat quiet, but after he had fallen asleep from the mere exhaustion of the day's toil, he doubled up, straightened out, groaned aloud, and spoke rapidly in the strained voice of one who suffers. Often he would strip his legs by the fire, in order that Sam could twist a cleft stick vigorously about the affected muscles; which is the Indian treatment. As for the cramps, they took care of themselves. The day's journey was necessarily shortened until he had partly recovered, but even after the worst was over, a long tramp always brought a slight recurrence.
For the space of nearly ten weeks these people travelled thus in the region of the Kabinikagam. Sometimes they made long marches; sometimes they camped for the hunting; sometimes the great, fierce storms of the north drove them to shelter, snowed them under, and passed on shrieking. The wind opposed them. At first of little account, its very insistence gave it value. Always the stinging snow whirling into the face; always the eyes watering and smarting; always the unyielding opposition against which to bend the head; always the rush of sound in the ears,--a distraction against which the senses had to struggle before they could take their needed cognisance of trail and of game. An uneasiness was abroad with the wind, an uneasiness that infected the men, the dogs, the forest creatures, the very insentient trees themselves. It racked the nerves. In it the inimical Spirit of the North seemed to find its plainest symbol; though many difficulties she cast in the way were greater to be overcome.
Ever the days grew shorter. The sun swung above the horizon, low to the south, and dipped back as though pulled by some invisible string. Slanting through the trees it gave little cheer and no warmth. Early in the afternoon it sank, silhouetting the pointed firs, casting across the snow long, crimson shadows, which faded into gray. It was replaced by a moon, chill and remote, dead as the white world on which it looked.
In the great frost continually the trees were splitting with loud, sudden reports. The cold had long since squeezed the last drops of moisture from the atmosphere. It was metallic, clear, hard as ice, brilliant as the stars, compressed with the freezing. The moon, the stars, the earth, the very heavens glistened like polished steel. Frost lay on the land thick as a coverlid. It hid the east like clouds of smoke. Snow remained unmelted two feet from the camp-fire.
And the fire alone saved these people from the enemy. If Sam stooped for a moment to adjust his snow-shoe strap, he straightened his back with a certain reluctance,--already the benumbing preliminary to freezing had begun. If Dick, flipping his mitten from his hand to light his pipe, did not catch the fire at the second tug, he had to resume the mitten and beat the circulation into his hand before renewing the attempt, lest the ends of his fingers become frosted. Movement, always and incessantly, movement alone could keep going the vital forces on these few coldest days until the fire had been built to fight back the white death.
It was the land of ghosts. Except for the few hours at midday these people moved in the gloom and shadow of a nether world. The long twilight was succeeded by longer night, with its burnished stars, its dead moon, its unearthly aurora. On the fresh snow were the tracks of creatures, but in the flesh they glided almost invisible. The ptarmigan's bead eye alone betrayed him, he had no outline. The ermine's black tip was the only indication of his presence. Even the larger animals,--the caribou, the moose--had either turned a dull gray, or were so rimed by the frost as to have lost all appearance of solidity. It was ever a surprise to find these phantoms bleeding red, to discover that their flesh would resist the knife. During the strife of the heavy northwest storms one side of each tree had become more or less plastered with snow, so that even their dark trunks flashed mysteriously into and out of view. In the entire world of the great white silence the only solid, enduring, palpable reality was the tiny sledge train crawling with infinite patience across its vastness.
White space, a feeling of littleness and impotence, twilight gloom, burnished night, bitter cold, unreality, phantasmagoria, ghosts like those which surged about Aeneas, and finally clogging, white silence,--these were the simple but dreadful elements of that journey which lasted, without event, from the middle of November until the latter part of January.
Never in all that time was an hour of real comfort to be anticipated. The labours of the day were succeeded by the shiverings of the night. Exhaustion alone induced sleep; and the racking chill of early morning alone broke it. The invariable diet was meat, tea, and pemmican. Besides the resolution required for the day's journey and the night's discomfort, was the mental anxiety as to whether or not game would be found. Discouragements were many. Sometimes with full anticipation of a good day's run, they would consume hours in painfully dragging the sledge over unexpected obstructions. At such times Wolf, always of an evil disposition, made trouble. Thus besides the resolution of spirit necessary to the work, there had to be pumped up a surplusage to meet the demands of difficult dog-driving. And when, as often happened, a band of the gray wolves would flank them within smelling distance, the exasperation of it became almost unbearable. Time and again Sam had almost forcibly to restrain Dick from using the butt of his whip on Wolf's head.
Nor could they treat themselves in the weary succession of days to an occasional visit with human beings. During the course of their journey they investigated in turn three of the four trapping districts of the Kabinikagam. But Sam's judgment advised that they should not show themselves to the trappers. He argued that no sane man would look for winter posts at this time of year, and it might be difficult otherwise to explain the presence of white men. It was quite easy to read by the signs how many people were to be accounted for in each district, and then it was equally easy to ambush in a tree, during the rounds for examination of the traps, until their identities had all been established. It was necessary to climb a tree in order to escape discovery by the trapper's dog. Of course the trail of our travellers would be found by the trapper, but unless he actually saw them he would most probably conclude them to be Indians moving to the west. Accordingly Dick made long detours to intercept the trappers, and spent many cold hours waiting for them to pass, while Sam and the girl hunted in another direction to replenish the supplies. In this manner the frequenters of these districts had been struck from the list. No one of them was Jingoss. There remained but one section, and that the most northerly. If that failed, then there was nothing to do but to retrace the long, weary journey up the Kabinikagam, past the rapids where Dick had hurt himself, over the portage, down the Mattawishgina, across the Missinaibie, on which they had started their travels, to the country of the Nipissing. Discussing this possibility one rest-time, Dick said:
"We'd be right back where we started. I think it would pay us to go down to Brunswick House and get a new outfit. It's only about a week up the Missinaibie." Then, led by inevitable association of ideas, "Wonder if those Crees had a good time? And I wonder if they've knocked our friend Ah-tek, the Chippewa, on the head yet? He was a bad customer."
"You better hope they have," replied Sam. "He's got it in for you."
Dick shrugged his shoulders and laughed easily.
"That's all right," insisted the older man; "just the same, an Injun never forgets and never fails to get even. You may think he's forgotten, but he's layin' for you just the same," and then, because they happened to be resting in the lea of a bank and the sun was at its highest for the day, Sam went on to detail one example after another from his wide observation of the tenacity with which an Indian pursues an obligation, whether of gratitude or enmity. "They'll travel a thousand miles to get even," he concluded. "They'll drop the most important business they got, if they think they have a good chance to make a killing. He'll run up against you some day, my son, and then you'll have it out."
"All right," agreed Dick, "I'll take care of him. Perhaps I'd better get organised; he may be laying for me around the next bend."
"I don't know what made us talk about it," said Sam, "but funnier things have happened to me." Dick, with mock solicitude, loosened his knife.
But Sam had suddenly become grave. "I believe in those things," he said, a little fearfully. "They save a man sometimes, and sometimes they help him to get what he wants. It's a Chippewa we're after; it's a Chippewa we've been talkin' about. They's something in it."
"I don't know what you're driving at," said Dick.
"I don't know," confessed Sam, "but I have a kind of a hunch we won't have to go back to the Nipissing." He looked gropingly about, without seeing, in the manner of an old man.
"I hope your hunch is a good one," replied Dick. "Well, mush on!"
The little cavalcade had made barely a dozen steps in advance when Sam, who was leading, came to a dead halt.
"Well, what do you make of that?" he asked.
Across the way lay the trunk of a fallen tree. It had been entirely covered with snow, whose line ran clear and unbroken its entire length except at one point, where it dipped to a shallow notch.
"Well, what do you make of that?" Sam inquired again.
"What?" asked Dick.
Sam pointed to the shallow depression in the snow covering the prostrate tree-trunk.