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CHAPTER VII THE FRIEND IN NEED
Even considering the serious nature of their quest and the plight they were in, it was not possible for the boys to refrain from laughing when they recognised Britain's national song as caricatured by the singer. But they had sufficient wisdom to control most of their amusement to "inward laughing." It is not always safe in the backwoods to announce your presence too suddenly where strangers are concerned—especially strangers who are not of the white skin.

"That's a rum sort of music to come upon a hundred miles from nowhere," remarked Bob, with a grin, to his chum.

"Let's hope that it comes from a throat that has something of civilisation about it," said Alf.

"It doesn't sound quite like a white man. That 'ne-vaire' is more French accent than English—probably a half-breed."[Pg 67]

"What do you think we ought to do?"

"Investigate. We've got no choice. We're lost; that's certain enough. What's more, there seems to be very little chance of finding our own trail back to the camp."

"That's true enough," Alf assented. "But suppose we come upon a camp of half-breeds, as you suggested? I've heard that they're not the best of friends to white people in out-of-the-way places."

Arnold nodded in agreement.

"I dare say that's true. But, at the same time, most yarns of the kind have usually got large bits of ornamental stuff stuck round the facts. We'll have to take our chance of falling in with friends or foes."

"Right-away. If you're ready, I'm ready also," said Alf promptly. "It will be a strange thing if 'Rule Britannia' leads Britons into a mess instead of out of one."

Having thus determined what course to pursue, the two boys began to creep cautiously through the bush towards the locality from whence still proceeded the music that was being repeated with all the diligence of some one who was determined to learn his lesson thoroughly.[Pg 68]

The night was now quite dark, but presently the chums were able to distinguish the flickering of a camp-fire at no great distance before them.

Taking every care not to betray their presence by any careless footstep, they twined a path with all the success that a professional tracker would have admired. Then, penetrating a more than usually dense portion of the bush, the young explorers found themselves right on the edge of the encampment, and the picture that they then discovered was one that was surely calculated to drive away all melancholy thoughts and feelings of fatigue, for the time being at least.

Seated on the end of a water-keg, in front of a moderate-sized "A" tent, was a man of gigantic size whose black hair stood up from his head as if he were constantly seeing ghosts, and whose equally black beard streamed down his breast like a cataract of ink. He was dressed in a blue shirt, corduroy trousers protected with cowboy "shaps," and heavy top-boots. In his hands was an accordion, at his side sat a collie dog, while in front of him, with his back to the fire—standing with his hands behind his back in the attitude of a schoolboy repeating a lesson—was a tousle-headed[Pg 69] half-breed, whom he of the black beard was addressing in encouraging tones—

"Noo then, ma callant, we'll just be having that last line ower again. It's no' bad as an eemitation o' a cat left oot on a winter's night; but it's no' just what I call 'ceevilised'; no' just quite that—yet."

Then the accordion sounded a dismal chord suggestive of an attack of asthma, the half-breed reattacked the "ne-vaire, ne-vaire, ne-vaire" in a manner that made up in energy what it lacked in music, and the collie raised his head to add a long-drawn wail to the concert.

"That's a wee bit better," was the player's verdict at the finish. "I'm thinking we'll make a ceevilised creature oot o' you in time, Haggis." Then the speaker turned to the dog. "As for you, Bannock, you're a bit oot o' tune at times. But it's no' that bad for a doggie. It's good to be aye trying to do our best——"

"Hear! hear!" shouted Bob, whose interested amusement had quite banished his caution.

The effect of the boy's applause was electric. The two men started. The half-breed snatched up a gun that was leaning against a tree near by; one hand of the bearded man deposited the[Pg 70] musical instrument upon the ground as his right picked up a handy rifle; while Bannock, the dog, crouched down with bristling hair and deep growling.

"Come oot and show yourself, whoever ye be!" commanded the master, as he raised himself to his great height, with rifle in readiness and eyes staring towards that part of the bush where the chums stood. "Come forward this instant, or I'll bore as many holes in your body as there are farthings in a pound!"

In obedience to the gentle invitation, and not in the least nervous, now that they knew who the musicians were, the boys immediately made their appearance.

"There's no need to be afraid——" began Holden reassuringly, when he was interrupted by a huge guffaw of derision.

"Afraid! And what for shall Skipper Mackintosh be afraid? Unless it's mosquitoes, there's no man or beast in Canada that'll turn a hair on his hide." Then, seeing the lads as they approached into the firelight, the man immediately changed his tone of address as he also altered the threatening pose of his rifle. "What! A pair o' laddies?" he exclaimed in astonishment, and Bob replied[Pg 71]—

"Neither of whom is particularly anxious to be riddled with a pound's worth of farthing bullets!"

But the words had barely passed the boy's lips before the rifle had been dropped to the ground and the man had sprung forward excitedly to grab a hand of each boy in his great fists.

"Faix! but this is a fine sight for sore eyes!" he exclaimed, as he vigorously pumped the arms up and down. "I've no' seen a white face (barring a trader's, and that was ower dirty to call it 'white') this twelvemonth past. I'm right glad to see you!"

"And I guess we're jolly glad to see you," returned Alf. "It's a treat, but—speaking for myself, I really want to use my hand again. It'll be jelly in a few more seconds."

"And mine too!" laughed Bob, who could not help wincing at the vigorous form of the welcome.

The Scotsman immediately released his severe grasp.

"Sakes! But I'm that glad to see you, laddies, I feel just like squeezing for another hour. I suppose, noo, that I'm no' just dreaming? You're no' by chance just twa o' them muckle moths that's come into my dream in a make-believe?"[Pg 72]

"We're human, sure enough," Arnold laughed in reply, and Alf added—

"Terribly human we are, for we've lost our way in the forest, and we're beastly tired as well as hungry."

"Lost—tired—hungry?" repeated Mackintosh. "That has a human sound—terribly human, as you say." Then he turned towards the half-breed, who had been standing an amazed spectator of the scene. "Did you hear that, Haggis?" he demanded. "Did you hear that—'hungry and tired'?"

"Haggis hear," was the quiet reply of the native, to which the Scot retorted angrily—

"You heard? And yet, one meenit after, I see you standing there like a daft gowk instead o' hustling for food as fast as your legs can move you? Ma conscience! But you tak' a deal of ceevilising! You dinna ken the first meaning o' the word 'hospitality.' Off wi' you!"

There was no need to repeat the order, for the half-breed immediately disappeared within the tent, and the almost simultaneous rattling sound of tin-ware was evidence of his haste to supply the want.

Mackintosh then turned to the boys.[Pg 73]

"Noo then, rest yourselves, laddies. Sit doon by the fire, and you'll soon have a bit o' something to grind between your molars. Haggis is slow to understand, but he's quick enough when he kens what's wanted."

Not unwillingly, the chums soon stretched themselves in comfortable positions beside the camp-fire at either side of their eccentric host. Bannock, however, still eyed the strangers with suspicion, so Mackintosh was forced to introduce the dog formally to each boy in turn, at which the intelligent animal extended a paw with all the air of one who is accustomed to polite society.

"He's a fine chap," explained the Scot. "There's no' a single thing that he canna do (according to the leemitations o' Nature) except speak. And even that he manages to do in his ain way. Noo, come here, Bannock, and lie down while oor freends spin us their yarn. They've no' told us yet who they are, where they come frae, nor where they're going."

"That's a yarn that's quickly told," remarked Bob. The half-breed by this time had returned from the tent with generous supplies of cold deer, damper, and wild berries, after serving which he[Pg 74] placed a pan on the fire in preparation for coffee. "It's a yarn that won't take long in the telling, though, if you'll excuse me, I'll eat while I speak."

"Eat awa'," assented the other, while he lit a corn-cob pipe to satisfy his own immediate wants. "There's plenty mair where that came frae, and the coffee will soon be ready!"

Arnold then launched into a brief recital of his and his chum's adventures, beginning with the departure of their fathers on the previous morning, and concluding—

"So all this afternoon we've been wandering about trying to find a path back to our camp, so as to start afresh by the river course. But it was no use."

"And we might have been wandering still if it had not been for a strange accident that led us here," added Alf, at which remark Mackintosh questioned—

"And what might that be? The soond o' Haggis's nightingale voice?"

"No—at least, not in the first place. We heard that later. What first started us in this direction was a curious sort of light that we discovered on one of the trees. And while we were examining it we noticed that there were other[Pg 75] lights on other trees in a straight line with one another. Strange, wasn't it?"

"Very," returned the Scotsman dryly. "Very strange."

"It would be a good thing for a naturalist," said Bob. "I noticed that there was a perfect cloud of moths flying about wherever there was a patch of light. A collector of moths and butterflies would reap a harvest. I suppose you've noticed the lights as well as we?"

"H'm—yes—considering that I painted the trees mysel' this afternoon," was the reply. "It's an invention o' my own. I'm what you call a collector of moths and butterflies. An entomologist is a shorter way o' putting it. Well, there's many folks stick to treacle—I mean, stick to the auld-fashioned way o' putting dabs of treacle and speerit on trees to attract the nocturnal creatures. That's all very fine and good. But you canna carry gallons o' treacle on a tramp like this, when your whole outfit must be packed on one pony. So says I to mysel': 'Moths are attracted by light; I must invent a composeetion o' phosphorus to take the place o' treacle.' And those lights that you found on yon trees are the result."[Pg 76]

"And a splendid idea it is!" exclaimed Alf, who had also done his little share of treacling at school. "Is it a success?"

"Magnificent. I've found more moths than were known to exist in the West. I'm thinking that I'll open the eyes o' the Royal Edinburgh Entomological General Natural History Exchange Society when I get back again after my journeys. But——" The speaker here paused in his enthusiasm, remarking seriously, "I'm thinking there's other matters o' mair importance before us the noo than moths. Your faithers went doon the Athabasca, you said?"

"Yes; in a canoe," said Bob.

Mackintosh shook his head ominously.

"That's bad. I suppose they'd never been there before—indeed, it was no' possible, or they'd never have made the attempt yesterday."

"Is it—dangerous?" questioned Holden, in an undertone of dread, for the man's voice conveyed no small impression of the risks the voyagers had run. "We had not thought of danger in the river. We only thought of moose."

Mackintosh grunted uneasily.

"The river is more treacherous than any moose. There's a terrible narrow bight atween[Pg 77] cliffs where it runs like lightning, and then shoots in a waterfall into the Silver Lake. Man! I've seen great trunks o' pine giants flung through yon opening like wee arrows a hundred feet in the air afore they touched water again."

"Then a canoe——"

"If it reached so far in safety it would shoot likewise."

"You think it possible that the canoe might pass the gully unharmed?" Bob then questioned. It was always his nature to struggle for the brightest view, and the man's answer was somewhat in the same spirit.

"It's no' the way o' Skipper Mackintosh to find trouble until trouble finds him. He's been in a' the back corners o' Europe, Africa, India, China, and America; and, if he learned nothing mair from his travels, he learned this: troubles are easier conquered when you meet them wi' a firm lip at the proper time. But the man that moans before he kens what he's moaning about—well, it's little strength he's got left when the fight really begins."

"Yet if, as you say, the Athabasca is so dangerous——" began Alf, when he was again interrupted with kindly roughness.[Pg 78]

"If? Laddie, laddie, are you forgetting that there's a Hand that could guide the frailest birch-bark safely through Niagara itsel'? And I doot not that I'm right when I say that it's my opeenion that that same Hand has no' been very far from your faithers in their plight. Does either o' you ken anything o' this by chance?"

As he spoke Mackintosh dived his hand into the hip-pocket of his overalls and produced a white handkerchief which he spread out upon the ground by the fire. The boys bent forward, and immediately Alf exclaimed—

"That's my father's! See! His initials are at the corner. Where did you find it?"

"Not in the Athabasca!" said Mackintosh with quiet triumph. "Haggis and I came upon it this morning a hundred yards from Silver Lake."

"Then that means that they are on shore!" exclaimed Bob with delight at the relief from one anxiety that the evidence of the handkerchief provided.

"Ay. The Athabasca is free from that charge, at any rate. That hanky has no legs to walk by itsel'. It must have been carried. By whom? No' by an Indian, though I ken there's been[Pg 79] Indians in the viceenity. If a redskin had found it, he'd have taken better care o' it. And so it's clear to me that one o' your faithers must have dropped it on dry land, and so—so—— Well, you both o' you can have a sound night's rest."

So convincing were the tones in which the man clothed his words that the spirits of the boys were quickly stirred from gloomy anticipations to comparative cheerfulness.

"You've lifted a load from my mind, Mr. Mackintosh," Bob said gratefully, "for of course it is all fairly plain now. As likely as not they passed through that horrible gully, but were too worn out yesterday to start the trudge back to camp. It would be a long way, too, seeing how the river winds."

"In that case, most likely they are back at the camp by this time," suggested Alf. "But they would understand our being away, for they would find the note that we pinned to the tent."

"That's right, laddies. Look for the bright side and you'll always find it," the Scotsman remarked. "But I'm thinking that your reasoning is a wee bit oot in one respect—they have no' gone back yet, else Haggis or I would have seen them. This camp is in the direct natural path[Pg 80] from that part o' the Athabasca. My opeenion is that they've fallen in with the Indians—a tribe o' Dacotahs, and peaceable folk they are. It's no' to be expected that the gully could be passed unscathed. So it's likely to me that they're nursing themselves for a day wi' the redskins, after, maybe, sending a brave to your camp to tell you o' it. So to-morrow we'll lose no time in starting for Silver Lake. That's the best plan I can think o'."

"You mean to come with us?" asked Alf.

"What do you take me for—a savage?" was the reproachful return. "Do you think that Skipper Mackintosh is going to allow twa laddies like you to go wandering aboot the backwoods when he can guide you? And when Skipper fails, is there no' the Haggis and Bannock—a pair o' the finest scouts and trackers that ever set foot in bush or prairie? What do you take me for, I'd just like to know?"

"One of the kindest hearts in the world, Mr. Mackintosh," said Bob fervently.

"Bah! Fiddlesticks and porridge-sticks!" was the rough rejoinder, though a pair of eyes were turned kindly enough upon the youths—eyes that glistened in a way that rather suggested[Pg 81] the nearness of water. "All a pack o' nonsense! If a man is no' ready to help his fellow-creatures when they need him—well, I'm thinking that he ought to have a pin stuck through his thorax and mounted in a box among my moths, labelled, 'A horrible freak o' Nature.' And I'd have you know, too, that my name is Mackintosh—Skipper Mackintosh. There's no 'Misters' in the backwoods. 'Skipper' is the name that my auld faither gave me to commemorate his discovery o' a new variety of skippers in the entomological world. Mind that, and—and good-night to you, laddies. Good-night, and God bless the pair o' you."


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