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The Land Of The Musk-ox








From: The Last Of The Plainsmen

A far cry it was from bright June at Port Chippewayan to dim October on
Great Slave Lake.

Two long, laborious months Rea and Jones threaded the crooked shores of
the great inland sea, to halt at the extreme northern end, where a
plunging rivulet formed the source of a river. Here they found a stone
chimney and fireplace standing among the darkened, decayed ruins of a
cabin.

"We mustn't lose no time," said Rea. "I feel the winter in the wind.
An' see how dark the days are gettin' on us."

"I'm for hunting musk-oxen," replied Jones.

"Man, we're facin' the northern night; we're in the land of the
midnight sun. Soon we'll be shut in for seven months. A cabin we want,
an' wood, an' meat."

A forest of stunted spruce trees edged on the lake, and soon its dreary
solitudes rang to the strokes of axes. The trees were small and uniform
in size. Black stumps protruded, here and there, from the ground,
showing work of the steel in time gone by. Jones observed that the
living trees were no larger in diameter than the stumps, and questioned
Rea in regard to the difference in age.

"Cut twenty-five, mebbe fifty years ago," said the trapper.

"But the living trees are no bigger."

"Trees an' things don't grow fast in the north land."

They erected a fifteen-foot cabin round the stone chimney, roofed it
with poles and branches of spruce and a layer of sand. In digging near
the fireplace Jones unearthed a rusty file and the head of a whisky
keg, upon which was a sunken word in unintelligible letters.

"We've found the place," said Rea. "Frank built a cabin here in 1819.
An' in 1833 Captain Back wintered here when he was in search of Captain
Ross of the vessel Fury. It was those explorin' parties thet cut the
trees. I seen Indian sign out there, made last winter, I reckon; but
Indians never cut down no trees."

The hunters completed the cabin, piled cords of firewood outside,
stowed away the kegs of dried fish and fruits, the sacks of flour,
boxes of crackers, canned meats and vegetables, sugar, salt, coffee,
tobacco--all of the cargo; then took the boat apart and carried it up
the bank, which labor took them less than a week.

Jones found sleeping in the cabin, despite the fire, uncomfortably
cold, because of the wide chinks between the logs. It was hardly better
than sleeping under the swaying spruces. When he essayed to stop up the
crack, a task by no means easy, considering the lack of material--Rea
laughed his short "Ho! Ho!" and stopped him with the word, "Wait."
Every morning the green ice extended farther out into the lake; the sun
paled dim and dimmer; the nights grew colder. On October 8th the
thermometer registered several degrees below zero; it fell a little
more next night and continued to fall.

"Ho! Ho!" cried Rea. "She's struck the toboggan, an' presently she'll
commence to slide. Come on, Buff, we've work to do."

He caught up a bucket, made for their hole in the ice, rebroke a
six-inch layer, the freeze of a few hours, and filling his bucket,
returned to the cabin. Jones had no inkling of the trapper's intention,
and wonderingly he soused his bucket full of water and followed.

By the time he had reached the cabin, a matter of some thirty or forty
good paces, the water no longer splashed from his pail, for a thin film
of ice prevented. Rea stood fifteen feet from the cabin, his back to
the wind, and threw the water. Some of it froze in the air, most of it
froze on the logs. The simple plan of the trapper to incase the cabin
with ice was easily divined. All day the men worked, easing only when
the cabin resembled a glistening mound. It had not a sharp corner nor a
crevice. Inside it was warm and snug, and as light as when the chinks
were open.

A slight moderation of the weather brought the snow. Such snow! A
blinding white flutter of grey flakes, as large as feathers! All day
they rustle softly; all night they swirled, sweeping, seeping brushing
against the cabin. "Ho! Ho!" roared Rea. "'Tis good; let her snow, an'
the reindeer will migrate. We'll have fresh meat." The sun shone again,
but not brightly. A nipping wind came down out of the frigid north and
crusted the snows. The third night following the storm, when the
hunters lay snug under their blankets, a commotion outside aroused them.

"Indians," said Rea, "come north for reindeer."

Half the night, shouting and yelling, barking dogs, hauling of sleds
and cracking of dried-skin tepees murdered sleep for those in the
cabin. In the morning the level plain and edge of the forest held an
Indian village. Caribou hides, strung on forked poles, constituted
tent-like habitations with no distinguishable doors. Fires smoked in
the holes in the snow. Not till late in the day did any life manifest
itself round the tepees, and then a group of children, poorly clad in
ragged pieces of blankets and skins, gaped at Jones. He saw their
pinched, brown faces, staring, hungry eyes, naked legs and throats, and
noted particularly their dwarfish size. When he spoke they fled
precipitously a little way, then turned. He called again, and all ran
except one small lad. Jones went into the cabin and came out with a
handful of sugar in square lumps.

"Yellow Knife Indians," said Rea. "A starved tribe! We're in for it."

Jones made motions to the lad, but he remained still, as if transfixed,
and his black eyes stared wonderingly.

"Molar nasu (white man good)," said Rea.

The lad came out of his trance and looked back at his companions, who
edged nearer. Jones ate a lump of sugar, then handed one to the little
Indian. He took it gingerly, put it into his mouth and immediately
jumped up and down.

"Hoppiesharnpoolie! Hoppiesharnpoolie!" he shouted to his brothers and
sisters. They came on the run.

"Think he means sweet salt," interpreted Rea. "Of course these beggars
never tasted sugar."

The band of youngsters trooped round Jones, and after tasting the white
lumps, shrieked in such delight that the braves and squaws shuffled out
of the tepees.

In all his days Jones had never seen such miserable Indians. Dirty
blankets hid all their person, except straggling black hair, hungry,
wolfish eyes and moccasined feet. They crowded into the path before the
cabin door and mumbled and stared and waited. No dignity, no
brightness, no suggestion of friendliness marked this peculiar attitude.

"Starved!" exclaimed Rea. "They've come to the lake to invoke the Great
Spirit to send the reindeer. Buff, whatever you do, don't feed them. If
you do, we'll have them on our hands all winter. It's cruel, but, man,
we're in the north!"

Notwithstanding the practical trapper's admonition Jones could not
resist the pleading of the children. He could not stand by and see them
starve. After ascertaining there was absolutely nothing to eat in the
tepees, he invited the little ones into the cabin, and made a great pot
of soup, into which he dropped compressed biscuits. The savage children
were like wildcats. Jones had to call in Rea to assist him in keeping
the famished little aborigines from tearing each other to pieces. When
finally they were all fed, they had to be driven out of the cabin.

"That's new to me," said Jones. "Poor little beggars!"

Rea doubtfully shook his shaggy head.

Next day Jones traded with the Yellow Knives. He had a goodly supply of
baubles, besides blankets, gloves and boxes of canned goods, which he
had brought for such trading. He secured a dozen of the large-boned,
white and black Indian dogs, huskies, Rea called them--two long sleds
with harness and several pairs of snowshoes. This trade made Jones rub
his hands in satisfaction, for during all the long journey north he had
failed to barter for such cardinal necessities to the success of his
venture.

"Better have doled out the grub to them in rations," grumbled Rea.

Twenty-four hours sufficed to show Jones the wisdom of the trapper's
words, for in just that time the crazed, ignorant savages had glutted
the generous store of food, which should have lasted them for weeks.
The next day they were begging at the cabin door. Rea cursed and
threatened them with his fists, but they returned again and again.

Days passed. All the time, in light and dark, the Indians filled the
air with dismal chant and doleful incantations to the Great Spirit, and
the tum! tum! tum! tum! of tomtoms, a specific feature of their wild
prayer for food.

But the white monotony of the rolling land and level lake remained
unbroken. The reindeer did not come. The days became shorter, dimmer,
darker. The mercury kept on the slide.

Forty degrees below zero did not trouble the Indians. They stamped till
they dropped, and sang till their voices vanished, and beat the tomtoms
everlastingly. Jones fed the children once each day, against the
trapper's advice.

One day, while Rea was absent, a dozen braves succeeded in forcing an
entrance, and clamored so fiercely, and threatened so desperately, that
Jones was on the point of giving them food when the door opened to
admit Rea.

With a glance he saw the situation. He dropped the bucket he carried,
threw the door wide open and commenced action. Because of his great
bulk he seemed slow, but every blow of his sledge-hammer fist knocked a
brave against the wall, or through the door into the snow. When he
could reach two savages at once, by way of diversion, he swung their
heads together with a crack. They dropped like dead things. Then he
handled them as if they were sacks of corn, pitching them out into the
snow. In two minutes the cabin was clear. He banged the door and
slipped the bar in place.

"Buff, I'm goin' to get mad at these thievin' red, skins some day," he
said gruffly. The expanse of his chest heaved slightly, like the slow
swell of a calm ocean, but there was no other indication of unusual
exertion.

Jones laughed, and again gave thanks for the comradeship of this
strange man.

Shortly afterward, he went out for wood, and as usual scanned the
expanse of the lake. The sun shone mistier and warmer, and frost
feathers floated in the air. Sky and sun and plain and lake--all were
gray. Jones fancied he saw a distant moving mass of darker shade than
the gray background. He called the trapper.

"Caribou," said Rea instantly. "The vanguard of the migration. Hear the
Indians! Hear their cry: "Aton! Aton!" they mean reindeer. The idiots
have scared the herd with their infernal racket, an' no meat will they
get. The caribou will keep to the ice, an' man or Indian can't stalk
them there."

For a few moments his companion surveyed the lake and shore with a
plainsman's eye, then dashed within, to reappear with a Winchester in
each hand. Through the crowd of bewailing, bemoaning Indians; he sped,
to the low, dying bank. The hard crust of snow upheld him. The gray
cloud was a thousand yards out upon the lake and moving southeast. If
the caribou did not swerve from this course they would pass close to a
projecting point of land, a half-mile up the lake. So, keeping a wary
eye upon them, the hunter ran swiftly. He had not hunted antelope and
buffalo on the plains all his life without learning how to approach
moving game. As long as the caribou were in action, they could not tell
whether he moved or was motionless. In order to tell if an object was
inanimate or not, they must stop to see, of which fact the keen hunter
took advantage. Suddenly he saw the gray mass slow down and bunch up.
He stopped running, to stand like a stump. When the reindeer moved
again, he moved, and when they slackened again, he stopped and became
motionless. As they kept to their course, he worked gradually closer
and closer. Soon he distinguished gray, bobbing heads. When the leader
showed signs of halting in his slow trot the hunter again became a
statue. He saw they were easy to deceive; and, daringly confident of
success, he encroached on the ice and closed up the gap till not more
than two hundred yards separated him from the gray, bobbing, antlered
mass.

Jones dropped on one knee. A moment only his eyes lingered admiringly
on the wild and beautiful spectacle; then he swept one of the rifles to
a level. Old habit made the little beaded sight cover first the stately
leader. Bang! The gray monarch leaped straight forward, forehoofs up,
antlered head back, to fall dead with a crash. Then for a few moments
the Winchester spat a deadly stream of fire, and when emptied was
thrown down for the other gun, which in the steady, sure hands of the
hunter belched death to the caribou.

The herd rushed on, leaving the white surface of the lake gray with a
struggling, kicking, bellowing heap. When Jones reached the caribou he
saw several trying to rise on crippled legs. With his knife he killed
these, not without some hazard to himself. Most of the fallen ones were
already dead, and the others soon lay still. Beautiful gray creatures
they were, almost white, with wide-reaching, symmetrical horns.

A medley of yells arose from the shore, and Rea appeared running with
two sleds, with the whole tribe of Yellow Knives pouring out of the
forest behind him.

"Buff, you're jest what old Jim said you was," thundered Rea, as he
surveyed the gray pile. "Here's winter meat, an' I'd not have given a
biscuit for all the meat I thought you'd get."

"Thirty shots in less than thirty seconds," said Jones, "An' I'll bet
every ball I sent touched hair. How many reindeer?"

"Twenty! twenty! Buff, or I've forgot how to count. I guess mebbe you
can't handle them shootin' arms. Ho! here comes the howlin' redskins."

Rea whipped out a bowie knife and began disemboweling the reindeer. He
had not proceeded far in his task when the crazed savages were around
him. Every one carried a basket or receptacle, which he swung aloft,
and they sang, prayed, rejoiced on their knees. Jones turned away from
the sickening scenes that convinced him these savages were little
better than cannibals. Rea cursed them, and tumbled them over, and
threatened them with the big bowie. An altercation ensued, heated on
his side, frenzied on theirs. Thinking some treachery might befall his
comrade, Jones ran into the thick of the group.

"Share with them, Rea, share with them."

Whereupon the giant hauled out ten smoking carcasses. Bursting into a
babel of savage glee and tumbling over one another, the Indians pulled
the caribou to the shore.

"Thievin' fools," growled Rea, wiping the sweat from his brow. "Said
they'd prevailed on the Great Spirit to send the reindeer. Why, they'd
never smelled warm meat but for you. Now, Buff, they'll gorge every
hair, hide an' hoof of their share in less than a week. Thet's the last
we do for the damned cannibals. Didn't you see them eatin' of the raw
innards?--faugh! I'm calculatin' we'll see no more reindeer. It's late
for the migration. The big herd has driven southward. But we're lucky,
thanks to your prairie trainin'. Come on now with the sleds, or we'll
have a pack of wolves to fight."

By loading three reindeer on each sled, the hunters were not long in
transporting them to the cabin. "Buff, there ain't much doubt about
them keepin' nice and cool," said Rea. "They'll freeze, an' we can skin
them when we want."

That night the starved wolf dogs gorged themselves till they could not
rise from the snow. Likewise the Yellow Knives feasted. How long the
ten reindeer might have served the wasteful tribe, Rea and Jones never
found out. The next day two Indians arrived with dog-trains, and their
advent was hailed with another feast, and a pow-wow that lasted into
the night.

"Guess we're goin' to get rid of our blasted hungry neighbors," said
Rea, coming in next morning with the water pail, "An' I'll be durned,
Buff, if I don't believe them crazy heathen have been told about you.
Them Indians was messengers. Grab your gun, an' let's walk over and
see."

The Yellow Knives were breaking camp, and the hunters were at once
conscious of the difference in their bearing. Rea addressed several
braves, but got no reply. He laid his broad hand on the old wrinkled
chief, who repulsed him, and turned his back. With a growl, the trapper
spun the Indian round, and spoke as many words of the language as he
knew. He got a cold response, which ended in the ragged old chief
starting up, stretching a long, dark arm northward, and with eyes fixed
in fanatical subjection, shouting: "Naza! Naza! Naza!"

"Heathen!" Rea shook his gun in the faces of the messengers. "It'll go
bad with you to come Nazain' any longer on our trail. Come, Buff, clear
out before I get mad."

When they were once more in the cabin, Rea told Jones that the
messengers had been sent to warn the Yellow Knives not to aid the white
hunters in any way. That night the dogs were kept inside, and the men
took turns in watching. Morning showed a broad trail southward. And
with the going of the Yellow Knives the mercury dropped to fifty, and
the long, twilight winter night fell.

So with this agreeable riddance and plenty of meat and fuel to cheer
them, the hunters sat down in their snug cabin to wait many months for
daylight.

Those few intervals when the wind did not blow were the only times Rea
and Jones got out of doors. To the plainsman, new to the north, the dim
gray world about him was of exceeding interest. Out of the twilight
shone a wan, round, lusterless ring that Rea said was the sun. The
silence and desolation were heart-numbing.

"Where are the wolves?" asked Jones of Rea.

"Wolves can't live on snow. They're farther south after caribou, or
farther north after musk-ox."

In those few still intervals Jones remained out as long as he dared,
with the mercury sinking to -sixty degrees. He turned from the wonder
of the unreal, remote sun, to the marvel in the north--Aurora
borealis--ever-present, ever-changing, ever-beautiful! and he gazed in
rapt attention.

"Polar lights," said Rea, as if he were speaking of biscuits. "You'll
freeze. It's gettin' cold."

Cold it became, to the matter of -seventy degrees. Frost covered the
walls of the cabin and the roof, except just over the fire. The
reindeer were harder than iron. A knife or an ax or a steel-trap burned
as if it had been heated in fire, and stuck to the hand. The hunters
experienced trouble in breathing; the air hurt their lungs.

The months dragged. Rea grew more silent day by day, and as he sat
before the fire his wide shoulders sagged lower and lower. Jones,
unaccustomed to the waiting, the restraint, the barrier of the north,
worked on guns, sleds, harness, till he felt he would go mad. Then to
save his mind he constructed a windmill of caribou hides and pondered
over it trying to invent, to put into practical use an idea he had once
conceived.

Hour after hour he lay under his blankets unable to sleep, and listened
to the north wind. Sometimes Rea mumbled in his slumbers; once his
giant form started up, and he muttered a woman's name. Shadows from the
fire flickered on the walls, visionary, spectral shadows, cold and
gray, fitting the north. At such times he longed with all the power of
his soul to be among those scenes far southward, which he called home.
For days Rea never spoke a word, only gazed into the fire, ate and
slept. Jones, drifting far from his real self, feared the strange mood
of the trapper and sought to break it, but without avail. More and more
he reproached himself, and singularly on the one fact that, as he did
not smoke himself, he had brought only a small store of tobacco. Rea,
inordinate and inveterate smoker, had puffed away all the weed in
clouds of white, then had relapsed into gloom.





Next: Success And Failure

Previous: Naza! Naza! Naza!



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