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On Canada's Frontier Part 12

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[Ill.u.s.tration: "THEY GAINED ERECTNESS BY SLOW JOLTS"]

"Ye would not think it," said Dunn, "but some of them men has been bank clerks, and there's doctors and teachers among 'em--everything, in fact, except preachers. I never knew a preacher to get into a railroad gang.

The men are always changing--coming and going. We don't have to advertise for new hands. The woods is full of men out of a job, and out of everything--pockets, elbows, and all. They drift in like peddlers on a pay-day. They come here with no more clothing than will wad a gun. The most of them will get nothing after two months' work. You see, they're mortgaged with their fares against them (thirty to forty dollars for them which the railroad brings from the East), and then they have their meals to pay for, at five dollars a week while they're here, and on top of that is all the clothing and shoes and blankets and tobacco, and everything they need--all charged agin them. It's just as well for them, for the most of them are too rich if they're a dollar ahead.

There's few of them can stand the luxury of thirty dollars. When they get a stake of them dimensions, the most of them will stay no longer after pay-day than John Brown stayed in heaven. The most of them bang it all away for drink, and they are sure to come back again, but the 'prospectors' and chronic tramps only work to get clothes and a flirting acquaintance with food, as well as money enough to make an affidavit to, and they never come back again at all. Out of 8500 men we had in one big work in Canada, 1500 to 2000 knocked off every month. Ninety per cent.

came back. They had just been away for an old-fas.h.i.+oned drunk."

It would be difficult to draw a parallel between these laborers and any cla.s.s or condition of men in the East. They were of every nationality where news of gold-mines, of free settlers' sections, or of quick fortunes in the New World had penetrated. I recognized Greeks, Finns, Hungarians, Danes, Scotch, English, Irish, and Italians among them. Not a man exhibited a coat, and all were tanned brown, and were as spare and slender as excessively hard work can make a man. There was not a superfluity or an ornament in sight as they walked past me; not a necktie, a finger-ring, nor a watch-chain. There were some very intelligent faces and one or two fine ones in the band. Two typical old-fas.h.i.+oned prospectors especially attracted me. They were evidently of gentle birth, but time and exposure had bent them, and silvered their long, unkempt locks. Worse than all, it had planted in their faces a blended expression of sadness and hope fatigued that was painful to see.

It is the brand that is on every old prospector's face. A very few of the men were young fellows of thirty, or even within the twenties. Their youth impelled them to break away from the table earlier than the others, and, seizing their rods, to start off for the fis.h.i.+ng in the river.

But those who thought of active pleasure were few indeed. Theirs was killing work, the most severe kind, and performed under the broiling sun, that at high mountain alt.i.tudes sends the mercury above 100 on every summer's day, and makes itself felt as if the rarefied atmosphere was no atmosphere at all. After a long day at the drill or the pick or shovel in such a climate, it was only natural that the men should, with a common impulse, seek first the solace of their pipes, and then of the shake-downs in their tents. I did not know until the next morning how severely their systems were strained; but it happened at sunrise on that day that I was at my ablutions on the edge of the river when Dan Dunn's gong turned the silent forest into a bedlam. It was called the seven-o'clock alarum, and was rung two hours earlier than that hour, so that the men might take two hours after dinner out of the heat of the day, "else the sun would kill them," Dunn said. This was apparently his device, and he kept up the transparent deception by having every clock and watch in the camp set two hours out of time.

With the sounding of the gong the men began to appear outside the little tents in which they slept in couples. They came stumbling down the bluff to wash in the river, and of all the pitiful sights I ever saw, they presented one of the worst; of all the straining and racking and exhaustion that ever hard labor gave to men, they exhibited the utmost.

They were but half awakened, and they moved so painfully and stiffly that I imagined I could hear their bones creak. I have seen spavined work-horses turned out to die that moved precisely as these men did. It was shocking to see them hobble over the rough ground; it was pitiful to watch them as they attempted to straighten their stiffened bodies after they had been bent double over the water. They gained erectness by slow jolts, as if their joints were of iron that had rusted. Of course they soon regained whatever elasticity nature had left them, and were themselves for the day--an active, muscular force of men. But that early morning sight of them was not such a spectacle as a right-minded man enjoys seeing his fellows take part in.

THE END

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