Now the small sack of flour and the side of bacon and the loose provisions brought from the Post could last but a little time, and the journey was like to be long. The travellers were to be forced from now on, just as are the wolves, the eagles, the hawks, the carcajous, and other predatory creatures of the woods, to give their first thoughts to the day's sustenance. All other considerations gave way to this. This was the first, the daily tribute to be wrested from the stubborn grasp of the North. Winning that, anything was possible; failing that, nothing could follow but defeat. Therefore, valuable exceedingly were the two little steel traps and the twelve-foot length of gill-net, the sharp, thin knives in the beaded sheaths, and especially precious, precious above all things else, the three hundred rounds of ammunition for the rifles. They must be guarded and cared for and saved.
Therefore an incident of the early afternoon was more than welcome.
All the morning they had toiled against the current, sometimes poling, sometimes "tracking" by means of a sixty-foot cod-line. Dick looped this across his chest and pulled like a horse on the tow-path, while Sam Bolton sat in the stern with the steering-paddle. The banks were sometimes precipitous, sometimes stony, sometimes grown to the water's edge with thick vegetation. Dick had often to wade, often to climb and scramble, sometimes even to leap from one foothold to another. Only rarely did he enjoy level footing and the opportunity for a straight pull. Suddenly in a shallow pool, near the river's edge, and bordered with waist-high grass, he came upon a flock of black ducks. They were full grown, but as yet unable to fly. Dick dropped his tow-line and ran forward with a shout. At once the ducks became confused, scattering in all directions, squawking madly, spattering the water. The mother flew. The brood, instead of making for the open river, where it would have been safe, scuttled into the tall grasses.
Here was the chance for fresh meat without the expenditure of a shot. Sam Bolton promptly disembarked. To us it would have seemed a simple matter. But the black duck is an expert at concealment, even in the open. He can do wonders at it when assisted by the shadows of long grass. And when too closely approached he can glide away to right and left like a snake, leaving no rustle to betray his passage. Five minutes passed before the first was discovered. Then it was only because Dick's keen eye had detected a faintly stirring grass-blade ten feet away, and because Dick's quick muscles had brought him like a tiger to the spot. He held up his victim by the neck.
"Good enough," growled Sam.
And although they had seen nine ducks go into the grass plot, which was not more than fifty feet across, they succeeded in finding but three. However, they were satisfied.
In spite of the deliberation of their journeying, the Indians did not overtake them until nearly dark. It was just above the junction of the Abitibi. The river was without current, the atmosphere without the suspicion of a breeze. Down to the very water's edge grew the forest, so velvet-dark that one could not have guessed where the shadow left off and the reflection began. Not a ripple disturbed the peace of the water, nor a harsh sound the twilight peace of the air. Sam and Dick had paddled for some time close to one bank, and now had paused to enjoy their pipes and the cool of the evening. Suddenly against the reflected sky at the lower bend a canoe loomed into sight, and crept smoothly and noiselessly under the forest shadow of the opposite bank. Another followed, then another, and another and still another in regular interval. Not a sound could be heard. In the distance their occupants gave the illusion of cowled figures,--the Indian women close wrapped in their shawls, dropping their heads modestly or turning them aside as their customs commanded them to do on encountering strangers. Against the evening glow of the reflected sky for a single instant they stood out in the bright yellow of the new birch-bark, the glow of warm colour on the women's dress. Then instantaneously, in the darkness of the opposite bank, they faded wraith-like and tenuous. Like phantoms of the past they glided by, a river's width away; then vanished around the upper bend. A moment later the river was empty.
"Th' squaws goin' ahead to start camp," commented Sam Bolton, indifferently; "we'll have th' bucks along pretty quick."
They drove their paddles strongly, and drifted to the middle of the river.
Soon became audible shouts, cries, and laughter, the click of canoe poles. The business of the day was over. Until nearly sundown the men's canoes had led, silent, circumspect, seeking game at every bend of the river. Now the squaws had gone on to make camp. No more game was to be expected. The band relaxed, joking, skylarking, glad to be relieved for a little while of the strain of attention.
In a moment the canoes appeared, a long, unbroken string, led by Haukemah. In the bow sat the chief's son, a lad of nine, wielding his little paddle skilfully, already intelligent to twist the prow sharply away from submerged rocks, learning to be a canoe-man so that in the time to come he might go on the Long Trail.
Each canoe contained, besides its two occupants, a variety of household goods, and a dog or two coiled and motionless, his sharp nose resting between his outstretched forepaws. The tame crow occupied an ingenious cage of twisted osiers.
Haukemah greeted the two white men cordially, and stopped paddling to light his pipe. One by one the other canoes joined them. A faint haze of tobacco rose from the drifting group.
"My brothers have made a long sun," observed old Haukemah. "We, too, have hastened. Now we have met, and it is well. Down past the white rock it became the fortune of Two-fingers to slay a caribou that stood by the little water. Also had we whitefish the evening before. Past the Island of the Three Trees were signs of moose." He was telling them the news, as one who passed the time of day.
[Footnote 3: A spring.]
"We have killed but neenee-sheeb, the duck," replied Dick, holding up one of the victims by the neck, "nor have we seen the trail of game."
"Ah hah," replied Haukemah, politely.
He picked up his paddle. It was the signal to start.
"Drop in astern," said Dick to his companion in English, "it's the light of the evening, and I'm going to troll for a pickerel."
One by one the canoes fell into line. Now, late in the day, the travel was most leisurely. A single strong stroke of the paddle was always succeeded by a pause of contemplation. Nevertheless the light craft skimmed on with almost extraordinary buoyancy, and in silent regularity the wooded points of the river succeeded one another.
Sam busied himself with the trolling-spoon, but as soon as the last canoe was well beyond hearing he burst out:
"Dick, did you notice the Chippewa?"
"He understands English."
"How do you know?"
"He was right behind us when you told me you were goin' to try the fishing, and he moved out th' way before we'd raised our paddles."
"Might have been an accident."
"Perhaps, but I don't believe it. He looked too almighty innocent. Another thing, did you notice he was alone in his canoe?"
"What of it?"
"Shows he ain't noways popular with th' rest. Generally they pair off. There's mostly something shady about these renegades."
"Oh, nothing. Only we got to be careful."
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