Read CHAPTER FIFTEEN - WILD DOINGS OF THE FUR-TRADERS AND RED MEN. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

In course of time, after many a hard struggle with rushing rapids and not a few narrow escapes from dangerous rocks, the Indian voyagers swept out at last upon the broad bosom of Great Bear Lake.

This mighty inland sea of fresh water-about two hundred miles in diameter, and big enough to engulf the greater part of Scotland-was, at the time we write of, and still is, far beyond the outmost verge of civilisation, in the remotest solitudes of the Great Lone Land.

Here the fur-traders had established a small trading-post close to the shores of the lake.  It was in charge of a Scotchman-we had almost said of course; for it would seem as if these hardy dwellers in the north of our island have a special gift for penetrating into and inhabiting the wildest and most unlikely parts of the world.  His name was MacSweenie, and he had a few Orkney-men and half-castes to keep him company while vegetating there.

It was a sort of event, a mild excitement, a pink-if not a red-letter day, when our Indians arrived at that lonely outpost, and MacSweenie, who was in the prime of life and the depths of ennui, gave the strangers a hearty and warm reception.

Nazinred had been there before, and was able somewhat to subdue his feelings of admiration and not-quite-exhausted surprise at all the wonderful things he saw; but to the others it was comparatively new, and Mozwa had never been at a trading-post in his life.  Being a sympathetic man, he found it difficult to retain at all times that solemnity of manner and look which he knew was expected of him.  The chief, who was also sympathetic, experienced deep pleasure in watching his companion’s face, and observing the efforts he made to appear indifferent, knowing, as he did, from former experience, that he must in reality be full of surprise and curiosity.

And, truly, in the store of the fur-traders there was a display of wealth which, to unaccustomed Indian eyes, must have seemed almost fabulous.  For were there not in this enchanted castle bales of bright blue cloth, and bright scarlet cloth, and various other kinds of cloth sufficient to clothe the entire Dogrib nation?  Were there not guns enough-cheap flint-lock, blue-barrelled ones-to make all the Eskimos in the polar regions look blue with envy, if not with fear?  Were there not bright beads and brass rings, and other baubles, and coloured silk thread, enough to make the hearts of all the Dogrib squaws to dance with joy?  Were there not axes, and tomahawks, and scalping-knives enough to make the fingers of the braves to itch for war?  Were there not hooks and lines enough to capture all the fish in Great Bear Lake, and “nests” of copper kettles enough to boil them all at one tremendous culinary operation?  And was there not gunpowder enough to blow the fort and all its contents into unrecognisable atoms?

Yes, there was enough in that store fully to account for the look of awe-stricken wonder which overspread the visage of Mozwa, and for the restrained tendency to laughter which taxed the solemn Nazinred considerably.

“You are fery welcome,” said MacSweenie, as he ushered the chief and Mozwa into the store the day after their arrival.  “We hev not seen one o’ your people for many a day; an’ it’s thinking I wass that you would be forgettin’ us altogether.  Tell them that, Tonal’.”

Tonal’, (or Donald), Mowat was MacSweenie’s interpreter and factotum.  He was a man of middle age and middle height, but by no means middle capacity.  Having left his native home in Orkney while yet a youth, he had spent the greater part of his life in the “Nor’-West,” and had proved himself to be one of those quick learners and generally handy fellows, who, because of their aptitude to pick up many trades, are too commonly supposed to be masters of none.  Mowat, besides being a first-rate blacksmith, had picked up the Indian language, after a fashion, from the Crees, and French of a kind from the Canadian half-castes, and even a smattering of Gaelic from the few Scotch Highlanders in the service.  He could use the axe as well as forge it, and, in short, could turn his hand to almost anything.  Among other things, he could play splendidly on the violin-an instrument which he styled a fiddle, and which MacSweenie called a “fuddle.”  His repertoire was neither extensive nor select.  If you had asked for something of Beethoven or Mozart he would have opened his eyes, perhaps also his mouth.  But at a Strathspey or the Reel o’ Tulloch he was almost equal to Neil Gow himself-so admirable were his tune and time.  In a lonesome land, where amusements are few and the nights long, the power to “fuddle” counts for much.

Besides being MacSweenie’s interpreter, Donald was also his storekeeper.

“Give them both a quid, Tonal’, to begin with,” said MacSweenie.  “It iss always politic to keep Indians in good humour.”

Donald cut off two long pieces of Canada twist and handed it to them.  He cut them from a roll, which was large enough, in the estimation of Mozwa, to last a reasonable smoker to the crack of doom.  They received the gift with an expression of approval.  It would have been beneath their dignity to have allowed elation or gratitude to appear in their manner.

“Solemn humbugs!” thought the trader,-“ye know that you’re as pleased as Punch,” but he was careful to conceal his thoughts.  “Now, then, let us hev a look at the furs.”

It took the trader and his assistant some time to examine the furs and put a price on them.  The Indians had no resource but to accept their dictum on the point, for there were no rival markets there.  Moreover, the value being fixed according to a regular and well-understood tariff, and the trader being the servant of a Company with a fixed salary, there was no temptation to unfair action on his part.  When the valuation was completed a number of goose-quills were handed to the Indians-each quill representing a sum of about two shillings-whereby each man had a fair notion of the extent of his fortune.

“What iss it you will be wanting now?” said the trader, addressing himself to Nazinred with the air of a man whose powers of production are illimitable.

But the chief did not reply for some time.  It was not every day that he went shopping, and he was not to be hurried.  His own personal wants had to be considered with relation to the pile of quill-wealth at his elbow, and, what was of far greater importance and difficulty to a kind man, the wants of his squaw and Adolay had also to be thought of.  Mozwa, having left a squaw, two little daughters, and a very small son, had still greater difficulties to contend with.  But they both faced them like men.

“Pasgissegan,” said both men, at length, simultaneously.

“I thought so,” observed the trader, with a smile, as he selected two trade-guns-the fire-spouters of the Eskimo-and handed them across the counter.

The Indians received the weapons with almost tender care; examined them carefully; took long and steady aim at the windows several times; snapped the flints to make sure that the steels were good, and, generally, inspected every detail connected with them.  Being satisfied, they rested them against the wall, the trader withdrew the price of the guns from the two little piles, threw the quills into an empty box under the counter, and looked-if he did not say, “What next?”

Powder, shot, and ball came next, and then the means of hunting and self-defence having been secured, beads and scarlet cloth for the women claimed their attention.  It was an interesting sight to see these tall, dark-skinned sons of the forest handling the cloth and fingering the various articles with all the gravity and deliberation of experts, with now and then a low-toned comment, or a quiet question as to the price.

“You’ll want that,” suggested Mowat, as he threw a small thick blanket- quite a miniature blanket-towards Mozwa, “your small boy will want it.”

“Ho!” exclaimed the Indian, with a look of surprise in spite of himself, “how do you know?”

“I didn’t know.  I only guessed; but your question shows me I’m right.  Any more?”

“Yes, two more, but bigger.”

“Of course bigger, for it’s not likely they were all born at the same time,” returned Mowat, with a grin.

“What iss this man wantin’, Tonal’?  I can’t make him out at all,” asked MacSweenie.

It was found that Nazinred had been pointing with eager pertinacity at something lying on one of the shelves which had caught his eye, but the name of which he did not know.

“Oh!  I see,” added the trader, “it iss a cocktail feather you want.”

“Yes, for my daughter,” exclaimed the Indian as he received the feather and regarded it with some uncertainty-as well he might, for the feather in question was a thing of brilliant scarlet made up of many feathers,- rigid and over a foot in height.

“It’s not a good plaything for a child,” remarked Mowat.

“My daughter is not a child-she is a woman.”

“Wow, man,” said MacSweenie, “tell him that feather is not for a woman.  It iss for a man.”

The Indian, however, needed no explanation.  That which had captivated him at a distance lost its attraction on closer examination.  He rejected it with quiet indifference, and turned his eyes to something not less attractive, but more useful-a web of brilliant light-blue cloth.  He was very fond of Adolay, and had made up his mind to take back to her a gift which she would be certain to like.  Indeed, to make sure of this, he determined to take to her a variety of presents, so that among them all she would be sure to find something to her taste.

In this way the Indians spent several days at the “fort” of the traders on Great Bear Lake, and then prepared to return home with a canoe-load of goods instead of furs.

Before leaving, however, they had a specimen of one of the ways in which fur-traders in those lonely regions of the far north enjoy themselves.  The whole establishment consisted of the officer in charge-MacSweenie- his interpreter Donald Mowat, and seven men-two of whom were French Canadians, two half-castes, and three Orkney-men.  There were also three women, two being wives of the men from Orkney, and one the wife of one of the half-castes.

The greater part of the day previous to that on which they were to set out on the return voyage, Nazinred and Mozwa spent in testing the quality of their new guns in company with MacSweenie, who took his faithful Donald Mowat with him, partly to assist in carrying the game, and partly for interpreting purposes.  And a superb testing-ground it was, for the swampy spots and mud flats were alive with wild-fowl of all kinds, from the lively sandpiper to the great Canada grey goose, while the air was vocal with their whistling wings and trumpet cries, so that, whether they walked among the shrubs and sedges, or sat in ambush on the rocky points, ample opportunity was afforded to test the weapons as well as the skill of the owners.

The beginning of the day, however, was not quite satisfactory.  They had scarcely proceeded more than a few hundred yards from the fort when a flock of ducks was observed flying low and straight towards them.

“Down, man, quick!” exclaimed MacSweenie, crouching behind a large bush.  “You will get a goot chance, and the gun will kill if ye point straight, for the trade-guns are fery goot, the most of-wow!”

The sudden end of his remark was caused by Nazinred firing, and thereafter rising with the shattered fragments of the gun in his hand, and a little blood trickling from one of his fingers, while an expression of stern perplexity overspread his visage.

“Well, now, that iss most extraordinary,” said the trader, examining the weapon.  “I hev not seen such a thing for years.  To be sure, they are cheap and made of cast-iron, but they seldom burst like that, an’ they usually shoot straight, whatever!-Tell him, Tonal’, that he need not concern himself, for I will give him another.”

On this being translated, Nazinred seemed content, and began to examine his hurt, which by good fortune was a slight one.

“It might have been worse,” remarked Mowat gravely; “I’ve seen many a man in this country with a short allowance of finger-joints from the same cause.”

“What you observe is fery true, Tonal’,” said the trader, with a serious air, “it might have been worse.  There was a bit of the barrel went past my head that fery nearly put me on a short allowance of life.  But come with me to the store an’ we will choose a better one.”

Half an hour sufficed to select another fowling-piece, which stood all the tests to which it was subjected, and as evening was about to close in the whole party returned well laden with game, and thoroughly pleased with the weapons.

Meanwhile the men of the establishment had been variously employed, cutting and hauling firewood, attending the nets, etcetera, while the women had been busy making moccasins and mending garments.  The cook-an Orkney-man-had made extensive preparations for a feast, but this was a secret between him and MacSweenie; the latter being fond of occasionally giving his people a surprise-treat.

It was not indeed easy to surprise them at that time with unusually good food, for the land was swarming with spring life, and they daily enjoyed the fat of it.  But there were some little delicacies which were not to be had every day in the wilderness of the far north.  Among them was a round object about the shape, size, and consistency of a large cannon-ball, which was tied up in a cloth and seemed to require an immense amount of boiling.  The smell of this was delicious, and, when ultimately turned out of its cloth it presented a whitey-brown mottled appearance which was highly suggestive.

The cook also had a peculiar talent for making cakes, which no Nor’-Wester could imitate, but which any Nor’-Wester in the land could eat.  There were other trifles which it would take too long to mention, and large pots of tea which it would not take very long to drink.  That was all the drink they had, happily, for strong young people with high spirits do not require strong spirits to keep their spirits up!

After the feast, the tables and chairs were cleared away from the central, or reception, hall of the fort, and preparations were made for spending a harmonious evening; for, you see, stout people, in the prime of life, who have not damaged themselves with strong drink, find it difficult to exhaust their energies by means of an ordinary day’s work.

“Now, Tonal’,” said MacSweenie, “get out your fuddle an’ strike up.”

“The ladies have not finished their tea yet, sir,” replied the interpreter.

“Nefer mind that.  Just let them hear the strains of Lord Macdonald’s Reel, an’ you’ll make them chump whether they will or no.”

Thus encouraged, Mowat began, and sure enough there was something so inspiriting in the tuneful tones, the vigorously indicated time, and the lively air, that the excited Highlander gave a whoop that threw Indian war-cries quite into the shade, seized one of the “ladies” by an arm and unceremoniously led her to the middle of the floor.  The cook, who was used to his master’s ways, led out one of the other ladies in a similar free-and-easy manner, and soon two couples were thundering on the boards in all the glorious abandon of a Scotch reel.

They danced nothing but Scotch reels, for the good reason that none of them could dance anything else.  Indeed, none of them, except MacSweenie, could dance even these in correct fashion; but the reel, like the Scotch character, is adaptable.  It lends itself to circumstances, if we may say so, and admits of the absolutely ignorant being pushed, trundled, shoved or kicked through at least a semblance of it, which to the operators is almost as good as the reality.

Nazinred and Mozwa had never seen anything of the kind before, or heard the strains of a “fuddle.”  It may well be imagined, therefore, what was the condition of their minds.  Native reticence stood them in good stead for a considerable time, though, in spite of it, their eyes opened to an extent that was unusual; but as the fun became faster and more furious, their grave features relaxed, their mouths expanded, their teeth began to show, and they looked at each other with the intent, probably, of saying, “We never even dreamed of such things.”  But that look wrought a transformation, for when each beheld the other’s grin of unwonted levity he burst into a short laugh, then, becoming ashamed of themselves, they suddenly resumed their expressions of owlish gravity, from which they could not again be driven until a late period of the evening.

Frequent slices of the mottled cannon-ball, however, and unlimited mugs of highly-sugared tea, had the effect of thawing them down a little, but nothing could induce them to dance.

Next morning they were up by daybreak and ready to start for the farther north.

“Now mind,” said MacSweenie, through his interpreter, “don’t you be fechtin’ wi’ the Eskimos.  Dance wi’ them if ye will, but don’t fecht.  Better try an’ trade wi’ them.  An’ be sure ye bring some more o’ your people wi’ you the next time you come here.  We’ll be glad to see you.  The more the merrier.”

How Donald Mowat translated these words we cannot tell.  Perhaps he added to them a few sentiments of his own.  However that may be, it is certain that the Indians bade their entertainers farewell with feelings of hearty good-will, and, leaving the lonely outpost behind them, set off on the return journey to their wilderness home.