was speaking. He had heard no footsteps, but there, close behind him, was a tall man in blue coat, deerskin leggings, and moccasins. In his surprise, the boy drew back a little and stood staring. Of all the men he had seen since coming ashore, this one was the strangest and most striking. He was tall, powerfully built, and very dark of skin, with high cheek bones and high-bridged nose. His long, coarse black hair, slick and shining with grease, was worn in what seemed to the Swiss boy a curious fashion for a man, parted in the middle and plaited in two braids bound with deerskin thongs and hanging one over each shoulder.
“You not give me goods?” The man’s voice was peculiarly deep, not unmusical but of a hard, metallic quality. His small, dark eyes looked straight into the clerk’s large blue ones.
The young man shook his head. “No, your plan is too wild, too much risk in it. That sort of thing is against the Company’s policy.”
The voyageur’s brown face stiffened. His hard eyes seemed to catch fire as they rested first on the clerk and then, for a moment, on Walter. Without a word he turned and with long, soft-footed stride, left the room as noiselessly as he had entered it.
“Pleasant manners,” commented the clerk. “He needn’t have included you in his wrath.”
“What did he want?” asked Walter. He had understood but little of the brief conversation.
“A lot of goods on credit. He claims to have great influence with the Sioux, and he wants an outfit to go and trade with them. Of course we can’t let him have it.”
“You don’t trust him?”
“We don’t know anything about him, except that he is a good voyageur. It’s against the Company’s policy to send voyageurs out to trade. And his scheme is a crazy one. The Sioux country is a thousand miles away. He said he would bring all the furs back here and take whatever commission we chose to give, but probably we should never hear of him or the goods again.”
“Is he an Indian?”
“Half-breed I imagine. Finely built fellow, isn’t he? Has the strength of a moose, they say. He is an expert voyageur.”
“I don’t like him,” Walter commented.
“Neither do I, and I suppose he has a grudge against me now, though the refusal wasn’t my doing of course. Well, I must stop talking and get to work checking this new stuff that has come in.”
Thus dismissed, Walter wandered out into the court, through the open gates and down to the shore. Everywhere was bustle and activity. There was much to be done, and done quickly. With the least possible delay the ships must be unloaded and loaded again with the furs waiting packed and ready for the voyage to England. The little fleet must get away promptly while Hudson Straits were still open. All the goods and supplies received had to be checked, examined, and sorted. The things to be sent to trading posts in the interior were repacked for transport in open boats up the rivers, and every package was invoiced and plainly marked. Boats must be made ready and equipped and provisioned, not only to carry the supplies and trade goods, but the one hundred and sixty new settlers as well. The twelve hours a day that the employees of the Company were required to work in summer, if necessary, were not enough. Most of the men were simply doing all they possibly could each day until the rush should be over.
Down by the river Walter found the young fellow who had carried Mr. Perier’s chest. He was putting a new seat in one of the large, heavily built boats ranged along the bank. Looking up from his work, he greeted the Swiss boy with a cheery “Bo jou,” which the latter guessed to be the Canadian way of saying “Bon jour” or “Good day.” Walter, who was handy with tools, offered his help.
As they worked they talked. His new acquaintance’s French was fluent, but Walter found it puzzling. To a Swiss, the Canadian dialect seemed a strange sort of French, differing considerably in pronunciation and in many of its words from his own native tongue. Yet Walter and Louis Brabant managed to understand each other fairly well.
“I suppose this is your home, here at the fort,” said Walter.
“My home? Non, I live at the Red River.”
“Why, that is where we are going!”
“You go to the Selkirk Colony at Fort Douglas. It is not there that I live, but at Pembina, farther up the river.”
“Is Pembina a town?”
“Not what you would call a town. It is a settlement and there are trading posts there, a Hudson Bay post and a Northwest Company post. Now the two companies have united, one of the forts will be abandoned I suppose. You may be glad the fighting between them is over. There will be better times in the Selkirk Colony now. They have had a hard time and much trouble, those poor settlers!”
“What do you mean by fighting,—and trouble?” asked the surprised Walter. “What is the Northwest Company? Isn’t the Hudson Bay the only trading company? Doesn’t it own all the country where the Indians and the fur bearing animals are?”
“Oh no,” returned Louis with a smile and a shake of his head. “Farther south there is fur country that belongs to the United States. The Hudson Bay Company has no power there. It is true that the Company claims all the northern fur country, but the Northwest Company said they had a right to trade and trap there too, and that was how the trouble began. Have you never heard of the Northwest Company, and how for years they have fought the Hudson Bay men for the furs, and how they drove the settlers from the Selkirk Colony and captured Fort Douglas and killed the Governor?”
Walter shook his head in bewilderment, and Louis went on to tell, briefly and vividly, something of the conflict between the two great trading companies, and the disasters that conflict had brought upon the settlers. The Swiss boy listened in amazement, understanding enough of the story to grasp its significance.
“But why didn’t Captain Mai tell us all that?” he cried. “Why did he let us think that everything was all right?”
“Perhaps he thought you would not come if you knew. But those old troubles are all over. Last spring the two companies became one.”
Louis’ story troubled Walter. He retold it to Mr. Perier and Mr. Scheidecker, and they carried it to other leading men of the prospective settlers. Several of them sought out Captain Mai and demanded to know why they had not been informed of all those wild doings in the colony. Unsatisfied by their conductor’s explanations, they asked for an interview with the Chief Factor, and put their questions to him. He confirmed the statement that the fur-traders’ rivalry and warfare were at an end. About five months before the arrival of the Swiss, the two great trading companies had united under the Hudson Bay name. The colony on the Red River would now have a chance to develop in peace.
In spite of this assurance, the Hudson Bay officer’s replies to some of their queries left the Swiss in no happy mood. Mr. Perier was stunned to learn that they still had some seven hundred miles to travel, all the way through untamed wilderness. But he had no thought of turning back. He had signed an agreement with Captain Mai, and had paid for his family’s passage,—a moderate sum, but he could ill afford to lose it. To pay their fare back again would leave him penniless. Fertile land, one hundred acres of prairie,—that would not have to be cleared,—had been promised him rent free for a year. After that he was to pay a rent of from twenty to fifty bushels of wheat from his crop, or he might buy the land outright for five hundred bushels. The offer was enticing, and he and Walter had made many plans for the future.