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- Pierre And His People, [Tales of the Far North], Volume 4. - 1/9 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
PIERRE AND HIS PEOPLE
TALES OF THE FAR NORTH
By Gilbert Parker
THE TALL MASTER THE CRIMSON FLAG THE FLOOD IN PIPI VALLEY
THE TALL MASTER
The story has been so much tossed about in the mouths of Indians, and half-breeds, and men of the Hudson's Bay Company, that you are pretty sure to hear only an apocryphal version of the thing as you now travel in the North. But Pretty Pierre was at Fort Luke when the battle occurred, and, before and after, he sifted the business thoroughly. For he had a philosophical turn, and this may be said of him, that he never lied except to save another from danger. In this matter he was cool and impartial from first to last, and evil as his reputation was in many ways there were those who believed and trusted him. Himself, as he travelled here and there through the North, had heard of the Tall Master. Yet he had never met anyone who had seen him; for the Master had dwelt, it was said, chiefly among the strange tribes of the Far-Off Metal River whose faces were almost white, and who held themselves aloof from the southern races. The tales lost nothing by being retold, even when the historians were the men of the H. B. C.;---Pierre knew what accomplished liars may be found among that Company of Adventurers trading in Hudson's Bay, and how their art had been none too delicately engrafted by his own people. But he was, as became him, open to conviction, especially when, journeying to Fort Luke, he heard what John Hybar, the Chief Factor-- a man of uncommon quality--had to say. Hybar had once lived long among those Indians of the Bright Stone, and had seen many rare things among them. He knew their legends of the White Valley and the Hills of the Mighty Men, and how their distinctive character had imposed itself on the whole Indian race of the North, so that there was none but believed, even though vaguely, in a pleasant land not south but Arcticwards; and Pierre himself, with Shon McGann and Just Trafford, had once had a strange experience in the Kimash Hills. He did not share the opinion of Lazenby, the Company's clerk at Fort Luke, who said, when the matter was talked of before him, that it was all hanky-panky,--which was evidence that he had lived in London town, before his anxious relatives, sending him forth under the delusive flag of adventure and wild life, imprisoned him in the Arctic regions with the H. B. C.
Lazenby admired Pierre; said he was good stuff, and voted him amusing, with an ingenious emphasis of heathen oaths; but advised him, as only an insolent young scoundrel can, to forswear securing, by the seductive game of poker or euchre, larger interest on his capital than the H. B. C.; whose record, he insisted, should never be rivalled by any single man in any single lifetime. Then he incidentally remarked that he would like to empty the Company's cash-box once--only once;--thus reconciling the preacher and the sinner, as many another has done. Lazenby's morals were not bad, however. He was simply fond of making them appear terrible; even when in London he was more idle than wicked. He gravely suggested at last, as a kind of climax, that he and Pierre should go out on the pad together. This was a mere stroke of pleasantry on his part, because, the most he could loot in that far North were furs and caches of buffalo meat; and a man's capacity and use for them were limited. Even Pierre's especial faculty and art seemed valueless so far Polewards; but he had his beat throughout the land, and he kept it like a perfect patrolman. He had not been at Fort Luke for years, and he would not be there again for more years; but it was certain that he would go on reappearing till he vanished utterly. At the end of the first week of this visit at Fort Luke, so completely had he conquered the place, that he had won from the Chief Factor the year's purchases of skins, the stores, and the Fort itself; and every stitch of clothing owned by Lazenby: so that, if he had insisted on the redemption of the debts, the H. B. C. and Lazenby had been naked and hungry in the wilderness. But Pierre was not a hard creditor. He instantly and nonchalantly said that the Fort would be useless to him, and handed it back again with all therein, on a most humorously constructed ninety-nine years' lease; while Lazenby was left in pawn. Yet Lazenby's mind was not at certain ease; he had a wholesome respect for Pierre's singularities, and dreaded being suddenly called upon to pay his debt before he could get his new clothes made, maybe, in the presence of Wind Driver, chief of the Golden Dogs, and his demure and charming daughter, Wine Face, who looked upon him with the eye of affection--a matter fully, but not ostentatiously, appreciated by Lazenby. If he could have entirely forgotten a pretty girl in South Kensington, who, at her parents' bidding, turned her shoulder on him, he would have married Wine Face; and so he told Pierre. But the half-breed had only a sardonic sympathy for such weakness. Things changed at once when Shon McGann arrived. He should have come before, according to a promise given Pierre, but there were reasons for the delay; and these Shon elaborated in his finely picturesque style.
He said that he had lost his way after he left the Wapiti Woods, and should never have found it again, had it not been for a strange being who came upon him and took him to the camp of the White Hand Indians, and cared for him there, and sent him safely on his way again to Fort Luke.
"Sorra wan did I ever see like him," said Shon, with a face that was divil this minute and saint the next; pale in the cheek, and black in the eye, and grizzled hair flowin' long at his neck and lyin' like snakes on his shoulders; and whin his fingers closed on yours, bedad! they didn't seem human at all, for they clamped you so cold and strong."
"'For they clamped you so cold and strong,'" replied Pierre, mockingly, yet greatly interested, as one could see by the upward range of his eye towards Shon. "Well, what more?"
"Well, squeeze the acid from y'r voice, Pierre; for there's things that better become you: and listen to me, for I've news for all here at the Fort, before I've done, which'll open y'r eyes with a jerk."
"With a wonderful jerk, hold! let us prepare, messieurs, to be waked with an Irish jerk!" and Pierre pensively trifled with the fringe on Shon's buckskin jacket, which was whisked from his fingers with smothered anger. For a few moments he was silent; but the eager looks of the Chief Factor and Lazenby encouraged him to continue. Besides, it was only Pierre's way--provoking Shon was the piquant sauce of his life.
"Lyin' awake I was," continued Shon, "in the middle of the night, not bein' able to sleep for a pain in a shoulder I'd strained, whin I heard a thing that drew me up standin'. It was the sound of a child laughin'; so wonderful and bright, and at the very door of me tent it seemed. Then it faded away till it was only a breath, lovely, and idle, and swingin'. I wint to the door and looked out. There was nothin' there, av coorse." "And why 'av coorse'?" rejoined Pierre. The Chief Factor was intent on what Shon was saying, while Lazenby drummed his fingers on the table, his nose in the air.
"Divils me darlin', but ye know as well as I, that there's things in the world neither for havin' nor handlin'. And that's wan of thim, says I to meself. . . . I wint back and lay down, and I heard the voice singin' now and comin' nearer and nearer, and growin' louder and louder, and then there came with it a patter of feet, till it was as a thousand children were dancin' by me door. I was shy enough, I'll own; but I pulled aside the curtain of the tent to see again: and there was nothin' beyand for the eye. But the singin' was goin' past and recedin' as before, till it died away along the waves of prairie grass. I wint back and give Grey Nose, my Injin bed-fellow, a lift wid me fut. 'Come out of that,' says I, 'and tell me if dead or alive I am.' He got up, and there was the noise soft and grand again, but with it now the voices of men, the flip of birds' wings and the sighin' of tree tops, and behind all that the long wash of a sea like none I ever heard. . . . 'Well,' says I to the Injin grinnin' before me, 'what's that, in the name o' Moses?' 'That,' says he, laughin' slow in me face, 'is the Tall Master--him that brought you to the camp.' Thin I remimbered all the things that's been said of him, and I knew it was music I'd been hearin' and not children's voices nor anythin' else at all.
"'Come with me,' says Grey Nose; and he took me to the door of a big tent standin' alone from the rest.
"'Wait a minute,' says he, and he put his hand on the tent curtain; and at that there was a crash, as a million gold hammers were fallin' on silver drums. And we both stood still; for it seemed an army, with swords wranglin' and bridle-chains rattlin', was marchin' down on us. There was the divil's own uproar, as a battle was comin' on; and a long line of spears clashed. But just then there whistled through the larrup of sound a clear voice callin', gentle and coaxin', yet commandin' too; and the spears dropped, and the pounding of horsehoofs ceased, and then the army marched away; far away; iver so far away, into--"
"Into Heaven!" flippantly interjected Lazenby. "Into Heaven, say I, and be choked to you! for there's no other place for it; and I'll stand by that, till I go there myself, and know the truth o' the thing." Pierre here spoke. "Heaven gave you a fine trick with words, Shon McGann. I sometimes think Irishmen have gifts for only two things--words and women. . . . 'Bien,' what then?"
Shon was determined not to be angered. The occasion was too big. "Well, Grey Nose lifted the curtain and wint in. In a minute he comes out. 'You can go in,' says he. So in I wint, the Injin not comin', and there in the middle of the tint stood the Tall Master, alone. He had his fiddle to his chin, and the bow hoverin' above it. He looked at me for a long time along the thing; then, all at once, from one string I heard the child laughin' that pleasant and distant, though the bow seemed not to be touchin'. Soon it thinned till it was the shadow of a laugh, and I didn't know whin it stopped, he smilin' down at the fiddle bewhiles. Then he said without lookin' at me,--'It is the spirit of the White Valley and the Hills of the Mighty Men; of which all men shall know, for the North will come to her spring again one day soon, at the remaking of the world. They thought the song would never be found again, but I have given it a home here.' And he bent and kissed the strings. After, he turned sharply as if he'd been spoken to, and looked at someone beside him; someone that I couldn't see. A cloud dropped upon his face, he caught the fiddle hungrily to his breast, and came limpin' over to me-- for there was somethin' wrong with his fut--and lookin' down his hook- nose at me, says he,--'I've a word for them at Fort Luke, where you're goin', and you'd better be gone at once; and I'll put you on your way. There's to be a great battle. The White Hands have an ancient feud with the Golden Dogs, and they have come from where the soft Chinook wind
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