A Southern Tale by Edd B. Jennings
When had it happened for him? When had he turned over, gone down deeper? As a child, a war raged in Archibald’s heart. He didn’t remember the time before he had known it. Perhaps the time and the place of his birth predestined this war, this battle of the light against the dark. The teachings of the light, the teachings of man and community, and of church and Christ warred against an older self, the self of a pagan darkness.
He remembered the moment of the irrevocable choosing. Some months out of Fort Smith, he drifted down the Slave River, paddled across the muddy southwestern corner of Great Slave Lake into the Mackenzie River, and up the Gravel River. The necessity to go that deep did not exist. None of this country had been trapped but lightly. The country was wild, but he wanted beyond wild. He left the Gravel River to go up the Caribou Cry River under the Ten Stone Range. If a white man had penetrated this country before him, he found no evidence. The Mountain Dene, even these last remnants of the Stone Age, hadn’t used this country perhaps in generations.
Maybe an incident in Fort Smith pushed him. Just as he came out of the Hudson Bay Company Store with supplies, he saw two older trappers fingering the gear in his canoe. One a Frenchman, the other a Breed, they had seen many more winters in the North than he, and they bore the marks of the country. The Frenchman made a sound someone close by could call a laugh, had they chosen, but Archibald understood that this high screeching noise from the throat was not a thing of humor, but a portent.
“Pretty things, you have many pretty things. One day we shall meet out there and these pretty things will be ours.”
The Breed’s guttural laugh boomed out of proportion to the humor of the joke. This Frenchman had a squat, powerful build, and a scar running down the right side of his face. The Breed was well over six feet tall of a wide build, and luxuriant black hair fell to his shoulders.
Archibald felt something about this exchange, some prescience, as if it held some meaning beyond the normal rough humor of the trading posts. The country beyond Fort Smith was vast. No man had seen it all. The chances of meeting these two again were remote. They couldn’t track him. After Fort Smith he traveled hundreds of miles by water, and he took care to leave little sign where he camped.
He had done well with his beaver sets along the Caribou Cry River. To learn the beaver and its habits required a lifetime, but these beaver had not known the steel trap, and despite his inexperience, he had moderate success. He had not looked to the beaver for wealth. He wanted the life and not the riches.
One morning just after dawn, months after he left Fort Smith, as he checked his sets, he saw these same two trappers, the Frenchman and the Breed. He watched them for some minutes with his field glasses to make certain he neither mistook what he saw, who they were, or what they were doing. The Breed stood in the water in a pool created by a beaver dam and held a trap with a drowned beaver from the set Archibald had placed the evening before. The Frenchman stood up on the bank talking and laughing, but too far away for Archibald to make out the words. The distance was good, perhaps a hundred and fifty yards, and the Frenchman squarely faced him, but had not picked him out from his position inside the thin screen of low shoreline willows that shielded his outline.
Already in a sitting position to steady his field glasses, he lowered them and raised his rifle to bring the gold bead of his Pope Island front sight to the brown of the Frenchman’s coat. He pressed the trigger. Levering a fresh cartridge in the chamber, he swung the heavy octagonal barrel toward the Breed as the man rushed toward the rocky shore. Water splashed as high as his head, as the thigh deep water slowed him. Archibald put the gold bead on the forward edge of the moving figure and pressed the trigger. At the flat report of the rifle, the Breed slumped in the water and floated face down without a splash or a struggle. He levered another cartridge into the chamber, as he shifted the muzzle back to the Frenchman.
The Frenchman lay on his face, unmoving. As Archibald watched for sign of life, with the 40-82 at full cock and at his shoulder, he pushed two fresh cartridges past the spring cover into the rifle’s magazine. The Breed floated face down in the cold water and drifted downstream in the slight current until the set of rocks tipping the surface at the bottom of the pool caught his body. He watched for a long time to make certain they weren’t stunned or faking, and to see if there might be other unseen members of their party who would come to the shots. He waited long enough for the Breed to die from lack of air and cold from lying face down in the icy water. Archibald’s own breath misted in the cold air, but no mist clung in the air above the Frenchman’s hair in the still dawn.
Before he checked the bodies, Archibald worked his way downstream, possibly for a half mile on the rocky shallow little Caribou Cry River until he found their canoe. The sixteen-foot canoe and the number of packs suggested two men only. He pulled their outfit far enough away from the shore to conceal them before he went back to the bodies, an unnecessary precaution. No one else would come up into this country this late in the season, and no one had seen this country in years.
In the next few days, he took his time going through their gear to pick out things he might add to his own kit. He didn’t want anything of a distinctive nature a person who knew these two might identify. He dragged the bodies back up on a rocky hillside out of sight of the river and left them for the wolf. Burial in this rocky soil required significant effort, and he didn’t owe it to them. In the spring, when they returned, the gulls would finish the thawing parts the wolf left. For the winter, he greased their rifles and knives in tallow, and wrapped them along with their ammunition in a caribou hide. He weighted the outfit with rocks to protect it from the wind and the snow. The cached rifles and knives might be usable for years, if he ever came back to the Caribou Cry River, but he never did.
Edd B. Jennings is a writer, farmer and wilderness traveller from the mountains of western Virginia. A frontiersman with a taste for Arctic adventure, he’s made several ill-equipped solo canoe trips to the Arctic Circle he should not have survived, which he documented in notebooks that have nearly ended up at the bottom of the rivers that should have killed him. Jennings holds an advanced degree in literature he claims is as stale as old bread.