Read CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE - THE OUTPOST, AND EFFECT OF A “FUDDLE.” of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

Soon afterwards the expedition of the fur-traders reached the Ukon River, a comparatively insignificant stream, but, from its character and position with reference to the Indians of that region, well suited for the establishment of an outpost.  At least so thought the natives who had reported upon it.

“There iss no doubt,” remarked MacSweenie, as he surveyed the banks of the river, “that the place is no’ that bad, but in my opeenion the summer will be short, whatever, an’ the winter it will be long.”

“Ye may be sure that you are not far wrong if it’s like the rest o’ this country,” replied Mowat.

“There now, look at that,” cried MacSweenie, who was a sketcher, and an enthusiast in regard to scenery; “did ever you see a prettier spot than that, Tonal’?  Just the place for a fort-a wee burn dancin’ doon the hull, wi’ a bit fa’ to turn a grindstone, an’ a long piece o’ flat land for the houses, an’ what a grand composeetion for a pictur’,-wi’ trees, gress, water, sky, an’ such light and shade!  Man, it’s magneeficent!”

“I’m thinkin’ that it’ll be a bad job if that keg o’ screw-nails we forgot at our last camp is lost-”

“Hoot, man, never mind the screw-nails.  We can easy send back for it.  But, wow! there’s a far grander place we’re comin’ in sight of-an’-iss that an Indian tent I see?”

“Ay, an’ there’s more than wan tent,” said Mowat, giving his steering oar a sweep that sent the boat farther out into the stream, and enabled them better to see what lay beyond the bend of the river in front of them.

“Hold on, lads; stop pullin’!”

The men lay on their oars and turned round to look ahead.  The view presented there was indeed a pleasant and inspiring one, though it was scarcely entitled to the appellation “magneeficent,” which MacSweenie applied to it.

The river at that place made a wide sweep on the right, round a low cliff which was crowned with luxuriant foliage.  The stream opened out into something like a miniature lake, and the water was so calm that the cliff and its foliage made a clear dark reflection.  The left bank was edged by a wide grass plateau some fifty yards wide, beyond which was a background of bushes and trees, with another “wee burn,” which doubtless suggested to MacSweenie the useful as well as the picturesque.  The distance was closed by ground varied in form as well as in character, indicating that a stream of considerable size joined the Ukon at that point.

But that which interested the beholders most of all was a number of Indian wigwams, which were pitched on the grassy plateau above referred to.

“Yonder are our frunds, I make no doubt,” said MacSweenie in high glee.  “That man Mozwa iss as goot as his word; an’ I do believe they have chosen the spot an’ been waitin’ for us.  Gif way, boys; an’, Tonal’, make for that landin’-slup-it must either be a naitural wan, or the Redskins hev made it for us.”

By that time the natives, having observed the boat, had launched several of their canoes.  The first man who came alongside was Mozwa himself.

“What cheer? what cheer, Mozwa?” cried the trader as he reached over the side and shook the Indian heartily by the hand.

“Watchee! watchee!” repeated Mozwa, returning the shake with equal good-will, though undisturbed solemnity.

The trader’s surmise proved to be correct.  Mindful of the prospect which had been held out to him and Nazinred, that an expedition might possibly be sent to establish an outpost and open up the fur trade in their immediate neighbourhood on the Ukon River, Mozwa had made more than one trip to the contemplated scene of operations, after the disappearance of his friend Nazinred, with the view of making himself well acquainted with the land, and ascertaining the best site for the new fort.  He did not of course suppose that the pale-faces would be guided entirely by his opinion, but he thought it not unlikely that they might weigh that opinion, and, if acted on at once, much time might be saved during the very brief summer season they had in which to place themselves comfortably in winter quarters before the hard weather should set in.

“You are a wise man, Mozwa,” said MacSweenie, when the Indian had explained his views to him in the united smoke of their pipes and the camp-fire.  “Your notion of a place for a fort iss not a bad one, an’ efter I hev had a look round I hev no doubt that I will agree wi’ you that this is the very best site in the neighbourhood.  Tell him that, Tonal’, an’ say that I am fery much obleeged to him for all the forethought and trouble he hes taken.”

Whether Donald translated all this as it was delivered we know not.  From the peculiar cast of his mind, however, coupled with the moderate depth of his knowledge of the Indian tongue, it is probable that his translation was neither literal nor comprehensive.  Indeed, it is not unlikely that his subsequent remark to one of his comrades,-“we told Mozwa it was very good of him to come to meet us, an’ the place would do well enough,”-was more like the sentence to which he had reduced it.  But whatever he said Mozwa seemed to be quite pleased with it.

“By the way, Tonal’, ask him about his friend Nazinred.”

The serious way in which the Indian shook his head showed that he had no good news to tell.  In a short time he had related all that was known about the sudden departure of his friend.

While Mozwa was thus engaged with the leader of the expedition, their guide Bartong was wandering among the wigwams and making himself agreeable to the natives, who, because of his mixed blood and linguistic powers, regarded him as a half-brother.

“Who is this man Nazinred that our leader is always talking about?” he asked of the old chief while seated in his tent.

“He is one of our chiefs, one of our boldest braves-”

“But not so brave as he looks,” interrupted Magadar, who was present; “he is fonder of peace than of fighting.”

“Foolish man!” exclaimed Bartong, with a smile so peculiar that Magadar did not feel quite sure that his remark was sincere.  “But has he not left your tribe?  I heard our steersman say something about that.”

“He left us in the winter to seek for his daughter, who was carried off by an Eskimo and has never come back since.  We don’t expect to see either of them again.”

Magadar said this with a grave countenance, for, however little he cared for the loss of the father, that of the daughter distressed him a little-not much, however; for could he not console himself with another wife?

Having questioned the old chief a little more on this point, he wandered off into other subjects, and finally left-intending to visit the wife of Nazinred on his way back to camp.

Isquay was sitting beside her niece Idazoo, embroidering a moccasin, when Bartong entered, squatted on a deerskin unceremoniously, and began to fill his pipe.

“What kind of a man is your husband?” asked the guide.

“A good man,” replied Isquay, who was tender-hearted, and could not speak of him without moist eyes.  “He was a good hunter.  None of the young men could equal him.  And he was kind.  He always had plenty of things to give me and Adolay.”

“They say he did not love war,” remarked Bartong.

“No; he hated it:  but he was brave, and a good fighter-the best in the tribe.  None of the young men dared to touch him.”

“Was the young brave Alizay afraid to touch him?” asked the guide, with a sly glance at the younger woman.

At this Idazoo flushed and looked up angrily.

“No,” she said sharply; “Alizay fears nothing.”

Bartong took no notice of the remark, but continued gravely to question the other.

“Was Nazinred very fond of his daughter?” he asked.

“Yes, very.”

“And was the girl fond of him and of you?”

“Yes,” replied the poor woman, beginning to weep gently.

“And she seems to have been very fond of this Eskimo, who, they tell me, saved your life once.”

“She was, but I did not think she would go away with him.  It was not like her-she was always so good and biddable, and told me everything.”

“Why did your husband go off alone?”

“I cannot tell.  I suppose he knew that none of the young men would go with him, or feared they might lose heart and turn back.  No doubt he thought it best to go by himself, for he was very brave; nothing would turn him back!”

A fresh though silent dropping of tears occurred here, and a severe pang of remorse shot through the heart of Idazoo as she thought of her unkind report of what had taken place beside the dead tree under the cliff.

“Don’t cry, Isquay; Nazinred will come back, you may be sure of that,” said the guide, in a confident tone, “and he will bring your little girl along with him, for when a man is good and brave he never fails!”

The brevity of summer near the shores of the Arctic Sea rendered it advisable that no time should be wasted in looking about too particularly for a site for the new trading-post; and as MacSweenie was well pleased with Mozwa’s selection he at once adopted it and set to work.

Deeming it important to open the campaign by putting a good taste in the mouths of his friends the Indians, he began by distributing a few gratuities to them-some coloured beads to the women, and a few lines, fish-hooks, and tobacco to the men.  Then he marked out a site for the future dwelling-house and store, got out the tools and set to work to fell, saw, and shape suitable timber for the buildings.  He constituted Magadar chief hunter to the establishment, supplied him with a new gun, powder and ball, and sent him off to the woods as proud as, and doubtless much happier than, a king.  Mozwa he kept by him, as a counsellor to whom he could appeal in all matters regarding the region and the people, as well as an overseer of those among his countrymen who were hired to render assistance.  Alizay was sent off in a canoe-much to the satisfaction of Mowat-for that forgotten keg of screw-nails which had lain so heavy on his mind, and the old chief was supplied with unlimited tobacco, and allowed to wander about at will, under the agreeable impression that he was superintendent-general of the works.  Isquay, Idazoo, and some of the other women were furnished with moose-deer skins and needles, and employed to make moccasins for the men, as well as to do all the needful repairs to garments.

Thus the plateau on the banks of the Ukon River presented, during the weeks that followed, a scene of lively bustle and unfamiliar noise to the furred and feathered inhabitants of those vast solitudes, and formed to the Red men a new and memorable era in their monotonous existence.

At last there came a day when the roof of the principal dwelling was completely covered, the doors were fixed up, and the glazed windows fitted in.

“Now, Tonal’,” remarked MacSweenie, on the morning of that auspicious day, “it iss a house-warming that I will be giving to-night, for the Indians will be expectin’ something o’ the sort, so you will be telling the cook to make the biggest lump o’ plum-duff he ever putt his hands to; an’ tell him not to spare the plums.  It iss not every day we will be givin’ thiss goot people a blow-out, an’ it iss a matter of great importance, to my thinking, that first impressions should be good ones.  It iss the duty of a new broom to sweep clean.  If it continues, goot and well, but if it does not begin that way it iss not likely to come to it, whatever.  There iss far more than people think in sentiment.  If you fail to rouse a sentiment of goot-will, or confidence, or whatever it may be, at a first start-off it iss not easy to rouse it afterwards.  Hev ye not noticed that, Tonal’?”

“I can’t say that I have,” answered the interpreter, with a matter-of-fact frown at the ground, “but I have noticed that the pit-saw they was usin’ yesterday has been allowed to saw into the holdin’-irons and damaged half o’-”

“Hoots, man! never mind the pit-saw!” exclaimed MacSweenie, with a touch of asperity.  “All the planks we want are sawn, an’ if they were not, surely we could mend-tut, man, I wonder ye can play the fuddle.  It always seemed to me that a goot fuddler must be a man of sentiment, but ye are the exception, Tonal’, that proves the rule.  Away wi’ you an’ gie my orders to the cook, an’ see that you have the fuddle in goot tune, for we will want it to-night.  An’ let him hev plenty of tea, for if we gain the women we’re sure o’ the men.”

Mowat retired with a smile on his broad benignant face.  He understood his leader, and was not offended by his plain speaking.  Besides, it was not easy to make the interpreter take offence.  His spirit was of that happy nature which hopeth all things and believeth all things.  It flowed calm and deep like an untroubled river.  Nothing short of a knock-down blow would have induced Donald Mowat to take offence, but that would certainly have stirred him, and as he possessed vast physical strength, and was something awful to behold when roused, and his comrades were aware of these facts, the serenity of his life was not often or deeply ruffled.

The cook, who was an enthusiast in his art, did his best, and was eminently successful.  His plum-duff dumpling was bigger than any gun- at least of ancient type-could have swallowed, and the plums, as Mowat afterwards said, did not need to seek for each other.  He made enough of delightfully greasy cakes to feed an army, and, according to his own statement, infused “lashin’s o’ tea.”

Before the hour for the feast arrived that night, Mowat got out his violin and went into one of the rooms of the new house to put it in order.  The window of the room looked towards the back of the house, where the forest was seen just beyond the plateau.

Drawing a bench to the window, he sat down and opened the case.  Of course he found the first string broken, but that did not break his heart, for he had a good supply of spare strings, and if these should fail-well, there were plenty of deer-sinews in the land.  It was soon put to rights, and, leaning his back against the wall, he began to tickle the strings gently.  Whatever he was at other times, there is no doubt that the interpreter was full of genuine sentiment the moment he got the violin under his chin.

Now at that moment three young Dogrib braves chanced to be passing under the window, which was about seven feet from the ground.  Though equally young, and no doubt equally brave, as well as equally Dogribbed, those three youths were not equally matched, for one was tall and thin, another was short and thick, while the third was middle-sized and fat.  They had been hunting-successfully-for the thick man carried a small deer on his lusty shoulders.

On hearing the first notes of the instrument the three youths started into three different attitudes as if of petrified surprise, and remained so, waiting for more.

They had not to wait long, for, after tickling the fiddle once or twice to get it in perfect tune, Mowat raised his eyes to the pine-plank ceiling and glided softly into one of those exquisite Scottish airs by means of which a first-rate performer on the violin can almost draw the soul out of a man’s body.  We think it was “The Flowers of the Forest.”

Whatever it was the three Dogribs were ravished.  They turned their heads slowly, as if afraid to break the spell, and looked at each other, showing the whites of their great eyes increasingly, while each raised a hand with spread fingers as if to keep the others from speaking.  They had never heard anything approaching to it before.  They had never even imagined anything like it.  It was an utterly new sensation.  What could it be?  They had heard of something strange in the musical way from Nazinred and Mozwa, but with the carelessness of youth they had scarce listened to the comments of these men.  Now it burst upon their awakened sense like sounds from some other planet.  Their mouths opened slowly as well as their eyes, and there was an expression of awe in their faces which betokened a touch of superstitious fear.

Suddenly Mowat drew his bow across all the strings with a skirl that might have shamed the bagpipes, and burst into the Reel o’ Tullochgorum.

The effect was electrical.  The thick man dropped the deer; the thin man sloped forward; the fat man sprang into the air, and all three made for the woods as if all the spirits of evil were after them in full cry.

We need hardly say, after this, that those Dogrib Indians spent an excited and agreeable evening with the fur-traders.  They appreciated the dancing, undoubtedly, though very few of them would condescend to join.  They appreciated the plum-duff and the greasy cakes highly, and they more than appreciated the tea-especially the women-which MacSweenie took care to provide hot, strong, and sweet.  But there is no doubt that the lion of the evening was-the “fuddle.”