Read CHAPTER ONE - OR‚SOLITUDE IN THE WILDERNESS-THE OUTSKIRTER of Fort Desolation Red Indians and Fur Traders of Rupert's Land , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

To some minds solitude is depressing, to others it is congenial.  It was the former to our friend John Robinson; yet he had a large share of it in his chequered life.  John ­more familiarly known as Jack ­was as romantic as his name was the reverse.  To look at him you would have supposed that he was the most ordinary of common-place men, but if you had known him, as we did, you would have discovered that there was a deep, silent, but ever-flowing river of enthusiasm, energy, fervour ­in a word, romance ­in his soul, which seldom or never manifested itself in words, and only now and then, on rare occasions, flashed out in a lightning glance, or blazed up in a fiery countenance.  For the most part Jack was calm as a mill-pond, deep as the Atlantic, straightforward and grave as an undertaker’s clerk and good-humoured as an unspoilt and healthy child.

Jack never made a joke, but, certes, he could enjoy one; and he had a way of showing his enjoyment by a twinkle in his blue eye and a chuckle in his throat that was peculiarly impressive.

Jack was a type of a large class.  He was what we may call an outskirter of the world.  He was one of those who, from the force of necessity, or of self-will, or of circumstances, are driven to the outer circle of this world to do as Adam and Eve’s family did, battle with Nature in her wildest scenes and moods; to earn his bread, literally, in the sweat of his brow.

Jack was a middle-sized man of strong make.  He was not sufficiently large to overawe men by his size, neither was he so small as to invite impertinence from “big bullies,” of whom there were plenty in his neighbourhood.  In short, being an unpretending man and a plain man, with a good nose and large chin and sandy hair, he was not usually taken much notice of by strangers during his journeyings in the world; but when vigorous action in cases of emergency was required Jack Robinson was the man to make himself conspicuous.

It is not our intention to give an account of Jack’s adventurous life from beginning to end, but to detail the incidents of a sojourn of two months at Fort Desolation, in almost utter solitude, in order to show one of the many phases of rough life to which outskirters are frequently subjected.

In regard to his early life it may be sufficient to say that Jack, after being born, created such perpetual disturbance and storm in the house that his worthy father came to look upon him as a perfect pest, and as soon as possible sent him to a public school, where he fought like a Mameluke Bey, learned his lessons with the zeal of a philosopher, and, at the end of ten years ran away to sea, where he became as sick as a dog and as miserable as a convicted felon.

Poor Jack was honest of heart and generous of spirit, but many a long hard year did he spend in the rugged parts of the earth ere he recovered, (if he ever did recover), from the evil effects of this first false step.

In course of time Jack was landed in Canada, with only a few shillings in his pocket; from that period he became an outskirter.  The romance in his nature pointed to the backwoods; he went thither at once, and was not disappointed.  At first the wild life surpassed his expectations, but as time wore on the tinsel began to wear off the face of things, and he came to see them as they actually were.  Nevertheless, the romance of life did not wear out of his constitution.  Enthusiasm, quiet but deep, stuck to him all through his career, and carried him on and over difficulties that would have disgusted and turned back many a colder spirit.

Jack’s first success was the obtaining of a situation as clerk in the store of a general merchant in an outskirt settlement of Canada.  Dire necessity drove him to this.  He had been three weeks without money and nearly two days without food before he succumbed.  Having given in, however, he worked like a Trojan, and would certainly have advanced himself in life if his employer had not failed and left him, minus a portion of his salary, to “try again.”

Next, he became an engineer on board one of the Missouri steamers, in which capacity he burst his boiler, and threw himself and the passengers into the river ­the captain having adopted the truly Yankee expedient of sitting down on the safety-valve while racing with another boat!

Afterwards, Jack Robinson became clerk in one of the Ontario steam-boats, but, growing tired of this life, he went up the Ottawa, and became overseer of a sawmill.  Here, being on the frontier of civilisation, he saw the roughest of Canadian life.  The lumbermen of that district are a mixed race ­French-Canadians, Irishmen, Indians, half-castes, etcetera, ­and whatever good qualities these men might possess in the way of hewing timber and bush-life, they were sadly deficient in the matters of morality and temperance.  But Jack was a man of tact and good temper, and played his cards well.  He jested with the jocular, sympathised with the homesick, doctored the ailing in a rough and ready fashion peculiarly his own, and avoided the quarrelsome.  Thus he became a general favourite.

Of course it was not to be expected that he could escape an occasional broil, and it was herein that his early education did him good service.  He had been trained in an English school where he became one of the best boxers.  The lumberers on the Ottawa were not practised in this science; they indulged in that kicking, tearing, pommelling sort of mode which is so repugnant to the feelings of an Englishman.  The consequence was that Jack had few fights, but these were invariably with the largest bullies of the district; and he, in each case, inflicted such tremendous facial punishment on his opponent that he became a noted man, against whom few cared to pit themselves.

There are none so likely to enjoy peace as those who are prepared for war.  Jack used sometimes to say, with a smile, that his few battles were the price he had to pay for peace.

Our hero was unlucky.  The saw-mill failed ­its master being a drunkard.  When that went down he entered the lumber trade, where he made the acquaintance of a young Scotchman, of congenial mind and temperament, who suggested the setting up of a store in a promising locality and proposed entering into partnership.  “Murray and Robinson” was forthwith painted by the latter, (who was a bit of an artist), over the door of a small log-house, and the store soon became well known and much frequented by the sparse population as well as by those engaged in the timber trade.

But “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”  There must have been a screw loose somewhere, for bad debts accumulated and losses were incurred which finally brought the firm to the ground, and left its dissevered partners to begin the world over again!

After this poor Jack Robinson fell into low spirits for a time, but he soon recovered, and bought a small piece of land at a nominal price in a region so wild that he had to cut his own road to it, fell the trees with his own hand, and, in short, reclaim it from the wilderness on the margin of which it lay.  This was hard work, but Jack liked hard work, and whatever work he undertook he always did it well.  Strange that such a man could not get on! yet so it was, that, in a couple of years, he found himself little better off than he had been when he entered on his new property.  The region, too, was not a tempting one.  No adventurous spirits had located themselves beside him, and only a few had come within several miles of his habitation.

This did not suit our hero’s sociable temperament, and he began to despond very much.  Still his sanguine spirit led him to persevere, and there is no saying how long he might have continued to spend his days and his energies in felling trees and sowing among the stumps and hoping for better days, had not his views been changed and his thoughts turned into another channel by a letter.