beverage and had grown accustomed to it. Tea was the universal drink of the northern fur country, where coffee was practically unknown. He was amazed at the quantity of scalding hot, black stuff the voyageurs could drink.
Pemmican, the chief article of food used in the wilderness, he had eaten for the first time at Fort York. The mixture of shredded dried meat and grease did not look very inviting, but its odor, when heated, was not unappetizing. He tasted his portion gingerly, and decided it was not bad. The little dark specks of which he had been suspicious proved to be dried berries of some kind. Walter had a healthy appetite, and the portion served him looked small. He was surprised to find, before he had eaten all of it, that he had had enough. Pemmican was very hearty food indeed.
That was a day of back-breaking, heart-breaking labor towing the heavy boats up the Hayes. The clay banks grew steeper and steeper. Sometimes there was a muddy beach at the base wide enough for the trackers to walk on. Often there was no beach whatever, and they were forced to scramble along slippery slopes, through and over landslips, fallen trees, driftwood, and brush. Where tiny streams trickled down to join the river, the ground was soft, miry, almost impassable. The forest crowning the bank had become thicker, the trees larger and more flourishing. Poplars and willows everywhere were flecked with autumn yellow. The tamarack needles,—which fall in the autumn like the foliage of broad leaved trees,—were turning bronze, and contrasted with the dark green of the spruce. There was more variety and beauty in the surroundings than on the preceding day, but Walter, stumbling along the difficult shore and tugging at the tow-line, paid little attention to the scenery. With aching back and shoulders and straining heart and lungs, he labored on. Each time his shift was over and he was allowed to sit in the boat while others did the tracking, he was too weary to care for anything but rest.
The boats were strung out a long way, some crews making better speed than others. Some of the leaders were more considerate of their inexperienced followers, though most of the voyageurs could scarcely understand why the Swiss could not trot with the tow-line and keep up the pace all day, as the Canadians and half-breeds were accustomed to. The steersman of boat number three drove his men mercilessly. When at the tow-rope himself, he kept up a steady flow of profane abuse in his bad French, almost equally bad English, occasional Indian and Gaelic. Even when seated in the boat, he grumbled at the slowness and lack of skill of those on shore, and shouted orders and oaths at them.
At noon, when a short stop was made for a meal of cold pemmican and hot tea, Walter said to Louis, “If our steersman doesn’t take care he will have a mutiny on his hands. You had better tell him so. We have kept our tempers so far, but we can’t stand his abuse forever.”
Louis shrugged. “I tell him? No, no. I tell le Murrai Noir nothing, moi. It would but make more trouble. With a crew of voyageurs he would not dare act so. They will endure much, but not everything. Someone would kill him. As a voyageur the Black Murray is good. He is strong, he is swift, he knows how to shoot a rapid, he is a fine steersman. But as a man—bah! Being in charge of a boat has turned his head.”
“He may get his head cracked if he does not change his manners.”
“We would not grieve, you and me, eh, my friend? But this is certain,” the Canadian boy added seriously. “Le Murrai Noir can hurt no one with his tongue. Heed him not, though he bawl his voice away. It is so that I do.”
Of all the men in the boat, the one who found the tracking hardest was a young weaver named Matthieu. He was a lank, high-shouldered fellow, who looked strong, but had been weakened by seasickness on the way over, and had not regained his strength. Matthieu did his best, he made no complaint, but he was utterly exhausted at the end of his shift each time. The weaver was next to Murray in line, and much of the steersman’s ill temper was vented on the poor fellow.
Late in the afternoon, Murray’s crew were tracking on a wet clay slope heavily wooded along the rim and without beach at the base. In an especially steep place Matthieu slipped. His feet went from under him. The tow-rope jerked, and Walter barely saved himself from going down too. Murray, his moccasins holding firm on the slippery clay, seized the rope with both hands and roared abuse at the weaver. Exhausted and panting, the poor fellow tried to regain his footing. Walter dug his heels into the bank, and leaned down to reach Matthieu a hand, just as the enraged steersman gave the fallen man a vicious and savage kick.
The boy’s anger flamed beyond control. He forgot that he was attached by the left shoulder to the towline. Fists doubled, he started for Murray. The rope pulled him up short. As he struggled to free himself and reach the steersman, one of his companions intervened. He was a big, strong, intelligent Swiss, a tanner by trade, who had assumed the leadership of the immigrants in boat number three. His size, his authoritative manner, his firm voice, had their effect on Murray. The half-breed paused, his foot raised for another kick.
“There must be no fighting here,” said the tanner, “and no brutality. Rossel, help Matthieu up. He must go back to the boat.”
Murray began to protest that he would allow no man to interfere with his orders. The Swiss was quiet, but determined. The steersman had no right to work a man to death, or to strike with hand or foot any member of the party. The settlers were not his slaves.
Murray growled and muttered. His hard little eyes glowed angrily. When Louis shouted to the Orkneyman to bring the boat to shore to receive the worn-out Matthieu, the steersman opened his mouth to countermand the order, but thought better of it and merely uttered an oath instead. He could recognize the voice of authority,—when numbers were against him.
After Matthieu had been put aboard, the work was resumed. Murray, very ugly, plodded sullenly ahead. He seized every opportunity to abuse Walter, but the boy, now that one victory had been scored over the Black Murray, did not heed his words.
The sky had clouded over, and rain began to fall, a chilly, sullen drizzle. Yet the trackers toiled on. The oars were used only when crossing from one side of the river to the other to find a possible tow-path.
As darkness gathered, camp was made in the rain. The pemmican ration was eaten cold, but by using under layers of birch bark shredded very fine, and chopping into the dry heart of the stub of a lightning-killed tree, Louis succeeded in starting a small blaze and keeping it going long enough to boil water for tea.
After supper the tanner asked Walter to go with him to talk to the voyageur in charge of the entire brigade. Laroque, the guide, a middle-aged, steady-eyed French Canadian, listened to the complaint in silence, then shook his head gravely.
“Le Murrai Noir is not the best of men to be in control of a boat,—that I know,” he admitted, “but it was hard to find men enough. He can do the work, and do it well,—and there is this to say for him. You settlers know nothing of voyaging. You are so slow and clumsy it is trying to the patience. I find it so myself. Le Murrai Noir has little patience. It is you who must be patient with him.”
“But he has no right to strike and abuse men who are doing their best, men who are not even employees of the Company,” protested the tanner.
Laroque nodded in agreement. “That is true.”
“Can’t you put someone else in as