the current of the Hayes was too strong and rapid to be stemmed with oars. The boat was brought close to the bank, and the sail lowered. Standing in the stern, the steersman surveyed his crew. Walter, in the other end of the boat, had not noticed the steersman before. Now, he recognized the tall man with the braided hair, who had come up behind him so noiselessly in the Indian trading room at the fort.
In his deep, metallic voice the steersman began to speak, pointing first at one man, then at another. When his bright, hard little eyes alighted on Walter, and his long, brown forefinger pointed him out, the boy was moved by the same strong, instinctive dislike, almost akin to fear, he had felt when he first looked into the half-breed’s face. The fellow’s French was so strange that Walter could not grasp the meaning. With a questioning glance, he turned to Louis Brabant.
“You are to go ashore,” Louis explained. “Murray has chosen you in his crew. The tracking begins now.”
Walter had no idea what tracking might be, but he rose to obey. With several others, including Louis, he jumped from the boat to the muddy bit of beach. The steersman handed each a leather strap, and Louis showed Walter how to attach his to the tow-line and pass the strap over his “inshore” shoulder. Like horses on a tow-path, the men were to haul the boat, with the rest of the party in it, up stream.
The steep, clay banks were slippery from recent rains. Fallen trees, that had been undermined and had slid part way down the incline, projected at all angles. The willing, but inexperienced tracking crew slipped, stumbled, scrambled, and struggled along, tugging at the tow-line. With maddening ease the tall steersman, in the lead, strode through and over the obstacles, turning his head every minute or two to shout back orders and abuse. He seemed to have the utmost contempt for his greenhorn crew, but he tried to urge and threaten them to a pace of which they were quite incapable. Every time a man slipped or stumbled, jerking the tow-line, Murray poured out a torrent of violent and profane abuse, in such bad French and English, so intermixed with Gaelic and Indian words, that, luckily, the Swiss could not understand a quarter of it.
Walter understood the tone, if not the words. He grew angrier and angrier, as he strained and tugged at the rope and struggled to keep his footing on the slippery bank. But he had the sense to realize that he must not start a mutiny on the first day of the journey. He held his tongue and labored on. The boy was thin, not having filled out to his height, but he was strong. He was mountain bred, with muscular legs, good heart and lungs. Nevertheless when at last Murray gave the order to halt, only pride kept Walter from dropping to the ground to rest.
The second shift was led by a fair-haired, blue-eyed man from the Orkney Islands, off the coast of Scotland, where the Hudson Bay Company recruited many of its employees. Before his crew were through with their turn at the tow-line, they came in sight, on rounding a bend, of the first two boats with bows drawn up on a stretch of muddy beach. Farther back on higher ground tents were going up and fires being kindled. Murray ordered out the oars, and boat number three was run in beside the others.
After the tent, bedding, and provisions for the night were unloaded, the tall steersman, without troubling to help with the camp making, took himself off. It was young Louis Brabant who took charge. He selected the spot for the one tent and helped to pitch it. Then he sent a man and a boy to collect fuel, and Walter and another into the woods to strip balsam fir branches for beds. Louis himself started the cooking fire, between two green logs spaced so that the big iron kettle rested upon them. From a chunk of dried caribou meat,—so hard and dry it looked a good deal like sole leather,—he shaved off some shreds. After he had ground the bits of meat between two stones, he put the partly pulverized stuff to boil in a kettle of water. This soup, thickened with flour, was the principal dish of the meal. Several handfuls of dark blue saskatoon or service berries, gathered near by, served as dessert. By the time supper was ready, the young Canadian’s swift, deft way of working, his skill and certainty, his good nature and helpfulness, had won the good will of everyone.
Walter asked Louis how long it would be before the second brigade left Fort York.
“That I cannot tell. As soon as all is ready. You regret to be separated from your family?”
“They aren’t really my family. I am apprenticed to Monsieur Perier.”
“The young Englishmen who come over to be clerks for the Company,” Louis remarked, “sign a paper to serve for five years. Is it so with you?”
“Something like that, and in return Monsieur Perier agrees to give me a home and teach me the business. When he decided to come to America, he really released me from the agreement though. He offered to treat me like his own son if I came with him.”
“If you are twenty-one you can get land of your own in the Colony.”
“I’m not sixteen yet.”
“Is it so?” cried Louis. “Then we are the same age, you and me. Fifteen years last Christmas day I was born. So my mother told Père Provencher when I was baptized.”
“My birthday is in February,” Walter replied. “I thought you must be older than that. How long have you been a voyageur for the Company?”
“For the Hudson Bay Company only this summer. This is the first time I have come to Fort York. Last year, after my father died, I went to the Kaministikwia with the Northwest men. But always since I was big enough I have known how to carry a pack and paddle a canoe. The birch canoe,—ah, that is the right kind of boat! These heavy affairs of wood,” Louis shrugged contemptuously. “They are so slow, so heavy to track and to portage. You have the birch canoe in your country? No? Then you cannot understand. When you have voyaged in a birch canoe, you will want no more of these heavy things.”
“Why does the Company use them?”
Louis shrugged again as if the ways of the Hudson Bay Company were past understanding. “The wooden boats will carry greater loads,” he admitted, “and they are stronger, yes. Sometimes you get a hole in a canoe and you must stop to mend it. Yet I think you do not lose so much time that way as in dragging these heavy boats over portages.”
The wavering white bands of the aurora borealis were mounting the northern sky before the camp was ready for the night. The one tent carried by boat number three was given up to the women and children. Walter rolled himself in a blanket and lay down with the other men on a bed of fir branches close to the fire. The air was sharp and cold, and he would have been glad of another blanket. But he had been well used to cold weather in his native country, and had become still more hardened to it during the long voyage in northern waters.
THE BLACK MURRAY
Louis’ voice, almost in Walter’s ear, was crying, “Leve, leve,—rise, rise!”
Surely the night could not be over yet. Walter threw off his blanket, scrambled up, shook himself, and pulled out his cherished silver watch. It was ten minutes to five.
In a few moments the whole camp was stirring. Following the usual voyageur custom, the boats got off at once, without delaying for breakfast. After a spell of tracking, the Swiss boy was more than ready for the pemmican and tea taken on a small island almost in midstream. The Swiss lad had never tasted tea until he sailed on an English ship, but after the drinking water had turned bad, he had been driven to try the strange