Story type: Literature
Athabasca in the Far North is the scene of this story–Athabasca, one of the most beautiful countries in the world in summer, but a cold, bare land in winter. Yet even in winter it is not so bleak and bitter as the districts southwest of it, for the Chinook winds steal through from the Pacific and temper the fierceness of the frozen Rockies. Yet forty and fifty degrees below zero is cold, after all, and July strawberries in this wild Northland are hardly compensation for seven months of ice and snow, no matter how clear and blue the sky, how sweet the sun during its short journey in the day. Some days, too, the sun may not be seen even when there is no storm, because of the fine, white, powdered frost in the air.
A day like this is called a poudre day; and woe to the man who tempts it unthinkingly, because the light makes the delicate mist of frost shine like silver. For that powder bites the skin white in short order, and sometimes reckless men lose ears or noses or hands under its sharp caress. But when it really storms in that Far North, then neither man nor beast should be abroad–not even the Eskimo dogs; though times and seasons can scarcely be chosen when travelling in Athabasca, for a storm comes unawares. Upon the plains you will see a cloud arising, not in the sky, but from the ground–a billowy surf of drifting snow; then another white billow from the sky will sweep down and meet it, and you are caught between.
He who went to Athabasca to live a generation ago had to ask himself if the long winter, spent chiefly indoors, with, maybe, a little trading with the Indians, meagre sport, and scant sun, savages and half-breeds the only companions, and out of all touch with the outside world, letters coming but once a year; with frozen fish and meat, always the same, as the staple items in a primitive fare; with danger from starvation and marauding tribes; with endless monotony, in which men sometimes go mad–he had to ask himself if these were to be cheerfully endured because, in the short summer, the air is heavenly, the rivers and lakes are full of fish, the flotilla of canoes of the fur-hunters is pouring down, and all is gayety and pleasant turmoil; because there is good shooting in the autumn, and the smell of the land is like a garden, and hardy fruits and flowers are at hand.
That is a question which was asked William Rufus Holly once upon a time.
William Rufus Holly, often called “Averdoopoy,” sometimes “Sleeping Beauty,” always Billy Rufus, had had a good education. He had been to high-school and to college, and he had taken one or two prizes en route to graduation; but no fame travelled with him, save that he was the laziest man of any college year for a decade. He loved his little porringer, which is to say that he ate a good deal; and he loved to read books, which is not to say that he loved study; he hated getting out of bed, and he was constantly gated for morning chapel. More than once he had sweetly gone to sleep over his examination papers. This is not to say that he failed at his examinations–on the contrary, he always succeeded; but he only did enough to pass and no more; and he did not wish to do more than pass. His going to sleep at examinations was evidence that he was either indifferent or self-indulgent, and it certainly showed that he was without nervousness. He invariably roused himself, or his professor roused him, a half-hour before the papers should be handed in, and, as it were, by a mathematical calculation he had always done just enough to prevent him being plucked.
He slept at lectures, he slept in hall, he slept as he waited his turn to go to the wicket in a cricket match, and he invariably went to sleep afterward. He even did so on the day he had made the biggest score in the biggest game ever played between his college and the pick of the country; but he first gorged himself with cake and tea. The day he took his degree he had to be dragged from a huge grandfather’s chair and forced along in his ragged gown–“ten holes and twelve tatters”–to the function in the convocation-hall. He looked so fat and shiny, so balmy and sleepy, when he took his degree and was handed his prize for a poem on Sir John Franklin, that the public laughed, and the college men in the gallery began singing–
“Bye O, my baby,
Father will come to you soo-oon!”
He seemed not to care, but yawned in his hand as he put his prize book under his arm through one of the holes in his gown, and in two minutes was back in his room, and in another five was fast asleep.
It was the general opinion that William Rufus Holly, fat, yellow-haired, and twenty-four years old, was doomed to failure in life, in spite of the fact that he had a little income of a thousand dollars a year and had made a century in an important game of cricket. Great, therefore, was the surprise of the college, and afterward of the Province, when, at the farewell dinner of the graduates, Sleeping Beauty announced, between his little open-eyed naps, that he was going Far North as a missionary.
At first it was thought he was joking, but when at last, in his calm and dreamy look, they saw he meant what he said, they arose and carried him round the room on a chair, making impromptu songs as they travelled. They toasted Billy Rufus again and again, some of them laughing till they cried at the thought of Averdoopoy going to the Arctic regions. But an uneasy seriousness fell upon these “beautiful, bountiful, brilliant boys,” as Holly called them later, when in a simple, honest, but indolent speech he said he had applied for ordination.
Six months later William Rufus Holly, a deacon in holy orders, journeyed to Athabasca in the Far North.
On his long journey there was plenty of time to think. He was embarked on a career which must forever keep him in the wilds; for very seldom indeed does a missionary of the North ever return to the crowded cities or take a permanent part in civilized life.
What the loneliness of it would be he began to feel, as for hours and hours he saw no human being on the plains; in the thrilling stillness of the night; in fierce storms in the woods, when his half-breed guides bent their heads to meet the wind and rain, and did not speak for hours; in the long, adventurous journey on the river by the day, in the cry of the plaintive loon at night; in the scant food for every meal. Yet what the pleasure would be he felt in the joyous air, the exquisite sunshine, the flocks of wild-fowl flying north, honking on their course; in the song of the half-breeds as they ran the rapids. Of course, he did not think these things quite as they are written here–all at once and all together; but in little pieces from time to time, feeling them rather than saying them to himself.
At least he did understand how serious a thing it was, his going as a missionary into the Far North. Why did he do it? Was it a whim, or the excited imagination of youth, or that prompting which the young often have to make the world better? Or was it a fine spirit of adventure with a good heart behind it? Perhaps it was a little of all these; but there was also something more, and it was to his credit.
Lazy as William Rufus Holly had been at school and college, he had still thought a good deal, even when he seemed only sleeping; perhaps he thought more because he slept so much, because he studied little and read a great deal. He always knew what everybody thought–that he would never do anything but play cricket till he got too heavy to run, and then would sink into a slothful, fat, and useless middle and old age; that his life would be a failure. And he knew that they were right; that if he stayed where he could live an easy life, a fat and easy life he would lead; that in a few years he would be good for nothing except to eat and sleep–no more. One day, waking suddenly from a bad dream of himself so fat as to be drawn about on a dray by monstrous fat oxen with rings through their noses, led by monkeys, he began to wonder what he should do–the hardest thing to do; for only the hardest life could possibly save him from failure, and, in spite of all, he really did want to make something of his life. He had been reading the story of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition, and all at once it came home to him that the only thing for him to do was to go to the Far North and stay there, coming back about once every ten years to tell the people in the cities what was being done in the wilds. Then there came the inspiration to write his poem on Sir John Franklin, and he had done so, winning the college prize for poetry. But no one had seen any change in him in those months; and, indeed, there had been little or no change, for he had an equable and practical, though imaginative, disposition, despite his avoirdupois, and his new purpose did not stir him yet from his comfortable sloth.
And in all the journey west and north he had not been stirred greatly from his ease of body, for the journey was not much harder than playing cricket every day, and there were only the thrill of the beautiful air, the new people, and the new scenes to rouse him. As yet there was no great responsibility. He scarcely realized what his life must be until one particular day.
Then Sleeping Beauty waked wide up, and from that day lost the name. Till then he had looked and borne himself like any other traveller, unrecognized as a parson or “mikonaree.” He had not had prayers in camp en route, he had not preached, he had held no meetings. He was as yet William Rufus Holly, the cricketer, the laziest dreamer of a college decade. His religion was simple and practical; he had never had any morbid ideas; he had lived a healthy, natural, and honorable life, until he went for a mikonaree, and, if he had no cant, he had not a clear idea of how many-sided, how responsible, his life must be–until that one particular day.
This is what happened then.
From Fort O’Call, an abandoned post of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Peace River, nearly the whole tribe of the Athabasca Indians in possession of the post now had come up the river, with their chief, Knife-in-the-Wind, to meet the mikonaree. Factors of the Hudson’s Bay Company, coureurs de bois, and voyageurs had come among them at times, and once the renowned Father Lacombe, the Jesuit priest, had stayed with them three months; but never to this day had they seen a Protestant mikonaree, though once a factor, noted for his furious temper, his powers of running, and his generosity, had preached to them. These men, however, were both over fifty years old. The Athabascas did not hunger for the Christian religion, but a courier from Edmonton had brought them word that a mikonaree was coming to their country to stay, and they put off their stoical manner and allowed themselves the luxury of curiosity. That was why even the squaws and papooses came up the river with the braves, all wondering if the stranger had brought gifts with him, all eager for their shares; for it had been said by the courier of the tribe that “Oshondonto,” their name for the newcomer, was bringing mysterious loads of well-wrapped bales and skins. Upon a point below the first rapids of the Little Manitou they waited with their camp-fires burning and their pipe of peace.
When the canoes bearing Oshondonto and his voyageurs shot the rapids to the song of the river,
“En roulant, ma boule roulant,[[y:italic]]
En roulant, ma boule!”[[y:italic]]
with the shrill voices of the boatmen rising to meet the cry of the startled water-fowl, the Athabascas crowded to the high banks. They grunted “How!” in greeting, as the foremost canoe made for the shore.
But if surprise could have changed the countenances of Indians, these Athabascas would not have known one another when the missionary stepped out upon the shore. They had looked to see a gray-bearded man like the chief factor who quarrelled and prayed; but they found instead a round-faced, clean-shaven youth, with big, good-natured eyes, yellow hair, and a roundness of body like that of a month-old bear’s cub. They expected to find a man who, like the factor, could speak their language, and they found a cherub sort of youth who talked only English, French, and Chinook–that common language of the North–and a few words of their own language which he had learned on the way.
Besides, Oshondonto was so absent-minded at the moment, so absorbed in admiration of the garish scene before him, that he addressed the chief in French, of which Knife-in-the-Wind knew but one word, cache, which all the North knows.
But presently William Rufus Holly recovered himself, and in stumbling Chinook made himself understood. Opening a bale, he brought out beads and tobacco and some bright red flannel, and two hundred Indians sat round him and grunted “How!” and received his gifts with little comment. Then the pipe of peace went round, and Oshondonto smoked it becomingly.
But he saw that the Indians despised him for his youth, his fatness, his yellow hair as soft as a girl’s, his cherub face, browned though it was by the sun and weather.
As he handed the pipe to Knife-in-the-Wind, an Indian called Silver Tassel, with a cruel face, said, grimly:
“Why does Oshondonto travel to us?”
William Rufus Holly’s eyes steadied on those of the Indian as he replied in Chinook: “To teach the way to Manitou the Mighty, to tell the Athabascas of the Great Chief who died to save the world.”
“The story is told in many ways; which is right? There was the factor, Word of Thunder. There is the song they sing at Edmonton–I have heard.”
“The Great Chief is the same Chief,” answered the missionary. “If you tell of Fort O’Call, and Knife-in-the-Wind tells of Fort O’Call, he and you will speak different words, and one will put in one thing and one will leave out another; men’s tongues are different. But Fort O’Call is the same, and the Great Chief is the same.”
“It was a long time ago,” said Knife-in-the-Wind, sourly, “many thousand moon, as the pebbles in the river, the years.”
“It is the same world, and it is the same Chief, and it was to save us,” answered William Rufus Holly, smiling, yet with a fluttering heart, for the first test of his life had come.
In anger Knife-in-the-Wind thrust an arrow into the ground and said:
“How can the white man who died thousands of moons ago in a far country save the red man of to-day?”
“A strong man should bear so weak a tale,” broke in Silver Tassel, ruthlessly. “Are we children, that the Great Chief sends a child as messenger?”
For a moment Billy Rufus did not know how to reply, and in the pause Knife-in-the-Wind broke in two pieces the arrow he had thrust in the ground in token of displeasure.
Suddenly, as Oshondonto was about to speak, Silver Tassel sprang to his feet, seized in his arms a lad of twelve who was standing near, and, running to the bank, dropped him into the swift current.
“If Oshondonto be not a child, let him save the lad,” said Silver Tassel, standing on the brink.
Instantly William Rufus Holly was on his feet. His coat was off before Silver Tassel’s words were out of his mouth, and, crying, “In the name of the Great White Chief!” he jumped into the rushing current. “In the name of your Manitou, come on, Silver Tassel!” he called up from the water, and struck out for the lad.
Not pausing an instant, Silver Tassel sprang into the flood, into the whirling eddies and dangerous current below the first rapids and above the second.
Then came the struggle for Wingo of the Cree tribe, a waif among the Athabascas, whose father had been slain as they travelled, by a wandering tribe of Blackfeet. Never was there a braver rivalry, although the odds were with the Indian–in lightness, in brutal strength. With the mikonaree, however, were skill, and that sort of strength which the world calls “moral,” the strength of a good and desperate purpose. Oshondonto knew that on the issue of this shameless business–this cruel sport of Silver Tassel–would depend his future on the Peace River. As he shot forward with strong strokes in the whirling torrent after the helpless lad, who, only able to keep himself afloat, was being swept down toward the rapids below, he glanced up to the bank along which the Athabascas were running. He saw the garish colors of their dresses; he saw the ignorant medicine-man, with his mysterious bag, making incantations, he saw the tepee of the chief, with its barbarous pennant above; he saw the idle, naked children tearing at the entrails of a calf; and he realized that this was a deadly tournament between civilization and barbarism.
Silver Tassel was gaining on him; they were both overhauling the boy; it was now to see which should reach Wingo first, which should take him to shore. That is, if both were not carried under before they reached him; that is, if, having reached him, they and he would ever get to shore; for, lower down, before it reached the rapids, the current ran horribly smooth and strong, and here and there were jagged rocks just beneath the surface.
Still Silver Tassel gained on him, as they both gained on the boy. Oshondonto swam strong and hard, but he swam with his eyes on the struggle for the shore also; he was not putting forth his utmost strength, for he knew it would be bitterly needed, perhaps to save his own life by a last effort.
Silver Tassel passed him when they were about fifty feet from the boy. Shooting by on his side, with a long stroke and a plunge of his body like a projectile, the dark face with the long, black hair plastering it turned toward his own, in fierce triumph Silver Tassel cried “How!” in derision.
Billy Rufus set his teeth and lay down to his work like a sportsman. His face had lost its roses, and it was set and determined, but there was no look of fear upon it, nor did his heart sink when a cry of triumph went up from the crowd on the banks. The white man knew by old experience in the cricket-field and in many a boat-race that it is well not to halloo till you are out of the woods. His mettle was up, he was not the Reverend William Rufus Holly, missionary, but Billy Rufus, the champion cricketer, the sportsman playing a long game.
Silver Tassel reached the boy, who was bruised and bleeding and at his last gasp, and, throwing an arm round him, struck out for the shore. The current was very strong, and he battled fiercely as Billy Rufus, not far above, moved down toward them at an angle. For a few yards Silver Tassel was going strong, then his pace slackened, he seemed to sink lower in the water, and his stroke became splashing and irregular. Suddenly he struck a rock, which bruised him badly, and, swerving from his course, he lost his stroke and let go the boy.
By this time the mikonaree had swept beyond them, and he caught the boy by his long hair as he was being swept below. Striking out for the shore, he swam with bold, strong strokes, his judgment guiding him well past rocks beneath the surface. Ten feet from shore he heard a cry of alarm from above. It concerned Silver Tassel, he knew, but he could not look round yet.
In another moment the boy was dragged up the bank by strong hands, and Billy Rufus swung round in the water toward Silver Tassel, who, in his confused energy, had struck another rock, and, exhausted now, was being swept toward the rapids. Silver Tassel’s shoulder scarcely showed–his strength was gone. In a flash Billy Rufus saw there was but one thing to do. He must run the rapids with Silver Tassel–there was no other way. It would be a fight through the jaws of death; but no Indian’s eyes had a better sense for river-life than William Rufus Holly’s.
How he reached Silver Tassel, and drew the Indian’s arm over his own shoulder; how they drove down into the boiling flood; how Billy Rufus’ fat body was battered and torn and ran red with blood from twenty flesh wounds; but how by luck beyond the telling he brought Silver Tassel through safely into the quiet water a quarter of a mile below the rapids, and was hauled out, both more dead than alive, is a tale still told by the Athabascas around their camp-fire. The rapids are known to-day as the Mikonaree Rapids.
The end of this beginning of the young man’s career was that Silver Tassel gave him the word of eternal friendship, Knife-in-the-Wind took him into the tribe, and the boy Wingo became his very own, to share his home and his travels, no longer a waif among the Athabascas.
After three days’ feasting, at the end of which the missionary held his first service and preached his first sermon, to the accompaniment of grunts of satisfaction from the whole tribe of Athabascas, William Rufus Holly began his work in the Far North.
The journey to Fort O’Call was a procession of triumph, for, as it was summer, there was plenty of food, the missionary had been a success, and he had distributed many gifts of beads and flannel.
All went well for many moons, although converts were uncertain and baptisms few, and the work was hard and the loneliness at times terrible. But at last came dark days.
One summer and autumn there had been poor fishing and shooting, the caches of meat were fewer on the plains, and almost nothing had come up to Fort O’Call from Edmonton, far below. The yearly supplies for the missionary, paid for out of his private income–the bacon, beans, tea, coffee, and flour–had been raided by a band of hostile Indians, and he viewed with deep concern the progress of the severe winter. Although three years of hard, frugal life had made his muscles like iron, they had only mellowed his temper, increased his flesh, and rounded his face; nor did he look an hour older than on the day when he had won Wingo for his willing slave and devoted friend.
He never resented the frequent ingratitude of the Indians; he said little when they quarrelled over the small comforts his little income brought them yearly from the South. He had been doctor, lawyer, judge among them, although he interfered little in the larger disputes, and was forced to shut his eyes to intertribal enmities. He had no deep faith that he could quite civilize them; he knew that their conversion was only on the surface, and he fell back on his personal influence with them. By this he could check even the excesses of the worst man in the tribe, his old enemy, Silver Tassel of the bad heart, who yet was ready always to give a tooth for a tooth, and accepted the fact that he owed Oshondonto his life.
When famine crawled across the plains to the doors of the settlement and housed itself at Fort O’Call, Silver Tassel acted badly, however, and sowed fault-finding among the thoughtless of the tribe.
“What manner of Great Spirit is it who lets the food of his chief Oshondonto fall into the hands of the Blackfeet?” he said. “Oshondonto says the Great Spirit hears. What has the Great Spirit to say? Let Oshondonto ask.”
Again, when they were all hungrier, he went among them with complaining words. “If the white man’s Great Spirit can do all things, let him give Oshondonto and the Athabascas food.”
The missionary did not know of Silver Tassel’s foolish words, but he saw the downcast face of Knife-in-the-Wind, the sullen looks of the people; and he unpacked the box he had reserved jealously for the darkest days that might come. For meal after meal he divided these delicacies among them–morsels of biscuit, and tinned meats, and dried fruits. But his eyes meanwhile were turned again and again to the storm raging without, as it had raged for this the longest week he had ever spent. If it would but slacken, a boat could go out to the nets set in the lake near by some days before, when the sun of spring had melted the ice. From the hour the nets had been set the storm had raged. On the day when the last morsel of meat and biscuit had been given away the storm had not abated, and he saw with misgiving the gloomy, stolid faces of the Indians round him. One man, two children, and three women had died in a fortnight. He dreaded to think what might happen, his heart ached at the looks of gaunt suffering in the faces of all; he saw, for the first time, how black and bitter Knife-in-the-Wind looked as Silver Tassel whispered to him.
With the color all gone from his cheeks, he left the post and made his way to the edge of the lake where his canoe was kept. Making it ready for the launch, he came back to the fort. Assembling the Indians, who had watched his movements closely, he told them that he was going through the storm to the nets on the lake, and asked for a volunteer to go with him.
No one replied. He pleaded–for the sake of the women and children.
Then Knife-in-the-Wind spoke. “Oshondonto will die if he goes. It is a fool’s journey–does the wolverine walk into an empty trap?”
Billy Rufus spoke passionately now. His genial spirit fled; he reproached them.
Silver Tassel spoke up loudly: “Let Oshondonto’s Great Spirit carry him to the nets alone, and back again with fish for the heathen the Great Chief died to save.”
“You have a wicked heart, Silver Tassel. You know well that one man can’t handle the boat and the nets also. Is there no one of you–?”
A figure shot forward from a corner. “I will go with Oshondonto,” came the voice of Wingo, the waif of the Crees.
The eye of the mikonaree flashed round in contempt on the tribe. Then suddenly it softened, and he said to the lad, “We will go together, Wingo.”
Taking the boy by the hand, he ran with him through the rough wind to the shore, launched the canoe on the tossing lake, and paddled away through the tempest.
* * * * *
The bitter winds of an angry spring, the sleet and wet snow of a belated winter, the floating blocks of ice crushing against the side of the boat, the black water swishing over man and boy, the harsh, inclement world near and far…. The passage made at last to the nets; the brave Wingo steadying the canoe–a skilful hand sufficing where the strength of a Samson would not have availed; the nets half full, and the breaking cry of joy from the lips of the waif–a cry that pierced the storm and brought back an answering cry from the crowd of Indians on the far shore…. The quarter-hour of danger in the tossing canoe; the nets too heavy to be dragged, and fastened to the thwarts instead; the canoe going shoreward jerkily, a cork on the waves with an anchor behind; heavier seas and winds roaring down on them as they slowly near the shore; and at last, in one awful moment, the canoe upset, and the man and the boy in the water…. Then both clinging to the upturned canoe as it is driven near and nearer shore…. The boy washed off once, twice, and the man with his arm round clinging–clinging, as the shrieking storm answers to the calling of the Athabascas on the shore, and drives craft and fish and man and boy down upon the banks; no savage bold enough to plunge in to their rescue…. At last a rope thrown, a drowning man’s wrists wound round it, his teeth set in it–and now, at last, a man and a heathen boy, both insensible, being carried to the mikonaree’s hut and laid upon two beds, one on either side of the small room, as the red sun goes slowly down…. The two still bodies on bearskins in the hut, and a hundred superstitious Indians flying from the face of death…. The two alone in the light of the flickering fire; the many gone to feast on fish, the price of lives.
But the price was not yet paid, for the man waked from insensibility–waked to see himself with the body of the boy beside him in the red light of the fires.
For a moment his heart stopped beating, he turned sick and faint. Deserted by those for whom he risked his life!… How long had he lain there? What time was it? When was it that he had fought his way to the nets and back again–hours, maybe? And the dead boy there, Wingo, who had risked his life, also dead–how long? His heart leaped–ah, not hours, only minutes, maybe. It was sundown as unconsciousness came on him–Indians would not stay with the dead after sundown. Maybe it was only ten minutes–five minutes–one minute ago since they left him!…
His watch! Shaking fingers drew it out, wild eyes scanned it. It was not stopped. Then it could have only been minutes ago. Trembling to his feet, he staggered over to Wingo, he felt the body, he held a mirror to the lips. Yes, surely there was light moisture on the glass.
Then began another fight with death–William Rufus Holly struggling to bring to life again Wingo, the waif of of the Crees.
The blood came back to his own heart with a rush as the mad desire to save this life came on him. He talked to the dumb face, he prayed in a kind of delirium, as he moved the arms up and down, as he tilted the body, as he rubbed, chafed, and strove. He forgot he was a missionary, he almost cursed himself. “For them–for cowards, I risked his life, the brave lad with no home! Oh, God! give him back to me!” he sobbed. “What right had I to risk his life for theirs? I should have shot the first man that refused to go…. Wingo, speak! Wake up! Come back!”
The sweat poured from him in his desperation and weakness. He said to himself that he had put this young life into the hazard without cause. Had he, then, saved the lad from the rapids and Silver Tassel’s brutality only to have him drag fish out of the jaws of death for Silver Tassel’s meal?
It seemed to him that he had been working for hours, though it was in fact only a short time, when the eyes of the lad slowly opened and closed again, and he began to breathe spasmodically. A cry of joy came from the lips of the missionary, and he worked harder still. At last the eyes opened wide, stayed open, saw the figure bent over him, and the lips whispered, “Oshondonto–my master!” as a cup of brandy was held to his lips.
* * * * *
Billy Rufus the cricketer had won the game, and somehow the Reverend William Rufus Holly the missionary never repented the strong language he used against the Athabascas as he was bringing Wingo back to life, though it was not what is called “strictly canonical.”
He had conquered the Athabascas forever. Even Silver Tassel acknowledged his power, and he as industriously spread abroad the report that the mikonaree had raised Wingo from the dead, as he had sown dissension during the famine. But the result was that the missionary had power in the land, and the belief in him was so great that, when Knife-in-the-Wind died, the tribe came to him to raise their chief from the dead. They never quite believed that he could not–not even Silver Tassel, who now rules the Athabascas and is ruled in turn by William Rufus Holly: which is a very good thing for the Athabascas.