Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police
Book III - Chapter I - The Camp by the Gap

On the foot-hills' side of The Gap, on a grassy plain bounded on three sides by the Bow River and on the other by ragged hills and broken timber, stood Surveyor McIvor's camp, three white tents, seeming wondrously insignificant in the shadow of the mighty Rockies, but cosy enough. For on this April day the sun was riding high in the heavens in all his new spring glory, where a few days ago and for many months past the storm king with relentless rigour had raged, searching with pitiless fury these rock-ribbed hills and threatening these white tents and their dwellers with dire destruction. But threaten though he might and pin them though he did beneath their frail canvas covers, he could not make that gang beat retreat. McIvor was of the kind that takes no back trail. In the late fall he had set out to run the line through The Gap, and after many wanderings through the coulees of the foothills and after many vain attempts, he had finally made choice of his route and had brought his men, burnt black with chinook and frost and sun, hither to The Gap's mouth. Every chain length in those weary marches was a battle ground, every pillar, every picket stood a monument of victory. McIvor's advance through the foot-hill country to The Gap had been one unbroken succession of fierce fights with Nature's most terrifying forces, a triumphal march of heroes who bore on their faces and on their bodies the scars and laurels of the campaign. But to McIvor and his gang it was all in the day's work.

To Cameron the winter had brought an experience of a life hitherto undreamed of, but never even in its wildest blizzards did he cherish anything but gratitude to his friend Martin, who had got him attached to McIvor's survey party. For McIvor was a man to "tie to," as Martin said, and to Cameron he was a continual cause of wonder and admiration. He was a big man, with a big man's quiet strength, patient, fearless of men and things, reverent toward Nature's forces, which it was his life's business to know, to measure, to control, and, if need be, to fight, careful of his men, whether amid the perils of the march, or amid the more deadly perils of trading post and railway construction camp. Cameron never could forget the thrill of admiration that swept his soul one night in Taylor's billiard and gambling "joint" down at the post where the Elbow joins the Bow, when McIvor, without bluff or bluster, took his chainman and his French-Canadian cook, the latter frothing mad with "Jamaica Ginger" and "Pain-killer," out of the hands of the gang of bad men from across the line who had marked them as lambs for the fleecing. It was not the courage of his big chief so much that had filled Cameron with amazed respect and admiration as the calm indifference to every consideration but that of getting his men out of harm's way, and the cool-headed directness of the method he employed.

"Come along, boys," McIvor had said, gripping them by their coat collars. "I don't pay you good money for this sort of thing." And so saying he had lifted them clear from their seats, upsetting the table, ignoring utterly the roaring oaths of the discomfited gamblers. What would have been the result none could say, for one of the gamblers had whipped out his gun and with sulphurous oaths was conducting a vigourous demonstration behind the unconscious back of McIvor, when there strolled into the room and through the crowd of men scattering to cover, a tall slim youngster in the red jacket and pill-box cap of that world-famous body of military guardians of law and order, the North West Mounted Police. Not while he lived would Cameron forget the scene that followed. With an air of lazy nonchalance the youngster strode quietly up to the desperado flourishing his gun and asked in a tone that indicated curiosity more than anything else, "What are you doing with that thing?"

"I'll show yeh!" roared the man in his face, continuing to pour forth a torrent of oaths.

"Put it down there!" said the youngster in a smooth and silky voice, pointing to a table near by. "You don't need that in this country."

The man paused in his demonstration and for a moment or two stood in amazed silence. The audacity of the youngster appeared to paralyse his powers of speech and action.

"Put it down there, my man. Do you hear?" The voice was still smooth, but through the silky tones there ran a fibre of steel. Still the desperado stood gazing at him. "Quick, do you hear?" There was a sudden sharp ring of imperious, of overwhelming authority, and, to the amazement of the crowd of men who stood breathless and silent about, there followed one of those phenomena which experts in psychology delight to explain, but which no man can understand. Without a word the gambler slowly laid upon the table his gun, upon whose handle were many notches, the tally of human lives it had accounted for in the hands of this same desperado.

"What is this for?" continued the young man, gently touching the belt of cartridges. "Take it off!"

The belt found its place beside the gun.

"Now, listen!" gravely continued the youngster. "I give you twenty-four hours to leave this post, and if after twenty-four hours you are found here it will be bad for you. Get out!"

The man, still silent, slunk out from the room. Irresistible authority seemed to go with the word that sent him forth, and rightly so, for behind that word lay the full weight of Great Britain's mighty empire. It was Cameron's first experience of the North West Mounted Police, that famous corps of frontier riders who for more than a quarter of a century have ridden the marches of Great Britain's territories in the far northwest land, keeping intact the Pax Britannica amid the wild turmoil of pioneer days. To the North West Mounted Police and to the pioneer missionary it is due that Canada has never had within her borders what is known as a "wild and wicked West." It was doubtless owing to the presence of that slim youngster in his scarlet jacket and pill-box cap that McIvor got his men safely away without a hole in his back and that his gang were quietly finishing their morning meal this shining April day, in their camp by the Bow River in the shadow of the big white peaks that guard The Gap.

Breakfast over, McIvor heaved his great form to the perpendicular.

"How is the foot, Cameron?" he asked, filling his pipe preparatory to the march.

"Just about fit," replied Cameron.

"Better take another day," replied the chief. "You can get up wood and get supper ready. Benoit will be glad enough to go out and take your place for another day on the line."

"Sure ting," cried Benoit, the jolly French-Canadian cook. "Good for my healt. He's tak off my front porsch here." And the cook patted affectionately the little round paunch that marred the symmetry of his figure.

"You ought to get Cameron to swap jobs with you, Benny," said one of the axemen. "You would be a dandy in about another month."

Benoit let his eye run critically over the line of his person.

"Bon! Dat's true, for sure. In tree, four mont I mak de beeg spark on de girl, me."

"You bet, Benny!" cried the axeman. "You'll break 'em all up."

"Sure ting!" cried Benny, catching up a coal for his pipe. "By by, Cameron. Au revoir. I go for tak some more slice from my porsch."

"Good-bye, Benny," cried Cameron. "It is your last chance, for to-morrow I give you back your job. I don't want any 'front porsch' on me."

"Ho! ho!" laughed Benny scornfully, as he turned to hurry after his chief. "Dat's not moch front porsch on you. Dat's one rail fence—clabbord."

And indeed Benoit was right, for there was no "porsch" or sign of one on Cameron's lean and muscular frame. The daily battle with winter's fierce frosts and blizzards, the strenuous toil, the hard food had done their work on him. Strong, firm-knit, clean and sound, hard and fit, he had come through his first Canadian winter. No man in the camp, not even the chief himself, could "bush" him in a day's work. He had gained enormously in strength lately, and though the lines of his frame still ran to angles, he had gained in weight as well. Never in the days of his finest training was he as fit to get the best out of himself as now. An injured foot had held him in camp for a week, but the injury was now almost completely repaired and the week's change of work only served to replenish his store of snap and vim.

An hour or two sufficed to put the camp in the perfect order that he knew Benoit would consider ideal and to get all in readiness for the evening meal when the gang should return. He had the day before him and what a day it was! Cameron lay upon a buffalo skin in front of the cook-tent, content with all the world and for the moment with himself. Six months ago he had engaged as an axeman in the surveyors' gang at $30 per month and "found," being regarded more in the light of a supernumerary and more or less of a burden than anything else. Now he was drawing double the wage as rodman, and, of all the gang, stood second to none in McIvor's regard. In this new venture he had come nearer to making good than ever before in his life. So in full content with himself he allowed his eyes to roam over the brown grassy plain that sloped to the Bow in front, and over the Bow to the successive lines of hills, rounded except where the black rocks broke jagged through the turf, and upward over the rounded hills to the grey sides of the mighty masses of the mountains, and still upward to where the white peaks lost themselves in the shining blue of the sky. Behind him a coulee ran back between hills to a line of timber, and beyond the timber more hills and more valleys, and ever growing higher and deeper till they ran into the bases of the great Rockies.

As Cameron lay thus luxuriating upon his buffalo skin and lazily watching the hills across the river through the curling wreaths that gracefully and fragrantly rose from his briar root, there broke from the line of timber two jumping deer, buck and doe, the latter slow-footed because heavy with young. Behind them in hot pursuit came a pack of yelping coyotes. The doe was evidently hard pressed. The buck was running easily, but gallantly refusing to abandon his mate to her cowardly foes. Straight for the icy river they made, plunged in, and, making the crossing, were safe from their pursuing enemy. Cameron, intent upon fresh meat, ran for McIvor's Winchester, but ere he could buckle round him a cartridge belt and throw on his hunting jacket the deer had disappeared over the rounded top of the nearest hill. Up the coulee he ran to the timber and there waited, but there was no sign of his game. Cautiously he made his way through the timber and dropped into the next valley circling westward towards the mountains. The deer, however, had completely vanished. Turning back upon his tracks, he once more pierced the thin line of timber, when just across the coulee, some three hundred yards away, on the sky line, head up and sniffing the wind, stood the buck in clear view. Taking hurried aim Cameron fired. The buck dropped as if dead. Marking the spot, Cameron hurried forward, but to his surprise found only a trail of blood.

"He's badly hit though," he said to himself. "I must get the poor chap now at all costs." Swiftly he took up the trail, but though the blood stains continued clear and fresh he could get no sight of the wounded animal. Hour after hour he kept up the chase, forgetful of everything but his determination to bring back his game to camp. From the freshness of the stains he knew that the buck could not be far ahead and from the footprints it was clear that the animal was going on three legs.

"The beggar is hearing me and so keeps out of sight," said Cameron as he paused to listen. He resolved to proceed more slowly and with greater caution, but though he followed this plan for another half hour it brought him no better success. The day was fast passing and he could not much longer continue his pursuit. He became conscious of pain in his injured foot. He sat down to rest and to review his situation. For the first time he observed that the bright sky of the morning had become overcast with a film of hazy cloud and that the temperature was rapidly falling. Prudence suggested that he should at once make his way back to camp, but with the instinct of the true hunter he was loath to abandon the poor wounded beast to its unhappy fate. He resolved to make one further attempt. Refreshed by his brief rest, but with an increasing sense of pain in his foot, he climbed the slight rising ground before him, cautiously pushed his way through some scrub, and there, within easy shot, stood the buck, with drooping head and evidently with strength nearly done. Cameron took careful aim—there must be no mistake this time—and fired. The buck leaped high in the air, dropped and lay still. The first shot had broken his leg, the second had pierced his heart.

Cameron hurried forward and proceeded to skin the animal. But soon he abandoned this operation. "We'll come and get him to-morrow," he muttered, "and he is better with his skin on. Meantime we'll have a steak, however." He hung a bit of skin from a pole to keep off the wolves and selected a choice cut for the supper. He worked hurriedly, for the sudden drop in the temperature was ominous of a serious disturbance in the weather, but before he had finished he was startled to observe a large snowflake lazily flutter to the ground beside him. He glanced towards the sky and found that the filmy clouds were rapidly assuming definite shape and that the sun had almost disappeared. Hurriedly he took his bearings and, calculating as best he could the direction of the camp, set off, well satisfied with the outcome of his expedition and filled with the pleasing anticipation of a venison supper for himself and the rest of the gang.

The country was for the most part open except for patches of timber here and there, and with a clear sky the difficulty of maintaining direction would have been but slight. With the sky overcast, however, this difficulty was sensibly increased. He had not kept an accurate reckoning of his course, but from the character of the ground he knew that he must be a considerable distance westward of the line of the camp. His training during the winter in holding a line of march helped him now to maintain his course steadily in one direction. The temperature was still dropping rapidly. Over the woods hung a dead stillness, except for the lonely call of an occasional crow or for the scream of the impudent whiskey-jack. But soon even these became silent. As he surmounted each hill top Cameron took his bearings afresh and anxiously scanned the sky for weather signs. In spite of himself there crept over him a sense of foreboding, which he impatiently tried to shake off.

"I can't be so very far from camp now," he said to himself, looking at his watch. "It is just four. There are three good hours till dark."

A little to the west of his line of march stood a high hill which appeared to dominate the surrounding country and on its top a lofty pine. "I'll just shin up that tree," said he. "I ought to get a sight of the Bow from the top." In a few minutes he had reached the top of the hill, but even in those minutes the atmosphere had thickened. "Jove, it's getting dark!" he exclaimed. "It can't be near sundown yet. Did I make a mistake in the time?" He looked at his watch again. It showed a quarter after four. "I must get a look at this country." Hurriedly he threw off his jacket and proceeded to climb the big pine, which, fortunately, was limbed to the ground. From the lofty top his eye could sweep the country for many miles around. Over the great peaks of the Rockies to the west dark masses of black cloud shot with purple and liver-coloured bars hung like a pall. To the north a line of clear light was still visible, but over the foot-hills towards east and south there lay almost invisible a shimmering haze, soft and translucent, and above the haze a heavy curtain, while over the immediate landscape there shone a strange weird light, through which there floated down to earth large white snowflakes. Not a breath of air moved across the face of the hills, but still as the dead they lay in solemn oppressive silence. Far to the north Cameron caught the gleam of water.

"That must be the Bow," he said to himself. "I am miles too far toward the mountains. I don't like the look of that haze and that cloud bank. There is a blizzard on the move if this winter's experience teaches me anything."

He had once been caught in a blizzard, but on that occasion he was with McIvor. He was conscious now of a little clutch at his heart as he remembered that desperate struggle for breath, for life it seemed to him, behind McIvor's broad back. The country was full of stories of men being overwhelmed by the choking, drifting whirl of snow. He knew how swift at times the on-fall of the blizzard could be, how long the storm could last, how appalling the cold could become. What should he do? He must think and act swiftly. That gleaming water near which his camp lay was, at the very best going, two hours distant. The blizzard might strike at any moment and once it struck all hope of advance would be cut off. He resolved to seek the best cover available and wait till the storm should pass. He had his deer meat with him and matches. Could he but make shelter he doubted not but he could weather the storm. Swiftly he swept the landscape for a spot to camp. Half a mile away he spied a little coulee where several valleys appeared to lose themselves in thick underbrush. He resolved to make for that spot. Hurriedly he slipped down the tree, donned belt and jacket and, picking up gun and venison, set off at a run for the spot he had selected. A puff of wind touched his cheek. He glanced up and about him. The flakes of snow were no longer floating gently down, but were slanting in long straight lines across the landscape. His heart took a quicker beat.

"It is coming, sure enough," he said to himself between his teeth, "and a bad one too at that." He quickened his pace to racing speed. Down the hill, across the valley and up the next slope he ran without pause, but as he reached the top of the slope a sound arrested him, a deep, muffled, hissing roar, and mingled with it the beating of a thousand wings. Beyond the top of the next hill there hung from sky to earth the curtain, thick, black, portentous, and swiftly making approach, devouring the landscape as it came and filling his ears with its muffled, hissing roar.

In the coulee beyond that hill was the spot he had marked for his shelter. It was still some three hundred yards away. Could he beat that roaring, hissing, portentous cloud mass? It was extremely doubtful. Down the hill he ran, slipping, skating, pitching, till he struck the bottom, then up the opposite slope he struggled, straining every nerve and muscle. He glanced upward towards the top of the hill. Merciful heaven! There it was, that portentous cloud mass, roaring down upon him. Could he ever make that top? He ran a few steps further, then, dropping his gun, he clutched a small poplar and hung fast. A driving, blinding, choking, whirling mass of whiteness hurled itself at him, buffeting him heavily, filling eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, clutching at his arms and legs and body with a thousand impalpable insistent claws. For a moment or two he lost all sense of direction, all thought of advance. One instinct only he obeyed—to hold on for dear life to the swaying quivering poplar. The icy cold struck him to the heart, his bare fingers were fast freezing. A few moments he hung, hoping for a lull in the fury of the blizzard, but lull there was none, only that choking, blinding, terrifying Thing that clutched and tore at him. His heart sank within him. This, then, was to be the end of him. A vision of his own body, stark and stiff, lying under a mound of drifting snow, swiftly passed before his mind. He threw it off wrathfully. "Not yet! Not just yet!" he shouted in defiance into the face of the howling storm.

Through the tumult and confusion of his thoughts one idea dominated—he must make the hill-top. Sliding his hands down the trunk of the little poplar he once more found his rifle and, laying it in the hollow of his arm, he hugged it close to his side, shoved his freezing hands into his pockets and, leaning hard against the driving blizzard, set off towards the hill-top. A few paces he made, then turning around leaned back upon the solid massive force of the wind till he could get breath. Again a few steps upward and again a rest against the wind. His courage began to come back.

"Aha!" he shouted at the storm. "Not yet! Not yet!" Gradually, and with growing courage, he fought his way to the top. At length he stood upon the storm-swept summit. "I say," he cried, heartening himself with his speech, "this is so much to the good anyway. Now for the coulee." But exactly where did it lie? Absolutely nothing could he see before him but this blinding, choking mass of whirling snow. He tried to recall the direction in relation to the hill as he had taken it from the top of the tree. How long ago that seemed! Was it minutes or hours? Downward and towards the left lay the coulee. He could hardly fail to strike it. Plunging headlong into the blizzard, he fought his way once more, step by step.

"It was jolly well like a scrimmage," he said grimly to the storm which began in his imagination to assume a kind of monstrous and savage personality. It heartened him much to remember his sensations in many a desperate struggle against the straining steaming mass of muscle and bone in the old fierce football fights. He recalled, too, a word of his old captain, "Never say die! The next minute may be better."

"Never say die!" he cried aloud in the face of his enemy. "But I wish to heaven I could get up some of that heat just now. This cold is going to be the death of me."

As he spoke he bumped into a small bushy spruce tree. "Hello! Here you are, eh!" he cried, determined to be cheerful. "Glad to meet you. Hope there are lots more of you." His hope was realised! A few more steps and he found himself in the heart of a spruce thicket.

"Thank God!" he exclaimed. Then again—"Yes, thank God it is!" It steadied his heart not a little to remember the picture in his mother's Bible that had so often stirred his youthful imagination of One standing in the fishing boat and bidding the storm be still. In the spruce thicket he stood some moments to regain his breath and strength.

"Now what next?" he asked himself. Although the thicket broke the force of the wind, something must be done, and quickly. Night was coming on and that meant an even intenser cold. His hands were numb. His hunting jacket was but slight protection against the driving wind and the bitter cold. If he could only light a fire! A difficult business in this tumultuous whirlwind and snow. He had learned something of this art, however, from his winter's experience. He began breaking from the spruce trees the dead dry twigs. Oh for some birch bark! Like a forgotten dream it came to him that from the tree top he had seen above the spruce thicket the tops of some white birch trees purpling under the touch of spring.

"Let's see! Those birches must be further to my left," he said, recalling their position. Painfully he forced his way through the scrubby underbrush. His foot struck hard against an obstruction that nearly threw him to the ground. It was a jutting rock. Peering through the white mass before his eyes, he could make out a great black, looming mass. Eagerly he pushed forward. It was a towering slab of rock. Following it round on the lee side, he suddenly halted with a shout of grateful triumph. A great section had fallen out of the rock, forming a little cave, storm-proof and dry.

"Thank God once more!" he said, and this time with even deeper reverence. "Now for a fire. If I could only get some birch bark."

He placed his rifle in a corner of the cave and went out on his hunt. "By Jove, I must hurry, or my hands will be gone sure." Looking upwards in the shelter of the rock through the driving snow he saw the bare tops of trees. "Birch, too, as I am alive!" he cried, and plunging through the bushes came upon a clump of white birches.

With fingers that could hardly hold the curling bark he gathered a few bunches and hurried back to the cave. Again he went forth and gathered from the standing trees an armful of dead dry limbs. "Good!" he cried aloud in triumph. "We're not beaten yet. Now for the fire and supper." He drew forth his steel matchbox with numb and shaking fingers, opened it and stood stricken dumb. There were only three matches in the box. Unreasoning terror seized him. Three chances for life! He chose a match, struck it, but in his numb and nerveless fingers the match snapped near the head. With a new terror seizing him he took a second match and struck it. The match flared, sputtering. Eagerly he thrust the birch bark at it; too eagerly, alas, for the bark rubbed out the tiny flame. He had one match left! One hope of life! He closed his matchbox. His hands were trembling with the cold and more with nervous fear that shook him in every limb. He could not bring himself to make the last attempt. Up and down the cave and out and in he stamped, beating his hands to bring back the blood and fighting hard to get back his nerve.

"This is all rotten funk!" he cried aloud, raging at himself. "I shall not be beaten."

Summoning all his powers, he once more pulled out his matchbox, rubbed his birch bark fine and, kneeling down, placed it between his knees under the shelter of his hunting jacket. Kneeling there with the matchbox in his hand, there fell upon his spirit a great calm. "Oh, God!" he said quietly and with the conviction in his soul that there was One listening, "help me now." He opened the matchbox, took out the match, struck it carefully and laid it among the birch bark. For one heart-racking moment it flickered unsteadily, then, catching a resinous fibre of the bark, it flared up, shot out a tiny tongue to one of the heavier bunches, caught hold, sputtered, smoked, burst into flame. With the prayer still going in his heart, "God help me now," Cameron fed the flame with bits of bark and tiny twigs, adding more and more till the fire began to leap, dance, and snap, and at length gaining strength it roared its triumph over the grim terror so recently threatened.

For the present at least the blizzard was beaten.

"Now God be thanked for that," said Cameron. "For it was past my doing."

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.