great transcontinental railway had been in running order
for years before the managers thereof decided to build
a second line across the Rocky Mountains. But “passes”
are few and far between in those gigantic fastnesses,
and the fearless explorers, followed by the equally
fearless surveyors, were many a toilsome month conquering
the heights, depths and dangers of the “Crow’s
Eastward stretched the gloriously
fertile plains of southern “Sunny Alberta,”
westward lay the limpid blue of the vast and indescribably
beautiful Kootenay Lakes, but between these two arose
a barrier of miles and miles of granite and stone and
rock, over and through which a railway must be constructed.
Tunnels, bridges, grades must be bored, built and blasted
out. It was the work of science, endurance and indomitable
courage. The summers in the cañons were seething
hot, the winters in the mountains perishingly cold,
with apparently inexhaustible [Page 97]
snow clouds circling forever about the rugged peaks—snows
in which many a good, honest laborer was lost until
the eagles and vultures came with the April thaws, and
wheeled slowly above the pulseless sleeper, if indeed
the wolves and mountain lions had permitted him to lie
thus long unmolested. Those were rough and rugged days,
through which equally rough and rugged men served and
suffered to find foundations whereon to lay those two
treads of steel that now cling like a cobweb to the
walls of the wonderful “gap” known as Crow’s
Work progressed steadily, and
before winter set in construction camps were built far
into “the gap,” the furthermost one being
close to the base of a majestic mountain, which was
also named “The Crow’s Nest.” It arose
beyond the camp with almost overwhelming immensity.
Dense forests of Douglas fir and bull pines shouldered
their way up one-third of its height, but above the
timber line the shaggy, bald rock reared itself thousands
of feet skyward, desolate, austere and deserted by all
living things; not even the sure-footed mountain goat
travelled up those frowning, precipitous heights; no
bird rested its wing in that frozen altitude. The mountain
arose, distinct, alone, isolated, the most imperial
monarch of all that regal Pass.
The construction gang called
it “Old Baldy,” for after working some months
around its base, [Page 98] it began
to grow into their lives. Not so, however, with the
head engineer from Montreal, who regarded it always
with baleful eye, and half laughingly, half seriously,
called it his “Jonah.”
“Not a thing has gone
right since we worked in sight of that old monster,”
he was heard to say frequently; and it did seem as if
there were some truth in it. There had been deaths,
accidents and illness among the men. Once, owing to
transportation difficulties, the rations were short
for days, and the men were in rebellious spirit in consequence.
Twice whiskey had been smuggled in, to the utter demoralization
of the camp; and one morning, as a last straw, “Cookee”
had nearly severed his left hand from his arm with a
meat axe. Young Wingate, the head engineer, and Mr.
Brown, the foreman, took counsel together. For the three
meals of that day they tried three different men out
of the gang as “cookees.” No one could eat
the atrocious food they manufactured. Then Brown bethought
himself. “There’s an Indian woman living
up the cañon that can cook like a French chef,”
he announced, after a day of unspeakable gnawing beneath
his belt. “How about getting her? I’ve tasted
pork and beans at her shack, and flapjacks, and—”
“Get her! get her!”
clamored Wingate. “Even if she poisons us, it’s
better than starving. I’ll ride over to-night
and offer her big wages.” [Page 99]
“How about her staying
here?” asked Brown. “The boys are pretty
rough and lawless at times, you know.”
“Get the axe men to build
her a good, roomy shack—the best logs in the place.
We’ll give her a lock and key for it, and you,
Brown, report the very first incivility to her that
you hear of,” said Wingate, crisply.
That evening Mr. Wingate himself
rode over to the cañon; it was a good mile, and
the trail was rough in the extreme. He did not dismount
when he reached the lonely log lodge, but rapping on
the door with the butt of his quirt, he awaited its
opening. There was some slight stirring about inside
before this occurred; then the door slowly opened, and
she stood before him—a rather tall woman, clad
in buckskin garments, with a rug made of coyote skins
about her shoulders; she wore the beaded leggings and
moccasins of her race, and her hair, jet black, hung
in ragged plaits about her dark face, from which mournful
eyes looked out at the young Montrealer.
Yes, she would go for the wages
he offered, she said in halting English; she would come
to-morrow at daybreak; she would cook their breakfast.
“Better come to-night,”
he urged. “The men get down the grade to work
very early; breakfast must be on time.” [Page
“I be on time,”
she replied. “I sleep here this night, every night.
I not sleep in camp.”
Then he told her of the shack
he had ordered, and that was even now being built.
She shook her head. “I
sleep here every night,” she reiterated.
Wingate had met many Indians
in his time, so dropped the subject, knowing well that
persuasion or argument would be utterly useless.
“All right,” he
said; “you must do as you like; only remember,
an early breakfast to-morrow.”
He had ridden some twenty yards,
when he turned to call back: “Oh, what’s
your name, please?”
“Thank you,” he
said, and, touching his hat lightly, rode down towards
the cañon. Just as he was dipping over its rim
he looked back. She was still standing in the doorway,
and above and about her were the purple shadows, the
awful solitude, of Crow’s Nest Mountain.
had been cooking at the camp for weeks. The meals were
good, the men respected her, and she went her way to
and from her shack at the cañon as regularly
as the world went around. The autumn slipped by, and
the nipping frosts of early winter and the depths of
[Page 101] early snows were already
daily occurrences. The big group of solid log shacks
that formed the construction camp were all made weather-tight
against the long mountain winter. Trails were beginning
to be blocked, streams to freeze, and “Old Baldy”
already wore a canopy of snow that reached down to the
spoke young Wingate, one morning, when the clouds hung
low and a soft snow fell, packing heavily on the selfsame
snows of the previous night, “you had better make
up your mind to occupy the shack here. You won’t
be able to go to your home much longer now at night;
it gets dark so early, and the snows are too heavy.”
“I go home at night,”
“But you can’t all
winter,” he exclaimed. “If there was one
single horse we could spare from the grade work, I’d
see you got it for your journeys, but there isn’t.
We’re terribly short now; every animal in the
Pass is overworked as it is. You’d better not
try going home anymore.”
“I go home at night,”
Wingate frowned impatiently;
then in afterthought he smiled. “All right, Catharine,”
he said, “but I warn you. You’ll have a
search-party out after you some dark morning, and you
know it won’t be pleasant to be lost in the snows
up that cañon.” [Page 102]
“But I go home, night-time,”
she persisted, and that ended the controversy.
But the catastrophe he predicted
was inevitable. Morning after morning he would open
the door of the shack he occupied with the other officials,
and, looking up the white wastes through the gray-blue
dawn, he would watch the distances with an anxiety that
meant more than a consideration for his breakfast. The
woman interested him. She was so silent, so capable,
so stubborn. What was behind all this strength of character?
What had given that depth of mournfulness to her eyes?
Often he had surprised her watching him, with an odd
longing in her face; it was something of the expression
he could remember his mother wore when she looked at
him long, long ago. It was a vague, haunting look that
always brought back the one great tragedy of his life—a
tragedy he was even now working night and day at his
chosen profession to obliterate from his memory, lest
he should be forever unmanned—forever a prey to
He was still a young man, but
when little more than a boy he had married, and for
two years was transcendently happy. Then came the cry
of “Kootenay Gold” ringing throughout Canada—of
the untold wealth of Kootenay mines. Like thousands
of others he followed the beckoning of that yellow finger,
taking his young wife [Page 103] and
baby daughter West with him. The little town of Nelson,
crouching on its beautiful hills, its feet laved by
the waters of Kootenay Lake, was then in its first robust,
active infancy. Here he settled, going out alone on
long prospecting expeditions; sometimes he was away
a week, sometimes a month, with the lure of the gold
forever in his veins, but the laughter of his child,
the love of his wife, forever in his heart. Then—the
day of that awful home-coming! For three weeks the fascination
of searching for the golden pay-streak had held him
in the mountains. No one could find him when it happened,
and now all they could tell him was the story of an
upturned canoe found drifting on the lake, of a woman’s
light summer shawl caught in the thwarts, of a child’s
little silken bonnet washed ashore.*
The great-hearted men of the West had done their utmost
in the search that followed. Miners, missionaries, prospectors,
Indians, settlers, gamblers, outlaws, had one and all
turned out, for they liked young Wingate, and they adored
his loving wife and dainty child. But the search was
useless. The wild shores of Kootenay Lake alone held
the secret of their resting-place.
Young Wingate faced the East
once more. There was but one thing to do with his life—work,
work, WORK; and the harder, the more difficult,
that work, the better. It was this very [Page
104] difficulty that made the engineering on
the Crow’s Nest Pass so attractive to him. So
here he was building grades, blasting tunnels, with
Catharine’s mournful eyes following him daily,
as if she divined something of that long-ago sorrow
that had shadowed his almost boyish life.
He liked the woman, and his
liking quickened his eye to her hardships, his ear to
the hint of lagging weariness in her footsteps; so he
was the first to notice it the morning she stumped into
the cook-house, her feet bound up in furs, her face
drawn in agony.
exclaimed, “your feet have been frozen!”
She looked like a culprit, but
answered: “Not much; I get lose in storm las’
“I thought this would
happen,” he said, indignantly. “After this
you sleep here.”
“I sleep home,”
she said doggedly.
“I won’t have it,”
he declared. “I’ll cook for the men myself
“Allight,” she replied.
“You cookee; I go home—me.”
That night there was a terrible
storm. The wind howled down the throat of the Pass,
and the snow fell like bales of sheep’s wool,
blanketing the trails and drifting into the railroad
cuts until they attained their original level. But after
she had cooked supper Catharine started for home as
usual. The only unusual thing [Page 105]
about it was that the next morning she did not return.
It was Sunday, the men’s day “off.”
Wingate ate no breakfast, but after swallowing some
strong tea he turned to the foreman. “Mr. Brown,
will you come with me to try and hunt up Catharine?”
“Yes, if we can get beyond
the door,” assented Brown. “But I doubt
if we can make the cañon, sir.”
“We’ll have a try
at it anyway,” said the young engineer. “I
almost doubt myself if she made it last night.”
“She’s a stubborn
woman,” commented Brown.
“And has her own reasons
for it, I suppose,” replied Wingate. “But
that has nothing to do with her being lost or frozen.
If something had not happened I’m sure she would
have come to-day, notwithstanding I scolded her yesterday,
and told her I’d rather cook myself than let her
run such risks. How will we go, Mr. Brown; horses or
“Shoes,” said the
foreman decidedly. “That snow’ll be above
the middle of the biggest horse in the outfit.”
So they set forth on their tramp
up the slopes, peering right and left as they went for
any indication of the absent woman. Wingate’s
old grief was knocking at his heart once more. A woman
lost in the appalling vastness of this [Page
106] great Western land was entering into his
life again. It took them a full hour to go that mile,
although both were experts on the shoes, but as they
reached the rim of the cañon they were rewarded
by seeing a thin blue streak of smoke curling up from
her lodge “chimney.” Wingate sat down in
the snows weakly. The relief had unmanned him.
“I didn’t know how
much I cared,” he said, “until I knew she
was safe. She looks at me as my mother used to; her
eyes are like mother’s, and I loved my mother.”
It was a simple, direct speech,
but Brown caught its pathos.
“She’s a good woman,”
he blurted out, as they trudged along towards the shack.
They knocked on the door. There was no reply. Then just
as Wingate suggested forcing it in case she were ill
and lying helpless within, a long, low call from the
edge of the cañon startled them. They turned
and had not followed the direction from which the sound
came more than a few yards when they met her coming
towards them on snowshoes; in her arms she bore a few
faggots, and her face, though smileless, was very welcoming.
She opened the door, bidding
them enter. It was quite warm inside, and the air of
simple comfort derived from crude benches, tables and
shelves, assured them that she had not suffered. Near
the fire was drawn a rough home-built [Page
107] couch, and on it lay in heaped disorder
a pile of gray blankets. As the two men warmed their
hands at the grateful blaze, the blankets stirred. Then
a small hand crept out and a small arm tossed the covers
a little aside.
exclaimed Wingate, “have you a child here?”
“Yes,” she said
“How long is it that you
have had it here?” he demanded.
“Since before I work at
your camp.” she replied.
“Whew!” said the
foreman, “I now understand why she came home nights.”
“To think I never guessed
it!” murmured Wingate. Then to Catharine: “Why
didn’t you bring it into camp and keep it there
day and night with you, instead of taking these dangerous
tramps night and morning?”
“It is a girl-child,”
“Well what of it?”
he asked impatiently.
“Your camp no place for
girl-child,” she replied, looking directly at
him. “Your men they rough, they get whisky sometimes.
They fight. They speak bad words, what you call swear.
I not want her hear that. I not want her see whisky
“Oh, Brown!” said
Wingate, turning to his companion. “What a reproach!
What a reproach! Here our gang is—the vanguard
of the [Page 108] highest civilization,
but unfit for association with a little Indian child!”
Brown stood speechless, although
in his rough, honest mind he was going over a list of
those very “swears” she objected to, but
they were mentally directed at the whole outfit of his
ruffianly construction gang. He was silently swearing
at them for their own shortcomings in that very thing.
The child on the couch stirred
again. This time the firelight fell full across the
little arm. Wingate stared at it, then his eyes widened.
He looked at the woman, then back at the bare arm. It
was the arm of a white child.
“Catharine, was your husband
white?” he asked, in a voice that betrayed
“I got no husban’,”
she replied, somewhat defiantly.
began, but his voice faltered.
She came and stood between him
and the couch. Something of the look of a she-panther
came into her face, her figure, her attitude. Her eyes
lost their mournfulness and blazed a black-red at him.
Her whole body seemed ready to spring.
“You not touch the girl-child!”
she half snarled. “I not let you touch her; she
mine, though I have no husban’!”
“I don’t want to
touch her, Catharine,” he said gently, trying
to pacify her. “Believe me, I don’t want
to touch her.” [Page 109]
The woman’s whole being
changed. A thousand mother-lights gleamed from her eyes,
a thousand measures of mother-love stormed at her heart.
She stepped close, very close to him and laid her small
brown hand on his, then drawing him nearer to her said:
“Yes you do want to touch her; you not
speak truth when you say ‘no.’ You do
want to touch her!” With a rapid movement she
flung back the blankets, then slipping her bare arm
about him she bent his form until he was looking straight
into the child’s face—a face the living
miniature of his own! His eyes, his hair, his small
kindly mouth, his fair, perfect skin. He staggered erect.
“Catharine! what does
it mean? What does it mean?” he cried hoarsely.
she half questioned, half affirmed.
“Mine? Mine?” he
called, without human understanding in his voice. “Oh,
Catharine! Where did you get her?”
“The shores of Kootenay
Lake,” she answered.
alone?” he cried.
The woman looked away, slowly
shaking her head, and her voice was very gentle as she
replied: “No, she alive a little, but the
other, whose arms ’round her, she not alive;
my people, the Kootenay Indians, and I—we—we
bury that other.”
For a moment there was a speaking
silence, [Page 110] then young Wingate,
with the blessed realization that half his world had
been saved for him, flung himself on his knees, and,
with his arms locked about the little girl, was calling:
“Margie! Margie! Papa’s
little Margie girl! Do you remember papa? Oh, Margie!
Do you? Do you?”
Something dawned in the child’s
eyes—something akin to a far-off memory. For a
moment she looked wonderingly at him, then put her hand
up to his forehead and gently pulled a lock of his fair
hair that always curled there—an old trick of
hers. Then she looked down at his vest pocket, slowly
pulled out his watch and held it to her ear. The next
minute her arms slipped round his neck.
“Papa,” she said,
“papa been away from Margie a long time.”
Young Wingate was sobbing. He
had not noticed that the big, rough foreman had gone
out of the shack with tear-dimmed eyes, and had quietly
closed the door behind him.
was evening before Wingate got all the story from Catharine,
for she was slow of speech, and found it hard to explain
her feelings. But Brown, who had returned alone to the
camp in the morning, now came back, packing an immense
bundle of all the tinned delicacies he could find, which,
truth to tell, were few. He [Page 111]
knew some words of Kootenay, and led Catharine on to
reveal the strange history that sounded like some tale
from fairyland. It appeared that the reason Catharine
did not attempt to go to the camp that morning was that
Margie was not well, so she would not leave her, but
in her heart of hearts she knew young Wingate would
come searching to her lodge. She loved the child as
only an Indian woman can love an adopted child. She
longed for him to come when she found Margie was ill,
yet dreaded that coming from the depths of her soul.
She dreaded the hour he would see the child and take
it away. For the moment she looked upon his face, the
night he rode over to engage her to cook, months ago,
she had known he was Margie’s father. The little
thing was the perfect mirror of him, and Catharine’s
strange wild heart rejoiced to find him, yet hid the
child from him for very fear of losing it out of her
After finding it almost dead
in its dead mother’s arms on the shore, the Indians
had given it to Catharine for the reason that she could
speak some English. They were only a passing band of
Kootenays, and as they journeyed on and on, week in
and week out, they finally came to Crow’s Nest
Mountain. Here the child fell ill, so they built Catharine
a log shack, and left her with plenty of food, sufficient
to last until the railway gang had worked that [Page
112] far up the Pass, when more food would
be available. When she had finished the strange history,
Wingate looked at her long and lovingly.
said, “you were almost going to fight me once
to-day. You stood between the couch and me like a panther.
What changed you so that you led me to my baby girl
“I make one last fight
to keep her,” she said, haltingly. “She
mine so long, I want her; I want her till I die. Then
I think many times I see your face at camp. It look
like sky when sun does not shine—all cloud, no
smile, no laugh. I know you think of your baby then.
Then I watch you many times. Then after while my heart
is sick for you, like you are my own boy, like I am
your own mother. I hate see no sun in your face. I think
I not good mother to you; if I was good mother I would
give you your child; make the sun come in your face.
To-day I make last fight to keep the child. She’s
mine so long, I want her till I die. Then somet’ing
in my heart say, ‘He’s like son to you,
as if he your own boy; make him glad—happy. Oh,
ver’ glad! Be like his own mother. Find him his
“Bless the mother heart
of her!” growled the big foreman, frowning to
keep his face from twitching.
It was twilight when they mounted
the horses one of the men had brought up for them to
ride [Page 113] home on, Wingate with
his treasure-child hugged tightly in his arms. Words
were powerless to thank the woman who had saved half
his world for him. His voice choked when he tried, but
she understood, and her woman’s heart was very,
Just as they reached the rim
of the cañon Wingate turned and looked back.
His arms tightened about little Margie as his eyes rested
on Catharine—as once before she was standing in
the doorway, alone; alone, and above and about her were
the purple shadows, the awful solitude of Crow’s
“Brown!” he called.
“Hold on, Brown! I can’t do it! I can’t
leave her like that!”
He wheeled his horse about and,
plunging back through the snow, rode again to her door.
Her eyes radiated as she looked at him. Years had been
wiped from his face since the morning. He was a laughing
boy once more.
“You are right,”
he said, “I cannot keep my little girl in that
rough camp. You said it was no place for a girl child.
You are right. I will send her into Calgary until my
survey is over. Catharine, will you go with her, take
care of her, nurse her, guard her for me? You said I
was as your own son; will you be that good mother to
me that you want to be? Will you do this for your white
boy?” [Page 114]
He had never seen her smile
before. A moment ago her heart had been breaking, but
now she knew with a great gladness that she was not
only going to keep and care for Margie, but that this
laughing boy would be as a son to her for all time.
No wonder that Catharine of the Crow’s Nest smiled!
* Fact. [back]