When the boys come out from Lac Labiche in the lure of the early Spring,
To take the pay of the "Hudson's Bay", as their fathers did before,
They are all a-glee for the jamboree, and they make the Landing ring
With a whoop and a whirl, and a "Grab your girl", and a rip and a skip and a roar.
For the spree of Spring is a sacred thing, and the boys must have their fun;
Packer and tracker and half-breed Cree, from the boat to the bar they leap;
And then when the long flotilla goes, and the last of their pay is done,
The boys from the banks of Lac Labiche swing to the heavy sweep.
And oh, how they sigh! and their throats are dry, and sorry are they and sick:
Yet there's none so cursed with a lime-kiln thirst as that Athabaska Dick.
He was long and slim and lean of limb, but strong as a stripling bear;
And by the right of his skill and might he guided the Long Brigade.
All water-wise were his laughing eyes, and he steered with a careless care,
And he shunned the shock of foam and rock, till they came to the Big Cascade.
And here they must make the long portage, and the boys sweat in the sun;
And they heft and pack, and they haul and track, and each must do his trick;
But their thoughts are far in the Landing bar, where the founts of nectar run:
And no man thinks of such gorgeous drinks as that Athabaska Dick.
'Twas the close of day and his long boat lay just over the Big Cascade,
When there came to him one Jack-pot Jim, with a wild light in his eye;
And he softly laughed, and he led Dick aft, all eager, yet half afraid,
And snugly stowed in his coat he showed a pilfered flask of "rye".
And in haste he slipped, or in fear he tripped, but -- Dick in warning roared --
And there rang a yell, and it befell that Jim was overboard.
Oh, I heard a splash, and quick as a flash I knew he could not swim.
I saw him whirl in the river swirl, and thresh his arms about.
In a queer, strained way I heard Dick say: "I'm going after him,"
Throw off his coat, leap down the boat -- and then I gave a shout:
"Boys, grab him, quick! You're crazy, Dick! Far better one than two!
Hell, man! You know you've got no show! It's sure and certain death. . . ."
And there we hung, and there we clung, with beef and brawn and thew,
And sinews cracked and joints were racked, and panting came our breath;
And there we swayed and there we prayed, till strength and hope were spent --
Then Dick, he threw us off like rats, and after Jim he went.
With mighty urge amid the surge of river-rage he leapt,
And gripped his mate and desperate he fought to gain the shore;
With teeth a-gleam he bucked the stream, yet swift and sure he swept
To meet the mighty cataract that waited all a-roar.
And there we stood like carven wood, our faces sickly white,
And watched him as he beat the foam, and inch by inch he lost;
And nearer, nearer drew the fall, and fiercer grew the fight,
Till on the very cascade crest a last farewell he tossed.
Then down and down and down they plunged into that pit of dread;
And mad we tore along the shore to claim our bitter dead.
And from that hell of frenzied foam, that crashed and fumed and boiled,
Two little bodies bubbled up, and they were heedless then;
And oh, they lay like senseless clay! and bitter hard we toiled,
Yet never, never gleam of hope, and we were weary men.
And moments mounted into hours, and black was our despair;
And faint were we, and we were fain to give them up as dead,
When suddenly I thrilled with hope: "Back, boys! and give him air;
I feel the flutter of his heart. . . ." And, as the word I said,
Dick gave a sigh, and gazed around, and saw our breathless band;
And saw the sky's blue floor above, all strewn with golden fleece;
And saw his comrade Jack-pot Jim, and touched him with his hand:
And then there came into his eyes a look of perfect peace.
And as there, at his very feet, the thwarted river raved,
I heard him murmur low and deep:
"Thank God! the whiskey's saved."
Robert William Service