A MATING IN THE WILDS
BORZOI WESTERN STORIES
THE CROSS PULL By Hal G. Evarts
THE LONG DIM TRAIL By Forrestine Hooker
A MATING IN THE WILDS By Ottwell Binns
A MATING IN THE WILDS
NEW YORK ALFRED A. KNOPF 1920
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
I THE MAN FROM THE RIVER, 7
II AN ATTACK AT MIDNIGHT, 18
III A LOST GIRL, 31
IV A PIECE OF WRECKAGE, 43
V A BRAVE RESCUE, 56
VI A MYSTERIOUS SHOT, 68
VII STRANDED, 80
VIII A MEETING IN THE FOREST, 95
IX UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE, 105
X A CANOE COMES AND GOES, 118
XI A FOREST FIRE, 132
XII THE RAFT, 146
XIII A LODGE IN THE WILDERNESS, 158
XIV MYSTERIOUS VISITORS, 172
XV A FACE AT THE TENT-DOOR, 185
XVI AN ARROW OUT OF THE NIGHT, 199
XVII THE ATTACK, 212
XVIII A DEAD GIRL, 225
XIX A HOT TRAIL, 238
XX A PRISONER, 251
XXI CHIGMOK'S STORY, 264
XXII AINLEY'S STORY, 278
XXIII A SURPRISE FOR AINLEY, 292
XXIV THE TRAIL TO PARADISE, 305
THE MAN FROM THE RIVER
The man in the canoe was lean and hardy, and wielded the paddle against the slow-moving current of the wide river with a dexterity that proclaimed long practice. His bronzed face was that of a quite young man, but his brown hair was interspersed with grey; and his blue eyes had a gravity incompatible with youth, as if already he had experience of the seriousness of life, and had eaten of its bitter fruits. He was in a gala dress of tanned deerskin, fringed and worked by native hands, the which had quite probably cost him more than the most elegant suit by a Bond Street tailor, and the effect was as picturesque as the heart of a young male could desire. To be in keeping with such gay attire he should have worn a smiling face, and sung some joyous chanson of the old voyageurs, but he neither sang nor smiled; paddling steadily on towards his destination.
This was a northern post of the Hudson Bay Company, built in the form of a hollow square with a wide frontage open to the river. The trading store, the warehouse, and the factor's residence with its trim garden, occupied the other three sides of the square, and along the river front was a small floating wharf. A tall flag-pole rose above the buildings, and the flag itself fluttered gaily in the summer breeze, taking the eye at once with its brave colouring.
The young man in the canoe noticed it whilst he was half a mile away, and for a moment, ceasing his paddling, he looked at it doubtfully, his brow puckering over his grave eyes. The canoe began to drift backward in the current, but he made no effort to check it, instead, he sat there staring at the distant flag, with a musing look upon his face, as if he were debating some question with himself. At last he spoke aloud, after the habit of men who dwell much alone.
"The steamer can't have come yet. It probably means nothing except that the factor is expecting its arrival. Anyway I must have the grub, and I can get away in the morning."
He dipped his paddle again. The canoe ceased to drift and began to forge ahead towards the post. Before he drew level with it, he started to steer across the current, but instead of making for the wharf, beached his canoe on the rather marshy bank to the north of the buildings; then having lifted it out of the water, he stood to his full height and stretched himself, for he had been travelling in the canoe eleven days and was conscious of body stiffness owing to the cramped position he had so long maintained.
Standing on the bank he surveyed the river carefully. Except for a drifting log there was nothing moving on its wide expanse. He listened intently. The soft wind was blowing down river, but it did not bring with it the throb of a steamer's screw which he half expected to hear. He nodded to himself.
Then he became aware of sounds for which he had not listened—the voices of men somewhere in the post's enclosure, and, nearer at hand, that of some one singing in some soft Indian dialect. He turned swiftly, and coming along a half-defined path between the willows, caught sight of the singer—a native girl of amazing beauty.
She wore a tunic of beaded caribou-skin, which fitting closely revealed rather than concealed the lines of her lithe young figure. Her face was light-bronze in colour, every feature clearly cut as a cameo, the forehead smooth and high, the nose delicately aquiline, the lips a perfect cupid's bow, the eyebrows high and arched. The eyes themselves were soft and dark and had the wildness of the wilderness-born, whilst the hair, black and luminous as the raven's wing, crisped in curls instead of hanging in the straight plaits of the ordinary native woman. She moved forward slowly with graceful stride of one whose feet had never known the cramping of civilized foot-gear, tall and straight and as royal-looking as Eve must have been when she left the hand of God.
To the man, as he stood there, she seemed like an incarnate spirit of the wilds, like the soft breath of the Northland spring, like——
Similes failed him of the suddenest, for in that instant the girl grew aware of him and checked her stride and song at the same moment. For a fraction of time they stood there looking at each other, the man of the white dominant race, the girl of a vanishing people, whose origin is shrouded in the grey mists of time. There was wonder on the man's face, for never had he seen such beauty in a native, and on the girl's face there was a startled look such as the forest doe shows when the wind brings the breath of a presence that it does not see. Then the delicate nostrils quivered, the soft dark eyes kindled with sudden flame, and the rich blood surged in the bronze face from chin to brow. Almost unconsciously the man took a step forward. But at that the girl, turning suddenly, fled between the willows like the creature of the wild she was, and the man checked himself and stood watching until she was lost to view.
There was a thoughtful look in his blue eyes which suddenly gave way as he smiled.
"A tinted Venus!" he murmured to himself. "I wonder where she belongs."
Looking round, away across the willows, planted on the meadow above the marshy banks, he caught sight of the tops of a couple of moose-hide tepees, and nodded to himself.
"Come with the family to barter the winter's fur-catch."
For a moment he stood there with his eyes fixed on the skin-tents. There was a reflective look upon his face, and at the end of the moment he made a movement towards the path along which the girl had fled. Then he stopped, laughed harshly at himself, and with the old look back on his face, turned again to his canoe, unloaded it, and began to pitch camp.
At the end of half an hour, having lit a pipe, he strolled towards the trading-post. Entering the Square of the enclosure he looked nonchalantly about him. Two men, half-breeds, were sitting on a roughly-made bench outside the store, smoking and talking. Inside the store a tall Indian was bartering with a white man, whom he easily guessed to be the factor, and as he looked round from the open door of the factor's house, emerged a white woman whom he divined was the factor's wife. She was followed by a rather dapper young man of medium height, and who, most incongruously in that wild Northland, sported a single eyeglass. The man fell into step by the woman's side, and together they began to walk across the Square in the direction of the store.
The man from the river watched them idly, waiting where he was, puffing slowly at his pipe, until they drew almost level with him. Then he stiffened suddenly, and an alert look came in his eyes.
At the same moment the other man, apparently becoming aware of his presence for the first time, stared at him calmly, almost insolently. Then he started. The monocle dropped from his eye, and his face went suddenly white. He half-paused in his stride, then averting his gaze from the other man hurried forward a little. The factor's wife, who had observed the incident, looked at him inquiringly.
"Do you know that man, Mr. Ainley?"
The dapper young man laughed a short, discordant laugh.
"He certainly bears a resemblance to a man whom I knew some years ago."
"He seemed to recognize you, Mr. Ainley. I saw that much in his eyes."
"Then probably he is the man whom I used to know, but I did not expect to meet him up here."
"No?" She waited as if for further information which was not immediately forthcoming, then she continued: "There are many men up here whom one does not expect to meet, men who belong 'to the legion of the lost ones, the cohort of the damned,' who have buried their old selves for ever. I wonder if that man is one of them?"
Gerald Ainley's face had regained its natural colour. Again he laughed as he replied: "If he is the man I knew he is certainly of the lost legion, for he has been in prison."
"In prison?" echoed the woman quickly. "He does not look like a gaol-bird. What was the crime?"
"Forgery! The judge was merciful and gave him three years' penal servitude."
"What is his name?"
"Stane—Hubert Stane!" replied the man shortly. As he spoke he glanced back over his shoulder towards the man whom they were discussing, then hastily averted his eyes.
The man from the river had turned round and was looking at him with concentrated gaze. His face was working as if he had lost control of his facial muscles, and his hands were tightly clenched. It was clear that the meeting with Ainley had been something of a shock to him, and from his attitude it appeared that he resented the other man's aloofness.
"The hound!" he whispered to himself, "the contemptible hound!"
Then as Ainley and the factor's wife disappeared in the store, he laughed harshly and relit his pipe. As he did so, his fingers shook so that the match bobbed against the pipe-bowl, and it was very manifest that he was undergoing a great strain. He stood there staring at the store. Once he began to move towards it irresolutely, then changed his mind and came to a standstill again.
"No!" he whispered below his breath. "I'll wait till the cad comes out—I'll force him to acknowledge me."
But scarcely had he reached the decision, when on the quiet air came the clear notes of a bugle sounding the alert and turning his thoughts in a new direction. The notes came from the river, and were so alien to that northern land that he swung round to discover their origin. At the same moment the two half-breeds leapt from the bench and began to run towards the wharf. John Rodwell, the factor and his wife, emerged from the store and hurried in the same direction, followed by the Indian who had been bartering. Two other men appeared at the warehouse door, and as the strains of the bugle sounded again, also began to run towards the wharf, whilst from the factor's house came a boy and girl, followed by a white woman and a couple of Indian servants, all of whom followed in the wake of the others.
The man in the Square did not move. Having turned towards the river as the bugle-call floated clear and silvery, and being unable to see upstream because of the fort buildings, he remained where he was, keeping one eye on the store. The man who had passed him in the Square had not emerged. Stane stood there for two or three minutes watching first the river and then the door. At the end of that time, with a resolute look on his face, he began to stride towards the store. He was half-way there when the sound of a thin cheer reached him from the wharf. He turned and looked round. His change of position had given him an enlarged view of the river, and distant perhaps a quarter of a mile or so away he saw a brigade of boats. He stood and stared at them wonderingly for a moment, then resumed his way towards the store.
As he entered he looked round, and, standing near the parchment window he caught sight of the man for whom he was looking. Ainley was rather white of face, but his eyeglass was in its place, and outwardly he was collected and cool. Hubert Stane regarded him silently for a moment, then he laughed mirthlessly.
"Well, Ainley," he said abruptly, "this is a strange meeting place."
"Ah!" said the other quickly. "It is you, Stane, after all!"
"Surely you knew that just now?" was the reply in a cutting voice.
"No, you wrong me there! I was not sure. You must remember that I was not expecting to see you up here. You had dropped out, and I had never heard a word of you since—since——"
"Since I went to Dartmoor," Stane laughed again his cold, mirthless laugh. "There is no need to mince matters, Ainley. All the world knows I went there, and you need not go to any trouble to spare my feelings. When a man has been through hell nothing else matters, you know."
Gerald Ainley did not reply. He stood there with an embarrassed look on his face, obviously ill at ease, and the other continued: "You do not seem pleased to see me—an old friend—you cut me just now. Why?"
"Well—er—really, Stane you—you ought to—er—be able to guess!"
"Perhaps I can," answered Stane ruthlessly. "Things are different now. I am a discharged convict, down and out, and old friendship counts for nothing. Is that it?"
"Well," replied Ainley, half-apologetically, "you can scarcely expect that it sould be otherwise. I suppose that, really, that is why you left England. It would have been impossible for you to resume your old life among the men you knew——"
"You are the first of them that I have encountered—with one exception."
"Indeed," asked the other politely, "who was the exception?"
"It was Kingsley. You remember him? He came to see me just before I left Dartmoor. He believed in my innocence, and he wanted me to stay in England and clear my name. He also told me something that set me thinking, and latterly I have been rather wanting to meet you, because there is a question I want answering."
The sound of the bugle playing a gay fanfare broke in on the silence that followed his words, and this was followed by a rather scattered cheer. Ainley started.
"Really, Stane, you must excuse me just now; I must go down to the wharf—it is my duty to do so. At—er—a more fitting opportunity I shall be glad for the sake of old times, to answer any question that you may wish to ask me. But I really must go now. That is one of the governors of the company arriving. He will be expecting to see me!"
He took a step towards the door, but the other blocked the way.
"I'm not going to be fobbed off with a mere excuse, Ainley. I want to talk with you; and if I can't have it now, I must know when I can."
"Where are you staying?" asked the other shakily.
"My camp is just outside the post here."
"Then I will come to you tonight, Stane. I shall be late—midnight as like as not."
"I shall wait for you," answered Stane, and stepped aside.
Ainley made a hurried exit, and the man whom he had left, moving to the door, watched him running towards the wharf, where a large Peterboro' canoe had just swung alongside. There were several others making for the wharf, and as Stane watched, one by one they drew up, and discharged their complement of passengers. From his vantage place on the rising ground the watcher saw a rather short man moving up from the wharf accompanied by the obsequious factor, and behind him two other men and four ladies, with the factor's wife and Gerald Ainley. The sound of feminine laughter drifted up the Square, and as it reached him Stane stepped out from the store and hurried away in the opposite direction.
AN ATTACK AT MIDNIGHT
It was near midnight, but far from dark. In the northern heavens a rosy glow proclaimed the midnight sun. Somewhere in the willows a robin was chirping, and from the wide bosom of the river, like the thin howl of a wolf, came the mocking cry of a loon still pursuing its finny prey. And in his little canvas tent, sitting just inside, so as to catch the smoke of the fire that afforded protection from the mosquitoes, Hubert Stane still watched and waited for the coming of his promised visitor. He was smoking, and from the look upon his face it was clear that he was absorbed in thoughts that were far from pleasant. His pipe went out, and still he sat there, thinking, thinking. Half an hour passed and the robin making the discovery that it was really bed-time, ceased its chirping; the loon no longer mocked the wolf, but still the man sat behind his smoke-smudge, tireless, unsleeping, waiting. Another half-hour crept by with leaden feet, then a new sound broke the stillness of the wild, the tinkling of a piano, sadly out of tune, followed by a chorus of voices lifted up in the homeland song.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot And never brought to min'? Should auld acquaintance be forgot And days o' lang syne?"
As the simple melody progressed, a look of bitterness came on Stane's face, for the song brought to him memories of other times and scenes which he had done his best to forget. He started to his feet and stepping outside the tent began to walk restlessly to and fro. The music ended and he stood still to listen. Now no sound except the ripple of the river broke the quiet, and after a moment he nodded to himself. "Now, he will come."
The thin pungent song of a mosquito impinged upon the stillness, something settled on his neck and there followed a swift sting like the puncture of a hypodermic needle. Instantly he slapped the place with his hand, and retreated behind his smoke-smudge. There he threw himself once more on the pack that served him for seat and waited, as it seemed interminably.
His fire died down, the smoke ceased to hide the view, and through the adjacent willows came the sudden sough of moving air. A robin broke into song, and once more the wail of the loon sounded from the wide river. Away to the north the sky flushed with crimson glory, then the sun shot up red and golden. A new day had broken; and Stane had watched through the brief night of the Northland summer for a man who had not appeared and he was now assured, would not come.
He laughed bitterly, and rising kicked the fire together, threw on fresh fuel, and after one look towards the still sleeping Post, returned to the tent, wrapped himself in a blanket, and shortly after fell asleep.
Three hours later he was awakened by a clatter of voices and the clamour of barking dogs, passing from sleep to full wakeness like a healthy child. Kicking the blanket from him he slipped on his moccasins and stepped outside where the source of the clamour at once manifested itself. A party of Indians had just beached their canoes, and were exchanging greetings with another party, evidently that whose tepees stood on the meadow outside the fort, for among the women he saw the Indian girl who had fled through the willows after encountering him. He watched the scene with indifferent eyes for a moment or two, then securing a canvas bucket went down to the river for water, and made his toilet. That done, he cooked his breakfast, ate it, tided up his camp, and lighting a pipe strolled into the enclosure of the Post. Several Indians were standing outside the store, and inside the factor and his clerk were already busy with others; bartering for the peltries brought from the frozen north to serve the whims of fashion in warmer lands. In the Square itself stood the plump gentleman who had landed the day before, talking to a cringing half-breed, whilst a couple of ladies with him watched the aborigines outside the store with curious eyes. Stane glanced further afield. Two men were busy outside the warehouse, a second half-breed sprawled on the bench by the store, but the man for whom he had waited through the night was not in sight.
With a grimace of disappointment he moved towards the store. As he did so a little burst of mellow laughter sounded, and turning swiftly he saw the man whom he was looking for round the corner of the warehouse accompanied by a girl, who laughed heartily at some remark of her companion. Stane halted in his tracks and looked at the pair who were perhaps a dozen yards or so away. The monocled Ainley could not but be aware of his presence, yet except that he kept his gaze resolutely averted, he gave no sign of being so. But the girl looked at him frankly, and as she did so, Hubert Stane looked back, and caught his breath, as he had reason to.
She was fair as an English rose, moulded in spacious lines like a daughter of the gods, with an aureole of glorious chestnut hair, shot with warm tints of gold and massed in simplicity about a queenly head. Her mouth was full, her chin was softly strong, her neck round and firm as that of a Grecian statue, and her eyes were bluey-grey as the mist of the northern woods. Fair she was, and strong—a true type of those women who, bred by the English meadows, have adventured with their men and made their homes in the waste places of the earth.
Her grey eyes met Stane's quite frankly, without falling, then turned nonchalantly to her companion, and Stane, watching, saw her speak, and as Ainley flashed a swift glance in his direction, and then replied with a shrug of his shoulders, he easily divined that the girl had asked a question about himself. They passed him at half a dozen yards distance, Ainley with his face set like a flint, the girl with a scrutinizing sidelong glance that set the blood rioting in Stane's heart. He stood and watched them until they reached the wharf, saw them step into a canoe, and then, both of them paddling, they thrust out to the broad bosom of the river.
Not till then did he avert his gaze, and turn again to the store. The great man of the company was still talking to the half-breed, and the other half-breed had risen from his seat and was staring into the store. He looked round as Stane approached him.
"By gar," he said enthusiastically, "dat one very fine squaw-girl dere."
Stane looked forward through the open doorway, and standing near the long counter, watching a tall Indian bartering with the factor, saw the beautiful Indian girl from the neighbouring camp. He nodded an affirmative, and seeing an opportunity to obtain information turned and spoke to the man.
"Yes, but that girl there with Mr. Ainley——"
"Oui, m'sieu. But she no squaw-girl. She grand person who make' ze tour with ze governor."
"Oh, the governor makes the tour, does he?"
"Oui, oui! In the old style, with a brigade of boats, and a bugler. A summer trip, vous comprenez—a picnic to all ze posts in ze province. Thus it is to be a great man!"
"And Mr. Ainley, what is he doing at Fort Malsun?"
"Ah, M'sieu Ainley! He also is ze great man. He is to be among the governors—one day. He also visits ze posts, and will no doubt travel with ze governor, whose protege he is."
"Is that so?"
"Dat is so! He is ze favourite, vous comprenez?"
"I did not know it."
"Non? But so it ees! And Louis and me, we go with heem in ze canoe to serve heem. Though by gar, I like to make stop here, an' talk to dat squaw-girl."
Stane made no vocal reply to this. He nodded carelessly and passed into the store. Factor Rodwell looked round as he entered, and surveyed him with a measuring eye, as if taking stock of a new acquaintance, then gave him a curt nod and resumed his barter with the Indian. His assistant being also busy for the moment, Stane turned towards the Indian girl whose liquid eyes were regarding him shyly, and addressed her in her native dialect.
"Little sister, why did you run from me yesterday?"
The girl was covered with confusion at the directness of his question, and to help her over her embarrassment the young man laughed.
"You did not mistake me for Moorseen (the black bear) or the bald-face grizzly, did you?"
At the question the girl laughed shyly, and shook her head without speaking.
"I am but a man, and not the grizzled one. Wherefore should you run from me, little sister?"
"I had never seen such a man before."
The directness of the answer, given in a shy voice, astonished him. It was his turn to be embarrassed and he strove to turn the edge of the compliment.
"Never seen a white man before!" he cried in mock amazement.
"I did not say that I had never seen a white man before. I have seen many. The priest up at Fort of God, the doctor priest at the Last Hope, the factor there, and M'sieu Ainley who came to our camp yesternight. And there is also this fat man they call the governor—a great chief, it is said; though he does not look as such a great one should look. Yes, I have seen many white men, but none like thee before."
Hubert Stane was routed once more by the girl's directness, but strove to recover himself by a return of compliments.
"Well," he laughed, "for that matter there are none so many like thyself in the world. I wonder what thy name is?"
The girl flushed with pleasure at the compliment, and answered his question without reserve.
"I am Miskodeed."
"The Beauty of the Spring! Then thou art well-named, little sister!"
The girl flushed with pleasure. The flame that had leapt in her dark eyes at their first meeting burned once more, and where, but for an interruption, the conversation would have drifted can only be conjectured. But at that precise moment the tall Indian called to her.
The girl moved swiftly to him and with a gesture that was almost royal the Indian pointed to a pile of trade goods heaped upon the long counter. The girl gathered as much as was possible in her arms, and staggered with her load from the store, and as Factor Rodwell nodded to him, Hubert Stane moved up the counter, and began to give his order. The factor wrote it down without comment, glancing at his customer from time to time with shrewd appraising eyes, and when Stane had paid for the goods which were to be ready before noon, he asked a question.
"New to the district, aren't you?"
"I wintered here," replied Stane briefly.
"Then you did no trapping," said the factor with a laugh, "or you'd have brought your pelts in. I guess you must be prospecting?"
"I have done a little," agreed Stane, a touch of reserve in his manner.
"A lonely job!" commented the factor.
"Yes," was Stane's reply, then he nodded and turned towards the door.
The factor watched him go with frowning eyes, then turned to his assistant.
"Not a very sociable sort, hey, Donald?"
The assistant grinned, and shook his head. "Tongue-tied, I guess."
"I wonder where he has his location."
"Somewhere North!" answered Donald. "He came upstream, I saw him."
The factor said no more to him, but passed out of the store towards the warehouse. As he did so he caught sight of Stane standing in the Square watching a canoe far out on the river. The factor's eyes were good and he recognized the occupants of the craft quite easily, and as he saw Stane's interest in them, the frown gathered about his eyes once more, and he muttered to himself:
"I wonder what Mr. Ainley's little game means?"
Then as he was unable to find any answer to his question he turned again to his own affairs.
As for Hubert Stane he stood in the Square for quite a long time watching for the return of the canoe, determined to have speech with Ainley. Then, as it still lingered, he turned and made his way to his own camp.
It was quite late in the afternoon when the opportunity he sought was given to him. Impelled by the merest curiosity he had strolled over to the Indian tepees and had there encountered Miskodeed teaching a puppy-dog tricks. He had stopped to speak to her, and was still engaged in a rather one-sided conversation, when the sound of English voices caused him to turn round.
The governor's party, accompanied by the factor, was moving towards the tepees. His first impulse was to go away, then seeing Ainley among the little knot of people, he decided to remain, and to serve his own end, kept Miskodeed in conversation, as when left to herself she would have fled to the moose-hide tent.
The party drew nearer. Stane was conscious of its attention, and the blood in Miskodeed's face came and went in a manner that was almost painful. Any one looking at them, and noting the apparent absorption of the man and the certain embarrassment of the girl, must have utterly miscomprehended the situation, and that was what happened, for a moment later, the sound of a laughing feminine voice reached him.
"Behold an idyll of the land!"
He looked up with an angry light in his blue eyes. The party was just passing, and nearly every pair of eyes was regarding him curiously. And one pair, the grey eyes of the girl who had been with Ainley, met his in level glance, and in them he saw a flicker of contempt. That glance sent the blood to his face, and increased the anger which had surged within him at the laughing remark he had overheard. Ainley was among these people, and come what might he would have speech with him before them all. He stepped forward determinedly; but Ainley, who had been watching him closely, anticipated his move by falling out of the group.
"Don't be a fool, Stane! You'll do yourself no good by kicking up a dust here. I couldn't come last night, but tonight at the same time I will not fail."
He turned and moved on again before Stane could reply, and as he joined the English girl, the latter inquired in a surprised voice, "You know that gentleman, Mr. Ainley?"
Stane caught the question, but the answer he did not hear, though he could guess its purport and found no pleasure at the thought of what it would be. Consumed with wrath and shame he went his way to his own camp, and seeking relief from intolerable thoughts busied himself with preparations for a start on the morrow, then schooled himself to wait as best he could, through the long hours before Ainley's appointed time.
Again the midnight sun found him sitting behind his smoke-smudge, waiting, listening. All the songs and cries of the wild faded into silence and still Ainley had not come. Then he caught the sound of light feet running, and looking up he saw Miskodeed hurrying towards him between the willows. Wondering what had brought her forth at this hour he started to his feet and in that instant he saw a swift look of apprehension and agony leap to her face.
"Beware, my brother——"
He heard no more. A man rose like a shadow by his side, with lifted hand holding an ax-shaft. Before he could move or cry out the shaft descended on his uncovered head and he dropped like a man suddenly stricken dead. When he came to himself the rosy Northland night had given place to rosier dawn, and he found that he was lying, bound hand and foot, at the bottom of a Peterboro' canoe. There were three Indians in the canoe, one of whom he recognized for Miskodeed's father, and after lying for a few minutes wondering what was the meaning of the situation in which he found himself he addressed himself to the Indian:
"What is the meaning of this?"
The Indian stared at him like a graven image, but vouchsafed no reply. Stane lay there wondering if it had anything to do with Miskodeed, and finally, recalling the girl's dramatic appearance at the very moment when he had been stricken down, decided that it had.
"What are you going to do with me?" he inquired after an interval.
"Nothing," replied the Indian. "At the end of five days thou wilt be set free, and the canoe follows behind."
"It is an order," said the Indian gravely, and beyond that Stane could learn nothing, though he tried repeatedly in the five days that followed.
At the end of the fifth day they pitched camp as usual, at the evening meal, and lay down to sleep, Stane tied hand and foot with buckskin thongs. In the morning, when he awoke, he was alone and his limbs were free. Scarce believing the facts he sat up and looked around him. Unquestionably his captors had gone, taking the Peterboro' with them, but leaving his own canoe hauled up on the bank. Still overcome with astonishment he rose to his feet and inspected the contents of the canoe. All the stores that he had purchased at the Post were there intact, with his rifle, his little tent and camp utensils, so far as he could tell, not a single article was missing. What on earth was the meaning of it all?
As he spoke the name the possibility that his acquaintance with the girl had been misunderstood by her relations shot into his mind. But in that case why had they dealt with him after this fashion? Then again he seemed to hear the Indian speaking. "It is an order!"
As his mind asked the question, he visioned Gerald Ainley, and was suddenly conscious of a great anger. Was it possible that he——? He broke off the question in his mind without finishing it; but lifted his clenched hand and shook it before the silent wilderness. His attitude was full of dumb menace, and left in no doubt his belief as to who was the author of the event that had befallen him.
A LOST GIRL
Mr. Gerald Ainley standing in the meadow outside the Post, looked towards the river bank with smiling eyes. Where Hubert Stane's little tent had been the willows now showed an unbroken line, and he found that fact a source of satisfaction. Then between the willows he caught sight of a moving figure, and after one glance at it, began to hurry forward. A moment later the figure emerged from the willows and stood on the edge of the meadow, revealing its identity as that of the English girl with whom he had walked on the previous day. Without observing him the girl turned round and began to walk towards the Indian encampment and Ainley immediately altered his course, walking quickly so as to intercept her. He joined her about a score of paces from the tents and smilingly doffed his cap.
"Good morning, Miss Yardely. You are astir early."
Helen Yardely laughed lightly. "It is impossible to do anything else in this country, where it is daylight all the time, and birds are crying half the night. Besides we are to make a start after breakfast."
"Yes, I know; I'm going with you."
"You are going with us, Mr. Ainley!" There was a little note of surprise in the girl's tones. "My uncle has not mentioned it!"
"No! It was only finally decided last night; though from the beginning of the excursion it has been contemplated. Sir James is making notes of his journey which I am to supplement. I believe he has an idea of bringing out a book describing the journey!"
"Which you are to write, I suppose?" laughed the girl.
"Well," countered the man also laughing, "I am to act as amanuensis. And after all you know I am in the service of the Company, whose fortunes Sir James directs."
"He may direct them," answered the girl lightly, "but it is other men who carry them—the men of the wilds who bring the furs to the posts, and the traders who live in isolation from year's end to year's end. You must not take my uncle quite so seriously as he takes himself, Mr. Ainley."
Gerald Ainley smiled. "You forget, Miss Yardely, he can make or break a man who is in the Company's service."
"Perhaps!" laughed the girl. "Though if I were a man I should not so easily be made or broken by another. I should make myself and see that none broke me." She paused as if waiting for an answer, then as her companion continued silent, abruptly changed the topic. "By the by, I see that your acquaintance of other days has removed himself!"
"Yes," answered Ainley, "I noticed that."
"He must have gone in the night."
"Yes," was the reply. "I suppose he folded his tent like the Arabs and as silently stole away."
"I daresay the meeting with an old acquaintance was distasteful to him."
"That is possible," answered Ainley. "When a man has deliberately buried himself in this wild land he will hardly wish to be resurrected."
"And yet he did not appear to avoid you yesterday?" said the girl thoughtfully.
"A momentary impulse, I suppose," replied her companion easily. "I daresay he thought I might fraternise and forget the past."
"And you couldn't?"
"Well, scarcely. One does not fraternise with gaol-birds even for old time's sake."
They had now arrived at the tepees and as they halted, the flap of one was thrown aside, and Miskodeed emerged. She did not see them, as the moment she stepped into the open air her eyes turned towards the willows where Stane's camp had been. A look of sadness clouded the wild beauty of her face, and there was a poignant light in her eyes.
"Ah!" whispered Helen Yardely. "She knows that he has gone."
"Perhaps it is just as well for her that he has," answered Ainley carelessly. "These marriages of the country are not always happy—for the woman."
Miskodeed caught the sound of his voice, and, turning suddenly, became aware of their presence. In an instant a swift change came over her face. Its sadness vanished instantly, and as her eyes flashing fiercely fixed themselves upon Ainley, a look of scorn came on her face intensifying its bizarre beauty. She took a step forward as if she would speak to the white man, then apparently changed her mind, and swinging abruptly on her heel, re-entered the tent. Helen Yardely glanced swiftly at her companion, and surprised a look of something very like consternation in his eyes.
"That was very queer!" she said quickly.
"What was very queer?" asked Ainley.
"That girl's action. Did you see how she looked at you? She was going to speak to you and changed her mind."
Ainley laughed a trifle uneasily. "Possibly she blames me for the disappearance of her lover!"
"But why should she do that? She can hardly know of your previous acquaintance with him."
"You forget—she saw him speak to me yesterday!"
"Ah yes," was the girl's reply. "I had forgotten that." The notes of a bugle, clear and silvery in the still air, floated across the meadow at that moment, and Gerald Ainley laughed.
"The breakfast bell! We must hurry, Miss Yardely. It will scarcely do to keep your uncle waiting."
They turned and hurried back to the Post, nothing more being said in reference to Miskodeed and Hubert Stane. And an hour later, in the bustle of the departure, the whole matter was brushed aside by Helen Yardely, though now and again through the day, it recurred to her mind as a rather unpleasant episode; and she found herself wondering how so fine a man as Stane could stoop to the folly of which many men in the North were guilty.
At the end of that day her uncle ordered the camp to be pitched on a little meadow backed by a sombre forest of spruce. And after the evening meal, in company with Gerald Ainley, she walked towards the timber where an owl was hooting dismally. The air was perfectly still, the sky above crystal clear, and the Northern horizon filled with a golden glow. As they reached the shadow of the spruce, and seated themselves on a fallen trunk, a fox barked somewhere in the recess of the wood, and from afar came the long-drawn melancholy howl of a wolf. Helen Yardely looked down the long reach of the river and her eyes fixed themselves on a tall bluff crowned with spruce, distant perhaps a mile and a half away.
"I like the Wild," she said suddenly, breaking the silence that had been between them.
"It is all right," laughed Ainley, "when you can journey through it comfortably as we are doing."
"It must have its attractions even when comfort is not possible," said the girl musingly, "for the men who live here live as nature meant man to live."
"On straight moose-meat—sometimes," laughed Ainley. "With bacon and beans and flour brought in from the outside for luxuries."
"I was not thinking of the food," answered the girl quickly. "I was thinking of the toil, the hardship—the Homeric labours of those who face the hazards of the North."
"Yes," agreed the man, "the labours are certainly Homeric, and there are men who like the life well enough, who have made fortunes here and have gone back to their kind in Montreal, New York, London, only to find that civilization has lost its attraction for them."
"I can understand that," was the quick reply. "There is something in the silence and wildness of vast spaces which gets into the blood. Only yesterday I was thinking how small and tame the lawns at home would look after this." She swept a hand in a half-circle, and then gave a little laugh. "I believe I could enjoy living up here."
Ainley laughed with her. "A year of this," he said, lightly, "and you would begin to hunger for parties and theatres and dances and books—and you would look to the Southland as to Eden."
"Do you really think so?" she asked seriously.
"I am sure of it," he answered with conviction.
"But I am not so sure," she answered slowly. "Deep down there must be something aboriginal in me, for I find myself thrilling to all sorts of wild things. Last night I was talking with Mrs. Rodwell. Her husband used to be the trader up at Kootlach, and she was telling me of a white man who lived up there as a chief. He was a man of education, a graduate of Oxford and he preferred that life to the life of civilization. It seems he died, and was buried as a chief, wrapped in furs, a hunting spear by his side, all the tribe chanting a wild funeral chant! Do you know, as she described it, the dark woods, the barbaric burying, the wild chant, I was able to vision it all—and my sympathies were with the man, who, in spite of Oxford, had chosen to live his own life in his own way."
Ainley laughed. "You see it in the glamour of romance," he said. "The reality I imagine was pretty beastly."
"Well!" replied the girl quickly. "What would life be without romance?"
"A dull thing," answered Ainley, promptly, with a sudden flash of the eyes. "I am with you there, Miss Yardely, but romance does not lie in mere barbarism, for most men it is incarnated in a woman."
"Possibly! I suppose the mating instinct is the one elemental thing left in the modern world."
"It is the one dominant thing," answered Ainley, with such emphasis of conviction that the girl looked at him in quick surprise.
"Why, Mr. Ainley, one would think that you—that you——" she hesitated, stumbled in her speech, and did not finish the sentence. Her companion had risen suddenly to his feet. The monocle had fallen from its place, and he was looking down at her with eyes that had a strange glitter.
"Yes," he cried, answering her unfinished utterance. "Yes! I do know. That is what you would say, is it not? I have known since the day Sir James sent me to the station at Ottawa to meet you. The knowledge was born in me as I saw you stepping from the car. The one woman—my heart whispered it in that moment, and has shouted it ever since. Helen, I did not mean to speak yet, but—well, you see how it is with me! Tell me it is not altogether hopeless! You know what my position is; you know that in two years——"
Helen Yardely rose swiftly to her feet. Her beautiful face had paled a little. She stopped the flood of words with her lifted hand.
"Please, Mr. Ainley! There is no need to enter on such details."
"You have taken me by surprise," said the girl slowly. "I had no idea that you—that you—I have never thought of it."
"But you can think now, Helen," he said urgently. "I mean every word that I have said. I love you. You must see that—now. Let us join our lives together, and together find the romance for which you crave."
The blood was back in the girl's cheeks now, running in rosy tides, and there was a light in her grey eyes that made Ainley's pulse leap with hope, since he mistook it for something else. His passion was real enough, as the girl felt, and she was simple and elemental enough to be thrilled by it; but she was sufficiently wise not to mistake the response in herself for the greater thing. The grey eyes looked steadily into his for a moment, then a thoughtful look crept into them, and Ainley knew that for the moment he had lost.
"No," she said slowly, "no, I am not sure that would be wise. I do not feel as I ought to feel in taking such a decision as that. And besides——"
"Yes?" he said, urgently, as she paused. "Yes?"
"Well," she flushed a little, and her tongue stumbled among the words, "you are not quite the man—that I—that I have thought of—for—for——." She broke off again, laughed a little at herself and then blurted confusedly: "You see all my life, from being a very little girl, I have worshipped heroes."
"And I am not a hero," said Ainley with a harsh laugh. "No! I am just the ordinary man doing the ordinary things, and my one claim to notice is that I love you! But suppose the occasion came? Suppose I——." He broke off and stood looking at her for a moment. Then he asked, "Would that make no difference?"
"It might," replied the girl, the shrinking from the infliction of too severe a blow.
"Then I live for that occasion!" cried Ainley. "And who knows? In this wild land it may come any hour!"
As a matter of fact the occasion offered itself six days later—a Sunday, when Sir James Yardely had insisted on a day's rest. The various members of the party were employing their leisure according to their inclinations, and Ainley had gone after birds for the pot, whilst Helen Yardely, taking a small canoe, had paddled down stream to explore a creek where, according to one of the Indians, a colony of beavers had established itself.
When Ainley returned with a couple of brace of wood partridges it was to find that the girl was still absent from the camp. The day wore on towards evening and still the girl had not returned, and her uncle became anxious, as did others of the party.
"Some one had better go to look for her, Ainley," said Sir James. "I gather that a mile or two down the river the current quickens, and that there are a number of islands where an inexpert canoeist may come to grief. I should never forgive myself if anything has happened to my niece."
"I will go myself, Sir James, and I will not return without her."
"Oh, I don't suppose anything very serious has happened," replied Sir James, with an uneasy laugh, "but it is just as well to take precautions."
"Yes, Sir James! I will go at once and take one of the Indians with me—one who knows the river. And it may be as well to send upstream also, as Miss Yardely may have changed her mind and taken that direction."
"Possibly so!" answered Sir James, turning away to give the necessary orders.
Gerald Ainley called one of the Indians to him, and ordered him to put three days' supply of food into the canoe, blankets and a small folding tent, and was just preparing to depart when Sir James drew near, and stared with evident surprise at the load in the canoe.
"Why, Gerald," he said, "you seem to have made preparations for a long search."
"That is only wise, Sir James. This river runs for sixty miles before it falls into the main river, and sixty miles will take a good deal of searching. If the search is a short one, and the food not needed, the burden of it will matter little; on the other hand——"
"In God's name go, boy—and bring Helen back!"
"I will do my best, Sir James."
The canoe pushed off, leaping forward under the combined propulsion of the paddles and the current, and sweeping round a tall bluff was soon out of sight of the camp.
The Indian in the bow of the canoe, after a little time, set the course slantingly across the current, making for the other side, and Ainley asked a sharp question. The Indian replied over his shoulder.
"The white Klootchman go to see the beaver! Beaver there!"
He jerked his head towards a creek now opening out on the further shore, and a look of impatience came on Ainley's face. He said nothing however, though to any one observing him closely it must have been abundantly clear that he had no expectation of finding the missing girl at the place which the Indian indicated. As a matter of fact they did not. Turning into the creek they presently caught sounds that were new to Ainley, and he asked a question.
"It is the beavers. They smite the water with their tails!"
Two minutes later they came in sight of the dam and in the same moment the Indian turned the canoe towards a soft bar of sand. A few seconds later, having landed, he pointed to the sand. A canoe had been beached there, and plain as the footprints which startled Crusoe, were the marks of moccasined feet going from and returning to the sand bar.
"White Klootchman been here!" said the Indian. "She go away. No good going to the beaver."
He turned to the canoe again, and Gerald Ainley turned with him, without a word in reply. There was no sign of disappointment on his face, nor when they struck the main current again did he even glance at the shore on either side. But seven miles further down, when the current visibly quickened, and a series of small spruce-clad islands began to come in view, standing out of the water for all the world like ships in battle line, a look of interest came on his face, and he began to look alertly in front of him and from side to side, all his demeanour betraying expectation.
A PIECE OF WRECKAGE
The canoe drew near the first of the islands and the Indian directed it inshore and in a quiet bay as the canoe floated quietly out of the current, they lifted up their voices and shouted again and again. Except for the swirl of the waters everything was perfectly still, and any one on the island must have heard the shouting; but there came no response.
"No good!" said the Indian, and turned the bow of the canoe to the river once more.
Island after island they inspected and hailed; meanwhile keeping a sharp look out on either side of the river, but in vain. They were hoarse with shouting when the last of the islands was reached, and on Ainley's face a look of anxiety manifested itself. Landing at the tail of the island the Indian hunted around until he found a dry branch, and this he threw into the water and stood to watch its course as it went down river. The drift of it seemed to be towards a bar on the eastern bank, and towards that, distant perhaps a couple of miles, the course of their canoe was directed. When they reached it, again the Indian landed, and began to inspect the flotsam on the edge of the bank closely. Ainley watched him with apprehension. Presently the Indian stooped, and after two or three attempts fished something from the water. He looked at it keenly for a moment, then he gave a shout, and began to walk along the bar towards the canoe.
As he came nearer, the white man saw that the object he carried was the spoon end of a paddle. When close at hand the Indian held it out for his inspection.
"Him broke," he said in English. "And the break quite fresh."
There was no question as to that. Notwithstanding that the paddle had been in the water, the clean wood of the fracture showed quite plainly, and whilst Ainley was looking at it the Indian stretched a finger and pointed to a semi-circular groove which ran across the broken end.
"Him shot!" he announced quite calmly.
"Are you sure?" asked Ainley, betraying no particular surprise.
The Indian nodded his head gravely, and fitted his little finger in the groove.
Ainley did not dispute the contention, nor apparently was he greatly troubled by the Indian's contention. He looked round a little anxiously.
"But where is the canoe?" he asked. "And Miss Yardely?"
The Indian waved a hand down river. "Canoe miss this bar, and go in the current like hell to the meeting of the waters. Better we keep straight on and watch out."
As they started down river again, Ainley's face took on a settled look of anxiety. It was now close on midnight, but very light, and on either bank everything could be clearly seen. They kept a sharp look out, but found no further trace of the missing canoe, and the early dawn found them in a quickening current, racing for the point where the tributary river joined the main stream.
Presently it came in sight, and between walls of spruce and a foaming crest of water they swept into the broader river, which rolled its turbid way towards its outfall in one of the great Northern lakes. The canoe pranced like a frightened horse at the meeting of the waters, and when they were safely through it, Ainley looked back and questioned his companion.
"Would Miss Yardely's canoe come through that?"
"Like a dry stick," answered the Indian, letting the canoe drift for a moment in order to swing into the main current of the broader stream.
Ainley looked ahead. Downstream the river narrowed and the low broad banks about them gradually rose, until they were like high ramparts on either hand. The Indian pointed towards the tree-crowned cliffs.
"No good there," he said. "We land here, and make grub; walk down and see what water like."
It seemed to Ainley the only sensible thing to do, and he did not demur. Accordingly, the Indian, seeing a favourable beach, turned the canoe inshore, and whilst his companion was preparing breakfast, the white man walked downstream towards the ramparts of rocks through which the river ran. When he reached them he looked down at the water. It ran smooth and glassy and swift, whirling against the rocky sides a good foot higher than between the earthen banks upstream. He followed the gorge, forgetting that he was tired, forgetting the preparing breakfast, a look of extreme anxiety upon his face. Three-quarters of an hour's walking brought him to the end of the gorge, and for a mile or two the country opened out once more, the river running wide between low-lying banks to disappear in the lee of a range of hills above which hung a veil of mist. He stood regarding the scene for a few minutes and then, the anxiety on his face more pronounced than ever, made his way back to the place where the Indian awaited him. The Indian had already eaten, and whilst he himself breakfasted he told him what he had seen. The native listened carefully, and in the end replied in his own language.
"Good! We go through the cliffs, in place of making the portage. It is the swifter way, and if the white Klootchman come this way, she has gone through these gates of the waters. We follow, but not very far, for again we come to the hills, and to a place where the earth is rent, and the waters fall down a wall that is higher than the highest spruce. If the Klootchman's canoe go there—it is the end."
Falls! So that was the meaning of that mist among the hills. There the river plunged into a chasm, and if Helen Yardely's canoe had been swept on in the current it was indeed the end. Ainley's anxiety mounted to positive fear. He pushed from him the fried deer-meat and bacon which the other had prepared for him, and rose suddenly to his feet.
"Let us be going!" he said sharply, and walked restlessly to and fro whilst his companion broke camp. A few minutes later they were afloat again, and after a little time there was no need to paddle. The current caught them and flung them towards the limestone gateway at express speed. In an amazingly short time they had passed through the gorge, and were watching the banks open out on either side of them.
There was no sign of life anywhere, no indication that any one had passed that way since time began. As they sped onward a peculiar throb and rumble began to make itself heard. It increased as they neared the range of hills towards which they were making, and as the banks began to grow rocky, and the water ahead broken by boulders, the Indian looked for a good place to land.
He found it on the lee side of a bluff where an eddy had scooped a little bay in the steep bank, and turning the canoe inside it, they stepped ashore. Making the canoe secure they climbed to the top of the bank and began to push their way down stream. The rapids, as Ainley noted, grew worse. Everywhere the rocks stood up like teeth tearing the water to tatters, and the rumble ahead grew more pronounced. Standing still for a moment, they felt the earth trembling beneath their feet, and the white man's face paled with apprehension. A tangle of spruce hid the view of the river as it skirted a big rock, and as the river evidently made a swerve at this point, they struck a bee-line through the timber. The rumble, of which they had long been conscious, of the suddenest seemed to become a roar, and, as they came to an open place where they could see the water again, they understood the reason.
The river but a few feet below them, bordered by shelving terraces of rock, suddenly disappeared. Rolling glassily for perhaps fifty yards, with scarce a ripple on its surface, the water seemed to gather itself together, and leap into a gorge, the bottom of which was ninety feet below. Ainley stood looking at the long cascade for a full minute, a wild light in his eyes, then he looked long and steadily at the gorge through which the river ran after its great leap. His face was white and grim, and his mouth was quivering painfully.
Then without a word he turned and began to hurry along the line of the gorge. The Indian strode after him.
"Where go to?" he asked.
"The end of the gorge," was the brief reply.
The Indian nodded, and then looked back. "If canoe can go over there it smash to small bits."
"Oh, I know it, don't I?" cried Ainley savagely. "Hold your tongue, can't you?"
An hour's wild walking brought them to the end of the gorge, and looking down the rather steep face of the hill, to the widening river, the white man carefully surveyed the banks. After a time he found what he was looking for—a pile of debris heaped against a bluff, whose hard rock resisted the action of the water. It was about a quarter of a mile away and on the same bank of the river as himself. Still in silence he began to drop down the face of the hill, and sometimes climbing over moss-grown rocks, sometimes wading waist-high in the river itself, he made his way to the heap of debris. It was the drift-pile made by the river, which at this point cast out from its bosom logs and trees and all manner of debris brought over the falls and down the gorge, a great heap piled in inextricable confusion as high as a tall fir tree, and as broad as a church.
Feverishly, Gerald Ainley began to wade round its wide base; and the Indian also joined in the search, poking among the drift-logs and occasionally tumbling one aside. Then the Indian gave a sharp grunt, and out of the pile dragged a piece of wreckage that was obviously part of the side and bow of a canoe. He shouted to Ainley, who hurried scramblingly over a heap of the obstructing logs, and who, after one look at that which the Indian had retrieved, stood there shaking like wind-stricken corn; his face white and ghastly, his eyes full of agony. The Indian put a brown finger on a symbol painted on the bows, with the letters H. B. C. beneath. Both of them recognized the piece of wreckage as belonging to the canoe in which Helen Yardely had left the camp, and the Indian, with a glance at the gorge which had vomited the wreckage, gave emphatic utterance to his belief.
Gerald Ainley made no reply. He had no doubt that what the Indian said was true, and the truth was terrible enough. Turning away he began anew to search the drift-pile, looking now for the body of a dead girl, though with but little hope of finding it. For an hour he searched in vain, then began to scramble down river, searching the bank. A mile below the first drift-pile he came upon a second, caught by a sand-bar, that, thrusting itself out in the water, snared the smaller debris. This also he searched diligently, with no result; and after wandering a little further down the river without finding anything, returned to where the Indian awaited him.
"We will go back," he said, and these were the only words he spoke until they reached their canoe again.
The Indian cooked a meal, of which Ainley partook with but little care for what he was eating, his eyes fixed on the ochre-coloured water as it swept by, his face the index of unfathomable thoughts. After the meal they began to track their canoe upstream, until they reached water where it would be possible to paddle, one of them towing with a line, and the other working hard with the paddle to keep the canoe's nose from the bank. A little way before they reached the limestone ramparts through which they had swept at such speed a few hours before, the Indian, who was at the towline, stopped and indicated that they must make a portage over the gorge, since the configuration of the cliffs made it impossible to tow the canoe through. In this task, a very hard one, necessitating two journeys, one with the canoe and one with the stores, they were occupied the remainder of the day, and when they pitched camp again and had eaten the evening meal, the Indian promptly fell asleep.
But there was no sleep for Gerald Ainley. He sat there staring at the water rushing by, reflecting the crimson flare of the Northern night. And it was not crimson that he saw it, but ochre-coloured as he had seen it earlier in the day, hurrying towards the rapids below, and to that ninety-foot leap into the gorge. And all the time, in vision, he saw a canoe swept on the brown flood, a canoe in which crouched a chestnut-haired girl, her grey eyes wide with fear; her hands helplessly clasped, as she stared ahead, whilst the canoe danced and leaped in the quickening waters hurrying towards the ramparts below, which for aught she knew might well be the gates of death.
Sometimes the vision changed, and he saw the canoe in the rapids below the ramparts, and waited in agony for it to strike one of the ugly teeth of rock. Again and again it seemed that it must, but always the current swept it clear, and it moved on at an increasing pace, swept in that quick mill-race immediately above the falls. On the very edge he saw it pause for a brief fraction of time and then the water flung it and the white-faced girl into the depths beneath, and he saw them falling, falling through the clouds of spray, the girl's dying cry ringing through the thunder of the waters. He cried out in sudden agony.
"My God! No!"
Then at the sound of his own cry, the vision left him for a time, and he saw the river as it was, rosy in the light of the midnight sun. A sound behind him caused him to turn round. The Indian, awakened by his cry of anguish, had sat up and was staring at him in an odd way.
"It is all right, Joe," he said, and with a grunt the Indian lay down to sleep again.
Ainley could not remain where he was to become again the prey of terrible imaginations. Rising to his feet, he stumbled out of the camp, and began to walk restlessly along the bank of the river. He was body-tired, but his mind was active with an activity that was almost feverish. Try as he would he could not shut out the visions which haunted him, and as fast as he dismissed one, a new one was conjured up. Now, as already shown, it was the canoe with the girl dancing to destruction, now that final leap; then again it was that broken piece of flotsam by the drift-pile at the end of the gorge; and later, in some still reach far down the river, a dead girl, white-faced, but peaceful, like drowned Ophelia.
He walked far without knowing it, driven by the secret agonies within, and all the time conscious that he could not escape from them. Then that befell which put a term to these agonizing imaginings. As he walked he came suddenly on the ashes of a camp fire. For a moment he stared at it uncomprehendingly. Then his interest quickened, as the state of the ashes showed some one had camped at this place quite recently. He began to look about him carefully, walking down the shelving bank to the edge of the river. At that point there was a stratum of soft clay, which took and preserved the impression of everything of weight which rested upon it; and instantly he perceived a number of footmarks about a spot where a canoe had been beached twice.
Stooping he examined the footmarks minutely. There was quite a jumble of them, mostly made by a long and broad moccasined foot, which was certainly that of a man; but in the jumble he found the print of smaller feet, which must have been made by a youth or girl. A quick hope kindled in his heart as he began to trace these prints among the others. He had little of the craft of the wilds, but one thing quickly arrested his attention—the smaller footprints all pointed one way and that was down the bank towards the water. Now why should that be? Had the person who had made those footprints not been in the canoe when the owner had landed to pitch camp? And if such were the case, and the maker of them was indeed a woman, what was she doing here, alone in the wilderness?
Had Helen Yardely been saved by some fortunate chance, and wandering along the river bank, stumbled on the camp of some prospector or trapper making his way to the wild North? His mind clutched at this new hope, eagerly. Hurriedly he climbed the sticky bank and began feverishly to search for any sign that could help him. Then suddenly the hope became a certainty, for in the rough grass he saw something gleam, and stooping to recover it, found that it was a small enamelled Swastiki brooch similar to one which he had seen three days before at Miss Yardely's throat.
As he saw this he gave a shout of joy, and a moment later was hurrying back along the bank to his own encampment. As he went, almost at a run, his mind was busy with the discovery he had made. There were other brooches in the world like this, thousands of them no doubt, but there were few if any at all in this wild Northland, and not for a single moment did he question that this was the one that Miss Yardely had worn. And if he were right, then the girl was safe, and no doubt was already on her way back to her uncle's camp in the care of whatever man had found her.
Excitedly he broke on the slumbers of his Indian companion, and after showing him the brooch, bade him accompany him to the place where he had found it, and there pointed to the footmarks on the river bank.
"Can you read the meaning of those signs?"
The Indian studied them as a white man would a cryptogram, and presently he stood up, and spoke with the slow gravity of his race.
"The Klootchman she came from the river. The man he carry her from the water in his arms."
"How do you know that, Joe?"
The Indian pointed to certain footprints which were much more deeply marked than the others.
"The man he carry heavy weight when he make these, and the Klootchman she weigh, how much? One hundred and ten pounds, sure. He not carry that weight back to the canoe, because the Klootchman she walk." He pointed again, this time to the smaller footprints, and to Ainley, reading the signs through the Indian's eyes, the explanation amounted to a demonstration.
"Yes, yes, I understand," he cried, "but in that case where is she?"
The Indian looked up and down the river, then waved a hand upstream. "The man he take her back to camp."
"Then why did we not meet them as we came down?"
A puzzled expression came on the Indian's face. For a moment he stood considering the problem, then he shook his head gravely.
"I not know."
"We must get back to the camp at once, Joe. We must find out if Miss Yardely has returned. We know now that she is alive, and at all costs we must find her. We will start at once for there is no time to lose."
He turned on his heel and led the way back to the canoe, and half an hour later they were paddling upstream towards the junction of the rivers, the Indian grave and imperturbable; Ainley with a puzzled, anxious look upon his handsome face.
A BRAVE RESCUE
When Hubert Stane took stock of his position, after his captors had left him, he found himself in a country which was strange to him, and spent the best part of a day in ascertaining his whereabouts. The flow of the wide river where the camp had been pitched told him nothing, and it was only after he had climbed a high hill a mile and a half away from the river that he began to have any indication of his whereabouts. Then with the country lying before him in a bird's-eye view he was able to learn his position. There was more than one river in view, and a chain of small lakes lay between one of them and the river where he had been left by his captors. From the last of those lakes a long portage, such as had been made on the last day but one of the journey, would bring them to a river which a few miles away joined the river on the bank of which he had been left to shift for himself. Studying the disposition of the country carefully, he reached the conclusion that by a roundabout journey he had been brought to the river on the upper reaches of which he had his permanent camp; and as the conviction grew upon him, he made his way back to the canoe, and began to work his way upstream.
As he paddled, the problem of his deportation exercised his mind; and nowhere could he find any explanation of it, unless it had to do with Miskodeed. But that explanation failed as he recalled the words of her father: "It is an order." Who had given the order? He thought in turn of the factor, of Sir James Yardely, of Gerald Ainley. The first two were instantly dismissed, but the thought of Ainley remained fermenting in his mind. It was an odd coincidence that he should have been attacked whilst awaiting Ainley's coming, and in view of his one-time friend's obvious reluctance to an interview and of his own urgent reasons for desiring it; the suspicion that Ainley was the man who had issued the order for his forcible deportation grew until it became almost a conviction.
"I will find out about this—and the other thing," he said aloud. "I can't go back now, but sooner or later my chance will come. The cur!"
That evening he camped at the foot of a fall, which he had heard of, but never before seen, and spent the whole of the next day in portaging his belongings to navigable water, and on the following evening well beyond the rocky ramparts, where the river ran so swiftly, made his camp, happily conscious that now the river presented no barrier for two hundred miles.
As he sat smoking outside his little tent, an absent, thoughtful look upon his face, his eyes fixed dreamily on the river, his mind reverted once more to the problem of recent happenings, and as he considered it, there came to him the picture of Miskodeed as he had seen her running towards him between the willows just before the blow which had knocked him unconscious. She had cried to him to put him on his guard, and the apprehension in her face as he remembered it told him that she knew of the ill that was to befall him. His mind dwelt on her for a moment as he visioned her face with its bronze beauty, her dark, wild eyes flashing with apprehension for him, and as he did so his own eyes softened a little. He recalled the directness of her speech in their first conversation and smiled at the naivete of her estimate of himself. Then the smile died, leaving the absent, thoughtful look more pronounced, and in the same moment the vision of Miskodeed was obliterated by the vision of Helen Yardely—the woman of his own race, fair and softly-strong, and as different as well as could be from the daughter of the wilds.
Again, as he recalled the steady scrutinizing glance of her grey eyes, he felt the blood rioting in his heart, and for a moment his eyes were alight with dreams. Then he laughed in sudden bitterness.
"What a confounded fool I am!" he said. "A discharged convict——"
The utterance was suddenly checked; and an interested look came on his face. There was something coming down the river. He rose quickly to his feet in order to get a better view of the object which had suddenly floated into his line of vision. It was a canoe. It appeared to be empty, and thinking it was a derelict drifting from some camp up river, he threw himself down again, for even if he salved it, it could be of no possible use to him. Lying there he watched it as it drifted nearer in the current, wondering idly whence it had come. Nearer it came, swung this way and that by various eddies, and drifting towards the further side of the river where about forty yards above his camp a mass of rock broke the smooth surface of the water. He wondered whether the current would swing it clear; and now watched it with interest since he had once heard a river-man declare that anything that surrendered itself completely to a current would clear obstructions. He had not believed the theory at the time, and now before his eyes it was disproved; for the derelict swung straight towards the rocks, then twisted half-way round as it was caught by some swirl, and struck a sharp piece of rock broadside on.
Then happened a totally unexpected thing. As the canoe struck, a girl who had been lying at the bottom, raised herself suddenly, and stared at the water overside, one hand clutching the gunwale. A second later the canoe drifted against another rock and suddenly tilted, throwing the girl into the broken water.
By this time, taken by surprise though he was, Stane was on his feet, and running down the bank. He did not stop to launch his canoe but just as he was flung himself into the water, and started to swim across the river, drifting a little with the current, striving to reach a point where he could intercept the girl as she drifted down. It was no light task he had set himself, for the current was strong, and carried him further than he intended to go, but he was in front of the piece of human flotsam which the river was claiming for its prey, and as it came nearer he stretched a hand and grasped at it. He caught a handful of chestnut hair that floated like long weed in the river's tide, and the next moment turned the girl over on her back. She was unconscious, but as he glimpsed at her face, his heart leaped, for it was the face of that fair English girl of whom but a few minutes before he had been dreaming. For a second he was overcome with amazement, then stark fear leapt in his heart as he looked at the closed eyes and the white, unconscious face.
That fear shook him from his momentary inactivity. He looked for something else to hold by, and finding nothing, twisted the long strand of hair he had gripped into a rope, and held it with his teeth. Then he glanced round. The current had carried him further than he had realized, and now quickened for its rush between the rocky ramparts, so that there was some danger of their being caught and swept through. As he realized that, he began to exert all his strength, striking across the current for the nearest bank, which was the one furthest from his camp.
The struggle was severe, and the girl's body drifting against him impeded his movements terribly. It seemed impossible that he could make the bank, and the ramparts frowned ominously ahead. He was already wondering what the chances were of making the passage through in safety, and was half-inclined to surrender to the current and take the risks ahead, when his eye caught that which spurred him to fresh efforts.
A hundred yards downstream a huge tree, by some collapse of the bank, had been flung from the position where it had grown for perhaps a hundred years, and now lay with its crown and three-quarters of its trunk in the river. Its roots, heavily laden with earth, still clung to the bank and fought with the river for its prey. If he could reach that Stane realized that he might yet avoid the perilous passage between the bastions of rock. He redoubled his efforts against the quickening current, and by supreme exertions pulled himself into a position where the current must carry him and the girl against the tree.
In a moment, as it seemed, they had reached it, and now holding the girl's hair firmly in one hand, with the other he clutched at one of the branches. He caught it, and the next moment was unexpectedly ducked overhead in the icy water. He came up gasping, and then understood. The tree was what in the voyageur's nomenclature is known as a "sweeper." Still held by its roots it bobbed up and down with the current, and the extra strain of his weight and the girl's had sunk it deeper in the water. It still moved up and down, and he had not finished spluttering when a new danger asserted itself. The suck of the current under the tree was tremendous. It seemed to Stane as if a thousand malevolent hands were conspiring to drag him under; and all the time he was afraid lest the unconscious girl should be entangled among the submerged branches.
Lying on his back holding the bough that he had caught, at the same time steadying himself with a foot against another branch, he swiftly considered the situation.
It was impossible that he could pull himself on to the trunk from the upper side. Even had he been unhampered by the unconscious girl that would have been difficult, the suck of the current under the tree being so great. He would have to get to the other side somehow. To do that there were new risks to be taken. He would have to let loose the branch which he held, drift through the other interlacing branches, and get a hold on the further side of the trunk.
It was risky, and beyond was the water swirling for its race between the bastions. But he could do nothing where he was and, setting his teeth, he let go his hold. In a second, as it seemed, the tree leaped like a horse and the water swept him and the girl under the trunk. Scarcely were they under when his free arm shot out and flung itself round a fresh bough which floated level with the water. Immediately the bough bobbed under, but he was prepared for that, and after a brief rest, he set the girl's hair between his teeth once more, and with both hands free began to work from bough to bough. One that he clutched gave an ominous crack. It began to sag in a dangerous way, and at the fork where it joined a larger branch a white slit appeared and began to grow wider. He watched it growing, his eyes quite steady, his mind alert for the emergency that it seemed must arrive, but the branch held for the space of time that he needed it; and it was with heartfelt relief that he grasped a larger bough, and the next moment touched bottom with his feet.
At that he shifted his hold on the girl, towing her by a portion of her dress, and two minutes later, lifted her beyond the water-line on the high shelving bank. Then, as he looked in her white face and marked the ashen lips, a panic of fear fell on him. Dropping to his knees he took her wrist in his hand and felt for her pulse. At first he thought that she was dead, then very faint and slow he caught the beat of it. The next moment he had her in his arms and was scrambling up the bank.
At the top he had the good fortune to stumble on a trail that was evidently used by Indians or other dwellers in the wilderness, probably by men portaging the length of bad water down the river. It was a rough enough path, yet it made his task immeasurably easier. But even with its unexpected aid, the journey was a difficult one, and he staggered with exhaustion when he laid the girl down upon the rough grass at a point not quite opposite his own camp.
Gasping he stood looking at her until he had recovered his breath, the girl unconscious of his gaze; then when he felt equal to the task, he plunged again into the river and swam to his own camp. A few minutes later he returned in his canoe, carrying with him a field water-bottle filled with medical brandy.
The girl lay as he had left her, and his first action was to pour a few drops of brandy between her parted lips, and that done he waited, chafing her hands. A minute later the long-lashed eyelids fluttered and opened, and the grey eyes looked wildly round without seeing him, then closed again and a long sigh came from her as she lapsed into unconsciousness anew. At that he wasted no more time. Lifting her, he carried her down to the canoe, and paddling across the river, bore her up to his own camp, and laid her down where the heat of the fire would reach her, then he administered further brandy and once more waited.
Again the eyelids fluttered and opened, and the girl looked round with wild, uncomprehending gaze, then her eyes grew steady, and a moment later fixed themselves upon Stane. He waited, saw wonder light them, then, in a voice that shook, the girl asked: "How did—I—come here?"
"That you know best yourself," answered the young man, cheerfully. "I fished you out of the river, that is all I know." The girl made as if to reply; but Stane prevented her.
"No, don't try to talk for a little while. Wait! Take a little more of this brandy."
He held it towards her in a tin cup, and with his hand supporting her head, the girl slowly sipped it. By the time she had finished, a little blood was running in her cheeks and her lips were losing their ashen colour. She moved and made as though to sit up.
"Better wait a little longer," he said, quietly.
"No," she said, "I feel better."
She lifted herself into a sitting posture, and he thoughtfully rolled a small sack of beans to support her back, then she looked at him with a quick questioning gaze.
"I have seen you before, have I not? You are the man who was at Fort Malsun, aren't you—the man whom Mr. Ainley used to know?"
"Yes," he answered with sudden bitterness, "I am the man whom Ainley used to know. My name is Hubert Stane, and I am a discharged convict, as I daresay he told you."
The sudden access of colour in Helen Yardely's face, and the look in her eyes, told him that he had guessed correctly, but the girl did not answer the implied question. Instead she looked at the river and shuddered.
"You—fished me out," she said, her eyes on the rocks across the river. "Was it there the canoe overturned?"
"Yes," he answered, "you struck the rocks."
"I must have been dozing," she replied. "I remember waking and seeing water pouring into the canoe, and the next moment I was in the river. You saw me, I suppose?"
Stane nodded. "I was sitting here and saw the canoe coming down the river. I thought it was empty until it struck the rocks and you suddenly sat up."
"And then you came after me?"
"Yes," he answered lightly.
Her grey eyes looked at him carefully, noted his dripping clothes and dank hair, and then with sudden comprehension asked: "How did you get me? Did you do it with your canoe or——"
"The canoe wouldn't have been any use," he interrupted brusquely. "It would have upset if I had tried to get you out of the water into it."
"Then you swam for me?" persisted the girl.
"Had to," he answered carelessly. "Couldn't let you drown before my eyes—even if I am a convict!"
Helen Yardely flushed a little. "I do not think you need mention that again. I am very grateful to a brave man."
"Oh, as to that——" he began; but she interrupted him.
"Tell me where you got me? I remember nothing about it."
He looked down the river.
"As near as I can tell you, it was by that clump of firs there; though I was not able to land for quite a long distance beyond. You were unconscious, and I carried you along the opposite bank, then swam across for my canoe and ferried you over. There you have the whole story." He broke off sharply, then before she could offer comment he spoke again: "I think it would be as well if you could have a change of clothes. It is not cold, but to let those you have dry on you might bring on all sorts of ills. There are some things of mine in the tent. I will put them handy, and you can slip them on whilst I take a stroll. You can then dry your own outfit."
He did not wait for any reply, but walked to the little fly-tent, and three or four minutes later emerged, puffing a pipe. He waved towards the tent, and turning away began to walk rapidly up river. Helen Yardely sat where she was for a moment looking after him. There was a very thoughtful expression on her face.
"The whole story!" she murmured as she rose to her feet. "I wonder? That man may have been a convict; but he is no braggart."
She walked to the tent, and with amused eyes looked at the articles of attire obviously arranged for her inspection. A grey flannel shirt, a leather belt, a pair of Bedford cord breeches, a pair of moccasins, miles too large for her, and a mackinaw jacket a little the worse for wear.
She broke into sudden laughter as she considered them, and after a moment went to the tent-door and shyly looked up the river. The figure of her rescuer was still receding at a rapid rate. She nodded to herself, and then dropping the flap of the tent, faced the problem of the unaccustomed garments.
A MYSTERIOUS SHOT
Twenty minutes later, as Hubert Stane returned along the river bank, he saw the girl emerge from the tent, and begin to arrange her own sodden attire where the heat of the fire would dry it. The girl completed her task just as he arrived at the camp, and stood upright, the rich blood running in her face. Then a flash of laughter came in her grey eyes.
"Well?" she asked, challenging his gaze.
"You make a very proper man," he answered, laughing.
"And I am as hungry as two!" she retorted. "I have eaten nothing for many hours. I wonder if——"
"What a fool I am," he broke in brusquely. "I never thought of that. I will do what I can at once."
Without further delay he began to prepare a meal, heating an already roasted partridge on a spit, and making coffee, which, with biscuit he set before her.
"It is not exactly a Savoy supper, but——"
"It will be better," she broke in gaily, "for I was never so hungry in my life."
"Then eat! There are one or two little things I want to attend to, if you will excuse me."
"Certainly," she replied laughingly. "It will be less embarrassing if there is no witness of my gluttony."
Stane once more left the camp, taking with him a hatchet, and presently returned dragging with him branches of young spruce with which he formed a bed a little way from the tent, and within the radius of the heat from the fire. On this he threw a blanket, and his preparation for the night completed, turned to the girl once more.
"I never enjoyed a meal so much in my life," she declared, as she lifted the tin plate from her lap. "And this coffee is delicious. Won't you have some, Mr. Stane?"
"Thank you, Miss a—Miss——"
"Yardely is my name," she said quickly, "Helen Yardely." He took the coffee as she handed it to him in an enamelled mug, then he said: "How did you come to be adrift, Miss Yardely?"
As he asked the question a thoughtful look came on the girl's beautiful face.
"I was making a little trip by myself," she said slowly, "to see a beaver dam in a creek a little below our encampment, and some one shot at me!"
"Shot at you!" Stane stared at her in amazement as he gave the exclamation.
"Yes, twice! The second shot broke my paddle, and as I had no spare one, and as I cannot swim, I could do nothing but drift with the current."
"But who can have done such a thing?" cried the young man.
"I have not the slightest idea, unless it was some wandering Indian, but I am quite sure it was not an accident. I saw the first shot strike the water close to the canoe. It came from some woods on the left bank, and I cried out to warn the shooter whom I could not see. It was about four minutes after when the second shot was fired, and the bullet hit the shaft of the paddle, so that it broke on my next stroke, and I was left at the mercy of the river."