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Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks By Ralph Connor Characters: 27568

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Many strange Christmas Days have I seen, but that wild Black Rock Christmas stands out strangest of all. While I was revelling in my delicious second morning sleep, just awake enough to enjoy it, Mr. Craig came abruptly, announcing breakfast and adding, 'Hope you are in good shape, for we have our work before us this day.'

'Hello!' I replied, still half asleep, and anxious to hide from the minister that I was trying to gain a few more moments of snoozing delight, 'what's abroad?'.

'The devil,' he answered shortly, and with such emphasis that I sat bolt upright, looking anxiously about.

'Oh! no need for alarm. He's not after you particularly-at least not to-day,' said Craig, with a shadow of a smile. 'But he is going about in good style, I can tell you.'

By this time I was quite awake. 'Well, what particular style does His Majesty affect this morning?'

He pulled out a showbill. 'Peculiarly gaudy and effective, is it not?'

The items announced were sufficiently attractive. The 'Frisco Opera Company were to produce the 'screaming farce,' 'The Gay and Giddy Dude'; after which there was to be a 'Grand Ball,' during which the 'Kalifornia Female Kickers' were to do some fancy figures; the whole to be followed by a 'big supper' with 'two free drinks to every man and one to the lady,' and all for the insignificant sum of two dollars.

'Can't you go one better?' I said.

He looked inquiringly and a little disgustedly at me.

'What can you do against free drinks and a dance, not to speak of the "High Kickers"?' he groaned.

'No!' he continued; 'it's a clean beat for us today. The miners and lumbermen will have in their pockets ten thousand dollars, and every dollar burning a hole; and Slavin and his gang will get most of it. But,' he added, 'you must have breakfast. You'll find a tub in the kitchen; don't be afraid to splash. It is the best I have to offer you.'

The tub sounded inviting, and before many minutes had passed I was in a delightful glow, the effect of cold water and a rough towel, and that consciousness of virtue that comes to a man who has had courage to face his cold bath on a winter morning.

The breakfast was laid with fine taste. A diminutive pine-tree, in a pot hung round with wintergreen, stood in the centre of the table.

'Well, now, this looks good; porridge, beefsteak, potatoes, toast, and marmalade.'

'I hope you will enjoy it all.'

There was not much talk over our meal. Mr. Craig was evidently preoccupied, and as blue as his politeness would allow him. Slavin's victory weighed upon his spirits. Finally he burst out, 'Look here! I can't, I won't stand it; something must be done. Last Christmas this town was for two weeks, as one of the miners said, "a little suburb of hell." It was something too awful. And at the end of it all one young fellow was found dead in his shack, and twenty or more crawled back to the camps, leaving their three months' pay with Slavin and his suckers.

'I won't stand it, I say.' He turned fiercely on me. 'What's to be done?'

This rather took me aback, for I had troubled myself with nothing of this sort in my life before, being fully occupied in keeping myself out of difficulty, and allowing others the same privilege. So I ventured the consolation that he had done his part, and that a spree more or less would not make much difference to these men. But the next moment I wished I had been slower in speech, for he swiftly faced me, and his words came like a torrent.

'God forgive you that heartless word! Do you know-? But no; you don't know what you are saying. You don't know that these men have been clambering for dear life out of a fearful pit for three months past, and doing good climbing too, poor chaps. You don't think that some of them have wives, most of them mothers and sisters, in the east or across the sea, for whose sake they are slaving here; the miners hoping to save enough to bring their families to this homeless place, the rest to make enough to go back with credit. Why, there's Nixon, miner, splendid chap; has been here for two years, and drawing the highest pay. Twice he has been in sight of his heaven, for he can't speak of his wife and babies without breaking up, and twice that slick son of the devil-that's Scripture, mind you-Slavin, got him, and "rolled" him, as the boys say. He went back to the mines broken in body and in heart. He says this is his third and last chance. If Slavin gets him, his wife and babies will never see him on earth or in heaven. There is Sandy, too, and the rest. And,' he added, in a lower tone, and with the curious little thrill of pathos in his voice, 'this is the day the Saviour came to the world.' He paused, and then with a little sad smile, 'But I don't want to abuse you.'

'Do, I enjoy it, I'm a beast, a selfish beast'; for somehow his intense, blazing earnestness made me feel uncomfortably small.

'What have we to offer?' I demanded.

'Wait till I have got these things cleared away, and my housekeeping done.'

I pressed my services upon him, somewhat feebly, I own, for I can't bear dishwater; but he rejected my offer.

'I don't like trusting my china to the hands of a tender-foot.'

'Quite right, though your china would prove an excellent means of defence at long range.' It was delf, a quarter of an inch thick. So I smoked while he washed up, swept, dusted, and arranged the room.

After the room was ordered to his taste, we proceeded to hold council. He could offer dinner, magic lantern, music. 'We can fill in time for two hours, but,' he added gloomily, 'we can't beat the dance and the "High Kickers."'

'Have you nothing new or startling?'

He shook his head.

'No kind of show? Dog show? Snake charmer?'

'Slavin has a monopoly of the snakes.'

Then he added hesitatingly, 'There was an old Punch-and-Judy chap here last year, but he died. Whisky again.'

'What happened to his show?'

'The Black Rock Hotel man took it for board and whisky bill. He has it still, I suppose.'

I did not much relish the business; but I hated to see him beaten, so I ventured, 'I have run a Punch and Judy in an amateur way at the 'Varsity.'

He sprang to his feet with a yell.

'You have! you mean to say it? We've got them! We've beaten them!' He had an extraordinary way of taking your help for granted. 'The miner chaps, mostly English and Welsh, went mad over the poor old showman, and made him so wealthy that in sheer gratitude he drank himself to death.'

He walked up and down in high excitement and in such evident delight that I felt pledged to my best effort.

'Well,' I said, 'first the poster. We must beat them in that.'

He brought me large sheets of brown paper, and after two hours' hard work I had half a dozen pictorial showbills done in gorgeous colours and striking designs. They were good, if I do say it myself.

The turkey, the magic lantern, the Punch and Judy show were all there, the last with a crowd before it in gaping delight. A few explanatory words were thrown in, emphasising the highly artistic nature of the Punch and Judy entertainment.

Craig was delighted, and proceeded to perfect his plans. He had some half a dozen young men, four young ladies, and eight or ten matrons, upon whom he could depend for help. These he organised into a vigilance committee charged with the duty of preventing miners and lumbermen from getting away to Slavin's. 'The critical moments will be immediately before and after dinner, and then again after the show is over,' he explained. 'The first two crises must be left to the care of Punch and Judy, and as for the last, I am not yet sure what shall be done'; but I saw he had something in his head, for he added, 'I shall see Mrs. Mavor.'

'Who is Mrs. Mavor?' I asked. But he made no reply. He was a born fighter, and he put the fighting spirit into us all. We were bound to win.

The sports were to begin at two o'clock. By lunch-time everything was in readiness. After lunch I was having a quiet smoke in Craig's shack when in he rushed, saying-

'The battle will be lost before it is fought. If we lose Quatre Bras, we shall never get to Waterloo.'

'What's up?'

'Slavin, just now. The miners are coming in, and he will have them in tow in half an hour.'

He looked at me appealingly. I knew what he wanted.

'All right; I suppose I must, but it is an awful bore that a man can't have a quiet smoke.'

'You're not half a bad fellow,' he replied, smiling. 'I shall get the ladies to furnish coffee inside the booth. You furnish them intellectual nourishment in front with dear old Punch and Judy.'

He sent a boy with a bell round the village announcing, 'Punch, and Judy in front of the Christmas booth beside the church'; and for three-quarters of an hour I shrieked and sweated in that awful little pen. But it was almost worth it to hear the shouts of approval and laughter that greeted my performance. It was cold work standing about, so that the crowd was quite ready to respond when Punch, after being duly hanged, came forward and invited all into the booth for the hot coffee which Judy had ordered.

In they trooped, and Quatre Bras was won.

No sooner were the miners safely engaged with their coffee than I heard a great noise of bells and of men shouting; and on reaching the street I saw that the men from the lumber camp were coming in. Two immense sleighs, decorated with ribbons and spruce boughs, each drawn by a four-horse team gaily adorned, filled with some fifty men, singing and shouting with all their might, were coming down the hill road at full gallop. Round the corner they swung, dashed at full speed across the bridge and down the street, and pulled up after they had made the circuit of a block, to the great admiration of the onlookers. Among others Slavin sauntered up good-naturedly, making himself agreeable to Sandy and those who were helping to unhitch his team.

'Oh, you need not take trouble with me or my team, Mike Slavin. Batchees and me and the boys can look after them fine,' said Sandy coolly.

This rejecting of hospitality was perfectly understood by Slavin and by all.

'Dat's too bad, heh?' said Baptiste wickedly; 'and, Sandy, he's got good money on his pocket for sure, too.' The boys laughed, and Slavin, joining in, turned away with Keele and Blaney; but by the look in his eye I knew he was playing 'Br'er Rabbit,' and lying low.

Mr. Craig just then came up, 'Hello, boys! too late for Punch and Judy, but just in time for hot coffee and doughnuts.'

'Bon; dat's fuss rate,' said Baptiste heartily; 'where you keep him?'

'Up in the tent next the church there. The miners are all in.'

'Ah, dat so? Dat's bad news for the shantymen, heh, Sandy?' said the little Frenchman dolefully.

'There was a clothes-basket full of doughnuts and a boiler of coffee left as I passed just now,' said Craig encouragingly.

'Allons, mes garcons; vite! never say keel!' cried Baptiste excitedly, stripping off the harness.

But Sandy would not leave the horses till they were carefully rubbed down, blanketed, and fed, for he was entered for the four-horse race and it behoved him to do his best to win. Besides, he scorned to hurry himself for anything so unimportant as eating; that he considered hardly worthy even of Baptiste. Mr. Craig managed to get a word with him before he went off, and I saw Sandy solemnly and emphatically shake his head, saying, 'Ah! we'll beat him this day,' and I gathered that he was added to the vigilance committee.

Old man Nelson was busy with his own team. He turned slowly at Mr. Craig's greeting, 'How is it, Nelson?' and it was with a very grave voice he answered, 'I hardly know, sir; but I am not gone yet, though it seems little to hold to.'

'All you want for a grip is what your hand can cover. What would you have? And besides, do you know why you are not gone yet?'

The old man waited, looking at the minister gravely.

'Because He hasn't let go His grip of you.'

'How do you know He's gripped me?'

'Now, look here, Nelson, do you want to quit this thing and give it all up?'

'No, no! For heaven's sake, no! Why, do you think I have lost it?' said Nelson, almost piteously.

'Well, He's keener about it than you; and I'll bet you haven't thought it worth while to thank Him.'

'To thank Him,' he repeated, almost stupidly, 'for-'

'For keeping you where you are overnight,' said Mr. Craig, almost sternly.

The old man gazed at the minister, a light growing in his eyes.

'You're right. Thank God, you're right.' And then he turned quickly away, and went into the stable behind his team. It was a minute before he came out. Over his face there was a trembling joy.

'Can I do anything for you to-day?' he asked humbly.

'Indeed you just can,' said the minister, taking his hand and shaking it very warmly; and then he told him Slavin's programme and ours.

'Sandy is all right till after his race. After that is his time of danger,' said the minister.

'I'll stay with him, sir,' said old Nelson, in the tone of a man taking a covenant, and immediately set off for the coffee-tent.

'Here comes another recruit for your corps,' I said, pointing to Leslie Graeme, who was coming down the street at that moment in his light sleigh.

'I am not so sure. Do you think you could get him?'

I laughed. 'You are a good one.'

'Well,' he replied, half defiantly, 'is not this your fight too?'

'You make me think so, though I am bound to say I hardly recognise myself to day. But here goes,' and before I knew it I was describing our plans to Graeme, growing more and more enthusiastic as he sat in his sleigh, listening with a quizzical smile I didn't quite like.

'He's got you

too,' he said; 'I feared so.'

'Well,' I laughed, 'perhaps so. But I want to lick that man Slavin. I've just seen him, and he's just what Craig calls him, "a slick son of the devil." Don't be shocked; he says it is Scripture.'

'Revised version,' said Graeme gravely, while Craig looked a little abashed.

'What is assigned me, Mr. Craig? for I know that this man is simply your agent.'

I repudiated the idea, while Mr. Craig said nothing.

'What's my part?' demanded Graeme.

'Well,' said Mr. Craig hesitatingly, 'of course I would do nothing till I had consulted you; but I want a man to take my place at the sports. I am referee.'

'That's all right,' said Graeme, with an air of relief; 'I expected something hard.'

'And then I thought you would not mind presiding at dinner-I want it to go off well.'

'Did you notice that?' said Graeme to me. 'Not a bad touch, eh?'

'That's nothing to the way he touched me. Wait and learn,' I answered, while Craig looked quite distressed. 'He'll do it, Mr. Craig, never fear,' I said, 'and any other little duty that may occur to you.'

'Now that's too bad of you. That is all I want, honour bright,' he replied; adding, as he turned away, 'you are just in time for a cup of coffee, Mr. Graeme. Now I must see Mrs. Mavor.'

'Who is Mrs. Mavor?' I demanded of Graeme.

'Mrs. Mavor? The miners' guardian angel.'

We put up the horses and set off for coffee. As we approached the booth Graeme caught sight of the Punch and Judy show, stood still in amazement, and exclaimed, 'Can the dead live?'

'Punch and Judy never die,' I replied solemnly.

'But the old manipulator is dead enough, poor old beggar!'

'But he left his mantle, as you see.'

He looked at me a moment

'What! do you mean, you-?'

'Yes, that is exactly what I do mean.'

'He is great man, that Craig fellow-a truly great man.'

And then he leaned up against a tree and laughed till the tears came. 'I say, old boy, don't mind me,' he gasped, 'but do you remember the old 'Varsity show?'

'Yes, you villain; and I remember your part in it. I wonder how you can, even at this remote date, laugh at it.' For I had a vivid recollection of how, after a 'chaste and highly artistic performance of this mediaeval play' had been given before a distinguished Toronto audience, the trap door by which I had entered my box was fastened, and I was left to swelter in my cage, and forced to listen to the suffocated laughter from the wings and the stage whispers of 'Hello, Mr. Punch, where's the baby?' And for many a day after I was subjected to anxious inquiries as to the locality and health of 'the baby,' and whether it was able to be out.

'Oh, the dear old days!' he kept saying, over and over, in a tone so full of sadness that my heart grew sore for him and I forgave him, as many a time before.

The sports passed off in typical Western style. In addition to the usual running and leaping contests, there was rifle and pistol shooting, in both of which old man Nelson stood first, with Shaw, foreman of the mines, second.

The great event of the day, however, was to be the four-horse race, for which three teams were entered-one from the mines driven by Nixon, Craig's friend, a citizens' team, and Sandy's. The race was really between the miners' team, and that from the woods, for the citizens' team, though made up of speedy horses, had not been driven much together, and knew neither their driver nor each other. In the miners' team were four bays, very powerful, a trifle heavy perhaps, but well matched, perfectly trained, and perfectly handled by their driver. Sandy had his long rangy roans, and for leaders a pair of half-broken pinto bronchos. The pintos, caught the summer before upon the Alberta prairies, were fleet as deer, but wicked and uncertain. They were Baptiste's special care and pride. If they would only run straight there was little doubt that they would carry the roans and themselves to glory; but one could not tell the moment they might bolt or kick things to pieces.

Being the only non-partisan in the crowd I was asked to referee. The race was about half a mile and return, the first and last quarters being upon the ice. The course, after leaving the ice, led up from the river by a long easy slope to the level above; and at the further end curved somewhat sharply round the Old Fort. The only condition attaching to the race was that the teams should start from the scratch, make the turn of the Fort, and finish at the scratch. There were no vexing regulations as to fouls. The man making the foul would find it necessary to reckon with the crowd, which was considered sufficient guarantee for a fair and square race. Owing to the hazards of the course, the result would depend upon the skill of the drivers quite as much as upon the speed of the teams. The points of hazard were at the turn round the Old Fort, and at a little ravine which led down to the river, over which the road passed by means of a long log bridge or causeway.

From a point upon the high bank of the river the whole course lay in open view. It was a scene full of life and vividly picturesque. There were miners in dark clothes and peak caps; citizens in ordinary garb; ranchmen in wide cowboy hats and buckskin shirts and leggings, some with cartridge-belts and pistols; a few half-breeds and Indians in half-native, half-civilised dress; and scattering through the crowd the lumbermen with gay scarlet and blue blanket coats, and some with knitted tuques of the same colours. A very good-natured but extremely uncertain crowd it was. At the head of each horse stood a man, but at the pintos' heads Baptiste stood alone, trying to hold down the off leader, thrown into a frenzy of fear by the yelling of the crowd.

Gradually all became quiet, till, in the midst of absolute stillness, came the words, 'Are you ready?', then the pistol-shot and the great race had begun. Above the roar of the crowd came the shrill cry of Baptiste, as he struck his broncho with the palm of his hand, and swung himself into the sleigh beside Sandy, as it shot past.

Like a flash the bronchos sprang to the front, two lengths before the other teams; but, terrified by the yelling of the crowd, instead of bending to the left bank up which the road wound, they wheeled to the right and were almost across the river before Sandy could swing them back into the course.

Baptiste's cries, a curious mixture of French and English, continued to strike through all other sounds till they gained the top of the slope to find the others almost a hundred yards in front, the citizens' team leading, with the miners' following close. The moment the pintos caught sight of the teams before them they set off at a terrific pace and steadily devoured the intervening space. Nearer and nearer the turn came, the eight horses in front, running straight and well within their speed. After them flew the pintos, running savagely with ears set back, leading well the big roans, thundering along and gaining at every bound. And now the citizens' team had almost reached the Fort, running hard, and drawing away from the bays. But Nixon knew what he was about, and was simply steadying his team for the turn. The event proved his wisdom, for in the turn the leading team left the track, lost a moment or two in the deep snow, and before they could regain the road the bays had swept superbly past, leaving their rivals to follow in the rear. On came the pintos, swiftly nearing the Fort. Surely at that pace they cannot make the turn. But Sandy knows his leaders. They have their eyes upon the teams in front, and need no touch of rein. Without the slightest change in speed the nimble-footed bronchos round the turn, hauling the big roans after them, and fall in behind the citizens' team, which is regaining steadily the ground lost in the turn.

And now the struggle is for the bridge over the ravine. The bays in front, running with mouths wide open, are evidently doing their best; behind them, and every moment nearing them, but at the limit of their speed too, come the lighter and fleeter citizens' team; while opposite their driver are the pintos, pulling hard, eager and fresh. Their temper is too uncertain to send them to the front; they run well following, but when leading cannot be trusted, and besides, a broncho hates a bridge; so Sandy holds them where they are, waiting and hoping for his chance after the bridge is crossed. Foot by foot the citizens' team creep up upon the flank of the bays, with the pintos in turn hugging them closely, till it seems as if the three, if none slackens, must strike the bridge together; and this will mean destruction to one at least. This danger Sandy perceives, but he dare not check his leaders. Suddenly, within a few yards of the bridge, Baptiste throws himself upon the lines, wrenches them out of Sandy's hands, and, with a quick swing, faces the pintos down the steep side of the ravine, which is almost sheer ice with a thin coat of snow. It is a daring course to take, for the ravine, though not deep, is full of undergrowth, and is partially closed up by a brush heap at the further end. But, with a yell, Baptiste hurls his four horses down the slope, and into the undergrowth. 'Allons, mes enfants! Courage! vite, vite!' cries their driver, and nobly do the pintos respond. Regardless of bushes and brush heaps, they tear their way through; but, as they emerge, the hind bob-sleigh catches a root, and, with a crash, the sleigh is hurled high in the air. Baptiste's cries ring out high and shrill as ever, encouraging his team, and never cease till, with a plunge and a scramble, they clear the brush heap lying at the mouth of the ravine, and are out on the ice on the river, with Baptiste standing on the front bob, the box trailing behind, and Sandy nowhere to be seen.

Three hundred yards of the course remain. The bays, perfectly handled, have gained at the bridge and in the descent to the ice, and are leading the citizens' team by half a dozen sleigh lengths. Behind both comes Baptiste. It is now or never for the pintos. The rattle of the trailing box, together with the wild yelling of the crowd rushing down the bank, excites the bronchos to madness, and, taking the bits in their teeth, they do their first free running that day. Past the citizens' team like a whirlwind they dash, clear the intervening space, and gain the flanks of the bays. Can the bays hold them? Over them leans their driver, plying for the first time the hissing lash. Only fifty yards more. The miners begin to yell. But Baptiste, waving his lines high in one hand seizes his tuque with the other, whirls it about his head and flings it with a fiercer yell than ever at the bronchos. Like the bursting of a hurricane the pintos leap forward, and with a splendid rush cross the scratch, winners by their own length.

There was a wild quarter of an hour. The shantymen had torn off their coats and were waving them wildly and tossing them high, while the ranchers added to the uproar by emptying their revolvers into the air in a way that made one nervous.

When the crowd was somewhat quieted Sandy's stiff figure appeared, slowly making towards them. A dozen lumbermen ran to him, eagerly inquiring if he were hurt. But Sandy could only curse the little Frenchman for losing the race.

'Lost! Why, man, we've won it!' shouted a voice, at which Sandy's rage vanished, and he allowed himself to be carried in upon the shoulders of his admirers.

'Where's the lad?' was his first question.

The bronchos are off with him. He's down at the rapids like enough.'

'Let me go,' shouted Sandy, setting off at a run in the track of the sleigh. He had not gone far before he met Baptiste coming back with his team foaming, the roans going quietly, but the bronchos dancing, and eager to be at it again.

'Voila! bully boy! tank the bon Dieu, Sandy; you not keel, heh? Ah! you are one grand chevalier,' exclaimed Baptiste, hauling Sandy in and thrusting the lines into his hands. And so they came back, the sleigh box still dragging behind, the pintos executing fantastic figures on their hind legs, and Sandy holding them down. The little Frenchman struck a dramatic attitude and called out-

'Voila! What's the matter wiz Sandy, heh?'

The roar that answered set the bronchos off again plunging and kicking, and only when Baptiste got them by the heads could they be induced to stand long enough to allow Sandy to be proclaimed winner of the race. Several of the lumbermen sprang into the sleigh box with Sandy and Baptiste, among them Keefe, followed by Nelson, and the first part of the great day was over. Slavin could not understand the new order of things. That a great event like the four-horse race should not be followed by 'drinks all round' was to him at once disgusting and incomprehensible; and, realising his defeat for the moment, he fell into the crowd and disappeared. But he left behind him his 'runners.' He had not yet thrown up the game.

Mr. Craig meantime came to me, and, looking anxiously after Sandy in his sleigh, with his frantic crowd of yelling admirers, said in a gloomy voice, 'Poor Sandy! He is easily caught, and Keefe has the devil's cunning.'

'He won't touch Slavin's whisky to-day,' I answered confidently.

'There'll be twenty bottles waiting him in the stable,' he replied bitterly, 'and I can't go following him up.'

'He won't stand that, no man would. God help us all.' I could hardly recognise myself, for I found in my heart an earnest echo to that prayer as I watched him go toward the crowd again, his face set in strong determination. He looked like the captain of a forlorn hope, and I was proud to be following him.

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