A Tale of the Red River Plains.
A blizzard was blowing wildly over the American prairies one winter day in the earlier part of the present century.
Fresh, free and straight, it came from the realms of Jack Frost, and cold—bitterly cold—like the bergs on the Arctic seas, to which it had but recently said farewell.
Snow, fine as dust and sharp as needles, was caught up bodily by the wind in great masses—here in snaky coils, there in whirling eddies, elsewhere in rolling clouds; but these had barely time to assume indefinite forms when they were furiously scattered and swept away as by the besom of destruction, while earth and sky commingled in a smother of whitey-grey.
All the demons of the Far North seemed to have taken an outside passage on that blizzard, so tremendous was the roaring and shrieking, while the writhing of tormented snow-drifts suggested powerfully the madness of agony.
Two white and ghostly pillars moved slowly but steadily through all this hurly-burly in a straight line. One of the pillars was short and broad; the other was tall and stately. Both were very solid—agreeably so, when contrasted with surrounding chaos. Suddenly the two pillars stopped—though the gale did not.
Said the short pillar to the tall one—
“Taniel Tavidson, if we will not get to the Settlement this night; it iss my belief that every one o’ them will perish.”
“Fergus,” replied the tall pillar, sternly, “they shall not perish if I can help it. At all events, if they do, I shall die in the attempt to save them. Come on.”
Daniel Davidson became less like a white pillar as he spoke, and more like a man, by reason of his shaking a good deal of the snow off his stalwart person. Fergus McKay followed his comrade’s example, and revealed the fact—for a few minutes—that beneath the snow-mask there stood a young man with a beaming countenance of fiery red, the flaming character of which, however, was relieved by an expression of ineffable good-humour.
The two men resumed their march over the dreary plain in silence. Indeed, conversation in the circumstances was out of the question. The brief remarks that had been made when they paused to recover breath were howled at each other while they stood face to face.
The nature of the storm was such that the gale seemed to rush at the travellers from all quarters at once—including above and below. Men of less vigour and resolution would have been choked by it; but men who don’t believe in choking, and have thick necks, powerful frames, vast experience, and indomitable wills are not easily choked!
“It blows hard—whatever,” muttered Fergus to himself, with that prolonged emphasis on the last syllable of the last word which is eminently suggestive of the Scottish Highlander.
Davidson may have heard the remark, but he made no reply.
Day declined, but its exit was not marked by much difference in the very feeble light, and the two men held steadily on. The moon came out. As far as appearances went she might almost as well have stayed in, for nobody saw her that night. Her mere existence somewhere in the sky, however, rendered the indescribable chaos visible. Hours passed by, but still the two men held on their way persistently.
They wore five-feet-long snow-shoes. Progress over the deep snow without these would have been impossible. One traveller walked behind the other to get the benefit of his beaten track, but the benefit was scarcely appreciable, for the whirling snow filled each footstep up almost as soon as it was made. Two days and a night had these men travelled with but an hour or two of rest in the shelter of a copse, without fire, and almost without food, yet they pushed on with the energy of fresh and well-fed men.
Nothing but some overpowering necessity could have stimulated them to such prolonged and severe exertion. Even self-preservation might have failed to nerve them to it, for both had well-nigh reached the limit of their exceptional powers, but each was animated by a stronger motive than self. Fergus had left his old father in an almost dying state on the snow-clad plains, and Davidson had left his affianced bride.
The buffalo-hunt had failed that year; winter had set in with unwonted severity and earlier than usual. The hunters, with the women and children who followed them in carts to help and to reap the benefit of the hunt, were starving. Their horses died or were frozen to death; carts were snowed up; and the starving hunters had been scattered in making the best of their way back to the Settlement of Red River from which they had started.
When old McKay broke down, and his only daughter Elspie had firmly asserted her determination to remain and die with him, Fergus McKay and Daniel Davidson felt themselves to be put upon their mettle—called on to face a difficulty of the most appalling nature. To remain on the snow-clad prairie without food or shelter would be death to all, for there was no living creature there to be shot or trapped. On the other hand, to travel a hundred miles or so on foot—and without food, seemed an impossibility. Love, however, ignores the impossible! The two young men resolved on the attempt. They were pretty well aware of the extent of their physical powers. They would put them fairly to the test for once—even though for the last time! They prepared for the old man and his daughter a shelter in the heart of a clump of willows, near to which spot they had found a group of the hapless hunters already dead and frozen.
Here, as far from the frozen group as possible, they made an encampment by digging down through the snow till the ground was reached. As much dried wood as could be found was collected, and a fire made. The young men left their blankets behind, and, of the small quantity of provisions that remained, they took just sufficient to sustain life. Then, with cheery words of encouragement, they said good-bye, and set out on their journey to the Settlement for help.
The object at which they aimed was almost gained at the point when we introduce them to the reader.
“Taniel!” said Fergus, coming to a sudden halt.
“Well?” exclaimed the other.
“It iss sleepy that I am. Maybe if I wass to lie down—”
He ceased to speak. Davidson looked anxiously into his face, and saw that he had already begun to give way to irresistible drowsiness. Without a moment’s hesitation he seized the Highlander by the throat, and shook him as if he had been a mere baby.
“Iss it for fightin’ ye are?” said Fergus, whose good-nature was not proof against such rough and unexpected treatment.
“Yes, my boy, that’s just what I am for, and I think you’ll get the worst of it too.”
“What iss that you say? Ay, ay! You will hev to bend your back then, Taniel, for it iss not every wan that can give Fergus McKay the worst of it!”
Davidson made no reply, but gave his comrade a shake so violent that it put to flight the last vestige of his good-humour and induced him to struggle so fiercely that in a few minutes the drowsiness was also, and effectually, driven away.
“You’ll do now,” said Davidson, relaxing his grip and panting somewhat.
“Ay, Taniel, I will be doin’ now. An’ you’re a frund in need whatever,” returned the restored Highlander with a smile of appreciation.
About an hour later the travellers again stopped. This time it was Davidson who called a halt.
“Fergus,” he said, “we have been successful so far, thank God. But we must part here. Half-an-hour will take me to my father’s house, and I want you to go down to the hut of François La Certe; it is nearer than our house, you know—and get him to help you.”
“Surely, Tan, that will be wasted time,” objected the Highlander. “Of all the lazy useless scamps in Rud Ruver, François La Certe iss the laziest an’ most useless.”
“Useful enough for our purpose, however,” returned Davidson. “Send him up to Fort Garry with a message, while you lie down and rest. If you don’t rest, you will yourself be useless in a short time. La Certe is not such a bad fellow as people think him, specially when his feelings are touched.”
“That may be as you say, Tan. I will try—whatever.”
So saying, the two men parted and hurried on their several ways.
Categories: English Literature