Squared dark joists of timber showed overhead. The fiddlers sat on a raised platform, playing in ecstasy. The dark, shining floor was thronged with dancers, who, before primrose-color entirely withdrew from evening twilight, had rushed to their usual amusement.
Half-breeds, quarter-breeds, sixteenth-breeds, Canadian French, Americans, in finery that the Northwest was able to command from marts of the world, crossed, joined hands, and whirled, the rhythmic tread of feet sounding like the beating of a great pulse. The doors of double timber stood open.
From where he paused outside, Owen could see mighty hinges stretching across the whole width of these doors. And he could see John McGillis moving among the most agile dancers. When at last the music stopped, and John led Amable Morin's girl to one of the benches along the wall, Owen was conscious that an Indian woman crossed the lighted space behind him, and he turned and looked full at Blackbird, and she looked full at him. But she did not stay to be included in the greeting of John McGillis, though English might be better known to her than Owen had supposed. John came heartily to the door and endeavored to pull his countryman in.
He was a much younger man than Owen, a handsome, light-haired voyageur, with thick eyelids and cajoling blue eyes. The sweet gift of blarney dwelt on his broad red lips.
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Yet as Owen answered his invitation by a quick pass that struck his cheek, his color mounted with zest, and he stepped out, turning up his sleeves. Come out forninst the place, where the shlobberin' Frinch can lave a man be, and I'll shpake me moind. John walked bareheaded with him, and they passed around the building to a fence enclosing the Fur Company's silent yard. Stockades of sharp-pointed cedar posts outlined gardens near them. A smell of fur mingled with odors of sweet-brier and loam.
Again the violins excited that throb of dancing feet, and John McGillis moved his arms in time to the music. For a minute there was danger of manslaughter as they dealt each other blows with sledge fists.
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Instead of clinching, they stood apart and cudgelled fiercely with the knuckled hand. The first round ended in blood, which John wiped from his face with a new bandanna, and Owen flung contemptuously from his nose with finger and thumb.
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The lax-muscled cobbler was no match for the fresh and vigorous voyageur, and he knew it, but went stubbornly to work again, saying, grimly:. They pounded each other without mercy, and again rested, Owen this time leaning against the fence to breathe. The cobbler panted heavily. Ye know I've lost me wife in the old counthry. It's a year gone. Was the praste that wrote the letther a loire? John came to Owen and stooped over him, grasping him by the collar.
Candle-light across the street and stars in a steel-blue sky did not reveal faces distinctly, but his shaking of the cobbler was an outcome of his own inward convulsion. He belonged to a class in whom memory and imagination were not strong, being continually taxed by a present of large action crowded with changing images. But when his past rose up it took entire possession of him.
To be unsettled and uninterested in his surroundings was John McGillis's portion during the remaining weeks of his stay on the island. Half savage and half tender he sat in his barracks and smoked large pipes of tobacco. He tramped out nearly every evening to the Devil's Kitchen, and had wordy battles, which a Frenchman would have called fights, with the cobbler, though the conferences always ended by his producing his ration and supping and smoking there.
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He coaxed his cousin to show him the token, vacillating between hope of impossible news from a wife he had every reason to believe dead, and indignation at being made the sport of Owen's stubbornness. Learning in the Fur Company's office that Owen had received news from the old country in the latest mail sent out of New York, he was beside himself, and Amable Morin's girl was forgotten. He began to believe he had never thought of her. I did but dance wid her and pinch her cheek. A man niver knows what he does on Mackinac till he comes to himself in the winter camps wid a large family on his moind.
Poor John smoked, biting hard on his pipe-stem. Ignorance, and the helplessness of a limited man who is more a good animal than a discerning soul; time, the slow transmission of news, his fixed state as a voyageur—all these things were against him. He could not adjust himself to any facts, and his feelings sometimes approached the melting state.
It was no use to war with Owen Cunning, whom he was ashamed of handling roughly. The cobbler sat with swollen and bandaged face, talking out of a slit, still bullying him. But the time came for his brigade to go out, and then there was action, decision, positive life once more.
It went far northward, and was first to depart, in order to reach winter-quarters before snow should fly. At the log dock the boats waited, twelve of them in this outfit, each one a mighty Argo, rowed by a dozen pairs of oars, and with centre-piece for stepping a mast. Hundreds of pounds they could carry, and a crew of fifteen men.
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The tarpaulin used for a night covering and to shelter the trading-goods from storms was large as the roof of a house. The cobbler from the Devil's Kitchen was in the crowd thronging dock and shore. The villagers were there, saying farewells, and all the voyageurs who were soon to go out in other brigades snuffed as war-horses ready for the charge. The life of the woods, which was their true life, again drew them. They could scarcely wait. Dancing and love-making suddenly cloyed; for a man was made to conquer the wilderness and take the spoils of the earth. Woodsman's habits returned upon them.
The frippery of the island was dropped like the withes which bound Samson. Their companions the Indians were also making ready the canoes. Blackbird stood erect behind the elbow of John McGillis as he took leave of his cousin the cobbler. Owen looked steadily past John's shoulder at Blackbird, and laid in John's hand a small gold coin with a hole in it, on one side of which was rudely scratched the outline of a bird.
John McGillis's face burned red, and many expressions besides laughter crossed it. Like a child detected in fault, he looked sheepishly at Owen and glanced behind his shoulder. The faithful sunset-tinted face of Blackbird, immovable as a fixed star, regarded the battered cobbler as it might have regarded a great manitou when the island was young.
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The boats went out, and Blackbird sat in her Irish husband's boat, on his baggage. Oars flashed, and the commandant's boat led the way.
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Then the life of the Northwest rose like a great wave—the voyageurs' song chanted by a hundred and fifty throats, with a chorus of thousands on the shore:. When Owen returned to his Kitchen he found a robe of the finest beaver folded and laid on his shoemaker's bench. But she can kape him now till she has a moind to turn him out herself. Whin a man marries on a haythen, wid praste or widout praste, let him shtick to his haythen.
The old quarter-breed, son of a half-breed Chippewa mother and French father, took with him into silence much wilderness lore of the Northwest. While water lapped the beach before his door and the sun smote sparkles on the strait, he told about this adventure across the ice, and his hearer has taken but few liberties with the recital. A man will go out with the wind in the east, to haul wood from Boblo, or cut a hole to fish, and by night he cannot get home—ice, it is rotten; it goes to pieces quick when the March wind turns. I am not afraid for me—long, tall fellow then; eye that can see to Point aux Pins; I can lift more [Pg 55] than any other man that goes in the boats to Green Bay or the Soo; can swim, run on snow-shoes, go without eating two, three days, and draw my belt in.
Sometimes the ice-floes carry me miles, for they all go east down the lakes when they start, and I have landed the other side of Drummond. But when you have a woman with you—Oh God, yes, that is different. The way of it is this: I have brought the mail from St.
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Ignace with my traino—you know the train-au-galise—the birch sledge with dogs. It is flat, and turn up at the front like a toboggan. And I have take the traino because it is not safe for a horse; the wind is in the west, and the strait bends and looks too sleek.
Ice a couple of inches thick will bear up a man and dogs. But this old ice a foot thick, it is turning rotten. I have come from St. Ignace early in the afternoon, and the people crowd about to get their letters, and there is Mamselle Rosalin crying to go to Cheboygan, because her lady has arrive there sick, and has sent the letter a week ago.