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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 19. A Pilgrimage To The Barren
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 19. A Pilgrimage To The Barren Post by :Ndoki Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2242

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 19. A Pilgrimage To The Barren


The fourth night after he had left the plague-stricken cabin Billy was camped on Lame Otter Creek, one hundred and eighty miles from Fort Churchill, over on Hudson's Bay. He had eaten his supper, and was smoking his pipe. It was a clear and glorious night, with the sky afire with stars and a full moon. Several times Billy had stared at the moon. It was what the Indians called "the bleeding moon"-- red as blood, with an uneven, dripping edge. It was the Indian superstition that it meant misfortune to those who did not keep it at their backs. For seven consecutive nights it had made a red trail through the skies in that terrible year of plague nineteen years before, when a quarter of the forest population of the north had died. Since then it had been known as the "plague moon." Billy had seen it only twice before. He was not superstitious, but to-night he was filled with a strange sensation of uneasiness. He laughed an unpleasant laugh as he stared into the crackling birch flames and wondered what new misfortune could come to him.

And then, slowly, something seemed to come to him from out of the wonderful night like a quieting hand to still the pain in his broken heart. At last, once more, he was home. For the wind-swept Barrens and the forest had been his home, and more than once he had told himself that life away from them would be impossible for him. More deeply than ever this thought came to him to-night. He had become a part of them and they a part of him. And as he looked up again at the red moon the sight of it no longer brought him uneasiness, but a strange sort of joy. For an hour he sat there, and the fire died down. About him the rustle and whisper of the wild closed in nearer. It was his world, and he breathed more deeply and listened. Lonely and sick at heart, he felt the life and sympathy and love of it creeping into him, grieving with him in his grief, warming him with its hope, pledging him again the eternal friendship of its trees, its mountains, and all of the wild that it held therein. A hundred times, in that strange man-play that comes of loneliness in the far north, he had given life and form to the star shadows about him, to the shadows of the tall spruce, the twisted shrub, the rocks, and even the mountains. And now it was no longer play. With each hour that passed this night, and with each day and night that followed, they became more real to MacVeigh; and the fires he built in the black gloom painted him pictures as they had never painted them before; and the trees and the rocks and the twisted shrub comforted him more and more in his loneliness, and gave to him the presence of life in their movement, in the coming and going of their shadow forms. Everywhere they were the same old friends, unvarying and changeless. The spruce shadow of to-night, nodding to him in its silent way, was the same that nodded to him last night-- a hundred nights ago; the stars were the same, the winds whispering to him in the tree-tops were the same, everything was as it was yesterday-- years ago. He knew that in these things, and in these things alone, he would always possess Isobel. She would return to civilization, and the shifting scenes of life down there would soon make her forget him-- almost. But in his world there was no change. Ten years from now he might go over their old trail and still find the charred remains of the campfire he had built for her that night beside the Barren. The wilderness would bear memory of her so long as he was a part of it; and now, as he came nearer to Churchill, he knew that he would always be a part of it.

Three weeks after he had left Couchée's cabin he came into Fort Churchill. A month had changed him so that the factor did not recognize him at first. The inspector in charge stared at him twice, and then cried, "My God, is it you, MacVeigh?" To Pelliter alone, who was waiting for him, did Billy tell all that had happened down on the Little Beaver. There were several letters waiting for him at Churchill, and one of these told him that a silver property in which he was interested over at Cobalt had turned out well and that his share in the sale was something over ten thousand dollars. He used this unexpected piece of good-fortune as an excuse to the inspector when he refused to re-enlist. A week after his arrival at Churchill Bucky Smith was dishonorably discharged from the Service. There were several near them when Bucky came up to him with a smile on his face and offered to shake hands.

"I don't bear you any ill-will, Billy," he said, loud enough for the others to hear. "Only you've made a big mistake." And then, in words for Billy's ears alone, he added: "Remember what I promised you! I'll kill you for this if I have to hunt you round the world!"

A few days later Pelliter left on the last of the slush snows in an effort to reach Nelson House before the sledging was gone.

"I wish you'd go with me, Billy," he entreated for the hundredth time. "My girl 'd love to have you come, an' you know how I'd like it."

But Billy could not be moved.

"I'll come and see you some day-- when you've got the kid," he promised, trying to laugh, as he shook hands for the last time with his old comrade.

For three days after Pelliter's departure he remained at the post. On the morning of the fourth, with his pack on his back and without dogs, he struck off into the north and west.

"I think I'll spend next winter at Fond du Lac," he told the inspector. "If there's any mail for me you can send it there if you have a chance, and if I'm not at Fond du Lac it can be returned to Churchill."

He said Fond du Lac because Deane's grave lay between Churchill and the old Hudson's Bay Company's post over in the country of the Athabasca. The Barrens were the one thing that called to him now-- the one thing to which he dared respond. He would keep his promise to Isobel and visit Scottie's grave. At least he tried to make himself believe that he was keeping a promise. But deep in him there was an undercurrent of feeling which he could not explain. It was as if there were a spirit with him at times, walking at his side, and hovering about his campfire at nights, and when he gave himself up to the right mood he felt that it was the presence of Deane. He believed in strong friendship, but he had never believed in the love of man for man. He had not thought that such a thing could exist, except, perhaps, between father and son. With him, in all the castles he had built and the dreams he had dreamed, the alpha and omega of love had remained with woman. For the first time he knew what it meant to love a man-- the memory of a man.

Something held him from telling the secret of his mission at Churchill even to Pelliter. The evening before he left he had smuggled an ax into the edge of the forest, and the second day he found use for this. He came to a straight-grained, thick birch, eighteen inches in diameter, and he put up his tent fifty paces from it. Before he rolled himself in his blankets that night he had cut down the tree. The next day he chopped off the butt, and before another nightfall had hewn out a slab two inches thick, a foot wide, and three feet long. When he took up the trail into the north and west again the following morning he left the ax behind.

The fourth night he worked with his hunting-knife and his belt-ax, thinning down the slab and making it smooth. The fifth and the sixth nights he passed in the same way, and he ended the sixth night by heating the end of a small iron rod in the fire and burning the first three letters of Deane's epitaph on the slab. For a time he was puzzled, wondering whether he should use the name Scottie or David. He decided on David.

He did not travel fast, for to him spring was the most beautiful of all seasons in the wilderness. It was underfoot and overhead now. The snow-floods were singing between the ridges and gathering in the hollows. The poplar buds were swollen almost to the bursting point, and the bakneesh vines were as red as blood with the glow of new life. Seventeen days after he left Churchill he came to the edge of the big Barren. For two days he swung westward, and early in the forenoon of the third looked out over the gray waste, dotted with moving caribou, over which he and Pelliter had raced ahead of the Eskimos with little Isobel. He went to the cabin first and entered. It was evident that no one had been there since he had left, On the bunk where Deane had died he found one of baby Isobel's little mittens. He had wondered where she had lost it, and had made her a new one of lynx-skin on the way down to Couchée's cabin. The tiny bed that he had made for her on the floor was as she had last slept in it, and in the part of a blanket that he had used as a pillow was still the imprint of her head. On the wall hung a pair of old trousers that Deane had worn. Billy looked at these things, standing silently, with his pack at his feet. There was something in the cabin that closed in about him and choked him, and he struggled to overcome it by whistling. His lips seemed thick. At last he turned and went to the grave.

The foxes had been there, and had dug a little about the sapling cross. There was no other change. During the remainder of the forenoon Billy cut down a heavier sapling and sunk the butt of it three feet into the half-frozen earth at the head of Deane's grave. Then, with spikes he had brought with him, he nailed on the slab. He believed that no one would ever know what the words on that slab meant-- no one except himself and the spirit of Scottie Deane. With the end of the heated rod he had burned into the wood:


Died Feb. 27, 1908






W. M. April 15, 1908

He did not stop when it was time for dinner, but carried rocks from a ridge a couple of hundred yards away, and built a cairn four feet high around the sapling, so that storm or wild animals could not knock it down. Then he began a search in the warmest and sunniest parts of the forest, where the green tips of plant life were beginning to reveal themselves. He found snowflowers, redglow, and bakneesh, and dug up root after root, and at last, peeping out from between two rocks, he found the arrowlike tip of a blue flower. The bakneesh roots he planted about the cairn, and the blue flower he planted by itself at the head of the grave.

It was long past midday when he returned to the cabin, and once more he was oppressed by the appalling loneliness of it. It was not as he had thought it would be. Deane's spirit and companionship had seemed to be nearer to him beside his campfires and in the forest. He cooked a meal over the stove, but the snapping of the fire seemed strange and unnatural in the deserted room. Even the air he breathed was heavy with the oppression of death and broken hopes. He found it difficult to swallow the food he had cooked, though he had eaten nothing since morning. When he was done he looked at his watch. It was four o'clock. The northern sun had dropped behind the distant forests and was followed now by the thickening gloom of early evening. For a few moments Billy stood motionless outside the cabin. Behind him an owl hooted its lonely mating-song. Over his head a brush sparrow twittered. It was that hour, just between the end of day and the beginning of night, when the wilderness holds its breath and all is still. Billy clenched his hands and listened. He could not keep back the break that was in his breath. Something out there in the silence and the gathering darkness was calling him-- calling him away from the cabin, away from the grave, and the gray, dead waste of the Barren. He turned back into the cabin and put his things into the pack. He took the little mitten to keep with his other treasures, and then he went out and closed the door behind him. He passed close to the grave and for the last time gazed upon the spot where Deane lay buried.

"Good-by, old man," he whispered. Goodby--"

The owl hooted louder as he turned his face into the west. It made him shiver, and he hurried his steps into the unbroken wilderness that lay for hundreds of miles between him and the post at Fond du Lac.

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