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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCaptain Mugford: Our Salt And Fresh Water Tutors - Chapter 16. Mr. Clare's Story
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Captain Mugford: Our Salt And Fresh Water Tutors - Chapter 16. Mr. Clare's Story Post by :healthyways2101 Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :2315

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Captain Mugford: Our Salt And Fresh Water Tutors - Chapter 16. Mr. Clare's Story


The year before I left Canada, in the fall, as the autumn is called there, I started with a number of other young men in our neighbourhood, the county town of C---, to go about seventy-five miles up the Ottawa, what is called lumbering. The winter work is cutting down the trees and getting them to the riverbank ready for the spring thaw, when they are gathered in rafts and floated down to a seaport. We went provided for six months' severe life in the snowbound forests. Almost every man, too, took his gun or rifle. The journey to the site of our winter's encampment was made on foot; our clothes, provision, stoves, and cooking utensils being loaded on an ox-cart that accompanied us, the oxen being necessary to haul the timber to the river, as our work extended back.

After a week's journey, we came to the spot selected for our winter's work, on a bend of the river, ten miles above where the M--- joins the Ottawa. Of course it is an utterly wild region there, never trodden except by hunters, and away beyond the usual search of lumbermen. I do not know why my uncle, the lumber-boss of our expedition, went sixty miles beyond ordinary timber-cuttings. Perhaps it was to procure, on a special order, a remarkably fine choice of oak and pine, and that that spot had been marked by him in some hunting trip or Indian survey as producing the finest timber in the colony. It was grandly beautiful there, where a valley, running at a right angle to the river's course, spread out at the bank to a semicircle, containing a hundred acres and more of most magnificent trees--a vast forest city, inhabited by immense patriarchs, grey-bearded with moss. Their dignity and stateliness and venerable air were most impressive; and when they sang to the strong wind, chanting like the Druids of old, even I, who had so long lived in a country of forests, was filled with awe. And we, pigmies of twenty and thirty years, had invaded this sanctuary to slay its lords, who counted age by centuries, and had lived and reigned here before our forefathers first trode the continent. The quietude and hazy light of Indian summer floated through the aisles and arches of the solemn forest city as we first saw it--a leaf falling lazily now and then across the slanting beams of the setting sun--a startled caribou, on the discovery of our approach, hurrying from his favourite haunt with lofty strides. All else in the picture before us was silent and motionless. Our winter's home! Those lofty coverts to be levelled to a bare, stump-marked plane! The old vikings of the primeval forests, to be fashioned by the axe, to battle with the fury of the ocean, and reverberate with reports of hostile broadsides--to bear the flag of their country in peace and commerce, too, to far-distant lands--all as triumphantly as they had for ages wrestled only with the winds!

You laugh, Drake; and you are right, for I doubt if many of us thought then in that strain. No, there is not much sentiment among lumbermen, and as we regarded those mighty oaks and pines, it was principally with speculative calculation as to how many solid feet of prime timber "that 'ar thicket would yield."

The first task was that of building log-houses--two for our twenty hands. In each was an immense chimney-piece, a cooking-stove, and a bed stretching the width of the house on the floor, with a mattress of hemlock boughs. The rifles and shotguns hanging over the wide fireplace, and a long pine table and rustic benches, completed the furniture of our houses. The oxen and a company of hounds and mongrels had their quarters in a low log barn between the houses. Our supplies of fresh meat for the winter depended upon the good use of the firearms, and each week some one man of our number was detailed as hunter.

That winter of 1824 proved the coldest ever remembered in America, but the long mild autumn gave no threats of the season that was to succeed it. Before the first snow--which was, I remember, on November 20--our little forest colony was comfortably established, and a score of big trees laid stretched in the leaves.

In our company were many fine, intelligent young men--all taught somewhat, some tolerably well educated. None had been to college. I little thought at that time of becoming a scholar and a clergyman. They were frank, generous, honourable fellows--honest and brave, but perfectly ungodly and reckless of Heaven's displeasure or the life hereafter. After the day's labour, the evening was dissipated in card-playing, swearing, and hard drinking. Many a scene of riot and orgies did those log-walls witness. Such is generally the life in a lumber-camp: hard, wholesome labour in the day, loud revelling at night. The rough, adventurous life, with no home charm or female influence to refine or restrain, is probably the principal reason of such low practice of life in the lumberman's camp.

The worst character in our company--and he happened to be in the same house with me--was a man of twenty-eight years of age, the son of a French father and American mother, and whose mother's grandfather had been an Indian warrior of some renown in the early history of our province. In him were united the savageness of the red man, the gaiety of the Frenchman, and the shrewdness of the Yankee. He was a large, handsome, and immensely muscular man, with dark complexion, small straight features, quick black eyes, and long raven-coloured beard and hair that hung down to his shoulders. Utterly wicked and unprincipled as he was, his merriment, off-hand and daring, lent him a certain fascination and popularity among us. He was very witty, his laugh was rich and constant, he sang well, and played in a dashing way the violin. Every night he found some one to gamble with him. Every night he drank a pint of whisky, and kept the cabin in an uproar.

I greatly disliked this Guyon Vidocq; because he exerted a most baneful influence in our company, all of whom except the boss were younger than himself.

The best man of our number was John Bar, and a fine Christian, cheerful-hearted fellow he was. Although differing so widely from Guyon Vidocq, he, without any effort to do so, and indeed unconsciously, disputed the palm of popularity with him. He was an active, powerful man too, and though terribly pockmarked, had a most agreeable countenance. He could troll a pleasant stave, and loved, when off hunting or at work with his axe sometimes, to sing one of our C--- Sunday hymns, and whenever there was a respectable party in the evening, instead of the usual rioting set, he would willingly give them "The Fireside at home," "Merrily row, the Boat row," or any of the good old-fashioned songs, pure and inspiriting. Not another of us was so cheerful and industrious as John Bar. Drinking, gambling, or swearing, he was never guilty of, and when the evening orgies commenced he generally spoke to me, and we went off together to visit at the other cabin, or, if they were as bad there, find a warm corner with our blankets in the log barn, and there chat away the hours until our companions had calmed down and turned into their bunks. John Bar was not a meddler, nor what is contemptuously called, in such reckless societies as ours was, "a preacher;" but as he was loyal to his country, and loyal to his parents, he was far more loyal to his God. It would madden any _man to hear his mother's name profanely used; it made John Bar's heart sick--yes, and I have seen him tremble with rage--when the name of his Saviour was taken as an oath. Sometimes then, and at other times when the wickedness in camp was rampant, he would break out in words of fire--words of fire that soon mingled with, and at last wholly changed to, words of love and entreaty. The others never resented these attacks, these living sermons that his overpowering sense of duty and outraged feeling made him speak. They felt the power of his influence, and acknowledged his goodness, for it was full of charity. Even Guyon Vidocq resented not John Bar's corrections. He laughed, uttered another oath, and took himself away. But, alone, his face grew dark and angry, for he feared the power of John's goodness, and _hated him.

My turn as hunter did not come until December 18, and my companion from the other house was an old acquaintance of mine in C---. We had been schoolmates and near neighbours when boys, but since that he had been away at sea. He was a quiet, amiable young man, and one of the steadiest in our camp.

Sometimes such an expedition kept the hunters away for the entire week, and sometimes they would get separated. In either case the night's shelter was a rough one, and dependent for safety and comfort upon the man's ingenuity and hardihood. But where two could keep together, both the labour and danger of those night camps in the snow were lessened. As game was killed, it was stowed away in what hunters call a _cache_-- that is, a hole for hiding and securing what we wished from the depredations of wolves and other wild animals; and then the ox-cart, when it was practicable--but generally, in winter, a sled drawn by hand--was sent out to bring in the game. My companion, Maine Mallory, and I started together up the frozen river; we agreed to keep together, if possible, and for that reason I carried a rifle and he a double-barrelled shotgun of large bore for throwing buckshot. We were dressed as warmly as our exercise would allow, and had, strapped on our backs, blankets and snow-shoes. Besides which, each one's wallet held five pounds of bread, pepper and salt, powder, shot, and bullets, and pipe and tobacco, not forgetting the most important of all, flint and steel. We proposed to follow up a branch of the Ottawa to a lake south-east of Mount K---, and there hunt with a party of very friendly Indians, who had a most comfortable camp in a spot near the lake. They were collecting winter skins to send down by us in the spring for sale in Montreal. Our first day's journey was about twenty miles on the hard frozen river, covered with a crust of snow so stiff as to render snow-shoes unnecessary; but it was hard work, for the weather was bitterly cold. We shot--that is, Maine Mallory did--a couple of partridges and a rabbit for our suppers, and halted early in a hemlock wood, where there was a northerly shelter of rocks; indeed, a crevice in the rocks was almost a cave for us, a cave where we gathered quantities of hemlock for bedding, and built at its entrance a huge fire, which, by night--when we had cut wood enough to last until morning, and had cooked and eaten our game--had made a deep hot bed of ashes. It was so cold, though, that we feared to sleep much; each took a turn at napping whilst the other fed the fire. The wood was as quiet as the grave; not a breath of wind; no night-bird nor prowling animal; nothing but the fine crackling of the cold. When I watched, I almost _wished to see a wolf or bear--something to come in on the ghostly, silvered circle that the firelight illumined; something to start my congealing blood with a roar or spring. In the morning we took to the river course again, and went on, but resolved to try as hard as we could to reach the Indians' camp before another night. It was twenty-seven miles, we calculated, but we did it; and about nine o'clock heard the yelping of the Indian dogs that sounded our approach while we were yet half a mile from the camp. We knew the five Indians there; two came out to learn who drew near. Worn out and benumbed with cold, we gladly gave ourselves into their hands to be warmed and fed. They were well provided against severe cold, and soon made us comfortable; but we were too wearied the next day to do any hunting.

The Indians said the weather was growing colder every day, and the head-man, a middle-aged chief, called Ollabearqui, or Trick the Bear, told with an ominous grunt, that when the cold "grow bigger and bigger and the winds stay asleep, then Ollabearqui is afraid."

On the second morning of our stay among the Indians four of us went out after moose. Two, Mallory and an Indian, were to go around a mountain to the eastward, and Ollabearqui and I were to follow a valley which would bring us to the foot of the same mountain on the farther side, where we agreed to meet the others. A large, gaunt, savage-faced hound followed my Indian companion. He and I had each a rifle. We went quickly and silently through the white-clothed forests for about four miles. At length, where the small fall of the valley stream was held in great ice-shackles by the severe cold, and only a little pool of six inches diameter kept alive just beneath the icicles, we came out of the woods to a rocky, bushy foot and projection of the bare, stone-marked mountain. We had advanced to follow its base a short distance when my Indian companion, who had grown more careful and earnest lately, turned suddenly one side to a stiffly frozen covert of low bushes. The dog, before this most dull and dejected in his walk at his master's heels, now sprang ahead and into the bushes. In a moment he came out again with his nose close to the snow, and as he emerged raised his head and gave one short, fierce howl. Ollabearqui spoke to him in the Indian tongue, and the dog renewed his search, going back again to the little spring. The Indian at the same time pointed to the ground for me to see a track, but no mark of any kind was visible to my eye--not a scratch or impression on the hard snow-crust. Now the dog left the trees again and led us up the steep, rough side of the mountain--a most difficult path to climb, frozen as it was. One hundred and fifty feet or more up, the dog stopped before a mass of wildly piled rocks, and there barked loudly and angrily. We reached the spot, Ollabearqui some minutes before me, and discovered the narrow mouth of a cavern, at which the hound was furiously digging. The Indian cocked his rifle, saying, "Panther! Look out!" In a few moments the dog had made the hole big enough to admit his head and fore paws, and he attempted to crawl in, but at the same moment we heard a rumbling growl, like an infuriated cat's, but twenty times as strong, and the dog came out with a deep gash on the side of his head, cutting the mouth back a couple of inches. Again his master ordered him in. This time he entered entirely, and then we listened to the furious noises of the two beasts, in a desperate struggle evidently. In ten minutes the commotion ceased, but the hound did not return. I peered into the cavern, but could see nothing. As I rose to my feet after the attempt, I saw Ollabearqui, who had jumped to a point somewhat above the cavern's entrance, with his rifle at his shoulder. I looked where it pointed, and saw a tremendous panther-cat springing up the mountain-side--it had probably crawled out from some other opening of the cave. At the same moment I heard a report, and saw the beast roll forward on its breast, but as quick as a flash it rose again and dashed at the shooter. It was all done in a second, but I could see Ollabearqui trying to draw his knife. The panther struck him, and he lost his footing and rolled backwards from the ledge on which he stood; the panther saved itself from the fall, but bounded back, from the mere force of the spring, I suppose, to the other side of the rock. The savage beast was not more than twelve yards from me, but seemed to be unconscious of my presence. Stunned by the heavy fall, Ollabearqui did not rise, and I saw the panther crawl around the ledge to spring on his prostrate foe. I brought up my rifle, and took deliberate aim at the animal's shoulder. I fired. The panther made one tremendous leap, and fell with a dying yell on Ollabearqui's breast. I ran up, and, as I supposed, found the Indian only bruised and stunned by his tumble. As I removed the dead beast from his body, Ollabearqui grunted and uttered a laconic "Good!" He then rose somewhat lamely, and he and I set about digging at the cave. Soon we managed to pull out the dog, which was dead, and then, pushing the panther's corpse into the cavern, we stopped up both ends with heavy stones and went on, descending to a track through the forest again.

The luck was all mine that day, for when we had nearly reached the point where we were to meet our fellow-hunters, we heard, at a long distance beyond, a noise that the Maine hunter knows well--a dull, clacking noise, like the regular blows in a blacksmith's shop ever so far away. It was the trot of a moose. When at a slow pace they always strike their hoofs together in that way, as a horse overreaches. We drew behind some large trees, and, after ten minutes of anxious waiting, discerned a very large bull moose coming on a waddling trot towards us. He had probably been started by our companions, for he had his ears pointed back, and turned his neck every few minutes as if to catch some sound behind. He passed near Ollabearqui first, at about eighty yards. There was only a click! Ollabearqui's rifle had snapped. The moose, alarmed by the noise, increased his pace greatly, but came directly towards me, so that when I pulled trigger he was not farther off than twenty-five feet. He fell dead, a bullet right through his heart. My companion was not envious because of my good fortune. He scolded the erring rifle in his own language, and then said to me, "Good! good! You white-man very big shoot--ugh!" We joined Mallory and the other Indian soon after. They had only killed a fox. Together we made two sled-drags of the thickest, heaviest hemlock boughs, and loading the game--the panther-cat and fox on one sled, and the moose on the other-- pulled them to the Indian camp.

The weather was too bitterly cold for hunting. Even the wild animals seemed not to go about any more than their wants required. So Mallory and I decided to buy some more meat from the Indians, and get them to go with us back to our lumbering station and help to carry the game on hand-sleds, which we could do with comparative ease on the river. The bargain was made, and Ollabearqui and two other Indians started with us the next morning, that we might reach our camp on the twenty-fourth, or on Christmas morning. No doubt the hope of getting whisky from our men induced the Indians to assent so readily to the proposition. The sled enabled us to take plenty of heavy furs and blankets for protection against the intense cold. Mallory and I also made a gallon of strong coffee before leaving the Indian camp; that we were able to heat three or four times a day, and would prove the greatest ally against the cold.

We made a long march the first day--nearly thirty miles--but suffered greatly from the unusually severe weather; and if our red friends had not taken us to an Indian mound to pass the night--which we used as a hut, packing all our furs against its stone sides and keeping up an immense fire in the centre, the smoke escaping where we removed a stone on the top--and had we not had the coffee to heat and drink continually, I really believe we should all have been frozen to death that terrible night. As it was, I remember it as the most painful and comfortless night I ever passed.

The morning came, and we could stir about; but the sun seemed to give no warmth, and a light wind was blowing to make the cold more searching. For some reason I could not explain to myself, I felt strangely anxious to get home. In the fitful naps I had caught during the night I had suffered from most painful dreams; but all I could remember of them were the faces of Guyon Vidocq and John Bar, and no sight of the camp or of the other men, only heaps of cinders where the log-houses stood. As soon as we had had our breakfast I urged my companions to get under way quickly. To my astonishment the Indians answered, "Us no go--us go back--so cold, ugh!--pipe of the Great Spirit gone out--us go back!" To our questionings and urgings they only grunted, shook their heads, and answered as before. So all Mallory and I could do was to let the fellows take their way. We packed the game in the stone mound, and piled stones and brushwood against its entrance and smoke-hole; and then with our guns, and the jug of what was left of the coffee on a sling between us, we started on our way.

That day's journey is a distressing remembrance. Despite the cold, we advanced briskly enough until noon. Then the wind grew stronger, whilst we got weak from the exposure. The cold increased. A numbness of mind and body was creeping over us, and our limbs were heavy to move. At about three we stopped, and in what shelter we could find, built a great fire; and heating the coffee as hot as we could swallow it, drank nearly all that remained, and ate a dinner. That strengthened and warmed us up enough to help us along until sunset. We were then only four or five miles from camp; but had not the wind gone down with the sun, we must have perished before reaching home, for from that time our sufferings increased, and both of us grew drowsy. Several times Mallory's halting steps stopped entirely, and he would have gone into the fatal sleep which precedes death from freezing, had I not shaken him and pushed and urged him. To me it was like walking in a sleep.

I dragged along almost unconsciously, and yet knowing enough to keep the river track and move my legs. The fact that Mallory was nearer death than I--which was shown by his constant attempts to lie down--kept me up. The sense of responsibility aroused my mind. I would implore him to try to walk for a little while longer, and then push him along again. About eight o'clock I got a fire going again, and made Mallory drink, the last drop. I told him we were not more than half a mile from the cabins--that he must rouse up now, and strive with me to reach our friends. "Was he willing to die," I asked, "just as we were on the threshold of safety?" The coffee helped him a little, but I had had none, so in that last struggle he was as strong as I. That half-mile was only accomplished after an hour's walking, and in every minute of that hour I felt that I could not make another effort.

At length we staggered to the door of Maine Mallory's cabin, and were _saved_! John Bar, who was in there, a refugee from the Christmas Eve frolic in our own cabin, rubbed my limbs, and poured cup after cup of strong coffee down my throat, and, when I was sufficiently recovered, gave me a good supper. The same was done for Mallory. But even in the cabin, with two immense fires and warm clothing, it was difficult to keep warm. The water in the drinking pail, four feet from the stove, was one mass of ice. Outside, that terrible night, the thermometer in Montreal, I heard afterwards, fell to 23 degrees below zero. With us there was no thermometer to mark the temperature, but it must have been lower.

Half of the gang of my log-house, including John Bar, were spending the evening where I had sought shelter, too wearied to go a hundred yards farther to my own quarters. The other five, one of whom was Guyon Vidocq, were having a regular drinking and gambling bout in the other cabin. We heard their yells from time to time. At about eleven o'clock John Bar left us to seek his bed. I doubted if he would find his bed very agreeable amid such an orgy as was reported to be going on under the other roof; so I, thoroughly enjoying the bright fire and new life after the exposure of the last few days, lingered a while longer, though utterly wearied, and answered the questions about our hunt. Maine Mallory had turned into bed long ago. But when my watch showed it was twelve, I got up to seek a night's sleep.

As I stepped into the intensely cold air, I was actually startled by the solemnity and beauty of the scene; for the moon had risen since my return to camp, and flooded the winter scene in the most glorious radiance. The gigantic trees were magnified in the pure, clear light, and their dark shadows stretched far on the glistening snow. Here and there were the fallen timbers mounded over by drifts. Beyond, the white mountains faded away to the pale sky. Not a sound, not a murmur of wind, not a voice to break the awful stillness.

With great thankfulness for my deliverance from the stark death that had been so near me all day, I looked up to heaven and remembered the blessed birth eighteen centuries ago when Jesus Christ came to the earth as a little babe.

Turning my steps to the other log-house, I wondered to see no light, and was surprised, too, that the riot there had ceased by midnight. As I walked the hundred yards, the song of the heavenly hosts of old sounded in my heart: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!"

Drawing near the cabin, I was amazed to see the door stretched wide open, and no light within. Instantly a dark foreboding fell upon me, and I remembered the fearful visions of the night before. What could it be that I was to encounter? I ran to the open door, and entered. No fire! only those few dull ashes. What did it mean? "Boys," I cried, "boys, where are you?" No reply. "Boys! Langdon! Vidocq! Bar!" and there came from near me a stifled answer, as if the speaker was but half awake. Trembling violently, I struck a match, and beheld John Bar, lying almost at my feet in a bundle of furs, and a pool of blood by him, and four other figures in everyday garments, without any other covering, stretched in different attitudes on the floor--sleeping, I thought. Yes, they were sleeping, but in death. Where they had fallen in drunken stupor the ice-breath of Death had stiffened them for his own.

"Is that you, Clare? Thank God! I am bleeding and freezing to death."

"Who harmed you, Bar? Tell me first--Vidocq? I thought so. In a second we'll help you."

Quicker than I can write it, I had run to the other cabin, aroused the inmates, and we had all reached the fatal cabin.

Some of us carefully removed Bar to the second house, whilst others chafed the bodies on the floor and poured warm drinks into their mouths to revive the spark of life, if it yet lingered. But they were frozen to death. The log-cabin in which my companions and I had lived for three months was now the lumberman's dead-house. There the four bodies were to rest until they could be moved to their graves. The next morning Guyon Vidocq's body was laid beside those of his companions. He had been found stretched dead on the riverbank.

Such was our Christmas.

It appeared that when John Bar had gone to his cabin he found four of the inmates lying drunk on the floor, the fires expiring, and Guyon Vidocq in a delirium of intoxication pulling everything to pieces-- table, benches, etcetera--to pile them in the corner, and, then, as he said, light a real Christmas bonfire. John Bar immediately saw the danger that the poor creatures on the floor were in, and whilst he tried to get fires going in the stove and chimney-place as quickly as possible, he also exerted his influence to soothe Guyon Vidocq and make him cease his crazy work. But the presence of Bar seemed to madden Vidocq immediately. From the time the former entered the house, Vidocq cursed him with every vile oath his drunken lips could frame, and, when Bar attempted remonstrance and command, the infuriated maniac suddenly caught up a table knife, and plunged it in his opponent's side. Then with a yell Vidocq rushed from the house, leaving the door thrown back for the deadly cold to enter and complete his work. John Bar said that he fell when the knife struck him; that he had strength to crawl to a pile of furs and blankets; that he even tried to cover his companions, but could not; that he called for help as long as he had voice; and that, when I entered, an hour after the assault, he had lost all consciousness. The bleeding had ceased, but the sleep of the frozen was falling on him.

Those events of Christmas Day broke up the lumber-camp.

John Bar was not dangerously wounded, and when we were able to carry him on a sled to the nearest settlement he quickly recovered.

"And now, boys, you have had your stories, so let's off to bed. Captain Mugford, Ugly has gone to sleep over mine. He prefers sea narratives."

But Ugly heard his name, and broke off in the middle of a snore to come and put his paws apologetically on Mr Clare's knee.

The sail Harry and I had watched disappeared behind the point of rocks soon after Mr Clare commenced his story, and while waiting anxiously for her reappearance we listened with much interest to Mr Clare; and as he was finishing she came out again and stood to the south-west. Determined to investigate the mystery ourselves, we said nothing to the others. By the time we reached the deck to take our way homeward the little sail was hardly distinguishable. As no one noticed it, Harry and I went to bed, partners in a secret full of romance to us.

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