When Smith is safe on the other shore we drive the horses into the stream. They shudder and shrink from the ice-cold water, but Jaquis and I urge them, and in they plunge. My, what a struggle! Their wet feet on the slippery boulders in the bottom of the stream, the swift current constantly tripping them—it was thrilling to see and must have been agony for the animals.
Midway, where the current was strongest, a mouse-colored cayuse carrying a tent lost his feet. The turbulent tide slammed him up on top of a great rock, barely hidden beneath the water, and he got to his feet like a cat that has fallen upon the edge of an eave-trough. Trembling, the cayuse called to Smith, and Smith, running downstream, called back, urging the animal to leave the refuge and swim for it. The pack-horse perched on the rock gazes wistfully at the shore. The waters, breaking against his resting-place, wash up to his trembling knees. About him the wild river roars, and just below leaps over a ten-foot fall into the Athabasca.
All the other horses, having crossed safely, shake the water from their dripping sides and begin cropping the tender grass. We could have heard that horse’s heart beat if we could have hushed the river’s roar.
Smith called again, the cayuse turned slightly, and whether he leaped deliberately or his feet slipped on the slippery stones, forcing him to leap, we could not say, but he plunged suddenly into the stream, uttering a cry that echoed up the canon and over the river like the cry of a lost soul.
The cruel current caught him, lifted him, and plunged him over the drop, and he was lost instantly in the froth and foam of the falls.
Far down, at a bend of the Athabasca, something white could be seen drifting towards the shore. That night Smith the Silent made an entry in his little red book marked “Grand Trunk Pacific,” and tented under the stars.
“A country that is bad or good,
Precisely as your claim pans out;
A land that’s much misunderstood,
Misjudged, maligned and lied about.”
When the pathfinders for the New National Highway pushed open the side door and peeped through to the Pacific they not only discovered a short cut to Yokohama, but opened to the world a new country, revealing the last remnant of the Last West.
Edmonton is the outfiling point, of course, but Little Slave Lake is the real gateway to the wilderness. Here we were to make our first stop (we were merely exploring), and from this point our first portage was to the Peace River, at Chinook, where we would get into touch once more with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Jim Cromwell, the free trader who was in command of Little Slave, made us welcome, introducing us ensemble to his friend, a former H.B. factor, to the Yankee who was looking for a timber limit, to the “Literary Cuss,” as he called the young man in corduroys and a wide white hat, who was endeavoring to get past “tradition,” that has damned this Dominion both in fiction and in fact for two hundred years, and do something that had in it the real color of the country.