Before the railroad's thin lines of steel bit their way up through the wilderness, Athabasca Landing was the picturesque threshold over which one must step who would enter into the mystery and adventure of the great white North. It is still Iskwatam—the "door" which opens to the lower reaches of the Athabasca, the Slave, and the Mackenzie. It is somewhat difficult to find on the map, yet it is there, because its history is written in more than a hundred and forty years of romance and tragedy and adventure in the lives of men, and is not easily forgotten. Over the old trail it was about a hundred and fifty miles north of Edmonton. The railroad has brought it nearer to that base of civilization, but beyond it the wilderness still howls as it has howled for a thousand years, and the waters of a continent flow north and into the Arctic Ocean. It is possible that the beautiful dream of the real-estate dealers may come true, for the most avid of all the sportsmen of the earth, the money-hunters, have come up on the bumpy railroad that sometimes lights its sleeping cars with lanterns, and with them have come typewriters, and stenographers, and the art of printing advertisements, and the Golden Rule of those who sell handfuls of earth to hopeful purchasers thousands of miles away—"Do others as they would do you." And with it, too, has come the legitimate business of barter and trade, with eyes on all that treasure of the North which lies between the Grand Rapids of the Athabasca and the edge of the polar sea. But still more beautiful than the dream of fortunes quickly made is the deep-forest superstition that the spirits of the wilderness dead move onward as steam and steel advance, and if this is so, the ghosts of a thousand Pierres and Jacquelines have risen uneasily from their graves at Athabasca Landing, hunting a new quiet farther north.
For it was Pierre and Jacqueline, Henri and Marie, Jacques and his Jeanne, whose brown hands for a hundred and forty years opened and closed this door. And those hands still master a savage world for two thousand miles north of that threshold of Athabasca Landing. South of it a wheezy engine drags up the freight that came not so many months ago by boat.
It is over this threshold that the dark eyes of Pierre and Jacqueline, Henri and Marie, Jacques and his Jeanne, look into the blue and the gray and the sometimes watery ones of a destroying civilization. And there it is that the shriek of a mad locomotive mingles with their age-old river chants; the smut of coal drifts over their forests; the phonograph screeches its reply to le violon; and Pierre and Henri and Jacques no longer find themselves the kings of the earth when they come in from far countries with their precious cargoes of furs. And they no longer swagger and tell loud-voiced adventure, or sing their wild river songs in the same old abandon, for there are streets at Athabasca Landing now, and hotels, and schools, and rules and regulations of a kind new and terrifying to the bold of the old voyageurs.
It seems only yesterday that the railroad was not there, and a great world of wilderness lay between the Landing and the upper rim of civilization. And when word first came that a steam thing was eating its way up foot by foot through forest and swamp and impassable muskeg, that word passed up and down the water-ways for two thousand miles, a colossal joke, a stupendous bit of drollery, the funniest thing that Pierre and Henri and Jacques had heard in all their lives. And when Jacques wanted to impress upon Pierre his utter disbelief of a thing, he would say:
"It will happen, m'sieu, when the steam thing comes to the Landing, when cow-beasts eat with the moose, and when our bread is found for us in yonder swamps!"
And the steam thing came, and cows grazed where moose had fed, and bread WAS gathered close to the edge of the great swamps. Thus did civilization break into Athabasca Landing.
Northward from the Landing, for two thousand miles, reached the domain of the rivermen. And the Landing, with its two hundred and twenty-seven souls before the railroad came, was the wilderness clearing-house which sat at the beginning of things. To it came from the south all the freight which must go into the north; on its flat river front were built the great scows which carried this freight to the end of the earth. It was from the Landing that the greatest of all river brigades set forth upon their long adventures, and it was back to the Landing, perhaps a year or more later, that still smaller scows and huge canoes brought as the price of exchange their cargoes of furs.
Thus for nearly a century and a half the larger craft, with their great sweeps and their wild-throated crews, had gone DOWN the river toward the Arctic Ocean, and the smaller craft, with their still wilder crews, had come UP the river toward civilization. The River, as the Landing speaks of it, is the Athabasca, with its headwaters away off in the British Columbian mountains, where Baptiste and McLeod, explorers of old, gave up their lives to find where the cradle of it lay. And it sweeps past the Landing, a slow and mighty giant, unswervingly on its way to the northern sea. With it the river brigades set forth. For Pierre and Henri and Jacques it is going from one end to the other of the earth. The Athabasca ends and is replaced by the Slave, and the Slave empties into Great Slave Lake, and from the narrow tip of that Lake the Mackenzie carries on for more than a thousand miles to the sea.
In this distance of the long water trail one sees and hears many things. It is life. It is adventure. It is mystery and romance and hazard. Its tales are so many that books could not hold them. In the faces of men and women they are written. They lie buried in graves so old that the forest trees grow over them. Epics of tragedy, of love, of the fight to live! And as one goes farther north, and still farther, just so do the stories of things that have happened change.
For the world is changing, the sun is changing, and the breeds of men are changing. At the Landing in July there are seventeen hours of sunlight; at Fort Chippewyan there are eighteen; at Fort Resolution, Fort Simpson, and Fort Providence there are nineteen; at the Great Bear twenty-one, and at Fort McPherson, close to the polar sea, from twenty-two to twenty-three. And in December there are also these hours of darkness. With light and darkness men change, women change, and life changes. And Pierre and Henri and Jacques meet them all, but always THEY are the same, chanting the old songs, enshrining the old loves, dreaming the same dreams, and worshiping always the same gods. They meet a thousand perils with eyes that glisten with the love of adventure.
The thunder of rapids and the howlings of storm do not frighten them. Death has no fear for them. They grapple with it, wrestle joyously with it, and are glorious when they win. Their blood is red and strong. Their hearts are big. Their souls chant themselves up to the skies. Yet they are simple as children, and when they are afraid, it is of things which children fear. For in those hearts of theirs is superstition—and also, perhaps, royal blood. For princes and the sons of princes and the noblest aristocracy of France were the first of the gentlemen adventurers who came with ruffles on their sleeves and rapiers at their sides to seek furs worth many times their weight in gold two hundred and fifty years ago, and of these ancient forebears Pierre and Henri and Jacques, with their Maries and Jeannes and Jacquelines, are the living voices of today.
And these voices tell many stories. Sometimes they whisper them, as the wind would whisper, for there are stories weird and strange that must be spoken softly. They darken no printed pages. The trees listen to them beside red camp-fires at night. Lovers tell them in the glad sunshine of day. Some of them are chanted in song. Some of them come down through the generations, epics of the wilderness, remembered from father to son. And each year there are the new things to pass from mouth to mouth, from cabin to cabin, from the lower reaches of the Mackenzie to the far end of the world at Athabasca Landing. For the three rivers are always makers of romance, of tragedy, of adventure. The story will never be forgotten of how Follette and Ladouceur swam their mad race through the Death Chute for love of the girl who waited at the other end, or of how Campbell O'Doone, the red-headed giant at Fort Resolution, fought the whole of a great brigade in his effort to run away with a scow captain's daughter.
And the brigade loved O'Doone, though it beat him, for these men of the strong north love courage and daring. The epic of the lost scow—how there were men who saw it disappear from under their very eyes, floating upward and afterward riding swiftly away in the skies—is told and retold by strong-faced men, deep in whose eyes are the smoldering flames of an undying superstition, and these same men thrill as they tell over again the strange and unbelievable story of Hartshope, the aristocratic Englishman who set off into the North in all the glory of monocle and unprecedented luggage, and how he joined in a tribal war, became a chief of the Dog Ribs, and married a dark-eyed, sleek-haired, little Indian beauty, who is now the mother of his children.
But deepest and most thrilling of all the stories they tell are the stories of the long arm of the Law—that arm which reaches for two thousand miles from Athabasca Landing to the polar sea, the arm Of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police.
And of these it is the story of Jim Kent we are going to tell, of Jim Kent and of Marette, that wonderful little goddess of the Valley of Silent Men, in whose veins there must have run the blood of fighting men—and of ancient queens. A story of the days before the railroad came.