The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson

Maurice of His Majesty’s Mails

    OLD Maurice Delorme boasted the blood of many nations; his “bulldog” grit came to him from an English sea-captain, a bluff, genial old tar whom he could recall as being his “grand-daddy” sixty years ago; his gay, rollicking love of laughter and song came to him through his half French father; his love of wood and water lore, his endurance, his gift of strategy, were his birthright directly from his Red Indian mother; consequently there was but one place in the world where such a trinity of nationalities could be fostered in one man, but one place where that man could breathe and be happy, and that place was amid the struggling heights and the yawning canyons of the Rocky Mountains.
    Years before Canada had constructed her world-famous transcontinental railroad, which now stretches its belt of steel from Atlantic to Pacific, Maurice Delorme set out for the golden West, working his way across the vast Canadian half of the American continent. He had done everything for a living—that is, everything that was honorable, for his British-French-Indian blood was the blood of honest forefathers, and he prided himself that he could directly and bravely look into the eyes of any man living; for, after all, does not dishonesty make the eyes shift and the heart cowardly?
    He had trapped for fur-bearing animals on the North Shores; he had twice fought the rebels at the Red River; he had freighted many and many a “prairie schooner” from the Assiniboine to the Saskatchewan; and then, one glorious morning in July, when the hot yellow sun poured [Page 158] its wealth of heat and light into the velvety plains of Alberta, Maurice descried at the very edge of the western horizon a far-off speck of shining white, apparently not larger than a single lump of sugar. As day followed day, and he traversed mile upon mile, more sugar lumps were visible; and, below their whiteness, the grayish distances grew into mountain shapes. Then he realized that at last he beheld the inimitable glory of the Rockies that swept in snow-tipped grandeur from south to north.
    Then followed the years when he, his wife and a little Maurice lived in the fastnesses of those mighty ranges; when he learned to know and follow the trail of the mountain goat; when the rugged passes grew familiar to him as the little village where he had been born in Quebec; when the countless forests of Douglas firs held no mysteries and no fears for him; and, because he had learned these things, because he was brave and courageous, because his life had been clean and honest, he was selected to carry His Majesty’s mails from a primitive “landing” on one of the Kootenay Lakes to the great gold mines, forty miles into the interior, and over one of the wildest, loneliest mountain trails in all British Columbia.
    Then it was that, once a month, when the mail came in by the tiny steamer, Maurice Delorme would harness up his six tough little mountain-climbing horses, put on his cartridge belt, tuck a formidable revolver into his hip pocket and a good gun beneath the seat of the wagon, toss in the bags of mail and the express packages, say a laughing good-bye to Mrs. Delorme and little Maurice, and “hit the trail” for the gold mines. How he hated to leave those two helpless ones alone in the vast, uninhabited surroundings! But Mrs. Delorme had the fearless courage and self-reliance of the women of the North, and little Maurice was yearly growing, growing, growing. Now he was ten, now twelve, now fourteen—a sturdy young mountaineer, with the sinews of an athlete, and a [Page 159] store of learning, not from books, for he had never know a school, but from the simple teaching of his parents and the unlimited knowledge of woodcraft, of the habits of wild things, of mountain peaks, of plants, of animals, insects and birds, and of the incessant hunt for food that must always be when one lives beyond the pale of civilized markets.

*         *         *         *         *         *

    And then one day, when little Maurice was about fifteen years old, his father staggered into their pretty log home, bleeding, crushed and dazed. The fate of the mountaineer had met him, for, during one of those sudden tempests that sweep through the canyons, a wind-riven tree had hurled its length down across the trail, its rotting heart and decaying branches falling—providentially with broken force—sparing the galloping horses and only injuring the driver—for how he escaped death was beyond human explanation.
    Little Maurice was then the man of the house. He helped his brave mother dress the sufferer’s wounds, he cared for the horses, he provided wood and water, going about whistling softly to himself and trying to shut his eyes to the fact that the food was growing less and less daily, and that the mail day was drawing nearer and nearer. Of course the steamer would bring flour and bacon and tea, but it would also bring the mail and express to be transported to the gold mines. His father would never be well enough to drive the mails up that jagged mountain trail; and, worse than that, his father must have fresh meat broth at once. Little Maurice went into the sick-room, and standing beside the bed looked carefully into the face of old Maurice. The eyes were feverish, the forehead puckered with pain, the hands hot and growing thin. Then he turned away, followed his mother outside, and, after a brief talk with her, he reached up for his father’s gun, took the stock of ammunition [Page 160] and dry biscuits, whistled for his dog, and, a moment later, was swallowed up in the forest.
    The long day slipped by; hour after hour Mrs. Delorme would go to the door, shade her eyes with her hand, and look keenly up the mountain slopes, with their wilderness of pines. Once she saw a faint, blue puff of smoke, and her quick ear caught the sharp crack of a far-off rifle. Then all was silent for hours. The warm September sun had dropped behind the western peaks, and the canyons were purpling with oncoming twilight, when two quick successive shots broke the evening stillness, and echoed like a salute of twenty-one guns far down the valley. Mrs. Delorme ran once again to the door. The shots could not have been five hundred yards distant, for down through the firs came Royal, the magnificent hound, whining and grinning and licking his mouth with delight, and, behind him, Maurice, shouting that he had killed a deer, and was hungry enough to eat half of it himself.
    “And, mother,” he cried, “I could have got the game at noon to-day, but Royal and I have been hours and hours closing in on him, getting him into the runway, so that, when I did drop him, it would be near home, for I could never pack his carcass all that way. He must weigh two hundred and fifty pounds. Oh, but he’s a fat one. And here are some mountain grouse Roy and I got. Daddy will have all the broth he can drink, and you and old Roy here and I will have some venison steaks for supper!”
    So, breathless and proud and excited, Maurice chattered on, preparing a huge knife to quarter the deer, the more easily to pack it home.
    There was great rejoicing in the log shack that night. Old Maurice swallowed his bowl of hot grouse soup with relish, and clasped his son’s hand with the firm grip one man gives to another. The anxious lines left Mrs. Delorme’s face, as she laughed and praised young Maurice’s prowess as a bread-winner. Royal stretched his long, [Page 161] lithe legs, yawning audibly with weariness and content as he lay beside the stove sniffing the appetizing smells of broiling steaks, knowing well his share would be generous after his long and faithful hunt and obedience to his young master. And so the little mountain home was well supplied with fresh meat, hot soups, smoked venison hams and dried flitches, until the day of fresh supplies, when the primitive steamer tooted its shrill whistle far down the lake, and Mrs. Delorme, young Maurice and Royal all went down to greet the first fellow-beings they had seen for a month, and to receive and care for seven bags of His Majesty’s mails, bound for the distant gold mines.
    “Why seven bags?” asked Mrs. Delorme of the captain. “We never get more than six.”
    “The extra is a large consignment of registered mail, madam,” he replied. “Big money for the mines, they tell me. You want to keep an eye on that extra bag. Old Maurice doesn’t want to lose that.”
    Then he was told the story of the old driver’s accident, and forthwith climbed the steep trail from the landing to the shack to see how things really were. He saw at a glance that Delorme would not be about for some weeks to come; so, after an encouraging word and a kindly good-bye, the captain turned, as he left the door, and, slapping young Maurice on the shoulder in his bluff, hearty way, said:
    “Well, kid, I guess you’ll have to carry the mails this time. Start good and early to-morrow. I’m a day late bringing them, as it is. The managers of the mines are not of the waiting sort, and there’s money—money that they need—in that extra bag. Better take a gun with you, boy, and keep a sharp lookout for that registered stuff—mind!”
    “Yes, captain,” answered young Maurice, very quietly. “I’ll land the mail at the mines all right.”
    And, a few minutes later, the departing whistle of the little steamer was heard far down the lake, as night fell [Page 162] softly and silently on the solitary little mountain home of the Delormes.

*         *         *         *         *         *

    In the grey dawn of the next morning Maurice was astir, his horses were being well fed, his mail bags packed securely, his gun looked over sharply. Then came the savory smells of bacon and toast for breakfast, the hurried good-byes, the long, persistent whistle for Royal, the deer hound, his constant chum in all things, then the whizzing crack of the young driver’s “blacksnake” whip, a bunching together of the four horses’ sturdy little hoofs, a spring forward, and the “mountain mail” was away—away up the yawning canyon, where the peaks lifted on every side, where the black forests crowded out the glorious sunrise, away up the wild gorge, where human foot rarely fell and only the wild things prowled from starlight to daylight the long years through; where the trail wound up and up the steeps, losing itself in the clouds which hung like great festoons of cobwebs half-high against the snow line. In all that vast world Maurice drove on utterly alone, save for the pleasant companionship of his four galloping horses and the cheering presence of Royal, who panted at the rear wheels of the mail coach, and wagged his tail in a frenzy of delight whenever his human friend spoke to him. The climb was so precipitous that it was hours before he could reach the summit, and he was yet some miles from being half way when his well-trained eye caught indications of coming disaster. A thousand trivial things announced that a mountain storm was brewing; the clouds trailed themselves into long, leaden ribbons, then swirled in circles like whirlpools. The huge Douglas firs began to murmur, then whisper, then growl. The sky grew thick and reddish, the gleaming, snow-clad peaks disappeared.
    Maurice took in the situation at once. With the instinct of a veteran mail carrier, his first care was to roll his mail bags in a rubber sheet, while the registered sack, [Page 163] doubly protected, he never allowed for a moment to leave its station beneath his knees under the seat. These simple precautions were barely completed before the storm was upon him. A blinding flash set his horses on edge, their sensitive nerves quivering in every flank. Maurice gathered the lines firmly, seized his “blacksnake,” and, with a low whistle, urged his animals, that bounded forward, snorting with fear as a crack of thunder followed, booming down the gorges with deafening echoes. In another moment the whole forest seemed alive. The giant pines whipped and swayed together, their supple tips bending and beaten with the fury of the tempest. Above the wild voices of the hurricane came the frequent crash of falling timber; but, through it all, the boy drove on without thought of himself or of shelter, and through it all the splendid animals kept the trail, responding as only the horse can respond to the touch of a guiding rein or the sound of the mountaineer’s whistle. But the end came for Maurice, when, upon rounding an abrupt steep, his four animals reared in terror, then seemed to crouch back upon their haunches. The rude log bridge they should have dashed across was gone—in its place gaped a huge fissure, its throat choked with wreckage of trestle and planking.
    The unexpected halt nearly pitched Maurice from the wagon, but he steadied first his nerve, then his hands, then his eyes. Why had the bridge gone down, was his first thought. The storm was of far too brief duration to have done the mischief. Then those keen young eyes of his saw beyond the tempest and the ruined bridge. They saw about the useless supports and wooden props fresh chips from a recent axe. In a second his brain grasped the fact that the bridge had been cut away on purpose. His thoughts flew forward—for what purpose was it destroyed? Like a dream seemed to come the captain’s voice in his ears: “Better take a gun with you, boy, and keep a sharp lookout for that registered stuff—mind!” [Page 164] And he heard himself reply, “I’ll land the mail at the minds all right.”
    “And I’ll do it, too!” he said, aloud. Then, above the hoarse voices of the storm, he heard a low, long, penetrating whistle. Quick as a flash the boy realized his position. He snatched the registered mail bag from between his knees. “Royal! Royal! Good dog!” he called, softly, and the poor, wet, storm-beaten creature came instantly, reaching pathetically toward his young master, his forefeet pawing the wagon wheels, his fine, keen nose sniffing at the mail sack outheld by Maurice.
    “Royal, you must watch!” said the boy. “Watch, Royal, watch!” Then, with a strengthy fling of his arm, he hurled the precious bag of registered mail over the rim of the precipice, far down into the canyon, two hundred feet below. For an instant the dog stood rigid. Then, like the needle to the north, he turned, held his sensitive head high in the air for a moment, sniffed audibly and was gone. Then again came that low, long whistle. The horses’ ears went erect, and Maurice sat silent, grasping the reins and peering ahead through the now lessening rain. But, with all his young courage, his heart weakened when a voice spoke directly behind him. It said:
    “Who are you?”
    He turned and faced three men, and, looking directly into the eyes of the roughest-seeming one of the trio, he replied, quietly:
    “I think you know who I am.”
    “Humph! Cool, I must say!” answered the first speaker. “Well, perhaps we can warm you up a bit; but maybe you can save us some trouble by telling us where old Delorme is.”
    “At home,” said Maurice.
    “And you’ve brought the mail in place of Delorme, I suppose? Well, so much the better for us. I’ll trouble you to hand me out that bag of registered stuff.” [Page 165]
    The man ceased speaking, his hand on the rim of the front wheel.
    “I have no registered stuff,” the boy answered, truthfully. “Just six common mail bags. Do you wish them? As I am only one boy against three men, I suppose there is not much use resisting.” Maurice’s lip curled in a half sneer, and his eyes never left the big bully’s face.
    “A lie won’t work this time, young fellow!” the man threatened. “Boys, go through that wagon! go over every inch of it now; you’ll find the stuff all right.”
    The other two men emptied the entire load into the trail, then turned and stared at their leader.
    “This is a bluff! Rip open those bags!” he growled. And the next moment the contents of the six bags were sprawling in the mud. They contained nothing but ordinary letters and newspaper.
    “Sold!” blurted out the man. “We might have known that any yarn ‘Saturday Jim’ told us would be a lie. He couldn’t give a man a straight tip to save his life! Come on, boys! There’s nothing doing this trip!” And, swinging about, he turned up an unbroken trail that opened on some hidden pass to the “front.” His two pals followed at his heels, muttering sullenly over their ill success.
    “No,” said Maurice to himself. “You’re quite right, gentleman! There’s nothing doing this trip!” But, aloud, he only spoke gently to his wearied horses as he unhitched and secured them to the rear of the wagon, gathered the scattered mail, and then scanned the sky narrowly. The storm was over, but the firs still thrashed their tops in the wind, the clouds still trailed and circled about the mountain summit. For a full hour Maurice sat quietly and thought things. What was to be done? The bridge was gone, the registered mail at the bottom of the canyon, and the day growing shorter every moment. Only one course lay before him. (He would not consider, even for a second, that any way lay open to him behind.) He must get that mail to the mines, or he could never look his [Page 166] father in the face again. He walked cautiously to the brink of the precipice and looked over. It was very steep. Nothing was visible but broken rock, boulders and bracken. No sign of either Royal or the mail bag; but he knew that somewhere, far below, the dog was keeping watch; that his four wise, steady feet had unerringly taken him where his animal instinct had dictated; and Maurice argued that, where his four feet could go, his two could follow. He must recover the bag, select his fleetest horse, and ride bareback on to the mines.
    The descent was a long, rough, dangerous business, but Maurice had learned many a climbing trick from the habits of the mountain goat, and at last he stood at the canyon’s bottom, a tired, lonely but courageous bit of boyhood, ready to suffer and dare anything so long as he could prove himself worthy of the trust that his father had placed in his strong young hands.
    He stood for a moment, awed by the wonder of the granite walls that rose like a vast fortress, towering above him, silent and motionless. Then he gave one clear whistle, then listened. Almost within stone’s throw came the response—the half-sad, wholly eager whine of a dog. Maurice was beside him in a twinkling, patting and hugging the beautiful animal, who lay, with shining eyes and wagging tail, his forepaws resting on the coarse canvas which bore, woven redly into its warp and woof, the two words: “Canada Mail.”
    What a meeting it was! Boy and dog, each with a worthy trust, worthily kept. But it was one, two, three hours before Maurice, footsore, exhausted, and with bleeding fingers, followed by Royal, panting and thirsty, regained the trail where the horses stood, ready for the onward gallop, three of them failing to understand why they were to be left in the lonely forest, while the fourth was quickly bridled, packed with the mail sacks and Maurice, and told to “be careful now!” as he picked his [Page 167] way down and around the bridgeless gorge and “hit the trail” on the opposite side.
    It was very late that night when the men at the mines heard the even gallop of an approaching horse. Many of the miners had gone to bed grumbling and threatening when no mail had arrived and no wages were paid. The manager and his assistants were still up, however, perplexed and worried that, for the first time, old Maurice Delorme had failed to reach the camp with the company’s money bags. But up the rough makeshift of a road came those galloping hoofs, halting before the primitive post office, while the crowd gathered and welcomed a strange trio. The manager himself lifted poor, stiff, tired “Little” Maurice from the back of an equally stiff, tired mountain pony, while a hot, hungry hound whined about, trying to tell the whole story in his wonderful dog fashion; but, when they did hear the real story from Maurice, there was a momentary silence, then a rough old miner fairly shouted, “Well, by the Great Horn Spoon, he’s old Maurice Delorme’s son all right!” Then came—cheers! [Page 168]