The doomed crew drifted down Slave River in their rotten York boat. They had given up on paddling. Fatigue, strain, and hunger had ripped all layers of thought so that only the roaring of the river and the cries of the pelicans filled their heads. Most of the original crew, the rejects of the Hudson Bay Company, had died from sickness or attacks. Four of them remained, including the Husky, who was covered in dirt and had patches of hair missing, exposing the pink, damaged skin. Halfy—a nickname he hated—stood at the front of the boat, the pointed bow going up to his chest. He stared down the river, but was somewhere else in his head. On the dock, months ago, when he would have turned around if he’d had something worth turning around for. A Dene arrow jutted from his thigh. He dreaded to pull it out. The burning sensation in his flesh, getting redder and redder, along with the ruthless wind and icy water drops served as anchors to reality, as confirmation he was still alive. Frederick, a one-legged man with a two-inch-wide hatchet wound under his right shoulder, let himself lean out of the boat and sank in the turbulent current. A big, sloppy splash, and nobody bothered to look. Only three remaining now. The other one was René, a French Canadian who had beaten a prostitute to death and now felt safer away from civilization. He used to look at Halfy with a smirk, now with scorn. He sucked on his empty whiskey bottle, hoping for one last drop that never came.
In the middle of the boat, the spot for the pelts was empty. Not one beaver. Not even a deer or a rabbit. Nobody wanted to come back empty-handed, which was pathetic even for the doomed crew who would be lucky to return at all. It was about pride, but especially about money.
The raging rumble of the rapids came to them. No one moved until Halfy grabbed the front oar and stabbed the water with it, stirring the boat to the right, barely. The dog huffed at him.
“What you doing?” René mumbled.
Halfy heard nothing. René repeated loud enough to beat the water.
“Doing the right thing,” Halfy said. “If you wanna make yourself useful, now would be the time.”
René threw his bottle overboard.
“Let’s just chance this one,” he said.
Halfy grunted as he swirled the oar more than twice his size, the pain in his thigh reviving every time he forced. Waves and current counteracted every inch of rightward progress.
“That boat barely stands rain,” he said. “We’ll never get past those rapids.”
“Especially not with you stirring,” the dog said.
Halfy ignored it, but turned to kick a boot at René.
“C’est bon, c’est bon,” René said, straightening up. “Calm down, little man.”
With much struggle and strain, he helped stir the boat to the shore. They rested against the wooden sides, panting, looking toward the rapids they nearly got sucked in.
“What d’we got left?” asked René.
Halfy looked around the boat. They had no guns, and the remaining gunpowder was wet and useless. No tools except for a rope, the knife René had strapped to his waist, and a little hatchet lying on the bottom of the boat. Halfy picked it up, wrapped his hand around the arrow in his thigh, and broke off the protruding part with a groan. The only food they had left was a chunk of pork fat along with a handful of corn mush, which they shared, chewing slowly, dreading to swallow, for it meant the food would be gone.
“So I reckon we ain’t got enough to get to Fort Smith?” René said.
“Unless Fort Smith’s right behind that hill, no,” Halfy said.
He extended his hand with the last bit of fat and the dog licked it off.
“The things I’d do for a piece of bison,” René said.
Halfy said nothing. He rubbed the calluses on his hands. He didn’t need bison. Didn’t need a thing. He had learned to do with what he had, which wasn’t much, and to not hope for more. Seen as a lost cause, no one had ever bothered to help him. It suited him. He needed no one. From his family to his crew, everyone treated him like an expandable burden, a bad joke, a liability. He had long ago accepted that his life would be a lonely, unpleasant one. Started to observe it with an almost scientific detachment; he became the subject of his own experiments. How long could he last? How far could he push himself? That was what made him step off the dock and on the boat. That guided every decision he made. He noted something about the number two. A mathematical constant in his life. Had to work twice as hard to prove himself or be taken seriously. Had to make twice the effort, got half the recognition. Was given half the food ration because people assumed he needed less. But as resigned as he had become, there was still the sting of hope deep inside him. He wouldn’t go away. It taunted him, poked at his brain. It burned. Came to him as a what if, a more digestible form. What if he made enough money to be comfortable, to never go hungry again, to get his own place? What if people finally saw him as a capable man? What if, one day, he had a better life?
“Can’t you call out for the beavers to come here?” René said. “That way we’d have food and pelts.”
“And how would that work?” Halfy said, gritting his teeth.
“Thought you dwarves could talk to beavers. And smell truffles.”
“What are you good for then?”
They were too exposed on the bank. Halfy filled his two canteens and off they went. René at the front, Halfy at the rear, resting the stern on his shoulders with the weight of the tilting boat on his neck. Every step with his wounded leg made him flinch. The Husky followed, sniffed his heels. The dense forest forced them to wander deeper into the woods, away from the river.
“Why’s it gotta be uphill all the time?” René said.
“Arguing with the terrain won’t accomplish much.”
“How long ‘till we get around those rapids?”
“At that pace… about five years.”
They went on in silence. Only grunts or spit came out of their mouths. Grey clouds covered the sky. A feeble light sneaked through the leaves.
Halfy’s foot stumbled against a root and he met the ground. The rear of the boat fell on the back of his head.
“Pathetic,” the dog said.
Halfy felt his forehead. Blood stained his hands.
“I’ll take a piss while you learn how to walk,” René said, stepping between two Jack Pines.
Halfy pushed himself back up. The scenery spun around him.
“Sure we ain’t got any food left?” René said. “You ain’t hiding some from me, you sneaky bastard?”
“Shut up,” whispered Halfy.
René saw on Halfy’s face that something was wrong. Distant steps and sounds of cracking branches came to their ears. Indistinct shapes alarmed their eyes. The Husky barked, tail straight up. René ran.
“Hey!” Halfy said in a stifled, panicked shout as he limped behind.
The dog disappeared too.
Halfy crouched behind the boat. A dozen Chipewyan Indians were approaching. They wore long coats with floral patterns. Their moccasins clacked on rocks and branches. They held bows, spears, hatchets.
Halfy rolled away from the boat, crawled in the foliage. When he estimated himself far enough, he got on his knees and leaned behind a tree to peak at the boat he had abandoned. They needed to get back on the river. They would never make the whole trip on foot.
A first Chipewyan got to the craft and looked around, then on the ground, where he spotted footsteps or crushed plants. Maybe Halfy wasn’t as far as he should have been.
He stumbled through bushes, tripped, walked on hands and knees as the natives searched behind him. He spotted a hole, crawled in.
Something came at him. Maybe a badger or another furry beast. It clawed his face, screeched with anger and territorial instincts. Halfy saw only darkness. He reached forward with his hands, found claws, fangs, a neck. He choked the animal into silence, struggled, failed to hold his breath as voices echoed outside the hole. Warm blood trickled down his face like a river system. Panting, he shoved his mouth in the dirt to suppress all sound.
He spent the night in the den with the smell of the dead animal in front of him. Soon after dark, rain poured down, and filled the hole with mud. Halfy drank as much as he could and turned face up, hoping the water wouldn’t rise enough to drown him. Were there still voices outside, or was it in his head? Didn’t want to go find out.
His mind drifted. Switched from hope to fear. Images of a juicy steak changed to creatures crawling in the surrounding dark. Him back on the dock with arms full of pelts. Him scalped or flayed, hanging by his feet. Opening his own blacksmith shop, maybe in front of his parents’ shop just to rub it in their faces. Failing, coming back empty-handed, defeated, only to be drowned in his family’s laughter. He’d die before he let that happen.
He woke up shivering and wet. The rain had stopped. He pushed himself out with his elbows.
They hadn’t touched the boat. What was there to take? The dog sat next to it, licking its paws. Halfy tied the rope around his waist and on the front of the boat.
“Why don’t you tie it around your neck?” the dog said.
Halfy started uphill, pushed his feet into the ground, dragged a mountain behind him. When he could, he would grab a branch and pull himself. The boat moved. Nothing else mattered. When it got stuck against something, he’d go back to kick some rocks out of the way or cut branches with the hatchet. After a while, he felt a burn around his waist. Pictured himself cut in half, now a quarter of a man. He swiped that thought away.
The progress was slow. When his muscles failed, he stopped against his will to recuperate, dreading being unable to get the momentum going again. Sometimes he pulled, sometimes he went to the back of the boat and pushed. Cracking sounds let him know the bottom of the boat was taking damage from the dragging. Hours turned into days. He looked for food, dug for bugs or water, sent a centipede down his throat when he got the chance. He had emptied his two canteens long ago.
“What are you trying to prove?” the Husky said. “Hauling that empty boat won’t make a man out of you. You could get to Fort Smith with a million pelts, you’ll still be a half-man in their eyes.”
“Keep doing the right thing,” Halfy said, “and good things may start paying attention to you.”
When he could no longer go on, he stopped for the night. He slept in the boat, held his hatchet against his chest. He chewed on a branch to stimulate saliva, hoping to trick his brain into thinking he was eating so his stomach would stop roaring.
After waking up, he hit the road. Couldn’t hear the river anymore, didn’t know how far from it he had wandered. Fatigue and weakness grew stronger. Lightheadedness took hold. He didn’t bother to look around for threats.
As he walked up a hill, his legs gave in. The boat slid down the slope and dragged him along until it hit a tree. Lying on his back. The trees so tall. The boat so heavy. The distances so long. Maybe he should stop trying. Maybe he should stay there and wait to die.
“Picture this,” the dog said. “You could be back home working as a blacksmith with your family if they weren’t so ashamed of you. You could be inside with a warm meal and a bed and—”
Halfy kicked the Husky on the nose. The dog jumped back with a high-pitched bark.
“Savage beast,” the dog said. “I give up on you.”
The Husky ran away.
Halfy untied the rope. He still felt a ghostly grip around his waist. After an internal debate, he left the boat behind, and concealed it with foliage. He carried on on his own, weightless. He’d come back for the boat when he had energy to spare, after he’d found food and water.
His mouth was dry. His stomach hurt. So did his leg, now with gangrene around the wound. If the maggots showed up at least he’d have some proteins.
Water running. He doubted his ears.
He came upon a stream and fought the impulse to run to it. Knees in the gravel, he drank. The coolness brought him a relief that was only broken by a sound nearby. He raised his head. A beaver stared at him from fifteen feet away. It stayed there, unusually close, taunting or testing him. Juicy meat wrapped in valuable fur. Halfy held the handle of his hatchet until it hurt. He let go.
“It’s alright little thing,” he said. “You go on with your life.”
He drank some more, making sure of hydrating every cell in his body while he had the chance, until he felt something under his hand. A shine tickled his eye under the clear water. He grabbed a handful of dirt, wiped the mud off the gold. Two little nuggets. Finally, good things were paying attention.
After having filled his two canteens, he walked along the watercourse, looked for berries, and took in the scenery, for he would return and find every nugget hiding here. That stream surely led to the river. Maybe one more half-day of dragging the boat and he’d be off to Fort Smith. To safety and nutrients. Readying himself for the trip back that would make him rich.
A long, wailing sound, unlike any animal he’d ever heard, snapped him out of his reveries of wealth and comfort. He found René lying against a rock, letting out those high-pitched, delirious complaints, more like a deflating balloon than a call for help. The Husky was there too.
When Halfy stood beside, the French showed no sign of being aware of his presence. His face was pale and thin, covered with dried blood. He reeked of approaching death.
Halfy crouched next to him and held a canteen to his lips. René drank slowly.
“Don’t you have any self-respect?” the dog asked.
“Doing the right thing,” Halfy answered.
“Huh?” René said.
“Got some tobacco left?”
Halfy shook his head.
“Saw some beavers around here,” René said.
“No more beavers,” Halfy said.
After an hour of trying, he caught a fish, using his shirt as a net. They ate it raw.
Darkness settled on them.
“Écoute,” René said. “I didn’t think you’d survive anyway. That’s why I left.”
Halfy said nothing. When he thought the French asleep, he gave in to the temptation and looked at his gold. He carefully placed the nuggets in his palm to make sure that they were there, that they were real.
“What’s that?” René said.
Startled, Halfy dropped one, and after he picked it up he saw in the Frenchman’s face that, through a glimpse, the golden shine of the nugget had entered his eye.
“No more beavers, eh?” René said. “Found yourself something better.”
Halfy struggled to stay awake, but fatigue got the best of him, and he fell into a slumber filled with intrusive, restless dreams.
In the morning, he awoke with an energy that surprised him. René’s boots shuffled in the gravel, and he turned to see him squint in the sun. He threw one of the canteens at him and headed toward the stream to go refill his. He would come back here with supplies and equipment. Make a fortune big enough to buy the Hudson Bay Company and tear it down.
“Let’s go get the boat,” he said.
A sharp, cold sting entered his side. And another one. He fell forward. René rolled him over and searched him until he found the nuggets.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t act like you didn’t see it coming.”
He put the knife back in its strap and walked away.
A wave of warmth swept through Halfy. The sky seemed to get brighter, almost yellow. He felt himself sink into the ground. The dog licked his face.