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Fort Desolation: Red Indians and Fur Traders of Rupert's Land

Fort Desolation: Red Indians and Fur Traders of Rupert's Land

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


To some minds solitude is depressing, to others it is congenial. It was the _former_ to our friend John Robinson; yet he had a large share of it in his chequered life. John--more familiarly known as Jack--was as romantic as his name was the reverse. To look at him you would have supposed that he was the mo...
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  To some minds solitude is depressing, to others it is congenial. It wasthe _former_ to our friend John Robinson; yet he had a large share of itin his chequered life. John--more familiarly known as Jack--was asromantic as his name was the reverse. To look at him you would havesupposed that he was the most ordinary of common-place men, but if youhad known him, as we did, you would have discovered that there was adeep, silent, but ever-flowing river of enthusiasm, energy, fervour--ina word, romance--in his soul, which seldom or never manifested itself inwords, and only now and then, on rare occasions, flashed out in alightning glance, or blazed up in a fiery countenance. For the mostpart Jack was calm as a mill-pond, deep as the Atlantic, straightforwardand grave as an undertaker's clerk and good-humoured as an unspoilt andhealthy child.

  Jack never made a joke, but, certes, he could enjoy one; and he had away of showing his enjoyment by a twinkle in his blue eye and a chucklein his throat that was peculiarly impressive.

  Jack was a type of a large class. He was what we may call an_outskirter_ of the world. He was one of those who, from the force ofnecessity, or of self-will, or of circumstances, are driven to the outercircle of this world to do as Adam and Eve's family did, battle withNature in her wildest scenes and moods; to earn his bread, literally, inthe sweat of his brow.

  Jack was a middle-sized man of strong make. He was not sufficientlylarge to overawe men by his size, neither was he so small as to inviteimpertinence from "big bullies," of whom there were plenty in hisneighbourhood. In short, being an unpretending man and a plain man,with a good nose and large chin and sandy hair, he was not usually takenmuch notice of by strangers during his journeyings in the world; butwhen vigorous action in cases of emergency was required Jack Robinsonwas the man to make himself conspicuous.

  It is not our intention to give an account of Jack's adventurous lifefrom beginning to end, but to detail the incidents of a sojourn of twomonths at Fort Desolation, in almost utter solitude, in order to showone of the many phases of rough life to which outskirters are frequentlysubjected.

  In regard to his early life it may be sufficient to say that Jack, afterbeing born, created such perpetual disturbance and storm in the housethat his worthy father came to look upon him as a perfect pest, and assoon as possible sent him to a public school, where he fought like aMameluke Bey, learned his lessons with the zeal of a philosopher, and,at the end of ten years ran away to sea, where he became as sick as adog and as miserable as a convicted felon.

  Poor Jack was honest of heart and generous of spirit, but many a longhard year did he spend in the rugged parts of the earth ere herecovered,

if he ever did recover

, from the evil effects of this firstfalse step.

  In course of time Jack was landed in Canada, with only a few shillingsin his pocket; from that period he became an outskirter. The romance inhis nature pointed to the backwoods; he went thither at once, and wasnot disappointed. At first the wild life surpassed his expectations,but as time wore on the tinsel began to wear off the face of things, andhe came to see them as they actually were. Nevertheless, the romance oflife did not wear out of his constitution. Enthusiasm, quiet but deep,stuck to him all through his career, and carried him on and overdifficulties that would have disgusted and turned back many a colderspirit.

  Jack's first success was the obtaining of a situation as clerk in thestore of a general merchant in an outskirt settlement of Canada. Direnecessity drove him to this. He had been three weeks without money andnearly two days without food before he succumbed. Having given in,however, he worked like a Trojan, and would certainly have advancedhimself in life if his employer had not failed and left him, minus aportion of his salary, to "try again."

  Next, he became an engineer on board one of the Missouri steamers, inwhich capacity he burst his boiler, and threw himself and the passengersinto the river--the captain having adopted the truly Yankee expedient ofsitting down on the safety-valve while racing with another boat!

  Afterwards, Jack Robinson became clerk in one of the Ontariosteam-boats, but, growing tired of this life, he went up the Ottawa, andbecame overseer of a sawmill. Here, being on the frontier ofcivilisation, he saw the roughest of Canadian life. The lumbermen ofthat district are a mixed race--French-Canadians, Irishmen, Indians,half-castes, etcetera,--and whatever good qualities these men mightpossess in the way of hewing timber and bush-life, they were sadlydeficient in the matters of morality and temperance. But Jack was a manof tact and good temper, and played his cards well. He jested with thejocular, sympathised with the homesick, doctored the ailing in a roughand ready fashion peculiarly his own, and avoided the quarrelsome. Thushe became a general favourite.

  Of course it was not to be expected that he could escape an occasionalbroil, and it was herein that his early education did him good service.He had been trained in an English school where he became one of the bestboxers. The lumberers on the Ottawa were not practised in this science;they indulged in that kicking, tearing, pommelling sort of mode which isso repugnant to the feelings of an Englishman. The consequence was thatJack had few fights, but these were invariably with the largest bulliesof the district; and he, in each case, inflicted such tremendous facialpunishment on his opponent that he became a noted man, against whom fewcared to pit themselves.

  There are none so likely to enjoy peace as those who are prepared forwar. Jack used sometimes to say, with a smile, that his few battleswere the price he had to pay for peace.

  Our hero was unlucky. The saw-mill failed--its master being a drunkard.When that went down he entered the lumber trade, where he made theacquaintance of a young Scotchman, of congenial mind and temperament,who suggested the setting up of a store in a promising locality andproposed entering into partnership. "Murray and Robinson" was forthwithpainted by the latter,

who was a bit of an artist

, over the door of asmall log-house, and the store soon became well known and muchfrequented by the sparse population as well as by those engaged in thetimber trade.

  But "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." Theremust have been a screw loose somewhere, for bad debts accumulated andlosses were incurred which finally brought the firm to the ground, andleft its dissevered partners to begin the world over again!

  After this poor Jack Robinson fell into low spirits for a time, but hesoon recovered, and bought a small piece of land at a nominal price in aregion so wild that he had to cut his own road to it, fell the treeswith his own hand, and, in short, reclaim it from the wilderness on themargin of which it lay. This was hard work, but Jack liked hard work,and whatever work he undertook he always did it well. Strange that sucha man could not get on! yet so it was, that, in a couple of years, hefound himself little better off than he had been when he entered on hisnew property. The region, too, was not a tempting one. No adventurousspirits had located themselves beside him, and only a few had comewithin several miles of his habitation.

  This did not suit our hero's sociable temperament, and he began todespond very much. Still his sanguine spirit led him to persevere, andthere is no saying how long he might have continued to spend his daysand his energies in felling trees and sowing among the stumps and hopingfor better days, had not his views been changed and his thoughts turnedinto another channel by a letter.