The Lane that had No Turning/The Woodsman's Story of the Great White Chief
THE WOODSMAN'S STORY OF THE GREAT WHITE CHIEF
THE old woodsman shifted the knife with which he was mending his fishing-rod from one hand to the other, and looked at it musingly, before he replied to Medallion. "Yes, m’sieu’, I knew the White Chief, as they called him: this was his"—holding up the knife; "and this"—taking a watch from his pocket. "He gave them to me; I was with him in the Circle on the great journey."
"Tell us about him, then," Medallion urged; "for there are many tales, and who knows which is the right one?"
"The right one is mine. Holy, he was to me like a father then! I know more of the truth than any one." He paused a moment, looking out on the river where the hot sun was playing with all its might, then took off his cap with deliberation, laid it beside him, and speaking as it were into the distance, began:
"He once was a trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Of his birth some said one thing, some another; I know he was beaucoup gentil, and his heart, it was a lion’s! Once, when there was trouble with the Chipp’ways, he went alone to their camp, and say he will fight their strongest man, to stop the trouble. He twist the neck of the great fighting man of the tribe, so that it go with a snap, and that ends it, and he was made a chief, for, you see, in their hearts they all hated their strong man. Well, one winter there come down to Fort o’ God two Esquimaux, and they say that three white men are wintering by the Coppermine River; they had travel down from the frozen seas when their ship was lock in the ice, but can get no farther. They were sick with the evil skin, and starving. The White Chief say to me: ‘Galloir, will you go to rescue them?’ I would have gone with him to the ends of the world—and this was near one end."
The old man laughed to himself, tossed his jet-black hair from his wrinkled face, and after a moment, went on: "There never was such a winter as that. The air was so still by times that you can hear the rustle of the stars and the shifting of the northern lights; but the cold at night caught you by the heart and clamp it—Mon Dieu! how it clamp! We crawl under the snow and lay in our bags of fur and wool, and the dogs hug close to us. We were sorry for the dogs; and one died, and then another, and there is nothing so dreadful as to hear the dogs howl in the long night—it is like ghosts crying in an empty world. The circle of the sun get smaller and smaller, till he only tramp along the high edge of the north-west. We got to the river at last and found the camp. There is one man dead—only one; but there were bones—ah, m’sieu’, you not guess what a thing it is to look upon the bones of men, and know that——!"
Medallion put his hand on the old man’s arm. "Wait a minute," he said. Then he poured out coffee for both, and they drank before the rest was told.
"It’s a creepy story," said Medallion, "but go on."
"Well, the White Chief look at the dead man as he sit there in the snow, with a book and a piece of paper beside him, and the pencil in the book. The face is bent forward to the knees. The White Chief pick up the book and pencil, and then kneel down and gaze up in the dead man’s face, all hard like stone and crusted with frost. I thought he would never stir again, he look so long. I think he was puzzle. Then he turn and say to me: ‘So quiet, so awful, Galloir!’ and got up. Well, but it was cold then, and my head seemed big and running about like a ball of air. But I light a spirit-lamp, and make some coffee, and he open the dead man’s book—it is what they call a diary—and begin to read. All at once I hear a cry, and I see him drop the book on the ground, and go to the dead man, and jerk his fist as if to strike him in the face. But he did not strike."
Galloir stopped, and lighted his pipe, and was so long silent that Medallion had to jog him into speaking. He puffed the smoke so that his face was in the cloud, and he said through it: "No, he did not strike. He get to his feet and spoke: ‘God forgive her!’ like that, and come and take up the book again, and read. He eat and drunk, and read the book again, and I know by his face that something more than cold was clamp his heart.
"‘Shall we bury him in the snow?’ I say. ‘No,’ he spoke, ‘let him sit there till the Judgmen’. This is a wonderful book, Galloir,’ he went on. ‘He was a brave man, but the rest—the rest!’—then under his breath almost: ‘She was so young—but a child.’ I not understand that. We start away soon, leaving the thing there. For four days, and then I see that the White Chief will never get back to Fort Pentecost; but he read the dead man’s book much.…"
"I cannot forget that one day. He lies down looking at the world—nothing but the waves of snow, shining blue and white, on and on. The sun lift an eye of blood in the north, winking like a devil as I try to drive Death away by calling in his ear. He wake all at once; but his eyes seem asleep. He tell me to take the book to a great man in Montreal—he give me the name. Then he take out his watch—it is stop—and this knife, and put them into my hands, and then he pat my shoulder. He motion to have the bag drawn over his head. I do it. … Of course that was the end!"
"But what about the book?" Medallion asked.
"That book? It is strange. I took it to the man in Montreal—Tonnerre, what a fine house and good wine had he!—and told him all. He whip out a scarf, and blow his nose loud, and say very angry: ‘So, she’s lost both now! What a scoundrel he was!…’ Which one did he mean? I not understand ever since."