" Ya, Stranger," he answered. " The iron hand is raised, our stripping of the forest is done, the river and the mill can do the rest."
" Ah ! Been in the woods, Ryan ? "
" Quit now ? " " Ya."
" Know something about canoe and river work ? "
"Well-I guess so, Stranger, been riverman and lumber-jack, off and on, ever since I was big enough to work."
" Know the north trail hereabouts ? "
" No ! Have not been long west. Come from the Ottawa " (River).
"Well, look here, Ryan, the police canoe1 is in from Green Lake-just arrived-I've seen Bob Handcock, the police sergeant. Ice is rotten on Crooked Lake, and moving, and passage out is possible inshore for light canoe. Hudson Bay Co. have failed to send me up promised 'breed' who knew the trail, and I'm going to move out now as soon as I've a partner in the canoe. What do you say to tackling the job? You can go back from Lake lie a la Crosse, if you don't want to carry on after two weeks' trial of it."
"Wall, Stranger, it might be done. I don't know you, you don't know me-that's a great risk on undertakings of this kind, but perhaps we'll hit it off. You're not Government ? No party, no big stores, no following of camp cooks and freighters. What are you out for ? Fur, foxes, or prospecting ? "
1 North-West Mounted Police. Splendid men, those single representatives of justice who command that law and order be recognised even in distantly remote corners where there is no law except that which their strength of character imposes on lawless men.
" No, Ryan, I'm going for none of those things. When you've come off the Drive, when you've had your glorious ' flare up ' in the city, and your body and mind are sick and sore with months of summer idleness, what do you long for ? Do you not crave again for the freedom of the backwoods; for the great silence; for the peace of the camp fire ? "
" Aye, aye, Mate."
" Well, so am I here. There's no rest in the cities. I go to study the birds and animals, and all of nature's things-and to bring, for the Government, specimens for their museum.
" I travel, as you would travel-alone, caring not for the ease and noise of retinue in surroundings which are 'no part of such things. From maps I know something of the main lakes and rivers, and leave the rest to bush-craft.
"What do you say, Ryan, will you come ? "
"H'm!-Ya, I guess so, Stranger-never had a chance before to see that darned North Country."
" Right, Joe ! Shake ! Get what you want in the store, on my account-six months' tobacco, mind-and be around ready to pull out first thing in the morning."
Joe Ryan, Riverman and Lumber-jack
Joe Ryan was a hard man. Hard, by nature of his calling; hard, at the bidding of his mind. He has an unforgiving countenance, deep-seared and weather-beaten, with no expression that could be denned. Indeed, his face was an un-committing mask hiding the shrewd brain which had fought with a full measure of the hardships of a bushman's life in the early days of the lumber trade; and which had suffered in the seeking of recompense and pleasure. His was a life, in its naked ruggedness, which hardly constitutes a school for saints. Ryan had gone through the bitter mill of experience, and he knew the full joy, and the full sorrow, of weeks of debauch and devilry when off the Drive.
But, now, at the age of forty-five-which is beyond the prime of a lumber-jack's life-he had learned that it was all wrong; that, somehow or other, he had made a mess of things. True, from the beginning, he had known no other life. In Town he had spent his pay, as the others did, and been called " a good fellow." And so it had been easy to go on, difficult to halt, and impossible to go back. But of that he made no excuse ; he was not built in that way. He had failed. Yes, he knew he had failed; but he would carry out life to the end without a murmur of complaint, without the slightest outward sign of repentance or sorrow.
And Joe Ryan had never married-what burden he carried, he carried alone. And, when judgment is passed by the Great Unseen on those who have known the utter desolation of a loveless life, will not the hand which points our fate be touched with a special tenderness and forgiveness ?
For the rest, there was much in Ryan's life to be recommended. He had been born in the backwoods, of a race who fight hard and die hard on the outer edges of the world, and he had learned his craft, from boyhood, in a stern school. No better lumbermen stepped the earth than those from his home on the Gauteneau River, none more expert with the axe nor smarter on the logs ; and proud was their boast among the French-Canadian settlements on the Ottawa.1
Yes, Joe knew his work, as the best of them know it. He was among the chosen of the old hands, and, though on the wrong side of forty and not so active as of old, he could still compete with many a younger man. . . .
Such, then, was my Riverman-this man whom I had picked up by chance at " The End of the Line," without introduction or recommendation, to be my sole companion on an unknown trail for five months.
I knew nothing of the man except that I knew his trade-which was a strong word in his favour -and it was long months after that I really knew him as I write of him. As he himself said : " You don't know me, I don't know you; and that's a risk on a big undertaking." But he took the risk, as he had always done,-the risk of mistake by a stranger at the bow paddle of the canoe on a dangerous rapid; the risk of " falling out " a hundred miles, or a thousand, from anywhere. . . .
As for me-well, I was taking no greater risk than he was.
1 Ottawa River, of which the Gauteneau is a tributary.