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Corporal Cameron

The icy cold woke Cameron as the grey light came in through the dirty windows and the cracks between the logs of the grub-house. Already Little Thunder was awake and busy with the fire in the cracked and rusty stove.  Cameron lay still and watched.  Silently, swiftly the Indian moved about his work till the fire began to roar and the pot of snow on the top to melt.  Then the trader awoke. With a single movement he was out upon the floor.

"All hands awake!" he shouted.  "Aha, Mr. Cameron!  Good sleep, eh? Slept like a bear myself.  Now grub, and off!  Still blowing, eh? Well, so much the better.  There is a spot thirty miles on where we will be snug enough.  How's breakfast, Little Thunder?  This is our only chance to-day, so don't spare the grub."

Cameron made but slight reply.  He was stiff and sore with the cold and the long ride of the day before.  This, however, he minded but little.  If he could only guess what lay before him.  He was torn between anxiety and indignation.  He could hardly make himself believe that he was alive and in his waking senses.  Twenty-four hours ago he was breakfasting with McIvor and his gang in the camp by The Bow; now he was twenty or thirty miles away in the heart of the mountains and practically a prisoner in the hands of as blood-thirsty a looking Indian as he had ever seen, and a man who remained to him an inexplicable mystery.  Who and what was this man?  He scanned his face in the growing light.  Strength, daring, alertness, yes, and kindliness, he read in the handsome, brown, lean face of this stranger, lit by its grey-brown hazel eyes and set off with brown wavy hair which the absence of a cap now for the first time revealed.

"He looks all right," Cameron said to himself.  And yet when he recalled the smile that had curled these thin lips and half closed these hazel eyes in the cave the night before, and when he thought of that murderous attack of his Indian companion, he found it difficult wholly to trust the man who was at once his rescuer and his captor.

In the days of the early eighties there were weird stories floating about through the Western country of outlaw Indian traders whose chief stock for barter was a concoction which passed for whiskey, but the ingredients of which were principally high wines and tobacco juice, with a little molasses to sweeten it and a touch of blue stone to give it bite.  Men of reckless daring were these traders, resourceful and relentless.  For a bottle of their "hell-fire fluid" they would buy a buffalo hide, a pack of beaver skins, or a cayuse from an Indian without hesitation or remorse.  With a keg or two of their deadly brew they would approach a tribe and strip it bare of a year's catch of furs.

In the fierce fights that often followed, the Indian, poorly armed and half dead with the poison he had drunk, would come off second best and many a wretched native was left to burn and blister upon the plains or among the coulees at the foothills to mark the trail of the whiskey runners.

In British territory all this style of barter was of course unlawful. The giving, selling, or trading of any sort of intoxicant to the Indians was absolutely prohibited.  But it was a land of vast and mighty spaces, and everywhere were hiding places where armies could be safely disposed, and therefore there was small chance for the enforcement of the laws of the Dominion. There was little risk to the whiskey runners; and, indeed, however great the risk, the immense profits of their trade would have made them willing to take it.

Hence all through the Western plains the whiskey runners had their way to the degradation and demoralization of the unhappy natives and to the rapid decimation of their numbers.  Horse thieves, too, and cattle "rustlers" operating on both sides of "the line" added to the general confusion and lawlessness that prevailed and rendered the lives and property of the few pioneer settlers insecure.

It was to deal with this situation that the Dominion Government organised and despatched the North West Mounted Police to Western Canada.  Immediately upon the advent of this famous corps matters began to improve.  The open ravages of the whiskey runners ceased and these daring outlaws were forced to carry on their fiendish business by midnight marches and through the secret trails and coulees of the foothills.  The profits of the trade, however, were still great enough to tempt the more reckless and daring of these men.  Cattle rustling and horse stealing still continued, but on a much smaller scale.  To the whole country the advent of the police proved an incalculable blessing.  But to the Indian tribes especially was this the case.  The natives soon learned to regard the police officers as their friends.  In them they found protection from the unscrupulous traders who had hitherto cheated them without mercy or conscience, as well as from the whiskey runners through whose devilish activities their people had suffered irreparable loss.

The administration of the law by the officers of the police with firm and patient justice put an end also to the frequent and bloody wars that had prevailed previously between the various tribes, till, by these wild and savage people the red coat came to be regarded with mingled awe and confidence, a terror to evil-doers and a protection to those that did well.

To which class did this man belong?  This Cameron was utterly unable to decide.

With this problem vexing his mind he ate his breakfast in almost complete silence, making only monosyllabic replies to the trader's cheerful attempts at conversation.

Suddenly, with disconcerting accuracy, the trader seemed to read his mind.

"Now, Mr. Cameron," he said, pulling out his pipe, "we will have a smoke and a chat.  Fill up."  He passed Cameron his little bag of tobacco.  "Last night things were somewhat strained," he continued. "Frankly, I confess, I took you at first for a whiskey runner and a horse thief, and having suffered from these gentlemen considerably I was taking no chances."

"Why force me to go with you, then?" asked Cameron angrily.

"Why?  For your good.  There is less danger both to you--and to me-- with you under my eye," replied the trader with a smile.

"Yet your man would have murdered me?"

"Well, you see Little Thunder is one of the Blood Tribe and rather swift with his knife at times, I confess.  Besides, his family has suffered at the hands of the whiskey runners.  He is a chief and he owes it to these devils that he is out of a job just now.  You may imagine he is somewhat touchy on the point of whiskey traders.

"It was you set him on me," said Cameron, still wrathful.

"No, no," said the trader, laughing quietly.  "That was merely to startle you out of your, pardon me, unreasonable obstinacy.  You must believe me it was the only thing possible that you should accompany us, for if you were a whiskey runner then it was better for us that you should be under guard, and if you were a surveyor it was better for you that you should be in our care.  Why, man, this storm may go for three days, and you would be stiff long before anyone could find you.  No, no, I confess our measures may have seemed somewhat--ah--abrupt, but, believe me, they were necessary, and in a day or two you will acknowledge that I am in the right of it.  Meantime let's trust each other, and there is my hand on it, Cameron."

There was no resisting the frank smile, the open manner of the man, and Cameron took the offered hand with a lighter heart than he had known for the last twelve hours.

"Now, then, that's settled," cried the trader, springing to his feet.  "Cameron, you can pack this stuff together while Little Thunder and I dig out our bunch of horses.  They will be half frozen and it will be hard to knock any life into them."

It was half an hour before Cameron had his packs ready, and, there being no sign of the trader, he put on his heavy coat, mitts, and cap and fought his way through the blizzard, which was still raging in full force, to the bunk-house, a log building about thirty feet long and half as wide, in which were huddled the horses and ponies to the number of about twenty.  Eight of the ponies carried pack saddles, and so busy were Raven and the Indian with the somewhat delicate operation of assembling the packs that he was close upon them before they were aware.  Boxes and bags were strewn about in orderly disorder, and on one side were several small kegs.  As Cameron drew near, the Indian, who was the first to notice him, gave a grunt.

"What the blank blank are you doing here?" cried Raven with a string of oaths, flinging a buffalo robe over the kegs.  "My word! You startled me," he added with a short laugh.  "I haven't got used to you yet.  All right, Little Thunder, get these boxes together. Bring that grey cayuse here, Cameron, the one with the rope on near the door."

This was easier said than done, for the half-broken brute snorted and plunged till Cameron, taking a turn of the rope round his nose, forced him up through the trembling, crowding bunch.

"Good!" said the trader.  "You are all right.  You didn't learn to rope a cayuse in Edinburgh, I guess.  Here's his saddle.  Cinch it on."

While Cameron was engaged in carrying out these orders Little Thunder and the trader were busy roping boxes and kegs into pack loads with a skill and dexterity that could only be the result of long practice.

"Now, then, Cameron, we'll load some of this molasses on your pony."

So saying, Raven picked up one of the kegs.

"Hello, Little Thunder, this keg's leaking.  It's lost the plug, as I'm a sinner."

Sure enough, from a small auger hole golden syrup was streaming over the edge of the keg.

"I am certain I put that plug in yesterday," said Raven.  "Must have been knocked out last night.  Fortunately it stood right end up or we should have lost the whole keg."

While he was speaking he was shaping a small stick into a small plug, which he drove tight into the keg.

"That will fix it," he said.  "Now then, put these boxes on the other side.  That will do.  Take your pony toward the door and tie him there.  Little Thunder and I will load the rest and bring them up."

In a very short time all the remaining goods were packed into neat loads and lashed upon the pack ponies in such a careful manner that neither box nor keg could be seen outside the cover of blankets and buffalo skins.

"Now then," cried Raven.  "Boots and saddles!  We will give you a better mount to-day," he continued, selecting a stout built sorrel pony.  "There you are!  And a dandy he is, sure-footed as a goat and easy as a cradle.  Now then, Nighthawk, we shall just clear out this bunch."

As he spoke he whipped the blanket off his horse.  Cameron could not forbear an exclamation of wonder and admiration as his eyes fell upon Raven's horse.  And not without reason, for Nighthawk was as near perfection as anything in horse flesh of his size could be. His coal-black satin skin, his fine flat legs, small delicate head, sloping hips, round and well ribbed barrel, all showed his breed. Rolling up the blanket, Raven strapped it to his saddle and, flinging himself astride his horse, gave a yell that galvanised the wretched, shivering, dispirited bunch into immediate life and activity.

"Get out the packers there, Little Thunder.  Hurry up!  Don't be all day.  Cameron, fall behind with me."

Little Thunder seized the leading line of the first packer, leaped astride his own pony, and pushed out into the storm.  But the rest of the animals held back and refused to face the blizzard.  The traditions of the cayuse are unheroic in the matter of blizzards and are all in favor of turning tail to every storm that blows. But Nighthawk soon overcame their reluctance, whether traditional or otherwise.  With a fury nothing less than demoniacal he fell upon the animals next him and inspired them with such terror that, plunging forward, they carried the bunch crowding through the door. It was no small achievement to turn some twenty shivering, balky, stubborn cayuses and bronchos out of their shelter and swing them through the mazes of the old lumber camp into the trail again.  But with Little Thunder breaking the trail and chanting his encouraging refrain in front and the trader and his demoniac stallion dynamically bringing up the rear, this achievement was effected without the straying of a single animal.  Raven was in great spirits, singing, shouting, and occasionally sending Nighthawk open-mouthed in a fierce charge upon the laggards hustling the long straggling line onwards through the whirling drifts without pause or falter. Occasionally he dropped back beside Cameron, who brought up the rear, bringing a word of encouragement or approval.

"How do they ever keep the trail?" asked Cameron on one of these occasions.

"Little Thunder does the trick.  He is the greatest tracker in this country, unless it is his cayuse, which has a nose like a bloodhound and will keep the trail through three feet of snow.  The rest of the bunch follow.  They are afraid to do anything else in a blizzard like this."

So hour after hour, upward along mountainsides, for by this time they were far into the Rockies, and down again through thick standing forests in the valleys, across ravines and roaring torrents which the warm weather of the previous days had released from the glaciers, and over benches of open country, where the grass lay buried deep beneath the snow, they pounded along.  The clouds of snow ever whirling about Cameron's head and in front of his eyes hid the distant landscape and engulfed the head of the cavalcade before him.  Without initiative and without volition, but in a dreamy haze, he sat his pony to which he entrusted his life and fortune and waited for the will of his mysterious companion to develope.

About mid-day Nighthawk danced back out of the storm ahead and dropped in beside Cameron's pony.

"A chinook coming," said Raven.  "Getting warmer, don't you notice?"

"No, I didn't notice, but now that you call attention to it I do feel a little more comfortable," replied Cameron.

"Sure thing.  Rain in an hour."

"An hour?  In six perhaps."

"In less than an hour," replied Raven, "the chinook will be here. We're riding into it.  It blows down through the pass before us and it will lick up this snow in no time.  You'll see the grass all about you before three hours are passed."

The event proved the truth of Raven's prediction.  With incredible rapidity the temperature continued to rise.  In half an hour Cameron discarded his mitts and unbuttoned his skin-lined jacket. The wind dropped to a gentle breeze, swinging more and more into the southwest, and before the hour was gone the sun was shining fitfully again and the snow had changed into a drizzling rain.

The extraordinary suddenness of these atmospheric changes only increased the sense of phantasmic unreality with which Cameron had been struggling during the past thirty-six hours.  As the afternoon wore on the air became sensibly warmer.  The moisture rose in steaming clouds from the mountainsides, the snow ran everywhere in gurgling rivulets, the rivulets became streams, the streams rivers, and the mountain torrents which they had easily forded earlier in the day threatened to sweep them away.

The trader's spirits appeared to rise with the temperature.  He was in high glee.  It was as if he had escaped some imminent peril.

"We will make it all right!" he shouted to Little Thunder as they paused for a few moments in a grassy glade.  "Can we make the Forks before dark?"

Little Thunder's grunt might mean anything, but to the trader it expressed doubt.

"On then!" he shouted.  "We must make these brutes get a move on. They'll feed when we camp."

So saying he hurled his horse upon the straggling bunch of ponies that were eagerly snatching mouthfuls of grass from which the chinook had already melted the snow.  Mercilessly and savagely the trader, with whip and voice and charging stallion, hustled the wretched animals into the trail once more.  And through the long afternoon, with unceasing and brutal ferocity, he belabored the faltering, stumbling, half-starved creatures, till from sheer exhaustion they were like to fall upon the trail.  It was a weary business and disgusting, but the demon spirit of Nighthawk seemed to have passed into his master, and with an insistence that knew no mercy together they battered that wretched bunch up and down the long slopes till at length the merciful night fell upon the straggling, stumbling cavalcade and made a rapid pace impossible.

At the head of a long slope Little Thunder came to an abrupt halt, rode to the rear and grunted something to his chief.

"What?" cried Raven in a startled voice.  "Stonies!  Where?"

Little Thunder pointed.

"Did they see you?"  This insult Little Thunder disdained to notice.  "Good!" replied Raven.  "Stay here, Cameron, we will take a look at them."

In a very few minutes he returned, an eager tone in his voice, an eager gleam in his eyes.

"Stonies!" he exclaimed.  "And a big camp.  On their way back from their winter's trapping.  Old Macdougall himself in charge, I think.  Do you know him?"

"I have heard of him," said Cameron, and his tone indicated his reverence for the aged pioneer Methodist missionary who had accomplished such marvels during his long years of service with his Indian flock and had gained such a wonderful control over them.

"Yes, he is all right," replied Raven, answering his tone.  "He is a shrewd old boy, though.  Looks mighty close after the trading end.  Well, we will perhaps do a little trade ourselves.  But we won't disturb the old man," he continued, as if to himself.  "Come and take a look at them."

Little Thunder had halted at a spot where the trail forked.  One part led to the right down the long slope of the mountain, the other to the left, gradually climbing toward the top.  The Stonies had come by the right hand trail and were now camped off the trail on a little sheltered bench further down the side of the mountain and surrounded by a scattering group of tall pines.  Through the misty night their camp fires burned cheerily, lighting up their lodges.  Around the fires could be seen groups of men squatted on the ground and here and there among the lodges the squaws were busy, evidently preparing the evening meal.  At one side of the camp could be distinguished a number of tethered ponies and near them others quietly grazing.

But though the camp lay only a few hundred yards away and on a lower level, not a sound came up from it to Cameron's ears except the occasional bark of a dog.  The Indians are a silent people and move noiselessly through Nature's solitudes as if in reverence for her sacred mysteries.

"We won't disturb them," said Raven in a low tone.  "We will slip past quietly."

"They come from Morleyville, don't they?" enquired Cameron.


"Why not visit the camp?" exclaimed Cameron eagerly.  "I am sure Mr. Macdougall would be glad to see us.  And why could not I go back with him?  My camp is right on the trail to Morleyville."

Raven stood silent, evidently perplexed.

"Well," he replied hesitatingly, "we shall see later.  Meantime let's get into camp ourselves.  And no noise, please."  His voice was low and stern.

Silently, and as swiftly as was consistent with silence, Little Thunder led his band of pack horses along the upper trail, the trader and Cameron bringing up the rear with the other ponies.  For about half a mile they proceeded in this direction, then, turning sharply to the right, they cut across through the straggling woods, and so came upon the lower trail, beyond the encampment of the Stonies and well out of sight of it.

"We camp here," said Raven briefly.  "But remember, no noise."

"What about visiting their camp?" enquired Cameron.

"There is no immediate hurry."

He spoke a few words to Little Thunder in Indian.

"Little Thunder thinks they may be Blackfeet.  We can't be too careful.  Now let's get grub."

Cameron made no reply.  The trader's hesitating manner awakened all his former suspicions.  He was firmly convinced the Indians were Stonies and he resolved that come what might he would make his escape to their camp.

Without unloading their packs they built their fire upon a large flat rock and there, crouching about it, for the mists were chilly, they had their supper.

In undertones Raven and Little Thunder conversed in the Indian speech.  The gay careless air of the trader had given place to one of keen, purposeful determination.  There was evidently serious business on foot.  Immediately after supper Little Thunder vanished into the mist.

"We may as well make ourselves comfortable," said Raven, pulling a couple of buffalo skins from a pack and giving one to Cameron. "Little Thunder is gone to reconnoiter."  He threw some sticks upon the fire.  "Better go to sleep," he suggested.  "We shall probably visit the camp in the morning if they should prove to be Stonies."

Cameron made no reply, but, lying down upon his buffalo skin, pretended to sleep, though with the firm resolve to keep awake. But he had passed through an exhausting day and before many minutes had passed he fell into a doze.

From this he awoke with a start, his ears filled with the sound of singing.  Beyond the fire lay Raven upon his face, apparently sound asleep.  The singing came from the direction of the Indian camp. Noiselessly he rose and stole up the trail to a point from which the camp was plainly visible.  A wonderful scene lay before his eyes.  A great fire burned in the centre of the camp and round the fire the whole band of Indians was gathered with their squaws in the background.  In the centre of the circle stood a tall man with a venerable beard, apparently reading.  After he had read the sound of singing once more rose upon the night air.

"Stonies, all right," said Cameron exultantly to himself.  "And at evening prayers, too, by Jove."

He remembered hearing McIvor tell how the Stonies never went on a hunting expedition without their hymn books and never closed a day without their evening worship.  The voices were high-pitched and thin, but from that distance they floated up soft and sweet.  He could clearly distinguish the music of the old Methodist hymn, the words of which were quite familiar to him:

     "There is a fountain filled with blood
        Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
      And sinners plunged beneath that flood.
        Lose all their guilty stains."

Over and over again, with strange wild cadences of their own invention, the worshippers wailed forth the refrain,

     "Lose all their guilty stains."

Then, all kneeling, they went to prayer.  Over all, the misty moon struggling through the broken clouds cast a pale and ghostly light. It was, to Cameron with his old-world religious conventions and traditions, a weirdly fascinating but intensely impressive scene. Afar beyond the valley, appeared in dim outline the great mountains, with their heads thrust up into the sky.  Nearer at their bases gathered the pines, at first in solid gloomy masses, then, as they approached, in straggling groups, and at last singly, like tall sentinels on guard.  On the grassy glade, surrounded by the sentinel pines, the circle of dusky worshippers, kneeling about their camp fire, lifted their faces heavenward and their hearts God-ward in prayer, and as upon those dusky faces the firelight fell in fitful gleams, so upon their hearts, dark with the superstitions of a hundred generations, there fell the gleams of the torch held high by the hands of their dauntless ambassador of the blessed Gospel of the Grace of God.

With mingled feelings of reverence and of pity Cameron stood gazing down upon this scene, resolved more than ever to attach himself to this camp whose days closed with evening prayer.

"Impressive scene!" said a mocking voice in his ear.

Cameron started.  A sudden feeling of repulsion seized him.

"Yes," he said gravely, "an impressive scene, in my eyes at least, and I should not wonder if in the eyes of God as well."

"Who knows?" said Raven gruffly, as they both turned back to the fire.

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