Read CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR - THE TRADERS AT WORK. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

Wherever half a dozen average men are banded together and condemned to make the best of each other’s society for a prolonged period, there is apt to be a stagnation of ideas as well as of aspirations, which tends more or less to develop the physical, and to stunt the spiritual, part of our nature.

So thought MacSweenie as he sat one fine spring morning on a rude chair of his own making in front of the outpost on Great Bear Lake which he had helped to build.

The Scottish Highlander possessed a comparatively intellectual type of mind.  We cannot tell precisely the reach of his soul, but it was certainly “above buttons.”  The chopping of the firewood, the providing of food, the state of the weather, the prospects of the advancing spring, and the retrospect of the long dreary winter that was just vanishing from the scene, were not sufficient to appease his intellectual appetite.  They sufficed, indeed, for his square, solid, easy-going, matter-of-fact interpreter, Donald Mowat; and for his chief fisherman, guide, and bowman, Bartong, as well as for his other men, but they failed to satisfy himself, and he longed with a great longing for some congenial soul with whom he might hold sweet converse on something a little higher than “buttons.”

Besides being thus unfortunate in the matter of companionship, our Highlander was not well off as to literature.  He had, indeed, his Bible, and, being a man of serious mind, he found it a great resource in what was really neither more nor less than banishment from the world; but as for light literature, his entire library consisted of a volume of the voyages of Sir John Franklin, a few very old numbers of Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, and one part of that pioneer of cheap literature, The Penny Magazine.  But poor MacSweenie was not satisfied to merely imbibe knowledge; he wished also to discuss it; to philosophise and to ring the changes on it.

He occasionally tried his hand on Mowat, who was undoubtedly the most advanced of his staff intellectually, but the results were not encouraging.  Donald was good-natured, amiable, ready to listen and to accord unquestioning belief, but, not having at that time risen above “buttons,” he was scarcely more able to discuss than an average lamp-post.

Occupying the position of a sort of foreman, or confidential clerk, the interpreter had frequent occasion to consult his superior on the details of the establishment and trade.

“I’m thinking, sir,” said he, approaching his master on the spring morning in question, “that we may as well give the boat an overhaul, for if this weather lasts the open water will soon be upon us.”

“You are right, Tonal’,” answered the trader, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, and proceeding to refill it.  “That iss just what wass in my own mind, for we must be thinkin’ about makin’ preparations for our trip to the Ukon Ruver.  We will hev to start whenever my successor arrives here.  Man, it will be a goot job when we are off, for I am seek-tired of this place.  Wan hes nothin’ in the world to think about but his stamik, an’ that iss not intellectooal, whatever.”

“Are we to use the inch or the inch-an’-a-half nails?” asked Mowat, after a moment’s pause.

“Whichever you like, Tonal’.  There iss plenty of both in the store, an’ ye are as goot a judge o’ these metters as I am myself.  Just help yoursel’, man; only see that the work is done well, for there iss a rough trup before us when we do git away.  An’ the load will be heavy moreover, for there will be a deal of stuff needed if we are to build an outpost fit to spend a winter in.  Man, it iss pleasant to think that we will break up new ground-open up a new country among savitches that scarce knows what like a white man iss.  We will feel quite like what we felt as boys when we was readin’ Robinson Crusoe.”

“We will need two pit-saws,” remarked the practical Orkney-man in a meditative tone.

“No doubt, no doubt,” returned MacSweenie, “and a grindstone too.  Do you remember what that man Nazinred said when he came here on his last trup,-that the Indians about his country would be fery pleased to see traders settle among them?  He little thought-an’ no more did I-that we would be so soon sent to carry out their wishes; but our Governor is an active-minded man, an’ ye never know what he’ll be at next.  He’s a man of enterprise and action, that won’t let the gress grow under his feet-no, nor under the feet of anybody that he hes to do wi’.  I am well pleased, whatever, that he hes ordered me on this service.  An’ no doubt ye are also well pleased to go, Tonal’.  It will keep your mind from gettin’ rusty.”

“I am not ill-pleased,” returned the interpreter gravely.-“I’m thinkin’ there won’t be enough o’ pitch to go over all the seams o’ the boat.  I was-”

“Hoot, man! never mind the putch, Tonal’.  What there iss will do fery well, an’ the boat that comes with supplies for the new post will be sure to hev plenty.  By the way, I wonder if that fine man Nazinred will hev come back when we get to the Ukon River.  It wass a strange notion of his the last comers told us about, to go off to seek his daughter all by himself.  I hev my doubts if he’ll ever come back.  Poor man! it wass naitural too that he should make a desperate attempt to get back his only bairn, but it wass not naitural that a wise man like him should go off all his lone.  I’m afraid he wass a little off his head.  Did they tell you what supplies he wass supposed to have taken?”

“Yes.  The wife said he had a strong sled with him, an’ the best team o’ dogs in the camp.-Do you think the boat will need a new false keel?  I was lookin’ at it, an’ it seemed to me rather far gone for a long trup.”

“I will go an’ hev a look at it, Tonal’.  But I hev been wonderin’ that Mozwa, who seemed so fond o’ his frund, should hev let him start away all by his lone on such a trup.”

“He couldn’t help lettin’ him,” said Mowat, “for he didn’t know he was goin’ till he was gone.”

“You did not tell me that,” said the trader sharply.

“Well, perhaps I did not,” returned the interpreter, with an amiable smile.  “It is not easy to remember all that an Indian says, an’ a good deal of it is not worth rememberin’.-Would you like me to set-to an’ clean up the store to-day, or let the men go on cuttin’ firewood?”

“Let them do whatever you think best, Tonal’,” replied MacSweenie, with a sigh, as he rose and re-entered his house, where he busied himself by planning and making elaborate designs for the new “fort,” or outpost, which he had been instructed to establish on the Ukon River.  Afterwards he solaced himself with another pipe and another dip into the well-worn pages of the Penny Magazine.

Not long after the conversation just narrated, the boat arrived with the gentleman appointed to relieve MacSweenie of his charge on Great Bear Lake, and with the supplies for the contemplated new post.

Action is not usually allowed to halt in those wild regions.  A few days sufficed to make over the charge, pack up the necessary goods, and arrange the lading of the expedition boat; and, soon after, MacSweenie with Donald Mowat as steersman, Bartong as guide and bowman, and eight men-some Orkney-men, some half-breeds-were rowing swiftly towards the Arctic shore.

Passing over the voyage in silence, we raise the curtain again on a warm day in summer, when animal life in the wild nor’-west is very lively, especially that portion of the life which resides in mosquitoes, sand-flies, and such-like tormentors of man and beast.

“We should arrive at the Ukon to-morrow, if my calculations are right- or nixt day, whatever,” said MacSweenie to his interpreter and steersman, as he sat smoking his pipe beside him.

“Bartong is of the same opeenion,” returned Mowat, “so between you we should come right.  But Bartong is not quite sure about it himself, I think.  At least he won’t say much.”

“In that respect the guide shows himself to be a wise man,” returned MacSweenie sententiously.  “It iss only geese that blab out all they think to everybody that asks them questions.”

“Ay, that is true,” rejoined Mowat, with a cynical smile, “an’ some geese manage, by sayin’ nothin’ at all to anybody, and lookin’ like owls, to pass themselves off as wise men-for a time.”

Bartong, who was being thus freely discussed in the stern of the boat, sat in his place at the bow-oar, pulling a steady stroke and casting serious looks right and left at the banks of the river as they went along.  He was a dark fine-looking stalwart man, of what may be called mixed nationality, for the blood of Scotchmen, French Canadians, and Indians flowed in his veins-that of Indians predominating, if one were to judge from appearance.  He was what is called in the parlance of the nor’-west a “good” man-that is to say he was mentally and physically well adapted for the work he had to do, and the scenes in the midst of which his lot had been cast.  He pulled a good oar; he laboured hard; could do almost any kind of work; and spoke English, French, and Indian almost equally well.  He also had a natural talent for finding his way almost anywhere in the wilderness.  Hence he had been sent as guide to the expedition, though he had never been at the Ukon River in his life.  But he had been to other parts of the Arctic shore, and had heard by report of the character and position of the river in question.

“It iss gettin’ late, Bartong; don’t you think it would be as well to camp here?” asked MacSweenie.

The bowman ceased rowing, and the crew followed his example, while he glanced inquiringly up at the sky and round his limited horizon, as guides and seamen are wont to do when asked for an opinion as to professional movements.

“There will yet be daylight for an hour, and there is a small lake ahead of us.  If we cross it, we come to a place where one of the Indians said he would meet us if we came to his country.”

“That is true, Tonal’,” said the leader, turning quickly to his steersman, “I had almost forgot that, it wass so long ago since we met them.  Both Nazinred and Mozwa said something about meetin’ us, if we came to settle, though I paid little attention at the time.  But are ye sure, Bartong, that this is the lake?”

“I know not.  It is not unlikely.  If it is the lake, it is small, and we will soon come to the end of it.  If it is not the lake, an’ turns out to be big, we can camp on the shore.  The night will be fine.”

“Go ahead then, boys,” cried the leader, “we will try.”

The oars were dipped at once, and the men pulled with a will, encouraged by the conversation, which seemed to indicate the approaching end of their voyage.

The lake over the bosom of which they were soon sweeping proved to be a small one, as they had hoped, but whether it was the one referred to by the Indians remained to be seen.  A sharp look-out was kept for the smoke of wigwams, but nothing of the kind was seen on either side, and the end of the lake was finally reached without any sign of the presence of natives being observed.

“No doubt Mozwa has forgotten, or it may be that he iss away to seek for his frund Nazinred among the Eskimos.  No metter.  We will camp here, whatever, for the night.  I think on the other side o’ that point will be a goot campin’ ground.”

He pointed in the direction indicated, and there was just daylight enough left to enable Mowat to steer into a narrow creek.

There is something calming, if not almost solemnising, in the quietude with which a boat glides ashore, on a dark night, under the overhanging trees of a wilderness lake.  The oars are necessarily stopped, and the voices hushed, while the bowman, standing erect, with a long pole in hand, tries to penetrate the thick mysterious darkness that seems to be the very gate of Erebus.  Bartong stood ready to thrust the head of the boat off any rocks that might suddenly appear in their course, or give the order to “back all” should the water become too shallow.  But no obstacles presented themselves, and the boat forged slowly ahead until it lay alongside a ledge of rock or natural jetty.  Then the spell was broken as the men leaped ashore and began to unload the things that were required for the night’s bivouac.

Still, the voices were moderated, for it is not easy to shake off the tranquillising effect of such a scene at such an hour, and it was not till the camp-fire was lighted, and the kettles were on, and the pipes going full blast, that the cheering effect of light chased the depressing influence of darkness away.

Then, indeed, MacSweenie, dropping the rôle of leader, assumed that of bon camarade; and Mowat, descending from the dignity of steersman, enlarged upon his experiences in other days; and Bartong, still retaining his dignity however, relaxed his anxious frown and listened with an air of intelligent appreciation that charmed every speaker, and induced the belief that he could cap every anecdote and story if he only chose to open his mouth; while the men divided their sympathies between the narratives, the tobacco-pipes, and the music of the frying-pan and bubbling kettle.

Then, too, the darkness into which they had penetrated fled away,-not indeed entirely, but forsaking the bright spot thus created in the wilderness, it encircled the camp as with a wall of ebony.

It was not long, however, ere appetites were appeased, and the voyagers sought repose; for men who have to work hard all day at a healthy occupation are not addicted to late hours-at least not in the wildernesses of the nor’-west.  Ere long every man was rolled in his blanket, stretched out with his feet to the fire and his head on his coat, while the blaze sank low, until at last the red embers alone remained to render darkness visible.

Among the last to seek repose were the leader of the expedition, the interpreter, and the bowman.  Having the cares of state on their shoulders, these three naturally drew together for a little consultation after the others had retired.

“What iss your opeenion, Bartong?” asked MacSweenie, pushing down the tobacco in his pipe with the end of a very blunt and much charred forefinger; “do you think the savitches will come here at all?”

“Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t,” answered the guide, with a caution worthy of the Scottish portion of his blood.  “We niver know what Injins is goin’ to do till they do it.”

“Umph!” ejaculated the Highlander; “if Solomon had been your grandfather you could scarcely hev made a wiser speech.-What think you, Tonal’?”

“Weel, as ye put it to me, I must say that I’m strongly of Bartong’s opeenion.”

“Just so,” remarked MacSweenie, with a thoughtful air; “so, as I agree wi’ you both, I think it iss about time for us all to turn in.”

He turned in accordingly, by lying back in his place and drawing his blanket over him.

The other statesmen immediately followed his example, and the camp subsided into silence.