Chapter VI. The Men of the North
 

"Fifty miles--not too bad, boy, not too bad for a one day's go. We'll camp right here at the portage. How is it, Knight?"

"Good place, Duff, right on that point. Good wood, good landing. Besides there's a deuce of a portage beyond, which we can do after supper to-night. How do you feel, Barry?" asked Knight. "Hard day, eh?"

"Feeling fit, a little tired, of course, but good for another ten miles," answered Barry.

"That's the stuff," replied Knight, looking at him keenly, "but, see here, you must ease up on the carrying. You haven't quite got over that ducking of yours."

"I'm fit enough," answered Barry, rather more curtly than his wont.

They brought the canoes up to the landing, and with the speed of long practice unloaded them, and drew them upon the shore.

Knight approached Duff, and, pointing toward Barry, said quietly:

"I guess we'll have to ease him up a bit. That fight, you know, took it out of him, and he always jumps for the biggest pack. We'd better hold him back to-morrow a bit."

"Can't hold back any one," said Duff, with an oath. "We've got to make it to-morrow night. There's the devil of a trip before us. That big marsh portage is a heartbreaker, and there must be a dozen or fifteen of them awaiting us, and we're going to get through--at least, I am."

"All right," said Knight, with a quick flash of temper. "I'll stay with you, only I thought we might ease him a bit."

"I'm telling you, we're going to get through," said Duff, with another oath.

"You needn't tell me, Duff," said Knight. "Keep your shirt on."

"On or off, wet or dry, sink or swim, we're going to make that train to-morrow, Knight. That's all about it."

Then Knight let himself go.

"See here, Duff. Do you want to go on to-night? If you do, hell and blazes, say the word and I'm with you."

His face was white as he spoke. He seized a tump-line, swung the pack upon his head, and set off across the portage.

"Come on, boys," he yelled. "We're going through to-night."

"Oh, hold up, Knight!" said Duff. "What the hell's eating you? We'll grub first anyway."

"No," said Knight. "The next rapid is a bad bit of water, and if we're going through to-night, I want that bit behind me, before it gets too dark. So come along!"

"Oh, cut it out, Knight," said Duff, in a gruff but conciliatory tone. "We'll camp right here."

"It's all the same to me," said Knight, flinging his pack down. "When you want to go on, say the word. You won't have to ask me twice."

Duff looked over the six feet of bone and sinew and muscle of the young rancher, made as if to answer, paused a moment, changed his mind, and said more quietly:

"Don't be an ass, Knight. I'm not trying to hang your shirt on a tree."

"You know damned well you can't," said Knight, who was still white with passion.

"Oh, come off," replied Duff. "Anyway, I don't see what young Dunbar is to you. We must get through to-morrow night. The overseas contingent is camping at Valcartier, according to these papers and whatever happens I am going with that contingent."

Knight made no reply. He was a little ashamed of his temper. But during the past two days he had chafed under the rasp of Duff's tongue and his overbearing manner. He resented too his total disregard of Barry's weariness, for in spite of his sheer grit, the pace was wearing the boy down.

"We ought to reach the railroad by six to-morrow," said Duff, renewing the conversation, and anxious to appease his comrade. "There's a late train, but if we catch the six we shall make home in good time. Hello, what's this coming?"

At his words they all turned and looked in the direction in which he pointed.

Down a stream, which at this point came tumbling into theirs in a dangerous looking rapid, came a canoe with a man in the centre guiding it as only an expert could.

"By Jove! He can't make that drop," said Knight, walking down toward the landing.

They all stood watching the canoe which, at the moment, hung poised upon the brink of the rapid like a bird for flight. Even as Knight spoke the canoe entered the first smooth pitch at the top. Two long, swallow-like sweeps, then she plunged into the foam, to appear a moment later fighting her way through the mass of crowding, crested waves, which, like white-fanged wolves upon a doe, seemed to be hurling themselves upon her, intent upon bearing her down to destruction.

"By the living, jumping Jemima!" said Fielding, in an awe-stricken tone, "she's gone!"

"She's through!" cried Knight.

"Great Jehoshaphat!" said Fielding. "He's a bird!"

With a flip or two of his paddle, the stranger shot his canoe across the stream, and floated quietly to the landing.

Barry ran down to meet him.

"I say, that was beautifully done," he cried, taking the nose of the canoe while the man stepped ashore and stood a moment looking back at the water.

"A leetle more to the left would have been better, I think. She took some water," he remarked in a slow voice, as if to himself.

He was a strange-looking creature. He might have stepped out of one of Fenimore Cooper's novels. Indeed, as Barry's eyes travelled up and down his long, bony, stooping, slouching figure, his mind leaped at once to the Pathfinder.

"Come far?" asked Duff, approaching the stranger.

"Quite a bit," he answered, in a quiet, courteous voice, pausing a moment in his work.

"Going out?" enquired Duff.

"Not yet," he said. "Going up the country first to The Post."

"Ah, we have just come down from there," said Duff. "We started yesterday morning," he added, evidently hoping to surprise the man.

"Yes," he answered in a quiet tone of approval. "Nice little run! Nice little run! Bit of a hurry, I guess," he ventured apologetically.

"You bet your life, we just are. This damned war makes a man feel like as if the devil was after him," said Duff.

"War!" The man looked blankly at him. "Who's fightin'?"

"Why, haven't you heard? It's been going on for a month. We heard only three days ago as we were going further up the country. It knocked our plans endways, and here we are chasing ourselves to get out."

"War!" said the man again. "Who's fightin'? Uncle Sam after them Mexicans?"

"No. Mexicans, hell!" exclaimed Duff. "Germany and Britain."

"Britain!" The slouching shoulders lost their droop. "Britain!" he said, straightening himself up. "What's she been doin' to Germany?"

"What's Germany been doing to her, and to Belgium, and to Servia, and to France?" answered Duff, in a wrathful voice. "She's been raising hell all around. You haven't seen the papers, eh? I have them all here."

The stranger seemed dazed by the news. He made no reply, but getting out his frying-pan and tea-pail, his only utensils, he set about preparing his evening meal.

"I say," said Duff, "won't you eat with us? We're just about ready. We'll be glad to have you."

The man hesitated a perceptible moment. In the wilds men do not always accept invitations to eat. Food is sometimes worth more than its weight in gold.

"I guess I will, if you've lots of stuff," he said at length.

"We've lots of grub, and we expect to be home by tomorrow night anyway, if things go all right. You are very welcome."

The man laid down his frying-pan and tea-pail, and walked with Duff toward his camp.

"Are you goin'?" he enquired.

"Going?"

"To the war. Guess some of our Canadian boys will be goin' likely, eh?"

"Going," cried Duff. "You bet your life I'm going. But, come on. We'll talk as we eat. And we can't stay long, either."

Duff introduced the party.

"My name's McCuaig," said the stranger.

"Scotch, I guess?" enquired Duff.

"My father came out with The Company. I was born up north. Never been much out, but I read the papers," he added quickly, as if to correct any misapprehension as to his knowledge of the world and its affairs. "My father always got the Times and the Spectator, and I've continued the habit."

"Any one who reads the Times and the Spectator," said Barry, "can claim to be a fairly well-read man. My father takes the Spectator, too."

As they sat down to supper, he noticed that McCuaig took off his old grey felt and crossed himself before beginning toast.

As a matter of courtesy, Barry had always been asked to say grace before meals while with the Howland party. This custom, however, had been discontinued upon this trip. They had no time for meals. They had "just grabbed their grub and run," as Harry Hobbs said.

While they ate, Duff kept a full tide of conversation going in regard to the causes of the war and its progress, as reported in the papers. Barry noticed that McCuaig's comments, though few, revealed a unique knowledge of European political affairs during the last quarter of a century. He noticed too that his manners at the table were those of a gentleman.

After supper they packed their stuff over the long portage, leaving their tent and sleeping gear, with their food, however, to be taken in the morning. For a long time they sat over the fire, Barry reading, for McCuaig's benefit, the newspaper accounts of the Belgian atrocities, the story of the smashing drive of the German hosts, and the retreat of the British army from Mons.

"What," exclaimed McCuaig, "the British soldiers goin' back! Runnin' away from them Germans!"

"Well, the Germans are only about ten to one, not only in men but in guns, and in this war it's guns that count. Guns can wipe out an army of heroes as easily as an army of cowards," said Duff.

"And them women and children," said McCuaig. "Are they killing them still?"

"You're just right, they are," replied Duff, "and will till we stop them."

McCuaig's eyes were glowing with a deep inner light. They were wonderful eyes, quick, darting, straight-looking and fearless, the eyes of a man who owes his life to his vigilance and his courage.

Before turning in for the night, Barry went to the river's edge, and stood looking up at the stars holding their steadfast watch over the turbulent and tossing waters below.

"Quiet, ain't they?" said a voice at his shoulder.

"Why, you startled me, Mr. McCuaig; I never heard you step."

McCuaig laughed his quiet laugh.

"Got to move quietly in this country," he said, "if you are going to keep alive."

A moment or so he stood by Barry's side, looking up with him at the stars.

"No fuss, up there," he said, interpreting Barry's mood and attitude. "Not like that there pitchin', tossin', threatenin' water."

"No," said Barry, "but though they look quiet, I suppose if we could really see, there is a most terrific whirling of millions of stars up there, going at the rate of thousands of miles a minute."

"Millions of 'em, and all whirlin' about," said McCuaig in an awe- stricken voice. "It's a wonder they don't hit."

"They don't hit because they each keep their own orbit," said Barry, "and they obey the laws of their existence."

"Orbut," enquired McCuaig. "What's that?"

"The trail that each star follows," said Barry.

"I see," said McCuaig, "each one keeps its own trail, its own orbut, and so there's peace up there. And I guess there'd be peace down here if folks did the same thing. It's when a man gets out of his own orbut and into another fellow's that the scrap begins. I guess that's where Germany's got wrong."

"Something like that," replied Barry.

"And sometimes," continued McCuaig, his eyes upon the stars, "when a little one comes up against a big one, he gets busted, eh?"

Barry nodded.

"And a big one, when he comes up against a bigger one gets pretty badly jarred, eh?"

"I suppose so," said Barry.

"That's what's goin' to happen to Germany," said McCuaig.

"Germany's a very powerful nation," said Barry. "The most powerful military nation in the world."

"What!" said McCuaig. "Bigger than Britain?"

"Britain has two or three hundred thousand men in her army; Germany has seven millions or more, with seventy millions of people behind them, organised for war. Of course, Britain has her navy, but then Germany has the next biggest in the world. Oh, it's going to be a terrific war."

"I say," said McCuaig, putting his hand on Barry's shoulder. "You don't think it will bother us any to lick her?"

"It will be the most terrible of all Britain's wars," replied Barry. "It will take every ounce of Britain's strength."

"You don't tell me!" exclaimed McCuaig, as if struck by an entirely new idea. "Say, are you really anxious, young man?"

"I am terribly anxious," replied Barry. "I know Germany a little. I spent a year there. She is a mighty nation, and she is ready for war."

"She is, eh!" replied McCuaig thoughtfully. He wandered off to the fire without further word, where, rolling himself in his blanket and scorning the place in the tent offered him by Duff, he made himself comfortable for the night.

At the break of day Duff was awakened by the smell of something frying. Over the fire bent McCuaig, busy preparing a breakfast of tea, bacon and bannocks, together with thick slices of fat pork.

Breakfast was eaten in haste. The day's work was before them, and there was no time for talk. In a very few minutes they stood ready for their trip across the portage.

With them stood McCuaig. His blanket roll containing his grub, with frying-pan and tea-pail attached, lay at his feet; his rifle beside it.

For a moment or two he stood looking back up the stream by which, last night, he had come. Then he began tying his paddles to the canoe thwarts in preparation for packing it across the portage.

As he was tying on the second paddle, Duff's eye fell on him.

"What's up, McCuaig?" he said. "Aren't you going up to the Post?"

"No, I guess I ain't goin' up no more," replied McCuaig slowly.

"What do you mean? You aren't going back home?"

"No. My old shack will do without me for a while, I guess.--Say," he continued, facing around upon Duff and looking him squarely in the face, "this young chap says"--putting his hand upon Barry's shoulder--"Britain is going to have a hell of a time licking Germany back into her own orbut. Them papers said last night that Canada was going in strong. Do you think she could use a fellow like me?"

A silence fell upon the group of men.

"What! Do you mean it, McCuaig?" said Duff at length.

The man turned his thin, eagle face toward the speaker, a light in his eyes.

"Why, ain't you goin'? Ain't every one goin' that can? If a fellow stood on one side while his country was fightin', where would he live when it's all over? He read out of the papers that them Germans were shootin' women and children. So--" his face began to work, "am I goin' to stand by and ask some one else to make 'em quit? No, by God!"

The men stood watching his face, curiously twisted and quivering. Then without a word Duff seized his pack, and swung into the trail, every man following him in his order. Without pausing, except for a brief half hour at noon, and another later in the day for eating, they pressed the trail, running what rapids they could and portaging the others, until in the early evening they saw, far away, a dirty blur on the skyline.

"Hurrah!" yelled Fielding. "Good old firebus, waiting for us."

"Somebody run ahead and hold her," said Duff.

Barry flung his pack down and started away.

"Come back here, Barry," cried Knight. "You're not fit. You're all in."

"That's right, too," said McCuaig. "I guess I'll go."

And off he set with the long, shuffling, tireless trot with which, for a hundred years, the "runners of the woods" have packed their loads and tracked their game in the wilds of northwestern Canada.