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Wild Life in Canada
Chapter VII - Sled-Dogs of the North Trails

Without sled-dogs there could be no winter travel over the great territories of the Far Canadian North, and consequently little or no fur trade. Possibly you have never had occasion to think of such a modern thing as commerce in connection with those great snow-bound wildernesses that lie beyond the white man’s country: possibly it never occurred to you that the winter life of Indian and Eskimo could concern you in any way at all. Yet, since to them do we owe thanks for great stores of fur pelts, they touch on our lives in an indirect way even as far "back home” as London, Paris, New York, and in all cities; though few people who buy rich furs over city shop counters picture the drear surroundings in which fur-bearing animals are captured—interminable wastes of snow; intense cold, even blizzard; and lone men with patient wolf-dogs battling against bitter, merciless Arctic winter. Perhaps only Vikings of the ancient Hudson Bay Company, and others of the like who have traded in fur for half a century, really know how much is yearly harvested by the aid of the sled-dog. Just as civilisation cannot to-day do without railways, so the Far North cannot subsist in winter without dog-trains; dogs which are the means of gathering from great distances, and long trap-lines, the choicest furs for the markets of civilisation; and that gather also the fuel-wood and winter food that keep alive the dusky-hued races that hunt through the dark months of the year for treasures that are coveted by cultured people.

Let a stranger enter the North; let him come to a far-out fur Post, and he will be wonderstruck at the canine population; for if a Post contain ten hunting Indians it is highly probable that the whole foreground will be dominated by some 120 to 150 sled-dogs. The proportion of man to dog is usually on such an astonishing scale.

It is certain that the stranger will wonder to see such numbers of those uncommon beasts of burden, and possibly he will be somewhat surprised that the natives of the Far North so extensively rear dogs for utility, with much of the same purpose as his own people would rear horses in the civilised South.

And he cannot but remark the striking presence, and stalwart wolf-build of those dogs: some half-wild, disdainful, powerful; beautifully proportioned, beautifully coated; others less handsome cross-strains, rough-coated, unevenly coloured, but brim-full of courage and strong to endure.

To find the true type of sled-dogs, or wolf-dogs, or huskies, or malamoots—call them what you will out of those names of the country— one must come to the far-out fur Posts ; for good dogs, like good Indians, lie nowadays beyond the outposts of the white settler. That the finest dogs are in the Far North is perhaps due to their untrammelled surroundings, and to the nature of their feeding, for, on the fringes of the Frontier, fish, the chief dog-food, is often scarce, and in demand for human food, whereas in the Far North fish are plentiful and little sought in the clear waters of the countless lakes and rivers that abound in those distant places. Moreover in Frontier settlements, and such Posts where white and halfbreed and Indian intermingle, and are unsettled by more modern enterprises than the old-world, patient, plodding fur trade, the sled-dogs are often outcast when their winter’s work is done, and remain through summer no man’s care, little better than thieving curs, kicked and abused by everyone.

If you are travelling north, particularly in summer, it is sure to be your misfortune on the early outward trail to run foul of those thieving fellows, who instil in you a firm distrust of every sled-dog in existence long before you have cleared their unhealthy habitat. All sled-dogs steal—even the best of them—but the untended outcasts of the Posts near the edge of civilisation are particular vagabonds. My most memorable losses by dog-thieves—memorable because they seriously shortened my carefully calculated food-store on a long outward canoe journey between two posts—was the loss of a shoulder of dried moose meat, stolen from over my head at night, and a week’s baking of “bannock” (sour-dough bread) plundered a few days later from a grub box in camp during a heavy storm.

It is not uncommon to find an outcast dog, or a lost dog, living along the shores of lake or river like a totally wild animal. Living thus they gather oddments of food from the water’s edge, besides what live prey they catch, such oddments as dead fish that are washed ashore, or carcass of duck or gull; sometimes too they chance on a nest of eggs, while if there are berries ripening in the woods they will even devour those in their hunger. It is under such circumstances that one may observe the full reawakened wild-natured cunning of those brutes, for their sense of smell when roaming thus becomes keen and suspicious as a wolf’s, and they will examine any particle of food with great care before daring to touch it, as if they feared poison or a trap with all the dread of a once caught, once escaped, wild thing. If you want further proof of how close they are to their wild forefathers, watch them at dusk, cunning as wolf or fox, and as naturally stealing through the pine woods over dry, moss-grown knolls, eyes and ears and nose alert, treading stealthily with head forward and tail straight, ready instantly to pounce on spruce-grouse or rabbit or any living thing the high-strung senses may detect.

There is one thing in the way of food that, as far as I know, a sled-dog will not touch, and that is mice. I’ve seen dead mice lying outside cabins for days untouched, where ravenous sled-dogs existed. This is peculiar, because some domestic dogs will eat mice, though it is true they are often sick after doing so.

I have said that all sled-dogs will steal. I’m afraid that is true, and I cannot revoke even such sweeping judgment, but what I like about the dogs in the Far North is that they have the grace to acknowledge themselves rascals, for they stand aloof from mankind, half-wild, half-afraid, making no overtures or pretences of friendship — and they steal whenever they ean. On the other hand, poor-caste mongrels of the Frontier may sidle up to you in friendly fashion, and you, in good humour, may treat them kindly—then turn your back, and they sneak into your tent and plunder whatever is at hand. This sort of thing can be very annoying, and the only thing to do is to steel one’s feelings against all and treat them as rogues—every one.

I will leave now the sled-dogs of the Frontier and deal entirely with the more pure, more attractive types of those that are common to the borders of the Arctic. Perhaps some of the finest dogs I have seen were at Fort l)u Brochet, at the north end of Reindeer Lake, where the Hudson Bay Company have stretched a tendril through inland wilderness almost to the line of the Eskimo country, and there established a Trading Post for Chipewyan Indians and those said Eskimos, so that they be induced to bring out the fur of a large inland area of the Barren-grounds and lay it on the rude barter counter of the Fur Traders’ Store and purchase in exchange such luxuries as flour, and tobacco, and tea, and ammunition, and beads, and coloured cloths, and all such sort of things as are eagerly sought by simple, primitive natives. Once a year a small band of Eskimos travel south with fur-loaded sleds to Fort Du Brochet. Thereafter they are neither seen nor heard of until another year comes round. They bring with them pelts of White Wolves, Arctic Foxes, Bears, Wolverine, and a few Musk-ox skins—the last-named animals believed to be rare nowadays, but perhaps not so rare as it is written down to be for it inhabits, in most cases, country almost totally unknown to white men, and unapproachable. Sometimes the Eskimos bring a few Mink skins in their packs, but never Marten, which are indigenous to forested country.

But to return to the subject of sled-dogs; there are eight cabins at Fort Du Brochet, including the fur-traders’, and the inhabitants of those owned twenty-two trains of sled-dogs: that is to say, no adult dogs, while a conservative estimate of pups—three to six months old— would add some forty head to the total dog population of the Post. Remember that only records the number of dogs within that tiny settlement, for beyond, on lone lake and river, at the isolated cabins of the nomad Chipewyans of the territory, were the dog-trains of each hunting Indian—perhaps three hundred to four hundred dogs in all in that district, if one might guess a broadly approximate estimate.

And there are times, if one camps at Fort Du Brochet, when one is very forcibly reminded that there is a mighty congregation of dogs there, for, on certain nights, without visible cause, it is the custom of the whole dog tribe to simultaneously point their muzzles to the moon, and in one voluble, blood-curdling chorus to break in on the unbounded silence of the northern night with their wolf-like, melancholy dirge—long-drawn-out howlings, . . .wow. . . wow. . . oue............ Abruptly as the dogs commence, so is the wild call hushed, after giving but a minute’s utterance to the wild sad spirit that has been handed down to them by nameless forefathers from generation to generation. Particularly on stormy nights do those strange animals show restlessness and their desire to voice their wolf-howl to the whole world.

They howl also in this same deep, melancholy way when a permanent camp is broken up and their masters embark in canoes for fresh hunting-grounds. Then they will sit and howl their very souls out before they bid good-bye to their old haunts and follow the canoes along shore. It may be that they howl in dread of the unknown journey before them, or with wish to send their dog-message of departure through shadowy forest that holds the secrets of many wanderings and of many wild things. Be that as it may, in due course they depart, and commence the hard task of following the canoes, for to keep in touch they must at times swim from point to point of deep bays, and cross wide rivers, and in a day fall far behind in surmounting the difficulties in their path. At night they may overtake their masters. But only the robust and hardy dogs get through with the canoes, for the weaklings fall out and are lost, and may only reach camp in a starved condition a week or two after the others if they have been persistent and intelligent in following the trail of their fellows.

It will have been gathered that all sled-dogs are idlers in summer; many but little cared for, since the caring means work; others are more fortunate who have masters who consider them their property summer and winter.

Every summer day, except when storms of wind prevent them, canoes go out to fishing-grounds from Fort Du Brochet to lift their gill-nets and bring in fish for human food and dog-food. And every day the keen eyes of many eager dogs watch from the shore-front for the return of the canoes, which they welcome at the water’s edge, in a body—much in the manner that hand-fed colts cluster to their grain-trough at feeding hour. If the catch allows it, each dog gets one fish per day in summer—Whitefish, Jackfish (Pike), or Trout, weighing 2½ lbs. upwards. Down by the water’s edge, when a canoe runs ashore, there are gathered other dogs besides those belonging to the two fishermen at the moment landing. Therefore, when they are ready to feed the dogs, one Indian steps ashore armed with a stout stick or pole and stands among them to preserve order, and guard against the interlopers, while the other calls the name of a dog in deep tones as he tosses a fish from the canoe into the air toward the dog he has selected, which dog adroitly catches the fish in the air, rounds his shoulders protectingly over it, and commences to tear it to pieces while holding it between sharp-clawed fore-paws. Thus the fish are distributed to the rightful dogs. There is seldom any mad rush ; both dogs and men know their business. The fish, once dealt out, are devoured in ravenous, hasty gulps, while the strange dogs pounce in now and again to try and steal from the rightful owners, the while emitting fierce snarls and teeth-gnashings with thought to overawe the one assailed. But the Indians watch with their poles, and lay about them whenever a row arises; and growls and sounds of fierce battle are immediately succeeded by the sharp yelp of a beaten dog—then peace. Sometimes a dog carries his fish into shallow water away from the others and tears it asunder with head under water; finally seeking below the surface to be quite assured that no bits have been overlooked. In barely a minute the repast is over, so powerful are the wolf-jaws of those animals, so great their ravenous haste to devour their prey.

Everywhere in the North native laws of man and beast are stern, even merciless; the outcome, perhaps, of living half the year face to face with the powerful elements of winter, eternally fighting for an existence within the zone of the greatest counterforces of life to be met with in the whole wide world. Thus it appears, at first sight, brutal to a stranger to witness the Indians punish their dogs on the slightest provocation, and it is brutal in a delicate sense, but not so in the mind of Indian or dog, for both are of a vigorous outdoor world, and of primitive hardihood. Indians have full experience of sled-dogs. They are masters of the situation; were their dogs allowed to run unchecked* all summer, or be humoured by pampering kindness, they would be useless as sled-dogs when the snows came. Hard blows teach them always to respect the power of man, and to stand back at a respectful distance and in due humility.

Regarding dog punishment, I have only once witnessed a squaw severely deal with one of those provoking animals. Her men-folk were away hunting, and her peculiar method was to tie the culprit to an alder bush and belabour him mercilessly with a heavy pole until one thought that if she did not cease speedily the dog would be beaten to death. He had stolen something, poor hungry, wolf-natured brute—and he would steal next hour, I wager, if the chance arose, licking or no—only with a little more caution, a little added resolve that his cunning would outwit his masters.

At freeze-up I have seen young dogs that have never before been caught and harnessed prove so savage when handled that they could not be put in the traces until stunned with a blow on the head. For two or three days such dogs are unmanageable, but in the end they become tractable and often prove splendid, hard-working, high-spirited beasts of burden.

You will have gathered from these remarks that the sled-dog is for ever in the foreground at the Far North fur Posts—numerous beyond all other things—and that is true of them.

I will deal in detail with the foods on which sled-dogs are fed, and then take you to the sled and the snowfield; that which is their purpose of existence, and where their endurance and courage overcome the bleakest wastes in all God’s Universe.

What food the natives subsist on is also the food of their dogs. The year round the native and dog community of Fort Du Brochet, and of many Far North Posts, live almost exclusively on fish with the addition, in winter, of what deer-meat the Caribou migrations provide. Raw fish, fresh from the water in summer, or frozen in winter, is the chief dog-food the year round, and on this they thrive. And, in this respect, it is certain that the fish on which the dogs of the outermost Posts are fed has played an important part in retaining, perhaps even developing, the fine physique which the breed obtain along the trails of the Hinderland, for the fish from the pure cold waters. No northern lakes are of surpassing excellence. The dogs themselves, when occasion occurs, show discriminating taste, and marked preference for their home fish, for, in the winter, should any dog-team go south to the Posts of the Frontier it is noticeable that while being fed on fish from inferior waters they will eat without relish and with an air of distaste, and deteriorate in weight and strength.

Sled-dogs as a rule will eat any of the varieties of fish that are caught in the North—Whitefish, Trout, Jackfish (Pike and Pickerel), Black and Red Suckers, and Dory—but when not ravenously hungry, and the opportunity offers, they will show a nicety of taste, and their preference, by selecting the Whitefish, which is the choicest to the human palate also.

In a country where food is the one great problem of existence, providing for the sled-dog is no small matter, particularly in winter. Therefore on the eve of the great freeze-up, with purpose to store a large supply of fish for winter dog-feed, Fall fishing on an extensive scale is yearly undertaken by the Indians. When the weather turns cold in late September or early October, all the Indians of a permanent camp depart to their well-known fishing-grounds—women, children, dogs, teepee-covers, cooking-dishes are bundled into canoes by their menfolk, and all set out for the various river outlets, where fish at that Reason congregate in their quest of spawning grounds. Each Indian will set from three to four long gill-nets (usually 200 feet x 4 feet, with 2-inch mesh—manufactured, not native made), and those he visits once a day in the cold grey autumn dawn before wind rises ; and as a rule he brings in between one hundred and two hundred fish. When landed the Indians and their squaws slit the fish through the body some little distance from the tail, and truss them in tens on green willow-rods of about two feet length. They are placed in groups of ten so thatone stick conveniently allots a day’s rations to a five-dog train—the usual number driven in northern territory. Large stages constructed with the trunks of trees are erected, and across the stalwart framework, from side to side, poles are spaced overhead to form racks that receive the short rods of trussed fish, which then hang suspended, head-downwards, well out of reach of dogs or wild animals. Here the fish are frozen—sometimes completely, sometimes partially, depending on weather; and keep, on the whole, almost completely fresh until the hour the thermometer drops to zero and the great freeze-up sets in.

When heavy snow has fallen, and sleds are out, the frozen fish are transported from the stages at the fishing-ground, and stored at the Indians’ cabins.

The total fish caught in this way varies. If a complete freeze-up does not set in over-rapidly, one man may have 8,000, another 4,500, another 3.000—which is sometimes governed by the number of dogs to feed, and sometimes by the ability and energy of the fisherman. Also there is good luck and bad luck.

The following are some carefully kept, strange old records of the autumn fish-catch at a Far North Post in 1880—almost forty years ago!

Trailing over Ice and Snow

It was a starlit morning, about an hour from daybreak, and cold as the very devil. I had got my five dogs into their harness in the awkward, persevering fashion of a man with numbed, half frozen hands working amongst frozen collars and traces in the biting cold, while circulation is yet asleep. And now my team whimpered to be off on the trail, while they shivered and looked miserably cowed with cold.

But there was a hitch this morning, one sled was not ready to start. Mistewgoso was groping about the tree-bottoms and bushes of the forest, trying to uncover a lost dog that was buried and hidden in the snow and not inclined to turn out, being, no doubt, overtired with the hard travelling of the past few days and comfortable where he was. The Indian had circled closely around camp without success, then set out upon a wider circle, and that unavailing he tried still another, calling Natcheleaze—the dog’s name—ingreatimpatience,

and voicing the while his disapproval of the dog’s conduct. Suddenly a yelp—Mistewgoso had unsnowed the culprit! Fully one hundred yards from camp the Indian’s hawk-eyes had detected the dog, though he had had to search so widely to find its snow-lair, and had not overlooked it in the dark.

We were now ready to go. The dogs stood or lay, one before the other, in their harness—harness made up of long, continuous side-traces connected to saddle, and belly-band around their middles, and to head-collars which rested on the fore shoulders and received each dog’s pulling weight. But, having been left standing, of course some of the dogs had got mixed up in their harness : they invariably do, as that is accomplished by merely turning round or getting a leg or two over the traces. Some mix-ups can be righted in a second; others take minutes and the undoing of many buckles or thongs. However, traces were soon straightened out this morning, while impatient dogs gave voice to their wolf-howls in eagerness to start. Then each driver called out to the leaders and we were off, while it was “Mush, Toyfayr! Mush, Corni! Tuok! Tuok! Tuok! . . . Ge-kook! Ge-kook!” (to incite them to break into a gallop and warm up). Then, “Ah! . . . Peesu!” in reproachful tones, as you note the traces of that particular dog slacken, and how he is not pulling his share. Again, when it is desired to change your direction, the cry is “Hu, Corni (leader), Hu!” if the lead-dog is wanted to turn to the right, or “Chac, Corni, Cliac!” if to the left.

There were three dog-trains on the trail, for two Indians were with me—Mistewgoso and J’Pierre. We had been out a week, and were still heading north.

North, always north, even against the stirring warnings of the voices of the vast unknown, and the threatened overpowering grip of the giant elements of heartless Arctic cold. At times it seemed preposterous that against those forces such little things as we, mere dust-specks in such mighty company, should dare to go on, and go on.

Ah ! there is power in the North, an almost overwhelming strength of surroundings. You know you are up against it; within you you are almost sure it will get you in the end, if you go just a little too far, or are contemptuous for an hour of its antagonism.

On this occasion we were travelling far and travelling fast. Those long, speedy-looking sleds, running lightly on the surface, contained but a few “sticks” of fish for dog-feed, our rifles, axes, snow-shoes, cook-cans, and deerskin sleeping-bags. 'We carried no freight, though, if necessary, the sleds could be loaded up to 100 lbs. per dog.

Light-fashioned those sleds looked; narrow, flat-boarded things with curling, upturned prows, rear upright back-rest, rope side-rails from back to front, and thereto attached the coffin-like body of tough parchment skins which were laced up the sides and across the bottom. But into such sleds an astonishing load can be packed. When fully loaded the bundles of freight are piled to a height of two feet or thereby, particular care being taken to have the whole well balanced over the sled-boards; then all are laced into final position with vice-tight ropings to prevent the load from slipping when the sleds slew at turnings, or jar as the dogs lead overland, between lakes, and the sleds dip into hollows, and over hillocks and fallen tree trunks.

In weather we were fortunate, for there had been no deep snowfall recently, and the powdery show had drifted and packed and the surface on land or lake was everywhere firm. Snow-shoes had been discarded. No trail required breaking. Overland between lakes (for it was altogether a country of alternating lake and land) we sped, light-footed in our duffel-lined moccasins behind ever-nimble dogs, alert to keep the sled-head from being dashed against upright stumps or dead logs that lay in our path

The hardest sled-driving is when passing overland: guide-rope in hand, at one time urging the dogs uphill, at another time righting the sled if a bad canting slope, or a hidden stump, has overturned it. Then, perhaps, a mad scramble downhill, guiding the sled, sometimes with somewhat random effort, as it sways from side to side in its impetuous movement, buffered off the shallow banks which it encounters on the margins of the trail. Finally, at sight of a lake ahead, the dogs break into a gallop at prospect of getting on to the level again, and the line of sleds debouch on to the lake from the forest like a veritable cataract. Breathless, or if not breathless, perspiring, we run alongside our sleds, board the protruding ledge at the rear, and step over into the body to settle down for a rest while still watching the dogs and urging them on. But before long we are out on the ice again, trotting patiently behind the dogs, encouraging them, and using the whip on any caught slacking (if not foot-sore, and slacking with a cause), glad of exercise to keep up warmth against the cutting cold wind we faced, and that swept over lake ice with the freedom of wind on the sea.

Travelling light, and on packed snow, with no trail to break, neither hunting en route nor trapping, it was estimated that the dogs were travelling from four to five miles an hour. 'We were travelling in three stages each day: that is, we halted to make two “fires” between morning start and night camp. In each stage the dogs ran between two and a half hours and three hours. Therefore the minimum distance of travel per day- was thirty miles, and the maximum forty-five miles.

When it was time to make “first fire,” a well timbered, sheltered place was selected and the dogs run in to the lake edge. Straightway a few spruce trees were felled on to the lake ice, their branches lobbed off and spread mat-fashion on the snow to accomodate the dogs, whereupon the teams, still harnessed to their sleds, were led on to those “carpets” to there lie down, panting and tired, to cool off while their feet and bodies were safeguarded from contact with ice and snow. Back a little way in the shelter of the woods we then kindled a camp-fire, filled the cans with water from a hole cut with an axe through two feet of lake ice, and soon each one of us was enjoying fragrant hot tea and pemmican, or lumps of cold Caribou meat saved from the previous night’s cooking. Afterwards pipes and laughter while we stood, first back, then front, basking in the luxurious warmth of the log-fire.

The time of making “fires” of course varies. There is really no mechanical measurement of Time in the Far North; only are the spans of daylight measured by the sun, or by unfailing instinct if there is no sun. However, a fair guide to halts on the winter trail are: Morning Fire, 6.30 a.m. (about an hour and a half before daylight); First Fire Halt, 9.30 a.m.—10 a.m.; Second Fire Halt, 2 p.m. — 2.30 p.m. Night Camp, 5.30 p.m. (about an hour and a half after dark). It is on account of those customary halts that Indians always answer questions as to how long a journey will take by giving you the number of times they sleep or make fire. Thus they say: “To go Eskimo camp, we sleep ten times” (twelve days’ travel); or again, “To go Gull-foot’s wigwam, we make two small fires” (about six hours’ travel); or “two long fires” would mean about nine hours’ travel.

Throughout the day we kept trailing into the North over river and lake and land that ever changed in line and aspect yet never lost the dead white countenance of frigid snow. The “first fire” we left behind, and the second, as we had done on the days before—each marking so much gained on the scale of man’s ambition to explore, yet piling up the leagues of snow that lay behind, lengthening the gulf between solitude and the voices of fellow-mankind.

Even after the short winter’s day had ended we were still calling to the dogs and urging them onward as they flagged at the end of a hard day’s work. The wind had dropped, it was some degrees more intensely cold, and, outside our small activities, the whole vast land was deadly still with silentness. On, ever on, like a shaft of black shadow, the line of sleds crept toward the head of the large lake we were crossing, until our moving forms were brushed from the level white surface and engulfed in the darkness of the dwarf forest on shore.

Among the trees we made camp. The sleds were drawn into position to barricade our sleeping ground against the dogs and the cold; and then the dogs were released from their harness. Boughs were cut and laid for the dogs to rest on, and then all hands turned toward making the night’s camp. Space was cleared sufficient to accommodate a large log-fire and our outstretched forms. The fire was kindled at the edge of the space down-wind; up-wind, the full length of our bodies from the fire, the back of a two to three foot barricade was built, while similar sides enclosed our camping space to the fire, which counted the fourth side of our enclosure. This threesided barricade before the fire was partly formed with sleds, and completed with felled trees and snow-banking.

As soon as the fire was well ablaze the “sticks” of fish were ranged before it to partially thaw out before being fed to the dogs. While this was being done the camp was laid with a thick mattress of boughs so that we would not sleep directly on the snow. Also a great pile of dead timber was gathered for the night fire.

Those things were completed and the dogs fed (two fish each) before any attention was given to our own wants. Thereafter pots of meat were boiled over the blazing fire, and tea, and we ate with the deep content of lean and hungry men.

In time the camp was ready to sleep. Beyond the fire glare most of the dogs had ceased to move and had dug themselves holes beneath the snow. Mistewgoso made a final round outside the barricade to make sure the sleds were thoroughly protected from ravaging dogs—some of whom would prowl stealthily round camp like wolves after we slept—then, when he returned satisfied, clad as we were in our heavy fur clothes, we curled into our fur-lined sleeping-bags—feet to fire, and sheltered by the barricade from wind—and forgot the cold and the trail in dreamless sleep.

I have endeavoured to describe a day on the north trail, particularly the mode of travel. I have known many such days—their food-shortage: no Caribou: dogs weakening, dogs footsore, dogs dying : and Indian companions losing faith. Travelling north is not free of risk at any time, it is far from pleasant then. But when without food in bitter weather those dogs of endurance will gamely do their best for three or four days and may save an anxious situation in the end. It is then that one learns the greatness of their strength, and the spirit that resists to the last blood-drop, unmurmuring, Big as the stern-disciplined North that has mothered them.

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