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The Men of the Last Frontier
Chapter VIII. The Altar of Mammon

Away back around 1870 or maybe 1880, for Indians pay little attention to dates, a large war-party of Sioux and Blackfeet Indians from the Western plains penetrated as far east as North-Western Ontario. Some of the more vivid incidents connected with their arrival so impressed the Crees of that district that, from then on, they kept a permanent guard on an eminence, in order that, in the event of a return visit, they might be prepared to welcome their guests in a suitable manner.

The mountain became known as Sioux Lookout, a name it, together with the town at its foot, retains to this day, and the lookout is still a lookout, not for hostiles, but for that far more deadly enemy, fire.

When the marauders returned home from their barber-ing expedition, they referred to Canada, with Indian aptitude, as the Land of the Red Sunset; and the suitability of the name is as apparent now at the setting of the sun on nearly every summer day as it was then. In the summer months the sun goes down daily a blood-red ball, seen through a pall of smoke at varying distances, painted in garish hue by the vapour emanating from the destruction of one of Canada’s most valuable assets, her timber-lands.

As a woman’s hair is—or was—her chief adornment, so Canada’s crowning glory is her forests, or what remains of them. With her timber gone, the potential wealth of the Dominion would be halved, and her industries cut down by one-third; yet the forest is being daily offered for a burnt sacrifice to the false gods of greed and waste, and the birthright of future generations is being squandered by its trustees. Not only is the interest, the merchantable timber arriving at maturity, being used up faster than it accumulates, but the capital, the main body of the forest, is fast disappearing. Year by year for three-quarters of a century, this useless and costly destruction has been going on for five months out of every year; sometimes in widely separated districts, at others in a seething wall of flame that stretches clear across the greater part of Canada.

This is no exaggeration; in large cities such as Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa the sun has been noticeably darkened on more than one occasion by the smoke of fires two hundred miles away. Whole towns such as Haileybury, Liskeard, Cochrane, and many others, have been swept off the face of the earth. Mining camps such as Porcupine and Golden City have been burnt with loss of life running into three figures. In the latter case, I happened to be in the district, and at a distance of twenty miles I distinctly heard the roar of the flames, little knowing the holocaust that was taking place. The smoke was such that it was impossible to see a quarter of a mile on the lakes, and all travelling had to be suspended except by those familiar with the country. A shortage of canoes compelled hundreds of people to enter the lake by which the town was situated, where they extended in a living chain, holding hands to support each other, dipping their bodies from time to time under the surface to wet their clothes. Many of these were suffocated by smoke, those near the shore were badly scorched, and some were drowned. Relief trains sent up to the end of the steel were got through with difficulty, being on occasion derailed by the twisted metals, and in the tank of one locomotive that could be driven no further on account of the heat, a man was later found scalded to death.

I assisted in the work of recovering some of the bodies scattered through the charred forest, prospectors caught far from water by the sudden rush of fire; they were mostly in crouching positions, with the hands held over the face, sights terrible to see. This particular fire travelled, in spots, at an estimated speed of forty miles an hour, creating a hurricane of its own, and during the short time of its duration, laid waste an area as large as the South of England.

When it is considered that catastrophes such as these can be, and mostly are, caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette or match, unextinguished camp fires, or some other simple and preventable cause, and that useful lives and valuable timber, running into untold sums, can be destroyed by the criminal neglect of one individual, it is not very hard to see that fire protection in Canada has become a matter of the gravest importance.

No longer is the settler in danger of massacre, although in some districts wolves menace his stock, but in what is known as the “backwoods,” which includes all that region of half-cleared farms on the fringe of the forest proper, his life and property are in danger from forest fires as never before.

The Governments of the various provinces keep in the woods, during the danger period, forces of men equipped with every contrivance that could possibly be brought to bear on fires at such distances from vehicular transportation. In days now happily gone by, Fire Ranging was more or less of a farce. By the patronage system, then in vogue, men were often appointed to the staff of the Service who by trade were entirely unsuited to the position. In those days the way a man cast his vote was considered of more importance than the service he could give in the field, and those who had the responsibility of seeing the work done, or were genuinely interested, were hampered by the vote-peddlers. The rank and file consisted mostly of college students out to make enough money to see them through their winter courses; estimable fellows, all of them, but just as much out of place in their new environment as an Indian or a trapper would have been had he gone to their colleges and tried to assume the role of professor. Most of them were unused to a canoe, the only means of transportation, excepting for the little knowledge they might have picked up at summer resorts or at a boating club. The time that should have been spent patrolling the beat was expended in futile endeavours to do their own cooking, keep from getting lost, and generally take care of themselves; and many of them unfortunately looked on the expedition as a frolic, or else a chance to get a few lessons in woodcraft, and be paid for it.

Meanwhile Canada was burning up.

Some of the chiefs and their assistants were highly efficient men, who took their responsibilities very much to heart; and there were a few men of undoubted ability salted through the heterogeneous mass of inefficiency, but they were not common; and alone these men could do little. So, every spring, there was the elevating exhibition of ten or a dozen canoes starting out on an expedition intended to protect the most valuable, and at the same time the most perishable asset that particular Province owned, with a good two-thirds of its personnel now dipping a paddle in the water for the first time in their lives. And so the procession wobbled and weaved along the route, herded on its unwilling way by a harassed, discouraged, and vitriolic Chief, who tore his hair, and raved and pleaded at every portage. He was held answerable for the proper distribution of his men by a certain date, and in the case I have in mind he got them there, God knows how.

In one instance a young man who had passed, on an Ontario Reserve, what must have been a most uncomfortable summer between the flies, the loneliness, and a very exaggerated fear of wild beasts, on his return home caused to be published in a Toronto newspaper an account of his experiences. Among other things he related how an inhuman and relentless Chief had banished him and his partner to a remote and “ very undeveloped ” district, where they were frequently lost, and at one time were obliged to lock themselves in, while a ferocious lynx of large size laid siege to their camp for an entire day. As further evidence of the Chief’s brutality he stated that some rangers who had been discharged had been obliged to find their way out without a guide! It is to be supposed that they found the lack of a footman also very distressing at times. This was about eighteen years ago, and although, apparently, taken seriously at the time the story would not be published in these days, except as a joke, as it is well known that there are no authentic accounts of lynx, unless in a trap, ever attacking a man, and the Forest Ranger of to-day is certainly in no need of a guide. But this gives an idea of the protection that one of Canada’s most heavily forested regions was getting up to a not so very distant date.

This has all been changed. The fire-fighting machinery is now one of the most efficient and highly organized branches of the government service. Only men of known ability are employed. Districts where much travelling is done are patrolled by airplanes, which are also used for transporting fire-fighting apparatus to places to which it would be otherwise impossible to move it. Steel towers, hauled in sections by dog-teams during the winter, are erected on commanding situations and connected by telephone, and in them sentinels are posted every day of summer. Portages are kept in first-class condition, and short-cuts established, so that gangs of men and equipment may be rushed to the scene of a fire in the shortest possible time. Professional woodsmen and Indians are kept on the pay-roll for the express purpose of discovering blocks of valuable timber, and opening up routes to them.

A hundred miles each side of the railroad, in wild districts, is protected in the most intensive manner; beyond that the type of man who is responsible for most of the fires is rarely found. Those who have sufficient experience to enable them to penetrate farther than the Rangers go, will neither intentionally nor carelessly set a fire.

In case of fire a government ranger of the lowest rank has power, in emergency, to call to his aid all the able bodied men he needs, employed or otherwise, and he takes charge of the situation, although paradoxically they receive more wages for the duration of the fire than he does. All this comes a little late, but something may be saved.

The numerous lumber camps situated on the fringe between civilization and the true wilderness have long been known for their hospitality, their generosity to Indians, and the readiness of their crews to assist in cases of distressed travellers, and in the event of fire. No man need go hungry or want for a bed when passing through the lumbering districts, and weary trappers have rested in them for days, regaling themselves with cooking such as only the old-time camp cooks know how to put up, free of any charge.

Most of the companies are honest in their dealings with timber on Crown lands, but unfortunately some of these concerns have passed out of the hands of the big-hearted lumber kings, and under a new regime fail to keep up the traditions. There are a number of them now being operated by foreign amalgamations with huge sums of money behind them, and having no special interest in the country, their only concern being to get what can be got whilst the getting is good. They employ labour certainly, as long as it lasts, even as the beaver supported a large population for a time and are gone now. The two cases are parallel.

The white pine, king of all the Forest, at one time the mainstay of the lumber industry, is now only existent in a few remote districts, or in reserves set aside by a wise government. But the pine is hard to save. Politics have still a little to say, for it is a profitable tree, and many are the hungry eyes turned on the rolling dark green forest of the reserved lands. Certain unscrupulous lumber companies, of foreign origin, have been the cause of fires designed to scorch large areas of timber on Crown lands. Burnt timber must be immediately sold or it will become a total loss. The burning of an old lumber camp, and the sacrifice of some logging gear in the fire establishes innocence on the part of the company, and they come into possession of a nice, juicy cut of timber which rightly belongs to the public. The money is paid over but the pine is none the less gone.

I remember once visiting a lumber camp belonging to a 170 foreign company, to obtain details of a fire that had taken place on their cuttings. Somehow or another it did not transpire what my business at the camp was, but we, the camp bosses and myself, fell into an argument as to whether the timber on a certain lake in the Forest Reserve would ever be cut. They declared that it surely would, and I stoutly maintained that it would not.

“The Government won’t sell,” I finished triumphantly.

“They’ll sell if it burns, won’t they,” said one of the bosses with a knowing wink, not knowing what I represented. Two summers later a large block of timber adjacent to the lake was burnt and the district for miles around has passed into the hands of its enemies.

A letter appeared not long ago in a prominent newspaper in a Canadian City, in which it was pointed out that the reports being circulated concerning the alleged shortage of pine were hurting the lumber industry. It will be far worse hurt when the pine are gone, which will be before very long, and most of the old white pine companies are even now turning their attention to pulp, which, whilst not quite so profitable, employs as much labour, the main issue. It were better so than that the people of Canada should be robbed of the pleasure of having at least one or two National Parks in a state of Nature, if they serve only the purpose of a monument to the forest that is gone, a memento of the Canada that-was in the days of the Last Frontier. Let us, before it is too late, learn a lesson from the tale of the beaver and the buffalo. The forest is a beaten enemy to whom we can well afford to be generous.

Too many regard the wilderness as only a place of wild animals and wilder men, and cluttered with a growth that must somehow be got rid of. Yet it is, to those who know its ways, a living, breathing reality, and has a soul that may be understood, and it may yet occur to some, that part of the duty of those who destroy it for the general good is to preserve at least a memory of it and its inhabitants, and what they stood for.

The question of re-forestation immediately crops up.

I feel that the planting of a few acres of seedlings to compensate for the destruction of thousands of square miles of virgin timber, whilst a worthy thought, and one that should be extensively carried out, seems much like placing two cents in the bank after having squandered a million. Let us keep on with the good work by all means, but why not at the same time devise means to save a little of what we have?

This re-forestation may salve the consciences of those who would ruthlessly sell or cut the last pine tree, but by the time the seedlings arrive at maturity, a matter of a hundred and fifty years or more, the rabble of all nations will occupy so much territory that the trees will have no room to grow.

No one seems to have thought of ascertaining just how long a soil impoverished by being systematically denuded of its natural fertilizer, by the removal of all mature timber, will reproduce a forest worthy of the name. In these domestic woodlands there will fall no logs to rot and nourish the trees growing to take their places, especially in the unproductive barrens to which the interests of practical forestry have been relegated by the somewhat over-zealous land-hunters.

We have already to-day examples of this depreciation in “land-power” in some of the great wheat-growing areas of the West. The ruinous “scratch-the-land-and-reap-a-fortune” policy of the propagandists of settlement schemes in the past has been followed only too closely; and, insufficiently fertilized, the soil, having given all it had, is beginning to run out.

There are to-day in Canada large concerns that in the guise of a benevolent interest in Wild Life, and under cover of a wordy forest preservation campaign (of which re-forestation, not conservation, is the keynote), are amalgamating in order to gain possession of practically all of Canada’s remaining forests.

And, let us be warned, they are succeeding handsomely. Enormous areas are already beyond the jurisdiction of the people. As a sop to public opinion the benefits of reforestation are dwelt on, not as a contributing factor in silviculture (and a very necessary one it is), but as a substitute for the timber they wish to remove. According to those interested the forests will burn, fall down, decay, or rot on the stump if they are not cut immediately, and in return they will plant comparatively infinitesimal areas with tiny trees, to replace the fast disappearing forests on which they are fattening.

So we have the highly-diverting spectacle of one man, standing in the midst of ten million acres of stumps and arid desolation, planting with a shovel a little tree ten inches high, to be the cornerstone of a new and synthetic forest, urged on to the deed by a deputation of smug and smiling profiteers, who do not really care if the tree matures or not—unless their descendants are to be engaged in the lumbering business.

How have the mighty fallen, and will continue to fall!

"Even the policy of girdling" the hardwood species where they are not useful as firebreaks, woods whose beautiful fall colouring and grateful shade are a tradition in Canada, has been advocated to allow the growth of more easily merchantable species in their place at some future date. The virtual drying-up of springs, lakes, creeks and even fair-sized rivers consequent on this wholesale removal of forest growth, we hear nothing about.

Even an Act of Parliament to preserve a few hundred square miles of Canada’s natural scenery intact for the benefit of the people, has to be fought through a number of sessions before it can wrest from destruction beauty spots of inestimable value to the nation, the benefits of which will accrue to the greater number and for all time, not only temporarily to an individual or a company.

And until the politics in which the issue is obscured are kept out of the matter and replaced by public-spirited altruism and a genuine forest conservation policy, the will of the people will be over-ridden, and the forest will continue to fall before the hosts of the God of Mammon, until the last tree is laid in the dust. Removing a ring of bark entirely around a tree on which it dies.

No punishment can be severe enough to atone for the deliberate or careless setting of fire, and how little this is realized even to-day is illustrated by the decision, handed down, of a magistrate in a middle-sized town, when a man charged with having a bottle of whiskey in his possession during a prohibition wave was fined two hundred dollars, and another guilty of setting fire, and destroying several thousand dollars’ worth of timber, paid only ten dollars and costs.

I may seem to overemphasize this point, and perhaps could be accused of speaking too strongly, but if you had seen, as I have, noble forests reduced in a few hours to arid deserts sparsely dotted with the twisted, tortured skeletons of what once were trees, things of living beauty, (or if you are very practically minded, things of high value), excuse could no doubt be found for my zeal.

I know a little lake, called by the Indians the Place of Calling Waters, a blue gem, circled, as I once saw it, by a yellow beach of sand, and set in a valley of ancient spruce and birches. In the middle distance a dark pine stood out in silhouette, with its twisted arms thrown out against the Western sky, and the haze of evening dimmed the bristling outline of the wooded mountains.

It is different now. The glade is cut and the lake polluted. The giant pine no longer flaunts his bannerlike limbs in the face of the burning sun, and the mountain has become a pile of sterile rocks, covered with a skeleton forest of burnt rampikes, whose harsh outlines no haze can ever soften. Ana the cause? A “Hunky” colony.

Beauty spots such as this little Lake of Calling Waters, groves redolent with the clean smell of the leaves, carpeted in Spring with a myriad flowers, must soon be laid waste and trampled underfoot by the unsavoury hordes of Southern Europe, and their silence broken by a babel of uncouth tongues.

A frenzied and misdirected immigration policy, encouraged by the demands of a wage-cutting type of employer by no means rare, and promoted by shipping and transportation companies whose only interest is to collect fares, is fast filling up Canada with a polyglot jamboree of languages, among which English is by no means the predominating feature. The unskilled labour market in Canada is glutted. Every city has its unemployment problem. Prosperity there is, but not enough to provide a livelihood for the adult male population of all Europe.

The United States found it hard to absorb the immense quantities of immigrants landing on her shores, and was obliged to institute the quota, a wise act. There is room in Canada for some of the surplus population of the British Isles, and employment for them, but, at the present rate of increase from other sources, the population will soon, if it does not already, exceed the supply of labour that the country has to offer. Later, when the harm has been done, measures similar to those now in use on the other side of the line may have to be adopted, and the Briton, arriving here and finding the country overstocked, will naturally ask “Where do we go from here?”

The South-eastern European will work for less wages than the “white” races, and has therefore to a very large extent supplanted the old-time, happy-go-lucky lumberjack of song and story. This is to say nothing of other occupations he has seized on and monopolized, for no one will work with him.

He lowers the standard of living by existing under conditions that the English-speaking and French-Canadian nationalities would not tolerate, and in order to live the cheaper, in places where he boards himself, will kill every living creature from a whiskey-jack up, to eke out his niggardly diet.

The “Bohunk” or “Bolshie” is seldom seen without a home-made cigarette, hanging from his lower lip, which he will carelessly spit out into the inflammable forest litter. For days perhaps the dry muck will smoulder along, until a breeze springs up and fans the “ smudge ” into a blaze which leaps quickly from one resinous tree to another, till the whole forest is in flames.

This type herds together in communities where the whole output of his labour is just sufficient to support life, and generally in sections where the timber he cuts and destroys is worth infinitely more than his contribution to the wealth of the country.

At the present time, in some sections, timber as a national asset is worthy of far more consideration than the attempts at agriculture carried on in the same area. Forest regions of the backwoods, of the semi-cultivated type, abound with deserted farms, which, having run out owing to poor soil, serve no purpose save that of creating a fire hazard when overgrown with wild hay.

I venture to say, and I am upheld in this by recent findings of expert silviculturists, that a large percentage of the land now under so-called cultivation in forest regions, would be of far greater value under timber, and should never have been opened for settlement in the first place.

Agricultural over-production has, in some parts of the country, reached such a pitch that many farmers are feeding the best of grain to their cattle and pigs as being a more profitable method of disposal than selling it, whilst as an example of market prices, they must sell eggs at 5 and xo cents a dozen and butter at 15 cents a pound, as against 40 cents and 35 cents in former times. Many farmers with large holdings are mortgaged to the hilt. These are cold facts and will bear investigation; and although those who are engaged in the emigrant trade (for so it can well be called) may not agree with these statements, bankers and others doing business in these areas will.  

And yet with a world-wide business depression in full swing, and an unemployment tally of many thousands to account for, we allow transportation concerns to issue flamboyant literature far and wide with a view to attracting to these shores boatloads of unwanted foreign-born “settlers.” A period of readjustment and retrenchment, followed up by properly balanced and strictly enforced immigration legislation, will be necessary before any influx of unskilled, ignorant peasantry can be looked on with equanimity by the citizens of this Dominion.

The forest-fire menace in Canada is very real, yet the continued carelessness of unintelligent vandals, who get into the country simply because they have so much money, can’t speak English, and do not happen to have consumption or a wooden leg, is destroying as much, if not more, valuable timber than is cut for useful purposes. Hundreds of square miles of the finest forests now remaining on the American Continent, trees that were old when Wolfe stormed the citadel at Quebec, will be carelessly burnt every summer to provide a Roman holiday for an alien race. It would not be fair to blame the “Hunky” for all the fires, but with less of him the fire risk would be much reduced.

As an example of the spirit of some of these foreigners who, in certain districts, infest our forest countries, I will give an experience of my own. It fell to my lot to be passing a lumber crew just as a fire, of which they themselves were the originators, entered the green bush adjacent to their cuttings and was fast eating its way into the Government Reserve. As a Ranger it became my duty to take charge of the situation and I was obliged to call on the entire crew of two camps, some eighty or ninety men all told. When they assembled I saw at a glance that every man-jack was a Bohunk.

My troops were useless from the start. They shambled along with hands in pockets, or unwillingly holding shovels or axes, babbling and cackling in their own language. I caught more than one covert glance and sneering inflection cast my way and looked for trouble. I distributed them as best I could, an operation which much resembled that of lining up a herd of pigs on a skating-rink, and turned them loose on the fire.

While passing along the edge of the burn, noting the wind, direction the fire was taking, locating water and such things, I noticed the two foremen, Germans, (good solid citizens they were too), two French cooks and some chore-boys working like demons at a spot otherwise deserted. The foremen should have been foreing, the cooks cooking and the choreboys choring, but it transpired that the Bolsheviek had deserted in a body and had taken the bush, hiding out from the distasteful job, and these men had turned out to fight the fire alone.

“The Soviet sons-of-dogs,” swore one German. “Wait till I get them birds into the big timber!”

I routed out all the slackers I could find, and passed up and down the entire fighting-line, wheedling, threatening and cursing, until at last I became so exasperated that I threw the light axe I carried at one of the most impudent of them, close enough to startle him, where it stuck into a cedar with a good solid “chuck,” an Indian trick, and hitherto used only as a pastime. This created some impression, and by brandishing the axe, and a fluent use of all the profanity I could invent, better results were obtained.

And this was the spirit with which these men, aspiring to become citizens of a new and progressive country, met an emergency that was destroying their very means of livelihood, and for which they themselves were responsible.

I fail to see what right men such as these have to a share in the unearned increment of Canada, whilst the English speaking and French-Canadian workers are shouldered aside to make room for them. It will keep Canada busy absorbing the British population she is getting, a people who would have the interests of the country at heart, without having to divide up their birthright among a clamouring multitude of undesirables, who should never have gotten past the immigration barriers.

For a woodsman to revisit a country that he once knew as virgin and find it has been destroyed by fire is like coming home and finding the house burnt. Trappers and Indians rarely set fire; if they did their occupation would be soon gone. No man will burn his own property, and the proprietary feeling of these people towards their stamping grounds is very real. Most of them are the best unofficial Fire Rangers we have.

It is a serious misfortune, nay, a catastrophe of sweeping proportions, for a trapper to be burnt out, or see his territory going up in smoke. I know whereof I speak, having had the distress of seeing the greater portion of a well loved and familiar landscape destroyed by a fire in the space of forty-eight hours, I myself and several others barely escaping with our lives, and this necessitated my moving out of the district entirely. I was in the Fire Service at the time, and on going out to the village for provisions was detained by the Chief as smoke had been observed in a district with which he knew me to be familiar. That same evening an Indian, having paddled fifty miles without stopping, save for portages, came in and reported the exact location of the fire, which had come from somewhere south and west, and was fast eating its way into my hunting ground.

The next day a gang of hastily hired rangers and Indians started for the scene of the trouble. The main route was very circuitous, and more than once my fortunate knowledge of the presence of beaver enabled us to make use of several short-cuts, the dams being in good condition, and the shallow creeks, otherwise unnavigable, being well flooded. With these things in our favour we arrived within ten miles of our objective late on the first day and we began to hear the roar of the fire. That night, as we camped, sparks and large flakes of dead ashes fell into the tenting ground, and the sky was lit up by the terrible, but beautiful and vivid glare of a sea of flames. Much delayed by numerous portages, it was not until noon the next day that we were within measurable distance of the conflagration, which was a “hum-dinger.” There was a considerable mountain between us and the fire, and along the foot of this we tugged and hauled heavily loaded canoes up a shallow river, plugged with old fallen timber. Sparks, brands and burning birch bark fell about us unheeded. Sweating white men cursed and heaved, and passed scathing remarks on the owner of the country who did not keep his rivers in shape—myself. Patient, silent Indians juggled canoes and their loads with marvellous dexterity from one point of least resistance to another. Men of four nations waded in mud to the knees, broke paddles and ripped canvas from canoe-bottoms, unreprimanded by an eloquent and forceful Chief.

At his desire I described a short route to the fire area, and he swiftly made his plans and disposed his forces. My allotted sector, with two Crees, was the mountain, at the foot of which a couple of men made camp. Once up the mountain, from which we had a plain view of the camp, we separated, each taking a different direction, in order to get three observation angles on the fire from the eminence. Once alone, and in a fever of anxiety concerning my possible losses, I plunged ahead at full speed, angling towards the greatest volume of sound. I must mention here, that being used to moccasins, I was much hampered by a pair of stiff hard-soled Iarrigans which I had donned for firefighting purposes, and in which at times I was at some pains to keep on my feet.

I was suddenly startled by the sight of a bear which lumbered by me, bound for the river. A rabbit raced almost between my legs, then another and another. The roar had become deafening, and the heat almost unbearable, and I strained every muscle to attain the western, or far, crest of the mountain, before it became untenable for my purpose. I saw another galloping rabbit, and noticed curiously that it was passing from the left, when it should have been coming head on. A partridge flew, again from my left, struck a tree, and fell to the ground, scorched, blinded, and gasping. It I killed in mercy.

Just then I detected a sharper undertone of sound underlying the deeper heavy roar ahead of me, and on looking to the left and behind me, towards the line of flight of the bird, from whence it seemed to come, I saw the thin crackling line of a ground-fire creeping swiftly towards me like a molten carpet, now within a hundred yards of me, and backed at no great distance by a seething wall of flames. The fire had met me more than half-way, and had thrown out a flanking party. I was neatly trapped.

I turned and incontinently fled, making for the widest part of the V of flames, as the main conflagration had now caught up. And here is where my hard-soled 'packs* came in. Unused to boots, I found I could not run on the slippery jack-pine needles without losing time, and it took all of whatever will-power I may possess to tone my movements down to a swift walk, and curb my desire to race, and scramble, and tear my way regardless of boots, direction or anything else, just run—run. The flames were now on three sides of me, and my clothes were becoming brittle. Fortunately the intense heat kept the smoke up so that if I could keep my distance I was in no danger of suffocation; the danger lay in a very probable enveloping movement by the enemy.

I saw some harrowing sights. Dumb creatures endeavouring to save their lives from the one element against which all are helpless, some succeeding, others not. I saw tiny partridges in huddled groups, some lying on their backs with leaves in their claws, beneath which they deemed themselves invisible, realizing that there was danger somewhere, and using the only protection that they knew. And—I know of no greater love that a mother can have than this—I saw the hen bird sitting dumbly by, unable to herd the little creatures to safety, waiting to burn with them.

The smoke darkened the brightness of noonday, but the cavern of flames lit up the immediate surroundings with a dull red glow. I was keeping ahead of the fire but my direction began to be a matter of doubt. “Follow the animals,” I kept thinking; but all that could had gone by, and now there were no more. I forced back my terrible fear. I caught myself saying, “You can’t make me run, you—you can’t make me run,” and there I was running and slipping and stumbling in my deadly footwear; and with a jerk I slowed, or rather accelerated, to my swiftest walk.

More partridges, eyeing me dumbly from low limbs, and the chicks huddled beneath: oh the pity of it! Two more rabbits: follow them, follow them, fast! A small muskeg showed up; I raced for it expecting a pond: there was none. Past the muskeg and on. The growth of small cypress that cluttered the forest here became very thick. Surrounded by smoke, now commencing to billow down with the back-draught of the fire, my brain reeling with the heat, with the horror of what was too probably to be my funeral pyre driving me on, I scrambled desperately ahead, with no thought but to keep the advancing flanks of the destroyer behind me.

My feet seemed leaden, and my head a shell, light and empty, as I squirmed with desperate contortions to force a way through the continuous barrier, like a cane-brake, of small trees. I could no longer keep any specific direction, but knew I must now be far past the camp. I thought momentarily of my two companions; I had long since passed the area they had been assigned to. And then, breaking at length through the last of the barrier of saplings, I burst out on to the eastern brow of the mountain. Fire goes but slowly down a hill, so I took time to breathe, and looking down could see the camp; and from its proximity I knew that my ordeal by fire had not lasted over twenty minutes, if that, though I would have sworn that it had occupied an hour.

The camp ground itself was a scene of the utmost confusion. Tents were being pulled down by main force and jammed into canoes, sometimes poles and all; pots, blankets, baggage and equipment of all kinds, seemed, at that distance, to be picked up in quantities and dumped onto the nearest craft.

I descended the mountain, the fire commencing to creep over its edge, and found waiting for me with a canoe one of the Crees who had gone up with me. He had seen me coming out on the summit, expecting me there as he watched the course of the fire. He grinned and spoke in English:

“Hot like hell, eh?”

“Some,” I replied soberly, as I felt the split and scorched back of my canvas shirt.

On the river just above the camp was a live beaver-dam, and it came as a timely assistance in aiding us to make our getaway, deepening the river so that we reached without loss of time a mile and a half portage leading inland to a large lake. This, one of my main trails, was in good shape, and we moved over it at nothing less than a trot. To check the fire was impossible without a change of wind, and in any case reinforcements were necessary.

The Chief and one man commenced the return trip to get help, and from what I saw of the river afterwards, and judging by the two men’s description, the first part of the journey must have been something in the nature of running the gauntlet. The fire had crossed the river for most of its length in the interim, and was yet burning on both sides in many places. The aftermath of a fire is often as dangerous as the element itself, as trees, tottering on burnt-out stumps or severed roots, fall without warning. On the section of the stream where the log-jams were, necessitating delays, these men were in danger of being killed or injured at any minute, as trees fell without warning across .the river, and into it. On the lower reaches the fire was still burning, but here the water was fortunately deeper, and when some blaze hotter than common was encountered, the men crouched, half-submerged under the overturned canoe, which lying with its gunwales completely under water, afforded an airtight shelter as long as the canvas should last, or until the blaze died down. They told of a big bull moose with scorched hair and staring eyes, that fell exhausted into the water, and lay there sucking air into the tortured lungs in great gasps, paying no more attention to the canoe than had it been a floating chip. I saw on those waters dozens, no less, of small birds of all kinds floating dead along the river banks and young things such as half-fledged waterfowl, tiny squirrels, and odd humming-birds, that had made the water only to drown or die of suffocation; a pitiful sight.

Moose we found dead—by the smell, a week later—that for some unexplainable reason had died within reach of water, but no bears, although these latter were making full use of the banquet all ready cooked and served for their convenience.

My camp and complete outfit were saved, but my heart was saddened by the thought of the terrible loss of life amongst my poor beasts, and the destruction of the noble jack-pine forest in which I had roamed so long.

Amongst the Indians on this expedition there was an old man, a conjurer, whose name means “The Little Child.” He was the oldest man in the party, and the leadership of this “little child” in matters of bush technique was tacitly accepted by all. This ancient carried a drum. He took charge of the Indians in a very effective manner, but did no work. The Chief had noticed this, and had asked me to speak for him concerning the matter, and the following conversation ensued:

“Little Child, why do you not work, as the others are doing.”

“Because,” replied Little Child, “I am here for another purpose.”

“But,” said the Chief, “I thought you were here to fight fire.”

Little Child shook his head, and speaking gently, as to one who is mentally deficient, said:

“You do not understand. I am not here to fight that fire; I am here to put it out!”

The two ideas being synonymous in the executive’s long experience, he found this a little puzzling.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

“Wait and see,” replied the Indian.

Knowing better than to give direct orders to one of his race the Chief went on his way; but I waited, and I saw. What actually happened was remarkable enough. The weather had been hot, the sun shining without intermission for many days, and there was every sign of these conditions lasting indefinitely. This made our work the harder. Nevertheless, the next day Little Child deserted the party, taking his drum. As he left he said to me:

“I am now going to put out the fire. Two days, maybe three; wait and see!”

He secreted himself a mile away on a hill, and during two evenings and the whole of two nights we heard that drum, with never a break in its rhythm; tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum; the double staccato beat of the conjuror. The nights were very calm, and we heard, thinly, the high-pitched undulations of a three or four-note chant continuously repeated. Incessantly, without change it came and went, swelled and flattened to a prolonged minor note, and commenced again; until some of the white men, who were not used to that kind of thing, began to feel uneasy as to what it could mean. The Crees and Ojibways lapsed into a listless apathy, but none the less, each one of them could have posed for a statue intended to portray intense attention. At noon of the third day Little Child came down, put his drum into a gaily decorated case, and demanded something to eat. He had not broken his fast during three days. After he had eaten he said:

“I will now sleep. To-night it will rain; to-morrow there will be no fire. Meheu! it is finished.” Some time after midnight all hands awoke to a torrential downpour that streamed over the dried earth and under tents, to soak up through groundsheets and blankets; but we cared not, our work was done; the fire was out.

And Little Child had made a reputation as being either a magician of satanic abilities, or the best weather-prophet in Eastern North America.

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