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   Chapter 11 THE LETTER IN THE CAIRN

Troop One of the Labrador By Dillon Wallace Characters: 19382

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


In Labrador September is the pleasantest month of the year. It is a period of calm when fogs and mists and cold dreary rains, so frequent during July and the early half of August, are past, and Nature holds her breath before launching upon the world the bitter blasts and blizzards and awful cold of a sub-arctic winter. There are days and days together when the azure of the sky remains unmarred by clouds, and the sun shines uninterruptedly. The air, brilliantly transparent, carries a twang of frost. Evening is bathed in an effulgence of colour. The sky flames in startling reds and yellows blending into opals and turquoise, with the shadowy hills lying in a purple haze in the west.

Then comes night and the aurora. Wavering fingers of light steal up from the northern horizon. Higher and higher they climb until they have reached and crossed the zenith. From the north they spread to the east and to the west until the whole sky is aflame with shimmering fire of marvellous changing colours varying from darkest purple to dazzling white.

The dark green of the spruce and balsam forests is splotched with golden yellow where the magic touch of the frost king has laid his fingers and worked a miracle upon groves of tamaracks. The leaves of the aspen and white birch have fallen, and the flowers have faded.

Spruce grouse chickens, full grown now, rise in coveys with much noise of wing, and perch in trees looking down unafraid upon any who intrude upon their forest home. Ptarmigans, still in their coat of mottled brown and white, gather in flocks upon the naked hills to feed, where upland cranberries cover the ground in red masses; or on the edge of marshes where bake apple berries have changed from brilliant red to delicate salmon pink and offer a sweet and wholesome feast.

The honk and quack of wild geese and ducks, southward bound in great flocks, disturbs the silence of every inlet and cove and bight, where the wild fowl pause for a time to rest and feed upon the grasses.

After Thomas's departure Doctor Joe and the boys tidied and snugged things up for the winter, and many a fine hunt they had, mornings and evenings, in the edge of a near-by marsh through which a brook coursed to join the sea. Hunting geese and ducks was indeed a duty, for they must needs depend upon the hunt for no small share of their living. It was a duty they enjoyed, however. Skill and a steady hand and a quick eye are necessary to success, and they never failed to return with a full bag.

The weather was now cold enough to keep the birds sweet and fresh, and before September closed a full two score of fine fat geese were hanging in the enclosed lean-to shed with a promise of many good dinners in the future.

Between the hunting and the work about home there was no time to be dawdled vainly away. When there was nothing more pressing the wood-pile always stood suggestively near the door inviting attention, and it was necessary to saw and split a vast deal of wood to keep the big box stove supplied, for it had a great maw and would develop a marvellous appetite when the weather grew cold.

No extended travelling was possible for Doctor Joe on his errands of mercy until the sea should freeze and dogs and sledge could be called into service. But during the fine September weather he and the boys made two short trips up the Bay, where there was ailing in some of the families.

In the course of these excursions they took occasion to visit Let-in-Cove, which lay just outside Grampus River, where the new lumber camps were situated, and also Snug Cove and Tuggle Bight, a little farther on. At Let-in-Cove Peter and Lige Sparks, at Snug Cove Obadiah Button and Micah Dunk, and at Tuggle Bight Seth Muggs were enlisted in the scout troop, and a handbook left at each place. These, indeed, with the three Anguses, were the only boys of scout age within a radius of fifty miles of The Jug.

There was great excitement among the lads, and Doctor Joe proudly declared that there would be no finer or more efficient troop of scouts in all the world than his little troop of eight when they had become familiar with their duties.

A new field and a broader vision of life was to open to these Labrador lads, whose life was of necessity circumscribed. They had never been given the opportunity to play as boys play in more favoured lands. They had never known the joys of football or cricket or the hundred other fine, health-giving games that are a part of the life of every English or Canadian boy. They had never seen a circus or a moving picture and they had never been in a schoolroom in their lives.

This opportunity to play and study as other boys play and study in other lands was the thing, perhaps, they longed for above all else. Doctor Joe had inspired them with ambition. They hungered to learn and here was the Handbook with many things in it to study, and through Doctor Joe and the book they were to learn the joy of play.

The new recruits to the troop, however, as well as the Angus boys, had been close students of their native wilderness. Their eyes were sharp and their ears were quick. They knew every tree and flower and plant that grew about them. They knew the birds and their calls and songs. They knew every animal, its cry and its habits of life. They knew the fish of the sea and lake and stream. All this was a part of their training for their future profession of hunters and fishermen.

As hunters they had not learned to look upon the wild things of the woods as friends and associates. To them the animals were only beasts whose valuable pelts could be traded at the Post for necessaries of life or whose flesh was good to eat. Success in life depended upon man's ability to outwit and slay birds or animals, and the lads held for them none of the human sympathy that would have added so much to their own enjoyment.

Now they were to have a new view of life. Doctor Joe was to open to them a wider, happier vista. It was not in the least to breed in them discontent with their circumscribed life, but rather to open to their consciousness the opportunities that lay within their reach, and to make their life richer and broader and vastly more worth while.

Doctor Joe explained to the five recruits the Tenderfoot Scout requirements, much as he had explained them to David and Andy and Jamie. Wilderness dwellers who must take in and fix in the mind at a glance every unusual tree or stump or stone if they would find their trail, have a peculiar and remarkable gift of memory born of long practice and the fact that they must perforce depend upon their ability to retain the things they see and hear. The lads, therefore, required no repetition, and learned their lessons with ease.

Though they had never attended school they could all read, stumbling, to be sure, over the big words, but nevertheless grasping the meaning. Doctor Joe, during his years in the Bay, had taught not only the Angus boys but many of the other young people to read. Doctor Joe now marked the pages that they were to study, and before he and the Angus boys turned back across the Bay to The Jug it was agreed that the new troop should hold a week's camp to study and practise together. Hollow Cove, some five miles from The Jug, was to be the camping ground, and the first week in October was decided upon as the time.

"We'll start to camp on Monday marnin' of that week," suggested David. "Come over to The Jug on Sunday. 'Twill be fine to have us all go to camp together."

"Aye," agreed Micah, "'twill be now, and we'll come, and have a fine time."

"And we'll all study about the scout things whilst we're in camp," piped up Jamie enthusiastically.

"That we will now," David assured.

"Lige, you and Peter bring a tent and stove, and all you need for setting up camp," Doctor Joe directed. "Can you bring one, too, Seth?"

"Aye," said Seth, "I'll bring un, but we have no tent stove. Pop took un to the huntin'."

"Obadiah or Micah may bring a stove. You have one, haven't you?" Doctor Joe asked.

"Aye," said Obadiah, "I has one. I'll bring un along."

"You three fix up an outfit amongst you. There'll be three in a tent," Doctor Joe explained. "Andy can go in with Peter and Lige, and I'll tent with Davy and Jamie."

There was little else than the proposed camping expedition talked about on the return to The Jug, and in the days that followed David, Andy and Jamie devoted every spare moment to the study of first aid and signalling. Doctor Joe, with no end of patience, drilled them so thoroughly in first aid that they were soon really expert in applying bandages. He even instructed them in improvising splints and reducing fractures. In this secluded land, where for three hundred miles up and down the coast there was no other surgeon than Doctor Joe, it was not unlikely that some day they would be called upon to set a leg or an arm.

Doctor Joe was as ignorant, however, of the art of signalling as were the lads, and he must needs take it up from the very beginning and study with them. It was decided that they should learn both the semaphore and Morse codes, and Doctor Joe insisted that neither he nor the lads should consider the Second Class test satisfactorily passed until they had not only learned the codes but could send and receive messages at the rate of speed designated in the handbook as required for the First Class test.

"It wouldn't be fair to the scouts in the big cities," he declared. "They have to learn a great many things that we already know how to do, like building fires, using the axe and knife, and tracking. Those are things we've been doing all our liv

es and won't have to practise. We must make it just as hard for ourselves to become Second Class Scouts as it is for the city lads. So we'll make the signalling test that much more difficult."

"I'm thinkin' that's fine now," enthused David, "and when we learn un we'll know that much more."

"That's the idea!" said Doctor Joe. "And we'll not only learn the sixteen principal points of the compass, but we'll learn to box the compass to the quarter point as navigators do."

"I can box un now," grinned David.

"So can I box un!" Andy exclaimed. "Dad told me how, same as he told Davy."

"And I can learn to box un easy," promised Jamie.

Margaret joined them one fine day in the forest behind the cabin when they took their Second Class cooking test, and a jolly day they made of it. It was easy enough to roast a spruce grouse on the end of a stick. Even Jamie had done that many times. But Doctor Joe was called upon to solve the problem of cooking potatoes without cooking utensils, and he did it so satisfactorily that the lads practised it every day afterward for a week.

He resorted to a simple and ordinary method. He dug a narrow trench about six inches deep. Upon this he built a fire, which he permitted to burn until there was a good accumulation of ashes. Then he pushed the fire back and raked the ashes out of the trench. The potatoes were now placed in a row at the bottom of the trench and covered with a good layer of hot ashes. The fire was now drawn back over the ashes that covered the potatoes and permitted to burn briskly.

At the end of an hour he brushed the fire back at one end sufficiently to allow a long slender splinter to be pushed down through the ashes and through a potato. The splinter did not penetrate the potato easily and the fire was drawn in again to burn for another quarter of an hour. Then it was raked out and the potatoes removed, to find that, while the skins were not in the least burned or even scorched, the potatoes were done to a turn.

"You couldn't have baked them better in your oven, Margaret," laughed Doctor Joe.

"I never could have baked un half as well," admitted Margaret, adding, "'tis a wonderful way of cookin'."

"Doctor Joe's fine cookin' everything," declared Andy. "I always likes his cookin' wonderful well."

"Thank you, Andy. That's high praise," acknowledged Doctor Joe, "but I could learn a great deal about cooking from Margaret."

"I just does plain cookin'," Margaret deprecated, but flushed with pleasure at the compliment.

On the last day of September, which was a Friday, David and Doctor Joe crossed over to the Hudson's Bay Post and took Margaret with them for a visit to Kate Huddy, the Post servant's daughter, where she was to remain while the Scouts were enjoying their camp at Hollow Cove.

David and Doctor Joe returned to The Jug on Saturday, and when the other members of the troop arrived in a boat on Sunday, had their own tent equipment and food packed and ready for the little expedition on Monday morning.

It was a jolly meeting. The evening was cold, and when supper was eaten they gathered around the big box stove which crackled cheerfully, and Doctor Joe announced that as this was the first meeting of the troop they must organize and elect leaders, just as troops were organized everywhere else in the world.

When he had thoroughly explained the necessary steps he read to them a brief constitution and by-laws which he had previously prepared. These he had them adopt in due form, and then asked some one to nominate a patrol leader.

Every one, with one accord, nominated David, and he was duly, solemnly, and unanimously elected.

"Now," suggested Doctor Joe, "we must have an assistant patrol leader. Who shall it be?"

"Andy," said Seth Muggs. "Andy's been to the trails and he knows more about un than anybody exceptin' Davy."

"'Twouldn't be fair," objected Andy. "Davy's patrol leader. 'Tis but right we put in one of you that comes from across the Bay. I'm saying Peter Sparks, now."

Doctor Joe agreed with Andy, and Peter Sparks was declared elected. Then Seth nominated Andy for scribe.

"Because," Seth explained, "Andy'll be right handy to Doctor Joe all the time and Doctor Joe can help he to do the writin', and he needs help."

When the election was completed Doctor Joe explained the duties of the officers and the necessity of obedience to them in the performance of scout duties.

"Our troop is a team," said Doctor Joe.

"We must pull together. We are like a team of dogs hauling a komatik. If the dogs all follow the leader and pull together the best that ever they can they get somewhere. If they don't follow the leader, and one pulls in one direction and another pulls in a different direction and some don't pull at all, they never get anywhere and aren't of much use. Our troop is going to be the best we can make it, by all pulling together and doing the very best we know how.

"We must always be ready to help other people at all times, as we promise to do in our oath. If we live up to that we'll do a great deal of good, first and last, up and down the Bay. If some one's life is in danger and we can help them even at the risk of our own we must help them. Everybody wants to be happy. There's nothing that will make us so happy as to do some fine thing every day that will make someone else happy.

"We must train our brains and our hands so that we shall always be prepared to do the right thing and do it quickly. We must learn to keep our temper and not get angry. Let us take the hard knocks that come to us with a smile."

The remainder of the evening was spent in playing some rollicking games that the lads had never heard of before, and which Doctor Joe taught them. There was the one-legged chicken fight, and one or two others, as well as hand wrestling, though that they had seen the Indians play and had practised themselves. They all declared that they had never in their lives had so much fun.

An early start the following morning brought them to Hollow Cove at ten o'clock. Hollow Cove was a fine natural harbour. A brook poured down through a gulch to empty into the Bay, and near its mouth was an excellent landing-place. Not far from the brook, and a hundred feet back from the shore, they pitched their tents in the shelter of the spruce forest where the camp would be well protected from winds and storms.

While the others set up the sheet-iron stoves in the three tents and broke spruce boughs and laid the bough beds, David, Micah, and Lige volunteered to cut wood.

"There's some fine dry wood just to the east'ard and close to shore," suggested David, as they picked up their axes. "It's right handy."

A dozen yards from the camp David suddenly stopped and exclaimed:

"What's that now?"

On a great sloping rock close to the shore, but hidden by a jutting point from the place where they had landed, was a recently made cairn of boulders capped by a large flat stone.

"Somebody's been here!" said David as they hurried forward to examine the cairn.

"'Tis wonderful strange to pile stones that way," said Micah. "'Tis new made, too."

"Maybe it's a cache," suggested Lige, "but it's a rare small un. Look and see. 'Tis a strange place for a cache!"

David lifted the flat stone from the top and discovered beneath it a small tin can. In the can was a folded paper. He removed the paper and unfolding it discovered a message written in a cramped, scrawling hand.

"Read un, Davy! Read un out loud! You reads writin' good!" said Lige, and David read:

"i cum and stayed 2 hour, and wood not stay no longer for i hed to go and did not see you comin any were. Then i gos to the rock were We Was the day We was hunting Wen We come here ferst time. Then i done this way. i Pases 20 Pases up To a Hackmatack Tree. it was north. then i Pases 40 Pases west To a round rock, Then i Pases 60 Pases south To a wite berch i use cumpus. Then i climes a spruce Tree and hangs it and it is out of site in the Branches. if You plays me Crookid look out, i wont Stand for no Crooked work and You know what i will do to anybody plays me Crooked. You no Were to put my haf of the Swag. So i can get it Wen i go to get it."

There was no signature.

"That's a strange un-wonderful strange," said David.

"Stranger'n anything I ever sees," declared Lige.

"Whatever is un all about?" asked Micah.

"That's the strangeness of un," said Lige.

"Let's show un to Doctor Joe," suggested David.

But Doctor Joe, when they broke in upon him a moment later, was as mystified as they.

"It looks," said he, "as though something had been cached and here are the directions for finding the cache. There's a threat in the letter, too, and that looks bad. It's a mystery, lads, we'll try to search out. It doesn't look right. Perhaps it's the clue to some crime."

"How can we search un out?" asked David excitedly. "We're not knowin' the rock, and there's plenty of rocks hereabouts."

"That's true," admitted Doctor Joe. "Go and put the paper back as you found it, and we'll see what we can make out of it later."

The whole camp was excited and every one followed David back to the cairn when he returned to restore the letter to its place in the can.

"'Tis something somebody's tryin' to hide," suggested Peter.

"There's no doubtin' that," said David. "I'm thinkin' 'tis not right whatever 'tis."

"We'll get camp in shape and have our dinner and then try to solve the mystery," said Doctor Joe. "It is a real mystery, for no one would make an ordinary cache in this way, and if it was an honest matter there would be no threat."

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