Catharine Of The “Crow’s Nest” by E Pauline Johnson

Story type: Literature

The great transcontinental railway had been in running order for years before the managers thereof decided to build a second line across the Rocky Mountains. But “passes” are few and far between in those gigantic fastnesses, and the fearless explorers, followed by the equally fearless surveyors, were many a toilsome month conquering the heights, depths and dangers of the “Crow’s Nest Pass.”

Eastward stretched the gloriously fertile plains of southern “Sunny Alberta,” westward lay the limpid blue of the vast and indescribably beautiful Kootenay Lakes, but between these two arose a barrier of miles and miles of granite and stone and rock, over and through which a railway must be constructed. Tunnels, bridges, grades must be bored, built and blasted out. It was the work of science, endurance and indomitable courage. The summers in the canyons were seething hot, the winters in the mountains perishingly cold, with apparently inexhaustible snow clouds circling forever about the rugged peaks–snows in which many a good, honest laborer was lost until the eagles and vultures came with the April thaws, and wheeled slowly above the pulseless sleeper, if indeed the wolves and mountain lions had permitted him to lie thus long unmolested. Those were rough and rugged days, through which equally rough and rugged men served and suffered to find foundations whereon to lay those two threads of steel that now cling like a cobweb to the walls of the wonderful “gap” known as Crow’s Nest Pass.

Work progressed steadily, and before winter set in construction camps were built far into “the gap,” the furthermost one being close to the base of a majestic mountain, which was also named “The Crow’s Nest.” It arose beyond the camp with almost overwhelming immensity. Dense forests of Douglas fir and bull pines shouldered their way up one-third of its height, but above the timber line the shaggy, bald rock reared itself thousands of feet skyward, desolate, austere and deserted by all living things; not even the sure-footed mountain goat travelled up those frowning, precipitous heights; no bird rested its wing in that frozen altitude. The mountain arose, distinct, alone, isolated, the most imperial monarch of all that regal Pass.

The construction gang called it “Old Baldy,” for after working some months around its base, it began to grow into their lives. Not so, however, with the head engineer from Montreal, who regarded it always with baleful eye, and half laughingly, half seriously, called it his “Jonah.”

“Not a thing has gone right since we worked in sight of that old monster,” he was heard to say frequently; and it did seem as if there were some truth in it. There had been deaths, accidents and illness among the men. Once, owing to transportation difficulties, the rations were short for days, and the men were in rebellious spirit in consequence. Twice whiskey had been smuggled in, to the utter demoralization of the camp; and one morning, as a last straw, “Cookee” had nearly severed his left hand from his arm with a meat axe. Young Wingate, the head engineer, and Mr. Brown, the foreman, took counsel together. For the three meals of that day they tried three different men out of the gang as “cookees.” No one could eat the atrocious food they manufactured. Then Brown bethought himself. “There’s an Indian woman living up the canyon that can cook like a French chef,” he announced, after a day of unspeakable gnawing beneath his belt. “How about getting her? I’ve tasted pork and beans at her shack, and flapjacks, and–“

“Get her! get her!” clamored Wingate. “Even if she poisons us, it’s better than starving. I’ll ride over to-night and offer her big wages.”

“How about her staying here?” asked Brown. “The boys are pretty rough and lawless at times, you know.”

“Get the axe men to build her a good, roomy shack–the best logs in the place. We’ll give her a lock and key for it, and you, Brown, report the very first incivility to her that you hear of,” said Wingate crisply.

That evening Mr. Wingate himself rode over to the canyon; it was a good mile, and the trail was rough in the extreme. He did not dismount when he reached the lonely log lodge, but rapping on the door with the butt of his quirt, he awaited its opening. There was some slight stirring about inside before this occurred; then the door slowly opened, and she stood before him–a rather tall woman, clad in buckskin garments, with a rug made of coyote skins about her shoulders; she wore the beaded leggings and moccasins of her race, and her hair, jet black, hung in ragged plaits about her dark face, from which mournful eyes looked out at the young Montrealer.

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Yes, she would go for the wages he offered, she said in halting English; she would come to-morrow at daybreak; she would cook their breakfast.

“Better come to-night,” he urged. “The men get down the grade to work very early; breakfast must be on time.”

“I be on time,” she replied. “I sleep here this night, every night. I not sleep in camp.”

Then he told her of the shack he had ordered and that was even now being built.

She shook her head. “I sleep here every night,” she reiterated.

Wingate had met many Indians in his time, so dropped the subject, knowing full well that persuasion or argument would be utterly useless.

“All right,” he said; “you must do as you like; only remember, an early breakfast to-morrow.”

“I ‘member,” she replied.

He had ridden some twenty yards, when he turned to call back: “Oh, what’s your name, please?”

“Catharine,” she answered, simply.

“Thank you,” he said, and, touching his hat lightly, rode down towards the canyon. Just as he was dipping over its rim he looked back. She was still standing in the doorway, and above and about her were the purple shadows, the awful solitude, of Crow’s Nest Mountain.

* * * * *

Catharine had been cooking at the camp for weeks. The meals were good, the men respected her, and she went her way to and from her shack at the canyon as regularly as the world went around. The autumn slipped by, and the nipping frosts of early winter and the depths of early snows were already daily occurrences. The big group of solid log shacks that formed the construction camp were all made weather-tight against the long mountain winter. Trails were beginning to be blocked, streams to freeze, and “Old Baldy,” already wore a canopy of snow that reached down to the timber line.

“Catharine,” spoke young Wingate, one morning, when the clouds hung low and a soft snow fell, packing heavily on the selfsame snows of the previous night, “you had better make up your mind to occupy the shack here. You won’t be able to go to your home much longer now at night; it gets dark so early, and the snows are too heavy.”

“I go home at night,” she repeated.

“But you can’t all winter,” he exclaimed. “If there was one single horse we could spare from the grade work, I’d see you got it for your journeys, but there isn’t. We’re terribly short now; every animal in the Pass is overworked as it is. You’d better not try going home any more.”

“I go home at night,” she repeated.

Wingate frowned impatiently; then in afterthought he smiled. “All right, Catharine,” he said, “but I warn you. You’ll have a search-party out after you some dark morning, and you know it won’t be pleasant to be lost in the snows up that canyon.”

“But I go home, night-time,” she persisted, and that ended the controversy.

But the catastrophe he predicted was inevitable. Morning after morning he would open the door of the shack he occupied with the other officials, and, looking up the white wastes through the gray-blue dawn, he would watch the distances with an anxiety that meant more than a consideration for his breakfast. The woman interested him. She was so silent, so capable, so stubborn. What was behind all this strength of character? What had given that depth of mournfulness to her eyes? Often he had surprised her watching him, with an odd longing in her face; it was something of the expression he could remember his mother wore when she looked at him long, long ago. It was a vague, haunting look that always brought back the one great tragedy of his life–a tragedy he was even now working night and day at his chosen profession to obliterate from his memory, lest he should be forever unmanned–forever a prey to melancholy.

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He was still a young man, but when little more than a boy he had married, and for two years was transcendently happy. Then came the cry of “Kootenay Gold” ringing throughout Canada–of the untold wealth of Kootenay mines. Like thousands of others he followed the beckoning of that yellow finger, taking his young wife and baby daughter West with him. The little town of Nelson, crouching on its beautiful hills, its feet laved by the waters of Kootenay Lake, was then in its first robust, active infancy. Here he settled, going out alone on long prospecting expeditions; sometimes he was away a week, sometimes a month, with the lure of the gold forever in his veins, but the laughter of his child, the love of his wife, forever in his heart. Then–the day of that awful home-coming! For three weeks the fascination of searching for the golden pay-streak had held him in the mountains. No one could find him when it happened, and now all they could tell him was the story of an upturned canoe found drifting on the lake, of a woman’s light summer shawl caught in the thwarts, of a child’s little silken bonnet washed ashore. [Fact.] The great-hearted men of the West had done their utmost in the search that followed. Miners, missionaries, prospectors, Indians, settlers, gamblers, outlaws, had one and all turned out, for they liked young Wingate, and they adored his loving wife and dainty child. But the search was useless. The wild shores of Kootenay Lake alone held the secret of their resting-place.

Young Wingate faced the East once more. There was but one thing to do with his life–work, work, WORK; and the harder, the more difficult, that work, the better. It was this very difficulty that made the engineering on the Crow’s Nest Pass so attractive to him. So here he was building grades, blasting tunnels, with Catharine’s mournful eyes following him daily, as if she divined something of that long-ago sorrow that had shadowed his almost boyish life.

He liked the woman, and his liking quickened his eye to her hardships, his ear to the hint of lagging weariness in her footsteps; so he was the first to notice it the morning she stumped into the cook-house, her feet bound up in furs, her face drawn in agony.

“Catharine,” he exclaimed, “your feet have been frozen!”

She looked like a culprit, but answered: “Not much; I get lose in storm las’ night.”

“I thought this would happen,” he said, indignantly. “After this you sleep here.”

“I sleep home.” she said, doggedly.

“I won’t have it,” he declared. “I’ll cook for the men myself first.”

“Allight,” she replied. “You cookee; I go home–me.”

That night there was a terrible storm. The wind howled down the throat of the Pass, and the snow fell like bales of sheep’s wool, blanketing the trails and drifting into the railroad cuts until they attained their original level. But after she had cooked supper Catharine started for home as usual. The only unusual thing about it was that the next morning she did not return. It was Sunday, the men’s day “off.” Wingate ate no breakfast, but after swallowing some strong tea he turned to the foreman. “Mr. Brown, will you come with me to try and hunt up Catharine?” he asked.

“Yes, if we can get beyond the door,” assented Brown. “But I doubt if we can make the canyon, sir.”

“We’ll have a try at it, anyway,” said the young engineer. “I almost doubt myself if she made it last night.”

“She’s a stubborn woman,” commented Brown.

“And has her own reasons for it, I suppose,” replied Wingate. “But that has nothing to do with her being lost or frozen. If something had not happened I’m sure she would have come to-day, notwithstanding I scolded her yesterday, and told her I’d rather cook myself than let her run such risks. How will we go, Mr. Brown; horses or snowshoes?”

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“Shoes,” said the foreman decidedly. “That snow’ll be above the middle of the biggest horse in the outfit.”

So they set forth on their tramp up the slopes, peering right and left as they went for any indication of the absent woman. Wingate’s old grief was knocking at his heart once more. A woman lost in the appalling vastness of this great Western land was entering into his life again. It took them a full hour to go that mile, although both were experts on the shoes, but as they reached the rim of the canyon they were rewarded by seeing a thin blue streak of smoke curling up from her lodge “chimney.” Wingate sat down in the snows weakly. The relief had unmanned him.

“I didn’t know how much I cared,” he said, “until I knew she was safe. She looks at me as my mother used to; her eyes are like mother’s, and I loved my mother.”

It was a simple, direct speech, but Brown caught its pathos.

“She’s a good woman,” he blurted out, as they trudged along towards the shack. They knocked on the door. There was no reply. Then just as Wingate suggested forcing it in case she were ill and lying helpless within, a long, low call from the edge of the canyon startled them. They turned and had not followed the direction from which the sound came more than a few yards when they met her coming towards them on snowshoes; in her arms she bore a few faggots, and her face, though smileless, was very welcoming.

She opened the door, bidding them enter. It was quite warm inside, and the air of simple comfort derived from crude benches, tables and shelves, assured them that she had not suffered. Near the fire was drawn a rough home-built couch, and on it lay in heaped disorder a pile of gray blankets. As the two men warmed their hands at the grateful blaze, the blankets stirred. Then a small hand crept out and a small arm tossed the covers a little aside.

Catharine,” exclaimed Wingate, “have you a child here?”

“Yes,” she said simply.

“How long is it that you have had it here?” he demanded.

“Since before I work at your camp,” she replied.

“Whew!” said the foreman, “I now understand why she came home nights.”

“To think I never guessed it!” murmured Wingate. Then to Catharine: “Why didn’t you bring it into camp and keep it there day and night with you, instead of taking these dangerous tramps night and morning?”

“It is a girl child,” she answered.

“Well what of it?” he asked impatiently.

“Your camp no place for girl child,” she replied, looking directly at him. “Your men they rough, they get whisky sometimes. They fight. They speak bad words, what you call swear. I not want her hear that. I not want her see whisky man.”

“Oh, Brown!” said Wingate, turning to his companion. “What a reproach! What a reproach! Here our gang is–the vanguard of the highest civilization, but unfit for association with a little Indian child!”

Brown stood speechless, although in his rough, honest mind he was going over a list of those very “swears” she objected to, but they were mentally directed at the whole outfit of his ruffianly construction gang. He was silently swearing at them for their own shortcomings in that very thing.

The child on the couch stirred again. This time the firelight fell full across the little arm. Wingate stared at it, then his eyes widened. He looked at the woman, then back at the bare arm. It was the arm of a white child.

“Catharine, was your husband white?” he asked, in a voice that betrayed anxiety.

“I got no husban’,” she replied, somewhat defiantly.

“Then–” he began, but his voice faltered.

She came and stood between him and the couch.

Something of the look of a she-panther came into her face, her figure, her attitude. Her eyes lost their mournfulness and blazed a black-red at him. Her whole body seemed ready to spring.

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“You not touch the girl child!” she half snarled. “I not let you touch her; she mine, though I have no husban’!”

“I don’t want to touch her, Catharine,” he said gently, trying to pacify her. “Believe me, I don’t want to touch her.”

The woman’s whole being changed. A thousand mother-lights gleamed from her eyes, a thousand measures of mother-love stormed at her heart. She stepped close, very close to him and laid her small brown hand on his, then drawing him nearer to her said: “Yes you do want to touch her; you not speak truth when you say ‘no.’ You do want to touch her!” With a rapid movement she flung back the blankets, then slipping her bare arm about him she bent his form until he was looking straight into the child’s face–a face the living miniature of his own! His eyes, his hair, his small kindly mouth, his fair, perfect skin. He staggered erect.

“Catharine! what does it mean? What does it mean?” he cried hoarsely.

Your child–” she half questioned, half affirmed.

“Mine? Mine?” he called, without human understanding in his voice. “Oh, Catharine! Where did you get her?”

“The shores of Kootenay Lake,” she answered.

“Was–was–she alone?” he cried.

The woman looked away, slowly shaking her head, and her voice was very gentle as she replied: “No, she alive a little, but the other, whose arms ’round her, she not alive; my people, the Kootenay Indians, and I–we–we bury that other.”

For a moment there was a speaking silence, the young Wingate, with the blessed realization that half his world had been saved for him, flung himself on his knees, and, with his arms locked about the little girl, was calling:

“Margie! Margie! Papa’s little Margie girl! Do you remember papa? Oh, Margie! Do you? Do you?”

Something dawned in the child’s eyes–something akin to a far-off memory. For a moment she looked wonderingly at him, then put her hand up to his forehead and gently pulled a lock of his fair hair that always curled there–an old trick of hers. Then she looked down at his vest pocket, slowly pulled out his watch and held it to her ear. The next minute her arms slipped round his neck.

“Papa,” she said, “papa been away from Margie a long time.”

Young Wingate was sobbing. He had not noticed that the big, rough foreman had gone out of the shack with tear-dimmed eyes, and had quietly closed the door behind him.

* * * * *

It was evening before Wingate got all the story from Catharine, for she was slow of speech, and found it hard to explain her feelings. But Brown, who had returned alone to the camp in the morning, now came back, packing an immense bundle of all the tinned delicacies he could find, which, truth to tell, were few. He knew some words in Kootenay, and led Catharine on to reveal the strange history that sounded like some tale from fairyland. It appeared that the reason Catharine did not attempt to go to the camp that morning was that Margie was not well, so she would not leave her, but in her heart of hearts she knew young Wingate would come searching to her lodge. She loved the child as only an Indian woman can love an adopted child. She longed for him to come when she found Margie was ill, yet dreaded that coming from the depths of her soul. She dreaded the hour he would see the child and take it away. For the moment she looked upon his face, the night he rode over to engage her to cook, months ago, she had known he was Margie’s father. The little thing was the perfect mirror of him, and Catharine’s strange wild heart rejoiced to find him, yet hid the child from him for very fear of losing it out of her own life.

After finding it almost dead in its dead mother’s arms on the shore, the Indians had given it to Catharine for the reason that she could speak some English. They were only a passing band of Kootenays, and as they journeyed on and on, week in and week out, they finally came to Crow’s Nest Mountain. Here the child fell ill, so they built Catharine a log shack, and left her with plenty of food, sufficient to last until the railway gang had worked that far up the Pass, when more food would be available. When she had finished the strange history, Wingate looked at her long and lovingly.

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“Catharine,” he said, “you were almost going to fight me once to-day. You stood between the couch and me like a panther. What changed you so that you led me to my baby girl yourself?”

“I make one last fight to keep her,” she said, haltingly. “She mine so long, I want her; I want her till I die. Then I think many times I see your face at camp. It look like sky when sun does not shine–all cloud, no smile, no laugh. I know you think of your baby then. Then I watch you many times. Then after while my heart is sick for you, like you are my own boy, like I am your own mother. I hate see no sun in your face. I think I not good mother to you; if I was good mother I would give you your child; make the sun come in your face. To-day I make last fight to keep the child. She’s mine so long, I want her till I die. Then somet’ing in my heart say, ‘He’s like son to you, as if he your own boy; make him glad–happy. Oh, ver’ glad! Be like his own mother. Find him his baby.’”

“Bless the mother heart of her!” growled the big foreman, frowning to keep his face from twitching.

It was twilight when they mounted the horses one of the men had brought up for them to ride home on, Wingate with his treasure-child hugged tightly in his arms. Words were powerless to thank the woman who had saved half his world for him. His voice choked when he tried, but she understood, and her woman’s heart was very, very full.

Just as they reached the rim of the canyon Wingate turned and looked back. His arms tightened about little Margie as his eyes rested on Catharine–as once before she was standing in the doorway, alone; alone, and above and about her were the purple shadows, the awful solitude of Crow’s Nest Mountain.

“Brown!” he called. “Hold on, Brown! I can’t do it! I can’t leave her like that!”

He wheeled his horse about and, plunging back through the snow, rode again to her door. Her eyes radiated as she looked at him. Years had been wiped from his face since the morning. He was a laughing boy once more.

“You are right,” he said, “I cannot keep my little girl in that rough camp. You said it was no place for a girl child. You are right. I will send her into Calgary until my survey is over. Catharine, will you go with her, take care of her, nurse her, guard her for me? You said I was as your own son; will you be that good mother to me that you want to be? Will you do this for your white boy?”

He had never seen her smile before. A moment ago her heart had been breaking, but now she knew with a great gladness that she was not only going to keep and care for Margie, but that this laughing boy would be as a son to her for all time. No wonder Catharine of the Crow’s Nest smiled!

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