Chapter Four
 

By now it was nearly noon. The travellers carried the packs they had made up down to the water-side where the canoe lay. Although the Indians would not get under way until the following morning, it had been decided to push on at once, thus avoiding the confusion of a crowded start.

In the course of the morning's business the news of their expedition had noised abroad. Especially were they commiserated by the other runners and post-keepers. During all the winter these men had lived under the frown of the North, conducting their affairs confidently yet with caution, sure of themselves, yet never sure of the great power in whose tolerance they existed, in spite of whom they accomplished. Now was the appointed time of rest. In the relaxation of the thought they found pity for those ordered out of season into the Silent Places.

So at the river's bank Sam Bolton and Dick Herron, ready for departure, found a group gathered. It was supposed that these men were to act as scouts, to reconnoitre shrewdly in the Enemy's country, to spy out the land, so that in the autumn the Company might throw into the wilderness new posts, to be inhabited during the colder months.

"Look heem Bla'k Bevair Lak," advised Louis Placide; "I t'ink dose Ojibway mak' heem lots marten, mink la bas."

"Lads," said Kern, the trader at Old Brunswick House, "if you're going up th' Missinaibie just cast an eye on my cache at Gull Lake, and see that the carcajaus have let her be."

Young Herbert was curious. "Where are you headed, boys?" he inquired.

But Ki-wa-nee, the trusty, the trader at Flying Post, the only Indian in the Company's service holding rank as a commissioned officer, grunted in contempt at the question, while Achard, of New Brunswick House, motioned warningly toward the groups of Indian trappers in the background. "Hush, boy," said he to Herbert, "news travels, and in the south are the Free Traders to snatch at a new country."

By now the voyageurs had turned their canoe over, slid it into the water, and piled the duffle amidships.

But before they had time to step aboard, came Virginia Albret, then seventeen years old and as slender and graceful as a fawn. The daughter of the Factor, she had acquired a habit of command that became her well. While she enunciated her few and simple words of well-wishing, she looked straight out at them from deep black eyes. The two woodsmen, awed into a vast respect, fumbled their caps in their hands and noted, in the unconscious manner of the forest frequenter, the fresh dusk rose of her skin, the sharply defined red of her lips, the soft wheat colour of her hair. It was a gracious memory to carry into the Silent Places, and was in itself well worth the bestowal. However, Virginia, as was her habit, gave presents. On each she bestowed a long silk handkerchief. Sam Bolton, with a muttered word of thanks, stuffed his awkwardly into his shirt bosom. Dick, on the other hand, with a gesture half of gallantry, half of bravado, stripped his own handkerchief from his neck and cast it far into the current, knotting the girl's gift in its place. Virginia smiled. A strong push sent the canoe into the current. They began to paddle up-stream.

For perhaps a mile their course threaded in and out the channel of a number of islands, then shot them into the broad reach of the Moose itself. There they set themselves to straight-forward paddling, hugging closely the shore that they might escape as much as possible the full strength of the current. In this manner they made rapid progress, for, of course, they paddled in the Indian fashion--without bending either elbow, and with a strong thrust forward of the shoulders at the end of the stroke--and they understood well how to take advantage of each little back eddy.

After an hour and a half they came to the first unimportant rapids, where they were forced to drop their paddles and to use the long spruce-poles they had cut and peeled that morning. Dick had the bow. It was beautiful to see him standing boldly upright, his feet apart, leaning back against the pressure, making head against the hurrying water. In a moment the canoe reached the point of hardest suction, where the river broke over the descent. Then the young man, taking a deep breath, put forth the strength that was in him. Sam Bolton, poised in the stern, holding the canoe while his companion took a fresh hold, noted with approval the boy's physical power, the certainty of his skill at the difficult river work, the accuracy of his calculations. Whatever his heedlessness, Dick Herron knew his trade. It was, indeed, a powerful Instrument that Galen Albret in his wisdom had placed in Sam Bolton's hands.

The canoe, torn from the rapid's grasp, shot into the smooth water above. Calmly Sam and Dick shook the water from their poles and laid them across the thwarts. The swish click! swish click! of the paddles resumed.

Now the river began to hurry in the ten-mile descent below the Abitibi. Although the smooth rush of water was unbroken by the swirls of rapids, nevertheless the current proved too strong for paddling. The voyagers were forced again to the canoe poles, and so toiled in graceful but strenuous labour the remaining hours of their day's journey. When finally they drew ashore for the night, they had but just passed the mouth of French River.

To men as skilled as they, the making of camp was a brief affair. Dick, with his axe, cleared the space of underbrush, and sought dry wood for fuel. The older man in the meantime hunted about until he found a dead white-birch sapling. This he easily thrust to the ground with a strong push of his hand. The jar burst here and there the hard envelope of the birch bark to expose a quantity of half-powdery, decayed wood, dry as tinder and almost as inflammable as gunpowder. Into a handful of this Sam threw the sparks from his flint and steel. The bark itself fed admirably the first flame. By the time Dick returned, the fire was ready for his fuel.

They cooked tea in the copper pail, and roasted bacon on the ends of switches. This, with bread from the Post, constituted their meal. After supper they smoked, banked the fire with green wood, and rolled themselves in their blankets to sleep. It was summer, so they did not trouble to pitch their shelter.

The night died into silence. Slowly the fire worked from within through the chinks of the green logs. Forest creatures paused to stare at it with steady eyes, from which flashed back a blaze as intense as the fire's own. An owl took his station near and began to call. Overhead the brilliant aurora of the Far North palpitated in a silence that seemed uncanny when coupled with such intensity of movement. Shadows stole here and there like acolytes. Breezes rose and died like the passing of a throng. The woods were peopled with uncanny influences, intangible, unreal, yet potent with the symbolism of the unknown Presence watching these men. The North, calm, patient, biding her time, serene in the assurance of might, drew close to the camp in the wilderness.

By and by a little pack of wolves came and squatted on their haunches just in the shadow. They were well fed and harmless, but they sat there blinking lazily at the flames, their tongues lolling, exactly like so many shaggy and good-humoured dogs. About two o'clock Dick rolled out of his blanket and replenished the fire. He did it somnolently, his eyes vacant, his expression that of a child. Then he took a half-comprehending glance at the heaven's promise of fair weather, and sank again into the warmth of his blanket. The wolves had not stirred.