The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Tracy Ware

A Sacred Trust: A Story of the Upper Ottawa

    It was long after supper, but the fire that warmed the long shelter was in the cooking stove. Dampered to its utmost, its lids were red hot, and the draught roared, throbbed or sighed in response to the tempest that raged without. From beyond the door came the sound of a forest strained to uprooting, shrieking as it clutched the ground in fear lest it should be swept away utterly into the waste places of the earth. Hail was drumming on the little window, and every moment from the roof came the swift rending sound of a branch that hurtled across it into space.
    The interior was lit by a single lamp backed by a tin reflector. A newspaper pinned to the wall by a hunting knife kept the glare from a row of bunks that filled one side of the room. Isaac Saracin, the mighty moose hunter, laid down the half-consumed Havana that Franklin Madison had given him, with the air of a man who had done his duty, and began to fill his pipe.
    “Hear her now,” said Dugald Maclaren, the fire-ranger, as the sound of the storm rose up with whelming fury; “we got here in very good time, as I wass saying to you, Mr. Madison.”
    “He’s asleep,” Madison remarked, with a glance and a nod toward the bunk, which showed that he was not thinking of the storm. In the lull they could hear the sound of breathing, weary and regular.
    “Too much rough country for such a gentleman,” said Isaac, with sympathy in his big voice.
    “You will be glad for Toronto again; it is a wild welcome we have given you, whatever,” said Dugald.
    “I’m all right,” said Madison, who was as big as Dugald, and as good a hunter, “but the little doctor was not built for such hardships.”
    “Down in the runway he say to me, ‘De second time I have been this country, Isaac, and I have no luck here.’ ‘Wait jes one minute,’ says I, ‘and we get vary big moose.’”
    “The second time!” interrupted Madison, in a doubtful tone. “I never knew he had been in this country before.” [Page 131]
    “And by-em-by come de big storm. ‘Is this your vary big moose?’ he say to me. ‘Isaac Saracin, is this the vary big moose you promise me?’ He laugh, and den I carry him in for one mile on my back.”
    “He was a very good piece of stuff, whatever, leave alone his doubled back.” Dugald’s remark ended in a whisper as he heard the stir of the sleeper and saw a hand come into the light.
    “He talk to me,” Isaac resumed, enamored of his own words, now that his pipe was drawing on its store of “Myrtle Navy.” “He say: ‘I like this big quiet, you and the pines and the birches all well, no aches and pains. Nothin’ come to me wid scare face and say: “Doctor, what mus’ I do to be well?” I see nobody who is all wrong, nerve all gone to the dev’! No one say to me here, “Ees there no hope, doctor?” I vill say now, after this, there is always hope!”
    “Dr. Freer is the greatest nerve and brain specialist in Toronto,” remarked Madison, and his words sounded strange to the woodsmen, strange with the hint of a life unknown, turbulent, weary, out there beyond the storm.
    “Very odd to think upon, and him not a man’s height, and the poor weak back of him,” said Dugald.
    “It not the back that make the brains; if dat was fac’ you would be great, magnifique brain man, Dugald,” Isaac rallied the Highlandman, who had worsted him in many crafts, and who now cracked his finger joints and gazed at the fire with contempt. For a little while there was quiet in the rude room.
    “That minds me,” said Dugald, with a gesture toward the world of anger beyond the sheltering wall, “of the night back beyond; it was ten miles from here, just such a perfect tevil of a night, when Gabriel Rosseau, him they call the wild man of Kazubazua, came in upon us; four we were in a little shed at a rollway, and he stood before us.”
    Isaac looked quickly at the door as the storm shook it.
    “Batame!” he said, loath to turn over the monologue to Dugald, “mon frère Narcisse was dere.”
    “It’s lying ye are, Mr. Saracin,” remarked Dugald. “No brother of yours was there; better company was I in that night.”
    “I mean when it happened.”
    “I have the advantage of you, Mr. Saracin; I have the story at first hand; I was there myself when it happened, I would have the gentlemen understand.” [Page 132]
    “By gare!” said Isaac, showing his teeth, “I have seen as good as you, once when I was back at the Achigan, and I saw him—me—just the same as you.”
    “As I was remarking when you had the good manners to interrupt me,” resumed Dugald, “he came and stood before us. There was no human speech in him, and there was upon him not so much as a piece of clothing that was not made of the skin of beasts, and his eyes were that wild that I felt the hair of my flesh bristle with the fear of them, and so put out of ourselves we were that we could but offer him a bit of meat and a bannock upon the blade of a shovel, and he was away with it as quick as a wildcat.”
    “If you had been braver you might have got the reward!” Isaac was mighty in scorn.
    “We do be leaving money rewards to the Frenchmen,” retorted Dugald, “rewards for falling upon weak bodies, the weak-witted, and taking that from them which they desired to keep.”
    “She would have broken your bones and your backs for you,” said Isaac, in his wrath careless of the gender of his pronouns, “for she was strong, by gare!”
    “As I was going to say to my friend here from below,” said Dugald, ignoring the interruption, “it was a very odd case, that of Gabriel Rosseau, and, as I before said, this tevil of a storm minded me of that now. When it happened was just twelve years ago; it was at the stopping place called Heron’s, down at the Pickanock. You must know, Mr. Madison, that when we used to come for the lumber, we that worked for the big concerns, we used to come in gangs from below; and there would be so many as fifty or more; and we was driven up in loads of ten. It was when you and the doctor, Clifton Freer, were little, young boys; that is all gone by now.[”]
    “It would be the fall of the year that we was always coming up the river, and as we was coming up the boys was very wild and made a great noise, for they knew what was before them, to be shut up for so many months in the forest with the employment of cutting trees alone, with very plain food and no drop of anything fit to drink, moreover; so upon the way we used to be free with the good whiskey.”
    “It was the good whiskey in those days, and done you forget it,” interrupted Isaac.
    Dugald went on scornfully:—
    “It was the good and the bad, just as it is to-day, but to some people there is no difference whatever. Well, as I was saying, this time when it happened we was a gang of fifty, and very wild we was, and some of those dead and gone was the best men on the river.” [Page 133]
    “Mon frère Narcisse, ba cripe!” ejaculated Isaac, with a slap of his palm on his knee to indicate the limit of a dare-devil.
    “Sorry I am to say it, Mr. Saracin, he was a better man than you. Well, as I was saying, there would have been no difference between this and any other time, but there was a couple with us that made the difference. There was a little lad, a weak, small wisp of a fellow, with a man who looked after his book studies, a tudor they were calling him.”
    “A little softer!” said Madison below his breath, with a nod toward the bunk. The hand had been withdrawn into shadow.
    “They were riding in the foreman’s rig and I was not there, but I mind seeing the little white-faced chap. He was much taken with Gabriel Rosseau, one of the biggest men on the river, a big tender-hearted fellow, that loved small, weak-bodied things, and had God’s pity for them. Well, Gabriel used to jump the laddie out of the rig and carry him to and fro, as if he was a feather, and his weight was just that to Gabriel. None of us looked much upon him, but we heard that he was going up to meet his father who had been hunting after the moose, just as you gentlemans are doing; and maybe it was thought that a whiff or two of this north air would do the little feller good. Anyhow, there was he, and we was there also. When we got to Heron’s, that is the last big stopping-place, there was a very good time, and by the morning there was not one of the boys that was able at all to walk. Never mind, they was bundled into the rigs, come grey dawn, and away with them; singing, them as could, and sleeping, them as couldn’t sing. Come noon, there was only one in our rig that was not rightly himself— and that was Gabriel Rosseau.
    “There was I by him, having got myself bundled into the foreman’s rig in the scuffle. The foreman would keep saying to the boys ‘Wait now till he clears up, and I will have my joke with him.’ I mind well how his head would go from this side to the other side, with the rolling of the rig. It was, maybe, one o’clock when he began to straighten up, and then he looked around and says he, ‘Where is the little feller?’
    “Not having been in with the foreman, not till then did I notice that the lad was gone. The foreman gave us a wink; says he: ‘You’ll know soon enough, Rosseau.’ Then we observed that it was his joke, and we bided our time. Every little while, when Rosseau would cry out, getting wilder and wilder, ‘Say, Boss, tell me where is the little feller?’ the foreman would answer, ‘I’m sorry for you, Rosseau,’ or, ‘A lesson it will be to you, Rosseau.’ Some of the boys were enjoying the joke better than me, because they knew the lad was safe with his father, who had come into Heron’s just as we were starting in the morning. At last says Rosseau, with a big sigh, [Page 134] ‘Tell me, Boss, where is the little feller?’ Then says the boss, ‘Well, I’m sorry for you, Rosseau, but you have killed that little feller yourself when you were drunk, and may it be a lesson to you.’ Then all the boys see just what a joke it was, and they torment Gabriel with it. They would be saying, ‘Here comes the sheriff for you, Gabriel,’ or ‘O! they will be hanging you, Gabriel.’
    “Now, for the truth, I didn’t care for the joke, or the way Gabriel was taking it, moreover. He said never one word, and every little while he gave a great shiver, like a man fighting cold. The night was just coming on when we heard a shout behind us, and then, looking back from the top of a hill where the horses were having a rest, we could see a fellow riding as hard as he could. And the boss thinks, ‘Everything is coming out well for my little joke with Gabriel,’ so he says, ‘I’m sorry for you, Rosseau, but here is the officer after you.’
    “And with that Gabriel jumped out of the rig with a yell and went into the bush as if the tevil himself was come for him. Then all the boys set up a laugh at the good joke the foreman had upon Gabriel. But I listened to Gabriel and I did not laugh; I did not care for the way he was crying out going through the bush. For I said to myself, ‘That man cries out like one that is gone crazy, and it will not be a very good joke for a man to be crazy in the bush.’
    “Well, it all came out when the man won to us; he was the tudor chap. The little feller had given Gabriel a parcel to keep for him—what with jumping in and out of the rig, he was afraid to lose it. There was in the parcel a picture-painting of his mother that she was sending to her good man as a surprise, in the way of the married. He had given it to Gabriel to safe-keep it for him—and there was Gabriel in the bush. So we all got out and went after him, but that was no use; for so far as we would go into the bush Gabriel would go further into the bush. Then it came night.” Dugald paused. Was that the storm shouldering the door? With so many trees to harry, was it stooping to shake their slender defence?
    “We all came back, and there was nothing to do but go on, and the man to go back and say that the parcel was safe with Gabriel, and he knew that Gabriel had gone into the bush. Well, two years after that, they say, there is a reward of two hundred dollars for anybody who would take that parcel from Gabriel, for the poor lady was dead that sent it, and they that was left must have it, it was that precious to them.” Dugald paused. Was that sound upon the door the swift fingering of a branch borne across it by the wind? Again it came, rapid and sweeping. [Page 135]
    “But no one ever got that from Gabriel,” said Dugald slowly. “He was wild; and only once in a year or so would he come into the fire; then he would be asking for something, and was anybody mean enough to be taking it from a poor body that was asking something? No. He had it safe, and there he was in the bush.” Dugald’s voice hovered; it was just settling again upon the words when the door opened.
    It seemed hours before anyone moved. Back of this form stood darkness. It was a man assuredly, but so covered with shag as to appear a thing of the wild forest. He seemed to tread on the verge of the storm and to be a body of wrack torn from its edge. Before him was peace.
Suddenly he swayed. Madison sprang and caught him and had his length upon the floor. The storm, when it had delivered him into their hands, roared vainly to have him again, and Isaac crushed the door against its face. He lay there still, and they gazed upon him. Dugald broke the silence, “Indeed it was a very bad joke, whatever.” Then Madison raised his head while Isaac thrust a dunnage bag under it. Dugald dipped a pannikin in the hot-water kettle and poured into it some rum from the demijohn. The noise disturbed the sleeper.
    “What was that?” he asked.
    “Nothing,” said Madison. “Don’t be disturbed.” They poured the hot rum upon his lips, then followed, after an interval, a long, gurgling sigh.
    “What was that?” The voice was alert, clear, insistent. The doctor sprang from the bunk and came forward. Isaac, who always wore his cap before everyone, now doffed it to this dwarfed, misshapen man. He looked upon the long form stretched before him, and then he knelt at its side.
    “Frank, hand me the case, above there, in the upper bunk. Now, Dugald, will you cut this sleeve?” Dugald snatched the hunting knife that had held the paper to shade the lamp. It fell down, and the light came full upon the doctor’s face.
    Soon the magical little instrument was pouring life into the veins. Expectant, they watched the eyelids, which seemed the sole vestiges of humanity. Then they were raised, and the eyes fell upon the doctor. They pored upon him, they searched his face. The lids closed and his image went sinking into the choked halls of consciousness and memory. They opened again and he stared as if he could never glean enough of recollection. What was it? Something in the past—the past that was naught save persecution and flight. But this was different; this was warmth, light, peace. The doctor had his fingers close down over the pulse that was beating up like the wing stroke of a weary bird before the wind. [Page 136]
    Suddenly the doctor’s light grasp was shaken off. With an effort that wandered, but was bent with terrible energy toward one end, with trembling hands Gabriel Rosseau groped in the vacancies under the great shaggy garment that served him for a coat. After years of craze and fear he had recognized in the face that bent over him the little puny lad who had given the parcel with a caution never to give it to anyone except himself. He had comprehended. With some attempt at human speech, he thrust a small, dark bundle into the doctor’s hands, and sank back exhausted.
    Taking the hunting-knife, Clifton Freer ripped away, one by one, the layers of rabbit-skin and birch bark that had so long and faithfully protected the contents. There was hardly a breath as he disclosed the inner case, and next it a letter. That for a moment he disregarded, but he looked upon the miniature, and the face that gazed at him brought up the past in a great cloud. There it was, the picture of his mother, in its gold frame, studded with stones, just as she had sent it to his father as a surprise (in the way of the married, as Dugald had said) those many years ago.
    His grasp fell again upon the wrist. In a little while a smile seemed to mount upon his grave face, hardly a smile, a look of contented power. Through his finger tips he was feeling and registering every weakness in the ruin prone before him, and at the same time he was reconstructing it.
    “We can take him down to-morrow?” he said inquiringly.
    “I am going for the horses. By the time I am here in the morning you will be ready,” said Dugald, taking the doctor’s question as a command.
    “Is there any hope, Clifton?” asked Madison, bending over him.
    “There is always hope,” he answered, glancing at Isaac. Dugald closed the door, and they remained there in silence.
    Ere long they were aware of it. The storm had drawn away and left that leafless valley in the northland at rest. As a grace after turmoil the cloud had scattered snow, near and far, upon hill and hollow. It was a mask of peace drawn lightly over the austere features of the wilderness. And there it lay in the silence, glimmering with millions of tiny rays under the night sky. [Page 137]