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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter II. The Young Voyageurs

There is a canoe upon the waters of Red River— Red River of the north. It is near the source of the stream, but passing downward. It is a small canoe, a frail structure of birch-bark, and contains only four persons. They are all young—the eldest of them evidently not over nineteen years of age, and the youngest about fifteen.

The eldest is nearly full-grown, though his body and limbs have not yet assumed the muscular development of manhood. His complexion is dark, nearly olive. His hair is jet-black, straight as an Indian’s, and long. His eyes are large and brilliant, and his features prominent. His countenance expresses courage, and his well-set jaws betoken firmness and resolution. He does not belie his looks, for he possesses these qualifications in a high degree. There is a gravity in his manner, somewhat rare in one so young; yet it is not the result of a morose disposition, but a subdued temperament produced by modesty, good sense, and much experience. Neither has it the air of stupidity. No: you could easily tell that the mind of this youth, if once roused, would exhibit both energy and alertness. His quiet manner has a far different expression. It is an air of coolness and confidence, which tells you he has met with dangers in the past, and would not fear to encounter them again. It is an expression peculiar, I think, to the hunters of the “Far West,”—those men who dwell amidst dangers in the wild regions of the great prairies. Their solitary mode of life begets this expression. They are often for months without the company of a creature with whom they may converse—months without beholding a human face. They live alone with Nature, surrounded by her majestic forms. These awe them into habits of silence. Such was in point of fact the case with the youth whom we have been describing. He had hunted much, though not as a professional hunter. With him the chase had been followed merely as a pastime; but its pursuit had brought him into situations of peril, and in contact with Nature in her wild solitudes. Young as he was, he had journeyed over the grand prairies, and through the pathless forests of the West. He had slain the bear and the buffalo, the wild cat and the cougar. These experiences had made their impression upon his mind, and stamped his countenance with that air of gravity we have noticed.

The second of the youths whom we shall describe is very different in appearance. He is of blonde complexion, rather pale, with fair silken hair that waves gently down his cheeks, and falls upon his shoulders. He is far from robust. On the contrary, his form is thin and delicate. It is not the delicacy of feebleness or ill-health, but only a body of slighter build. The manner in which he handles his oar shows that he possesses both health and strength, though neither in such a high degree as the dark youth. His face expresses, perhaps, a larger amount of intellect, and it is a countenance that would strike you as more open and communicative. The eve is blue and mild, and the brow is marked by the paleness of study and habits of continued thought. These indications are no more than just, for the fair-haired youth is a student, and one of no ordinary attainments. Although only seventeen years of age, he is already well versed in the natural sciences; and many a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge would but ill compare with him. The former might excel in the knowledge—if we can dignify it by that name of the laws of scansion, or in the composition of Greek idyls; but in all that constitutes real knowledge he would prove but an idle theorist, a dreamy imbecile, alongside our practical young scholar of the West.

The third and youngest of the party—taking them as they sit from stem to bow — differs in many respects from both those described. He has neither the gravity of the first, nor yet the intellectuality of the second. His. face is round, and full, and ruddy. It is bright and smiling in its expression. His eye dances merrily in his head, and its glance falls upon everything. His lips are hardly ever at rest. They are either engaged in making words — for he talks almost incessantly— or else contracting and expanding with smiles and joyous laughter. His cap is jauntily set, and his fine brown curls, hanging against the rich roseate skin of his cheeks, give to his countenance an expression of extreme health and boyish beauty. His merry laugh and free air tell you he is not the boy for books. He is not much of a hunter neither. In fact, he is not particularly given to anything — one of those easy natures who take the world as it comes, look upon the bright side of everything, without getting sufficiently interested to excel in anything.

These three youths were dressed nearly alike. The eldest wore the costume, as near as may be, of a backwoods hunter — a tunic-like hunting-shirt, of dressed buckskin, leggings and mocassins of the same material, and all—shirt, leggings, and mocassins—handsomely braided and embroidered with stained quills of the porcupine. The cape of the shirt was tastefully fringed, and so was the skirt as well as the seams of the mocassins. On his head was a hairy cap of raccoon skin, and the tail of the animal, with its dark transverse bars, hung down behind like the drooping plume of a helmet. Around his shoulders were two leathern belts that crossed each other upon his breast. One of these slung a bullet-pouch covered with a violet-green skin that glittered splendidly in the sun. It was from the head of the “wood-duck” (Anas sponsa), the most beautiful bird of its tribe. By the other strap was suspended a large crescent-shaped horn taken from the head of an Opelousas bull, and carved with various ornamental devices. Other smaller implements hung from the belts, attached by leathern thongs: there was a picker, a wiper, and a steel for striking fire with. A third belt— a broad stout one of alligator leather—encircled the youth’s waist. To this was fastened a holster, and the shining butt of a pistol could be seen protruding out; a hunting - knife of the kind denominated “bowie” hanging over the left hip, completed his “ arms and accoutrements.”

The second of the youths was dressed, as already stated, in a somewhat similar manner, though his accoutrements were not of so warlike a character. Like the other, he had a powder-horn and pouch, but instead of knife and pistol, a canvass bag or haversack hung from his shoulder; and had you looked into it, you would have seen that it was half filled with shells, pieces of rock, and rare plants, gathered during the day—the diurnal storehouse of the geologist, the palaeontologist, and botanist—to be emptied for study and examination by the night camp-fire. Instead of the ’coon-slfLn cap he wore a white felt hat with broad leaf; and for leggings and mocassins he had trousers of blue cottonade and laced buskins of tanned leather.

The youngest of the three was dressed and accoutred much like the eldest, except that his cap was of blue cloth—somewhat after the fashion of the military forage cap. All three wore shirts of coloured cotton, the best for journeying in these uninhabited regions, where soap is scarce, and a laundress not to be had at any price.

Though very unlike one another, these three youths were brothers. I knew them well. I had seen them before—about two years before—and though each had grown several inches taller since that time, I had no difficulty in recognising them. Even though they were now two thousand miles from where I had formerly encountered them, I could not be mistaken as to their identity. Beyond a doubt they were the same brave young adventurers whom I had met in the, swamps of Louisiana, and whose exploits I had witnessed upon the prairies of Texas. They were the Boy Hunters, —Basil, Lucien, Francois. I was right glad to renew acquaintance with them. Boy reader, do you share my joy?

But whither go they now? They are full two thousand miles from their home in Louisiana. The Red River upon which their canoe floats is not that Red River, whose blood-like waters sweep through the swamps of the hot South—the home of the alligator and the gar. No, it is a stream of a far different character, though also one of great magnitude. Upon the banks of the former ripens the riee-plant, and the sugar-cane waves its golden tassels high in the air. There, too, flourishes the giant reed {Arundogigantea), the fan-palm (Chamcerops), and the broad-leafed magnolia, with its huge snow-white flowers. There the aspect is Southern, and the heat tropical for most part of the year.

All this is reversed on the Red River of the North. It is true that on its banks sugar is also produced; but it is no longer from a plant but a lordly tree—the great sugar-maple (Acer sac-charinum). There is rice too, — vast fields of rice upon its marshy borders ; but it is not the pearly grain of the South. It is the wild rice, “ the water oats” (Zizania aquatica), the food of millions of winged creatures, and thousands of human beings as well. Here for three-fourths of the year the sun is feeble, and the aspect that of winter. For months the cold waters are bound up in an icy embrace. The earth is covered with thick snow, over which rise the needle-leafed conifer—the pines, the cedars, the spruce, and the hemlock. Very unlike each other are the countries watered by the two streams, the Red River of the South and its namesake of the North.

But whither go our Boy Hunters in their birch-bark canoe? The river upon which they are voyaging runs due northward into the great lake Winnipeg. They are floating with its current, and consequently increasing the distance from their home. Whither go they?

The answer leads us to some sad reflections. Our joy on again beholding them is to be mingled with grief. When we last saw them they had a father, but no mother. Now they have neither one nor the other. The old Colonel, their father—the French emigre, the hunter-naturalist—is dead. He who had taught them all they knew; who had taught them to ride, to swim, to dive deep rivers, to fling the lasso, to climb tall trees, and scale steep cliffs, to bring down birds upon the wing or beasts upon the run, with the arrow and the unerring rifle; who had trained them to sleep in the open air, in the dark forest, on the unsheltered prairie, along the white snow-wreath—anywhere—with but a blanket or a buffalo robe for their bed; who had taught them to live on the simplest food, and had imparted to one of them a knowledge of science, of botany in particular, that enabled them, in case of need, to draw sustenance from plants and trees, from roots and fruits, to find resources where ignorant men would starve; had taught them to kindle a fire without flint, steel, or detonating powder; to discover their direction without a compass, from the rocks and the trees and the signs of the heavens; and in addition to all, had taught them, as far as was then known, the geography of that vast wilderness that stretches from the Mississippi to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and northward to the icy borders of the Arctic Sea”—he who had taught them all this, their father, was no more; and his three sons, the "boy men,” of whom he was so proud, and of whose accomplishments he was wont to boast, were now orphans upon the wide world.

But little more than a year after their return from their grand expedition to the Texan prairies, the “old Colonel” had died. It was one of the worst years of that scourge of the South—the yellow fever—and to this dread pestilence he had fallen a victim.

Hugot, the ex-chasseur and attached domestic, who was accustomed to follow his master like a shadow, had also followed him into the next world. It was not grief that killed Hugot, though he bore the loss of his kind master sadly enough. But it was not grief that killed Hugot. He was laid low by the same disease of which his master had died— the yellow fever. A week had scarcely passed after the death of the latter, before Hugot caught the disease, and in a few days he was carried to the tomb and laid by the side of his “old Colonel.”

The Boy Hunters—Basil, Lucien, Francois— became orphans. They knew of but one relation in the whole world, with whom their father had kept up any correspondence. This relation was an uncle, and, strange as it may seem, a Scotchman— a Highlander, who had strayed to Corsica in early life, and had there married the Colonel’s sister. That uncle had afterwards emigrated to Canada, and had become extensively engaged in the fur trade. He was now a superintendent or “factor” of the Hudson’s Bay Company, stationed at one of their most remote posts near the shores of the Arctic Sea!

There is a romance in the history of some men wilder than any fiction that could be imagined.

I have not yet answered the question as to where our Boy Hunters were journeying in their birch -bark canoe. By this time you will have divined the answer. Certainly, you will say, they were on their way to join their uncle in his remote home. For no other object could they be travelling through the wild regions of the Red River. That supposition is correct. To visit this Scotch uncle (they had not seen him for years) was the object of their long, toilsome, and perilous journey. After their father’s death he had sent for them. He had heard of their exploits upon the prairies; and, being himself of an adventurous disposition, he was filled with admiration for his young kinsmen, and desired very much to have them come and live with him. Being now their guardian, he might command as much, but it needed not any exercise, of authority on his part to induce all three of them to obey his summons. They had travelled through the mighty forests of the Mississippi, and upon the summer prairies of the South. These great features of the earth’s surface were to them familiar things, and they were no longer curious about them. But there remained a vast country which they longed eagerly to explore. They longed to look upon its shining lakes and crystal rivers; upon its snow-clad hills and ice-bound streams; upon its huge mammalia—its moose and its musk-oxen, its wapiti and its monster bears. This was the very country to which they were now invited by their kinsman, and cheerfully did they accept his invitation. Already had they made one-half the journey, though by far the easier half. They had travelled up the Mississippi, by steamboat as far as the mouth of the St. Peter’s. There they had commenced their canoe voyage—in other words became “voyageurs” —for such is the name given to those who travel canoes through these wild territories. Their favourite horses and the mule “Jeannette” had been left behind. This was a necessity, as these creatures, however useful upon the dry prairies of the South, where there are few or no lakes, and where rivers only occur at long intervals, would be of little service to the traveller in the Northern regions. Here the route is crossed and intercepted by numerous rivers; and lakes of all sizes, with tracts of inundated marsh, succeed one another continually. Such, in fact, are the highways of the country, and the canoe the travelling carriage; so that a journey from one point of the Hudson’s Bay territory to another is often a canoe voyage of thousands of miles—equal to a “trip” across the Atlantic!

Following the usual custom, therefore, our Boy Hunters had become voyageurs — Young Voyageurs. They had navigated the St. Peter’s in safety, almost to its head-waters. These interlock with the sources of the Red River. By a “portage” of a few miles they had crossed to the latter stream; and, having launched their canoe upon its waters, were now floating downward and northward with its current. But they had yet a long journey before them—nearly two thousand miles! Many a river to be “run,” many a rapid to be “shot,” many a lake to be crossed, and many a “portage” to be passed, ere they could reach the end of that great voyage.

Come, boy reader, shall we accompany them? Yes. The strange scenes and wild adventures through which we must pass, may lighten the toils, and perhaps repay us for the perils, of the journey. Think not of the toils. Roses grow only upon thorns. From toil we learn to enjoy leisure. Regard not the perils. From the nettle danger we pluck the flower safety. Security often springs from peril. From such hard experiences great men have arisen. Come, then, my young friend! mind neither toil nor peril, but with me to the great wilderness of the North!

Stay! We are to have another “compagnon du voyaged. There is a fourth in the boat, a fourth “young voyageur.” Who is he? In appearance he is as old as Basil, full as tall, and not unlike him in “build.” But he is altogether of a different colour. He is fair-haired; but his hair (unlike that of Lucien, which is also light-coloured) is strong, crisp, and curly. It does not droop, but stands out over his cheeks in a profusion of handsome ringlets. His complexion is of that kind known as “fresh,” and the weather, to which it has evidently been much exposed, has bronzed and rather enriched the colour. The eyes are dark blue, and, strange to say, with black brows and lashes! This is not common, though sometimes observed; and, in the case of the youth we are describing, arose from a difference of complexion on the part of his parents. He looked through the eyes of his mother, while in other respects he was more like his father, who was fair-haired and of a “fresh” colour.

The youth, himself, might be termed handsome. Perhaps he did not possess the youthful beauty of Francois, nor the bolder kind that characterized the face of Basil. Perhaps he was of a coarser “make” than any of his three companions. His intellect had been less cultivated by education, and education adds to the beauty of the face. His life had been a harder one—he had toiled more with his hands, and had seen less of civilized society. Still many would have pronounced him a handsome youth. His features were regular, and of clean outline. His lips expressed good-nature as well as firmness. His eye beamed with native intelligence, and his whole face bespoke a heart of true and determined honesty—that made it beautiful.

Perhaps a close scrutinizer of countenances might have detected some resemblance—a family one—-between him and his three companions. If such there was, it was very slight; but there might have been, from the relationship that existed between them and him. He was their cousin—their full cousin—the only son of that uncle they were now on their way to visit, and the [newcomer] who had been sent to bring them. Such was the fourth of “the young voyageurs.”

His dress was not unlike that worn by Basil; but as he was seated on the bow, and acting as pilot, and therefore more likely to feel the cold, he wore over his hunting-shirt a Canadian capote of white woollen cloth, with its hood hanging, down upon his shoulders.

But there was still another “voyageur,” an old acquaintance, whom you, boy reader, will no doubt remember. This was an animal, a quadruped, who lay along the bottom of the canoe upon a buffalo’s hide. From his size and colour— which was a tawny red—you might have mistaken him for a panther—a cougar. His long black muzzle and broad hanging ears gave him quite a different aspect, however, and declared him to be a hound. He was one—a bloodhound, with the build of a mastiff — a powerful animal. He was the dog 'Marengo.’ You remember Marengo?

In the canoe there were other objects of interest. There were blankets and buffalo robes; there was a small canvass tent folded up; there were bags of provisions, and some cooking utensils; there was a spade and an axe; there were rifles—three of them — and a double-barrelled shot-gun; besides a fish-net, and many other articles, the necessary equipments for such a journey.

Loaded almost to the gunwale was that, little canoe, yet lightly did it float down the waters of the Red River of the North.

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