The Silent Places by Stewart Edward White
The men stood looking vaguely upward at the stars.
Dick Herron whipped the grasses with a switch he had broken in passing a willow-bush. His mind was little active. Chiefly he regretted the good time he had promised himself here at the Post after the labour of an early spring march from distant Winnipeg. He appreciated the difficulties of the undertaking, but idly, as something that hardly concerned him. The details, the planning, he dismissed from his mind, confident that his comrade would rise to that. In time Sam Bolton would show him the point at which he was to bend his strength. Then he would stoop his shoulders, shut his eyes, and apply the magnificent brute force and pluck that was in him. So now he puckered his lips to the sibilance of a canoe-song, and waited.
But the other, Sam Bolton, the veteran woodsman, stood in rapt contemplation, his wide-seeing, gentle eyes of the old man staring with the magnitude of his revery.
Beyond the black velvet band lay the wilderness. There was the trackless country, large as the United States itself, with its great forests, its unmapped bodies of water, its plains, its barren grounds, its mountains, its water courses wider even than the Hudson River. Moose and bear, true lords of the forest, he might see any summer day. Herds of caribou, sometimes thousands strong, roamed its woodlands and barrens. Wolves, lurking or bold as their prey was strong or weak, clung to the caribou bands in hope of a victim. Wolverines,--unchanged in form from another geological period--marten, mink, fisher, otter, ermine, muskrat, lynx, foxes, beaver carried on their varied affairs of murder or of peaceful industry. Woods Indians, scarcely less keen of sense or natural of life than the animals, dwelt in their wigwams of bark or skins, trapped and fished, made their long migrations as the geese turn following their instinct. Sun, shadow, rain, cold, snow, hunger, plenty, labour, or the peaceful gliding of rivers, these had watched by the Long Trail in the years Sam Bolton had followed it. He sensed them now dimly, instinctively, waiting by the Trail he was called upon to follow.
Sam Bolton had lived many years in the forest, and many years alone. Therefore he had imagination. It might be of a limited quality, but through it he saw things in their essences.
Now from the safe vantage ground of the camp, from the breathing space before the struggle, he looked out upon the wilderness, and in the wilderness he felt the old, inimical Presence as he had felt it for forty years. The scars of that long combat throbbed through his consciousness. The twisting of his strong hands, the loosening of the elasticity, the humbling of the spirit, the caution that had displaced the carelessness of youth, the keenness of eye, the patience,--all these were at once the marks of blows and the spoils of victory received from the Enemy. The wilderness, calm, ruthless, just, terrible, waited in the shadow of the forest, seeking no combat, avoiding none, conquering with a lofty air of predestination, yielding superbly as though the moment's victory for which a man had strained the fibres of his soul were, after all, a little, unimportant thing; never weary, never exultant, dispassionate, inevitable, mighty, whose emotions were silence, whose speech was silence, whose most terrible weapon was the great white silence that smothered men's spirits. Sam Bolton clearly saw the North. He felt against him the steady pressure of her resistance. She might yield, but relentlessly regained her elasticity. Men's efforts against her would tire; the mechanics of her power remained constant. What she lost in the moments of her opponent's might, she recovered in the hours of his weakness, so that at the last she won, poised in her original equilibrium above the bodies of her antagonists. Dimly he felt these things, personifying the wilderness in his imagination of the old man, arranging half-consciously his weapons of craft in their due order.
Somewhere out beyond in those woods, at any one of the thirty-two points of the compass, a man was lurking. He might be five or five hundred miles away. He was an expert at taking care of himself in the woods. Abruptly Sam Bolton began to formulate his thoughts aloud.
"We got to keep him or anybody else from knowin' we's after him, Dick," said he. "Jest as soon as he knows that, it's just too easy for him to keep out of our way. Lucky Jingoss is an Ojibway, and his people are way off south. We can fool this crowd here easy enough; we'll tell 'em we're looking for new locations for winter posts. But she's an awful big country."
"Which way'll we go first?" asked Dick, without, however, much interest in the reply. Whatever Sam decided was sure to be all right.
"It's this way," replied the latter. "He's got to trade somewheres. He can't come into any of the Posts here at the Bay. What's the nearest? Why, Missinaibie, down in Lake Superior country. Probably he's down in that country somewheres. We'll start south."
"That's Ojibway country," hazarded Dick at random.
"It's Ojibway country, but Jingoss is a Georgian Bay Ojibway. Down near Missinaibie every Injun has his own hunting district, and they're different from our Crees,--they stick pretty close to their district. Any strangers trying to hunt and trap there are going to get shot, sure pop. That makes me think that if Jingoss has gone south, and if he's trading now at Missinaibie, and if he ain't chummed up with some of them Ojibways to get permission to trap in their allotments, and if he ain't pushed right on home to his own people or out west to Winnipeg country, then most likely we'll find him somewheres about the region of th' Kabinakagam."
"So we'll go up th' Missinaibie River first," surmised Dick.
"That's how we'll make a start," assented Bolton.
As though this decision had terminated an interview, they turned with one accord toward the dim group of their companions. As they approached, they were acclaimed.
"Here he is," "Dick, come here," "Dick, sing us the song. Chante donc 'Oncle Naid,' Deeck."
And Dick, leaning carelessly against the breech of the field-guns, in a rich, husky baritone crooned to the far north the soft syllables of the far south.
"Oh, there was an old darkey, and his name was Uncle Ned, And he lived long ago, long ago!"