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   Chapter 18 JOHN BALL'S STORY

The Gold Hunters / A Story of Life and Adventure in the Hudson Bay Wilds By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 11189

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


That same morning two big canoes set out across Lake Nipigon for Wabigoon and John Ball. Mukoki returned with the canoes, but Rod remained at the Post, and not a moment's rest did he have during the whole of that day from the eager questions of those whom he had so completely surprised by his unexpected return. Few stories could have been more thrilling than his, though he told it in the simplest manner possible. Rod's appearance more than his words was evidence of the trials he and his companions had passed through. His face was emaciated to startling thinness by desperate exertion and lack of sleep, and both his face and his hands were covered with scratches and bruises. Not until late in the afternoon did he go to bed, and it was noon the following day when he awoke from his heavy slumber.

The canoes had returned, and John Ball was in the doctor's care. At dinner Rod and Wabi were made to go over their adventures again, and even Mukoki, who had joined them in this reunion, was not allowed to escape the endless questioning of Minnetaki, the factor's wife, and Rod's mother. Rod was seated at the table between Mrs. Drew and Minnetaki. Several times during the conversation he felt the young girl's hand touch his arm. Once, when the factor spoke about their return to the gold in the cavern, this mysterious signaling of Minnetaki's took the form of a pinch that made him squirm. Not until after dinner, and the two were alone, did he begin to comprehend.

"I'm ashamed of you, Roderick Drew!" said the girl, standing before him in mock displeasure. "You and Wabi were the stupidest things I ever saw at dinner! Have you all forgotten your promise to me?-your promise that I should go with you on your next trip? I wanted you to speak about it right there at dinner!"

"But I-I-couldn't!" stammered Rod awkwardly.

"But I'm going!" said Minnetaki decisively. "I'm going with you boys on this next trip-if I have to run away! It's not fair for Wabi and Mukoki and you to leave me alone all of the time. And, besides, I've been making all the arrangements while you were gone. I've won over mamma and your mother, and Maballa, mamma's Indian woman, will go with me. There's just one who says-'No!'" And Minnetaki clasped her hands pathetically.

"And that's papa," completed Rod, laughing.

"Yes."

"Well, if he is the only one against us we stand a good chance of winning."

"I'm going to have mamma and Wabigoon get him by themselves to-night," said the girl. "Papa will do anything on earth for her, and he thinks Wabi is the best boy on earth. Mamma says she will lock the door and won't let him out until he has given his promise. Oh, what a glorious time we'll have!"

"Perhaps he would go with us," suggested Rod.

"No, he couldn't leave the Post. If he went Wabi would have to stay."

Rod was counting on his fingers.

"That means six in our next expedition,-Wabi, Mukoki, John Ball and myself, and you and Maballa. Why, it'll be a regular picnic party!"

Minnetaki's eyes were brimming with fun.

"Do you know," she said, "that Maballa thinks Mukoki is just about the nicest Indian that ever lived? Oh, I'd be so glad if-if-"

She puckered her mouth into a round, red O, and left Rod to guess the rest. It was not difficult for him to understand.

"So would I," he cried. Then he added,

"Muky is the best fellow on earth."

"And Maballa is just as good," said the girl loyally.

The boy held out his hand.

"Let's shake on that, Minnetaki! I'll handle Mukoki, you take care of

Maballa. What a picnic this next trip will be!"

"And there'll be lots and lots of adventures, won't there?" asked the girl a little anxiously.

"Plenty of them." Rod became immediately serious. "This will be the most important of all our trips, Minnetaki, that is, if John Ball lives. I haven't told the others, but I believe that great cavern holds something for us besides gold!"

The smile left the girl's face. Her eyes were soft and eager.

"You believe that-Dolores-"

"I don't know what to believe. But-we'll find something there!"

For an hour Rod and Minnetaki talked of John Ball and of the strange things he said in his delirium. Then the girl rejoined Mrs. Drew and the princess mother, while Rod went in search of Mukoki and Wabigoon. That night the big event happened. George Newsome, the factor, gave a reluctant consent which meant that Wabi's sister and Maballa would accompany the adventurers on their next journey into the untraveled solitudes of Hudson Bay.

For a week John Ball hovered between life and death. After that his improvement was slow but sure, and each day added strength to his emaciated body and a new light to his eyes. At the end of the second week there was no question but that he was slowly returning to sanity. Gradually he came to know those who sat beside his bed, and whenever Rod visited him he insisted on holding the youth's hand. At first the sight of Minnetaki or her mother, or of Mrs. Drew, had a startling effect on him and in their presence he would moan ceaselessly the name Rod first heard in the cavern. A little at a time the language of those about him came back to the old man, and bit by bit those who waited and listened and watched learned the story of John Ball. Midsummer came before he could gather the scattered threads of his life in his memory, and even then there were breaks in this story which seemed but trivial things to John Ball, but which to the others meant the passing of forgotten years.

In fact, years played but a small part in the strange story t

hat fell from the old man's lips. "In time," said the Post physician, "he will remember everything. Now only the most important happenings in his life have returned to him."

John Ball could not remember the date when, as a young boy, he left York Factory, on Hudson Bay, to come a thousand miles down to civilization in company with the two Frenchmen who killed themselves in the old cabin. But the slip of paper which Rod had discovered filled that gap. He was the son of the factor at York Factory, and was to spend a year at school in Montreal. On their trip down it was the boy who found gold in the chasm. John Ball could remember none of the details. He only knew that they remained to gather the treasure, and that he, as its discoverer and the son of one of the lords of the Hudson Bay Company, was to receive twice the share of the others, and that in the autumn they were to return to York Factory instead of going on to Montreal. He remembered indistinctly a quarrel over the gold, and after that of writing some sort of agreement, and then, early one morning, he awoke to find the two Frenchmen standing over him, and after that, for a long time, everything seemed to pass as in a dream.

When he awoke into life he was no longer in the chasm, but among a strange people who were so small that they reached barely to his shoulders, and who dressed in fur, and carried spears, and though the sick man said no more about these people those who listened to him knew that he had wandered far north among the Eskimos. They treated him kindly, and he lived among them for a long time, hunting and fishing with them, and sleeping in houses built of ice and snow.

The next that John Ball remembered was of white people. In some way he returned to York Factory, and he knew that when this happened many years had passed, for his father and mother were dead, and there were strangers at the Post. At this time John Ball must have returned fully to his reason again. He remembered, faintly, leading several unsuccessful expeditions in search of the gold which he and the Frenchmen had discovered, and that once he went to a great city, which must have been Montreal, and that he stayed there a long time doing something for the Hudson Bay Company, and met a girl whom he married. When he spoke of the girl John Ball's eyes would glow feverishly and her name would fall from him in a moaning sob. For as yet returning reason had not placed the hand of age upon him. It was as if he was awakening from a deep sleep, and Dolores, his young wife, had been with him but a few hours before.

There came another break in John Ball's life after this. He could not remember how, long they lived in Montreal, but he knew that after a time he returned with his wife into the far North, and that they were very happy, and one summer set off in a canoe to search for the lost chasm together. They found it. How or when he could not remember. After this John Ball's story was filled with wild visions of a great black world where there was neither sun nor moon nor stars, and they found gold and dug it by the light of fires. And one day the woman went a little way back in this world and never came back.

It was then that the old madness returned. In his search for his lost wife John Ball never found the end of the great cavern. He saw strange people, he fought great beasts in this black world that were larger than the biggest moose in the forests, and he told of rushing torrents and thundering cataracts in the bowels of the earth. Even in his returning sanity the old man told these things as true.

George Newsome, the factor, lost no time in writing to the Company at Montreal, inquiring about John Ball, and a month later he received word that a man by that name had worked as an inspector of raw furs during the years 1877 and 1878. He had left Montreal for the North thirty years before. In all probability he soon after went in search of the lost gold, and for more than a quarter of a century had lived as a wild man in the solitudes.

It was at this time in the convalescence of the doctor's patient that Roderick's mother made a suggestion which took the Post by storm. It was that the factor and his family accompany her and Rod back to civilization for a few weeks' visit. To the astonishment of all, and especially to Minnetaki and the princess mother, the factor fell in heartily with the scheme, with the stipulation that the Drews return with them early in the autumn. An agent from the head office of the Company had come up for a month's fishing and he cheerfully expressed his willingness to take charge of affairs at the Post during their absence.

The happiness of Rod and Wabi was complete when Mukoki was compelled to give his promise to go with them. For several days the old warrior withstood their combined assaults, but at last he surrendered when Minnetaki put her arms around his neck and nestled her soft cheek against his leathery face, with the avowal that she would not move a step unless he went with her.

So it happened, one beautiful summer morning, that three big canoes put out into the lake from Wabinosh House and headed into the South, and only Mukoki, of all the seven who were going down into civilization, felt something that was not joy as the forests slipped behind them. For Mukoki was to get a glimpse of a new world, a world far from the land of his fathers, and the loyal heart inside his caribou-skin coat quickened its pulse a little as he thought of the wonderful journey.

Thus began the journey to civilization.

THE END

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