The Land Of The Musk-ox

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


"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


"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


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


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


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


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


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.

The Lady From The Past The Last Frontier facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail