The Trail Of The Sun Dogs by Gilbert Parker

Story type: Literature

“Swell, you see,” said Jacques Parfaite, as he gave Whiskey Wine, the leading dog, a cut with the whip and twisted his patois to the uses of narrative, “he has been alone there at the old Fort for a long time. I remember when I first see him. It was in the summer. The world smell sweet if you looked this way or that. If you drew in your breath quick from the top of a hill you felt a great man. Ridley, the chief trader, and myself have come to the Fort on our way to the Mackenzie River. In the yard of the Fort the grass have grown tall, and sprung in the cracks under the doors and windows; the Fort have not been use for a long time. Once there was plenty of buffalo near, and the caribou sometimes; but they were all gone–only a few. The Indians never went that way, only when the seasons were the best. The Company have close the Post; it did not pay. Still, it was pleasant after a long tramp to come to even an empty fort. We know dam’ well there is food buried in the yard or under the floor, and it would be droll to open the place for a day–Lost Man’s Tavern, we called it. Well–“

“Well, what?” said Sir Duke Lawless, who had travelled up to the Barren Grounds for the sake of adventure and game; and, with his old friend, Shon M’Gann, had trusted himself to the excellent care of Jacques Parfaite, the half-breed.

Jacques cocked his head on one side and shook it wisely and mysteriously. “Tres bien, we trailed through the long grass, pried open the shutters and door, and went in. It is cool in the north of an evening, as you know. We build a fire, and soon there is very fine times. Ridley pried up the floor, and we found good things. Holy! but it was a feast. We had a little rum also. As we talk and a great laugh swim round, there come a noise behind us like shuffling feet. We got to our legs quick. Mon Dieu, a strange sight! A man stand looking at us with something in his face that make my fingers cold all at once–a look–well you would think it was carved in stone–it never change. Once I was at Fort Garry; the Church of St. Mary is there. They have a picture in it of the great scoundrel Judas as he went to hang himself. Judas was a fool–what was thirty dollars!–you give me hunder’ to take you to the Barren Grounds. Pah!”

The half-breed chuckled, shook his head sagely, swore half-way through his vocabulary at Whiskey Wine, gratefully received a pipe of tobacco from Shon M’Gann, and continued: “He come in on us slow and still, and push out long thin hands, the fingers bent like claws, towards the pot. He was starving. Yes, it was so; but I nearly laugh. It was spring–a man is a fool to starve in the spring. But he was differen’. There was a cause. The factor give him soup from the pot and a little rum. He was mad for meat, but that would have kill him–yes. He did not look at you like a man.

“When you are starving, you are an animal. But there was something more with this.–He made the flesh creep, he was so thin, and strange, and sulky–eh, is that a word when the face looks dark and never smiles? So. He would not talk. When we ask him where he come from, he points to the north; when we ask him where he is going, he shake his head as he not know. A man is mad not to know where he travel to up here; something comes quick to him unless, and it is not good to die too soon. The trader said, ‘Come with us.’ He shake his head, No. ‘P’r’aps you want to stay here,’ said Ridley loud, showing his teeth all in a minute. He nod. Then the trader laugh thick in his throat and give him more soup. After, he try to make the man talk; but he was stubborn like that dirty Whiskey Wine–ah, sacre bleu!”

Whiskey Wine had his usual portion of whip and anathema before Jacques again took up the thread. “It was no use. He would not talk. When the trader get angry once more, he turned to me, and the look in his face make me sorry. I swore–Ridley did not mind that, I was thick friends with him. I say, ‘Keep still. It is no good. He has had bad times. He has been lost, and seen mad things. He will never be again like when God make him.’ Very well, I spoke true. He was like a sun dog.”

“What’s that ye say, Parfaite?” said Shon–“a sun dog?”

Sir Duke Lawless, puzzled, listened eagerly for the reply.

The half-breed in delight ran before them, cracking his whip and jingling the bells at his knees. “Ah, that’s it! It is a name we have for some. You do not know? It is easy. In the high-up country”–pointing north”–you see sometimes many suns. But it is not many after all; it is only one; and the rest are the same as your face in looking-glasses–one, two, three, plenty. You see?”

“Yes,” said Sir Duke, “reflections of the real sun.” Parfaite tapped him on the arm. “So: you have the thing. Well, this man is not himself–he have left himself where he seen his bad times. It makes your flesh creep sometimes when you see the sun dogs in the sky–this man did the same. You shall see him tonight.”

Sir Duke looked at the little half-breed, and wondered that the product of so crude a civilisation should be so little crude in his imagination. “What happened?” he asked.

“Nothing happened. But the man could not sleep. He sit before the fire, his eyes moving here and there, and sometimes he shiver. Well, I watch him. In the morning we leave him there, and he has been there ever since–the only man at the Fort. The Indians do not go; they fear him; but there is no harm in him. He is old now. In an hour we’ll be there.”

The sun was hanging, with one shoulder up like a great red peering dwarf, on the far side of a long hillock of stunted pines, when the three arrived at the Fort. The yard was still as Parfaite had described it–full of rank grass, through which one path trailed to the open door. On the stockade walls grass grew, as though where men will not live like men Nature labours to smother. The shutters of the window were not open; light only entered through narrow openings in them, made for the needs of possible attacks by Indians in the far past. One would have sworn that anyone dwelling there was more like the dead than the living. Yet it had, too, something of the peace of the lonely graveyard. There was no one in the Fort; but there were signs of life–skins piled here and there, a few utensils, a bench, a hammock for food swung from the rafters, a low fire burning in the chimney, and a rude spear stretched on the wall.

“Sure, the place gives you shivers!” said Shon. “Open go these windows. Put wood on the fire, Parfaite; cook the meat that we’ve brought, and no other, me boy; and whin we’re filled wid a meal and the love o’ God, bring in your Lost Man, or Sun Dog, or whativer’s he by name or nature.”

While Parfaite and Shon busied themselves, Lawless wandered out with his gun, and, drawn on by the clear joyous air of the evening, walked along a path made by the same feet that had travelled the yard of the Fort. He followed it almost unconsciously at first, thinking of the strange histories that the far north hoards in its fastnesses, wondering what singular fate had driven the host of this secluded tavern–farthest from the pleasant south country, nearest to the Pole–to stand, as it were, a sentinel at the raw outposts of the world. He looked down at the trail where he was walking with a kind of awe, which even his cheerful common sense could not dismiss.

He came to the top of a ridge on which were a handful of meagre trees. Leaning on his gun, he looked straight away into the farthest distance. On the left was a blurred edge of pines, with tops like ungainly tendrils feeling for the sky. On the right was a long bare stretch of hills veiled in the thin smoke of the evening, and between, straight before him, was a wide lane of unknown country, billowing away to where it froze into the vast archipelago that closes with the summit of the world. He experienced now that weird charm which has drawn so many into Arctic wilds and gathered the eyes of millions longingly. Wife, child, London, civilisation, were forgotten for the moment. He was under a spell which, once felt, lingers in your veins always.

At length his look drew away from the glimmering distance, and he suddenly became conscious of human presence. Here, almost at his feet, was a man, also looking out along that slumbering waste. He was dressed in skins, his arms were folded across his breast, his chin bent low, and he gazed up and out from deep eyes shadowed by strong brows. Lawless saw the shoulders of the watcher heave and shake once or twice, and then a voice with a deep aching trouble in it spoke; but at first he could catch no words. Presently, however, he heard distinctly, for the man raised his hands high above his head, and the words fell painfully: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Then a low harsh laugh came from him, and he was silent again. Lawless did not move. At last the man turned round, and, seeing him standing motionless, his gun in his hands, he gave a hoarse cry. Then he stood still. “If you have come to kill, do not wait,” he said; “I am ready.”

At the sound of Lawless’s reassuring voice he recovered, and began, in stumbling words, to excuse himself. His face was as Jacques Parfaite had described it: trouble of some terrible kind was furrowed in it, and, though his body was stalwart, he looked as if he had lived a century. His eyes dwelt on Sir Duke Lawless for a moment, and then, coming nearer, he said, “You are an Englishman?”

Lawless held out his hand in greeting, yet he was not sorry when the other replied: “The hand of no man in greeting. Are you alone?”

When he had been told, he turned towards the Fort, and silently they made their way to it. At the door he turned and said to Lawless, “My name–to you–is Detmold.”

The greeting between Jacques and his sombre host was notable for its extreme brevity; with Shon McGann for its hesitation–Shon’s impressionable Irish nature was awed by the look of the man, though he had seen some strange things in the north. Darkness was on them by this time, and the host lighted bowls of fat with wicks of deer’s tendons, and by the light of these and the fire they ate their supper. Parfaite beguiled the evening with tales of the north, always interesting to Lawless; to which Shon added many a shrewd word of humour–for he had recovered quickly from his first timidity in the presence of the stranger.

As time went on Jacques saw that their host’s eyes were frequently fixed on Sir Duke in a half-eager, musing way, and he got Shon away to bed and left the two together.

“You are a singular man. Why do you live here?” said Lawless. Then he went straight to the heart of the thing. “What trouble have you had, of what crime are you guilty?”

The man rose to his feet, shaking, and walked to and fro in the room for a time, more than once trying to speak, but failing. He beckoned to Lawless, and opened the door. Lawless took his hat and followed him along the trail they had travelled before supper until they came to the ridge where they had met. The man faced the north, the moon glistening coldly on his grey hair. He spoke with incredible weight and slowness:

“I tell you–for you are one who understands men, and you come from a life that I once knew well. I know of your people. I was of good family–“

“I know the name,” said Sir Duke quietly, at the same time fumbling in his memory for flying bits of gossip and history which he could not instantly find.

“There were two brothers of us. I was the younger. A ship was going to the Arctic Sea.” He pointed into the north. “We were both young and ambitious. He was in the army, I the navy. We went with the expedition. At first it was all beautiful and grand, and it seemed noble to search for those others who had gone into that land and never come back. But our ship got locked in the ice, and then came great trouble. A year went by and we did not get free; then another year began…. Four of us set out for the south. Two died. My brother and I were left–“

Lawless exclaimed. He now remembered how general sympathy went out to a well-known county family when it was announced that two of its members were lost in the Arctic regions.

Detmold continued: “I was the stronger. He grew weaker and weaker. It was awful to live those days: the endless snow and cold, the long nights when you could only hear the whirring of meteors, the bright sun which did not warm you, nor even when many suns, the reflections of itself, followed it–the mocking sun dogs, no more the sun than I am what my mother brought into the world…. We walked like dumb men, for the dreadful cold fills the heart with bitterness. I think I grew to hate him because he could not travel faster, that days were lost, and death crept on so pitilessly. Sometimes I had a mad wish to kill him. May you never know suffering that begets such things! I laughed as I sat beside him, and saw him sink to sleep and die…. I think I could have saved him. When he was gone I–what do men do sometimes when starvation is on them, and they have a hunger of hell to live? I did that shameless thing–and he was my brother!… I lived, and was saved.”

Lawless shrank away from the man, but words of horror got no farther than his throat. And he was glad afterwards that it was so; for when he looked again at this woful relic of humanity before him he felt a strange pity.

“God’s hand is on me to punish,” said the man. “It will never be lifted. Death were easy: I bear the infamy of living.”

Lawless reached out and caught him gently by the shoulders. “Poor fellow! poor Detmold!” he said. For an instant the sorrowful face lighted, the square chin trembled, and the hands thrust out towards Lawless, but suddenly dropped.

“Go,” he said humbly, “and leave me here. We must not meet again… I have had one moment of respite…. Go.”

Without a word, Lawless turned and made his way to the Fort. In the morning the three comrades started on their journey again; but no one sped them on their way or watched them as they went.